It is highly desirable that opportunities for student autonomy and innovation are maximized, as this is linked with greater student engagement and achievement and thereby deeper approaches to learning (Prosser and Trigwell, 2001, p. 68). However, the coursework project can only be an introduction to carrying out socio-legal research, as it omits the initial step of survey design. The project is only concerned with the end result, as the students are given a pre-prepared questionnaire and research question. Ideally, the students would select their own research topic and design their own research instrument but this is impossible on any undergraduate module, given the time available and number of students involved. One insurmountable hurdle would be ethics approval: it would not be possible for ethics approval to be given to each individual student project.
The main characteristic of autonomy is that students take responsibility for their own learning and there are many theoretical opportunities for this to be supported. Boud (1988) suggests a number of such opportunities (p. 23), but some are not feasible on an undergraduate programme. These include identifying learning needs, setting goals, selecting the learning project and determining the assessment criteria. On the other hand, there are some autonomous actions available to students, namely they are able to plan their learning and learn outside the institution (when conducting the survey). They do not have the opportunity to design the research instrument, but they are expected to evaluate the one used. A further option is to suggest that they reflect on the learning process but, given that they are conducting empirical research and submitting an essay, it may be unduly onerous to also require the completion of a reflective diary about the process.
Given that the students have no input into the selection topic or research method, I have tried to find other ways to increase their engagement with the questionnaire provided to them and to support innovation.
Firstly, they are encouraged to collaborate with others. This is desirable for a number of reasons. The QAA lists the ability to work in a team as one of the skills expected of a law graduate. Also, collaboration is another way in which innovation can be encouraged and can provide moral support and maintain motivation amongst the group. In the lecture, the students are told that they can compare results with fellow student researchers and include this within their essay. This is not obligatory as it is dependent on the cooperation of others and is not entirely within their control.
Secondly, they are given freedom as to sample selection. They are required to find ten respondents but can select the characteristics of the sample. This enables students to pick a particular type of respondent, if they wish. The students who chose to do this seemed to particularly relish the experience, as it enabled them to test a hypothesis - for example, that older women would have a certain opinion about the law, in comparison with others with different characteristics.
Thirdly, I try to support innovation by designing the essay question so that it is as wide as possible, with the intention that the students can simply choose to deal with one aspect of it, supported by part of the data. I do this by the inclusion of a quotation with an instruction to carry out critical analysis. However, this then conflicts with another limitation, namely that of the word limit, which is set centrally by the university based on the credit rating of the module. Some students in my survey did not appreciate that they could simply answer one aspect of the question and complained that the question was too wide for the word limit. What poses an opportunity for one student can be cause for anxiety in another. Next year, I will try to reduce such anxiety by making the element of choice clear to the entire cohort, not only those who attend the coursework project lecture, by the provision of written materials.
Resource issues mean that the coursework project is inevitably an artificial process. For example, the students are only expected to obtain ten respondents, but such a small sample size impairs the significance of the results and has the consequence that meaningful quantitative analysis is not possible. Ten seems to be the optimum number in terms of practicality, yet it could be said to be undermining the authenticity of the research. In my survey, a couple of students raised concerns about this, querying the value of the research, one writing: 'I did not really see the value of the research (it was so unrepresentative).' If it appears that the small number of respondents is impairing the students' emotional engagement with the project, it could be suggested that they pool results so that a larger data set is produced, although this would have to be on condition that analysis of the results remains an individual exercise so that collusion is avoided.
The resource issues and inevitable limitations have implications for the marking of the coursework project. In empirical research, the sample size should be as large as possible, but the marks allocated within the assessment cannot reflect this: students are not awarded marks to reflect their sample size. Almost all students interviewed the required number of ten respondents, but a couple of students located significantly larger numbers. No additional marks were awarded to them. This is because, if marks were awarded for obtaining a larger sample size, it puts pressure on the entire cohort to find a larger number, which is unrealistic and undesirable. In other words, the marking of the assessment cannot accurately reflect good socio-legal practice.
This approach can be contrasted with the selection of the characteristics of the sample. Extra marks were awarded to students who selected a sample with particular characteristics in order to test a hypothesis, although it may be difficult for international students to carry out a similar exercise. The extra marks were awarded on the basis that students are showing awareness of methodological issues, which is one of the learning outcomes for the assessment.