By including empirical research within the assessment of the module it sends a clear message to students about the value and importance of socio-legal research, yet care has to be taken to ensure that the socio-legal aspects of the assessment are not overlooked. If explicit mention is not made of the socio-legal aspect within the assessment materials, this can give students the impression that it can be and possibly should be given a lower priority.
Making explicit the importance of the socio-legal elements of the assessment is achieved by the design of the assessment materials, supported by the message given to students in the coursework project lecture. To try to promote the socio-legal aspect, I have included specific reference to it at a number of points. The learning outcomes in the project instructions specifically require the students to incorporate the data results into the essay, and to include an explanation and evaluation of the survey method as well as interpretation of the survey results. Also, a pre-prepared written feedback sheet makes specific reference to the use of the survey results. This feedback sheet is made available to the students prior to starting the coursework and is shown on a Powerpoint slide in the project lecture.
Nevertheless, one issue with which I have grappled is the extent to which the coursework project assessment should reward the socio-legal aspect of the assessment. This is because the project has two separate aspects: an analysis of the black-letter law plus the results of the survey. What proportion of the marks should be allocated for consideration of the survey results? How much of a penalty should be suffered if the survey results are not fully considered?
The assessment criteria and feedback sheet both allow holistic marking, so there is no breakdown of the marks for each aspect; each essay is rated as a whole of its components. The difficulty is that marks can be seen to reflect importance: a failure to specify marks for the socio-legal aspect of the essay would not challenge any misconception that the socio-legal aspect may be less important than the black-letter element. The risk is that, if it is not clear that marks are specifically allocated for the socio-legal aspect, then the students can feel able to sideline this approach and all the submissions end up being traditional legal essays illustrated with a smattering of empirical data. This is a particular risk given the predominance of the doctrinal approach on the undergraduate programme; for most students, all they have experienced is the black-letter law of their textbooks and journal articles. The temptation for them is to write what they are familiar with, thereby marginalizing the socio-legal aspect of the assessment.
Personally, I do not wish the empirical element to be a supplemental bolt-on to a basic black-letter essay; instead, it should be a fundamental part of it. There is an unofficial approach within the marking team, whereby a script will certainly be awarded a lower classification if it does not deal adequately with the survey data. This is justifiable, given the terms of the essay question and learning outcomes, explicitly requiring a consideration of the survey results. However, the nub of the issue is the meaning of 'adequate': how much of an inclusion satisfies this requirement?
This links with the structure of the essay. I am not prepared to prescribe a structure for the essay, for a number of reasons. One reason is that I wish to encourage a range of responses that would make the assessment more of a valid exercise. The structure of the essay is central to the strength of the argument within the essay. It is essential that students choose their own structure so that its coherence and appropriateness can be judged. In addition, I try to maximize student engagement with the project by giving the students as much freedom as possible to approach the essay in whatever way best suits them. A final reason is that I wish to avoid the tedium of marking 180 identical essays!
On the other hand, some of the students struggle with how and how much to incorporate their survey results. One student commented in my survey: 'I didn't feel confident that I was using it as expected.'; another wrote 'I lacked confidence and was not sure what the examiner wanted me to talk about.' I therefore propose next year to make a number of past essays available so that the students can see the variety of possible approaches to the structure of the essay. This will be accompanied by a clear message that, provided the survey results are fully incorporated into the essay and the structure supports the argument being made, every approach is right.
Another aspect is the treatment of ethical issues. I explain in the lecture that the students should cover ethical issues within the essay, as part of evaluating the survey method. Despite this, consideration of ethical issues is not specified in the learning outcomes or on the feedback sheet. This is because the coursework project is primarily an assessment of family law and ethical issues are not central to the evaluation of the survey results, unless they affect the outcome. The consequence of this is that, by and large, ethical issues tend to be overlooked in the student essays. This is an illustration of the extent to which the design of the assessment materials determines the student learning. The difficulty is that I do not feel entirely comfortable with ethical issues being ignored and this appearing to be condoned.
My desire to maximize student freedom conflicts with the understandable need of some of the students for the tutor to be in control of the task. Students can tend to feel anxious when they have too much independence and responsibility, as it can cause uncertainty about whether or not their approach is correct. This is an unavoidable conflict but it can be reduced by giving clear guidelines to the students of what can be prescribed, together with a consistent message (Brown and Glasner, 1999). In addition, the willingness of each student to engage with the freedom depends to some extent on their past experiences and maturity (Higgs, 1988). It is therefore worthwhile considering the amount of student freedom that is desirable in line with the level of the student intake. The family law module is only available to second and third-year undergraduates, so the maximum amount of freedom is realistic and desirable in terms of the students' abilities and confidence.
On the whole, the students appeared invigorated by the new challenge, yet such freedom also creates an increased demand for support, reassurance and approval. Over the six-week period, the process was undeniably labour-intensive because I gave emotional and practical support to students pursuing their own individual approach to the essay question. The support involves a lecture, scheduled group drop-in sessions, email, electronic discussion board queries and one-to-one meetings with certain students who need additional back-up. Overall, the students seemed to benefit from the experience but admittedly some also felt stressed by it. The exercise is motivating for all but perhaps too motivating for some.