The big picture: the purpose of learning EU law
What do we want students to get from an EU module? It is difficult to shake the sense that there is an objective list of facts and topics that make a module robust, and that departure from this list would set students at a disadvantage (a) with regard to the requirements of regulatory bodies and (b) as compared to those studying elsewhere. If we address (a), it is clear from the responses gathered in the UKCLE survey that perceived professional body requirements were the most influential factor in determining course contents (rated by 26 institutions as crucial or determinative, and by 14 as of considerable importance) (Ball and Dadomo, 2010, p. 44). The study notes this to be 'somewhat surprising', which indeed it is, given the extremely free reign the regulatory bodies allow universities. An EU Law module, according to the 1999 Joint Statement of the Law Society and the Bar Council, should cover 'the key elements and general principles' of EU law (Law Society and General Council of the Bar (1999), Schedule 2). This is not very prescriptive. Actually, by trying to cram in too much, we might even be contravening the one rule set - we are not taking responsibility for identifying what is 'key'.
It is possible that in deferring to tradition and/or submitting to nonexistent restrictions, we are not really deciding what it is we think students need to know and why. If we think about the consideration at (b) above, the concern about comparative disadvantage, the question surely arises as to context - in practice lawyers are unlikely to be quizzed on intricate details of European Commission rotation, and there are not all that many facts that need be cerebrally imprinted in an age of quick information retrieval. So we should identify the career advantages created by studying EU law. In practice, for instance, we would like graduates to be able to identify and engage with EU-based legal arguments in the course of UK cases, and to be able to follow topical EU legal developments and to understand their effects on the UK legal landscape. In terms of academic outcomes, it is probably fair to say that we would like students to engage critically with the issues raised by the 'fact' of EU law, and with the themes that emerge from its content. None of which requires intense and minute detail.
We should probably ask ourselves honestly how well current EU modules equip future lawyers with the skills to spot, use and contest points of EU law and to engage with social research to effectively use appropriate evidence (for instance, indirect discrimination claims may depend on statistical evidence). If we get caught up with a desire to convey huge swathes of information, we might lose accessibility and relevance. Similarly, potentially controversial and intellectually stimulating concepts can get obscured by the shadow cast by towering reading lists. The whole of EU law can no more be taught in one module than the 'whole law' of any other jurisdiction; so it is necessary to be explicitly - and perhaps radically - selective, in order to attain some intelligent simplicity - or as Meyers and Nulty paraphrase Biggs' mission, to capitalize 'on things within our control to get students to use higher order cognitive processes' (Meyers and Nulty, 2009, p. 567). This is of course necessary for us at York, to fit with the PBL mandate, whereby core learning happens around a few central problems, and assessment should be directed at content covered in this way. It is a considerable challenge (covered also below in the final section on learning activities) to relinquish chunks of detail - not only for course designers, but for students too. They can find being catapulted into the unknown, with the need to select and research background detail as they go along, a bit of a shock to the system. I have not yet got the balance right for catching those who struggle at that first deep-end plunge; we are working on some transition activities so students approach the rest of the course with some familiarity with the EU. However, the initial shock aside, many adapt well and quickly, because the up-front issues are instantly accessible. By directing the focus of the course onto problems and concepts, it is possible to make room for thinking differently and to recognize the central role of socio-legal studies.
Assessment should, of course, target the same learning objectives pursued by the course if we think in terms of 'constructive alignment' (Biggs, 1996), which although described as an idealized 'technical, rational model' of curriculum design divorced from the messy social, political and historical processes we undergo (Oliver, 2002) has nevertheless proved highly influential in informing curriculum design principles (Meyers and Nulty, 2009). If what we want students to get from EU is an ability to draw upon EU law practically, and an ability to engage critically with themes and issues, then we should be careful to ask whether the traditional forms of assessment are appropriate in format and in content. 'Traditional' being the operative word; essays and exams apparently dominate EU assessments and the UKCLE survey produced 'resounding' evidence that 'EU Law lecturers appear to be highly conservative in their utilisation of more innovative forms of assessment'. Of course, here we face issues of resources and time, but we should think about whether the exams and essays we set measure the things we wish students to learn - the ability to think creatively about social implications of aspects of EU law, to reflect on the impact of topical developments, and to spot and back up EU legal argument. It may be that different forms of assessment do the job rather more naturally - dissertations, simulations, portfolios etc. It seems that many institutions provide imaginative formative activities, and it may be possible to extend those into summative processes; for instance, the law school at Bradford has had very positive experiences of using online competitive games and quizzes during the course. Or, it could be that we should draw upon assessment methods we have felt more comfortable introducing in optional modules; in Sheffield, for instance, the optional Current Issues in EU Law module is adventurous in its delivery and assessment with 15 per cent based on a group presentation of results. The students must devise a suitable mode of presentation - past examples include websites, videos and a group portfolio. We could also 'borrow' from assessment methods at postgraduate level; in Bradford, masters students are assessed on a 'press diary' in which they must comment throughout the year on EU issues.
Having established that socio-legal approaches are necessary for a deep understanding of EU law, it is necessary to think about how they might feed into assessments. Portfolios have worked well for this in YLS, allowing students to frame their work around their own experiences and observations. It worked especially well for students who had also taken the clinic module, allowing for some fruitful cross-fertilization, e.g. thinking about public understanding of EU law. A new innovation at Liverpool - a compulsory Law and Social Justice module - could allow for similar joined-up learning. Students follow one of four pathways, which include a practical streetlaw pathway, and may include the putting together of a Citizens' Initiative - an EU construct that emerged from the Lisbon Treaty. EU modules could tap into the imaginative work and assessment conducted in such modules. A socio-legal approach can provide us with a 'reality check', making us address the purpose of studying EU law, and could lead to rather different-looking modules. Admittedly, teaching EU already comes with its own challenges, so I should make the case that a sociolegal approach helps to tackle, rather than serves to multiply, those challenges.