Connecting Legal Education: ECR Session 2

This second ECR Connecting Legal Ed Hangout comes at a time when many of us are drowning in marking. In the last ECR session I (Kat Langley) spoke about the difficulty in managing multiple roles (at work and at home) during this Covid crisis.  This week the focus is very much more on the student voice, and how as ECR colleagues we can make the most of our position and model best practice. I am really fortunate to have been introduced to this project previously, and this was a perfect topic for an ECR conversation. Here is what Vicki, Arwen and Charlotte had to say about this Hangout…

Thwarted plans

The Connecting Legal Ed ECR hangout was a great opportunity to present our ongoing research on law students’ perceptions of PhD tutors and effective teaching. We are very grateful to Emma, Michael and Lydia for inviting us to participate and really enjoyed engaging with the attendees on this topic.

Before it was cancelled, we had planned to run a workshop at the ALT Conference in Stirling called, ‘Drawing on empirical research, shared experiences and best practices to build a community of PhD Tutors’. The aim of the workshop was two-fold. First, to share Phase II of our research, which collected and analysed empirical data from LLB students about effective small group teaching. And second, to gather feedback from participants for a small group teaching best practice guide for early career academics we are producing.

ECR Good Practice

The ECR hangout and this blog post have given us an opportunity to share our ongoing research, as well as to recap Phase I of our study for those who hadn’t heard us present it before. The results of Phase I were published by The Law Teacher in December 2019 and can be found here.

As a quick introduction, the research team for this project—Vicki Ball, Arwen Joyce, and Charlotte Mills—are all Graduate Teaching Assistants at the University of Leicester. This all started because we are lucky enough to share an office, which has enabled us to chat and share our concerns and experiences as new tutors. We were aware of a perception held by some that students prefer to be taught by more experienced, full-time academics. But the feedback we were receiving from our students didn’t bear this out.

We also observed that while there are resources out there for early career academics who are new to teaching, there is not a guide specific to teaching law tutorials or one grounded in the student voice. We concluded that an empirical study asking law students what they thought of PhD tutors, and their experience of effective small group teaching, could generate a useful contribution to the pedagogical literature. Thanks to a funding grant from the ALT, we were able to hire a research assistant and conduct four hour-long focus groups with LLB students for Phase II of this project in late 2019.

The resulting Best Practice Guide is structured into three sections: ‘Preparing to teach’, ‘In the classroom’, and ‘Outside the classroom’. Each section combines input from the focus groups with input gleaned from the academic literature on effective teaching to provide advice to those who are new to teaching. The guide aims to offer the same kind of friendly advice and support that we benefited from by sharing an office and advising each other.

Session discussion

For this hangout, given the current situation we all find ourselves in, we also wanted to consider how the advice in the guide might be adapted for online teaching. During the session we discussed the importance of setting the right tone and laying down ground rules for online small group teaching sessions and Vicki shared her go-to ice breaker of ‘what job did you want to do when you were five?’. (Vicki wanted to be a police officer and wore a mini-police uniform everywhere including to football games with her dad). We also discussed how breaking a class up into discussion groups might be handled online and how to set boundaries when it comes to office hours and answering emails.

For the researchers, the session was really useful for thinking more about how we could position this guide and how to achieve our aim of helping those new to teaching feel more confident and prepared. We received a lot of helpful feedback and food for thought including from some module convenors in attendance. Once it’s published, Lydia helpfully suggested that we keep track, to the extent possible, of how the guide is used and by whom in order to assess its impact.

Final reflections

Byrom said “Improving the experience of students includes the experience of doctoral students.” I think we can all agree that this project, and a ‘best practice guide’ for ECR colleagues, and maybe even for schools would be an invaluable resource and might go some way to levelling the playing field and making the role of the PhD tutor or GTA more workable. Making the teaching element of the PhD tutor role more practical in turn improves the experience of the PhD candidate overall. The section on online teaching best practice was also very topical, and provoked a lot of thought and discussion in the group chat, I know we will all be discussing our 5-year-old career aspirations with our students in October!

We very much look forward to the next ECR Hangout when the deluge of marking is out of the way. In the meantime, please get in touch if you want to moan, chat or just reach out about research!

Thank you to Vicki Ball, Arwen Joyce and Kat Langley for presenting, and for writing this Blog post. Upcoming #ConnectingLegalEd sessions include online personal tutoring; information about the Law Commission; policy Law Clinics; and wellness within Law. As ever, drop Lydia (l.k.bleasdale@leeds.ac.uk), Michael (m.doherty@lancaster.ac.uk) or Emma (E.E.Flint@bham.ac.uk) a line if you would like to be added to the Teams list.

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