Late April, in normal times, would see students becoming particularly anxious about assessments. They would be catching us after revision classes, finally using our office hours, sending us many emails. We would be considering how to give them messages of reassurance and encouragement, clear advice and useful tips and thinking of where to draw the line between information and advice and ‘giving too much away’ about the assessment. So where are we in these least of normal times?
We find that all the usual pressures on us and the usual anxieties for our students are overlaid with a new set of challenges. Our ability to connect with our students to offer them support is mediated by our digital devices. We have a novel lexicon of assessment terms to get to grips with; take-home exams, ‘no detriment’ policies, the digital divide. We have students who rushed home, often half-way round the world, at short notice, leaving textbooks and course notes in their campus rooms. Some of our students find themselves in home environments that are far from ideal for focussed revision, with new caring responsibilities, limited space, or use of a laptop or no laptop at all. Similarly, colleagues in our law schools are now working from home, managing caring responsibilities alongside the usual support for students. One of the strengths of the legal education community – our willingness to share ideas, concerns, solutions, to lean on each other for support – really comes to the fore in addressing these challenges.
It is fitting then that for our third Connecting Legal Ed hangout, we were delighted to welcome James Lee, Reader in English Law and Vice-Dean (Education) at The Dickson Poon School of Law at King’s College London. With assessments on the horizon for many of our students after the recent ‘pivot’ (or, as James aptly suggested, the ‘somersault’) to online teaching, we had the opportunity to speak to James about his #FreeLawRevision tips. The tips, available for anyone to view on both Twitter and Youtube, provide students with relatively short insights into, for example, how to use cases, what key marking criteria really mean, and how to use academic literature in assessment answers. Each of the videos is limited in length to 2 minutes 20 seconds, which is the maximum length permitted by Twitter: James suggested this was actually really helpful in engaging students, because they’re not unduly time-consuming to listen to, and meant it was perhaps more likely that other members of the legal education community would become involved in posting their own tips. The 25,000 views and hits on the #FreeLawRevision videos so far suggest that he is right on this!
James explained that his motivation for making this resource available for all to use was to ensure that effort wasn’t duplicated across Schools and colleagues at this time: although different institutions are responding to online assessments in varying ways, and have their own set of marking criteria, broadly speaking, institutions are looking for similar things within answers. Creating these accessible resources avoids some duplication of effort across colleagues, because they can refer students to them where they are satisfied the guidance given accords with that which they would give, and can help to ease the burden on people who are all facing differing home and work responsibilities. The length of the clips also helps to keep them at a sufficient level of (hopefully) general applicability. There is also the option to share to links to longer form materials or other resources. There have been guest contributions from academics at other institutions, and recent graduates. In summary, sharing materials is in the interests of law students and colleagues across the country in these disruptive times. James also reflected upon the fact this spirit of openness is being mirrored by publishers, many of whom have released online resources and/or made PDF versions of core textbooks available to students who might not have access to their hard copies (because they might, for example, have had to leave the country with little time to pack).
There was a broader discussion of online assessments and the difficulties facing all Schools in considering matters such different time zones, internet access (including the reliability of such access), and time and word limits for online assessments, and how best to guide and reassure both staff and students. James reflected, in particular, on the need to persuade students (and colleagues) that a take-home exam is not an intense form of coursework. Students should not approach the assessment task this way, and staff should not mark them with inflated expectations of the research possible in the time permitted for the exam. The hangout group members also reflected upon the widespread anxiety felt by staff about how best to accurately advise students in these circumstances.
How best to communicate guidance to staff on how to fairly and consistently mark these ‘new’ assessments was explored further. Getting this right is key to transparency and alleviating the very real concerns our law students feel about the online ‘somersault’ we all face. Students are very worried about this. Equally none of us legal academics are the next Simone Biles but recognising this and sharing strategies on the same across the academy reassures us all that we are considering these issues holistically and thoroughly, for the benefit of our students.
In sum, this hangout was really helpful as a way of learning more about the #FreeLawRevision resources, and also acted to reassure everyone involved that we’re all feeling equally anxious about how best to support our students through the coming weeks. The fact there is a community out there willing to share ideas and different forms of good practice is something to keep in mind: the spirit of openness and collegiality has come to the fore, which is heartening to see.
By the time you read this we will have held the next #ConnectLegalEd hangout – with Caroline Strevens; blog to follow – so we’ll end with a reminder that 5th May 1100 BST is the hangout with ECRs. Kat Langley (Leeds Beckett) will be hosting, and we’ll be joined by Linda Chadderton (University of Central Lancashire) talking about ‘Legally Bound,’ a legally themed escape room experience, and Rachael O’Connor (University of Leeds), discussing her model and interim findings of a reverse mentoring project involving international students and Law School staff. Please drop Michael Doherty (email@example.com), Lydia Bleasdale (firstname.lastname@example.org), or Emma Flint (E.E.Flint@bham.ac.uk) a line if you would like to be added to the list for the hangouts on MS Teams.