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Collaborative group work on level 3 law modules

by Liz Hardie

Over the last two years I have become aware of the challenges law students experience undertaking collaborative group work. Law students are often competitive and aspirational with high expectations of themselves and others.

Unfortunately this does not always make collaborative work an easy experience for them. Add in the fact that by level three our students are adept at studying independently and flexibly as they manage the competing demands of work, study and family life. The difficulties in introducing collaborative work in level three law modules becomes slightly clearer.

I was the Student Experience Manager of W360 since its first presentation in 2017 until 2019. W360 forms part of the LLB law qualification. On W360 Justice in Action a third level undergraduate module, students work together in small groups to carry out pro bono legal volunteering projects (see I quickly became aware that many students found working together in small groups difficult. This project therefore started with a desire to understand better the students’ experiences of working collaboratively, and to identify the challenges they faced, in order to better support them on the module.

The project looked at information available from students on two modules, W360 and W302 (Equity, Trusts and Land) both of which are part of the law degree. I analysed student comments about collaborative work for the 17J presentation from pre-existing data sets including SEaM data (the end of module student survey), VOICE service requests in the academic queue (student queries and complaints to learning advisers which are passed to the law school to resolve) and student feedback directly to module teams. The comments were grouped by key words and then analysed to produce qualitative evidence of the student experience of collaborative work. The four themes identified were:

  1. Student disagreements including face to face and online arguments, social media disputes and lack of empathy or judgmental attitudes. “This then led to a verbal altercation between myself and E via WhatsApp”.
  2. Student concerns about free loaders (students who did not participate in the group work) or over-committers (students who worked more than the recommended workloads and expected the same from their team members). “I have done literally everything for my group due to others not having the time or bothering to do anything.”
  3. Concerns about whether the group work was assessed: this was the area where there was a marked difference between the students on the two modules. On W302, where the group work is assessed, students felt that it should not be. “Collaborative skills are important, but collaborative assignments which contribute to our final score are not, in my view, the appropriate way to incorporate this skill.” On W360, where the group work is not assessed, students expressed the view that that it should be. “I am also livid that we did not get marked on it. … the amount of work and stress that went into this presentation warranted at least a grade, even if it was a bad one.”
  4. Students feeling unable to participate in the group work, due to concerns about disabilities or a need for greater flexibility in their studies. “The Open University is a distance learning institution and most students have other commitments alongside studying, myself included. There is an expectation that we can organise our own study to fit in around these other commitments. Working on a collaborative assignment such as this, took away our ability to do this.”

These four themes were then considered in relation to the literature and it was possible to make a number of evidence-based recommendations about the use of collaboration in law modules.

So, what impact has this scholarship had on the student experience of the module? One early change introduced for presentation starting in October 2018 involved giving more written advice on the collaborative element of W360 to students before they register. This was combined with guidance to manage student expectations through a telephone call to each registered student prior to module start by tutors. As a result of this the number of complaints concerning collaboration dramatically reduced in the second presentation of the module.

This scholarship took place during the post launch review and the module team was able to consider its findings as part of that process, resulting in changes to the teaching, assessment and tutorial strategy for the presentation starting in October 2019. Online collaborative skills are now taught explicitly as part of the module materials and tutorial materials. Assessment involving collaboration has also been changed.

Listening to our students’ experiences combined with the insights from academic research and scholarship means that our law students are better able to engage in online collaboration. It is important students develop their online collaboration skills as they are essential employability skills which are increasingly required in both legal and non-legal work places. I am considering repeating this scholarship project in a few years to see whether the changes have improved the student experience of collaboration.

If you want further information about the scholarship project or the recommendations which were made, please do contact me.

This blog represents the views of the individual, not SCiLAB or The Open University.

Liz Hardie

Liz Hardie

Liz Hardie is a lecturer and Teaching Director of the Open University Law School, having previously worked as a Student Experience Manager for the Law School since 2010. She has worked for the Open Justice Centre since 2016, supporting law students to carry out pro bono projects both as part of their law degree and on an extra curricular basis. She is particularly interested in online learning and the use of technology in legal education.

Liz has tutored for the OU since 2006. Before working for the OU Liz originally qualified as a solicitor and specialised in family and employment claims.