Consequential transitions and undergraduate legal education: Part 1 – The theory

by Prof. Michael Lower, Associate Professor of Practice in Law, CUHK LAW


As legal educators, we are very aware of the challenges facing students new to the study of Law. No matter how old we may be, we can probably still remember something of the strangeness of life as a new Law student.

If (distant) memory serves, we have a sense of a new beginning, of having become a Law student. We think of ourselves as a Law student, and this is how those around us think of us and refer to us. We may well also see our study as one stage along a process of qualifying as a lawyer and working in legal practice.

Making this new beginning demands effort. There is a whole new legal vocabulary to learn, along with concepts like the rule of law. We learn about how to read case law and statutes, as well as secondary materials, and of their role in legal reasoning and the construction of legal knowledge. We learn how to look at problems from the perspective of the lawyer and to think like a lawyer.

In the case of the undergraduate student, there is often a simultaneous need to adjust to life as a university student. There are new modes of teaching and learning and assessment. Students may have to learn to work independently to a much greater degree than when they were at school. Some may be living away from home for the first time.

The educational theorist, King Beach, places the idea of ‘consequential transition’ at the heart of his theory of learning. A consequential transition occurs when there is a new relationship between an individual and a social activity. Students entering the university and legal education undergo one or more consequential transitions (into higher education / the university and into the Law / legal education).

Part of our role as legal educators is to understand the struggles faced by the student new to legal education and then to help our students to make this consequential transition carefully. Knowing how to offer this support is a large part of our role.

This blog post sets out my understanding of the main elements of Beach’s theory. In a second blog post, I look at the implications of this theory for our teaching and assessment practice. A third blog post considers how we might research consequential transitions.

Learning as consequential transition

A consequential transition involves, ‘a developmental change in the relationship between an individual and one or more social activities’ (Beach, 1999: 114), between the new undergraduate and legal education, for example.

Beach continues, ‘[t]ransitions are consequential when they are consciously reflected on, often struggled with, and the eventual outcome changes one’s sense of self and social positioning.’ (Beach, 1999: 114).

Consequential transitions then: are developmental; concern the relationship between the learner and a social activity (learning is not a process that exclusively concerns the inner workings of the learner’s mind); often involve struggle; and result in a change of identity. The following sections look at these aspects of consequential transitions.


Beach comments that a consequential transition, ‘potentially involves the construction of knowledge, identities and skills, rather than the application of something that has been acquired elsewhere. Consequential transitions therefore involve a notion of progress for the learner and are best understood as a developmental process’ (Beach, 1999: 120).

In terms of knowledge and skills, embarking on a new social activity, such as entering legal education, demands that the student learns how to get on successfully in the new environment, how to solve legal problems using all the tools (cases, textbooks, the analysis and problem-solving methods we are taught). It is a new world, making new and highly context-specific demands.

In terms of identity, one of the attractions of Beach’s theory, as I understand it, is that it involves a reflection on what learning means for the development of the learner as a human person. It invites reflection on how learning fits into the developmental trajectory of the learner and how it fits into their aspirations, their life plans and the sorts of identity they wish to craft for themselves.

New law students, for example, aspire to learn how law works but also to be lawyers. Assuming an identity as a law student provides a way for the student to think about themselves and to identify themselves to others. It also suggests that the student has chosen a plan, at least in outline, for how their professional lives might develop.

The recursive relationship between the individual and a social activity

Beach emphasises that the distinctive feature of a socio-cultural theory such as his, is that it is based on ‘a premise that learners and social organisations exist in recursive relationship to one another’ (Beach, 1999: 104).

The focus is not on learning as something primarily concerned with the inner mental processes of the learner. Rather it is about how the individual learns how to operate successfully in a social activity.

Beach says that the relationship between the learner and the social activity is ‘recursive’. I think that what he means is that the relationship changes not only the learner but also the social activity.

There is two-way causality; the social activity of legal education develops, at least in part, because of what learners bring to it. Legal education changes the learner and, if we play our cards right, the learner can contribute to the developmental progress of legal education.


New law undergraduates learn to use legal terminology, the nature of legal reasoning (how lawyers analyse and solve problems) and how to make use of cases, statutes, textbooks and journal articles. There is a new pattern to learning and students adjust to lectures and participation in tutorials or seminars. We may remember, from our own experience, our feelings and experiences when we began to study law.

We will be better placed as legal educators if we develop as deep an understanding as possible of the challenges that the new law student contends with. This is a potentially fruitful field for legal education research.

We can gather relevant data or insights in several ways: recalling our own experiences; observing ideas that our students seem to find difficult (technical ideas or ideas about how to study Law successfully); and asking our students about their experiences (informally or through surveys and interviews).

It would be helpful to talk to colleagues about this and share with them our thoughts about student struggles and how we might support students. Having understood our students’ difficulties, we need to design and implement supportive teaching and learning interventions. Some possibilities (largely centring on enhancing collaboration, tutoring, mentoring and buddying) will be explored in the next blog post.


Beach comments that making a consequential transition ‘changes one’s sense of self and social positioning’ (Beach, 1999: 114); the individual becomes ‘someone or something new’ (Beach, 2003: 57). The new student is likely soon to think of themselves as ‘a law student’ or ‘a lawyer’. Beach talks of consequential transitions as a sort of ‘identity craftwork’ (Beach, 1999: 132).

Why does identity matter? Perhaps it reflects a need for us to understand ourselves and to understand our role in society. Being able to say that one is a ‘law student’ is a way of conveying to others that this is one of the most important ways in which we see ourselves.

It may also feed into a sense of self-efficacy. Suspitsyna argues that thinking of oneself as a member of an academic community, working to advance its state of knowledge, affects a student’s ‘mental script of reality’ (Suspitsyna, 2013: 1352). Coming to see ourselves as lawyers, or as capable Law students, gives us an enhanced (while realistic) sense of what we can achieve.

Artifacts forge the link between learners and a social activity

Beach comments that ‘artifacts’ are central to forging the relationship between individuals and social activities. Artifacts are ‘symbolic objects that are created with human intent’ (Beach, 2003: 113). They ‘weave together changing individuals and social organizations in such a way that the person experiences becoming someone or something new’ and embody knowledge, skill and identity (Beach, 2003: 113).

Learners who make a consequential transition do so by learning how to make use of the social activity’s artifacts to solve problems. Legal education helps students to use its artefacts.

By ‘artifact’, I understand anything that has been made with the intention that it will be used to store or transmit the knowledge proper to a social activity. Taking ‘law’ or ‘legal education’ as the social activity, legal terminology, judicial decisions (in a common law system) and statutes could also be seen as artifacts.

It is clear from passages in Beach (Beach, 2003) that artifacts include tools that allow knowledge to be ‘captured’ and made into a tool that can be applied in carrying out some task. Precedents (model forms of legal document such as leases), check-lists and protocols would count as artifacts. Model answers to problem questions are artifacts. Textbooks or lecture recordings can also be seen as artifacts; they are used to represent legal knowledge, to transmit it and make it available for use in solving problems.

Beach argues that the artifact-mediated relationship between learners and social activities is recursive (Beach, 2003: 119). Learners can find new ways of using artifacts or even create new artifacts. In this way, learners are ‘producing culture in addition to mastering that which already exists’ (Beach, 2003: 131). The next blog post looks at how educational activities can offer this opportunity to learners to create culture.

Types of consequential transition

Beach identifies four different types of consequential transition:

1. Lateral transitions: where ‘an individual moves between two historically related activities in a single direction’ (Beach, 1999: 114); the transition from school to university is an example.

2. Collateral transitions: which ‘involve individuals’ relatively simultaneous participation in two or more historically related activities’ (Beach, 1999: 114); simultaneous engagement in part-time work and full-time student or part-time study and fill-time work are examples.

3. Encompassing transitions: these ‘occur within the boundaries of a social activity that is itself changing’ (Beach, 1999: 117). Beach suggests that the concept of legitimate peripheral participation in a community of practice (Lave and Wenger, 1991) is an example of this type of transition. In our context, the student who progresses to become a more experienced and proficient law student is an example of this type of transition.

4. Mediational transitions: which ‘occur within educational activities that project or simulate involvement in an activity yet to be fully experienced’ (Beach, 1999: 118). Examples from legal education would include activities such as mooting, clinical legal education or internships. Here the educational activity looks forward to a further transition, such as from Law School to professional practice as a lawyer.

This typology of consequential transitions is helpful because each is different in terms of the type of struggle and the change of identity likely to be involved and what the student is likely to bring to the educational experience. There are significant differences between the experience of a student who moves from secondary school to undergraduate education and the student balancing full-time work with part-time study.

We, as legal educators or university administrators, would benefit from an improved understanding of the difficulties inherent in each type of consequential transition and how we can help students to overcome these difficulties. We need to meet our students where they are and help them to engage successfully with the programme of learning that we have designed.

Beach also describes concepts of ‘leading activity’ and ‘heterochronicity’ as elements of his theory (Beach, 1999: 123 – 125). An activity is leading because it plays a significant part in the learner’s subsequent development.

Schooling or work are examples of leading activity. In Hong Kong the leading activity of young people up to a certain age is schooling. Then there is a phase in life where work becomes the typical leading activity. Schooling is seen as a preparation for the work phase.

The concept of heterochronicity is concerned with the relative rates of change of individuals, social activities and societies. Beach comments that ‘the most revealing cases of consequential are instances in which activities and societies change rapidly within the time span of the individuals participating in them’ (Beach, 1999: 124).

The concepts of leading activity and heterochronicity are further reminders that we need to understand where the learning that we are responsible for fits into the broad sweep of our students’ lives.

Heterochronicity is an especially relevant concept for today’s educators given that greater reliance on technology for work and education results in significant change at the societal level and in terms of the possibilities for the organisation of legal education. This, and its potential impact on the individual learner, is something legal educators are grappling with.

Again, we need to think about the challenges for learners but also about the new possibilities for developing legal education and giving students the opportunity to create knowledge and culture through new forms of artifact that become possible.


This post introduces the major elements of Beach’s consequential transitions theory. The aim has been to show how the theory provides a good lens through which to understand the meaning of learning and what it means for the development of students, of legal education and ultimately of society. The next blog post looks at some ways in which Beach’s theory could influence teaching and learning and assessment practices.


Beach, K., (1999). Consequential transitions: A sociocultural expedition beyond transfer in education. Review of Research in Education. 24, pp. 101 – 139, doi: 10.2307/1167268.

Beach, K. (2003). Consequential transitions: A developmental view of knowledge propagation through social organizations. In Tuomi Grohn, T. and Engestrom, Y. (eds) Between school and work: New perspectives on transfer and boundary crossing. Amsterdam: Pergamon, pp. 39 – 62.

Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge / New York / Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.

Suspitsyna, T. (2013). Socialization as sensemaking: a semiotic analysis of international graduate students' narratives in the USA. Studies in Higher Education. 38 (9), pp. 1351 – 1364. doi: 10.1080/03075079.2011.629343.

86 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All