Updated: Jun 29, 2020
by Professor Michael Lower (CUHK LAW) & Ms. Vivian Chen (CUHK LAW)
Students learn best by engaging in active inquiry rather than by being told. Student learning is enhanced by engagement in collaborative, critical discussion in accordance with the norms and values of the discipline. Despite this, the information transmission approach to legal education is still prevalent; students are presented with pre-packaged ‘knowledge’ to be memorised.
We wanted to create a learning experience for students that would have students spend all their time working on group and individual research projects. We describe a law course for third- and fourth-year undergraduate law students (Issues in Property Law). The course ran for the first time in term 2 of 2018 – 19, starting in January 2019.
Students worked in small collaborative groups supported by a facilitator, a research postgraduate student, to prepare a group presentation and a group blog post. The students also worked individually on research courseworks.
Students chose their own research questions for each of these assessment tasks. The only requirement was that their projects should relate to property law, broadly conceived.
Teaching and learning philosophy
Two important concepts underpinned our thinking about the course:
1. The communities of inquiry pedagogy: education, especially higher education, is about inquiry not just ‘learning facts’. Ideally inquiry has a collaborative element, is structured and is carried out in accordance with the criteria for good legal scholarship. Students learn to be researchers by doing research, supported by a teacher and facilitators (videos: part 1, part 2, part 3).
This pedagogy has a lot in common with problem-based learning. One of us has described this pedagogy in two blog posts (Communities of inquiry in undergraduate education 1 and 2). Garrison et al (2000), Lipman (2003) and Garrison (2011) provide authoritative explanations of the communities of inquiry pedagogy.
2. The student as producer metaphor.
Neary and Winn describe the student as producer:
‘undergraduate students working in collaboration with academics to create work of social importance that is full of academic content and value, while at the same time reinvigorating the university beyond the logic of market economics.' (Neary and Winn, 2009: 193)
Students take their place as active, authentic participants in the disciplinary community. An earlier blog post, Student as producer, explains our understanding of the student as producer metaphor.
The student as producer approach emphasises the student’s ability to develop their own knowledge and understanding and to produce work of real academic value. This is what higher education is all about. Students prepare for the workplace, for life as citizens and for lifelong learning.
The Issues in Property Law elective
This elective was available for third- and fourth-year students. Twenty-six students registered for the course in its first iteration in January 2019. Students had to work in small collaborative groups (3 – 5 students) on research projects of their own choice that were related to the broad theme of Property Law.
Here is the schedule for the term:
Weeks 1 – 3 Meeting as a whole cohort to explain the assessment tasks and assessment criteria and to set up the student groups
Weeks 4 – 7 Students worked in collaborative groups on presentations and blog posts on property-law related research questions of their own choosing.
Week 8 – a conference in which the students gave their presentations (they submitted their blog posts later in the week)
Weeks 9 – 13 – students worked on their individual research courseworks. I was available throughout the course to discuss possible questions, give advice and read drafts.
The assessment arrangements were as follows:
Group Presentation - 15%
Group blog post - 25%
Individual research coursework - 60%
We produced an introductory video for the course (available here)
What kinds of project did the students work on?
The student groups worked on a diverse range of topics for their presentations and blog posts:
The sub-division of industrial units to (unlawfully) create residential units;
The legality of the Small House Policy in Hong Kong’s New Territories;
A comparison of the Australian, Chinese and British approaches to compensating for intangible losses when the State compulsorily acquires property for public purposes;
The impact of the duration of marriage on how the courts divide family wealth on divorce; and
How Hong Kong’s proposed title registration system should deal with the possibility of squatters acquiring ownership through the law of adverse possession.
Feed-forward and feedback
One of the major tasks of the first three weeks was to help students to understand what was required of them. The course teacher (Michael Lower) prepared evaluation / feedback checklists for each of the tasks and explained them to the students.
We practised using the feedback sheet for the blog posts by looking at several blog posts about legal issues published on the Australian version of The Conversation. Students could see for themselves how the published blog posts satisfied the criteria.
Most of the students had already experienced the feedback sheet since we used it for their individual research courseworks in the third year courses Land Law I and II.
The course teacher gave written feedback on all the student work using the feedback / evaluation sheets. The students got the feedback on the group presentation before they submitted the blog post so that they could make use of that feedback before submission.
Explaining the importance of collaboration and collaborative skills to students
One of the aims of the course was to help students to learn about collaboration for better learning and as a crucial workplace skill. We believed that learning to collaborate was of crucial importance for the development of our students as learners and as potential employees.
Student learning activities rarely place formal emphasis on collaboration. Few of the assessment tasks that we ask our students to carry out call on students to collaborate. We wanted to address this in our course.
One of us, Vivian Chen, a teaching assistant in the Faculty, interviewed seven professionals (six of them Faculty alumni) about the importance of collaboration in the workplace and the personal values that underpin successful collaboration. She produced a video (available here) based on these interviews and this was made available to the students.
Mitch Stocks, a colleague in the Faculty and previously managing partner in the Hong Kong office of a US law firm, produced another video about group dynamics (available here). This too was placed in the course Blackboard site.
Development of collaborative skills?
It was interesting to watch how the student groups worked. We booked break-out rooms in the library and each group had its own room.
The students worked individually to do some research; these periods of individual research were punctuated by periods of communication. The students had disagreements but ‘they figured it out’ through collaborative discussion.
We interviewed the facilitators and distributed a survey to the students who took the course. Unfortunately, only four students completed the survey and we were unable to recruit any students for interview.
The four student respondents were positive about the collaborative work in Issues: Collaboration meant more, and a more diverse range of, ideas.
Student learning clearly seems to have been enriched by collaboration. One student commented that:
‘it is a rare opportunity in our LLB studies to collaborate with classmates for our coursework’.
‘More freedom to research. Smaller groups made it easier to speak without judgement, everyone could contribute. Opportunity to interact with other law students.’
All the facilitators commented that the students in their groups co-operated well and came to the meetings with a clear allocation of tasks and often with some of the necessary work already done.
One facilitator commented:
‘The group I facilitated cooperated well. I think they knew each other prior. I don’t think they have division of work, each of them did some research but there was no obvious division of work. They came to the library prepared, they would have a short discussion on what each has found on the topic and went off to individual research for about half an hour and then communicate together, and then individual research again. Sometimes they have disagreements, but they figured it out.’
We selected this comment because it shows the possibility of forming small collaborative groups that structure their work by reference to the procedures of the community of inquiry (of critical, collaborative discourse leading to a conclusion).
The ideas of peer learning and the group as a collective mind are present. Working in smaller groups provided students with an opportunity to interact with other students and made it easier to contribute. This is a reminder of the affective dimension of the community of inquiry and the importance of social presence. Extensive use of the community of inquiry in undergraduate studies could help to counter the sense of isolation and boredom that is a feature of undergraduate life for some students.
Facilitating the groups
We recruited six research postgraduate students (four from Law and two from Government) to act as facilitators. Vivian assisted with the recruitment and organization of the facilitators and acted as a facilitator herself.
We held two training sessions, one conducted by Michael and one conducted by Professor Paul Maharg of Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto. The aim of the training sessions was to help the students to understand their role.
The facilitators acted as critical friends for each group, as older brothers and sisters. They kept the groups on track. The facilitators listened to the presentations and read the blog posts of their groups and gave feedback.
The role of the facilitators
Responding to a question about the role that the facilitators played in their group, one student commented: ‘Guided discussion, contributed when they thought we were going off topic, gave useful examples for us to use & challenged our ideas’.
These impressions were corroborated by the students who said that the facilitators were ‘very helpful and provided guidance to us’.
Another said that the facilitators, ‘make sure that we are on track’.
Part of the facilitators’ task was to make students consciously reflect on the structure of their inquiry process.
Student perceptions as to the learning benefits of the Issues course
All four student respondents thought that they had improved as learners because of the experience. Specifically, responses mentioned the development of ‘teamwork’, research and presentation skills.
One student replied that they were ‘much more confident to write research papers’.
Only one of the facilitators commented on this question:
‘What I think they took out of it was, it has improved their research skills, it also improved their ability to assign tasks, and to follow those tasks to a logical conclusion. I think this will go a long way to benefit them when they eventually have jobs in law firms or even have teaching tasks’.
Did the course promote the idea of students as producers?
No class time was devoted to the transmission of pre-packaged knowledge to students; the students were never positioned as passive consumers of knowledge. Instead, the entire focus was on projects that the students had devised for themselves.
In one sense, the students ‘produced knowledge’ as they came to their own understanding of the questions that they had framed and the legal concepts that they found to be relevant to their project.
The students were also encouraged to think of themselves as contributors of public knowledge:
Through the conference in week eight;
At least in principle, the blog posts are meant to be published;
The feedback that Michael gave for the blog posts and the individual research courseworks gave the students pointers as to how they could improve their work for publication.
How could the course be developed
All our meetings were face-to-face but none of them needed to be. They could all have been conducted using Zoom. So one way of adapting the course would be to go ‘blended’ (a mix of face-to-face and digital) or even fully online.
One could imagine running a multi-disciplinary version of the course where lawyers, geographers, social scientists or built environment students worked together. One could also imagine CUHK students working in collaborative groups with students from other jurisdictions.
We gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the Chinese University of Hong Kong for this project in the form of a Teaching Development and Language Enhancement Grant. The funding was for the Online and blended problem based learning (PBL) project.
Garrison, D. (2011) E-learning in the 21st century: a framework for research and practice. New York: Routledge
Garrison, D., Anderson, T. and Archer, W. (2000) Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in Higher Education. The Internet and Higher Education. 2, 87 – 105
Lipman, M., (2003) Thinking in Education. (2nd ed). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Lower, M. (2019) From student as consumer to student as producer, HERDSA Connect 41(3) 27 (available at http://www.herdsa.org.au/sites/default/files/HERDSA%20CONNECT%20-%20spring2019.pdf, last accessed 26 June 2020)
Neary, M. and Winn, J. (2009) The student as producer: reinventing the student experience in higher education. In: The future of higher education: policy, pedagogy and the student experience. London: Continuum, pp. 192-210 (available at http://eprints.lincoln.ac.uk/1675/, last accessed 26 June 2020)