Smart Casual teaching development modules now available

An innovative resource for specifically developed for sessional law teachers (but able to support permanent staff as well!) is now online.

The Modules

The first five modules of the Smart Casual suite of online modules to support sessional colleagues with law specific teaching strategies are now available at  They are:

  • Reading Law
  • Critical Thinking
  • Legal Problem Solving
  • Student Engagement
  • Feedback

They are supported by an introductory module that highlights four themes that run through the modules and are key to legal education: diversity, internationalisation, digital literacy and gender.

A further four modules will be available in the coming months:

  • Wellness
  • Communication and Collaboration
  • Legal Ethics and Professional Responsibility
  • Indigenous Peoples and the Law


The modules are written in Articulate Storyline with links to video clips and are designed to allow viewers to either work through the slides sequentially or skip to areas of interest.    Modules take around an hour to work through, but can be skimmed for relevant content much more quickly.

The modules are designed to have a peer-to-peer approach, recognising the experience that sessional colleagues bring to their teaching.  They feature a range of short videos from sessional staff themselves discussing the issues in the modules.  The use of reflective questions throughout the modules means the modules can also be used a conversation starters for peer discussions.


Smart Casual involves a collaboration of academics from five Australian law schools producing a suite of professional development modules for sessional teachers of law. Half of all teaching in Australian higher education is provided by sessional staff (and possibly more in law schools), so the quality of sessional teaching is critical to student learning, retention and progress. However, national research suggests that support and training for sessional teachers remains inadequate.

In law, this problem is compounded by the need for staff to teach discipline-specific skills and content to students destined for a socially-bounded profession. Yet sessional law teachers are often time-poor full-time practitioners weakly connected to the tertiary sector. The distinct nature of these sessional staff and the discipline-specific learning outcomes required in law demand discipline-specific sessional staff training.

The project was funded by grants from the Australian Government’s Office of Learning and Teaching.  The  project team is:

  • Mary Heath, Associate Professor, Flinders University (Project Leader);
  • Kate Galloway, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Law, Bond University.
  • Anne Hewitt, Associate Professor, Adelaide Law School, University of Adelaide;
  • Mark Israel, Adjunct Professor of Law and Criminology, Flinders University; Visiting Academic, School of Social Sciences, University of Western Australia;
  • Natalie Skead, Associate Professor, University of Western Australia;
  • Alex Steel, Professor, University of New South Wales


Figuring out what works in Legal Education – the gaps in research and why it’s not all gloom and doom

By Julian Laurens and Lucas Lixinski

An article published in today’s The Conversation suggests there is a sizeable problem in the higher education literature, in that it is not sufficiently comprehensive, too anecdotally-based, and because of that lacks replication / transplantation value, making it difficult for other educators to apply findings in their own contexts. That is a fair point, even if focusing only on legal education helps address some of the article’s concerns.

One of the things some of us are trying to do at UNSW Law attempts to rise to some of these challenges. By seeking to clearly situate our teaching practice within the literature of what we do know, we are developing a body of work that addresses some of those gaps, with the caveat that it is in the legal education context, and may not be easily applicable outside the Common Law (or even Australian!) context. Which leads us to question whether there is such a thing as generalizable formulae in education. To be sure, in assuming the jurisdiction-specific nature of education, we may be tying ourselves to the notion that legal education primarily teaches content, rather than transferrable skills. But even if we are talking about skills, they are still historically, politically and socially contingent, so transplantability of findings about “what works” can never really be complete. So, not only may be the objective of a generalized wisdom on higher education be a utopia, there is also reason to believe that we do have generally a pretty good idea of some things that do actually work, at least in law (though admittedly there are glaring gaps in the Legal Education literature).

Part of the issue is how one can measure things like ‘success’ – whether it is a narrow, easily quantifiable neo-liberal inspired marker (test scores come to mind), or something broader, encompassing notions of justice (such as student well-being). An example is the difference between the education system in Norway and how they approach student learning and the education system in say the United States with its completely discredited emphasis on continual standardised testing and so forth.

So, yes, we DO know that some things work better than others and we DO have an idea of how they are situated very clearly in the relevant psychological and educational literature. And there is no reason to assume that many things cannot be transferred into University teaching that were found in, say, a secondary school setting. We need to bear in mind the contingencies that define the legal field (and, for that matter, any field of knowledge), but we think there is more reason to hope than to despair. The problem may be that we have people with MBAs designing educational policy, instead of people with MEd’s.

Student engagement in university decision-making and governance- towards a more inclusive student voice

An OLT Strategic Priority Commissioned Project led by Sally Varnham UTS

by Sally Varnham and Bronwyn Olliffe

The “student voice” project was born out of experience with student engagement in university governance bodies and a recognition that in a changing tertiary education environment students expect a greater say in how they experience tertiary education.

As this study unfolded it became apparent that there is a wealth of experience with student engagement and partnership in other countries that we can draw on. At the same time, we have seen that some Australian tertiary education institutions are already implementing similar practices with their own student cohorts.

A challenge in embedding good student engagement practice here in Australia arises from the different types of institution providing tertiary education. A one size fits all approach will not suffice.  However, whatever the specific needs and constraints of particular institutions, we believe that there are lessons to be learnt from international experience and our collective Australian experiences in engaging students in decision-making.

To encourage engagement, a sincere culture of partnership must be developed through demonstration by universities and the sector of a commitment to and respect for student voice.   Communication is central: first, of the representative opportunities across the institution and secondly, how the views of student representatives are integral to decisions made. Essential components are:

  1. Effective, valued and supported student leadership in partnership with universities.
  2. A developmental approach to student representation from course/ subject level through to high level institutional bodies.
  3. Resources for training and support of student representatives.
  4. Formal and informal processes for the engagement of students at all levels for continual enhancement of courses, their university experience and their personal development.
  5. Capturing every student’s voice – engaging underrepresented student groups to ensure engagement of the whole student cohort.
  6. Appropriate financial and nonfinancial support and incentives for student representation.

The Project recommends a sector-wide collaboration for the sharing of knowledge and experience of the benefits and challenges of effective student engagement for the diverse Australian sector, ultimately working towards framing a set of principles. An Australian Learning and Teaching National Senior Teaching Fellowship has been awarded to the Project leader, Professor Sally Varnham (2016/2017) during which she will engage senior university leaders and government policy-makers, student representatives, professional and academic staff, university management, and government agencies in a sector wide discussion aiming at a shared understanding.

You can join us in continuing the Student Voice Conversation via our Facebook page: Student Voice in university decision-making and follow our activities via our web page:


Can teaching be measured? #2

Carolyn Penfold

Following on from Justine Rogers’ 30th May post: ‘Can Teaching Be Measured’ I’m adding links to some articles on the topic. I think these questions are becoming increasingly important as universities seek ‘metrics’ by which to measure their work forces. The articles linked to below suggest that bias is a concern in teaching evaluations, which for me raises the question of whether those using the metrics will need to ‘correct’ for likely (or even just potential) bias. Check these out and let me know what you think:


Wellness and academic excellence: putting the two together

By Prue Vines

Abstract: We are constantly told to be concerned about our students’ anxiety and depression. This is real, but there is an alarming tendency in  our universities to fail to challenge our students because we are concerned about their stress levels. This has to be fought, because our students’ resilience will develop through being challenged, not through being wrapped in cotton wool. How we give feedback, what we teach and how can  all contribute to students becoming more independent learners, able to tolerate uncertainty and to get up again when life is hard, as it inevitably is sometimes.  It is possible to have high standards and push students without sacrificing wellness. I explore some of these issues.


We are constantly told to be concerned about our students’ anxiety and depression.  I myself have been involved in research considering how law students’ anxiety and depression might arise and what a law school should do about it. [1]  I have not changed my mind; but I am  rather concerned about the development of ‘wellness’ as a norm in discussion about law schools[2] and the educational responses to concerns about lack of ‘wellness’ amongst students.

It is true that law students seem to have greater anxiety and depression than ever before[3]. This may partly be because of decreasing stigmatisation associated with greater reporting.  It may also be because students are experiencing greater anxiety and depression than before. This is my impression in teaching; in particular I notice a higher level of dependence in students than I did in my earlier years as an academic.

Responses to problems with wellness

I argue that it is properly within the scope of a law  school to develop their students as resilient lawyers and that the resilient lawyer has certain characteristics, some of which can  and should be fostered by the law school without turning itself into a counselling service or a ‘nanny-law school’. This latter point is very important, for two reasons. The first is because an academic whose major focus is on their own career (which probably means research) needs a very good reason to be interested in the mental health of their students, preferably one which will enhance their own lives and research. The second reason is that as academics and teachers within a university setting we have an intellectual role in developing our students,  even though not all of them will practise as lawyers. As teachers of law and lawyers we need to consider what it means to conceive of law as a profession. Professions  (originally medicine, law and the priesthood) were traditionally those which went beyond the mere making of profit.  That ‘going beyond’ sometimes meant stresses that needed a robust mind to deal with them. Professions also had ethics and disciplined themselves. These values of the profession are the link which I argue we can use to mediate what might otherwise seem to be merely ‘feelgood’ strategies, probably beneficial in themselves, but not properly within the province of the law school, so that they contribute to the professional education of the student. [4]

Responses to problems with wellness include therapeutic responses (counselling etc) but that is not the role of a law school.  Our responses need to be educational and so we should consider this partly in the light of the goals of our education.  Most Law schools have  Graduate Attributes and Teaching and Learning Objectives (TLOs) and most of these  include some aspects of professional and personal development. At UNSW Law they certainly do.[5]

I am going to suggest that our goals include the development of independent learners, willing to take responsibility for their own learning, and able to be resilient in the face of difficulties raised for them in their learning law or legal practice. It is worth noting that ethical difficulties appear to be some of the major ‘tipping points’ for students and legal practitioners to give up their study or occupation.[6]  So as part of the goal of developing a strong and autonomous personal and professional identity we have incorporated ethical issues in the law curriculum.[7]  My argument is that part of the legal education needed includes the development of an ethical ‘grammar’ for each person so that they have a sense of their own values which they can articulate clearly both to themselves and to others. In our first year program we try to do some of this, including doing exercises designed to show the student what her own values are.  This, it is hoped, will make it easier to discuss or argue against tasks which the person sees as unethical.[8]

The self esteem and  ‘scaffolding’ approach to education – aversion to failure

I have been teaching law for 26 years and I am concerned that our students are less independent in their learning than ever. I think that’s a problem we can deal with quite well. Here at UNSW we work on it quite hard – in the Peer Tutor Program the peer tutors are asked to keep asking students questions rather than giving them answers; we emphasise learning to tolerate uncertainty. In the classroom  we have learned to wait what can seem a long time for students to answer a question rather than rushing in to rescue them. In our assessments we try to ask questions that mean they will have to be thinking and coming to their own conclusions while they are doing the assessments; and maintaining exams means they simply cannot get someone else to do it for them.

That’s all well and good – the delicate process of supporting students enough for them to take risks and then gradually taking away the supports so that they can stand on their own is something I think I can do with my students. But there is sometimes an obstacle. That obstacle is requirements of our university learning and teaching programmes which are well-meaning but in my opinion actually reduce students’ independence. One of the problems is that these directions tend to be blunt instruments directed at the whole university because the teaching and learning unit is aware that somebody somewhere is completely ignoring their students or doing things badly. So we get instructions like ‘all students must be given clear and complete directions about the content of assessment’ [9] or expectations must be set out clearly with an example which virtually answers the question. Setting and making clear expectations of students is really important, but giving them so much information that they have virtually been given the answer is counter-productive.

One of the reasons this has been happening is because we are keen on alleviating student anxiety. Here again we have to be careful. Just as a good parent allows a child to bear a consequence in order that in the future they will be more able to manage things themselves, and similarly lets a child fail at something in order to teach them that failure is not the end of the world, a good teacher will allow a certain level of anxiety now because that is the best way to ensure that it is less likely that there will be anxiety in the future.

In our concern to keep students happy and comfortable we have sometimes forgotten that future-proofing requires some effort and sometimes a little bit of anxiety or frustration now.  We also seem to have forgotten that not all stress is bad.  Indeed it is quite clear that without stress, people become weak:’ Without pressure champagne would have no fizz’ as they say (Duchess of Duke Street). What we can assist with is helping people to learn that stress and failure are not the end of everything, that they must be tolerated and lived through.

So monitoring what we require of our students and reducing scaffolding structures over time is very important. This requires thought and effort to create a happy medium between total support which creates total dependence and the reduction of support over time to develop independence. The Peer tutor Program Objectives[10] are instructive I think:

Students need to develop themselves as independent learners through:

  • Tolerance of uncertainty
  • Collaboration and care
  • Confidence through participation

These aims of the Peer Tutor Program (which has been in place since 1996) remain a good way to think about the development of excellence in education. The need to develop independence is acquired through being in a situation which allows enough of a sense of safety (through collaboration and care between peer tutor and student) for the student to be able to tolerate the uncertainty inherent in law in an academic environment and to develop confidence through participation rather than only observation. This places the onus on the student to learn rather than teacher to teach.

Another issue I am somewhat concerned about is warnings about content. It seems to me that warning a student that content may be confronting is fine, but effectively creating a situation where a students’ sensibilities determine the content of the course they are doing by telling them they should not attend if something is upsetting is not reasonable in the context either of developing professionals who can do the job, nor in developing resilience.

Others may disagree with me about the level of support students need. Students differ from each other and have multiple needs, but ultimately they have to be responsible for their own learning and we do not help them if we pad them out with cotton wool. Meeting challenges is stressful but satisfying and offering challenge is one of the things we should be doing.

Praise and achievement

There is some interesting research on praise – which we might know as feedback – in the educational literature[11].  The last 20 years of the 20th century were dominated by the view that high self esteem would increase success in education and that therefore praise was vital in education.  There is now evidence that, while self-esteem is important in itself, it probably doesn’t influence achievement particularly.[12] (there is also some evidence that self-esteem is not developed well by being told ‘ you are special’ etc but much more effectively by looking at what has been actually done  and being specific– ‘You chopped the wood. That’s great, now we can have a fire’.[13]

What this literature seems to establish is that there is praise and praise – praise which is focused on the child’s attributes and achievement eg ‘You are so clever you got 75%’, ‘You are so intelligent’ etc may be counterproductive compared with praise which focuses on effort ‘ I can see you put a lot of effort into this’; ‘You have really worked hard and got these answers right’. For example, there is strong evidence to believe that students may either think about their intelligence as a fixed trait or as something they can develop through effort. The first group can become obsessed with how clever they are and avoid tasks they find difficult in favour of tasks they find easy on the basis that the easy tasks help them prove that they are intelligent and effort makes them feel stupid.  The second group are much more likely to want to learn and put effort into developing their intelligence. At least one study has shown that cheating was much more likely in students who had been praised for their attributes ‘You are so clever’ (40% of them)  compared with effort-praised students (10 %) and that they were also less likely to put in effort in later work compared with those whose effort was praised.[14] This is probably something useful for us to note, as our aim is to develop continuing effort.

This is one reason why in my class participation assessment I focus on engagement and effort rather than mastery of the material. This seems to me to be more likely to result in continuing effort. This research suggests that in our feedback to students we should be focusing on their effort and the process they have gone through in order to produce what they have.

Self knowledge, personal and professional identity and autonomy

Our study of law students compared with other students at university showed that they were far less likely to be doing law because they themselves chose to compared with students from other faculties.[15] We also found a number of other factors which suggested that law students disproportionately  lacked a sense of autonomy compared with other students. A sense of helplessness is one of the most common signifiers of depression and autonomy is therefore a significant issue for law students. (Social connectedness is another significant issue for depression but here I focus on autonomy).

We try in first year to begin to address some of these issues by working on the development of self knowledge, and personal and professional identity. In relation to professional identity we begin, as I said, to consider  the development of a personal ethical grammar.  We also try to develop a sense of internal rather than external motivation. In relation to this marks are a really big issue. Law students were far more likely than other students to think that marks were the only thing employers were interested in, and they were also very likely to identify themselves with their mark. How often have you heard a student say to you, ’But I’m  a distinction student!’?  Moving from identifying oneself with a mark which has been given to you by some external purpose  to thinking of a mark as something which might help one to develop one’s internal understanding of what one is learning, or seeing the mark as just one piece of evidence about the work rather than everything about it are things that we try to develop in our students. The internally motivated law student is far more likely to continue to learn, and to be able to evaluate for themselves how much they have achieved or not achieved than the student who is motivated purely by external matters. Indeed the move from external to internal motivation is probably assisted by praise focused on effort rather than on attributes.

Things one should know about oneself in order to assist in development of learning and excellence:

How I learn

What my values are

What gives me personal and professional satisfaction

That a failure of some kind often is a great learning experience and is not the end of the world.

This is most likely to develop the kind of autonomy that is robust and resilient.




What I have tried to talk about here is what are reasonable strategies for us as legal academics and teachers to use in developing and maintaining our students’ resilience. It is not our job to be counsellors but it is certainly our job to foster our students’ minds where we can and to challenge them in order to continue their development. We will have to exercise judgment about when a student is in the kind of trouble that needs a mental health professional, and we should certainly encourage students to ask for help from a mental health professional or a friend when they are feeling distressed or having trouble. But we should not dumb down our curriculum nor take bits out of it just in order to save students from stress which may very well be important for ‘tempering’ their steel for the future. Of course, it is a matter of judgment where this line is drawn, and the line may be drawn differently for some students, but our job, I would suggest, is to be focused on developing academic excellence in our students while they are in this environment where we can allow them to begin to grapple with the issues and problems that inevitably will face them later.

[1] M Tani and P Vines ‘Law Students Attitudes to Education: a pointer to depression in the legal academy and the profession?’ (2009) 19(1) Legal Education Review 3-39; Prue Vines and Patricia Morgan, ‘Contemplative Practice in the Law School: Breaking Barriers to Learning and Resilience’ in R.Field, J. Duffy and C. James Legal Education and Lawyer Well-being: Evidence from Australia and Beyond, (Ashgate, 2016.)

[2] Council of Australian Law Deans Guidelines on Promoting Law Student Well-being 2013; Tristan Jepson Foundation’s  Best Practice Guidelines

[3] Although US literature has accepted this for thirty years, in Australia we have only had good data on this subject since the Brain and Mind Institute Study was done in 2008: Norm Kelk et al Courting the Blues: Attitudes towards Depression in Australian Law Students and Lawyers, Brain and Mind Institute, 2009.

[4] Some of this material comes from Prue Vines ‘Working towards the Resilient Lawyer: Early Law School Strategies’ in Leon Wolff and Maria Nicolae  The First Year Law Experience: a New Beginning,  (Halstead Press, 2014).

[5] See ALTC /CALD Report on Learning and Teaching in the Discipline of Law, 2009.

[6] LS Krieger, ‘The Inseparability of Professionalism and Personal Satisfaction:Perspectives on Value, Integrity and Happiness’ (2005) 11 Clinical Law Review  425; Rachael Field, James Duffy and Anna Huggins, Lawyering and Positive Professional Identities (LexisNexis Butterworths, 2014).

[7] UNSW Law School Curriculum Review Working Party:  Curriculum Review: Designing an International, Experiential, Research-focused Curriculum for a C21 Law School, (UNSW Law, 2013) pp 46, 82-85.

[8] Anthony T Kronman, The Lost Lawyer: failing the ideals of the legal profession (Harvard University Press, 1995).

[9]‘ Make expectations, goals, learning outcomes and course requirements clear. If students are to take responsibility for their own learning, they need to know what is expected of them. Also articulate your expectations about assessment tasks and their criteria at this time.’ UNSW Guidelines on Learning p 50.

[10] Dominic Fitzsimmons, Simon Kozlina and Prue Vines, ‘Optimising the First Year Experience in Law: the Law Peer tutor Program at the University of New south Wales (2006) 16(1 &2) Legal Education Review 99.

[11] Carol S Dweck ‘Caution-Praise can be Dangerous’ (1999) Spring  American Educator 1-5;  M Stout, The Feel-good Curriculum: the dumbing down of America’s Kids in the name of Self Esteem (2007); Carol M Dweck  ‘The Perils and Promises of Praise  (2007) 65 (2) Educational Leadership  34-39

[12] N Humphrey ‘The Death of the Feel Good Factor’ (2004)  25(3) School Psychology International  347-360

[13] M Stout, The Feel-good Curriculum: the dumbing down of America’s Kids in the name of Self Esteem (2007

[14] Carol M Dweck ‘The Perils and Promises of Praise  (2007) 65 (2) Educational Leadership  34-39,  36.

[15] M Tani and P Vines ‘Law Students Attitudes to Education: a pointer to depression in the legal academy and the profession?’ (2009) 19(1) Legal Education Review 3-39

Interaction and diversity in the Australian law classroom

Image result for classroom university

Below is a link to a new paper by my Smart Casual colleagues:

Interaction and diversity in the Australian law classroom – part of the published proceedings of this years HERDSA conference.

The abstract states:

Recognition of increased diversity within Australian legal education means law teachers have to respond to a broader variety of student needs, both at a macro level in admissions and curriculum planning and at a micro level through learning and teaching. Australian law schools have spent the last decade addressing the macro level rather than exploring the needs of the micro. This paper draws on Goffman’s ideas of how people engage in a ‘quiet sorting’ of others according to various attributes to outline strategies for creating and maintaining learning spaces that welcome and engage with diversity.

It has a great collection of elements that help to build inclusive classes.


Innovation for the next generation of legal education: student-led video production



How can legal education be enhanced through student-led video production? How effective is it for class learning? And what are benefits and challenges that this form of blended learning poses for environmental law and legal education more generally?

These questions were explored by Cameron Holley and Amelia Thorpe in a recent UNSW Law Learning & Teaching seminar where they presented the findings from their Learning and Teaching Innovation grant entitled: ‘Updating legal education with blended classrooms: lessons from student-led resource development’.

The premise:

  • Videos are one of most popular form of online media teaching (particularly in MOOCs) 
  • Facilitate thinking and problem solving

–creative challenge of using moving images and sound to communicate a topic

–filmmaking skills, but also research, collaborative working, problem solving, technology, and organisational skills

  • Inspire, engage and foster deep learning

–Videos as part of student-centred learning activities benefit motivation, opportunities for deeper learning, learner autonomy, communication skills,

  • Authentic learning opportunities

–method for students to construct concepts and learning about real life issues relevant to them

  • Assist with mastery learning

–providing learning resources for future cohorts

What did they do?

–students asked to identify a recent development in environmental law that is not already covered in the prescribed text book

–required to produce a short video, no longer than 10 minutes, that portrays the subject matter of a recent environmental law development and reflects thoughtfully on in its implications for achieving ecologically sustainable development

–low risk – 5% for trial (would be more in future)

–outcomes and process assessed

–small teams of 4-6 students

  • to assist: three iPads made available and guide sheets on a suggested timeline, working in small groups, and media production.
  • videos shown to the class as a set late in semester.

–roughly 40% of class already had experience with technology

The Results?

Cameron and Amelia showed examples of videos that demonstrated highly engaged, deep learning among the student groups, with a strikingly high level of production value!

The presentation drew on empirical data collected from student interviews and surveys, as well as teacher and peer reflections. It rounded off by critically examining the strengths and weaknesses of student produced videos as a tool for blended learning, before a lot of us in attendance decided we all want to try it out in our courses!

For those who wish to experiment with similar innovations, view the student data, or track the sources for the above,  their slides are available here: Holley_Thorpe_UNSWLaw_video.