Love lectures?

A recent New York Times opinion piece goes slightly against the learning and teaching orthodoxy but arguing in FAVOUR of lectures – It looks at some of the advantages of a lecture format, particularly in the humanities, including teaching students how to listen critically, take notes that summarise ideas and arguments, and learn to understand before commenting/opining.

In law, there is some information that is best communicated through lecture elements, but my classes run in a more “Socratic” or questioning style (having been partially trained in the US), with problem-solving, group discussions and class debate. So I don’t do a lot of pure “lecture” although there is some content that I do present in this way.

But it got me thinking. I would probably be frustrated if I wanted to learn something in an area with which I wasn’t familiar (say at a conference or seminar) and the speaker adopted an “active learning” approach. Sometimes all you want to do is hear someone knowledgeable about something deliver an engaging, interesting and informative “lecture”. And when listening to such, I am rarely “passive” but usually constantly questioning them (initially in my head and eventually by raising my hand in question time). Of course, one difference is that I already know how to “do” legal reasoning, so that is not what I am learning. But the same could be said of later year students too.

So, my question is this: When are lectures the best way to teach?


Lyria Bennett Moses

Postcard from Mexico

Anna Cody

mexico flag


Experiencing another law school, and particularly another legal clinic using clinical education methodology is always eye opening.   For the last 9 months I have been collaborating with the National Autonomous University of Mexico, Human Rights program legal clinic. It has given me some fascinating insights into both the Mexican legal and political system, as well as what it’s like to be a law student in the biggest public university in Latin America.

The clinic here focuses on access to information in migration matters and disability rights cases. They have made over 100 access to information claims with some success but which demonstrate how un-transparent the immigration detention system is.  And as most clients are from Central America and are on their way to the USA, the clients don’t want to stay in Mexico to pursue their legal rights when they are mistreated, tortured or detained illegally. The disability rights cases challenge the automatic use of ‘guardianship’ for many people with disability. They have also supported various people seeking de-institutionalisation. Students are an integral part of these cases, researching them, interviewing and advising clients and representing clients in court. Cases in Mexico are mostly run on the papers without oral evidence, submissions or argument.

Three insights

1. Students, the world over, thrive when given responsibility for their legal work, and are supported in their learning by thorough and effective supervision. The students in Mexico are given a lot of responsibility and in order to succeed in this, they need intensive support from their supervisor who meets with them, drafts documents and discusses some of the pitfalls of the civil system. Writing in plain language is even more of a challenge in Mexico than in Australia where students receive little training in how to communicate effectively.

2.  Despite the various criticisms of Australian ethical frameworks and regulatory system, having some ethical rulings and requirements are definitely preferable to not having any at all. In Mexico there is no ethical code to guide and regulate lawyers. It is a real discussion between supervisor and students about how to influence a judge and whether or not paying bribes is appropriate. The fact that this can be discussed openly is a tribute to both teacher and students. And yet for an Australian lawyer this explicit form of “influencing” by bribe is shocking. It strikes me how hard it is to continue to act in good faith as a lawyer and to believe in a legal system which relies on bribery. This has meant some fascinating discussions with students about what our role is within a legal system as lawyers.

3. When we are working with clients with disability and teaching students about their and our own ableism, it’s essential to design a clinical course with people with disability at the centre. This means integrating speakers, readings, class content which has people with disability giving their perspectives. One of the most powerful classes which the Mexican clinic teaches its clinical students provides perspectives of people with disability, who are not clients. The clinic invites a member of the Colectivo Chuhcan, a collective formed by and for people with psycho-social disability to discuss their experiences of the health and legal system in order to give students an insight into these issues.

These are just 3 of the insights of my time in Mexico, on sabbatical from UNSW.


An interesting and critical story about the use of Powerpoint.

Perhaps I am just a bit too “old school”, but in my teaching I have resisted using Powerpoint (or any of the other versions whose names I do not even know).  Though, I admit to having given in  at conferences where I now routinely use such slides.  In my defence I started using Powerpoint at conferences after I found myself consistently addressing audiences that were completely or significantly EFL (English as a foreign language)  – a consequence of my extensive activity in Asia.  For that sot of audience, Powerpoint seems to be of some assistance (though even there I would be happy to be persuaded otherwise).

While I always had a gut reaction about learning and teaching that relied extensively on technology, and Powerpoint in particular, it is heartening to have my gut feeling somewhat vindicated by this story (and its own internal links).

Colin Picker

Things aren’t what they used to be – so how should we review the LLB curriculum?

Helen Carr and Kirsty Horsey, Kent Law School

How do we find ways to increase access to and success in law, a subject often regarded as closed to those from more non-traditional backgrounds, while at the same time maintaining pedagogical and institutional standards?

Academics agree: there has been an extraordinary shift in the nature of the undergraduate student body over the last 15 years and pedagogy in higher education has struggled to respond. Political and social initiatives aimed at widening participation in higher education have caused not only the number of applications to universities to rise, but also a broadening of the range of students. Perhaps surprisingly the recent introduction of substantial fees (currently £9000 pa) for studying at degree level in the UK does not seem to have had a very significant impact on student numbers.

Law schools, providing an in-demand subject which is considered prestigious by prospective and current students, their parents, and a wide variety of potential employers, are at the centre of these changes. 

There is a tendency to blame the students for the consequences of change. The story goes that they are not as engaged, lack cultural capital, are risk-averse and are instrumental in their approach to education. At the same time, technology has worked some sort of possibly malevolent pedagogical magic, transforming expectations of the presentation and presence of teaching. The consequence is that the core law curriculum is ‘dumbed down’, remedial skills are compulsorily delivered and research-active staff increasingly distance themselves from teaching undergraduates – particularly core modules. Those who do teach are expected to be permanently accessible to students via email. Presentation becomes as important as substance; students, positioned as consumers, rate their lecturers. Lecturers respond by entertaining students, and provoking responses rather than thought. There have, of course, been alternative approaches. York Law School, with the benefit of a clean slate, has devised a problem-based curriculum. Other law schools use specially designed tests to filter out students who do not demonstrate the necessary aptitude for traditional pedagogy.

Like many law schools, KLS decided to respond to the challenges set by increased student numbers and diversity (in all forms) by revising its curriculum: Continue reading

ALTA Conference, Teaching and Instructor Freedoms

This week’s ALTA conference was an interesting mix of papers. A number of people are talking about the ‘flipped’ classroom. This ‘new’ approach involves getting your students to read or do some other activity before they come to class.  It was interesting how new and unusual many people seemed to think this was. There was real concern about the possibility of getting students to do the work, and it became clear that some universities keep their teachers on a very tight rein – e.g., do not allow them to have class participation marks, do not allow a teacher to say to a class that they will not teach the class that day if they had not done the reading, and there was clearly a sense that many universities have so many rules that it makes it impossible for teachers to teach classes in the way they think fit.

There is always a tension, I guess, between too much and not enough regulation. The thing regulators of any kind (including teachers) need to keep in mind is the extent to which people will perform to expectation. If you regulate people as if they will behave badly they probably will. The challenge is to regulate in a way which suggests to people that they will do well so that they respond to those expectations and rise to meet them. Having some faith in teaching staff to do the right thing may be beneficial from that point of view alone.  The same applies to the classroom where students often perform extremely well when it is clear to them that they are expected to. 

By Prue Vines

Student Participation in Class – how important is it?

Alex Steel, UNSW Law

There is a lot of research around that argues that students who are more engaged in class learn better.  For law students the simplest form of engagement is to contribute to classroom discussion.  That’s not always been the case – until the 1970’s Australian law students received most of their legal education via lectures.

Since then more emphasis has been placed on encouraging student discussion as part of the learning process – often called active learning.  For some law schools this participation occurs in tutorials, for others it occurs through seminar style classes that replace lectures. In some law schools this participation is part of the formal assessment (assessed class participation (ACP)). Continue reading