Teaching note

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Student-Led Classes and Group Work:
A Methodology for Developing Generic Skills

Alison Greig


The challenge for any educator is to make the process of learning interesting. In practice, this entails acceptance of the fact that the “purpose of education is to stimulate inquiry and skill in the process of knowledge getting [rather than requiring students] to memorise a body of knowledge”.1 While traditional legal education emphasised the acquisition of knowledge or “cognitive learning”, today professional legal education must seek to achieve other goals, including “the ability to use that knowledge in a legal context; and the cultivation of other social and interpersonal characteristics and qualities”.2

As a Torts3 teacher two imperatives are kept in mind. My faculty emphasises student centred learning as the focal point of all its teaching, and the University requires graduating students to have developed identified generic skills. It was my challenge, whilst fully engaging the students, to build a subject which integrated some of the relevant generic skills, and covered the elements and reasoning of tort law. I was also keen to encourage students to develop social and interpersonal skills which, though they have not always been actively cultivated in law curricula, are desirable for legal practice as well as for other work environments.4

Over the last two years I have used an assessment task where students studying Torts were required to take charge of the “teaching” of seminars. The students worked co-operatively in groups of three to five and were each assigned two weeks of classes to conduct. I had a high level of involvement “behind the scenes” in supporting the development of their ideas and in clarifying legal principles, but I left the creative processes largely up to them. The groups were required to submit a plan of their meetings and intended tasks, keep a record of meetings and provide a “Reflective Diary” at the end of the process.

The outcome became a true celebration of the creativity of our students, and illustrated how innovative assessment can be used in core law subjects to develop generic skills and to increase the depth of student understanding of the material. Students were given free reign as to how they were going to conduct the classes. They were given a number of tasks but with one vital instruction and mission: to actively engage the rest of the class in learning. By encouraging the students to be creative and to trust their own judgements and initiatives, the classroom became a dynamic and exciting learning environment.

Students also developed skills which would be useful in a variety of work environments and were not simply provided with knowledge about the subject.5 These “generic” or “transferable” skills “provide a basis for lifelong learning”.6 Skills such as problem solving, critical thinking, effective communication, teamwork, and organisational, personal and interpersonal relations are not subject specific and complement students’ acquisition of professional knowledge.7

This note falls into four main sections. In the first section I describe and discuss aspects of the formal structure of the group work program: the objectives and the assessment scheme. In the second section, my special approach as a teacher is outlined. I discuss here my assumptions about learning, and issues arising from the need to establish an appropriate class setting and dynamics. In the third section, the students’ efforts are described and analysed through the reflections on their learning styles and how they approached the performance of group tasks. The final section, leading up to a conclusion, discusses the various evaluations of the program as apparent from student reflections in their reflective diaries and in the formal subject evaluation.

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