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Legal Education Digest

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Martin, F --- "Teaching Legal Problem Solving: A Problem-based Learning Approach Combined with a Computerised Generic Problem" [2004] LegEdDig 62; (2004) 13(2) Legal Education Digest 20

Teaching Legal Problem Solving: A Problem-based Learning Approach Combined with a Computerised Generic Problem

F Martin

[2004] LegEdDig 62; (2004) 13(2) Legal Education Digest 20

F Martin

[2003] LegEdRev 2; 14 Legal Educ Rev 1, 2003–4, pp 77–92

An important educational issue in legal higher education is the integration of skills into the undergraduate curriculum. Integral to this issue is that students in the post modern 21st century are continuously challenged by unique situations which are ill-defined, for which they may have no previous experience and which do not necessarily have one clear solution. Problem based learning (PBL), with its emphasis on autonomy and collaborative active learning, appears to be one way to encourage students, particularly first years, to develop the skills needed to deal with the dynamic complexity with which they are increasingly confronted. This article describes the process undertaken to develop a computer-based module designed to introduce law students, through the use of PBL, to legal problem solving and its potential relevance to their professional practice.

As the name implies, PBL is a method or strategy in which the starting point for learning is a fact situation that the learner needs to solve. Using such a PBL approach will contribute to the following educational objectives, which are all relevant for legal problem solving: (1) development of decision making skills; (2) problem solving contextualises learning; (3) development of student autonomy; (4) development of students’ abilities to structure and integrate knowledge; and (5) development of collaborative learning skills.

One further reason for opting for PBL is the issue of student motivation. The use of ‘real life’ problems relates the educational environment to future professional practice and thus helps bridge the theory/practice gap. The idea of an introductory module, which students could do within the tutorial structure, giving them the advantages of discussion and insight from tutors and other students, is an effective and adaptable way to begin the process.

The next step was to choose how best to support this introduction to PBL and encourage student independence and autonomy, particularly given the novice status of the students for whom it was to be designed. Computer-based education (CBE) was chosen for three main reasons: (1) While a non-traditional method of instruction, CBE offers learning opportunities which are compatible with existing practices and which support other teaching strategies. (2) Given the far-reaching changes occurring in universities throughout Australia, including fiscal constraints and increasing numbers of students in many courses, university lecturers need to be proactive in developing new strategies which will meet changing demands without conflicting with established academic values. (3) The use of new technology should improve the quality of teaching and learning, not just open up access to new information and experiences.

The module was built around a generic situation designed to introduce students from any discipline to the principles of PBL and consisted of: (1) a brief introduction to PBL; (2) a scenario with which the students interact; (3) points of reflection requiring students to consider the processes they are engaged in together with a notepad inbuilt into the computer on which students are required to write their comments and reflections; and (4) a summary of possible solutions and their rationale with which students could compare their own responses.

The module was divided into three stages, which reflect the steps involved in PBL identified in the literature. These are: (1) identifying facts and formulating an understanding of the problem; (2) seeking information and synthesising the facts in light of the situation to identify possible options; and (3) reassessing possible options through consideration of the tangible and personal aspects of the problem to achieve a best-fit.

The program thus served as: (1) A giver of directions — on screen directions are provided on the use of the program and how, for example, to move information between screens. (2) An interactive ‘client’ simulation — the program presents the scenario and provides the data needed for the students to make their decision. (3) A mentor — at the end of each stage, students are asked to reflect upon and evaluate the decisions they have made and the information given.

One of the major challenges faced in using CBE in conjunction with PBL was the need to provide guidance while avoiding the suggestion that the process is linear. Important in the module’s design is the graphic presentation of the hypothetical situation and the PBL process. It is critical to achieve optimal screen presentation in computer-based instruction as the screen is the primary interface between the user and the computer. A number of strategies were used to ensure that students are active participants in the learning process. To reduce the danger of students being directed too much in making their choices, alternatives are depicted as jigsaw pieces in a selection of colours.

Once students have reflected on the processes they have undertaken they should then be required to re-evaluate the conclusions they have reached. Upon completion of the module, students can read and evaluate the solutions and explanations of three other people, compare them with their own response and discuss them amongst the group that worked with them on the module. This highlights to the students that there are often alternative and equally valid solutions to a problem.

Many advantages can be identified from the use of a generic problem through the medium of CBE to introduce law students to legal problem solving. The deliberate choice of a familiar situation is designed both to allow students to draw on their past experiences, which will be substantial and varied, and to increase students’ confidence by highlighting their existing problem solving skills.

Using CBE also has advantages for both the off-campus and final year students of expanding their learning environment, catering for different learning styles and allowing them to be self-directed, although with support in the context of the tutorial. By providing students with the ability to self-pace their learning, CBE recognises that differences in background and levels of experience with decision making will influence the time needed to complete the module. A particular advantage for the first year students, who are often mature students returning to study after a substantial break, is that the use of CBE provides them with a safe, private learning environment in which they can experiment with new skills. For the final year students CBE provided them with a way of reinforcing and practising their existing legal problem solving skills without the students concentrating on, and being distracted by, any legal content.

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