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James, H --- "Supporting new law teachers - a study to determine need" [2010] LegEdDig 14; (2010) 18(1) Legal Education Digest 50

Supporting new law teachers – a study to determine needs

H James

The Law Teacher, Vol 43, No. 2, 2009, pp200-208

The UK Centre for Legal Education (UKCLE), as a Subject Centre of the Higher Education Academy, is dedicated to supporting law teachers across the higher education sector in the development of good practice in learning and teaching. At the heart of this mission is the support offered to new law teachers and postgraduate teaching assistants. If such support can be offered early in a teaching career, capturing enthusiasm and assisting teachers in developing in a subject-specific way the generic skills and knowledge acquired through participation in staff development programs, this has the potential to have a long-term impact on the quality of learning and teaching in law schools.

With this in mind the Centre has recently embarked on a three-year project to develop an online ‘Toolkit for New Law Teachers’. The Toolkit will be an interactive resource subdivided into a set of thematic units, each dealing with a specific practical aspect of learning and teaching. Users will be able to study whole modules, such as teaching to large groups or access a specific topic, such as using visual aids in lectures, within the unit.

While it was generally believed that there was a need among new law teachers for a resource such as the Toolkit there was no firm evidence. With this in mind, prior to engaging on the project the Centre conducted a survey of new law teachers across the United Kingdom in order to identify more specifically their support needs.

A new law teacher was defined as being someone with less than one full academic year of teaching experience. It was recognised that the study group would include not only graduate teaching assistants but others who have, for instance, moved across into teaching from the professions. The study sought to map out the initial teaching experiences of the participants, to identify the areas of teaching and learning that were of most concern and to assess the level of support offered at an institutional level. The results of the survey would determine whether there was a general need for the Toolkit as well as giving a clear indication as to its content and the most appropriate format for delivery.

What the development of good practice in learning and teaching seeks to do is to recognise that students are often strategic in their attitudes to learning and to establish an approach that recognises that imaginative curriculum development and creative teaching together with an effective and timely assessment regime can all contribute to a successful and enriching learning experience for the student.

Research into both the context and approach to learning across different subject areas has, for instance, highlighted the contrast between science disciplines where learning takes place in a structured, hierarchical and logical way and arts and social science disciplines where a more interpretative and analytical approach is often required.

Given that most staff development within universities appears to be generic in nature it would seem that there is a prima facie need for the provision of subject-specific material, over and above that provided through participation in generically oriented staff development programs. The aim of this research was to identify the needs of new law teachers in this context.

The chief method of gathering data was through an online questionnaire that was distributed to new law teachers at all UK law schools via departmental administrators. The questionnaire was developed by a team at UKCLE and was initially piloted, with the aid of the Centre’s Associates, at four law schools. In addition to the initial pilot survey delegates attending a seminar for new law teachers at New Hall College, Cambridge were also asked to trial the questionnaire. The results of these two initial pilots, coupled with feedback received from the Associates involved, facilitated the fine-tuning of the survey and the clarification of questions that had triggered seemingly incongruous responses.

The survey was divided into five sections: (1) Appointment – this concerned the expectations of the respondents at the time of appointment and prior to having undertaken any teaching. The questions asked centred on establishing what they had been told they would be doing and also asked them to confirm the three aspects of their forthcoming roles that concerned them the most; (2) The first year – this examined the tasks that had actually been undertaken and also sought to elicit some qualitative data relating to confidence levels both before and after the activity in question. The survey also asked respondents to consider one piece of advice they would offer to new law teachers with the benefit of a year’s hindsight; (3) Staff development – this section explored the staff development opportunities and support offered to date within the institution; (4) UKCLE – this section of the questionnaire was geared towards establishing the level of awareness of the Centre and its activities. There was also detailed questioning as to whether there was a need for more substantive subject-specific support from the Centre and, if so, the areas of learning and teaching that should be addressed; and (5) Demographic data – information about the respondents. This included gender and age along with details of the type of institution, the programme and level at which they taught.

The main survey was distributed in September 2006; 55 responses were received. While not entirely unpredictable, this was disappointing. A broader definition of the ‘new law teacher’ might have resulted in a higher number of replies but this would potentially have diluted the experiential information. It was felt important that this be as recent as possible.

In addition to the main questionnaire and initial discussion session at the new law teachers’ event in Cambridge, a further discussion workshop was held at the annual Learning in Law Conference at the University of Warwick in January 2007. The aim was to acquire qualitative information on the various aspects of law teaching, particularly how the generic transfers to the subject-specific. The 40-strong audience was comprised mainly of experienced academics generating much debate around the issue.

It seems sensible to deal first with the demographic data. Out of the 55 responses received 60 per cent were from females (33 responses) and 40 per cent (22 responses) from males. As one would expect the majority of these were in the 26-35 age bracket, although there was a small spike of women in the 36-40 group. While the sample is far too small to be definitive this may reflect women making a career change or who are returning to the employment sector after a career break.

Fifty per cent of those who responded were from pre-1992 institutions, which was initially surprising, although it may reflect the higher numbers of graduate teaching assistants employed within this sector. Post-1992 institutions accounted for 34 per cent of responses, 14 per cent were from those at private institutions and 2 per cent (a single response) from the further education sector. By far the highest number of respondents from the pre-1992 sector were male with a fairly even gender allocation elsewhere.

Respondents generally taught across the range of teaching settings, with the exception of those from the private sector who taught solely on professional courses. This challenged some preconceived ideas that new teachers were largely confined to small group teaching and given little opportunity to participate in settings involving larger cohorts of students.

Participants were asked to consider the statement ‘I feel confident about ...’ as it applied to them at two different points: first prior to having undertaken any teaching at all and secondly how it applied once they had been teaching for a period of up to a year. Results were broken down by gender and are largely unsurprising; women overall are less confident than men. The levels of confidence for both increased in all settings once they had gained some experience.

We used a five-point Likert scale asking participants to respond on a range between strongly disagree (with the statement) through to strongly agree. The question was posed in relation to: (1) delivering lectures; (2) delivering seminars; (3) delivering tutorials; (4) delivering workshops; (5) setting assessments; (6) marking assessments; (7) giving feedback.

Delivery of lectures was the area where most respondents felt less confident both prior to having undertaken any teaching and at the end of the first year.

Participants felt overall more confident in small group settings than in delivering lectures, showing increased confidence levels across the board. This increased confidence in a small group setting may suggest that concerns for new teachers in delivering lectures centre on a general lack of confidence in addressing and perhaps controlling a large group.

One of the surprising results thrown up by the survey was that all but eight of the respondents had been involved in setting assessments during their first year, most having been involved in both formative and summative assessment. Overall responses to the statement ‘I felt confident about setting assessments’ were in the neutral to positive range prior to commencement of teaching with a move towards the positive after the first year. However, there was a noticeable spike of women who strongly disagreed with the statement prior to having undertaken any teaching.

Interestingly, a similar range of confidence was expressed in respect of marking assessments. This was higher than anticipated. It might have been expected that this would be a more prominent area of concern for those new to teaching, especially when considering some of the issues highlighted by studies such as the Comparative Marking Project.

Even higher levels of confidence were expressed in relation to giving students feedback. Prior to commencing teaching nearly 40 per cent agreed with the statement that they felt confident about giving feedback with nearly 30 per cent remaining neutral. After teaching for a year 50 per cent agreed with the statement, 15 per cent strongly agreed and no one strongly disagreed. As with all other aspects of the survey women expressed slightly lower confidence levels at all stages than men.

We asked for some qualitative information about the areas of learning and teaching that most concerned participants at the time of responding to the survey. Responses encompassed a wide range of both generic and specific issues. Some qualitative differences emerged between the pre- and post-1992 institutions. In post-1992 institutions lack of subject knowledge and preparation time were of greatest concern. There was also some indication that this might be due to the broader spread of subjects taught across different levels. Only in the pre-1992 sector did respondents specifically refer to the pressures of balancing teaching with research and administration.

Finally, we asked participants to give one piece of advice to new law teachers. The two that featured most prominently were ‘prepare, prepare, prepare’ and also the importance of the affective domain; of being, or at least seeming to be, confident, relaxed and to enjoy the experience. There were no comments that focused explicitly on student engagement or other pedagogic issues.

Key to the use of this research as a mechanism for informing the Toolkit project was gathering information on the formal staff development opportunities received by new law teachers. Not surprisingly, most indicated that they had already been offered the opportunity, the level being slightly higher within the pre-1992 sector compared to the post-1992 sector (85.7 per cent compared to 73.7 per cent). At the time of completing the survey, 75 per cent of those at pre-1992 institutions and 63.2 per cent of those teaching in the post-1992 environment had already participated in formal professional development activities. What is not clear from the survey was whether such development was received through participation in accredited institutional programs or on a more ad hoc basis.

The nature of the staff development offered was also perceived as important. The Toolkit will be subject-specific in its focus and will support the Higher Education Academy’s recently introduced Professional Standards Framework and the allied Professional Recognition Scheme which has introduced this as a requirement and must now also feature as a distinct part of all accredited institutional staff development programs. At the outset it had been expected that most staff development would be generic in nature. Indeed this was the case. However, 34.9 per cent of respondents indicated that they had also received subject-specific training. While this was encouraging, and a higher figure than had been expected, the survey did not generate a high enough response rate for this to be meaningful. However, it does give some indication that there is an acknowledgement within institutions of the need for a subject-specific element to staff development and that the Toolkit, if sufficiently resourced and well designed could support this.

Two discussion workshops were held: the first at the seminar for new law teachers in Cambridge and the second at the 2007 Learning in Law Conference. The aim of the discussion workshops was broadly to determine what, if anything, is specific to learning and teaching in law and, if there is anything specific, how the generic might transfer across disciplines.

The two sessions produced different results. Participants in the Cambridge seminar, who were new and inexperienced law teachers, felt that there was something very specific about law teaching and found it difficult to conceptualise how generic teaching skills could transfer to this environment. Those attending the Learning in Law Conference session on the other hand were less convinced that there is anything distinctive about law teaching per se. Given that the audience was comprised mainly of experienced academics it was not unforeseen that this generated some considerable debate and that no hard and fast conclusions were drawn. However, there was broad agreement that harks back to some of the rationale underpinning this research and in particular Becher’s reference to ‘academic tribes’ and Ramsden’s acknowledgement of the differences in both the learning context and the approaches to learning taken by the science-based disciplines compared to those of arts and social science disciplines to which law is allied.

It is very clear from the literature that there is a need for the development of subject-specific pedagogic knowledge. What is clear, however, is that new law teachers need assistance in selecting and transferring valuable generic skills into the law pedagogy. Offering support to enable law teachers to do this at the beginning of their careers, rather than leaving it to chance that they will, by some highly unreliable osmotic process, acquire this ability along the way, will raise the bar significantly and permanently on the quality of learning and teaching across the sector.

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