Jeanette Ashton and Kieran Durcan
Jeanette Ashton is a Senior Lecturer in Law (Education and Scholarship) and a non-practising solicitor, having joined the University of Sussex after 8 years at Brighton University. She convenes and teaches on the LLB programme in the Law School. She works on employability, is interested in the intersection between academic and professional skills, and is part of the Clinical Legal Education team.
Kieran Durcan is a Senior Lecturer in Law (Education and Scholarship). He convenes and teaches a number of core and optional modules on the LLB and MA programmes within the Law School. He is interested in module design and enhancement and is keen to embed practical skills across the law programmes having previously been the placement lead within the School.
Introduction and pedagogical context
This blog reflects on the process of working with students to develop a new Business Law and Practice module (BLP) for Sussex Law School, one of two options for law students at level 5. It is set within the broad pedagogical context of co-creation, knowledge exchange and students as ‘partners’ (Cook-Sather et al, 2014; Dollinger & Lodge, 2019), but, on a review of the literature, is more aligned with the ‘participatory design’ approach, explored in the medical education arena, with students having a key role in working towards the goal of improving the “quality of educational innovations by ensuring use, usability and utility of educational design for both teachers and students” (Di Salvo et al, 2017). Martens et al (2019) note the overlapping of terminology, but find that participatory design sits below co-creation in terms of student influence and involvement with design and decision-making. In summary, we wanted students to work with us to develop a pedagogically innovative module, but once we had their input, we would work on what that might look like in terms of implementation.
Why introduce a Business Law and Practice module?
In 2020, while relatively new in post, and both from a practice background, we led a project on the Law School’s response to a big shakeup in legal education, the introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE). For students wishing to qualify as solicitors in England and Wales, there is no longer a requirement to undertake a Qualifying Law Degree before undertaking the professional stage of training, meaning that Law Schools were, and indeed still are, faced with the challenge of ensuring that students wishing to become solicitors can see the benefits of undertaking a law degree at undergraduate level prior to embarking on the professional stage, despite it not being mandated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority. To demonstrate the requisite legal knowledge, aspiring solicitors need to pass the SQE, with one of the Foundations of Legal Knowledge areas being BLP.
Sussex is a research-intensive Law School and there was understandable scepticism amongst some within the School as to whether change was necessary. Some colleagues expressed concern that this would undermine our critical approach, moving too far in line with the central government employability agenda (Department for Education, 2017). Our view was that wholescale redesign of the law curriculum would not be necessary, but that we should and could find a way to support students wishing to qualify via the SQE route without damaging the essence of Sussex as a Law School.
As part of our work on the Law School’s response to the introduction of the SQE, in April 2020 we conducted an employability survey of our then incoming second year students, the first cohort able to qualify via the new route, to ascertain the percentage wishing to become solicitors in England and Wales. Of the 77 respondents, approximately 59% indicated they wished to qualify as a solicitor after graduating, while 18% indicated that they did not, and 23% did not know. The challenge then was to develop a strategy suitable for the majority group, which would also accommodate students who wished to pursue other career paths, legal or otherwise, or those students who did not know. We identified a gap between level 4, where Contract Law is a core module, and level 6, where there are a range of specialist commercially focused electives, and felt that BLP could usefully bridge that gap. Alongside this, we were mindful of the continued focus on commercial awareness in legal practice and recruitment, and felt that a BLP module could be utilised to embed that, aligning with the ‘Sussex 2025 World Readiness and Employability Strategy’ (Huns, 2022).
What do we want to explore?
Our study is twofold and in two stages. The first purpose was to work with the students who had chosen the module, around 230, to design the first iteration, to find out why they had chosen BLP and to get their input on the content and key themes that they would like to see, alongside teaching and learning delivery, including assessment. The second purpose was to explore their experience, including prior to university, of participating in the design of modules and/or the wider curriculum. This is the first stage and, having completed this in October 2022, prior to embarking on the design of the module, this piece reflects on those findings and our experience of shaping the module. The second stage, with the same group of participants, will focus on whether, if at all, participating in the design of the module had any effect on their experience of the module.
To understand what content and key themes students wanted covered, we undertook a mixed-method sampling approach, utilising focus groups and a Qualtrics survey for those who did not wish to or were unable to attend, but wanted to participate (Denscombe, 2021). 30 students participated in either the focus groups or by completing the survey. We were aware that participants may not be familiar with key terminology, so took care to frame our questions thematically, over the life cycle of a business, rather than technically. Participants were given the opportunity to choose from a range of options and to put forward their own suggestions for content, wider themes and teaching and learning. Interestingly, and supporting our initial views that they might see BLP as an opportunity to gain commercial awareness and employability skills, many expressed a wish for links with professional practice and a chance to gain an insight into the intersection of law and business. As one participant put it, the expectation was that BLP would “kind of give us a pathway to think about our future.”
How did our students feel about participating in the design of the module?
The responses on this, both from the focus groups and Qualtrics survey, were unequivocal in thinking that students should be given more opportunities to participate in module design and a chance to shape the curriculum more broadly. The main reasons for this view were that students valued the opportunity to work closely with faculty, that student input would result in the module being more engaging and enjoyable: “knowing that they will be learning about something that they actually want to gain knowledge in”. They felt that this would increase attendance and achievement: “[I]f students are happy, they are more likely to do well and be engaged with the course.” Opportunities like this would enable students to have more “control”, to play a bigger role in their own learning and in doing so, would benefit future cohorts. One of the respondents took a consumer-driven approach, citing payment of tuition fees as a reason why students should be more in control of their learning.
What are the challenges of student participation?
To some extent, we found we needed to manage students’ expectations as to what we could feasibly achieve within a 15-credit module sitting within the university structures. The module had already gone through the necessary approval process and, aside from the short survey detailed above, we had not had the opportunity to work with the students, meaning that the teaching delivery structure was already fixed, though we made participants aware this can be changed for future cohorts. We also had to build in the requirements of the SQE detailed above, ensuring that BLP gives students wishing to pursue that route a good foundation, mindful of the other students who are taking the module for different reasons, with “because the module aligns with my future plan for study” and “to gain commercial awareness” scoring just below “aligns with my future career plans” in our survey.
Alongside this, we needed to navigate the level 6 commercially-focused electives, to avoid duplication and to ensure that we provide a ‘stepping-stone’ rather than replacement for those modules. As we are fortunate to have scholarship leave, alongside some traditional resources, we found that non-traditional resources, such as podcasts and TED-talks, better suited the module content and differentiated BLP from other modules on the course.
A significant finding from our work with the study participants, is that they wanted a more practical approach to teaching content, which they felt would help equip them with valuable skills and an insight into professional practice, echoing research undertaken by others, such as Nicholson and Johnston (2020, 431). With this in mind, we are creating authentic learning activities utilising the virtual internship programme Forage, but embedding selected activities within the teaching and learning delivery. In the 21/22 academic year, 546 students from across the university, 65.7% law students, enrolled in a total of 770 Forage programmes, however only 108 of those programmes were completed. We hope that by embedding some of the activities within the learning, the completion rate will increase, as the programmes provide valuable insights into key aspects of business law.
Alongside this, as well as practitioner input, we are working with the Careers and Entrepreneurship team to build in a ‘meet the start-ups’ session, scaling up the Law School’s co-curricular ‘Start-up Legal Connect’ project from 21/22, where Law students, start-ups, and legal practitioners work together on small business legal issues. Students, having had input on business structures and considerations, will be able to hear from students with start-ups from across the University, followed by an opportunity to network. We hope that by embedding this within BLP, greater numbers of students will benefit, the importance of which was a key finding in our previous study.
Our BLP module began in Spring 2023 and was still a work in progress at time of writing this piece. We have been able to spend a considerable amount of time ensuring students participate in the design and have considered other stakeholders’ views on what a BLP module should encompass. Without a period of scholarship leave, we would not have been able to develop BLP in this way. Sussex University is, rightly so in our view, championing work with students, for example through the Connector Programme . In terms of module and wider curriculum design, if student involvement is to be more than module evaluation, which we know is minimal in terms of engagement, thought needs to be given as to resourcing the process, particularly where there are significant numbers of students.
We are interested to see how BLP is received; whether students are enthused by the departure from a traditional approach. We look forward to understanding whether student participation in the design had any impact on their experience. To be continued….
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Cook-Sather, A. et al. (2014) Engaging students as partners in learning and teaching: A guide for faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Department for Education (2017) Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework Specification. London: Department for Education.
Denscombe, M. (2021) The good research guide: For small-scale social research projects. London: McGraw-Hill Open University Press.
DiSalvo, B. et al. (2017) Participatory design for learning: Perspectives from practice and Research. New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
Dollinger, M. and Lodge, J. (2019) “Understanding value in the student experience through student–staff partnerships,” Higher Education Research & Development, 39(5), pp. 940–952. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2019.1695751.
Huns, E. (2022) “Employability Blog Series: Driving change through strategy – a case study from the University of Sussex’ ,” Higher Education Policy Institute, 6 May.
Martens, S.E. et al. (2019) “Student participation in the design of learning and teaching: Disentangling the terminology and approaches,” Medical Teacher, 41(10), pp. 1203–1205. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/0142159x.2019.1615610.
Nicholson, A. and Johnston, P. (2020) “The value of a law degree – part 3: A student perspective,” The Law Teacher, 55(4), pp. 431–447. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/03069400.2020.1843900.
Student Hub (2021) University of Sussex. Available at: https://student.sussex.ac.uk/experience/connectors (Accessed: January 30, 2023).
SQE: Solicitors Regulation Authority (2023) SQE Website. Available at: https://sqe.sra.org.uk/ (Accessed: January 30, 2023).