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 revisiting the pedagogical context
In part one of this blog post we outlined the context of the introduction of a new Level 5 Business Law and Practice module (BLP) for Sussex Law School. We won’t recap this in its entirety, for more detail see They told us what they want, so now what, but in summary this module was introduced in response to a significant change in the legal education sector through the introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE), the University’s strategy of embedding employability/professional practice within the curriculum, and to bridge a gap between Level 4 and Level 6 commercially-focused modules in the Law School. The module, we hoped, would give students a sound foundation on which to base future choices, both in terms of final year optional modules and career paths
Taking a participatory design approach, we engaged students to work with us to ensure the “use, usability and utility of educational design for both teachers and students” (Di Salvo et al, 2017). We conducted a concurrent legal education study to explore the students’ experience of engaging with this process and the impact, if any, on their experience of studying on the module following its first iteration, which we explore in this blog post. In terms of the module content itself, which the participants had shaped, we were particularly interested to hear their thoughts on the more innovative features of the BLP module. Such features include the embedding of employability and professional skills within the module, a self-reflective post-seminar skills audit, the use of a case study business to frame seminar discussion, and the use of an authentic assessment in the form of a business report.
How did the students respond to the module itself?
Delivery and content: Participants reflected that this was a different type of module from their usual modules, where they learn the applicable principles and apply them. By taking a more holistic, practice-focused approach, which both reflected the breadth of business law and participants’ input in the design stage, we were not surprised by this response. However, what we had perhaps underestimated was the possibility that this would generate some anxiety and unease. One participant described the start of the module like being in ‘deep waters’ as the other Level 4 and 5 modules were not comparable. The participant felt like the initial stages of the module came like a tsunami, primarily due to the breadth of content, but thankfully as the module progressed, their understanding came together.
Resources: Alongside more traditional resources, we wanted students to engage with a broader range of resources from the business world, e.g., Ted Talks and podcasts. We hoped this would help them to understand how their learning transcended the boundaries of the module and related to the business world, with the aim of deepening their commercial awareness. Participants had highlighted this as high on their ‘wish list’ for the module. Participants appreciated the use of non-traditional resources, with one commenting that this was much more engaging for students and brought the content to life.
Anchor points of embedded professional practice: Throughout the module we built in a number of key sessions with the objective of them acting as anchor points, not only for the students but for us as teachers, which we could draw upon to link the legal theory with the world of practice. A key priority when designing the module was to integrate professional practice within the students’ learning journey in order for students to grasp in a more firm and meaningful way the sometimes nebulous concept of commercial awareness while also providing an insight into the world of business law practice. A senior in-house General Counsel, for a large corporate organisation, delivered the initial lecture. They covered the breadth of legal issues that a business lawyer will work on, including contracts, financing, mergers and acquisitions, copyright, franchising and employment. For our second anchor point we worked with the Careers and Entrepreneurship team to create a “Meet the start-ups” session, where, after learning about different business structures, students heard from four real-life business owners, who outlined their business model and their entrepreneurial journey, alongside why they had chosen their particular business structure. This was followed by a networking session where students had the opportunity to talk directly to the business owners over lunch and quiz them a little further about their experiences in business.
We concluded the module with a session on dispute resolution, again delivered by practitioners, highlighting legal issues that businesses may encounter e.g., problems with the supplier, and how this might be resolved outside of a lengthy, costly court process. Throughout the module we drew upon these anchor point sessions, linking the learning to practice. To complement these anchor point sessions, we integrated a targeted selection of Forage virtual work experience tasks into the seminar preparation, giving students a taste of practical tasks they would be likely to encounter working in business law. One of the participants told us that this embedded professional practice “put us in a different place”, brought the content to life, and helped them to feel part of the professional world.
A new form of assessment: 25% of the module is assessed by MCQs, which reflects the form of assessment in the SQE. These questions feature mini case studies, requiring students to apply their learning to practical scenarios. The main assessment takes an authentic approach (Mueller, 2018) and asks students to produce a short business report centred around a business case study. For our students, this was the first time they had been asked to produce an assessment in a report format. Participants told us that although this did cause some anxiety, as it was something different from the norm in terms of their assessment experience, they indicated that the dedicated report writing skills session alleviated that to a great extent and one participant stated that they now feel confident in that area, with this giving them “practical experience before enter[ing] the workplace”.
Self-reflective skills audit: Within the module we wanted to give students an opportunity after each seminar to reflect on the skills that they had gained, both in terms of preparing for their seminars but also from their attendance and engagement with each seminar. These skills audits were accessible through QR codes linked to each seminar. The audits were introduced after the initial seminar cycle, so were not embedded from the very start of the module. Unfortunately, student participation with these skills audits were not as high as we had hoped, and this may have been due to the failure to embed and explain the importance of these audits from the very start of the module. This is an area of student participation that we hope to improve in the next iteration through greater explanation of the importance of the audit to personal development.
What was the impact of participating in the design?
Ownership: Participants told us they valued seeing their input reflected in the module, with one describing this as a “cheer moment.” Being part of the module design process meant that they saw the module from a different perspective. In short, they explained that they felt part of its development, rather than as an end consumer of an already prepared module over which they had no influence.
Understanding of different priorities: In discussing their own personal ‘wish list’ for the module within the initial focus groups, participants were able to hear different perspectives and priorities from their peers and appreciate that a key part of the design process was to factor in and balance sometimes competing priorities. Some participants also recognised that within the initial focus groups they may have suggested niche topic areas which may not have necessarily appealed to a wider student base. Participants also spoke about trusting faculty to ultimately make tough decisions on module content and to balance the different student priorities.
Bridging the gap between students and lecturers: Participants appreciated the opportunity to work with faculty on a project which would benefit them and future cohorts. They valued the transparency and opportunity to see ‘behind the scenes’, making lectures ultimately more personal. One participant told us they had highlighted their role in assisting us in the project on their CV, which became a talking point in their interview for an internship in a competitive field, and they believed this helped them to be successful in that process.
- When delivering a module with innovative features, spend time at the start of the module explaining these features to students. Explain to students the wider considerations behind the module, highlighting the challenges the module might present and the differences within the module compared to the other modules students may have studied to date. Seek to reassure students about these innovative features and encourage participation with them while building in support as appropriate. After the first iteration, bringing in students from the previous cohort to share their experiences of the module could help support current students by setting academic expectations and demystifying the innovative features of the module.
- Consider building in participatory design, and the necessary time and resource for this, as part of module/curriculum design and development.
- Consider building in some optionality within modules, so that students feel more ownership of their learning.
- Consider introducing non-traditional resources as part of module design.
- Consider the nature of the assessment and how incorporating an authentic form of assessment within the module can enhance the module learning and the development of practical skills with the appropriate assessment support in place.
From our perspective and that of our study participants, BLP was on the whole a success, and we were delighted to win a ‘World Readiness’ award in the 2023 University of Sussex Education Awards . What the study has shown us though, is that we underestimated how different the module actually is to other modules on the course, and that, whilst students were enthusiastic about this difference, it would cause some anxiety. This is something we will be addressing on the next iteration.
The participatory design aspect of the module was new for us and a positive experience, though we would like to have seen more students engaging with the process, particularly in Part 2, where the numbers fell. Bovill notes that “offering the opportunity to co-create learning with a whole class of students does not guarantee full participation and inclusion” and, whilst we acknowledge that it was important that students felt no compulsion to participate, working with a larger number of students would have been welcome (Bovill, 2019, 1030). For future projects, we would like to explore extending the ‘work-integrated learning’ dimension, bringing together our external workplace partners and our students at the planning stage (Ruskin & Bilous, 2020).
To conclude, our experience of designing BLP has shown us how working with students enhances the learning and the student experience, well summarised by one of the participants, who told us:
“I feel like that’s a valuable experience, and I wish every module would do this, because in some modules it feels like it’s archaic assessments that every year are just worded a little bit differently, but it’s still the same concepts and themes…..I feel like I had more passion when I was able to say what I wanted in the module”.
Bovill, C. (2020) ‘Co-creation in learning and teaching: the case for a whole-class approach in higher education’, Higher Education, 79 pp.1023-1037. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-019-00453-w
Di Salvo, B. et al. (2017) Participatory design for learning: Perspectives from practice and Research. New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
Mueller, J. (2018) “Authentic Assessment Toolbox”, available at: https://jonfmueller.com/toolbox/ (accessed 17 July 2023)
Ruskin, J. & Bilous, R.H (2020) ‘A tripartite framework for extending university-student co-creation to include workplace partners in the work-integrated learning context’, Higher Education Research & Development, 39(4), pp. 806–820. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2019.1693519