Insights into the course redesign process in Legal culture to focus on active student learning, student peer review and alternative assessment. We sat down and discussed with Professor Søren Koch.
Tell us about the course you are redesigning?
The title of my course is Comparing Legal Cultures in Europe JUS 290-2. The course is taught in English and is offered to both foreign students (Erasmus) and Norwegian master-students (majors) in their 4th and 5th year.
Our course redesign process started implementing changes already in 2017, where we made major changes regarding the content, the structure and the assignments.
The 2017 redesign: What did you do, and why?
The course was originally designed as a joint venture between the University of Aberdeen and University of Bergen as part of the Erasmus-lecturer exchange program. In 2015 and 2016 the course JUS 290-2-A “Civil- and Common law influences in a mixed legal system” had an average of 7 students taking the final exam. Often no more than two or three students attended class. The lectures (together 20 hours in two blocks of 10 hour lectures in five days) were given in a traditional manner without any demand of active student participation. There were no mandatory assignments and the grade was based exclusively on a single written home-examination. The students were asked to write an essay on two or three topics related to the mandatory curriculum, and UiBs LMS (Mitt UiB, runs on Canvas) was used exclusively to post relevant information on literature and to give announcements.
In 2017, in cooperation with the lecturers and the administration, we started restructuring the course. We shifted the focus from English and Scottish legal history, with some contemporary and comparative remarks, to a course enabling the students to perform an independent comparative legal analysis of different legal cultures in Europe. Besides England and Scotland we added lectures on Norwegian and German legal history. Most importantly, we introduced an analytical model designed to enable the students to systematically compare specific features and elements of the respective legal cultures. We also added a mandatory assignment, containing an essay of just 500 word after the first (of two) weeks of teaching. Due to the legal restrictions in Norway, the midterm examination was designed as a pass/fail test, and the students would have to pass this assignment to attend the final exam. Although, the final grade is still exclusively based on the home-examination.
Furthermore, we started using Mitt UiB more actively, e.g. by giving the students the possibility to take quizzes on their own, and watch videos containing additional information concerning the terminology and analytical models introduced in the lectures. The mandatory literature was changed in concordance to the new goals and objectives of the course. The students got access to (unpublished) articles about the different legal cultures in the course based on the model of legal culture presented, and actively trained together with the students.
We also introduced a non-mandatory face-to-face session where the students could post questions to the lecturers as well as a specialist in the field of legal cultural studies. 20 students took the final exam – all passed. Typically there were between 12 and 17 students attending class. The lectures were organized as a mixture of traditional lecturing, small groups and panel-discussions. With exception for the first and the last session, we practiced co-lecturing. One lecturer presented the relevant knowledge and facts, and the other asked critical questions. The aim was to engage the students to participate more actively, and my personal impression is that we succeeded.
Lastly, in order to make the course more relevant locally, we decided to allow Norwegian students to enroll as well. In 2017, six Norwegian students took part, however; most of them did not actively participate in or even attended class. Consequently, their results were poor when compared to the more actively participating students.
What are the plans for further development towards 2018: What do you want to change and why? How will you approach this change?
I want to be able to further adapt my teaching based on the students’ backgrounds. Therefore, I will make a more intense round of introduction in the first lecture, to learn more about my students, their skills, knowledge and needs. This also builds into forming teams, as teamwork and small-group-discussions will be more a central feature of the course in 2018.
I want the students to share information about their knowledge of the legal cultural model. Most if not all have attended the course “Exploring the Norwegian Legal Culture” – a non-mandatory introductory course (6 hours) that is offered to all foreign students at the beginning of each semester. Additionally, I want to consider the possibility of giving the students some pre-course-assignments to find out more about their expectations regarding the course, their knowledge but also misconceptions etc.
We will keep the mandatory writing assignment, but I consider expanding the word-limit to 1.000 words, as many of the students complained about the fact that writing something meaningful would require more words. Students were also very positive towards the mandatory peer review by both other students and one of the lectures. This year I will give the students the best paper of last year’s exam to reflect on the way the candidate has solved the assignment. This will, on the one hand, give them a precise idea of what we are expecting from an “A”-graded exam, and on the other hand force them to actively acknowledge specific features and strategies when writing a comparative analysis.
Additionally, I will introduce a reading assignment, giving the students the mandatory assignment to reflect on the content of the paper to be read. Furthermore, each double-session will end with a quiz, testing to what extent the students have learned the take-home message and central objectives for each class. Watching the video on the difference between the concept and the model of legal culture will be also part of a mandatory assignment.
We will continue to co-teach, and try to involve the students even more actively by using small-group-discussions. And by asking the students at the end of some session to do a one minute-paper or the moodiest point assignment, we hope to get better feedback on how students are learning.
For practical reasons, we are forced to keep the home-examination as the only basis for the final grade. However, using several mandatory assignments as precondition to enter into the final examination in addition to the 1000-word paper, will hopefully give the students a richer and more efficient learning-experience. As we cannot expect the students to participate in all activities, we will make a 75% rule in order to fulfill the requirements to take the home-examination.