Problem-Based Learning in Law: Students tackling live cases

1 Theme 3 Topics View

Frances Ridout of QMUL's Legal Advice Centre explains how she's using PBL in Law teaching to help students tackle cases.

Frances Ridout is the Deputy Director of the Legal Advice Centre at QMUL’s School of Law. Prior to working at QMUL she was a practising barrister in criminal law, and she still maintains her links with the profession. She teaches and trains students who work at the Legal Advice Centre alongside their degrees, and this year she has designed and led a module on Clinical Legal Education. This module focuses on working with clients in legal clinics (like the Legal Advice Centre) and is the focus of the interview below.

1. Tell us a little bit about the module in question.

For ten years students have engaged in the advice work at the Legal Advice Centre (LAC) on an extra-curricular basis.  In September 2016 we launched The Practice of Law in a Clinical Environment.  This is a module on the undergraduate LLB Law Degree where students can engage with the LAC work, and receive credit towards their degree.  It is a full year module which focusses on skills, advising clients, and understanding legal ethics in context. This year is the pilot year and we have 24 students engaging with the module.  The students undertake a significant amount of work during the academic year.  This includes training in topics such as drafting skills, interview skills and research skills, as well as in specific legal areas they will be advising on.  In addition the students attend 3 hour weekly tutorial classes and individually undertake up to 6 live client cases at the LAC where they are supervised by qualified lawyers. In the tutorial sessions students learn to use PBL on their live client cases and become comfortable with the concept of deconstructing a client problem and identifying the research areas.

2. What gave you the idea to use PBL?

I heard about PBL at a conference on Clinical Legal Education.  I also saw it being used in practice at the University of York where the majority of the undergraduate LLB in law is taught through PBL.  It was immediately clear to me that this was something we needed to put into our module when we were designing it.  The logical way of doing this seemed to be to conduct PBL on the live cases we have in the LAC.  As we already had access to rich case summaries, it seemed wrong to attempt to draft simulated case summaries.  In addition, using the student’s live client work means that one of the student’s receives extra support in their research for that case.

3. What happens in a typical PBL session on the module?

In a typical PBL session (which we call Case Rounds), the PBL does not usually start until the second part of the three hour class.

The first half an hour is spent discussing the reading which the students have been set.  The student whose case was used for the PBL exercise the Case Rounds class before this one, then brings redacted copies of the client letter to the class for the group to read through.  Discussions on the final letter are had and the students can comment on any interesting features added or left out of the letter since the case was PBL’d.

Each student then presents their latest client case from the LAC in no more than three minutes.   Students are encouraged to prepare what they are going to say in advance, and present as fluidly as possible.  We ask them to do it as though they were discussing the case at a formal meeting or job interview.  The order of the presentations is usually determined in a random way using playing cards, colours or the alphabet.  The group are encouraged to comment on each other’s cases and spot any ethical issues which have arisen. If time allows, the students are given an opportunity to reflect on their case from the LAC and complete their learning diaries – these are a written reflection log.  If this is not done in class it will form part of the home work to be completed before the next Case Rounds class.

The group will then chose which case to PBL, and allocate a Scribe and Chair.  The group have free range to choose the case.  So far the groups have always chosen cases which have worked well, but inevitably some work better than others.  The students then type up the facts of the case as a group and when this is completed we have a break.  During the break copies of the chosen case / problem are printed.

We then go through the PBL process.  Students make a note of the unclear terms and phrases in the case.  They identify the different parties and what their interests are before drafting a succinct chronology.  A funny name is then chosen by the group for this case.  This provides the students with some light relief in a long class. I will give a prize to the group at the end of the year who come up with the funniest case name.

The next stage is to analyse the problem.  Students are encouraged to write all ideas on the board as quickly as possible to keep the momentum going.  The ideas can be correct, incorrect, relevant, or irrelevant.  This stage is the main outpouring of thought before the students try to organise and sift through the ideas.  This is usually the longest stage and the stage where the role of the Chair is really important.  After analysis the students divide the information into themes and then draft research questions.  These research questions are usually on topics which would form the backbone of a client advice letter.  Using PBL on real live client work rather than on cases designed by academic staff has advantages and disadvantages.  One main advantage is that the students see us practising what we preach.  We teach them this technique to use in their careers and we are showing them that it can be used very easily in a real working context.

Image shows a set of learning outcomes written on the whiteboard in black pen.       group-a-2016-2017

When the PBL is concluded I come back into the group and we discuss how we felt the PBL went, whether the students found it easy or hard, and whether they think the issues in the case are the same as when they first heard the facts.

4.  What are the main benefits of the PBL format?

The students get practical experience of deconstructing a case and a format to help them to it. Many students feel overwhelmed when they receive a case summary before a client interview, or when armed with all the facts of a case after the client interview before they start writing the client letter.  PBL gives them the tools they need to understand the case and focus their research.

PBL encourages students to engage with the class – this is especially so for the Chair who leads this section of the class.

This teaching method also helps the students bond as a group which is important.  In clinical legal education students sometimes advise on sad and difficult cases and it is important for them to know others who have signed the LAC confidentiality agreement, which they can talk to in an informal way.  Knowing their colleagues also encourages the students to discuss their case work when they are working in the LAC which mirrors how barristers and solicitors work in practice.

Image shows a group of students sitting around a table, obviously in the middle of class. One student is standing up and writing on a whiteboard.     group-a-2-2016-2017

5. Were there any challenges to using the PBL format?           

There is always a risk that the students will choose a case to PBL which has less depth to it than another case.  In general, the trend has been that students usually pick one of the most complex cases in the group.

When we PBL live client work there is also no answer crib sheet for the facilitator.  This means that if the case chosen is within the facilitators usual area of specialism the group may get more assistance from the facilitator than in other cases.  As a criminal practitioner, I obviously feel more comfortable discussing that area of law because I can inevitably contribute more.

One of the main difficulties is encouraging all the students to participate equally, especially at 9am on a Friday!  I remind every Chair at the beginning of the session to ensure everyone contributes equally and I pick on the Chair during the PBL if they are not encouraging quieter students to participate.  Next year I plan to increase the time we spend in class learning the practical techniques of getting all students to contribute.  However, I am prepared that this may be an ongoing battle as students inevitably don’t enjoy picking on their peers to give answers.

I have also noticed that the students contribute better when the PBL is moving at a faster pace.  This is why it is crucial to stress to the Scribe that their writing can be messy and contain incorrect spelling or abbreviations, but needs to be on the board quickly so as not to delay the flow of the groups ideas.  If the Scribe does not get the writing on the board speedily, the group tend to hold back the next contribution and then students start to lose concentration.

Another difficulty encountered is that the student whose case is chosen occasionally try to add in extra factual details as the PBL progresses.  As a facilitator I have to be strict with the group, and just allow them to use the information on the typed version of the facts. If there is an unknown fact, which the person whose case it is actually does know but did not say at the start, it is identified and treated as an unknown fact rather than the facts being added to halfway through.

6. How have the students found it?

At first the students were a little unsure of it, but they got stuck in and embraced the unknown.  Students now feedback that they feel much more confident using PBL and really enjoy the method.  Many of them use the technique to deconstruct their cases before they have their own live client cases in the LAC which is heart-warming to hear.  The students have definitely found PBL easier as the year has progressed, in particular with regards to identifying the learning outcomes at the end.

This is a new and exciting way of teaching for the law department.  In addition, even amongst other departments and universities it is unusual to run PBL sessions on live client cases.  The students are aware of this and are enjoying being part of this experimental way of teaching.  They are very used to having visitors come to watch our Case Rounds.

Kendal Watkinson, Student: “It has been helpful for me to develop my critical analysis skills and draw things from a set of facts which I would not ordinarily have been able to spot. It has assisted me to read deeper into the facts of a case and consider the relevant law.  PBL has provided me with the confidence to know that I am capable of identifying all of the important issues in a case.”

7. Have you enjoyed teaching in this format?

Yes I have.  At first it was a very daunting and overwhelming prospect.  I am grateful to colleagues in medicine for their support, and for allowing me to watch the first lecture they give to first year medics where they explain what PBL is and teach the students how to do it by conducting a case as a large group.  The law department at QMUL and individuals at other institutions have been very encouraging of this idea which has helped me enormously.

I have learnt to facilitate and the students have learnt to participate organically at the same time.  This has provided a supportive and productive learning environment.

A lot of practical lessons have been learnt along the way.  For example, the students present their cases much more professionally if they are asked to stand and do it rather than staying seated, name badges assist a lot, and Scribes need constant reminders to write on the board more quickly to keep a good pace.  Another issue that arose was the reluctance of students to pick on their peers and make everyone in the group contribute.  I soon realised if I was going to make the Chair involve everyone I had to give them techniques to use to enable all members of the group to participate.

8. Do you have any advice for people wanting to introduce PBL into their teaching?

Don’t be scared to give it a go!  It is fun, dynamic and different, but most importantly the student’s engage well during it. What is the worst that can happen? If you try it out and it hasn’t been a success, you can just go back to your old method of teaching.

Remember you can always adapt the more traditional ways of teaching PBL to create your own version which suits the needs of your subject, students and staffing numbers.

To learn more about the Legal Advice Centre, click here.