The benefits of research-led teaching for both staff and students are well known. From the perspective of students, it encourages and facilitates deeper learning and engagement with complex intellectual issues in the course materials. In so doing, it gives the students the opportunity to develop critical and creative thinking. For staff, it offers the opportunity to use the classroom as a laboratory for testing out ideas in their research area, and discussing them with a student audience often helps to clarify our own thinking.
In Law, we have successfully integrated research-led teaching not only throughout the undergraduate degree but also from the outset when students visit the University on open and visit days. In this blog post, we want to share some of our practices with integrating research into teaching through the undergraduate degree course.
Open and visit days
Part of research-led teaching requires making students aware from the outset of their degree of the research we do. Open and visit days offers a perfect opportunity for this and indeed allows us to advertise our expertise in cutting-edge research. To this end, we have made showcasing our research expertise and research-led teaching a key part of our open and visit day experience. Thus, we begin with a talk by the admissions tutor (one of the present authors) that, in part, offers an overview of the different research strengths of the Law School and emphasises the value in being taught by leading researchers in the field. As part of this, he also presents examples of staff that not only teach and research in their specialist fields but are involved in the practice of law (for example, many of our staff act as academic advisors to counsel in court cases and participants in key policy initiatives around the world – see our research impact pages). We then move on to a taster lecture from a member of staff on a topical subject that is accessible and interesting to school pupils and is representative of what they will study during their degree. Crucially, this lecture is given by a member of staff on their specialist research area and incorporates aspects of their research. For example, one of the present authors gave a taster lecture at the most recent visit days in February 2017 on the Jogee case of the UK Supreme Court that changed the law on accessorial liability in criminal law, drawing on her research in this area and first-hand knowledge of the case.
Overall, this approach to open and visit days has been very successful. Feedback has consistently been very good, with notable mention of the interesting and engaging topics of the taster lectures. We have noticed especially in the taster lectures that visiting students are generally keen to get involved by asking questions, offering answers and debating topics. For this reason, we have made the taster lectures more interactive, for example, by asking visitors to give their views on a particular issue by a show of hands and then asking one or two people to explain the reasons for their views.
Throughout the degree, students are taught by members of staff in their specialist research areas, which exposes students to the latest scholarship and key debates in the field that they are studying. However, research-led teaching in Law is not limited to substantive research topics but also underlying research methodologies. For example, in tutorials in Criminal Law, when explaining how the law works in particular areas, comparisons are often drawn to other jurisdictions so as both to highlight the particularities of the English and Welsh approach and to expose students to alternative ways of addressing the same social problems. This direct comparison pushes students to think critically about the legal rules that they learn and to ask themselves what are the advantages and disadvantages of how our jurisdiction deals with certain issues in the Law. Exposing students in their first year to this also prepares them well for the various research-based modules (e.g. Research Placement Project and Dissertation) in their second and third years.
In the second year, we have a bespoke research-informed module, Research Placement Project (RPP). RPP offers students the opportunity to work directly with a member of staff on a particular research project. The student develops their own research question with the guidance and supervision of one of the academics that has signed up to the module. The students are given lectures on the nature of scholarly research and research skills, as well as seminars that function as workshops with students discussing the progress they have made on their research. This module offers students an early opportunity at developing their own, discrete research project with guidance from the academic and to engage in a deeper form of learning and critical analysis. Moreover, as the topics of the research projects are not restricted to what they have studied thus far, they are able to extend their existing knowledge into topical and exciting cutting-edge areas of research.
The final year offers a range of opportunities to further students’ engagement with research. One example is the Dissertation module, for which students develop independently a research question and then find a supervisor that works in that field to support them as they write a 12,500 word dissertation. In addition, in specific taught modules, we also integrate research into seminars and tutorials. For example, in International Law tutorials, two students are sent a scholarly article in advance to read and to summarise to the other students in the tutorial. The articles tend to be of a general nature, exploring different understandings and ways of thinking about international law. Other students then have an opportunity to ask questions about the article and engage with it themselves. This has generally been very successful and has made students engage with very complex intellectual controversies that they otherwise would not have encountered.
In this blog post we have sought to outline a few ways in which we incorporate our research interests as academics into the teaching of Law throughout the undergraduate degree. Feedback from students has been positive about these different approaches. Importantly, research-led teaching not only benefits students, by encouraging deeper and more critical approaches to reading and writing, but also benefits academics, as we are able to discuss our research interests with students who may be able to offer a fresh perspective.
As noted, we have sought to incorporate research engagement at the earliest stage, making it a crucial part of the open and visit days to give potential students a clearer idea of academia and university life. As the degree progresses, we can often see a clear improvement in how students express themselves and handle different ideas and arguments with nuance and maturity. Research-led teaching thus benefits the quality of their written work and is key to establishing students as independent thinkers both within and outside the classroom.