Understanding difficult concepts through role play in Civil Practice
[Dr Philippa Ryan standing in front of class.]
Philippa: Standing up for the court and making submissions, this is the tail end. And that's arguably the full arc of the experience. So today, it culminates, in I think the hardest thing we do.
Dr Philippa Ryan, one-on-one interview.
Philippa: Okay, so the purpose of the activity that we're doing today was to ensure that students have an opportunity to put together some submissions in relation to a real case. So, we divided them up into groups, give them a good twenty to thirty minutes to collaborate and to ask themselves what the submissions should be, and then to think about the quality of those submissions.
Philippa: This subject, Civil Practice, is right in the middle of the degree. And it's a compulsory subject. So what I've tried to do is make it a subjec they want to come to even though they have to come. And the whole thing is practice authentic. So, this is an opportunity where we can inject, into the whole subject, a lot of anecdotes about what happens in the real world, and I can then give them experiences that model and mirror what they would do either as a junior solicitor or as a junior barrister, and it might even sometimes ask them to think like a judge.
Philippa: The content is delivered in the lectures and the tutorials are collaborative, problem-solving and collaborative learning experiences for the students. I'll divide them up into teams, which are actually quite big, they're teams of eight or nine. And they will be told 'you've actually got a fair bit of time, your team has to come up with three brilliant submissions for the Attorney-General, and then they've got to get one representative who has to come up the front, and like a barrister they've got to stand there and they have to deliver their submissions as if in court. I give them a little script for how to start and end it, so: 'the honour IP for the applicant in these proceedings, the Attorney-General, these proceedings were brought before the court because' - and that's the little bit that they read, and then they say 'In support of our application we make the following three submissions...' and then they have to read them out.
[student speaking in front of class]
Student: In support of this application, the plaintiff makes the following three submissions...
Philippa [voiceover]: And that's great, it's really authentic and it's the sort of thing you would do at the end of a case, so we do it at the end of the course. It's one of the hardest things to get students to do, is to make submissions to the court formally. But by the time we get to the last of the tutorials, they're ready for it.
[Student presenting in class]
Student: Unless there is anything further that I can assist Your Honour with in these proceedings, those are the submissions for the defendant.
Philippa: Outstanding [class applauding].
Philippa [voiceover]: And then I'll give them immediate feedback. They're all safe-to-fail activities, not one of them is assessable, and that's a really important part of the culture we've created. Their preparation, their participation and their collaboration in those tutorials is assessable, but not the outcomes of any problem-solving attempts, and the merits of their arguments are not assessed. It's a safe-to-fail environment when it comes to their attempt to, at quite a high level, engage with something that's actually quite difficult. My advice would be, if you're going to do it well, it takes a lot of time, and thought, and preparation, and you have to work out 'what are the outcomes', is it going to happen in the time that you're thinking about, you know, what are the time pressures that you've got?
Philippa [talking to students in class]: You can have more time - how long do you need?
Student: Um, about fifteen minutes.
Philippa [voiceover]: And if you do it well, then the following semester, you should be able to just roll it out.
Keywords: group work, collaboration, second year subject.
Number of students enrolled (Autumn session): 280
Civil Practice is a core subject in all Law degrees in Australia, and one of four subjects assessed in the New South Wales Bar exam. The subject focuses on the legal and ethical contexts in which lawyers work in the civil jurisdiction of New South Wales. In addition, the subject also highlights the impact of technology on legal practice. Lectures and tutorials introduce students to practical examples related to the professional and ethical obligations of civil practitioners.
The number of students enrolled ranges from 200 to 400 students. There are usually two lectures on offer: a day (attended by two thirds of the cohort) and an evening session (for students who work, or are studying part-time). Over the 11-week session, there is a series of nine two-hour lectures, accompanied by eight two-hour tutorials. Lectures are usually content-driven, while tutorials emphasise collaborative problem-solving and learning activities, creating many opportunities to practice authentic experiences. Students are invited to reflect on, discuss, present and assess their own learning, through participation in a range of activities.
Weekly emails inform students how they should prepare for an upcoming week (e.g. watch a TedTalk, or read an article about negotiation theory). Each lecture then builds on this content, preparing students for practical discussions held in the weekly tutorial sessions (e.g. legislation and rules for mediation, ethics, professional obligations). For the tutorials, students are expected to bring their understanding of the pre-class preparation and information from the lectures, as they engage in analysis and group discussions about real-life cases.
Tutorials are highly collaborative and varied, with a range of role-play exercises, presentations, and opportunities for reflection, with an emphasis on practice-oriented activities.
Role play scenario
A typical role-play exercise might divide students in six groups of six – with two groups each assuming the role of Mediators, Plaintiffs and Defenders. Each group might receive different information about the same case.
Along the course of the tutorial, the lecturer may also introduce a range of 'secret' facts that other groups would not have. The students then work with their groups to analyse and discuss how they would address the case in their roles.
As secret facts are added up, each group might be asked to reformulate their assessments and they may also be asked to choose one secret fact to share with others. Again, students discuss how that would change their way of addressing the case.
Many of these role-play scenarios are contextualised with a storyline that runs throughout the eleven weeks of classes. During the first week of the subject, students are introduced to a story of a couple who is fighting, and as the sessions progress the couple become the characters in various disputes, offering the basis for discussion of various aspects of legal practice.
Preparing distinct submissions
In some of these role-play exercises, students might also be asked to follow specific scripts containing language that would be used in court. For example, each group of students might discuss three distinct submissions to be made in a court in relation to a case, and each of these groups will choose a representative to act as a barrister, on behalf of the group. In front of the class, this student will deliver the ideas discussed by their group, but framed through pre-defined beginning and ending sentences (as used in court):
“Your honour, I am here appearing as an applicant for these proceedings, the attorney general, and these proceedings were brought before the court because… (include ideas discussed)”
Once the three groups have presented their submissions, the lecturer offers feedback and discusses which submissions were best, and why.
In this collaborative activity, the class is split in 6 teams of 6 students each. Each group is given a list of 15 key terminologies from the subject that students need to learn about –a total of 90 terms. For each term students will see two possible definitions, and in teams they will have to figure out which is the correct definition for each of those 15 terms, in 15 minutes time. Students are allowed to research in class, and may choose to re-organise the group, dividing the labour (for example by splitting the work in blocks of 2-3 terms in pairs). The team with the most correct answers wins chocolates.
Creating quiz questions
Students are asked to create three quiz questions individually, with a true or false response. Questions are then submitted via TurnitIn, and out of the 600 generated questions (in a cohort of 200 students), the lecturer chooses 100 to formulate a quiz. Students undertake the quiz that they themselves helped to formulate.
Fixing a pleading
Teams of students are given a written pleading, which has been modified and contains errors. Groups of students are given 10-15 minutes to find the errors, and the team that is able to find the highest number of errors wins.
Utilising technology – practising for the job market
Technology is seen as an important part of the course, something that differentiates the type of skills these students may have when completing their degrees. For example, students are exposed to types of software used in law firms, such as Guided Resolution – an online mediation tool used by one of the civil tribunals in NSW, and is currently being trialled at some tutorial groups. Students may use this tool as part of their collaborative work.
The subject also introduces a writing analytics tool – developed in conjunction with the Connected Intelligence Centre. Students are encouraged to use this tool prior to submitting their final assignments, so that they can gain feedback in academic essay writing. This is important, because similar software is also used in law firms, when lawyers work on analysis of evidence. As these students enter the job market, they have hands-on experience in using writing analysis software.
TurnitIn is left open, so that they can submit and get feedback from the tool on their originality.
Students also use mark-up tools in Word and PDFs when completing some of the tasks (e.g. amendments in the pleading). Using tracked changes, students get experience in using certain features in ways that reflect the practices of the industry.
Why do we think it's successful?
The subject design places great emphasis on role-playing cases that simulate authentic practice, through activity that would normally happen in a court situation: pleading, presenting, writing a reflecting statement, etc. In keeping with the “court rules” some simulations may include a student with the role of time keeping – making sure peer presentations follow time limit stipulated (such as those used in court). Various details are included to ensure students’ experiences are similar to those in real life.
Students are exposed to similar technology as used in law firms and tribunals, and are taught how to make those skills explicitly visible in their future job applications.
Opportunities to safely “try out”
The tutorials are considered “safe to fail” environments. Students will make attempts and receive feedback, while not being formally assessed on their activity. Students receive immediate feedback via a feedback sheet. No negative feedback is publicly voiced in relation to an individual, but constructive criticism may be grouped together in a general statement and addressed at the end of all presentations.
Fun and variety
The lecturers place a lot of emphasis on adding fun elements, through competition and by bringing a gaming-like atmosphere into the class. The variety of activities provides excitement.