Just a couple more weeks until #issotl14 Quebec City

I’m looking forward to attending the annual conference held by the International Society for Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at Quebec City, 22-25 October 2014.

I will be presenting a paper, however the main purpose in making this trip is to get an up close look at the current interdisciplinary work around SoTL.

My paper focuses on PLT practitioner as a still-emergent professional trajectory in law. Institutional PLT has been around in Australia since the 1970s, but is still novel in the arc of the English common law tradition. There are some interesting epistemological challenges and opportunities for PLT practitioners and PLT providers around “what counts” in PLT teaching and learning.



“Reading” journal articles, texts, cases…

Those of us who mentor, teach, write, and research in legal professional education and training tend to read a lot. It may seem strange that I should post about “how” I “read” certain materials for study and research purposes.

The impetus for this post came from discussions I had with academics, teachers, and students, about how I take notes, and how I approach literature reviews. For example, one academic noticed I had over 2,000 journal articles in my Endnote library. Then she referred to my comment that technology does not substitute for one’s own intellectual and critical engagement with the texts. “How”, she asked, “did you manage to read all those articles?”

Well, I did read them. And I didn’t. At times I want to get through a lot of literature quickly, but effectively. This is what I do:

Before I start reading, I make a concept map of main headings (I’ve used Scapple for these examples). Headings can be extracted from a book’s table of contents, and most articles have headings;* if not, create your own:

reading1 Here, for example, I’m looking at Eric D Ragan et al, ‘Unregulated use of laptops over time in large lecture classes’ (2014) 78 Computers & Education 78.
DOI: 10.1016/j.compedu.2014.05.002.

I “skim” the article for sub-headings, topic sentences,  key quotes, and add these to the concept map:

reading2Ten minutes’ work gives me a single page “snapshot” of the text. I can save this figure to the record for this article in my Endnote library. I know that not everybody likes concept maps – it is possible to use the same approach in tabular or organisation chart format – use what works for you. The kinaesthesia, or “doing”, of the visualisation pays off for recall and synthesis of information.

In Scapple, I can export the text in the concept map to a “research notes” or “keywords” field in the Endnote record. This effectively “tags” the record with searchable keywords, making it possible to cross-reference articles with similar keywords. I use the Endnote “smart groups” tool to search for keywords and collate mini-libraries of references. This makes it easier to export them for more detailed analysis later, using tools like NVivo. In so doing, I make the “reading” pay off later, becoming a durable resource for study and research.

Producing the concept map helps me to recall the salient features of an article. I’ve used a similar approach when studying cases, legislation, text books, guides, manuals. etc.

The “skimming” technique takes a little practice. It gets easier as your knowledge of a topic improves. Rather than read the text line-by-line at first instance, train your eye to recognise key words and topic sentences. In essence, a good topic sentence expresses the controlling idea in a paragraph.** I find this is a much faster approach than reading a text line-by-line from beginning to end.

For later detailed analysis, you can read more closely. I find this easier when I’ve used the techniques described above. It is easier to apprehend and understand concepts on successive passes. If memory is your goal (“learning, association, retention, and reproduction”),*** creative repetition through skimming, mapping, “chunking”, organisation, and application, will assist you.

* A lot of research articles use the IMRAD structure (“introduction”, “methods”, “result”, “analysis”, “discussion/conclusion”), so you might make a template for these, ready to go.
** See: Randall L Popken, ‘A study of topic sentence use in academic writing’ (1987) 4(2) Written Communication 209.
*** Hermann Ebbinghaus, ‘1964’ (1885)  Memory: A contribution to experimental psychology. Also see: Fernand Gobet et al, ‘Chunking mechanisms in human learning’ (2001) 5(6) Trends in cognitive sciences 236; Eugène J. F. M. Custers and Olle T. J. ten Cate, ‘Very long-term retention of basic science knowledge in doctors after graduation’ (2011) 45(4) Medical Education 422.


A Note about taking Notes (and using ICT)

Twitter is such a useful feed of information about research. I usually search on the #legaled hashtag each morning to see what has popped up from overseas during the night. This morning it was this tweet from @vivmb:

vivmbThe tweet linked to this blog post by Danya Perez-Hernandez at The Chronicle of Higher Education. The post reports how researchers (Daniel M. Oppenheimer and Pam Mueller) found those using laptops to take verbatim notes:

“took almost twice the amount of notes as those writing longhand, [however] they scored significantly lower in the conceptual part of the test”

The take home message was:

“Verbatim note-taking, as opposed to more selective strategies, signals less encoding of content”

I agree that selective note-taking strategies are good for recall and higher levels of cognitive processing, such as symbolisation and abstraction. Personally, I switch between two note-taking strategies: concept mapping, and the Cornell note-taking system. Sometimes I make a map from my Cornell notes, or vice versa. I like to switch between and combine graphics and text. I’ve also used Prezi to map notes, you can see a video of it here.

One lovely thing about the Cornell system is the summary section forces you synthesise information, and provides matter for writing up in your thesis or journal article etc. With concept-mapping, I often adapt maps and use these as figures in the writing up.

I have appalling hand-writing – a consequence of missing some formative parts of my primary education.  So I use devices, a lot.  I adopted and adapted mapping and Cornell methods for note-taking on my devices.

On my phone, tablet or Macbook, I use the IOS and OS X versions of “Notes”. My notes are synced across all devices (no more lost notes!) and they are searchable. Instead of ruling up the page as per the Cornell template, I simply divide the page into horizontal sections and use them as the “cues”, “note-taking” and “summary” areas. I can export these notes as PDF files, and drag them into my citation manager or Scrivener or Evernote (or just leave them where they are). Here’s one I prepared earlier (click on the image for full sized version):


On my tablet, I use Mindjet Maps, Idea Sketch, Doodle Pad, Notability and Penultimate. The nice thing about Penultimate is that it syncs to Evernote. Each of these apps offer something a little different, and I switch between them, depending on how “free form” or structured I want the maps to be. All of them are capable of exporting the image in a format that can be used in writing up. On my Macbook I use Xmind – here’s a concept map note from a book I’ve read (click on the link for a full-sized version):

Symbolic Violence

Writing verbatim notes has limitations, but it is not the use of ICT that is the problem. Devices are just a tool, we need to exercise our intellectual abilities in using them, but they can expedite our learning and understanding strategies. Devices also have the potential to improve equity and parity of access to cognitive processes.



Reflections on ALTA Conference 2013

ALTA2013Overall I enjoyed this year’s ALTA conference at ANU (my third), interacting with familiar faces and making several new acquaintances. Personally, this was my most socially engaging ALTA conference so far.

Day One

First Keynote – Professor Carrie Menkel-Meadow

I developed a serious intellectual crush on Professor Carrie Menkel-Meadow (Georgetown Law, Washington DC) during her keynote address on the first day. Summarising the keynote here would be inadequate and many of her papers are freely available on SSRN, but one of the more recent, ‘Doing Good Instead of Doing Well? What Lawyers Could be Doing in a World of ‘Too Many’ Lawyers’ seems especially indicative, speaking to the idea that ‘lawyers and legal educators need to proactively reframe what is considered to be legal work and legal education for new ways of legal and human problem solving to be studied and learned’.


Melissa Castan (Monash Uni) and I co-presented a paper developed with Kate Galloway (James Cook Uni), ‘The Matrix as the Gatekeeper: Effective integration of online technologies in maximising research impact and engagement’. We hope to publish a full paper later, but in essence we spoke to our experience following the publication of our earlier article, ‘Interconnectedness, Multiplexity and the Global Student: The Role of Blogging and Micro Blogging in Opening Students’ Horizons’ The paper was picked up by the Australian Financial Review and enjoyed a substantial increase in abstract views and downloads. The experience caused us to reflect on how social media might be incorporated into considerations of quality, engagement and impact in research. The presentation was generally well received and hopefully we can develop this line of inquiry further.

Dr Noeleen McNamara (University of Southern Queensland) presented ‘Engagement of Distance Law Students Through the Learning Management System: Core and elective courses’. Noeleen reported a detailed statistical study that compared student access to online tutorials (downloadable mp3 files) with their subject grades. Interestingly, several ‘fail’ students had accessed all or most tutorials whereas at least one HD student had accessed none at all. There were some differences between results for LLB and JD students. Following this presentation I personally reflected how valuable a qualitative study of participants’ narratives about how they engaged with the online tutorials might be for informing future use of online tutorials.

Dr Helen Sungaila (James Cook University) presented a paper jointly developed with Peter Boulot, ‘The MOOCS Have Arrived: But where does the real challenge lie?’ This was a very entertaining account of Helen’s experience in grappling with the scripting and design of an online simulation project, and her interactions with those advising her, including a scriptwriter and a virtual reality engineer. For me, this presentation highlighted how interactions between lawyers and non-lawyers in legal education can be puzzling, frustrating but ultimately instructive and generative.

Elen Seymour and Assoc Prof Michael Blissenden (both from University of Western Sydney) jointly presented ‘Gatekeeper of Learning in the Digital Age’, which was an account of their experience in working with an arrange of digital applications to create and deliver online instruction. A key takeaway message for me is that a plethora of cheap or free applications are available, but one needs to think carefully about how to incorporate such applications into instruction so they best serve the purpose of student learning. Conference technology inhibited their ability to provide a ‘live’ demonstration of the applications, but did not diminish their message. I think, however, conference organisers need to incorporate robust presentation technology as resources for presenters, with ICT increasingly a subject in presentations.

After lunch I attended a presentation by Dr Leonie Kelleher and Mr Hubert Algie (both of Kellehers Australia) ‘The Gatekeepers of the Law: Revisiting the roles of academics, students and the profession’, in which each presented a case study. Hubert’s case study involved engaging the profession to help young lawyers learn and improve advocacy skills. Leonie’s case study involved students engaging with a remote aboriginal community, mediated by an aboriginal elder. Both case studies provide examples of taking learning outside of the classroom and interacting with (what I call) ‘actuals’ to generate insights that promote and enrich student learning.

Dr Chris Trevitt (Australia National University) presented a paper jointly developed with Lynn Du Moulin (ANU), ‘Gatekeepers Meet Stakeholder Interests: Managing the tensions arising from the changing nature of professional dialogues in legal education’. The paper explored the gatekeeping role legal educators experience through dialogues with various stakeholders, involving attributes of power, legitimacy and urgency. Stakeholders identified include teachers, learners, learning institution, professional regulators, the profession and its clients, and the wider higher education milieu. They examined student assessment and teacher evaluation as ‘two particular settings where tensions and opportunities for dialogue arise.’ I am very interested in this work and I see intersections with my own research concerning PLT practitioners’ engagement with scholarship of teaching.

The final plenary on Day 1 was entitled ‘Law Teachers as Gatekeepers—How effectively are legal educators teaching students about the role of lawyers and the nature of legal practice’. The panel included Prof Kim Economides, Tim Bugg, Jemima Roe, and Bradley Chenoweth. One comment that stood out for me and elicited questions from the floor seemed to indicate innovations in legal education might be inhibited by conservative regulators. This is an important topic I hope to follow up in my own research.

Day Two

Unfortunately, I missed the first keynote on Day 2 – Professor Frank Brennan SJ AO, (Australian Catholic University and ANU). His topic was ‘Law Teachers as Gatekeepers of Law, Public Morality and Human Rights: equipping our students for moral argument in a pluralistic legal environment. I understand that specific mention was made of land rights, native title, and the law concerning asylum seekers.

First presentation I attended on Day 2 was Michael McShane’s ‘Should Law School Focus on the Discipline or the Profession of Law?’. Michael explored intersections with between learner theory (e.g. Vygotsky), themes in the Carnegie Report (‘Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Profession of Law’), documents produced by the ALTC and the threshold learning outcomes. One of the ideas that resonated with me was the connection between notions of ‘metacognition’ (how learners manage their own learning) and the ‘market’. There wasn’t time for Michael to fully develop this in the presentation. My understanding is that metacognition might be appropriated as part of an industrialised approach in which the learner ‘bears the cost’ through learner-centred approaches. This reminded me of Foucault’s concept of governmentality and self-government as a way of shifting the management burdens in power relations. Interesting area.

Oyiela Litaba (Monash) presented ‘(Ab)using the Court System: Helping our students to get it right’ and described a learning task involving role play. Students were ‘cast’ for roles in a civil litigation fact situation involving ethical dilemmas, including a junior solicitor charged with carriage of a commercial litigation matter apparently lacking merit. Oyiela described the difficulty of resolving a dilemma in which a junior lawyer is directed to do something they perceive as breaching professional ethics. Very interesting discussion about how to manage this in a teaching situation.

Katherine Curnow (University of Queensland) presented ‘Putting Civil Procedure into Action: Investigating the effects of implementing an experiential learning tutorial program’. This was an interesting report on an innovation involving face-to-face experiential learning components with some online components.

Dr Brendan Gogarty (University of Tasmania) presented ‘Practicing the Study of Public Law. A skills based teaching and learning model for undergraduate law students’. Brendan’s model was evolved after considerable experimentation and combines online and face-to-face experiential components that include interactions with members of the profession and fact situations drawn from live High Court matters. A great example of how to incorporate public online materials from the High Court into learning content. It is also clear that Brendan is carefully evaluating each stage of development and each component of this model. Ambitious and demanding and worth watching over time.

Assoc Prof Gary Tamsitt (ANU) examined and compared data from the USA and Australia  in his presentation, ‘South Sea Bubble: Will law enrolments peak in Australia?’ At present law school enrolments are rising in Australia (falling in the USA), but it appears that graduate positions are diminishing in Australia. Several aspects complicate comparisons (career trajectories for law graduates in the USA might differ from those in Australia), and it is difficult to get good national data concerning graduate employment in Australia. Interesting empirical study that I will follow for my own research.

In his presentation, ‘‘If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them’: Appropriating vocationalism in the law school’, Prof Nick James (Bond University) spoke about the rise of vocationalism in law schools and the need to preserve academic spaces that are not focused on producing practising lawyers. Nick suggested that one strategy is for academics to ‘appropriate’ the notion of ‘professionalism’ by showing ways in which insights produced by the academy are integral to a holistic notion of professionalism.

Final keynote – Professor Paul Maharg, ANU
Paul spoke to his theme of ‘Space, absence, silence: learning and the regulation of legal education’. Drawing on concepts from the arts, reader-response theory, relational perspective, knowledge objects, affective socio-linguistics, Paul demonstrated how concepts of space and absence can inform approaches to teaching and learning, and regulation of legal education too. He suggests that ‘shared space is an approach that can improve regulation and  the quality of legal education. This could involve ‘participative regulation’ where the regulator acts as a quality enhancer rather than a quality assurer, focusing on ‘culture shifts towards innovation, imagination, change for a democratic society’.

I thought that was a pretty good note on which to end the conference.


‘Test Out the Scaffolding’: A Qualitative Comparison of LLB Threshold Learning Outcomes and the PLT Competency Standards for ‘Lawyers’ Skills’

This is one of my working papers, not yet published. I’m linking to it here because it might be of interest to PLT practitioners and I’m keen to have some feedback on the ideas expressed in the paper.

Threshold Learning Outcomes (‘TLOs’) for the Australian bachelor of laws and National Competency Standards (‘NCS’) for post-graduate pre-admission practical legal training include learning objectives for lawyers’ skills as part of a legal education continuum. How do behavioural learning objectives for ‘lawyers’ skills’ specified in the TLOs and the NCS compare? This practitioner-initiated qualitative study borrowed from a ‘grounded theory’ approach to analyze the TLOs and NCS learning objectives for lawyers’ skills. The study produced insights that might inform PLT teachers’ scaffolding around graduates’ intellectual competencies as part of practical legal training in lawyers’ skills.


Theory of Teaching Too Dense for PLT Practitioners?

I have been interviewing PLT practitioners around the country, (not finished yet) and one message that percolates through discussions is the opacity of theory of teaching and learning. The gist of what many (not all) say is, ‘just tell me what works’. That’s understandable, because PLT practitioners tend to be very busy mentoritheoryng trainees, resolving administrative issues, updating course content and so on. I think there might be other issues why PLT practitioners might not engage with scholarship of teaching and learning, but I will leave those for later.

For now, I’m interested in the comments practitioners make about teaching theory being expressed in overly dense and difficult language, making it seemingly impenetrable. Now, I confess I’m a bit of a theory-philiac, so I must be biased about theory. On the other hand, it’s interesting that lawyers who deal with fairly abstract concepts (discretionary trusts? restrictive covenants? detinue? feoffment with livery of seisen?) would think that teaching theory is dense or difficult. I suspect that the apparently abstract or complex nature of teaching theory might be less of an issue if opportunities to learn it were improved.

That said, there are critics who say that theory of teaching is a waste of time, and the better approach to researching and teaching practice is via action research driven by practical philosophy. Sounds like a theory worth testing, to me.