Legal Education Digest
Legal Research Project Management: Skills Extension for Upper Level Law Students
T Hutchinson & N Cuffe
 LegEdDig 60; (2004) 13(2) Legal Education Digest 17
38 Law Teacher 2, 2004, pp 159–181
Supervision of research papers can be a time consuming and exhausting teaching process. This article outlines and critiques a web-based teaching and learning initiative formulated for the use of research students in an Australian law school. The project was designed to extend the research capabilities of those students who had completed the three undergraduate levels of legal research skills required in the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) law degree. This article provides the theoretical and actual learning contexts for this project and backgrounds the interlinking themes of graduate capabilities, online and flexible teaching, completion strategies and supervisory relationships. It details the methodology, describes the tools and evaluates the outcomes.
The West Committee Review on Higher Education Financing and Policy in Australia in 1998 found that graduates were becoming ‘frustrated and dissatisfied with the quality of their research training experience’. This has been reflected in slow completions — an average of six years for PhDs — as well as high dropout rates from research degrees. The 1999 Commonwealth Green Paper New Knowledge, New Opportunities: a discussion paper on higher education research and research training, and the later White Paper, Knowledge and Innovation: a policy statement on research and research training, sought to move funding for research and research training to a performance based system, based on the quality of the research being produced in the university, as well as the research training offered. The objective is that these links, together with an increased level of skills training, will lead to graduates who are more attractive to employers outside the universities and research institutes.
The changes flowing from a recent government review of Australia’s higher education system have resulted in an emphasis on more ‘market structured research’, collaborative research centres, commercialisation of research outcomes from public sector research agencies, an emphasis on applied research, internationalisation through the use of enhanced information technology, leading to the establishment of a ‘global community of researchers with similar interests’, and correspondingly, an improved relationship among higher education institutions. These imperatives have prompted universities to consider methods of producing graduates capable of making a relatively seamless transition from university to the ever-changing workplace.
The project was built on a firm technological skills base fitting within current online teaching frameworks. It provided interactive online learning experiences for participating students. The particular tools developed for this project were part of the ‘suite’ of learning guides developed for two research cohorts, that is, the postgraduate Advanced Legal Research and the undergraduate Research Projects. Furthermore, the project stands within the framework of a continuum of innovation and development of services to make the online interface more relevant, open ended and smooth for student activity.
A specific timeline and journal requirements were adopted to engage the students with the process of the project itself, including documentation of that research process, rather than simply documenting the outcomes of research. The web interface also prompted engagement with the literature, not simply in terms of a flat description or review of the available information, but also an internalisation and transformation of that information into knowledge, and a reflection on the state of scholarship in the chosen research areas which should lead to further development of knowledge.
Based on theories of reflective practice, the aim of the reflective journal was twofold, with a log-book style timeline for project management, and a cognitive research journal to connect theoretical concepts and principles in readings with the researcher’s experiences and observations in their personal and professional world. The level of self-reflection differs between the timeline and the journal, with the timeline being directed towards planning and process in order to encourage students to plan ahead.
The reflective journal as a tool suggested itself because of the successful use of student reflective journals in other disciplines to encourage critical thinking, deepen personal understanding and facilitate refection. The reflective research journal was designed to assist students to reflect on the research process by suggesting pertinent questions and facilitating the researcher’s synthesis of reading, including prompting the students to identify conceptual frameworks, situate their research within paradigms and enhance the connectedness of their research.
The first pilot version was designed using the technology available on the QUT Online Teaching system for the project management timeline, and the student capability technology for the reflective journal. It was trialled with a group of postgraduate students. The project directors worked on incorporating the reflective journal into a series of interlinked web pages. Evaluation, both formal and informal, was ongoing throughout the project. Focus groups and online surveys were used to gain feedback on the final version from undergraduate and postgraduate students and supervisors for whom overall these tools have provided good outcomes.
The students believed that the project management timeline was a useful tool to have ‘upfront to plan’ their project and that it ‘worked well’. The feedback from the students on the reflective journal and prompt questions was very positive and the tool certainly appears to have enhanced their reflection and documentation of analytical processes. The students generally seemed to like the online environment for these tools. Three supervisors also provided feedback on the tools from the supervisor perspective. All supervisors considered the tools to be worthwhile aids to the supervision of research students.
It was obvious during implementation of the project and the evaluation phase that there were significant cultural issues for students in externalising and articulating their reflections and project management. The culture of students is such that they are not used to a self-managing or articulating process. In addition, the following pedagogical issues need to be borne in mind, particularly in wider applications of the tools developed.
Finding time — This can apply to both students and supervisors. From the student’s view, the journal may appear to be yet another layer of work. Overuse in academic courses — Reflective journals need to be really pertinent to the learning objectives of the unit and not simply incorporated because of educational fashion trends. Student motivation — This type of exercise requires students to be self-disciplined enough to use the diary more than sporadically. Confusion regarding requirements — Guidelines should be provided on content, depth and length, and also the whole aim of the exercise. Individual differences — It is likely that there will be a wide disparity in responses, and it may be that those with poorer written language skills will find the journal especially challenging. Self-disclosure — There is great need for confidentiality, but also a matter of setting boundaries on the type of material included. The main disadvantage in even the final iteration of the tools was the limits inherent in the technology available to be used.
In conclusion, the use of these techniques certainly served to extend student research skills capabilities past the compulsory third level experienced within the undergraduate degree curriculum. It led to enhanced research capabilities and outcomes. It provided a vehicle for the students to transfer the skills they had used in earlier years to new structures. It also mapped out a research journey which consisted of questioning and self-questioning along the way, rather than the provision of answers by the teacher or supervisor to the student. Students’ research project management skills and ability to critically reflect were enhanced, resulting in an improvement to the overall student learning experience.