Student Engagement, Problem Based Learning and Teaching Law to Business Students

Article excerpt

Introduction

Do you ever ask yourself, when you're teaching, how much are my students taking in; is there a better way to learn the same material; are they really learning to think for themselves and developing skills that will be useful later in life; or--one of the worst questions--how much will they remember after the test or examination? (Cotton 2011, 22)

These are questions often asked by academics and they point to recurrent challenges across disciplines, programs and semesters of teaching. This paper addresses challenges in the teaching of law to Business students and begins by describing those challenges in the particular context of teaching an introductory Business Law course. According to Ramsden (2005: 84), the relationship between learning and teaching is predicated on a "connection between students' learning of particular content and the quality of our teaching of that content". Hence effective teaching must be predicated on an understanding of how students learn. The following discussion examines the character of critical thinking as a central outcome for higher education and links it to deep learning approaches, student engagement and active learning before examining a case study about teaching the Doctrine of Precedent. Emphasis is given to the traditional problem-solving approach characteristic of legal method, which is argued as similar to the problem-based learning adopted in other disciplines.

A Pedagogical Framework

Critical thinking is an analytical skill that reflects a deep learning approach, as opposed to a surface approach, as articulated by Ramsden (2005: 40-61). A deep approach is evidenced where:

... students are focussing on the content of the task and how it relates to other parts of the course or previous knowledge; they are trying to understand the task and relate its component parts to the whole. The process is internal: the students are concerned with integrating the new material with their personal experience, knowledge and interests (Ramsden 2005: 48-49).

A surface approach occurs where material is memorised or manipulated unthinkingly to satisfy an assessment task without any real understanding (Ramsden 2005: 4649). Importantly, approaches to learning are not fixed characteristics of learners. Instead they are ways of relating to content that learners may use consistently or interchangeably. As a means of assisting students to relate to subject matter in a purposeful way and of developing skills for lifelong learning, effective teaching strategies are those that encourage deep learning approaches. As Ramsden (2005:45) notes, "In trying to change approaches, we are not trying to change students, but to change the students' experiences, perceptions or conceptions of something".

A deep approach to learning is facilitated by good quality teaching. Ramsden (2005: 108-112) identifies three theories of teaching: teaching as telling or transmission, teaching as organising student activity and teaching as making learning possible. These three theories, according to Ramsden (2005: 113), need to be understood within a hierarchical structure in which higher levels imply the strategies of lower levels. Hence the more complex theory of making learning possible assumes aspects of the other two, including for example the orderly presentation of content and the creation of opportunities for students to learn. In addition teaching as making learning possible sees learning and teaching as 'two sides of the same coin' in which teaching is "comprehended as a process of working cooperatively with learners to help them change their understanding" (Ramsden 2005: 110).

Good quality teaching is therefore about making understanding possible. Ramsden (2005: 93-99) identifies six principles of effective teaching in higher education, namely:

1. Presenting interesting material and providing clear explanations

2. Communicating concern and respect for students and student learning

3. …