Teaching and Learning Forum 2007 Home Page

Category: Research
Teaching and Learning Forum 2007 [ Refereed papers ]
Teaching and learning skills: Increasing a sense of law school belongingness

Jill Howieson and William Ford
Faculty of Law
The University of Western Australia

Despite a relatively hostile environment of budget constraints, staff development, historical conservatism, and professional territorialism, the Law School at the University of Western Australia has taken a slow, yet systematic and structured approach to its introduction of lawyering skills into the curriculum. It has done so in recognition that core skills such as negotiation, dispute resolution and communication skills are essential requirements in the modern law graduate's toolkit and has done so in the face of budget and staffing restrictions. If at any stage, those at the Law School were wondering if this has been a thankless task, or indeed a worthless exercise, the present study confirms that this is not the case. The study reveals that the Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) unit, which teaches skills in negotiating, resolving disputes and communication, increases the students' sense of belonging to the Law School. The study further shows that although 27% of the students surveyed are not intending to practise as lawyers, their sense of belonging to the Law School is enhanced by participation in the ADR unit.


Australian law schools have long been urged to undertake a "holistic and effective teaching of law"; that is, a teaching of law that includes "an integration of skills development, skills theory and [skills] practice" into the curriculum (Kift, 1997, p.44). The calls for the holistic method have come from many quarters; not only from educationalists but also from researchers, commissioners and lawyers who have conducted studies and research into legal education and legal reform (Weisbrot, 2004; Wade, 1997; Sourdin, 2004; the Pearce Report, 1987; the Australian Law Reform Commission ("ALRC"), 2000; Johnstone & Vignaendra, 2003). Whilst there isn't yet absolute agreement on the list of skills that should be taught, there are two common skills sets that all of these writers have identified as fundamental to a well composed curriculum. These are negotiating or dispute resolution skills, and communication skills, including interpersonal skills.

The Law School at the University of Western Australia (UWA) is one of the law schools that is moving cautiously towards a holistic and effective method of teaching law. It is progressing slowly, as it contends with the relatively hostile environment of budget constraints, staff development, "historical conservatism" (Weisbrot, 2004, p.271), and professional territorialism. Nevertheless, it has progressed. It now includes in its undergraduate curriculum, units in negotiation, mediation, and alternative dispute resolution. Within these units, as well as dispute resolution skills, several core communication skills such as active listening and questioning are taught.

However, perhaps more satisfying for the UWA Law School than simply knowing that it is progressing slowly towards a balanced curriculum is the fact that along with this progression has come an increased amount of student engagement. The present study shows that those students who have undertaken the skills units at the School have a greater sense of belonging to the School than those students who have not had the benefit of the skills teaching. This encourages the School to continue with the task of incorporating skills theory and practice into the learning of the UWA law students, despite the ongoing struggle with the numerous challenges inherent in that process.

Skills and reform

David Weisbrot (2004) writes about the changing nature of legal culture and lists a set of 'lawyering' skills which, in his opinion, all young lawyers need to possess in order to participate strongly and ethically in the profession of law. Among the skills on that list are high order oral and written communication, negotiation and dispute resolution, listening, fact-finding and sensitivity to the client's experience.

Weisbrot's article was written partly in support of the ALRC's (2000) report on Managing Justice, a significant portion of which was devoted to matters of legal education. The ALRC made certain recommendations aimed to "lift legal education" - among them that university law schools increase their emphasis on teaching legal ethics and professional responsibility, as well as professional skills such as dispute resolution (para, 1.184).

An earlier report, the Pearce Report 1987, had produced something of a watershed in legal education. It "nominated three aspects of skills teaching that required greater attention: oral expression and legal advocacy, drafting skills, negotiation and interpersonal skills" (Kift, 1997, p.44). In a discussion paper tracing the development of skills teaching in legal education, the ALRC (1997) noted that "some law schools have adopted the view that university education should equip students with other 'generic skills' suitable for most workplaces, such as teamwork and communication skills, or with skills that are commonly needed by legal practitioners, such as business, dispute resolution and management skills" (ALRC, 1997). These law schools are typically newer law schools established after the 1987 Pearce Report, which had accepted the challenge to incorporate these and other lawyering skills into their curriculums.

The drive toward "lifting" legal education and streamlining the nexus between law school programs and legal practice began with "the third wave of skills teaching" (Wade, 1997, p.180). The 'third wave' includes the teaching of such skills as interviewing, listening, questioning, negotiating, managing people and paper and stress, operating technology, and identifying and responding to ethical issues. Le Brun and Johnstone (1994) likewise list a comprehensive set of skills, which they believe to be required of today's law graduate. Their list includes legal analytical and critical abilities, communication, fact investigation, research skills, problem solving and option generating, counselling and dispute resolution, litigation, professional responsibility and organisation and managerial skills (see Spegel, 1996).

Richard Johnstone and Sumitra Vignaendra, in a comprehensive study of Learning Outcomes and Curriculum Development in Law school courses, commissioned in 2003, note that the "the biggest change in law school curricula over the past decade has been the infusion of skills education and training into LLB programs" (p.166). Their research indicates that although the set of skills and the objectives and practices of the law schools differed, common amongst the skills desired by both the law schools and the profession were communication and negotiation. Other desirable skills included client care skills, the ability to handle and resolve conflict, and interpersonal skills.

Teaching and learning skills at UWA

Clearly negotiating or dispute resolution skills, and communication skills, (including interpersonal skills) are now considered fundamentally important to the modern law graduate and therefore to the modern law school curriculum. Although, according to Johnstone and Vignaendra, law schools have adopted differing approaches to skills teaching, it is apparent that all Australian law schools are teaching 'lawyering' skills to some degree. At UWA, negotiation and dispute resolution are taught in the more explicit type of teaching program (as articulated by Johnstone and Vignaendra) where the skills teaching is more "systematic and structured" (p.134). Negotiation and Mediation is offered as a five-day intensive unit and Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) is taught as a semester long unit. Both of the units are optional. The Negotiation and Mediation unit focuses directly on the skills of negotiation and mediation, but incorporates some theory and exercises in the interpersonal skills of active listening and questioning styles. ADR is not as skills focused but incorporates the theory and processes of interest based negotiation and mediation, and includes experiential exercises in conflict resolution, negotiation, mediation, arbitration and conciliation, questioning and listening skills. Skills need to be taught in a manner that allows for the proficiency of the skill to be developed by diligent practise, evaluation and feedback (Kift, 1997; Vickery, 1999). Wolski (2002) points out how labour intensive and time-consuming teaching skills (and learning skills) in such a manner happens to be. Wolski sets out a four-stage process for the appropriate experiential learning of skills. It includes: The Negotiation and Mediation unit is taught in this way, and ADR to a lesser extent; and they have indeed proved to be labour and time intensive. To teach skills by this method is a challenge for any university law school.

The relatively hostile environment

The Law School at UWA faces most, if not all, of the challenges associated with "skills teaching and learning [that] have been reasonably well documented" in the literature (Wolski, 2002, p.291). These include the following:

ResourcesThe administration, teaching, evaluating and coaching of students in a skills intensive environment is a strain on both the human and financial resources of a law school. Most law schools, including UWA, operate on tight budgets and find it difficult to meet the resource demands of skills units (Weisbrot, 2004; Wade 1997; Vickery 1999; Sourdin, 2004).
StaffLaw schools that haven't recruited with skills teaching in mind, as is the case with the traditional law schools such as UWA, tend to meet some resistance to the integration of skills into existing units. Often the existing staff members lack the experience, commitment and confidence to engage in the teaching of skills. There also tends to be a lack of incentives for staff who undertake the skills teaching (Wade, 1997; Wolski, 2002).
ProfessionDespite the study by Johnstone and Vignaendra (2003) that shows that members of the legal profession appreciate a well skilled law graduate, there is still a degree of professional territorialism attached to the teaching of skills. Some sectors of the profession regard the teaching of skills such as negotiation and dispute resolution as belonging in the domain of their CLE programs, or in their in-house training courses, and are not especially supportive of the introduction of these units in place of the traditional 'black letter law' subjects (Ford, 2006).
TimeThe time intensive nature of skills learning is a challenge to both students and staff. Students require the time to learn, prepare, practise, receive feedback and practice again, and staff members require the time to prepare, plan, teach, give feedback and create appropriate opportunities for practice of the skills. As Wade (1997, p. 183) suggests, "there is rarely enough time in the law student's diary" to do this, and one would also suggest, neither is there time in the law teacher's diary.
CurriculumThere is generally no systematic reinforcement of the skills learnt from one unit to another in the law school curriculum in a law school that is not dedicated to the integrated teaching of skills (Johnstone and Vignaendra, 2003; Wade 1997). A skill once learnt is quickly forgotten if it is not revised, reinforced and practised and therefore the challenge for the law schools is to provide further opportunities for the rigorous cycle of skills learning.
Status quoRemodelling a curriculum and even introducing new or compulsory units into a law school program is a burdensome task. No matter how inspired or dedicated a law school and its staff are to introducing an integrated and holistic law school curriculum, the practical reality is that the time and effort involved is probably beyond their capabilities; maintaining the status quo is most usually the preferable and realistic option.

Although many of the staff at the UWA Law School have expressed their desire to achieve a more fully integrated law school where the law students graduate with skills that include communication, negotiation and creative problem solving, the ever present danger is that due to the challenges outlined above, the aspiration remains unfulfilled. While research has not yet definitively established the professional benefits of training in lawyering skills, perhaps the results of the present study, which show that the skills teaching at UWA Law School has been successful at least in increasing student engagement with the University, will provide a further incentive to continue the push toward a fully integrated program.

Student engagement

Student engagement encompasses two components, a psychological component and a behavioural component (Willms, 2003). In the school setting, the psychological component refers to the "students' sense of belonging at school..., which has to do with feelings of being accepted and valued by their peers, and by others at their school" (Willms, 2003, p.8), whilst the participation component "is characterised by factors such as school and class attendance, being prepared for class," and completing assignments (Willms, 2003, p. 8). Student engagement at law schools is further characterised by completing the set readings for each class.

Research from the United States shows that "law students experience elevated levels of psychological distress" and acute feelings of alienation and often disengagement whilst at law school (Roach, 1994). The various reasons for this distress and disengagement have generated considerable debate in the US literature, with the blame often falling on the following aspects of law school education:

Anecdotal evidence suggests that law schools in Australia can also be alienating places. "The almost insatiable demand for entry into law school has created a highly competitive environment" (CALD, 2000, para, 2.88) and this environment can be intimidating and isolating not only for students from minority groups but also for the archetypical young white, upper to middle class law student (Kirby, 2005; Brennan et al, 2005). While not intending to investigate the levels of student engagement at the UWA Law School per se, the current study set out to examine whether participation in the undergraduate skills units can assist students in feeling less isolated and more involved in their law school experience.

The study: Rationale

The impetus for the study stems from the informal feedback from students who have completed the Negotiation and Mediation, and ADR units at UWA. The feedback seems to indicate that these students might feel a greater sense of belonging to the School after completing the unit ("Neg + Med provides very a collegial atmosphere and you meet lots of people that you have never previously come across"; "it was wonderful to get to know others doing the unit"; "it was very bonding - I got to meet lots of new people"). It is not clear whether this informal feedback is fully representative of students taking these units, and whether it is a short term or long-term effect.

A further rationale for the study is that the Negotiation and Mediation and ADR units involve many of the factors that other studies have found contribute to student engagement (DEST, 2005). Some of these factors include:

A limited number of undergraduate optional units (electives) in the law school at UWA are taught intensively (Forensic Advocacy, and Advanced Evidence and Proof) and like Negotiation and Mediation and ADR, certain units incorporate a greater level of student and teacher interaction, and active and experiential tasks (Jessup International Moot). The study seeks to investigate whether there is any difference in the levels of student engagement between those students who have undertaken these undergraduate 'skills' units and those who have not.

The study: Methodology

Engagement construct

The construct of engagement used for the study derives from the OECD's study of Student Engagement at School (Willms, 2003). The construct has two dimensions: sense of belonging and participation. Sense of belonging is based on students' responses to six items describing their personal feelings about being accepted by their peers and whether or not they "felt lonely", "like an outsider" or "out of place". The second component is participation, which was measured by a scale of three items asking whether students skipped classes or arrived late for classes, or missed university altogether in the previous two weeks a separate scale asking whether the students had participated fully or been bored in class, prepared for class and completed all assignments, and arrived at class without completing the readings.

Other items

Two further questions relating to whether the student is looking forward to practicing as a lawyer and whether or not he or she was successful in obtaining articles (for 2007) were included to see whether the undertaking of skills units leads to more engagement with the ambition of entering the professional practice of Law. The students were also asked which options, out of the 36 offered, they had studied at UWA and how many years they had been enrolled at the UWA Law School.

Survey process

The survey was sent electronically to the student email addresses of the 1,187 students currently enrolled in law at the UWA Law School. The survey was conducted over a three-week period in September and October 2006.

Optional units (electives) are open to all students at the Law School regardless of whether students are enrolled in the three, four or five year LLB course. At what point the students actually undertake their optional units, however, will depend on how they have structured their individual pathways through the degree. Some students might take optional units in their first year at the Law School, whilst others might not take any optional units until the third year of their course. Of the electives, only Negotiation and Mediation is restricted to final year students. Therefore, not all the students surveyed would have undertaken any or all of the optional units on offer. Further, of the students who have completed some of the skills units not all would have completed the units at the same time. Due to the time and resource constraints of separating out students who had undertaken optional units from those who had not, it was decided to send the survey to all the 1187 students currently enrolled at the Law School. In this way, students who had not undertaken certain optional units, including the skills units, could be treated as a control group for the study.

The study: results

Exploratory analysis

Two hundred and seventy three responses were received representing a response rate of 23%.

There were 168 female participants and 103 male (data was missing for three of the cases on the gender item). The overwhelming majority of the participants were aged between 18 and 25 (73 participants were under 20, and 181 participants were aged between 20 and 25) and there was a relatively even spread of the participants across the years of study at the UWA Law School (from 1 to 5 years at the School). Seventy-four of the participants (representing 27% of the students who responded to the survey) indicated that they did not intend to practise as a lawyer when they graduated.

These results were explored further to investigate what type of students were not planning to practise as lawyers and it was found that of those 74 participants, 46 were female and 27 were male; 24 participants were aged under 20 and 49 participants were aged between 20 and 25 and one participant was in the 36-40 age bracket. Further, there was an even spread amongst these students across the years of study at the Law School (from 1 to 5 years at the School).

Factor Analysis and reliability

The belongingness and the two participation scales were scored according to the OECD study (Willms, 2003). A factor analysis of the belongingness scale indicated that the six items comprised one factor and contributed almost equally to that factor. The reliability analyses revealed that the belongingness scale was internally consistent yielding a Cronbach's alpha of 0.88.

The participation scales were relatively more problematic. The factor analysis of the first scale revealed that the responses comprised one factor but the reliability analysis revealed that the scale would achieve internal consistency with the item of lateness deleted (Cronbach's alpha of 0.71). The factor and reliability analyses for the second scale revealed that the items comprised one factor and that the item of completing assignments had the lowest corrected item-total correlation. It was decided to remove the completing assignments item from the scale to yield a Cronbach's alpha of 0.71. The two scales were renamed 'attendance' and 'participation' respectively. The scales are outlined in Appendix 1.

Differences in responses by ADR and sense of belonging

An independent t-test was used for the analyses to determine whether the students who had participated in the skills units at the UWA Law School exhibited a difference in sense of belonging, attendance and participation at the School. There were no significant differences found between students who had undertaken the 'skills' options offered by the Law School and their scores on the "sense of belonging", "attendance" and "participation" scales, with the notable exception of those who had participated in the ADR unit (64 students). The t-test showed that those participants who had completed the ADR unit had a significantly higher sense of belonging than those who had not: t (265) = 2.11, p < 0.5.

Differences in responses by intention to practise and participation

A significant difference was found between those aged over 25 and those under 25 in sense of belonging but no difference in attendance or participation, with the younger students rating their sense of belonging as significantly higher than the older students: t (264) = -2.45, p < 0.5.

There were no significant differences on the three engagement scales for the male and female students' responses, the number of years that the participants had been at the Law School or for those who had applied for, or been successful in obtaining, articles in 2007. However, the means of scores from the "participation" scale were significantly different for those students who indicated that they were not intending to practise law. The participation of those students who did not plan to practise law was rated significantly lower than those who did intend to practise: t (262) = -5.23, p < 0.5.

Further, it was found that for those students who were not planning to practise as a lawyer but had completed the ADR unit (14 students), there was a significant difference in sense of belonging compared to those who were not planning to practise as a lawyer but hadn't completed the ADR unit. The responses of those students who had completed ADR showed a significantly higher sense of belonging than those of students who had not done the unit: t (70) = 2.07, p < 0.5.

The study: discussion

The results show that at the UWA Law School, students who have completed the ADR skills unit have a heightened sense of belonging to the School. Further, and perhaps more interestingly, those students who do not plan to practise as lawyers report a greater sense of belonging to the School if they have completed the ADR unit. This is an important result if, as it seems an increasing number of students enrol in the LLB for reasons other than that of practising law (although they may still seek admission).

There are some limitations to the study. Firstly, there was a relatively low response rate. The low response rate might have influenced the study results in that it might only have been those students who are already engaged with their studies and exhibit a high level of belongingness who responded to the survey. However, the range of responses to the sense of belonging and participation scales does not reflect this and the low response rate is probably mostly attributable to the busy time of the students' year and to the limited times that students use their student email addresses. Secondly, the internal consistencies of the attendance and participation scales were relatively low, thus rendering the results on these scales less robust than those on the belongingness scale were. Finally, it was not possible to restrict the survey to those who had completed the skills units at the same time in their degree (in order to control for the time lapses between having completed the optional units and the survey) or to survey the multitude of other variables that might have led to increased or decreased student engagement, for instance extra-curricula activities, membership of clubs and societies, the LLB workload, socio-economic circumstances to name but a few. Nevertheless, despite these limitations, the study presents some important findings.

Firstly, the study confirms, in part, the hypotheses or expectations generated by the informal feedback from students in the dispute resolution and negotiation skills units. It was expected however, that, as well as the ADR students, students who had completed the Negotiation and Mediation unit would also have exhibited a greater sense of belonging. That this was not the case could be attributed to the fact that the students in this unit are almost all final year students and that the 'euphoria' that follows the conclusion of an intensive week of learning and "bonding" does not translate to a long term feeling of belonging. Alternatively, it could be that by the time the students have reached the end of their studies, a sense of belongingness or alienation is either fully entrenched or no longer relevant and will not be overturned by one intensive skills unit.

In light of the study's limitations in relation to timing of completion of the optional units (electives), it would be beneficial to investigate the effect of undertaking skills units at different times in the LLB degree. The results of these further investigations might then show that the Negotiation and Mediation unit should be offered earlier in the curriculum to ensure that if there is an immediate effect of increased engagement for the students, that effect does not fade, or come too late for the students and for the Law School to benefit.

Secondly, it was a significant observation from the study that 27% of the students were not intending to practise as a lawyer when they graduate. These students do not participate in their classes to the extent that their peers do, but their sense of belonging is significantly increased if they participate in the ADR unit. It may be that the conflict resolution, negotiation and communication skills that are taught in the ADR unit are 'generic' skills with which these students are able to identify more readily and on a more interpersonal level. Further, the ADR unit incorporates a "small group" tutorial project, which might increase student-to-student interaction, which in turn might lead to the more positive feeling of belonging for these students. Future research could explore what it is about the ADR unit that leads students who have completed it to feeling a greater sense of belonging, and to see whether this could be replicated in other units at the Law School, whether a skills unit or otherwise.

Finally, it was clear that those students less than 25 years of age feel a greater sense of belonging to the Law School than their older peers. Although this was an expected result because this was the larger cohort of participants in the study, it might be important to consider this result when timetabling the ADR unit to ensure that the older students are given more opportunity to meet each other and to develop a feeling of acceptance and belonging at the School. Further, offering the ADR unit earlier in the curriculum might assist with creating a greater overall sense of belonging for the students at an earlier phase in their studies.


It is a satisfying result to know that by giving students at the UWA Law School the opportunity to participate in the learning of dispute resolution and negotiation skills, the School is also helping to improve the degree of student engagement at the school, particularly in relation to a sense of belongingness. Although it is sometimes a difficult task to incorporate skills units into a curriculum, these results indicate that it is well worth the effort.

The results of this study deepen our understanding of how the teaching and learning of skills can add to the students' enjoyment of the law school experience. Of all the optional units (electives) taught at the UWA Law School, the ADR unit incorporates the greatest number of those skills identified in the literature as integral to a balanced curriculum. The evidence from this study shows clearly the value of teaching dispute resolution, negotiation and communication skills and should encourage the School to continue moving towards a holistic teaching of law.


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Appendix 1: Student engagement survey

Sense of belongingThe UWA Law School has been a place where:I have felt like an outsider.
I have made friends easily.
I have felt as if I belong.
I have felt awkward and out of place.
Other students have seemed to like me.
I have felt lonely.
AttendanceHow many times in the previous two weeks of university have you:Skipped classes?
Skipped university altogether?
ParticipationDuring the past year at the UWA Law School I have:Participated fully in most of my classes.
Been bored in most of my classes.
Been prepared for most of my classes.
Mostly come to class without completing the readings.

Authors: Jill Howieson is the unit coordinator and a lecturer in Negotiation and Mediation, and Alternative Dispute Resolution at the University of Western Australia. Jill has practised as a solicitor in the area of dispute resolution and is an accredited mediator. Jill holds degrees in English, Psychology (Hons) and an LLB (Hons) and is currently mid way through a PhD in Law at UWA. Her research areas include procedural justice, alternative dispute resolution and legal education.

Professor William Ford has been Dean of the Law School at the University of Western Australia since January 2001. Bill has published widely in employment law, workplace relations law and public law, and teaches courses in those subjects at graduate and undergraduate level. As well as research interests in employment law and workplace relations, Bill also has an interest in legal education.

Faculty of Law, The University of Western Australia, 35 Stirling Highway, Crawley, WA 6009, Australia. Email: jill.howieson@uwa.edu.au

Please cite as: Howieson, J. & Ford, W. (2007). Teaching and learning skills: Increasing a sense of law school belongingness. In Student Engagement. Proceedings of the 16th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 30-31 January 2007. Perth: The University of Western Australia. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2007/refereed/howieson.html

Copyright 2007 Jill Howieson and William Ford. The authors assign to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.

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