Reinvigorating the case method by giving students ownership

Legal education: Taking the passivity out of lectures

 

The “My Favourite Case” section of “Law Matters” in The Irish Times often features leading academics and practitioners describing how compelling cases prompted them to engage critically with legal issues.

This type of approach to legal education is known as the “case method” and was developed at Harvard Law School over a hundred years ago.

The case method requires students to analyse how judges have applied the law to particular people with particular legal problems, instead of requiring them to learn an abstract list of legal rules. Though it has been criticised for attempting to make a science of law, it remains an important method of legal instruction.

When properly approached and constructed, it assists students by developing their ability to reason from first principles, distinguish between cases, reason by analogy, and reflect on the law in “hard cases”. Unfortunately, however, the case method is often employed as part of an exclusively didactic process whereby lecturers see themselves as the expert at the centre of the learning process, with passive students at the periphery.

A recent pilot project at NUI Galway, funded by the Explore (Innovation through Staff and Student Collaboration) Initiative, challenged that perspective.

We took the “case method” approach and attempted to re-invigorate it by placing students at the centre of the learning process. Using the various learning technologies available, students were tasked with recording and editing videos analysing their favourite legal cases.

The two cases chosen were R v. Dudley and Stephens (1884) and Salomon v. Salomon (1894).

In the case of Dudley and Stevens, sailors were convicted for killing and eating a cabin boy when they were shipwrecked at sea without food or water.

It established that necessity is not a defence to murder.

The case of Salomon documented a successful businessman’s fall from grace and it established that the company is an artificial legal person, separate and distinct from its shareholders and managers.

It is considered the cornerstone of company law.

Though these cases combine the broadest of dichotomies – civil and criminal law – they are both seminal cases on the defence of necessity and corporate personality. All law students must be familiar with these cases, which despite their long past have an evaluative and precedential currency that remains valid today.

Students took a variety of approaches in recording their video-notes on these cases. Some students sought to locate Salomon v. Salomon within its social, political and economic context or analyse it from a feminist perspective. Others took to the streets of Galway to determine public opinion on the facts of Dudley and Stephens, asking if they would convict people who resort to cannibalism to avoid starvation.

Despite the alternative medium by which students were required to carry out their assignment (this project was in lieu of an essay for the modules) many of the same skills were involved. Students were required to research the case and supporting materials, develop a distinct analysis of the case, and write a script for their videos.

Unlike an essay, however, students had to grapple with how best to realise their creative and visual goals. This meant creating storyboards, spending time recording in the studio and across various locations in Galway, and learning how to edit and produce their videos to a high standard.

While the project was focused on a small group of students, an important goal at the outset was to incorporate student’s work into the curriculum demonstrating that their work could contribute to class discussions as much as the scholarship of leading thinkers and theorists in the field.

Rather than the lecturer sitting at the front of the class adopting the traditional case method approach, these videos can now be presented in class and incorporated into lectures.

They complement rather than replace other methods of teaching, but their contribution is important because they place students at the centre of the learning process, allowing them to take ownership of their own learning.

l Sample student videos from the project can be viewed at iti.ms/10pWQbd or iti.ms/13yf09y

Dr Joe McGrath and Diarmuid Griffin are law lecturers at NUI Galway where they have been shortlisted for its President’s Team Award in Teaching Excellence