Students Staff

13 October 2015

Miscarriage of Justice Project

Richard Owen, Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Essex shares an update on his TALIF-funded Miscarriage of Justice project…

What is the Miscarriage of Justice Project at Essex?

Simulated crime scene

Students learn how evidence can be contaminated at a simulated crime scene at City of London police station

The Miscarriage of Justice Project, launched in the 2014/15 academic year with the assistance of a Teaching and Learning Innovation Fund (TALIF) grant, is an interdisciplinary project involving both law and criminology students and runs under the auspices of the Essex Law Clinic.  The students have been working with lawyers, forensic scientists, campaigners, journalists and psychologists on a murder case where the client has exhausted his appeals against his murder conviction but there remains doubt over the conviction’s safety.   Law students were able to be involved on an accredited or extracurricular basis.

The case was referred to us by the charity, Inside Justice, and students have been dealing with issues relating to forensic science, witness identification, and points of evidence.  The TALIF grant was invaluable in funding an induction programme which enabled students to understand the underlying issues quickly.   Induction activities included a simulated crime scene, which was held at City of London police station.

Student learning

This practical exercise gave students an insight into how evidence can be contaminated in its journey from the crime scene to the courtroom.

The first task was to create a timeline of provable events.  We initially used the judge’s summing up to work out the key events and then started drilling down into other documentation to see how it could be fleshed out.  Once we had this overview we then decided on appropriate lines of inquiry and forwarded our suggestions to Inside Justice and the client for their feedback and their preferences for prioritisation.

We made a site visit to the spot where the victim’s body had been found.  This was easier said than done as the body had been found on farmland which was part of a huge farm.  It took two days of enlarging sections from Ordinance Survey maps and cross checking with the case papers before we were quite sure we had pinpointed the exact spot.

Site visit

The students visit the site where a body was found as part of their learning

Students were then assigned their lines of inquiry and would meet weekly to discuss progress and report anything else their investigations had discovered which might be of assistance to students working on different areas.

Finally, students drafted submissions to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (the CCRC) based on the results of their investigations in an attempt to get the case reopened.  These draft submissions have been sent to the client’s representatives and the case is currently in the CCRC’s pending file.  It should be heard in about eight months’ time.

Student feedback

Student feedback was very positive.  They particularly valued working on a real case.  One student wrote an entry for the Inside Justice website saying it was the best legal education experience that she had ever had.  Two students are continuing to volunteer over the summer and one has found part-time paid employment as a direct result of her involvement in the project.

Outcomes and benefits

In addition to the academic benefits of seeing the ‘law in action’ as opposed to the ‘law in books’ one of the striking features of the project is how it has enhanced students’ employability.  They developed invaluable skills of document management which will transfer to civil, as well as criminal, litigation.  They had to think carefully about issues such as client confidentiality and, above all, they learnt a lot about teamwork.  Working in interdisciplinary teams made them more conscious about how they could best contribute to the team’s efforts in order to advance the client’s case.

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6 October 2015

Flipping the Classroom in Teaching Conflict Resolution

Han Dorussen and Theodora-Ismene Gizelis from the Department of Government at the University of Essex describe their experience of ‘flipping’ classroom lectures in Conflict Resolution and share their conclusions and advice for effective ‘inverted teaching’.

Turning learning on its head

Conflict Resolution Seminar

Conflict resolution students making good use of class time

Flipped classroom is an increasingly used method of on-line assisted teaching. It is also known as ‘inverted teaching’ or ‘blended learning’, or even—and in our opinion somewhat inaccurately—as ‘peer instruction’. It combines the on-line delivery of lectures with in-class seminars and activities. Flipped classroom allows students to become active learners, absorb information at their own pace and then work through the material and its applications in the classroom.

What’s different about flipped classroom?

Whereas traditionally, students are expected to read and prepare for the lectures ‘at home’, flipped classroom allows students to watch actual lectures outside the university.  These are delivered as relatively short – in our case, three 15 – 25 minute each – videos covering key topics, concepts and ideas.

Apart from watching the videos, students are still expected to study assigned readings. Seminars are reserved for further explanations, answering questions and discussions, and applying analytical tools. During the seminars, students have time to prepare (or finish) presentations and assignments and engage in other activities such as simulations.

Using flipped classroom in humanities and social sciences

In 2014 we were awarded a Teaching and Learning Innovative Fund (TALIF) grant for developing flipped classroom in one of the core post-graduate modules – in Conflict Resolution – in the Department of Government.

In this module we combine academic content—covering standard topics such as causes of conflict, theories of negotiations and mediation, peacekeeping and state-building—with more practical elements such as group exercises, presentations and different types of simulations.

Our initial goal was to build on the existing strengths of the module and use flipped classroom to provide content and material for self-study in advance of lectures via a combination of 30-45 minutes lecture videos, articles and web material, thus maximizing the time available for practical work in seminars.

Implementing flipped classroom

Making the videos was very time consuming. It was necessary to rewrite existing lectures to ‘fit’ the video format. Most importantly, the videos needed to be quite short. As is generally known, the maximum time span for attention in regular lectures is about 20 minutes. If anything, it seemed to be shorter for the on-line videos. This may have been because of the format—students generally watch the videos from a small screen—or because there are more distractions at home compared to the classroom situation. Devices used to watch the videos are, of course, also a source of distraction with frequent incoming messages.

We posted the videos (alongside other supportive materials) on a dedicated Moodle page. The videos were assigned to particular weeks and only became available about five days before the relevant seminar. Access was restricted to students who were actually enrolled on the module. Moodle provided us with statistics about the students who had (or had not) opened the videos. (Of course, this did not necessarily mean that they had actually watched them!)

Since it was crucial that students engaged with the videos (and readings), we added small quizzes to follow each film. These included multiple-choice questions about the material covered in the videos and relevant readings. Students could only open the next video, if they ‘passed’ the quiz – they were allowed two attempts – and received a small contribution mark for doing so. Following the seminar, videos were opened to all registered students.

Did you mind being flipped? Student feedback…

Somewhat to our surprise, students really appreciated the on-line quizzes. They quickly became an important part of our lecturing because they allow us to identify the problems students have early on. They function similarly to asking questions during the lectures. Whereas students are often reluctant to respond to questions in public (and weaker students tend to be even more reluctant), the on-line quizzes don’t present this barrier. The feedback that we received via the quizzes guided us in the seminars. It also helped us to identify students who were struggling with the material, and to invite them for additional tutoring.

The benefits of flipped classroom

Apart from some inevitable teething problems, our experience of teaching in a flipped classroom format has been positive. It allows for more teacher-student interaction and students appear to be better prepared when they come to the seminars. There are also some unanticipated benefits, in particular the ability of identifying ‘weak’ students by means of on-line quizzes.

When asked about the main benefits for them, students emphasized the additional time for activities in the seminars. They also expected seminar activities, such as the simulations, to be relevant for ‘real life situations’. Most of them looked forward to the addition interaction with fellow students. There was also a generally positive attitude towards using new technologies: ‘new experience, more fun’. Of course, most students could also identify some potential problems. A few people were worried about technical aspects or being easily distracted when watching the videos at home. The most common concern was, however, ‘can’t ask questions when we watch videos at home’.

Top tips for effective flipped classroom

We found videos should have a clear ‘take-home message’ and it works best if you explain a concept or a specific argument. It is much more difficult to communicate effectively in a short video contrasting approaches (such ‘realist’ and ‘liberal’ approaches to mediation) or highly technical models (such as a bargaining game). As all teaching, videos benefit from focusing on topical and engaging examples, but events (and our understanding of these events) may change quickly. Of course, it also takes time for lecturers to get used to being taped.

Videos need to be edited carefully to make sure that they are presented clearly, requiring the involvement of professional staff. However, the format allows for a lot of creativity if you have the budget. It’s possible to include moving images or to present from more imaginative locations than the lecture room. It is possible to include short interviews, turning the videos into mini-documentaries.

Conflict resolution students conducting a simulation

Our students conducting a simulation

And then there is the question of what to do with the additional seminar time freed up by the flipped lectures. All we would say is that it is vital to use this time effectively and to tailor the content of these group sessions to reflect the experience the students have had with the videos.

In summary…

The format does require a significant investment from the lecturers (and support from their HEI). Moreover, it is becoming increasingly clear to us that continuing to use flipped classroom will require us to keep investing. In short, from a teacher/university perspective, the flipped classroom would appear to be an effective but not necessarily cost efficient way of teaching.

To read more about Han and Ismene’s flipped classroom project, click here.

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