By Charlotte Luckhurst and Liz Hardie
Most students studying law at The Open University study 60 credits a year (equivalent to part-time study). However, the numbers of students choosing to study law at full-time intensity (120 credits a year) has increased sharply year on year, from 4.5% in 12-13 to 24.3% in 20-21. This culminated in record high numbers during 2019-20 and 2020-21 cohorts. It is speculated that the principal reason for the recent upturn is the pandemic, with individuals having more time for study due to being on furlough or unemployed, having fewer leisure time activities or less commuting due to home working. Whatever the cause, the data on student attainment reveals that full-time study has a detrimental overall impact on student success and students studying at full-time intensity have a lower pass rate than students studying at part-time intensity.
It was with this attainment gap in mind that the project team, based in the OU Law School, decided to pilot a programme of support specifically designed to cater for the needs of full-time law students, and to promote a sense of community that they might have encountered had they been studying full-time at a conventional / brick university, albeit in an online environment (Thomas, 2012).
What we did
The approach of the project team was to use a mix of tried and tested asynchronous and synchronous methods and some innovative approaches to pilot the support for full-time students to run throughout the 2020-21 presentation. We engaged three tutors to provide support to students at each of the levels of undergraduate study. The support consisted of an online forum with the aim of developing discussions appropriate to each level and to promote online communities of students at each of the levels. The tutors also collaborated to design and run a programme of interactive drop-in sessions covering a variety of academic and employability skills, with guest speakers from the faculty and student body.
We then carried out an evaluation of the pilot using a mix of methods including a student survey of around 90 students, focus groups and tutor interviews to ascertain the value and impact of the pilot in relation to its aims.
The project team acknowledges that the research methods had some limitations, principally that it was not possible to distinguish between full-time and part-time students when generating the sample for the survey. This mirrors one of the main challenges we encountered for the duration of the project: communications to students about the forums and drop-in sessions could not be targeted at the students at whom the project was aimed because of system constraints which meant that it was impossible to generate lists of full-time intensity students.
Nevertheless, an analysis of the qualitative data generated from the survey, focus groups and interviews allowed the project team to make some general findings relating to students’ perceptions of the support provided to full-time intensity learners.
First, it is clear that the student respondents felt the drop-in sessions to be of value to them. Feedback was overwhelmingly positive from those who participated. On the other hand, it was also apparent that many of the students who were studying full-time simply could not make time to engage with these events, nor with the online forum, because of the intensity of their workload coupled with the fact that many of these students also worked and/or had caring responsibilities.
As far as the forum was concerned, this was not widely appreciated by tutors or students. The forum was perceived by tutors and students to be a static and moribund tool. This may reflect the increasing preference for students to use newer technologies for collaborating and communicating, including social media, in preference to institutional learning spaces (de Freitas and Conole, 2010).
The data also revealed that while students appreciated the level of tutor support they received from their module tutors, and the efforts made by the three dedicated tutors to provide additional support, they felt a sense of isolation as a result of the challenges presented by full-time study. Some respondents felt that they would have benefited from some advice and guidance from students who were already studying full-time and sharing experiences of coping strategies. There were a notable number of comments on the effect of full-time study combined with domestic responsibilities upon mental health and wellbeing. It is possible this is largely attributable to the circumstances of the pandemic. Nevertheless, it suggests that students would benefit from more mental health support in general, but not necessarily as a result of their chosen mode of study.
Recommendations and next steps
The module team have not yet been able to complete a statistical analysis of the project, and this will be completed in the next few months once the module presentations are all completed. Nevertheless, the project team have carefully considered the initial findings, mindful of the limitations of the sampling of respondents, and have formulated some initial recommendations to address the issues noted above.
- We will explore with colleagues in Professional Services whether it is possible to gather data on students by study intensity.
- Dedicated threads and discussions will be started for full-time intensity students studying from October 2021 on existing forum and discussion boards, such as the law subject site forum, to encourage students studying at full-time intensity to provide peer support to each other.
- Discussions have started with the student Faculty Open University Students Association representative for business and law about other existing student communication channels where students could be encouraged to provide peer support.
- The findings from this project have contributed to the design of a proposed Law School Belonging project, where online student sessions will be provided to all students on a variety of topics with opportunities for student-led coffee events on specific issues, such as full-time intensity study.
- The Law School mentoring project will be asked to consider whether the project could be extended to full-time intensity students.
- Full-time intensity joint study planners will be available to all law and joint degree students on the law subject site from October 2021, and a review of the supporting materials for students studying 90+ credits on the law subject site will be completed in the next academic year to take into account the findings from this project.
De Freitas, S. and Conole, G. (2010) ‘The Influence of Pervasive and Integrative Tools on Learners’ Experiences and Expectations of Study’, in Sharpe, R., Beetham, H. and de Freitas, S. (eds.) Rethinking Learning for a Digital Age. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 15-30.
Thomas, L. (2012) Building student engagement and belonging in Higher Education at a time of change London: Paul Hamlyn Foundation.
Charlotte Luckhurst has been a Student Experience Manager in Law and Business and an Associate Lecturer in Law since 2019. Prior to that, she led Law Programmes at a business school and was a module leader and lecturer in public law, human rights and employment law. Having studied as a mature student herself, Charlotte is passionate about supporting students in a widening participation environment and supporting students of all ages and backgrounds to achieve their study goals.
Liz Hardie is a lecturer and Teaching Director of the Open University Law School, having previously worked as a Student Experience Manager for the Law School since 2010. She has worked for the Open Justice Centre since 2016, supporting law students to carry out pro bono projects both as part of their law degree and on an extra curricular basis. She is particularly interested in online learning and the use of technology in legal education.
Liz has tutored for the OU since 2006. Before working for the OU Liz originally qualified as a solicitor and specialised in family and employment claims.
This blog represents the views of the individual, not SCiLAB or the Open University.