Criminal Law and Criminology is the core criminal law subject in the Bachelor of Criminal Justice degree. Over 12 weeks, students must gain a solid grounding in the elements of murder, manslaughter, assault, sexual assault, arrest powers and so on. This is contexualised against the background of understanding the law as a system of social control. It is a popular subject but also an academically challenging one. Contextualising student understanding through changing the teaching regime to a series of case studies has improved student engagement with the material over a two-year period.

What did it look like?

In 2016- 2017 the subject was taught in the traditional lecture / tutorial format over an 11-week semester covering Law and small case study examples. Working collegially with Steven Miles, lecturer at Law on the Port Macquarie campus, two new assessments were crafted and rolled out:

  • a legal problem scenario (20%), and
  • complex legal problem scenario (30%).
Mens rea word cloud

Each involved a case study that tested the students’ knowledge and application of the law. In the course of preparing students for these two challenging assessments and providing constructive feedback thereafter, it became apparent in the face-to-face student tutorials on both campuses, in anecdotal student feedback and through SES results that the students learned more from this exercise than the standard teaching format.   Q.20- What about this subject did you find most helpful in your learning? “The relevancy of case studies, and the perfect presentation of subjects in tutorials and lectures” – ((Student response 201830 SES results) “Applying case studies to the course material in order to understand the concept in real life situations.”- (Student response 201930 SES results)

Falling forward – a work in progress

To quote my colleague, Dr Charles Vandepeer,

any effort at developing something new requires a certain degree of falling forward – learning and adapting initial efforts before arriving at a strong solution.

The complex legal problem scenario (30% assessment task of 2016) is now a major two-week case study in the subject used to teach the law of homicide, robbery and armed robbery. Students are provided with both the legal problem scenario and scaffolded solutions so they can analyse the law in context and have a framework for solving problems using the IRAC (Issue Rule Analysis Conclusion) methodology.

The hook for students? The case study starts like this.

Tyson is an ICE drug addict. His supplier of ICE is Jenny and Tyson relies totally on Jenny to keep him regularly supplied in the drug. Jenny is currently in debt to the criminal gang that supplies her for a number of shipments of ICE that she has received from them which she has still not paid. The gang is threatening serious harm to Jenny if she does not pay them the significant amount of money that she owes them very soon. In order to procure at least some of the money that she owes the gang Jenny decides she will get Tyson to hold up and rob a liquor shop for her. Jenny tells Tyson that he must rob the local liquor shop. She says that she will drive him there and then drive him away after he has robbed the shop. Jenny also tells Tyson that if he does not do as she asks of him she will not supply him with anymore ICE. Tyson agrees…

Given a number of students are now undertaking double degree studies in the Bachelor of Criminal Justice and Bachelor of Laws, this promotes sound legal analysis and builds skill sets in legal thinking. For Criminal Justice students, it promotes critical problem-solving and provides an exemplar for the other major case studies that students will undertake throughout the rest of the semester.

How can I make this happen?

A level of realism and self-analysis in teaching requires considering assessment and teaching collectively rather than separately. In the course of developing a new assessment, or reviewing an old assessment as a tertiary teacher, it is worthwhile considering whether the assessment may be better suited for teaching purposes rather than analysis and evaluation.

In the author’s case, this decision was arrived at collegially within the subject team and after consideration of student feedback. It had the unexpected consequence of also emboldening us to redevelop the subject design entirely around case studies.