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Lecturer's advice

In this section, one of your lecturers - Brendan Sweeney - answers Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about researching and writing assignments in first-year Commercial Law.

FAQs: Click on those topic areas that are of interest to you, or that you need to know more about.

Objectives

  1. What are you hoping to achieve in setting the main assignment?
  2. What do you hope students will gain from the experience of researching and writing it?
  3. In the preparation of their assignments, what aspects of the course (content covered, skills, etc.) would you expect students to draw on?

Assessment

  1. What are your main considerations when assessing assignments?

Perception of performance

  1. What in your experience are some of the main difficulties first-year students have with commercial law assignments?
  2. Which of these would you say are of a more generic nature (e.g. structuring paragraphs) and which specifically relate to writing in your discipline?

Reading requirements

  1. Students are often uncertain about the amount and type of reading they need to do for a university assignment. What are your expectations in this regard for a first-year commercial law assignment?

Transition issues

  1. Do you have any sense of how the writing requirements of VCE compare with the type of writing required in your course? What transitions do you think students need to make?

Advice

  1. If you were to give students three simple pieces of advice as they prepare to do an assignment in your subject, what would these be?


1. What are you hoping to achieve in setting the main assignment?

The aim of this assignment is:

  1. To test the student's ability to apply the skills learnt in lectures and tutorials to a problem without the aid of extensive guidance
  2. To provide students with the opportunity to cover one aspect of contract law in more detail

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2. What do you hope students will gain from the experience of researching and writing it?

  1. Knowledge from the research
  2. Practice in applying conceptual principles to solve a practical problem
  3. Confidence from being required to submit a solution without guidance

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3. In the preparation of their assignments, what aspects of the course (content covered, skills, etc.) would you expect students to draw on?

  1. Analytical skills
  2. Preparation of coherent written opinion
  3. Note: quality research skills are not really required for this assignment

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4. What are your main considerations when assessing assignments?

  1. Application of the relevant rules to resolve the issues
  2. Ability to reach a reasoned conclusion
  3. Relevance of material
  4. Presentation (mainly the coherence of the argument, but also other factors such as clarity of expression)

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5. What in your experience are some of the main difficulties first-year students have with Commercial Law assignments?

  1. Failure to identify the issue properly. Failure to understand the notion of arguing by analogy. Students spend hours looking for a situation that is exactly the same as the one given. However, perhaps we shouldn't overstate this as a problem. If a student comes to the realization during the course of the assignment that what matters is the core issue not the superficial facts, then they have learnt a key lesson.
  2. Fear of writing. This is particularly true of international students.
  3. Fear of committing themselves to a solution. This may be particularly true of some international students who may be used to a system of assessment based on repeating precisely what they have been taught. They are uncomfortable expressing a conclusion that has not already been approved by the teacher.

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6. Which of these would you say are of a more generic nature (e.g. structuring paragraphs) and which specifically relate to writing in your discipline?

Essentially they are all generic. However, they are often dressed up as problems with Law. Students have a notion that there is some secret to writing in Law and if only we would give them the secret all would be clear. This is just not true.

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7. Students are often uncertain about the amount and type of reading they need to do for a university assignment. What are your expectations in this regard for a first-year commercial law assignment?

Our problem is based on testing their analytical skills rather than their research skills. Therefore, we do not expect much reading beyond the text. The test lies in their ability to reason. However, this puts us in a dilemma. We don't want to state outright that we do not want - or expect - students to do some reading beyond the text. We do however stress that the key to the assignment (and indeed to the subject) is how students go about solving the problem and not about the depth of research.

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8. Do you have any sense of how the writing requirements of VCE compare with the type of writing required in your course? What transitions do you think students need to make?

I have to say that I am no expert on the VCE. However, I do understand that frequently the CATS were based on written work that was edited and re-edited many times following assessment by the teacher. This is clearly quite differently from what we expect. I note that a common complaint from students is that tutors are instructed not to help them with their assignment. This is absolutely true. On the other hand, the tutor is there to answer questions. The tutors will most certainly answer conceptual difficulties the students are having. However, many students really just want to be told what the answer is, or whether their answer is correct.

Having said this it must be remembered that we get some very good answers that would certainly not be misplaced in a Law school.

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9. If you were to give students three simple pieces of advice as they prepare to do an assignment in your subject, what would these be?

  • Begin early.
  • Focus properly - look at the assignment as an analytical problem, not a research exercise.
  • Read the assignment aloud to someone. If it doesn't seem to make sense, then it is probably not going to get many marks when we read it.

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