Learning, teaching and assessment of law in social work education

Key messages from Knowledge Review 08: How should students be assessed?

The concept of alignment is also seen as important in relation to assessment. It impacts on education practice in two major ways. First is the view that the method of assessment should test whether the sought learning outcomes have been achieved. So, if factual knowledge acquisition, application to practice and critical analysis all formed part of the desired learning outcomes, they should all be evidenced in assessment. Second, the notion of alignment with practice requires that assessment should test legal knowledge and competence in ways that mirror how they are used in practice and reflect the judgements and activities in which practitioners engage.

Assessment tasks that test application of knowledge in practice

  • Essays based on analysis of hypothetical case studies
  • Essays based on analysis of real case studies drawn from students’ practice
  • Oral presentation of legal information relevant to a given scenario
  • Assessed project work involving legal research

Programmes use a combination of methods of assessment. Law learning is most commonly assessed through coursework, but examinations figure in a significant minority of programmes, sometimes alongside coursework as part of a composite assessment. Coursework might include a range of different types of assignment.

Coursework assignments

  • Commentaries on hypothetical case studies
  • Case analyses of real situations encountered in practice
  • Essays on aspects of the legal framework
  • Assessed student-led seminars or presentations
  • Law project work, perhaps involving students undertaking activities external to the university environment.

Case study approaches are the most common, and case studies also feature strongly in examinations, alongside other types of test.

Examination content

  • Commentaries on hypothetical case studies
  • Essays on aspects of the legal framework
  • Multiple choice questions
  • Short answer papers

All types of examination had their advocates - those involving prior sight of the questions (seen papers), and those distributed at the start of the test (unseen papers), those in which students may use resources during the test (open book), and those to be answered from memory (closed book).

Seen papers

  • Allow students to engage in targeted research on relevant topics
  • Test their use of sources and ability to integrate information over time
  • Allow students to learn from each other whilst preparing

Unseen papers

  • Test the ability quickly to identify key legal issues
  • Test the application of relevant knowledge to problem-solving under time constraints
  • Test individual understanding rather than collaborative preparation

Open book

  • Set a test more akin to practice, where resources will be available
  • Test whether students can use resources for accurate information
  • Reinforce learning by ensuring the correct legal frameworks are used

Closed book

  • Test the ability to apply knowledge from memory to situations requiring quick action
  • The most robust way of verifying that work is the student’s own

Different forms of assessment are seen as presenting a range of advantages and disadvantages.


  • Replicates practice reality - the need to identify and apply information gathered and synthesised over time
  • Avoids assessment being seen as a memory test
  • Allows opportunity for the development of reflection and critical analysis
  • Enhances opportunity for links to be made with other areas of the curriculum


  • Test essential and precise factual knowledge
  • Create a motive for students to retain knowledge
  • Test time management and the ability to work under pressure
  • Controlled conditions guard against plagiarism, as submissions can be clearly identified as the student’s own work

Regardless of whether located in coursework or examinations, certain forms of assessment are viewed as providing particular alignment opportunities or challenges.

A further consideration is whether assessment should cover a wide range of knowledge or whether students may select and specialise in the focus of material on which they are assessed. England, Wales and Northern Ireland differ from Scottish social work degree programmes, emphasising the requirement for breadth of understanding.

The timing of assessment is also important. Students tend to support the view that being assessed in law either during or after they have undertaken at least one practice placement gives them an opportunity to demonstrate a more rounded and informed perspective.

Overall it was common for programmes to use mixed method assessment of law, perhaps an examination in one year, followed by essays or case studies later. This was linked overtly by some to the required development in students’ learning from knowledge acquisition, through application, to evaluation and critical analysis. By others it was linked to the need to test different levels of learning: surface layers (technical knowledge), application, conceptual and deep learning that would enable students to adapt their understanding when technical knowledge changed as the legal framework developed. However, it was more common for assessment to test factual knowledge and application to practice than critical analysis of the legal framework or its contribution to rights-based practice.