Learning, teaching and assessment of law in social work education

Key messages from Knowledge Review 08: How should law be taught?

Discrete or integrated?

One key question is whether law should be organised within discrete, separate modules of learning, or whether legal content should be integrated within other aspects of the curriculum. Related to this is the question of when law learning should take place - at what stage in the programme, and (in relation to academic modules) before or after placement.

Debates in the literature are played out in practice. Generally, the favoured approach to teaching law, at least initially, is through discrete modules. Educators commonly locate a module of law learning early in the programme, to be followed at later stages by law content revisited during other specialist modules addressing, for example, child care or adult services. A commonly held view is that although legal frameworks for service provision should be encountered by students prior to engaging in practice learning, greater understanding is achieved if law is taught, or at least revisited, after a period of practice.

Experts by experience felt strongly that whether discrete or integrated teaching methods were used, law should be encountered by students throughout the programme, rather than taught in just one year, and should be linked with skills in working with people, rather than seen as an isolated slice of knowledge. There are a number of perceived benefits to both discrete and infused methods of learning law.

Benefits of discrete teaching

  • Provides a solid foundation of knowledge that is recognisably 'law’
  • Tunes students in to law as a discipline and source of knowledge for social work
  • Gives greater controls over the content of law learning
  • Enables explicit focus on acquiring and using legal knowledge
  • Helps to allay students’ anxieties about understanding
  • Draws on specialist teaching expertise
  • Enables law learning to be separately assessed

Benefits of integrated teaching

  • Ensures legal rules are understood in their social and professional context
  • Facilitates more immediate links with practice
  • Presents law as more relevant to the aims or purposes of social work intervention
  • Ensures law is 'joined up’ with other sources of knowledge that affect practice
  • Encourages all tutors, regardless of subject area, to engage with law as part of their subject
  • Responds to adult learning principles of 'utility’

Problems of discrete teaching

  • Challenges students’ stamina and perseverance
  • Content can become dry and divorced from practice
  • Information is difficult to digest and to apply to practice
  • Discourages students from seeking law learning elsewhere in the programme

Problems of integrated teaching

  • Technical knowledge of the law may be given insufficient emphasis
  • Risks dilution of and loss of focus on law content
  • Allows students to avoid engaging fully with law
  • Law learning may be difficult to assess

Alignment of teaching and learning methods

There are two key objectives for educators in choosing methods to promote social work students’ law learning. The first is to demystify law and deal with students’ anxieties about the subject. The second is to enhance its perceived practice relevance. Students approach law learning with apprehension, even fear, perceiving it as specialist, riddled with technical jargon and difficult to understand. Conversely, they expect it to give clear answers to problems encountered in practice, and are disappointed to find it containing as many shades of grey as any other element of the curriculum. Educators are aware of students’ fears, and their tendency to find law more difficult than other aspects of the social work curriculum. Making law accessible, and allaying anxiety, is a key objective. Equally, drawing from principles of adult learning, there is a strong emphasis in law teaching for social workers on ensuring that material is perceived as relevant to professional roles and tasks.

Both these objectives give rise to different forms of alignment in teaching and learning, informing educators’ approaches and choice of methods on programmes.

Alignment between learning outcomes and methods

Virtually all programmes make use of lectures and small group exercises, with an expectation that students engage in independent individual study. Commonly, use is also made of tutor or student-led seminars, independent group work and simulation exercises.

Lectures are seen as an efficient way of delivering accurate core knowledge and of having a degree of control over what is taught, even if this may not equate with knowing what is learned. Students may be expected to undertake reading or research in preparation for the topic of a lecture. Use is made of aids to learning such as algorithms, decision trees and charts, which students can use as 'maps’ when absorbing the finer details of legislation and when working through case studies. These typically break decisions down into a sequence, or gather together and present coherently information from a range of sources.

However, there is a range of other methods available, and reported in the literature (for references see Braye and Preston-Shoot et al, 2005, p 26).


Use of case law

Case studies, critical incidents, problem-based learning

Readings and source materials

Video and use of films

Project work, social action work

Research, library tasks


Role play, simulation exercises

Use of web, computer-assisted learning

Distance learning and use of workbooks

Scenarios, extended case studies

Critical legal education

Student presentations

Service user accounts



To illustrate legal reasoning and to show that case law is not unambiguous or univocal

To analyse issues, locate law and integrate it with practice

To locate legal rules and the discourse surrounding them

To develop observation and practice skills

To plan, participate in and evaluate an intervention

To find cases and statutes, to gain research confidence

To experience legal proceedings

To develop practice knowledge and skills, for example through mock courts or tribunals

To develop research skills and knowledge

To enable students to access law learning

To identify legal issues and develop decisionmaking skills, to work through dilemmas

To join policy and practice and apply law to 'everyday’ situations

To link knowledge with practice, to research topics, and to communicate professional role to others

To hear and reflect on how service users and carers experience the law in action

To develop reflection

Students have mixed views about different forms of learning, seeing pros and cons in each:

Case study discussions:

  • make the law seem more 'real’
  • enable students to draw more on their own practice experience
  • give the opportunity to consider legal knowledge alongside other influences on practice


  • present 'hard knowledge’ in a tangible form
  • give more structured information
  • are better suited to the early stages of learning about the subject

A plea from students was not to be left, following case study work, with a set of unanswered questions or issues. They were keen for tutors to provide 'model answers’, which at least showed a recommended method of case analysis.

One key feature on some programmes is the notion of students needing to 'learn how to learn’ about the law. If it is intended that students develop the ability to find and update legal knowledge independently, then activities in which they engage in independent legal research will support this aim more effectively than a sole emphasis on knowledge delivered through taught input or directed independent reading. While the number of programmes using solely approaches based on action and enquiry learning was very small, it is not uncommon for educators to use aspects of 'problem-based’ approaches as part of a sequence of law learning. Students who have engaged in this type of research, particularly where it has been well supported by guidelines on how to research legal content, regard their learning outcomes as worth all the hard work they invest.

e-Learning was used by slightly less than half of all programmes, but is clearly a developing field, particularly in Scotland and, more recently, elsewhere in the UK. Programmes may make use of computer-assisted learning packages, web-based learning and virtual learning environments. Respondents to Waldman and colleagues (2005) identified law as one priority for the development of e-learning materials, focusing particularly on court skills, child care law and a general introduction to law and legal systems.

Perceived advantages of e-learning

  • Encourages and stimulates student-centred learning
  • Helps develop problem-solving abilities
  • Helps students keep up to date with changing legislation and policy
  • Enables tutors to respond directly to individual students
  • Encourages debate
  • Facilitates formative assessment
  • Facilitates self-evaluation by students
  • Students can work at their own pace
  • Knowledge can be consolidated through repetition
  • Students like it

Alignment between levels

A second form of alignment relates to the progression of learning through levels of a programme. In many cases, law appears at various stages of the programmes, in more than one year or in more than one module, with tutors demonstrating sensitivity to the notion of developing sophistication.

This typically involves an emphasis on locating building blocks of core knowledge early, to enable more sophisticated knowledge and skills to be developed later on. This supports the notion that students might gain a little knowledge about a broad range of law, followed by more in-depth knowledge of a restricted range.

Ways of demonstrating progression of learning in law

Early stages of learning

  • Tutor-led lectures
  • Discrete law modules
  • Assessment of knowledge
  • Description of legal frameworks
  • Knowing what the legal rules provide, allow or require
  • Deductive approaches, applying theory to practice

Later stages of learning

  • Student-led presentations or seminars
  • Law learning integrated with other aspects of curriculum
  • Assessment of application to practice
  • Critical analysis and evaluation
  • Knowing why and how to apply the legal rules
  • Inductive approaches, building understanding from practice

Alignment with practice

In the search for practice alignment, teaching routinely covers not just the content of specific legal rules, but also the context of professional decision making in which they will be applied. Wide use is made of a number of different approaches, all of which seek to enhance alignment between knowledge and skills in its application in practice.

The use of case studies, to which students must apply legal knowledge by indicating how legal frameworks would affect what is done and why, is commonplace. At their most detailed, these approaches involve problem-based learning approaches, in which all the relevant knowledge content, including law, must be identified and researched by students. More common is the use of short case scenarios, either as part of lectures or seminars, which illustrate the type of situations in which legal knowledge and skills are required.

Ways of enhancing the practice relevance of law learning

  • Case studies describing situations encountered in practice, from which students must work inductively to seek relevant legal frameworks
  • Debating exercises where students research and present different sides of a legal issue and the conflicting imperatives that impact on practice (for example the use of compulsory powers to admit someone to psychiatric hospital)
  • Simulated court work exercise
  • Project work, researching law that is relevant to a given situation
  • Study of case law that has arisen in the context of a specific situation

A number of programmes use court workshop exercises to train students in working within court systems. Such workshops vary in length from several hours to several days, and commonly take place in a working court, and involve legal practitioners taking the legal roles. A key aim is to give students a realistic experience of the language and culture of such settings. There were, however, no examples given of skills practice in other settings, such as complaints hearings or resource panels, where practitioners may need to use verbal presentation skills to argue a case within a legal framework.

Experts by experience were adamant that all students should have training in court work skills, given the importance and impact of such processes on far-reaching decisions about their lives. They want practitioners who are skilled in advocating for their rights and challenging agency practices that are not lawful.

Law in practice placement

One of the key findings is the neglect of social work students' law learning while on practice placement. Only a minority of programmes set any law-related learning objectives for students on placement, and there are concerns about how consistently students encounter the law in placement agencies. Students were concerned to find that agency procedures were givenmore emphasis than the legal framework itself, and were sometimes shocked at the lack of knowledge and awareness of law shown by some agency colleagues. They found out-of-date policy and procedures being used, and had difficulty accessing legal information.

Practice teachers share students' apprehension, in terms of both their own knowledge and their ability to promote students' learning in the area of law on placement. Voluntary organisations and adult services settings were thought to be less likely to provide good law learning opportunities than child care or mental health settings. Equally, however, there was a view that the profile of law in a number of agencies left much to be desired. Some practice teachers expressed concern that performance targets were what mattered most to managers in local authorities, and that fear of failing to achieve these outweighed fear of potential legal challenge for unlawful practice. This gave rise to tensions in the practice teaching role. Some practice teachers felt their role was to encourage students to live with the reality of what was feasible in practice, while others felt they should encourage students to identify and challenge practice that arguably fell short of legal requirements.

The failure to carry law learning into placement represents a major missed opportunity to consolidate, reinforce and extend understanding of this aspect of the curriculum and to reinforce alignment with practice. As one student commented: "You can learn some of it in classes, but it is not until you’re actually doing it, and you’re in the situation, that you can understand it. Seeing it in practice makes it real”.

Key messages from students on how law should be taught

  • Take student learning styles into account, adopting a variety of methods, so that students encounter law at least some of the time in a format they can absorb
  • Ensure some standard of coverage of law in practice placements
  • Integrate service user and carer perspectives on law in practice
  • Encourage critical debate about the law, in the same way as in other areas of the curriculum - this enhances its perceived compatibility with social work
  • Help students develop legal research skills - this gives confidence that learning can be kept up to date