Increasing student engagement with complex material during lectures

Dr Hélène Tyrrell, Lecturer in Law

Newcastle Law School

Humanities and Social Sciences

What did you do?

I implemented a successful change to an aspect of our core undergraduate lectures.

The topic was Judicial Review, quite a difficult subject that the students can find to be dry. It was my personal challenge to revamp this section when I took it over this year. Mainly, I wanted to tackle a common weakness: a lack of engagement with primary materials (legislation and court judgments). My idea was to get students engaging with these materials in the lectures.

Who is involved?

Dr Hélène Tyrrell, Lecturer in Law

First year undergraduate students

Dr Tyrrell smiling and receiving Law Teacher of the Year Award

Dr Hélène Tyrrell receiving Law Teacher of the year award at the Northern Law Awards 2018

How do you do it?

The main thing that I focused on was engaging the students in working cases (court judgments). I rewrote the lectures to build in time for students to read extracts from the cases during the lecture. Asking students to work this way in lectures was a bit of a risk as deviating from the traditional lecture model (where students learn passively) has been unpopular in the past.

Given this risk, I told the students at the start of the lecture series that this was going to be a different way of learning for them and gave them my reasons for doing it this way. I told them that I was taking a risk here but that I thought they could handle it. I think that got them to buy in to the challenge.

In the end, it worked really well. Every lecture had some reading time staggered through so that students had to find the key principles or identify the reasoning behind the legal rule. I did this with legislation (statute) as well. For what it’s worth, I think that breaking up the lectures in this way also had the happy side-effect of varying the pace of the lecture and this seemed to help with student concentration levels.

Why do you do it?

Due to the difficulty of the subject I wanted to revamp the way it was taught ensuring that the students had the chance to engage fully with the cases and difficult content. Studying Law requires students to be critical, analytical and to demonstrate a deep understanding of complex legal texts. Many students struggle with these skills, particularly in the early stages of study.  I hoped that this approach would help to address this by building in practice time and thus demystifying these materials.

I had also tried something similar during the PARTNERS summer school in 2017 where I re-designed the curriculum to get widening participation students focusing on one long and complex case: Miller v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union [2017] UKSC 5. Approaching it this way led to encouraging results with students demonstrating a good understanding of the case and an ability to take part in a level of discussion that would not normally be expected at their stage of study.

Does it work?

The success or failure of the change could then be measured in the following ways.

  • The topic is the subject of the assessed coursework. Therefore I was able to compare the results of the coursework submitted this year with last year, see the figures below. This was a very positive outcome. All the coursework markers and the external examiner also commented on the high quality of the assignments. In particular, we had a lot more engagement with the primary materials (leading to higher analytical quality) than in previous essays from this cohort or in previous cohorts’ attempts at the assessed coursework.

Graph showing mark split for undergraduate students last year. There were 233 essays submitted and the average mark was 52.











Graph showing the mark split for undergraduate students. There were 227 essays submitted and the average mark was 58











  • Evasys feedback results at the end of the year and comments received from students by e-mail indicated that they found this approach to the lectures useful. It was particularly positive that some students described the ‘Judicial Review’ section of the course as the ‘best part’ of the module – this never used to be the case and it was more likely to be reported as the worst part!

Contact details

Dr Hélène Tyrrell, Newcastle University Law School


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