Cohort feedback from formative to summative assessment on legal essays

Instructor: Dr Darren Harvey
level 4 Two core modules: EU law and Public law
Feedback approach:
Cohort feedback feeding from formative to summative assessment on legal essays


Why did you introduce this approach to feedback?

I teach on two of four core modules for first year undergraduate LLB (Law).  At the law school, we attract a diverse cohort from all over the world, with students coming from many different educational and linguistic backgrounds. This is exciting, but it also brings with it some challenges in terms of equity and ensuring that everyone starts on a level playing field. This is particularly important in relation to the ways we assess in law, with legal essays forming a core component of both exams and coursework assignments.

Many of our first-year students have never written an essay, let alone a legal essay which has its own conventions and expectations. All summative core modules will have a legal essay writing component (our exams are a mix of case-based problems and essay questions).  My modules each have a 30% summative essay. Consequently, learning how to write legal essays is a vital skill for students to learn and to develop over time.  We want students to be able to feel confident in starting to write legal essays. We also want them to feel like they are not being disadvantaged by the fact that they might not initially have had the same level of experience of essay writing when compared to other students.

Many first-year students make requests for model answers, especially if they are used to this in their previous education systems. The law school takes the view that providing model answers to students is not a good idea, as it stymies both creativity and self-directed learning – two core skills that we would like students to develop and take responsibility for, particularly by analysing their own work. My approach to cohort feedback in this case study provides a good halfway house in this regard, since it helps to reassure students and begins to build confidence in those who are coming to legal essay writing for the first time.


How do you approach giving feedback in this way?

The strategy or feedback approach that I take in the law school actually has a number of steps over the course of the module:

  • WEEK THREE: I compile a list of Dos and Don’ts when it comes to writing legal essays. This list is compiled from my own experience of teaching previous cohorts of undergraduate law students at KCL and elsewhere in the UK:  Feedback Slides.  The list covers generic points such as the use of headings and the need for a clearly defined structure, as well as recommendations that are more specific to writing essays in the law school. This list is circulated to students in the week 3 tutorial, thereby giving them a full week to digest its contents before the deadline for their first formative assessment in week 4. In addition, we spend around 15 minutes in class at the end of Tutorial 3 discussing the list and answering any questions about its contents and the essay questions in general.  This approach ensures that students will pay more attention to the material than if we just put the information on KEATS, for example. It also provides students with multiple opportunities to ask questions.


  • WEEK FOUR: Students then write their first legal essay as a formative assignment and submit this before week four’s tutorial. When writing their essays, students are encouraged to regularly refer of the list from week 3 to help them with this writing task.


  • WEEK FIVE- SIX: Essays are marked with individual feedback given. I provide individualised written feedback on every essay that is submitted. In so doing, I make reference to the bullet points contained in the abovementioned list as much as possible when providing this feedback. (Naturally, I sometimes need to give feedback to students regarding the substance of the law itself, errors in the application of legal principles etc.). I do this so that students can easily understand the feedback provided, since it specifically refers back the points raised on the list and discussed during tutorial 3. By signposting what the students have done well and what they need to better with reference to the list, students can see the value of the feedforward/feedback process.

  • WEEK NINE: In class, we have feedback tutorials with cohort feedback. Having already received and read their individual feedback, students come to class with their essays, and we do group cohort feedback. This involves considering things done well by the group (I have 8-9 tutorial groups so feedback is tailored to the group). I make reference back to the original bullet point list of dos and don’ts, but of course common errors made on the substance of the law, application of legal principles etc. are also addressed. This ensures that the feedforward to the summative assessment – which is also an essay question – is made explicit. After I have provided cohort feedback, we open things up to class discussion and I provide multiple opportunities for students to seek clarification about anything related to the essay writing task. I always finish the session by asking students the following question: “If I asked you to complete the same essay exercise again tonight, are you confident that you could now do a better job than your first attempt?” If the answer is yes, we are well on the way to making good progress with legal essay writing.

  • AFTER EXAMS: I compile summative exam reports. At the end of the examination period, teaching staff write assessment reports for each core module, detailing which parts of the exams were done well and less well by the entire undergraduate cohort (see link to this in blog). In writing assessment reports, the terminology that I use in my formative individualized and cohort feedback, as well as my bullet point list of dos and don’ts, feature prominently in my remarks.


What benefits did you see?

  • This approach flags to students that they are getting feedback! It ensures that feedback is a continuous process and that it is not just something that is provided in summative reports at the end of term (by which time it is often too late to be of much use). Every step of the process is explicitly signposted to students so that they feel supported from the moment the essay question is released until long after their work has been submitted.
  • Feed-forward and feedback builds confidence in This is especially noticeable in first year where students are attempting legal essay writing for the first time. Giving students clear pointers on best practice before they attempt the exercise helps to reassure them that the task is not impossible or overly daunting – it is a formative after all! However, this confidence and familiarity with the essential components of best practice in essay writing hopefully feeds forward into their summative exams and beyond into 2nd and 3rd year modules.
  • The approach fosters self-directed learning. Students are each given individual feedback for them to reflect upon in light of their first attempt at an essay. Additionally, they are still required to engage with cohort feedback and a group discussion after the formative assessment. They can then apply feedback from both of these avenues to their own work.
  • Feed-forward and feedback aims to boost inclusivity. I am well aware of the diversity of knowledge, experience and linguistic ability across the first-year undergraduate cohort of over 300 students. My approach to feedback ensures that students start their first attempts at legal essay writing on a (sort of) even playing field by giving them all the same list of dos and don’ts from the outset.
  • Performance improvement is another key outcome of this approach: if students stick to the guidance, their essays tend to be well-structured, properly referenced and contain a clearly articulated argument in relation to the question asked. This not only helps to organise the students’ thinking, it also makes their essays much easier to mark!
  • The methodology adopted above has received glowing feedback from students, who note that ‘Mr Darren Harvey’s way of teaching is very effective. Everyone was given equal opportunity in class, and he had ensured that everyone is involved in class discussion. I really like how he would clarify and summarise the answer to each question…making sure that everything is clarified and that everyone understands it”


What challenges have you encountered, and how have you addressed them?

  • I make sure to inform students ahead of Week 3 that the tutorial that week will entail guidance on the first formative assessment of the year. This means that students who do not come to that class do not get the bullet-point list of dos and donts. I think this incentivises them to turn up and, more importantly, to get more out of the experience by being afforded multiple opportunities to ask questions and seek clarification about the upcoming assessment. I accept, however, that this might not be the most inclusive policy. By signposting that assessment guidance will take place in Week 3, students who are unable to attend for whatever reason can email to ask for information on what they might have missed. The alternative would be to post the list on KEATS and make it accessible to all from Week 3 onwards. My worry with this, however, is that it might disincentive students from showing up and engaging with the assessment rubric in-person.
  • There is always a worry that feedforward and feedback in both individual and cohort formats is excessive. Some students might not see the benefit of so much feedback if they feel that they have gained what they need from their individualised written feedback. In my experience this is rare amongst first year students who are attempting essay questions for the first time. Students are overwhelmingly in favour of this volume of feedback and at this early stage in their studies are typically very keen to learn about expectations around assessments. The approach taken in 1st year might not work as well for other levels and years of the degree as students become more familiarised with the assessment rubric in general and place more value on receiving individualised feedback. The fact that they do get some formative personalised feedback helps to mitigate any student issues with cohort feedback.
  • There is always a discrepancy in the quantity and frequency of feedback given to students across any large undergraduate module. Processes and practices of providing feedback vary considerably amongst colleagues. The same can be said for the compiling of summative assessment reports. This can create a disparity because not all colleagues do this in the same way.
  • Students place a disproportionate emphasis upon word limits in their essays. There is a tendency each year for students to sacrifice a good structure by using headings and sub-headings in order to save a few words for the main body of the text. No amount of formative or summative feedback seems to prevent a sizable number of students from doing this every year. Whilst being able to write in a concise manner is a core skill for lawyers, so too is the ability to set out your thoughts clearly in a well-structured and well-reasoned way. Often making use of every word within the word limit is prioritised over all other considerations on the bullet point list, even when we talk about this not being the be all and end all.
  • Not all students get involved in the discussion in the tutorial. This is common to all tutorials. However, because the feedforward and feedback classes are related to assessments, students appear to be more inclined to contribute in class than at other points in the year. However, I would like to think about how to create more participation in these tutorials.


What are your next steps?

  • I am considering how I can get students to apply my post-formative cohort feedback to their work more explicitly, maybe through a self-evaluation document.
  • Peer feedback could be an option, but I feel this might expose students to unhelpful criticism or even imposter syndrome at this stage. It is something I would like to do in years 2 or 3 of the degree once everyone is more comfortable with essay writing and has had plenty of experience in completing formative and summative assessments. My approach is very much geared towards confidence-building at this early stage in the degree.
  • As previously mentioned, model answers are generally avoided in the law school and are almost unanimously perceived to be a bad idea. That said, I might consider using exemplars of best practice from previous essays so that students can deconstruct what an excellent essay looks like by highlighting elements for them. This could be done using other students’ work obtained with permission or by making my own examples. Crucially though, students have to work with the text rather than just use it as a model.


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