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The weight of the law failing students

The weight of the law failing students

Depression runs rife through law schools and some experts blame 100 per cent weighted exams and other e

Depression runs rife through law schools and some experts blame 100 per cent weighted exams and other examination pressures. Are we failing our best and brightest before they even reach the legal profession? Luke Williams reports

The peak body for law students in Australia believes law faculties could be doing more to stop alarmingly high levels of mental health problems among law students.

Jonathan Augustus, president of the Australian Law Students' Association, says there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest subjects weighted on a 100 per cent exam and also 24-hour take home exams are contributing to high levels of student depression.

"There is a common trend among law schools all around Australia and that is the impact of subjects which depend on a single 100 per cent exam on student mental health. I have seen students stay awake all night; I have seen students crying. Students have certainly suffered trauma and anxiety because they were so stressed they actually couldn't continue studying. It's certainly not the sole reason students are getting depression, but it doesn't help. We see no real reason why a subject needs to have a 100 per cent exam or a take-home exam," he said.

The Law Council of Australia, which does not have a formal position on exam assessment, also has serious concerns about the benefits of 100 per cent exams. Their Editorial Officer, Ben Caddaye, told Lawyers Weekly that the council's own research indicates 100 per cent exams are an unnecessary stressor on law students. He said he was also was concerned because "skill development cannot be achieved through 100 per cent exams".

ALSA is meeting with the Australian Council of Law Deans in March to discuss the depression issue in light of both 100 per cent exam assessments and 24-hour take-home exams. Augustus believes there is a growing consensus that assessment within law schools needs to be more evenly balanced between two or more assessments, with more emphasis on practical tasks and less on examinations.

Many, but not all, law faculties in Australia still use 100 per cent exams. They are used primarily in elective subjects; no universities are known to use the assessment method in any of the Priestley 11 subjects. Nationwide, 100 per cent exams are considered to be one of the most administratively simple and cheapest way of marking students.

The controversy follows last year's research report by Sydney University's Brain and Mind Institute which suggested that up to 40 per cent of law students experience psychological distress severe enough to warrant medical attention - a higher proportion than those working in the legal profession - and that 80 per cent of students who suffered depression in the report raised study pressure as a significant stressor.

The Courting the Blues report did not specifically address the issue of assessment methods and stated that there were a variety of reasons law students and lawyers become depressed. Regardless of whether exam assessment is changed in law schools, the complex and multi-faceted nature of the problem will clearly make reducing rates of student depression an extremely difficult task. Many in the industry also point to what are often inherent qualities of the discipline; heavy workloads, confrontation and individualism, as well as pre-existing personality characteristics such as perfectionism, competitiveness and pessimism as the overwhelming contributors to poor mental health in law students.

Nonetheless, ALSA's claims appear to have widespread support among student societies. Five law student groups contacted by Lawyers Weekly all agreed that 100 per cent exams were both unfair and played a large role in student depression. Most, however, were fairly evenly divided about 24-hour take-home exams - with some students reportedly saying they felt take-home exams were actually less stressful than traditional exams.

"Student bodies right across the board think 100 per cent exams are a bad idea, most of us would like to see assessment across all subjects more spread out, so students are also assessed on practical tasks and things like class participation," said Jakoeb Brown, president of the Law Students' Society at the University of Newcastle.

Law graduate Wenee Yap, who runs Australia's only website dedicated to helping law students with depression through the University of Technology in Sydney - - also supports an end to 100 per cent exam assessment.

The law faculty at the University of New South Wales has been a prominent voice on law student depression since the suicide of one of their alumni, Tristan Jepson, in 2004. The head of the faculty, Professor David Dixon, says that while student depression is the result of many factors, the faculty specifically prohibits 100 per cent exams.

"In terms of ALSA's suggestion, we don't use 100 per cent exam assessment. The strain such exams puts on students is just one of the reasons for not doing so," he said

Dixon, however, refuted any suggestion law faculties were not paying enough attention to the issue of student depression.

"There has been extensive discussion about the issue at CALD (Cultural and Linguistic Diversity) meetings and every indication to me that my colleagues in CALD take the matter very seriously" he said.

CALD's recent report titled Learning and Teaching in the Discipline of Law dedicates an entire chapter and a thorough examination of the causes and potential solutions to poor student mental health. The report recommends students be given more opportunity to undertake experiential learning and pro bono work, stating: "Law schools need to encourage more co-operation, collegiality and interpersonal work".

The apparent consensus on the need for assessment reform and newfound awareness of law student depression means many are hoping CALD will start to move to end 100 per cent exams next month.

Professor William Ford, who chairs CALD, says it is important to keep the issue of law assessment in perspective.

"It is easy to overstate the significance of assessment in a multi-factorial problem like student depression. I don't think exam stress causes depression, but certainly those predisposed to depression are unlikely to be assisted by 100 per cent examinations."

While Ford's own faculty does not use 100 per cent exams, he says assessment choices are often restricted by faculty resources.

"Law faculties in general are badly under-resourced, 100 per cent exam assessments are less resource-intensive and much simpler than something like experiential learning"

He said changes to assessment methods, and in particular 100 per cent exam assessments, within law schools is possible - even probable - but would happen incrementally and through CALD's "Standards for Australian Law Schools".

That said, not everyone is entirely convinced of the relationship between student assessment and depression. Professor Prue Vines from the law faculty at UNSW has set up mentoring programs to help prevent student depression and thinks there are more fundamental reasons law students have poor mental health.

"I think the students' suggestions about exams are missing the point really. The reasons why law students suffer depression appear to be because they lack a sense of personal autonomy and real social connectedness ... I presume their suggestions about exams are to reduce stress - but I don't think that is the real issue," she said.

ALSA thinks law faculties should start conducting their own research into the links between assessment and student mental health. It believes a fair solution for 100 per cent exam assessments might be to make them non-compulsory.

"While the law profession is moving more and more to improve the mental health or at least make people aware of mental health issues, law schools simply aren't doing enough" Augustus said.

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