Hearing from Students and Supervisors
The Effective Law Student Supervision Project provided the opportunity to go beyond the anecdotal accounts of student supervision to better understand the experiences of students and supervisors. National surveys were used to gather information about understandings of supervision, experiences of supervision and effective practices. Surveys were developed for both current and former (within 5 years) placement supervisors and for current and former (within 2 years) placement students. Ethical clearance was obtained from the Griffith University Human Research Ethics Committee (Protocol LAW/01/14/HREC).
In April 2014, Australian law school staff involved in placement programs were asked to forward survey details to students and supervisors who were currently or had recently taken part in a supervision relationship as part of a placement program. I also asked the Australian Law Students’ Association (ALSA) to distribute this email to Australian law students.
The surveys were designed to enable the results of the surveys of current and former placement participants to be combined. Differences between the survey questions for current and former students were only syntactic in nature while there were 3 extra questions asked of current supervisors. The response was greater than expected with effective survey completions by 288 students and 94 supervisors. Data analysis was conducted with the assistance of April Chrzanowksi, Dr Lyn Aitken and the Project Evaluator, Professor Adrian Evans.
Supervisor Surveys - Overview
Community legal centres are the site associated with larger numbers of supervised students. The private profession (law firms and barristers chambers) is the type of site associated with solo placements. There is a very clear demarcation with 95% of CLC supervisors having their supervision duties recognised as part of their job. The corresponding figure for the private profession was 18.2%. Volunteer supervisors accounted for 38.7% of responses and volunteering was closely associated with supervising 1 student. Males accounted for 19 of the 29 volunteers.
The vast majority of respondents (85.9%) did not have student supervision as the main focus of their work. All of those who did (11) were in CLCs and most (9/11) were female. None of the 13 supervisors aged over 50 indicated that student supervision was the main focus of their work. Asked if they enjoy supervising students, 80.2% of respondents answered yes while 17.4% answered ‘sometimes’. All respondents supervising 3 or 4 students indicated that they enjoy supervising. Supervisors of one student accounted for the largest group of ‘sometimes’ responses. When asked what they enjoyed about supervision there was an emphasis on seeing professional development, the enthusiasm of students and of reciprocity, of giving back.
Asked if there were things they found challenging about supervision, 81.4% answered yes. The figure for CLCs was higher at 87%. In comments, the majority of challenges named were the necessity to complete their own work whilst taking time to work with students in a way that is beneficial to all when the students are very new to practice. Another major area of challenge was in providing constructive feedback/of students accepting feedback.
Student Surveys - Overview
Arguably, the most significant results from the student surveys relate to the positive views of the supervision experience in clinic placements, where students are supervised by someone employed or engaged by the law school. Clinics were linked to students having extensive contact with their supervisor. The difference between placement types (clinics cf externships cf hybrid) was statistically significant. (.017) In a comparison between positive [extensive or adequate] and negative [varied or inadequate] views of the amount of contact with supervisors, the difference between placement types (clinics cf externships cf hybrid) was also statistically significant. (.001).
Clinics are closely linked to excellent guidance of students. There were encouraging responses across the board but guidance was more commonly referred to by students working in a clinic (71.1% of responses) than for externships (48.7%) and hybrids (48%). While not statistically significant due to cell size issues, this difference remains of interest. Clinics are also closely linked to providing comprehensive feedback to students. There was a statistically significant difference (.035) here between clinics on the one hand (56.6% of responses) and externships (38.1%) and hybrids (46%) on the other.
Supported by the Australian Government Office for Learning and Teaching