May 2 2013

Law and Accounting Cafe – a novel approach to peer led MSc dissertation development

LSE’s Corporate Accountability (LL440) is a master’s level course delivered collaboratively by the School’s Department of Law and Department of Accounting. When faced with the challenge of how to make the most of a two hour session designed to help students with the long essays they write over the summer, two of the course’s teachers, Dr Yasmine Chahed and Professor Mike Power, decided to try something new in 2011 and offered their first ever ‘long essay workshop’. ‘The plan was not to offer the typical essay workshop, but to create a forum in which students had to give each other feedback on their long essay plans … to address relevant questions in connection with the essays that they were actually writing,’ says Dr Chahed.

The Law and Accounting Cafe (L&A Cafe), now run by Professor Vanessa Finch and Dr Chahed, was set up following the advice of LSE’s Educational Development team and operates according to the principles of the World Cafe method for facilitating large group dialogue. Students are asked to arrive having prepared their long essay topic and a draft outline of their essay. They then divide into five groups and take part in one of three progressive rounds of conversation at group tables. In the first round, students develop responses to three learning points developed by the teachers and printed on A3 sheets left in the middle of each table which ask them as a group to identify interesting points for each individual’s topic and write them down. After 25 Law and Accounting Cafe A3 handoutminutes, all notes are left at the centre of the table and the groups rotate tables. The second rotation involves working as a team to identify challenges that could be faced by the researcher of each topic, based on the points noted by the previous group. The third rotation involves students returning to their group’s original table to reflect and share feedback on the different topics. The teachers are on hand to migrate and interact among the groups, facilitating insights and conversation. Coffee, cakes and other refreshments are provided to foster a relaxed and casual setting for discussion.

The progressive rotation structure of the L&A Cafe format has four key aims. First, to raise student awareness of the components of a good academic argument (‘Why is the topic interesting from an LL440 point of view and how does it contribute to existing debate?’); second, to ensure a higher level of quality in draft plans before the students meet with their dissertation supervisors; third, to indicate to students the benefits of a proactive approach to sustained pieces of work like the long essay; and finally, to show that valuable feedback can come not only from supervisors but also from peers.

Responses from participating students have been very positive. According to one, ‘[the Cafe] provided an opportunity to discuss my thesis with other participants … Although I had a reasonably clear idea of where I was going, the workshop highlighted the importance of delineating the thesis as clearly as possible.’ Another remarked that the experience was ‘absolutely brilliant! It was very interactive and allowed us to engage with all the different topics.’ Tellingly, another student observed that the L&A Cafe was ‘deliberately minimalist – a case of less is more’. As for Dr Chahed, who has just run the Cafe for a third time, she sees multiple benefits: ‘For the students, it highlights alternative ways of thinking about a topic, gaps in the current argument, and specific approaches for improvement … And it’s lots of fun, too!’

With thanks to Pon Souvannaseng, on whose original text this post is based.

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