Alex Steel

Alex Steel is the Director Teaching Strategy (Office of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic & Student Life), and a Professor in the Faculty of Law and Justice. He is currently leading a University-wide project on digital assessment.

Alex is a member of the Australian Law School Standards Committee, and previously co-convenor of the Legal Education Associate Deans (LEAD) Network (2012-16). He is on the Executive of the Australasian Law Teachers Association and the Editorial Committee of the Legal Education Review. Alex is a member of the NSW Bar Association Education Committee, and was previously a member of the Criminal Law Committee.

Alex's legal education publications range across the pedagogy and regulation of legal education, curriculum design, assessment practices and student wellbeing. He was a member of the nationally funded Smart Casual project (smartlawteacher.org) developing online professional development for sessional law teachers. 

Alex’s previous university positions include Acting Pro Vice-Chancellor Education (2019-20), Law Associate Dean Education (2009-2014), Law Associate Dean Academic (2014-2016), Deputy Director Scientia Education Academy (2017-9). He has been a member of Academic Board since 2014.

Alex has received a Commonwealth Government Citation for Outstanding Contributions to Student Learning (2015); the LexisNexis ALTA Major Award for Excellence and Innovation in the Teaching of Law: Highly Commended (2013); Faculty of Law Award for Outstanding Research in Learning and Teaching (2013); Vice Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence (2008); a UNSW Learning and Teaching Award (2005/6) and an Innovative Teaching and Educational Technology Fellowship (2003).

Alex was the Deputy Director (Educational Policy) of the Scientia Education Academy from 2016 - January 2019. 

Title: Survey of first year and later year law students for attitudes to learning associated with depression and anxiety

Led by: Prue Vines and Alex Steel

Introduction 

The project seeks to build on a survey carried out in 2005 which surveyed approximately 3000 students across the ten faculties of UNSW and reported on in 2007 and 2009. The 2007 report by Max Tani et al (including Prue Vines) surveyed students and asked questions about their attitudes to learning. In 2009 Tani and Vines published a further analysis of the outcomes which suggested that compared with all other faculties in the university law students had less sense of autonomy and less social connectedness, and that this was likely to create problems for them: Tani and Vines  ‘Law Students’ Attitudes to Education: a pointer to depression in the legal academy and the profession?’  (2009) 19(1) Legal Education Review 3-39.This proved to be a seminal article which has been widely cited.  

Theoretical Background 

The knowledge that lawyers are disproportionately affected by depression and anxiety compared with the rest of the community continues to confound legal educators who have difficulty determining what to do about it. These studies seek to determine the extent to which students’ attitudes may affect depression and anxiety by considering their attitudes in terms of whether they demonstrate autonomy and internal motivation or external motivation and lack of social connection. These factors are derived from the extensive psychological literature on factors contributing to depression.  

Aims  

Factors of autonomy and social connection are also extremely important pedagogical tools and it is hoped that focusing on these will enable a better curriculum to be built which combines academic excellence and wellness and sees them as sides of the same coin.  First, however, we needed to analyse the data and determine the extent to which the 2005 findings would be replicated.  

Progress / Outcomes / Next steps 

IN 2018 we re-administered the survey with some additions in light of later research evidence.  In 2019 we had part of this data analysed. This part was the material about first year students only and a chapter in a book was published in 2020 which reported on this aspect of the project: 

Prue Vines and Alex Steel, Chapter 2, ‘Student Attitudes to Legal Education: Revisiting the Pointers to Depression and Anxiety?’,  in Legg, Vines and Chan (eds), The Impact of Technology and Innovation on the Wellbeing of the Legal Profession (Intersentia, 2020)  

The aim for 2020 was to do a comparison and report on the differences between first year and final year students. Unfortunately, although we embarked on this and used a small amount of research assistance, 2020 was diabolical, as everyone knows, and as Prue Vines became her Faculty ADE and Alex Steel took on a post directing strategy in respect of Covid 19 in the PVCE Division, very little progress has been made.  

Revisiting Student Attitudes to Legal Education 

Professor Alex Steel and Professor Prue Vines, UNSW Law

Introduction: In 2009 Tani and Vines (Tani & Vines, 2009) reported on a 2005 survey which examined students’ attitudes to education and compared those across the University by Faculty. In 2014 Steel and Huggins (Steel & Huggins, 2016) reported on a 2012 survey examining law student’s engagement and lifestyle pressures.  In 2018 Steel and Vines have re-administered the 2005 survey (and added selected questions from the 2012 survey) and are considering how students’ attitudes to education may have changed and whether it changes throughout a law degree. In a first for legal education, students have been surveyed in the first weeks of their degree allowing an insight into students’ initial beliefs and attitudes to university.  A second survey of later year students will provide a counterpoint to the views of beginning students. 

Theoretical Background: The knowledge that lawyers are disproportionately affected by depression and anxiety compared with the rest of the community continues to confound legal educators who have difficulty determining what to do about it. This study seeks to determine the extent to which students’ attitudes may affect depression and anxiety by considering their attitudes in terms of whether they demonstrate autonomy and internal motivation or external motivation and lack of social connection. These factors are derived from the extensive psychological literature on factors contributing to depression.  

Aims: The aim is to develop an understanding of law students’ attitudes to their legal education as a way of assisting our understanding of how students are likely to respond to particular methods of teaching and whether particular methods of teaching might aggravate or alleviate any tendency to depression or anxiety, and whether student behaviour outside of the classroom may be a factor. The survey will also provide insights into the intrinsic and extrinsic motivators of student behaviour, and the external life factors that affect that motivation. 

Progress / Outcomes / Next steps: We have presented the initial results of our survey of first year students at a symposium on wellbeing of lawyers in a changing world. We are still collecting data from later year students and will analyse this data and then present it at a range of education forums and back to the students. The results will then be worked up into a number of peer-reviewed publications.  Outcomes will be presented to the Law Faculty and UNSW to assist with enhancing student learning. 

References

Steel, A., & Huggins, A. (2016). Law Student Lifestyle Pressures. In J. Duffy, R. Field, & C. James (Eds.), Promoting Law Student and Lawyer Well-Being in Australia and Beyond. Ashgate. 

Tani, M., & Vines, P. (2009). Law Students’ Attitudes to Education: Pointers to Depression in the Legal Academy and the Profession. Legal Education Review, 19, 3–40. 

Faculty level contributions

  • Law, Criminal Law and Criminology Research Cluster
  • Law, Legal Education Research Cluster
  • Law, Legal Education Conference, Organising committee
  • Law, UNSW VCATE Committee
  • Law, LAT (Law Aptitude Test) Working Party
  • Law, Faculty Board

UNSW level contributions

  • UNSW Scientia Education Academy
  • AAUT Citation Selection Committee
  • Academic Board
  • Academic Quality Committee
  • Digital Assessment Working Party
  • Program Design & Delivery, Delivery Subject Matter Group

External contributions

  • 2016 Law Associate Dean Education Network, Co-convenor
  • 2006 Consultant, Criminal Law Review Division, NSW Attorney General's Department
  • Advisory Board, Centre for Professional Legal Education, Bond University
  • Australasian Law Teachers Association, Executive Member
  • Australian Law Schools Standards Committee, Consultant
  • Crime and Justice Research Network, Member
  • Legal Education Review, Editorial Committee
  • NSW Bar Association, Criminal Law Committee, Honorary Academic Member

Why learning (and teaching) needs to be hard

All achievement involves effort. Learning and teaching is no exception. There are no short-cuts, no easy fixes.  

But not all effort leads to learning outcomes, and a lot of learning and teaching effort may well be wasted. Innovations in pedagogy and technology can reduce the amount of wasted effort. On the other hand, ‘trendy’ innovations in teaching and learning that appear to reduce effort may in fact make learning more difficult by falsely making it appear easy.

In this talk Professor Steel considered some of the dangers of the short-cuts we may be offering students and teachers, and the dangers of not recognising the degree of effort both need to be great learners and great educators. The talk balanced that with the life-long benefits that flow from hard work in education, and explored ways we can encourage positive engagement with harder learning and teaching.

Click here to view the lecture recording.