Study Skills Series: Formative Assessment

by Robert Craig, University of Bristol Law School

[The introduction to the series can be found here]

This post is written as if addressed to a student who is about to attempt a formative in my subject which is constitutional law.

Writing legal essays is probably the most important key skill you need to master. Try to structure your answer in a logical manner. Human beings like stories and those of us who mark your formatives and summatives are, contrary to certain vicious rumours put about by second year law students, definitely human. One helpful idea is to imagine you are writing to a senior professor in another subject (e.g., the Head of Bristol Law School, Ken Oliphant, who for some weird reason is not a public lawyer. He is, sadly, a tort lawyer – such a waste of a fine brain).

Imagine, then, that Professor Oliphant has forgotten everything about constitutional law because he studied it such a long time ago and then made the terrible decision not to dedicate his life to constitutional law. So tell him how the law works, and don’t worry about explaining what a court is or how precedent works or anything like that. Just explain the topic to him, focusing on what the question asks you, but in a punchy and efficient way, using the sources you have studied, and tell him which bits of it need to change and why, or not change and why. You get the idea. You don’t need to mollycoddle him – he is a professor of law after all. Just lay it out. But lay it out to a professor of law who doesn’t know this area at all.

A formative assessment is intended to aid your learning but does not count towards the overall unit mark.  Formative assessments are aimed at, among other things, assisting you in preparing for the summative assessment by testing your ability to engage critically with a topic or topics; it also helps develop your general writing abilities. As well as gaining a deeper understanding of a particular topic or topics, by engaging with formative assessment you can further improve your skills and better evaluate your ability to engage with the subject and respond effectively to questions.

You must give your opinion when you write essays. We don’t mean your “opinion” about life, the universe and everything that you formed before you came to university. We mean your considered opinion on the law which you reached after reading all the material. This is also known as your educated opinion. But you must form one, and then justify it. That is the difference between mere description of the law (which defines a 2.2) and analytical comprehension and good judgement evidenced by control of the material (which defines a 2.1).

While we are on the topic of grades, you get a 1st for an excellent essay. Excellence just means doing the core things really well. That’s it. There is no magic to it. Just be a bit better than a high 2.1. More detail, more control, more depth, go the extra mile, go deeper into the knotty points that other people skate over. That takes work – but that is why it is a challenge to get a 1st. Go for it. If you write great stuff, we will not hesitate to award you the grade. You will sometimes hear people saying you need to think of something “new” to get a First. That is nonsense. I have been teaching this subject for a long time. If any of first year law student manages to think of something, after a few weeks, that I have not thought of before then you are clearly a genius, and I will immediately give you a mark of 100% in your essay.

Overall formatives are a seriously important part of your growth and development as law students. I think I can safely say that a huge part of the process of doing well in a law degree comes from preparing and writing formative essays. Do take them seriously and pay careful attention to the feedback you receive from your tutor. Formatives are tough, but worth the effort.


I hope you have found this series of blogs useful and informative. I certainly enjoyed putting them together. If you have any feedback or suggestions of supplementary topics, please do drop me an email at

The earlier installments in the series can be found here, here , here , here, and here.

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