Law school pedagogy can be slow to change, but it does change. With increased focus on cultivating a diverse legal community and supporting students in progressive ways, more and more law schools seem willing to experiment with new teaching methods. As a result, you may have noticed that some of your courses are relying on techniques that go beyond the traditional Socratic Method style of instruction. To be sure, the Socratic Method is still the foundation of most law school courses, but team-based or cooperative learning strategies are starting to gain some traction, and not just in experiential or elective courses. Even some core, substantive law classes have started to incorporate group learning into their curriculum. If cooperative learning hasn’t made their way into your law school classes, you may still find yourself incorporating these principles through your own voluntary study group. Whether cooperative learning is being forced on you through a mandatory assignment or you’re joining a study group of your own volition, you’ll get the most out of these learning experience if you understand some of the theory behind cooperative learning and follow a few key guidelines.
What is Cooperative Learning?
Cooperative learning requires you to be, well, cooperative. It involves diverse students working together to achieve common learning goals. In Cooperative Learning Returns to College: What Evidence is There That it Works?, the authors explained that in a cooperative learning environment, “[e]ach student achieves his or her learning goal if and only if the other group members achieve theirs.” Thus, the students must “work together in small groups to ensure that all group members achieve up to a preset criterion.” Okay, I know what you’re thinking: cooperative learning seems like the exact opposite of the individualistic, competitive environment fostered by the mandatory law school grade curve. Yes, in many ways this is a radical new approach to the law school curriculum, but it’s one that can benefit all students, including you!
Benefits of Cooperative Learning
If you’re not sold on the value of “group work” or simply feel more comfortable studying on your own, it may reassure you to know that there are well-documented benefits to cooperative learning. Researchers have studied cooperative learning for decades across a variety of disciplines, and have found that it benefits students in ways that other learning strategies may not. In her article on cooperative learning in law schools, Professor Vernellia R. Randall summarized the major benefits of cooperative learning, which include increased social support, improved attitude toward subject matter, and better critical thinking skills. Perhaps most importantly, however, is that cooperative learning increases academic achievement. Basically, cooperative learning can help you enjoy law school more while also improving your academic outcomes. Who wouldn’t want that, right?
Tips for Successful Cooperative Learning
Not every group assignment is going to naturally generate a cooperative learning environment. To really reap the rewards of cooperative learning, it’s essential that you implement a few key factors.
1. Have the Right Attitude
It will be difficult to generate the dynamic necessary for cooperative learning if team members are reluctant to participate in the group or feel negative about group work. Put your trust in the well-documented research and buy in to the power of cooperative learning. If you still aren’t convinced that team based learning or cooperative learning is for you, at least try to come into it with an open mind and a positive attitude. After all, if it’s a required assignment that you have to complete, you might as well try to get the most out of it that you can.
2. Identify Clear Objectives and Responsibilities
When you have multiple individuals coming together to complete a project, it’s essential that you find a way to stay focused and on track. At the first group meeting, clearly state your overall objective and identify the checkpoints the group will need to meet along the way to achieving that objective. Additionally, clearly delineate the expectations of the group and assign tasks so that all of the work doesn’t fall to one person.
3. Always Prepare
Group meetings will be immensely more productive if all members show up prepared. Group work doesn’t mean there won’t be individual work as well. Complete your individual tasks before meetings and encourage all group members to prepare in advance.
4. Be Professional and Inclusive
Cooperative learning generally requires significant interaction between members of the group. If you’ve been assigned to a group, as opposed to picking your own team members, you may find yourself working with people that, for whatever reason, you find difficult, annoying, or off-putting. But it’s important to find ways to work around these conflicts so that you can achieve your objective. Groups might find it helpful to have a plan in place for dealing with situations where an individual group member isn’t pulling their weight or is creating unnecessary conflict. Ultimately, working with people who have different learning styles, different approaches, and different attitudes is an important life skill, so focus on your attitude and what you can do to create an inclusive, encouraging environment for the entire group.
5. Keep it Small
To the extent you can, try to limit your group to 3-6 people. The larger the group, the more unwieldy it becomes and the less likely you are to be able to interact with each individual.
As cooperative learning gains more and more acceptance in law schools, it will be important to understand how to make the most of this learning strategy. But it doesn’t stop there. The skills and strategies that you need to foster a beneficial cooperative learning environment in the classroom will also serve you well when you start practicing law, which often requires you to work as part of team.
For more helpful advice, check out these articles:
- Podcast Episode 16: Study Strategies for Different Learning Styles in Law School
- Evidence-Backed Law School Study Tips
- Top 5 Mistakes Students Make Preparing for Class
- Active vs. Passive Learning in Law School
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