by Margaret Ambrose
At the beginning of last semester, I asked my colleagues: “What is the ideal group size when having students work on problems in class?”
I got several answers, all within the 3-5 range. Generally, the feedback centered around the need to limit group size to prevent some students from relying too heavily on others to do all of the work. This advice panned out nicely, but it also got me to think more about group dynamics and best practices when incorporating collaborative learning into the lesson plan.
I was, therefore, happy to find the Center for Teaching Excellence at Cornell that has a page specifically devoted to collaborative learning. They recommend breaking students up to work in groups of four or five when it comes to having students work on case studies, or in the case of legal research, work on a hypothetical research scenario.
What I found to be most interesting, however, were the other types of collaborative learning activities. Below I’ve outlined some thoughts on how to incorporate these alternative group work activities into research instruction.
Stump Your Partner
In this activity students take a moment to write a question based on the lecture or class readings. They then try to ‘stump’ their partner with a question. This tactic may appeal to the tendency towards a competitive nature among law students. It may also help to encourage students to engage with any assigned reading. CTE also recommends having students write these question down and then using the questions that students come up with to test for comprehension.
In the context of legal research instruction, not only might it be useful to have students work independently on a problem and then compare answers, but also to have students compare how they approached the research scenario. An important learning objective to research instruction is to convey that there is no one sure research method or approach that will work best in every situation. Using this tactic may help emphasize to students that when it comes to research, there is usually more than one way to skin a cat. As a researcher, it is important to be able to employ many different strategies in any given situation.
This is a learning strategy that might be most useful when teaching a class of LLMs filled with international students. In such classes, even more so than a typical class of 1Ls, students come to the table with different backgrounds and experiences, not to mention possible language barriers and different cultures and traditions that affect class participation.
Taking a moment to have students compare notes on a lecture and ask each other questions might give students an opportunity to first vet clarifying questions with a classmate in a manner that is less intimidating than asking the instructor in front of the whole class.
Using this technique might make discussions about assessing research platforms more lively. Having one student ‘defend’ using Westlaw, while having another ‘defend’ Lexis, while a third student sits in judgment of which of her peers made the best case might result in some interesting outcomes while students also earn to be savvy consumers of legal information products.
As I have yet to fully incorporate some of these strategies myself – if you have any experience with any of the collaborative learning strategies listed above – please comment below and share your thoughts.