VI. Issues Relating to Using Cooperative Learning in Law Schools.
Faculty using Cooperative Learning in law schools will be confronted with a number of issues including: the faculty's role in using cooperative learning, grading, faculty response, student evaluations, coverage issues, problem student behavior, and impact on tenure.
A. Faculty's Role in Cooperative Learning
The role of the faculty in the Cooperative Learning classroom is very different from the traditional classroom. In Cooperative Learning, the professor is truly a “guide on the side,” not the center of attention.
However, it would be a mistake to think that Cooperative Learning is less work. It is not. Professors using Cooperative Learning will have more work before and after class. The teaching role of the faculty necessarily expands when using Cooperative Learning. With Cooperative Learning, the teacher makes the decisions, develops the lesson, monitors and intervenes, evaluates and processes.
Professors using Cooperative Learning have many difficult decisions to make. What are the specific academic and collaborative objectives? (234) What group size shall you use? (235) How should you assign students to groups? (236) How should you arrange the room? (237) What material should you use? (238) Finally, what roles should you assign? (239)
Once a professor has made the decisions it is then the professor's responsibility to set the lesson. Setting the task involves structuring positive interdependence, (240) individual accountability (241)and intergroup processing. (242) The professor must explain the academic task, (243) explain the criteria for success, (244) specify the behaviors wanted from the groups, (245) and teach collaborative skills. (246)
After setting the lesson, the professor is responsible for monitoring the lesson and intervening when necessary. Monitoring and intervening involve several different approaches: 1)arranging face-to-face interaction, (247)
Finally, it is the professor's responsibility to evaluate the process. Evaluating the process involves: 1)evaluating student learning, (251) 2)assuring group processing, (252) and 3)providing closure to the lesson. (253)
The most significant problem facing a teacher wanting to use Cooperative Learning in law school is the grading system. First, law school uses norm-referenced grading rather than criterion-referenced grading. (254) Second, law faculties generally do not provide interim grading opportunities or a grade for class participation. Third, anonymous grading is a problem in Cooperative Learning. Fourth, some faculty may object to grades based on collaborative work.
Norm-referenced versus criterion-referenced grading. (255) In norm-referenced grading students received their grade, not on whether they have met the teachers' learning objectives, but on how they compared with the performance of other law students. (256) “In other words, B, C, D, and F grades today are not determined by reference to external standards of performance or professional promise, but instead are determined by the relationships between the points earned by A papers and the points earned by all other papers on a particular examination.” (257)
Such a grading system can undermine Cooperative Learning. The message to students in Cooperative Learning isthat by working together everyone can improve and achieve. That is, no one needs to fail and the potential exists for everyone to excel. The message in a norm-reference system is that it does not matter how hard a student works or how much growth a student makes, if the student is on the bottom, the student gets the lowest grade. Most law schools have some form of grading curve or grade normalization and many faculty believe this is necessary, except at the elite schools where all the students are deemed capable. However, even at the elite schools the top grades, “A's” are rationed. Such a system sends an additional message that undermines Cooperative Learning. (258) The message is “A's” and/or “B's” are scarce resources.
Ideally, law schools would move to criterion-referenced systems where students' grades would be based on meeting a communicated set of performance goals and where there were no limits on the number of “A's” and “B's” that professors could award. Law schools could adopt the Harvard model of 20 percent A's, 60 percent B's, and 20 percent C's; or the more flexible grading patterns at other national schools that would, at least, adapt more readily to Cooperative Learning. (259) A third alternative would be to allow the faculty member who teaches using Cooperative Learning to petition not to be subject to the curve or grade normalization. (260)
Short of achieving the ideal, one of the professor's first tasks is to find a way around the message that good grades are scarce. One way around that message is to inspect the school's curve carefully and construct a message that gives students reassurance. For instance, if a law school's curve does not require that a professor give any “D's” or “F's” then that professor could set a criteria reference system that assures everyone who meets the minimum criteria will receive a C . This message would be consistent with the message of Cooperative Learning.
At the end of a grading period in a Cooperative Learning class, students will have grades from Cooperative Learning efforts and individual efforts. When the professor adds these grades, the high achievers get “A's.” The students who are middle and low achievers receive higher grades than they would in a purely individualistic or competitive environment because of the increased achievement due to Cooperative Learning. (261) Therefore there are increased numbers of “B's” and “C's,” but the number of “C-'s”, “D's” and “F's” decrease, since the team members refuse to allow uninspired students to stay uninvolved. (262)
This effect creates another problem. Other faculty members may perceive the professor using Cooperative Learning as an “easy grader.” Other professors may hold that perception because they do not understand the ideas of Cooperative Learning. One approach to dealing with faculty perception is to do a workshop on Cooperative Learning for the faculty. Another alternative is to subscribe to “Cooperative Learning and College Teaching” and circulate it among your faculty. At any rate, dealing with that perception will be a significant issue, especially if the Cooperative Learning professor is untenured and uniformity in grading is important at the law school.
Students may also perceive the Cooperative Learning professor as an easy grader as they look at his or her posted grades. However, the first few weeks of class usually dissuade people from believing that Cooperative Learning classrooms are easy. In fact, they require much more sustained effort than the traditional classroom. Students quickly figure out that they will earn any grade they receive, and you can expect a significant percentage to drop the class.
No interim grading opportunities/class participation grades. Another grading issue is thenecessity of setting criteria and having multiple grading opportunities. Law faculties typically provide only one exam per semester. Exams once a semester are not a sufficient opportunity for law students to learn from their mistakes. Such a practice gives a significant advantage to some students based upon behavioral characteristics brought into the law school environment. A Cooperative Learning environment is based on the opportunity for students to have multiple evaluations and feedback. Faculty adopting the new paradigm in more doctrinal courses should be providing more instruction, more practice, and more individualized feedback on student writing. (263)Many methods are available to professors for increasing evaluation and feedback:
1) several times a semester students can write short ungraded essays, (264)
2) cooperative learning group discussions of the problems,
3) class discussion of the problems,
4) written self-critiques by students, after class discussion,
5) peer review of students' work,
6) using teaching assistants to review student essays, outlines, and self-critiques, (265) and,
7) random review of some written work to assure good faith effort.
Anonymity in Grading. Clearly, providing completely anonymous grading in a Cooperative Learning environment is impossible. (266) Even in required courses, students seem to accept, without comment or hesitation, the need for you to know who is doing the work throughout the course.
Basing Grade on Collaborative Work. Some faculty may argue that the ABA's Standards for Approval of Law Schools required the use of evaluation techniques that focus on the work done by individual students. Standard 304(b) provides that “[t]he scholastic achievement of students shall be evaluated from the inception of their studies. As part of the testing of scholastic achievement, a written examination of suitable length and complexity shall be required in every course for which credit is given [with exceptions irrelevant here].” (267)
Furthermore, a 1975 interpretation of that standard states that “[t]he examination should be by either written examination or term paper. The examination should not be an oral examination, nor should it be a progress report graded by fellow students. The intent of the Standard is to have a meaningful faculty assessment of the student's work product.” (268)
Some argue the definite article in the final sentence of the 1975 interpretation required an evaluation based on each student's work alone. (269) However, the ABA aims the standard and the interpretation at “ensuring that students produce written work of a relatively complex sort, which faculty members, rather than others, evaluate.” (270) The individual accountability component of Cooperative Learning allows, in fact requires, that professors evaluate students, at least in part, based on their own work.
C. Faculty Response
The faculty may be unwilling to abandon their role of “sage on the stage” in order to become “guide on the side.” (271) This a radically different role, and one for which most faculty member are unprepared. This role requires professors to make significant changes in their underlying value assumptions about student learning. Cooperative Learning requires that faculty return to students a significant portion of the responsibility and assistance for the learning and teaching function. (272) Furthermore, a person has a difficult time changing behavior on which his or her self-esteem is built. Most law professors do not have the experience of being outsiders, a feeling that would temper their feelings of certainty about the current legal education process. Law professors have an interest in maintaining a system based on Socratic Method and norm-referenced grading. It is a system under which they earned “A's” and a system under which they have been deemed to teach adequately. Few law professors have training in education. Few professors have taught themselves about the principles of learning and teaching. Nor is it deemed useful by the majority of the law faculty.
Professors could respond negatively to Cooperative Learning because having students as partners may expose that “basic source of [our] expertise for what it really is: a process that is not terribly complicated or intellectually sophisticated, even if its effective performance requires experience, practice, and repetition along with common sense, practical judgment, and a talent for nuance.” (273)
The faculty may respond with comments such as “I have done that and it does not work”, or “I have done that and you are not doing anything special.” This may mean that they have tried small groups in their classrooms. However, after a discussion of the principals of Cooperative Learning, it becomes clear that they have not engaged in Cooperative Learning. As suggested above, educating the faculty about Cooperative Learning is a very important step.
D. Student Evaluations
Cooperative Learning with increased feedback to student and increased workload may have adverse effects on the students' subsequent formal evaluations of the professor's teaching. (274) It is very likely that a non-traditional teacher in first year law school will see a negative impact on his or her evaluations. (275) Furthermore, as the semester goes on, Cooperative Learning is clearly “a lot more work” simply because it is very difficult for a student to come to class unprepared. (276) Even if the professor does not know that they are not prepared, their team members will. Most students will find it emotionally difficult to be consistently unprepared in a small group. This is particularly true if the teams are functioning properly, since team members will apply pressure to each other to be prepared.
Professor's concerns about adverse impact on student evaluations of their teaching are understandable. If a faculty purports to accept or encourage academic freedom, then law schools will need to adopt methods of student evaluation that do not penalize professors for good teaching practices. (277) In any event, individual teachers, especially if tenured and experienced, can get around this obstacle at little permanent cost.
Further, the law school could take steps to legitimize different teachingmethods. During orientation, the school could have students attend both a traditional class and a non-traditional class. Also, during orientation, we could tell students that professors use a wide range of teaching methods from the traditional Socratic Method to Cooperative Learning. By presenting only the traditional method in a demonstration class, and by not commenting on the wide range of teaching methodologies available for use in law schools, we set students up to believe and to expect that within the law school environment the Socratic Method is the only legitimate teaching methodology.
E. Coverage Issues
Professors are legitimately concerned with whether they can get the same amount of coverage of substantive course material using Cooperative Learning. The answer is mixed. Initially when a professor first starts using Cooperative Learning, he or she may not get as good as coverage as in the traditional course. However, this may be primarily because the professor is learning a new skill. As a professor becomes more proficient, coverage increases. One way to avoid significant coverage problems is to start using Cooperative Learning exercises judiciously. For instance, start doing only one or two five-minute pair exercises per class.
As a professor moves into longer Cooperative Learning exercises (15-20 minutes), he or she can extend coverage by having groups work on different parts of the lessons. Every group does not have to be working on the same problem. In a class of 30, the professor can have six groups doing three different problems. After the groups meet to discuss the problems, the professor can either randomly select a representative or have the group select a representative who will report. When the group reports, the professor can quiz them and ask questions just as the professor would in a socratic exchange. Even though the different groups work on different problems, they all have prepared for class by writing a good faith answer to all the assigned problems which orients all the students to the work of each group. These good faith answers are given individual grades.
Another way to assure coverage, is to give the students the rules of law that they need to learn. This increases your ability to focus on skills development. (278)
F. Problem Student Behavior
Some students will engage in unhelpful behavior when they first start working with Cooperative Learning. The three most common forms of unhelpful behavior are passive uninvolvement, active uninvolvement, and taking charge. (279) Professors can generally handle those behaviors through how they structure the Cooperative Learning experience. However, professors must handle the behavior early because such behavior can destroy the functioning of the group.
Passive uninvolvement is recognizable by a student who physically turns away from the group, does not participate, does not pay attention, says little or nothing in groups, shows no enthusiasm, or does not bring their work or materials to class. Some ways of handling passive uninvolvement include dividing the roles and assigning the passive uninvolved student an essential role, jigsawing the materials, or rewarding the group based on their average performance.
Students display active uninvolvement by talking about everything but the assignment, leaving the group without permission, deliberately giving wrong answers, or refusing to work with other group members. Professors can address active uninvolvement by offering a reward to the student or group, and structuring the task so that the student must work in order for the group to succeed and attain the reward or by reminding the student that active positive participation is part of the overall grade.
Students take charge by doing all the work, refusing to let others participate, and bullying or making decisions without checking to see if others agree. Professors can address this behavior by assigning the most powerful roles to others or by rewarding groups based on the lowest two scores or grades on a unit test or project.
G. Impact on Tenure
A significant issue involved in the decision to teach Cooperative Learning is how a non-traditional teaching method might affect the tenure process. That depends entirely on how your faculty views teaching and academic freedom. Clearly, Cooperative Learning is a well-established teaching methodology that a professor is entitled to choose to use. Nevertheless, despite issues of academic freedom, teaching in a non-traditional style can effect how the faculty and student body perceives the quality of your teaching. Educating your faculty might help them overcome some legitimate concerns which come from lack of knowledge.
If a professor has problems, it may be due to the faculty's inability to evaluate teaching based on Cooperative Learning because they don't understand it. However, evaluating Cooperative Learning is much like evaluating any course. First, evaluate the Cooperative Learning structure. Has the faculty member developed the appropriate structure? Was there a well-designed instructional task? Was there significant positive interdependence? Was there considerable promotive interaction? Was there substantial individual accountability? Were there appropriate group social skills? Was there frequent group processing? Of course, this presumes that the faculty accepts the premise that Cooperative Learning is a legitimate teaching methodology.
The professor being evaluated should assess their own performance and explain how the elements worked in the class. Second, like any other class, the faculty can observe student participation. Are the students actively involved with each other? Are they talking about the problem? Finally, the faculty can assess student learning in the same manner that they assess student learning under other methodologies.
Some people recommend to untenured professors to be traditional until tenured. I do not recommend that route. Untenured professors are teachers with an obligation to be the best teachers possible. Consequently, untenured professors have an obligation do whatever it requires to be the best teacher possible. To do this, the faculty person using Cooperative Learning may need to find a support system outside his or her faculty. For instance, a professor could join the AALS Section on Teaching, join SALT, join the Section on Women in the Law, join the Section on Academic Support Programs, or join the teaching development resources of your University. Finally, a faculty member can join the International Association for the Study of Cooperation in Education (IASCE). (280)