February 6, 2007

A question for law students.

What do you think of the law school teaching style where the students are put in small groups and given exercises designed to put them in the role of teaching each other, with the lawprof off to the side in a supporting role?

ADDED: Former law students, lawprofs, prospective students are welcome to join the discussion!


RogerA said...

Ann: I cannot speak to the approach in law school, but in a previous life I taught History of World Civilizations for 13 years--after doing the lecture thing for several years, I hit on the idea of group projects. I spent my time coming up with questions for group discussions, and then I circulated around the groups and then delivered what was a "mini-lecture" in conversational style.

Interestingly my mid term student evaluations at first were negative; they felt they were paying for a lecture. By the end of the semester, they had turned mostly positive, and student performance on the essay exams improved dramatically.

Eventually I even moved to a group grading scheme wherein the students provided input on their's and their colleague's perceived performances.

Maxine Weiss said...

The students aren't getting their money's worth.

The Professors are there to entertain.

Peace, Maxine

Joe Giles said...

Better than the bastardized version of the socratic method, but not as good as the professional who challenges students for the student's benefit and not for their own pleasure.

Sadly, (in my experience) the tenured fall into the first category, with the adjunct making up the majority of the latter.

John Mosby said...

Hasn't the classic law school paradigm been that "you teach yourself the law"?

And most law students form study groups outside of class anyway.

Minimizing the Socratic nonsense would seem to increase the amount of classroom time spent actually learning.

The only thing better would be a return to controlled apprenticeship a la the Inns of Court and some states' law-office reading programs...


MadisonMan said...

IANALstudent, but isn't that how new lawyers will work in a firm? In a group, with some supervision? It seems like this teaching technique prepares them for real life.

This teaching style is all the rage now, I know, in many disciplines. Put them in groups and get them talking, and guide the discussion. This way the student isn't isolated. I think it works pretty well in the class I teach. I takes considerable extra work, though, to transition from an old lecture-based teaching style to this more free-form one.

Bissage said...

Well, it looks like Althouse isn’t deleting comments from non-law students, so she can’t delete this one. She’s estopped. Heh.

Anyway, my first year con law prof tried something new and broke us into learning groups of 5 or 6 students each. It was the blind leading the blind. Well, not exactly. It was more like the clueless fumbling around with the clueless. I think she ended the experiment after the third session. IIRC, about half the students ended up arguing about politics and the other half sat there in silence. I was one of the ones sitting in silence.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I very much believe in the Socratic Method, when wielded skillfully. Some of my professors were very good at it and I feel grateful for the effort they made to force students to work at drawing fine distinctions. It’s not easy and it's not fun.

CB said...

I have to say I'm not too surprised by how alternative teaching methods always involve the professor doing even less work than they normally do.

As someone who will be in debt for decades because of college and law school, I am amazed at how little professors do and how much they get paid. I paid thousands of dollars in tuition and had classes where the students "taught" each other and the professor couldn't even be bothered to grade the assignments--this was done by a TA.

It is well known that professors are generally leftists--I'v never figured out how to square this with the lives of leisure and privilege that they live.

The Pretentious Ignoramus said...


Wade Garrett said...

I enjoy and benefit from that teaching style, so long as it is sufficiently supervised by the professor.

Generally, I've found that students fear appearing unprepared more when they're responsible to their classmates than when they are merely responsible to their professors, who talk about how important it is to be prepared for class and then base the student's entire grade on one end of the year test that half the class just crams for anyway. I think that this group teaching method would obligate students to learn throughout the semester, instead of just at the end. The downside is that you have non-experts teaching the material and you run the risk of a long-winded but inexpert student dominating the discussion.

RogerA said...

Wade_Garrett: I know Ann is talking about law school, where the students there have had considerable exposure to the academic system. At the undergrad level, we had a student orientation program that talked about learning styles and personality styles; students were given the Myer-Briggs Inventory and the results were discussed with them. I think that obviated some of the issues you rightly raise.

It probably bears repeating, but in academia, once one has a the appropriate degree, it is largely assumed that person knows how to teach--often a very bad assumption.

amzbd said...

I think it very much depends on the course content. I would not have liked it in Civ Pro, but in Critical Legal Theory it might have worked. At any rate, it's pretty much how you learn what you need to know to pass the bar, so maybe it shouldn't be the way you learn legal theory. Cause I can't remember anything I crammed in my head for the bar exam, but I could write papers for years on jurisprudence.

Bissage said...

Wade, you reminded me of a story. When I was a second year I had a roommate who was a first year and a cocky bastard who spent most of his time watching T.V. and hanging out. Somewhere in mid-October I tried to give him some friendly advice. I suggested he might want to start hitting the books now because each upcoming exam will be like a jousting match; an event he should be very prepared for that will be over in the flash of an instant.

I remember his dismissive words, exactly: "All my life I’ve been slightly above average and I don’t see why this should be any different."

First semester grades were posted and he came back five minutes later, white as a ghost and visibly shaking. He went straight to his room and closed the door.

That shouldn’t have given me any satisfaction. But it did.

Swifty Quick said...

When subjected to it I didn't particularly like nor appreciate the "Socratic Method," as applied in law school. But later, in practice, I realized its purpose and value. There's no substitute for it as preparation when it comes to being able to think fast and formulate arguments on your feet and on the fly, especially when being peppered with questions and skepticism from a cranky and cantankerous judge. You can't get enough of that preparation.

stoqboy said...

I learned calculus this way and realized at the time that learning has more to do with the student's effort than anything the teacher does. It seems to me that this method shifts the responsibility from the teacher to the student. And, I believe, equating your debt level with who did the teaching misses the point of what you might have learned (which, granted, you could always do on your own).

J said...

As a prospective student, I despise group exercises. I go to class to learn primarily from the teacher, not my peers. They can (and do) augment my educational experience, but that's not how I want to spend my classes.

JohnK said...

As a former law student and practicing lawyer, I think it is a terrible idea. I actually think the Socratic method is as good a method as any. It forces people to prepare for class and think on their feet. Further, the students are paying untold 1000s of dollars allegedly to learn from scholars in the field. If they "teach each other" what is the professors other than a glorified baby sitter?

My biggest complaint with lawyers is that most of them can't think on their feet and are terrified of going to court. We need more Socratic method not less.

I think there is a place for some kind of group projects in law school. Most lawyers have terrible people skills and too often have low moral standards. Maybe that is just a reflection of the kind of ilk attracted to the profession, but law schools could at least try to civilize them a bit by teaching them how to get along with others and have some moral standards. God knows the law firms never will.

Fritz said...

Please define teaching each other. In Business School, at the beginning of the semester the professor would teach how to attack our case studies, then our groups would gather in class to build our cases. The professor would monitor & critique each groups approach and interaction. What I really appreciated about this group interaction, this was the only environment in life where group cooperation had no coercive hierarchy present. I think it teaches one how to work better in groups.

Ann said...

If a skilled and committed professor is guiding the exercise, I think group projects can be a tremendous learning experience. And if it is to be worthwhile, the professor is hardly off the hook when it comes to preparation and ensuring that the experience has a purpose and some structure.

When I was in law school I saw both sides. One professor in particular seemed to have elevated this style of teaching to an art form, drawing in and motivating students who otherwise might have preferred to play Tetris during a lecture. For me, having to learn something thoroughly enough to present it to others (who could ask questions and critique me) was undoubtedly scary but insanely effective. The habits I developed doing that kind of preparation have served me well in my practice.

On the other hand, professors who simply assign chapters or cases for a student or group of students to outline and present to the class, without more analysis or critique or thoughtful application of the material, are just lazy.

Thorley Winston said...

I’m generally skeptical of it. It seems to me that study groups are really a crutch for a professor who doesn’t have the skills to teach a classroom of students. I’d much rather have a professor who is skilled in the Socratic method or has a very organized presentation (like we have at CLE’s) than one who tries to shift the burden of teaching as well as learning onto the students.

As far as the real world. Yes, people do find that they have to collaborate with their peers to get projects done but students already have the option of forming study groups to do that. It doesn’t substitute for being forced to think on your feet and be prepared for questions. Although in my case, if I hadn’t done the reading of the case I was called on, my default was to pick a fight with the professor over why a case I had read was decided wrong and proceed from there.

Seven Machos said...

I am massively pro-Socratic Method. And I can't stand the social awkward dynamics of a forced small group.

TexasPatrick said...

How do you get past the group dynamic of the pushyloudmouth, the complete slacker, and the go alongs?

As a current lawyer, former law student, I usually felt, with some justification, that my peers opinions on the law were, um, pretty useless. And, I never felt that I owed my fellow students the same amount of respect for the material that I did when the professor was presenting it. I mean, honestly, when did they read it? Were they going to get the proper issues from the case? Were they going to integrate it with the previous material or tie it in anyway to our macro understanding of the topic? Probably not.

That said, while group work is not how lawyers work in real life, there is a great deal of collaboration and give and take. I think group work can be structured well, but everyone should have a distinct responsibility so that you can avoid the remora problem (the suckers that just hang on for the ride).

Joseph said...

I think small group work can work well in a few situations but that Socratic method probably works best in most situations. I can think of three exceptions.

First, whenever a class or professor is too predictible, students will tend to do the minimum they think necessary (and perhaps devote more of their limited time to preparation for other classes). So, occassionally mixing up the way you teach (and letting students know in advance) may make them prepare differently or more extensively to be prepared for the unknown.

Second, in my professional ethics class, we did a small group negotiation exercise which gave students roles in a negotiation and then the professor collected all the outcomes and students could see how successful they were, what techniques others used, how ethically others behaved and how well that served them, etc. It was a really good learning experience because what we were learning was really more about ourselves and our abilities and motivations than the law.

However, if the idea is to have small groups where one person becomes expert on one discrete topic and another on a different topic and then they share, I don't think that works so well for most law students unless you have a very specific seminar topic and students who are genuinely very interested in the topic. I took a seminar like this on section 1983 and each week we took on a different issue and set of cases and assigned two students to argue pro or con and the rest served as appellate judges. We were all really interested in the topic and the lecturer was a visiting practitioner who was also very actively engaged in each class. It was fabulous and I learned way more than I would have in a lecture because I was personally very invested in it. I took another class that was similarly student-led but it was too diffuse a topic and the students were half-and-half motivated and it just didn't work out quite so well.

grenat said...

I think it depends on the subject matter, and also the grade level of the members of the class. As a 1L, I would think that the disparity in level of experience in comparison to the professor would make group exercises much less effective in getting us to properly understand the material--we would have the desire, but much of our energy would be expended in frustration at trying to develop the right thought processes. Additionally, there are certain whole subjects (e.g. Civ Pro) and parts of subjects (estates in land and future interests in Property being a current example for me) function much better in Socratic, in my experience, than if we were to be turned loose.

Walt said...

I'm a department chair for a paralegal program. I've been lecturing and I'm good at it, after talking to juries for years.

We have to teach a fairly comprehensive survey of substantive and procedural law to people who mostly don't have much formal education, all in a short amount of time. The school administration wants us all to switch to a small interactive group instructional style. Doing so will enhance education in ways both mysterious and satisfying, we're told.

The students largely are unhappy with it. They'll do what is required, but they know they aren't learning as much. Small group interactivity might be a good way of managing a public high school, but it's pretty much nonsense where students are motivated through paying for education.

For myself, I plan to retire just before I'm told to assign making collages out of cut up magazine illustrations, poster board, and paste.

PeterP said...

But are we talking about the Socratic Method as used by the man himself - I have the audio tapes if anyone wants to borrow - or the Socratic Dialogue as written by Plato?

The first - rarely encountered in my experience in any form of higher education - is an exchange based on equality. Teacher and students have mutual respect for each other's views and both make valuable contributions to the debate.

The second - far more the norm - is for the Master/Mistress to set up the stooge to say something really dumb that makes the Master/Mistress look really bright and cool.

There are variants:

1.You roar into a lecture on 'Hamlet' and rave for twenty minutes about some take on the play. Students all dutifully take notes. Then you stop and say "That, my friends, was total and utter garbage and if you think that's what this play is about then you'd better quit while you're behind."

2.You lecture calmly, though with appropriate élan, on the poets Surrey and Wyatt giving pertinent and invaluable insights into the minds and methods of each. Then, five minutes before the end you stop and say "Oh sh1t. Look I'm really sorry, I got that back to front. Everything I said about Wyatt I meant about Surrey and vice versa. Sorry guys. Bad hair day."

...I've encountered both and never forgotten either.

hdhouse said...

goodheavens....common sense teaching strategies v. mindless speeches....

good God.