Group Learning Contexts and Processes Within Law Schools (RR-04-03)
by Dorothy H. Evensen, Penn State University

Executive Summary

An exploratory study was undertaken over a three-year period to understand the operations and outcomes of study groups in law schools. The overall study was divided into three phases and employed a mixed-methods design.

Research Questions and Major Findings

Phase 1
How do law students perceive and describe their experiences with group learning in law school?

Open-ended interviews with 141 second- and third-year students at seven northeastern law schools yielded the following information: Inherent in law school culture is a palpable message that first-year students would do well to join study groups in order to better prepare for final exams. Although most students attempt to form study groups at some point in their first year, most groups are deemed failures and disband. Few cognitive, but some affective benefits ensue from failed groups, primary among which is comfort in knowing others are facing the same struggles and the same confusions. Members of groups that persist throughout the first year and report success in terms of perceived effectiveness engage in specific activities such as following a flexible agenda, managing time, searching for and sharing resources, and adopting roles. Members of these groups consciously value diversity among participants, trust achieved through confronting discomfort, and high levels of personal investment or dedication. The benefits of study groups that meet on a consistent basis are recognized both by members and nonmembers. Groups are perceived as affording multiple perspectives on legal problems, extended cognitive capacity, a context in which to practice within the discourse of law, and a means of assessment. The rejection of groups as viable and effective learning contexts is attributed to limitations of time, narrowness of objectives, and problems of interpersonal relations. In general, students were critical of pedagogical group activities such as in-class or out-of-class small group work. They perceived these efforts to be poorly designed and irrelevant, or detrimental to the purposes of preparing for an exam or completing work in efficient ways.

Phase 2
How pervasive are study groups among first-year students?

How do groups initially form?

How do study practices vary among students who adopt different group orientations?

How do benefits and problems of groups differ among students who adopt different group orientations?

How do perceptions/conceptions of learning change among students who adopt different group orientations?

How effective are study groups in terms of academic performance?

A longitudinal survey of first-year study practices was completed by 1,944 and 1,017 first-year law students during the spring and fall of 2001, respectively. Results indicate that 84% of students joined some form of study group during their first semester in law school: 32% identified their group as formal, 35% as informal, and 15% as exam-only. Only 16% of first-year students studied alone during this period. By the second semester, however, group participation significantly changed: 20% reported being members of formal groups; 8% were in informal groups; 37% met with exam-only groups; and 34% elected to study by themselves. In short, there was a significant shift in social learning activities between semesters with students relying more on independent study and reserving collective activities for a week or two before final exams.

All of the groups engaged in the same study practices, but the degree to which they relied on them differed significantly. In the first semester and during the regular study period (i.e., before the group shifted to exam-prep mode), the formal groups differed from the informal groups in that the former completed more reading assignments, briefed cases, and organized notes to prepare for their group meetings. During group meetings, the formal group exceeded the informal group in terms of clarifying concepts, expanding on class topics, working with hypotheticals, and working on outlines. Moving into the exam-prep period, findings indicated that the exam-only group spent more time than other groups dividing up and completing portions of outlines, and spent more time studying poorly understood concepts after their group meetings. In the second semester, members of formal groups reported working more on hypotheticals and formulating questions for both professors and fellow students than any other groups. Students in groups used commercial outlines to a greater extent than students who worked alone, but students in informal groups during both semesters relied more on commercial outlines. Members of formal groups used Examples and Explanation books more than others. Almost 60% of students in formal study groups reported visiting professors during office hours, while more than 60% of students studying alone reported never engaging in this activity.

In the first semester, people in formal groups reported that “competitiveness” and “slackers” were their major problems. All students meeting in groups, however, indicated strong agreement with a list of study group “problems” provided in the survey. By the second semester, most of these problems dissipated, probably as a result of fewer students participating in sustained groups during the semester. The exam-only group alone reported that too little time was a significant problem into the second semester.

During the first semester, the informal group perceived fewer benefits of their group meetings. The exam-only group believed that the main benefit of meeting was to test understanding. In the second semester, the benefits perceived by formal group members both significantly increased and significantly differed from other groups. All groups credited group meetings with affording them access to multiple perspectives, but again, this was most valued by formal group members. A significant portion of students who studied alone recognized that their decision jeopardized their ability to assess their progress or the effectiveness of their study strategies, yet the overwhelming majority of this group believed that studying alone removed them from undue stress and competition.

Regardless of group orientation, goal orientations shifted for students over the two semesters. In the first semester, students tended to value doing better than others and avoiding embarrassment. By the second semester, more students held mastery and career-focused goals. Significant between-semester differences were detected concerning beliefs about the role of abilities in learning or simply “getting” what is out there. By the second semester, most students understood that nothing could substitute for hard work and meaningful engagement with the material. Still, members of formal groups by-and-large saw greater value in social learning contexts for increasing motivation and enhancing one’s ability to self-assess.

In terms of outcomes, no differences were found in terms of group/non-group participation until data from students who persisted in groups throughout the first year were examined. A significant grade-point average difference was noted between those who had participated in formal study groups throughout the entire first year and all other students. Neither the draw category of the school nor any demographic information was found to correlate with a student’s tendency to persist with a formal study group.

Phase 3
What climate surrounds study group activity during the first semester of the first year at three different law schools?

What activities and patterns of practice are observable in formal groups over the second semester of the first year in three different law schools?

Three law schools, one national-draw, one regional-draw, and one local-draw, participated in this third phase of the study. During the fall 2000 semester, random first-year students were invited to speak informally with second-year students about what they knew (if anything) about what was happening with them or among their fellow first-years in terms of study group activity. Although there were rumors at all three schools about very intensive groups, most groups were thought to be informal. The benefits of groups were perceived most at National where most students thought about half the students were in some sort of group. At Local, where only evening students were interviewed, most students saw no time for groups, but were aware of casual meetings that regularly took place. At Regional, most students believed there was no need for groups because most students were “getting it.”

During the second semester, three study groups, each of whom submitted a proposal claiming to have met during the first semester and identifying their group as “effective and efficient,” videotaped a minimum of twelve sessions. Groups varied in terms of size. The local-draw group consisted of evening students who were taking four courses during the spring semester, and had taken one course during the previous summer. Over 60 hours of video recordings were coded in terms of both substantive legal issues and skills, and in terms of group dynamics and problem-solving behaviors. These tapes and codes became part of an archive or corpus from which future research might draw.

Six study sessions were analyzed to yield information about group operations, construction of understandings, and evaluations of study group activities. Each group differed greatly in terms of its primary operations. The national-draw group worked almost exclusively on problems drawn from commercial texts or from exams on file at their law school. The regional-draw group met primarily to construct a collective outline. Much of their time was spent negotiating where in the outline certain concepts should be written. At the same time, they called upon each other to clarify and explain concepts. The local-draw group’s explicit purpose was to deepen understanding of the material discussed in class. They began with topics but required that contributors be able to substantiate claims by referencing specific cases or portions of class notes where the topics were discussed. Groups were found to be highly similar in the types of strategies used to advance group sessions. Overall, all groups were highly satisfied with their group’s performance and its effect on their own academic performance. Only the group from the regional-draw school would not recommend groups to other students. Students at the national-draw school were unanimous in advocating that law schools do more to facilitate groups. In particular, they maintained that students needed more material, especially in the form of problems, with which to work together. They also believed that students in general needed to know what effective groups could do to study collectively.

In summary, the multiple studies found that group learning through study group activity is valued by a relatively small portion of law students and that participation in formal study groups over the entire first year of law school correlated with higher academic performance. When such findings are conjoined with established theories of group learning and the reports of successful student collaboration exercises within law schools, it appears justified to launch curricular and extracurricular interventions that, in turn, could become the subjects of future research.

Group Learning Contexts and Processes Within Law Schools (RR-04-03)

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