Legal Education Digest
‘It’s the Vibe’: Fostering Student Collaborative Learning in Constitutional Law in Australia
M Israel, E Handsley & G Davis
 LegEdDig 28; (2004) 12(4) Legal Education Digest 16
38 Law Teacher 1, 2004, pp 1–26
Students engaged in collaborative learning work together in groups to produce something that is planned and developed and at least partly assessed as a collective endeavour. Apart from improving task-based performance in some contexts, collaborative learning can help students develop group and conflict resolution skills.
This paper reviews the introduction of group work to a core non-clinical part of the law degree at Flinders University in South Australia and explores student, staff and institutional attitudes to the Collaborative Learning in Constitutional Law (CL) program. It argues that properly researched, resourced and monitored programs can help create an environment for staff and students within which group work and collaborative learning might productively occur.
In Australia, in an effort to move legal education away from its conventional exclusive focus on ‘what lawyers need to know’ and orient it around ‘what lawyers need to be able to do’, university legal educators have been encouraged to train law students in the development of high-level professional skills.
Attempts to incorporate collaborative learning within American law school programs have not always proved successful. Nor have they always enjoyed the support of students and faculty members. Several Australian evaluations of collaborative learning in law schools have already been published. While broadly supportive of collaborative learning, two also reveal some degree of ambivalence among Australian law students.
The School of Law was established at Flinders University in 1992. It offers full-time students a four-year undergraduate law degree (LLB), and a four-and-half-year undergraduate law and legal practice degree (LLB/LP).
Undergraduate and graduate-entry students typically take the subject, Constitutional Law (CL), in their second year, though many students enrolled in combined degrees leave it until their third year. In 2002, as part of the CL program, tutorials were disbanded and students were taught in lectures and two-hour workshops. Each group was provided with its own discussion area on the course WebCT platform, to which only the group, the workshop facilitator and — with the consent of the groups — the evaluation team, had access.
There was apprehension about possible student hostility to innovation in general and group work and group assessment in particular. In Australia, a ‘hierarchical, individualist and competitive ethos’ among law students may have been accentuated by a reduction in Federal government funding for the sector, resulting in larger class sizes, less staff-student contact time and a retreat to more traditional teaching practices.
A second potential difficulty was that the groups would not work well together. Clearly this concern would have been shared by the students and risked feeding hostility to innovation, but the failure of one or more groups to coalesce could also cause both professional embarrassment and administrative headaches for staff.
In focus groups at the beginning of the semester, students at Flinders reported that they were looking forward to working with peers in collaborative groups that brought together students who might not normally work together, that drew on various students’ different learning and problem-solving styles, that displayed ‘high levels of cooperation’, ‘mutual respect’, and provided an efficient and ‘supportive learning environment’, where members listened to each other and worked towards solutions based on compromise.
However, students also reported their fears that groups would prove to be frustrating, where their colleagues would fail to work together, either because particular members dominated discussions or failed to participate, perhaps because they deliberately held back their expertise or because they were failing to prepare properly for workshops.
By the end of the seminar, several students were reporting that they appreciated the value of learning group skills. Members of the focus groups told us that they had learned the ‘importance of diplomacy and compromise’, and the need to be flexible, ‘patient and encouraging’, as well as more organised, because of the need to keep up to date and fulfill responsibilities to other group members.
Many students noted that they had been very concerned that an emphasis on group processes could only occur at the expense of their understanding of CL. However, by the end of the program, many had accepted that they had learned a greater range of material in more depth in this subject than they would have done through conventional patterns of teaching and learning. In general, staff were impressed by the high quality of presentations, reflecting not only strong group skills but also formidable communication skills, for example, several groups submitted their work as pre-recorded video presentations.
Set-up costs aside, collaborative learning might save time for individual staff members but only if there is an appropriate institutional arrangement. Teachers considering introducing a time-saving innovation should take care to reach agreement with their Dean as to how the benefits are to be allocated. In some environments, staff members might introduce group work only to find that they are given additional marking from another subject.
Making changes to a law curriculum often involves considerable risks for law schools and those universities that have sought to engage with the needs of the profession have had to respond to these often understandable and sometimes quite justified concerns.
The Collaborative Learning in CL program was introduced at Flinders University in 2002. It included research, staff support, monitoring and evaluation components. It also received one-off funding from the university to free an additional member of staff who could review the research literature on collaborative learning, identifying best practice and alerting staff to potential pitfalls and possible solutions.
As a result, staff explained the reasons for the program to students at the beginning of the semester, helped them develop a virtual group presence on the web, and provided explicit training in group skills. The non–teaching staff member supported teaching staff throughout the program, monitoring student responses, helping colleagues draw on the literature to develop strategies to respond swiftly to problems as they arose and evaluating the program. Finally, given the current state of the tertiary sector in Australia, the School was particularly pleased to save a significant amount of money by adopting a less resource-intensive teaching model that also improved students’ generic skills and helped them create supportive peer networks.
However, the program did have its costs. The additional member of staff had less time available for his own teaching. Students had less opportunity to spend time on those parts of the topic that did not lend themselves to a problem-based approach. One of the more worrying aspects of the evaluation was that it uncovered student dissatisfaction with several other efforts to run collaborative learning programs at the university, including earlier attempts by the Law School.
The experience with this collaborative learning program does suggest that many law schools can adopt these strategies if the programs are properly researched, resourced and monitored. In short, if ‘the vibe’ is right, collaborative learning has much to offer law students, staff and schools. However, if ‘the vibe’ is wrong, student and staff dissatisfaction and the drain on school resources will leave all parties feeling that they never want to be involved in group work again.