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Haddock, D R --- "Collaborative Examinations: A Way to Help Students Learn" [2006] LegEdDig 2; (2006) 14(3) Legal Education Digest 3

Collaborative Examinations: A Way to Help Students Learn

D R Haddock

[2006] LegEdDig 2; (2006) 14(3) Legal Education Digest 3

54 J Leg Educ 4, 2004, pp 533–550

Law students have significant professional incentives to do well in law school. Because the breadth of their career options is often determined by their grade point averages, grades are immensely important to most students, especially during the first year of law school. As the primary basis of grades, examinations carry great weight. Exams are potentially a significant source of learning, as well as a means of evaluating student performance. The author’s most successful experiments with exams changed the testing process from a three-hour essay and short-answer exam to a more creative and educational exercise that occurs over a period of several weeks.

During the semester he distributed to students a document containing factual and legal information. It presented a story or stories with the potential for numerous legal disputes and problems relevant to the subject matter of the course. It also contained a variety of statements about the law, usually including a number of statutory provisions pertinent to the course. In class and in the instructions that accompany the document, it was explained that some or all of the examination problems will be based on these facts and governed by applicable legal doctrine.

Some years ago the author began to consider collaboration during the exam as a simple extension of the process working well in focused review, giving students the right to collaborate in composing answers. In his two most recent experiments with collaborative exams, he had broken the exams into two major components. In the first part students were permitted to work with others. In the second part, however, collaboration was not allowed. Many students enthusiastically embraced the idea, apparently assuming there would be strength in numbers. Others reacted negatively, and some remained undecided. The major concerns expressed were variations on a free-rider theme: quite a few students assumed that collaboration would benefit lazy students who could receive a better grade than they deserved on the strength of their collaborators’ efforts.

Since this first experiment, a limit has been imposed on the number of students who may work together and many comments have been offered in class about the advantages and disadvantage of collaboration on such a project. In attempting to assess the effects of collaborative examination, several questions were considered: (i) what impact does collaboration have on the distribution of grades? (ii) how does collaboration affect students, in terms of grades and otherwise? (iii) is there merit to the basic thesis underlying the experiment, which is that collaboration on exams can enhance students’ learning experience? The author was concerned by the possibility that grades could be affected in such a way that would pose difficulty fitting them into institutional grading requirements. While not wanting to discourage students from working alone, there was also a concern that students might feel pressured into collaboration because they think groups will fare better on the test than individuals will.

On the assumption that collaboration would have some effect on some students’ grades, the author compared grades in his courses with grades the students received in other courses during the same semester. Student surveys gave interesting insights into the effect collaboration had on students and also into the possibility that collaboration can enhance students’ learning experience. The conclusion was reached that collaboration does not have a particularly significant effect on grades for most students but probably affects some students’ grades. In many cases, the difference, if any, between the grades a student would have received without collaboration and the grade received working with other students would be a small one.

One obvious problem for learning in most law schools is the student-faculty ratio and the large number of students in each class, particularly in the first year. Although it is difficult to manage in large law school courses, something akin to ‘reciprocal teaching’, involving more small-group work, including interactions among students with and without the instructor, should be encouraged. Collaborative exams are, perhaps, a relatively extreme example of such small-group work designed to enhance learning.

The feedback received from students suggested collaborative models of examination have significant potential as a means of helping students learn. Interestingly, the number of students who were opposed or very opposed to the method was at its highest after grades were received. There were certainly negative remarks, but not as many as had been expected. And even some of those whose collaborations did not produce high grades commented positively on the learning experience. In some cases, unfortunately, bad things happened because of some of the dynamics of the group work.

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