Wednesday, June 11, 2014
Group work is essential to graduate programs in business. Group work is a staple of medical school. But law students baulk at the idea of group work. This is a problem that has baffled me for years. We hear more and more about collaborative work as the cornerstone of students learning, and the need to teach law students how to work collaboratively. But professors who do require group work find that law students resist, fight, and malign collaborative projects. Why do law students hate group work?
1) We teach them that their grade is only as good as the person next to them.
Competition for grades starts the minute law students realize they are graded on a curve. Students begin to fear their peers, because they perceive their peers as their enemies, not as collaborators. Students who fear and mistrust they classmates are not going to put in extra effort to work together. They w fear that anyone who knows what they know will use it against them, either in preparing for a final exam, for personally, to hurt them in the future. Fear and mistrust are not the building blocks of collaboration.
2) We haven't dealt with our "free rider" problem.
I have colleagues who assign group projects, and I always hear about the "free rider" who manages (scams) his or her way into a hard-working group, only to receive a (high) grade based on the work of others. The students mistrust the free rider, but other than tattle to the teacher, there is little the group can do about a free rider. I have seen teachers try to deal with the free rider problem by requiring peers to assign grades to their partners, but this often results in gaming. Entire groups can game the grading by agreeing ahead of time what grades they will give each other, or individuals can game the system by agreeing to a group grade, and later giving their partners lower-than-promised grades in order to boost their personal standing in the class (yes, our students know the "prisoner's dilemma"). The only way to deal with the free rider problem is to require law students to work together on many projects over a long period of time, so "free riders" have to fear their own reputation. However, collaborative projects are pretty rare in law school, so a "free rider" doesn't need to fear that they will be ostracized from other groups if they manipulate the system.
3) We have not taught them HOW to work collaboratively, and they fear what they do not understand.
I loved group work when I was getting my MA in education. Early in my program, we were taught how to collaborate. Our professors explained the expectations of the program; teachers must collaborate, so collaboration was a part of what we needed to learn in order to be successful classroom teachers. The professors were very clear about their personal expectations for the class. Any one person could be asked to explain all of the project, at any time, so no one could be a "free rider" without risking their grade. Probably the most important lesson imparted in my program was that we were all in this together. My MA program stressed that all of us are representing the Neag School of Education, and one person who is a failure as a teacher represents our entire program. No one wanted our program to be anything less than excellent, so we wanted to shine. We worked together because we saw ourselves as members of a team, not competitors.