I. Introduction

We struggle to be better teachers. But like parenting, we haven't been trained and we often repeat the teaching patterns of our teacher. We look at our own accomplishments and we assume that the system can't be that bad. We did well, didn't we? So with small modifications, if any, we merely repeat the teaching pedagogy of our teachers. Yet, traditional pedagogy has problems.

The dominant pedagogy in law school is competitive and hierarchical. A pedagogy built on intimidation, competitiveness and, to some degree, passive learning. We do not clearly tell our students what it is that they need to know or what they need to do in order to excel in law school. Therefore, the students who are best able to figure this out on their own, and, not necessarily, the students who understand the law the best will succeed. Certainly, the students who question or do not accept the pedagogy will not succeed. We teach basic legal analytical skills in extremely large classrooms. We primarily teach one set of skills (oral analytical skills); we test another (written analytical skills). Typically, we provide little opportunity for students to practice the skills we do teach and model (oral analytical skills). We provide no opportunity for students to practice the skills we test (written analytical skills). Law faculties generally evaluate students based on only one or two exams a semester. We evaluate students using a method (essay exams) with dubious reliability and validity. We assign grades not based on actual criterion-referenced performance (learning objectives), but on norm-referenced performance (performance compared with other students). The question is: Is there a pedagogy that can increase retention, improve performance, improve social adjustment, and increase appreciation for diversity without throwing out the baby with the bath water? The answer is yes: Cooperative Learning does this and more.

Cooperative Learning is a structured, systematic instructional strategy in which small groups work together toward a common goal. However, in Cooperative Learning, professors structure the small groups more carefully than they would structure other small groups. Cooperative Learning is more than putting students in groups or sitting the students side-by-side at the same table to talk with each other. For Cooperative Learning to be effective, the teacher must assure the following components: a well-designed instructional task, significant positive interdependence, considerable promotive interaction, substantial individual accountability, appropriate group social skills, and frequent group processing.

The benefits of Cooperative Learning have been well documented. Considerable research shows that Cooperative Learning produces higher achievement, reduces student attrition, increases critical thinking, betters attitudes toward subject matter, increases social support, improves social adjustment, and increases appreciation for diversity. My use of Cooperative Learning has demonstrated that the often elusive and uncertain goals of increasing retention and improving performance for minority and other “at-risk” students can be attained.

In this paper I describe the philosophical and educational differences between traditional legal pedagogy and Cooperative Learning. I define Cooperative Learning, discuss why we should use it in law schools, and review the components of effective Cooperative Learning. Based on my experience using Cooperative Learning for the last six years, I discuss the problems of using Cooperative Learning in an adversarial educational environment such as law. I describe the response of both the students and the faculty to Cooperative Learning. I recommend strategies for using Cooperative Learning in a competitive, adversarial environment, including discussing the role of faculty.