III. Research on Cooperative Learning

Under the new legal education paradigm, the role of the faculty is to construct classroom conditions that will promote learning for all students. Professors choose instructional activities based on their learning goals for the class and the learning structure. A professor's choice will result in one of three basic learning environments: competitive, individualistic, or cooperative. However, the learning environment can vary by task, by lesson, by class, or even by course. That is, within a given course, the learning environment will shift and change based on the professor's choices. The professor's choice will be based on many different factors including a wide variety of academic and cultural diversity in the class.


A. Comparing Learning Environments

Students working against each other to achieve a goal that only a few can obtain characterizes the competitive learning environment. In a competitive environment, not only do students work alone and strive to be better than their classmates, they perceive that what benefits other students, deprives them, and vice versa. Students in a competitive environment celebrate their own success and others' failure. The rewards of the class are the “A's,” and are limited. Professors grade the classes on a curve. In competitive learning, students believe, correctly, that if “I swim, you will sink; if you sink, I will swim.” This belief can cause students to either work hard to do better than their classmates, cheat in order to do better, or take it easy because they do not believe they have the chance to earn an “A.” Many law students resign themselves to getting mediocre grades and putting forth mediocre effort. This problem is particularly evident in the second and third years when the attitude of many students is: “C equal J.D.” With very few exceptions, law schools are overwhelmingly competitive learning environments.

Students being unconcerned about the success or failure of other law students characterize individualistic learning environment. Students working alone also characterize an individualistic learning environment. Generally, they strive for their own success. They view rewards as unlimited. While they celebrate their success, they ignore the success or failure of others. Faculty structure the learning environment so that students, working by themselves, can accomplish learning goals unrelated to those of other students. Professors evaluate students by comparing the students' performance with some preset criteria. In individualistic learning environments students believe that, “I am in this alone.” The individualistic learning environment in law schools is most clearly expressed in “independent studies.” Professors grade individualistic learning activities on a criterion-reference basis. The availability of independent studies varies significantly between law schools. The availability is based on the willingness of the faculty to sponsor them. Further, law schools may vary on whether they view “independent studies” as acceptable learning environments.

Students working together to maximize their own and each other's learning characterizes Cooperative Learning environment. Students work together to achieve shared goals. They work in small, often heterogenous groups to ensure that all members of a group master the assigned materials. Group members strive for each other's success. They believe that what benefits them, benefits others. Students view the reward (“A” grade) as unlimited. The faculty evaluates students by comparing performance to preset criteria. In Cooperative Learning situations, positive interdependence exists among students. While some law faculty may use small group exercises, most choose to structure their classrooms as competitive learning environments rather than cooperative environments, where the grade is still based totally, or in large part, on individual work.

Summary. Each learning environment has it place. “In the ideal [law school], all students would learn how to work collaboratively [and cooperatively] with others, compete for fun, [profit] and enjoyment, and work autonomously on their own.” It has been suggested that law schools already have an ideal learning mix in that the first year is competitive, but second and third year is not in the same way. However, that argument misses the point. While first year might be the most competitive, second and third year is still very competitive. The dominant learning environment in law school is competitive throughout all three years. It is up to law professors to decide how to construct and achieve the ideal learning environment.


B. Review of Research

The benefits of Cooperative Learning have been well documented. Research on Cooperative Learning began in the late 1800s. Over the past 100 years, researchers have conducted more than 600 experimental and 109 orrelational studies comparing the effectiveness of cooperative, competitive, and individualistic efforts. A variety of researchers conducted studies in different decades, with subjects of different ages, in different subject areas, and in different settings. The research suggests that compared with competitive and individualistic learning, Cooperative Learning has many benefits.

Legal researchers have conducted no empirical studies of the Socratic Method or Cooperative Learning conducted in law schools or their effects on the legal profession. While empirical studies in the law school environment are important, we can learn and obtain insight from other studies. We should not wait for the result of law school empirical studies to make changes. This is especially true because we have singularly failed to study the Socratic Method empirically, and the weight of the evidence in other areas supports the use of Cooperative Learning. The discussion that follows is not intended to be exhaustive, but rather descriptive of the research currently available.

Cooperative Learning Produces Higher Achievement. Researchers have conducted hundreds of studies on the comparative effect of competitive, individualistic, and cooperative efforts in promoting achievement. In general, the studies show that students in Cooperative Learning environments have higher achievement than students within a competitive environment or individualistic environment. Cooperative Learning is more effective in developing higher-level reasoning. Students generate more new ideas and solutions, and are better able to transfer what they learned from one situation to another. Cooperative Learning is particularly effective where “retention is important, the task is complex, or students desire conceptual, problem-solving, divergent thinking, or they desire creativity, they expect quality of performance and higher level reasoning strategies, and they need critical thinking.” Cooperative Learning has also proved effective in small as well as large classes.

Cooperative Learning Reduces Student Attrition. Studies of Cooperative Learning have shown that Cooperative Learning lowers attrition rates. In particular, studies show that Cooperative Learning is effective with minority students. For instance, the five-year retention rate of African-American students involved in Cooperative Learning in math andscience was 65 percent compared with 41 percent of African-American college students not involved.

Cooperative Learning Increases Critical Thinking Competencies. The primary focus of law school is teaching critical thinking skills, “to think like a lawyer.” Critical thinking skills involve application, analysis, evaluation, synthesis of knowledge, and other higher-level reasoning skills. Students from Cooperative Learning environments have demonstrated greater use of higher-level reasoning strategies and critical thinking than students in competitive or individualistic environments. Students in Cooperative Learning environments have more frequent insight into, and use of, higher-level cognitive and moral reasoning than students from individualistic or competitive learning environments.

Cooperative Learning Increased Social Support. Cooperative Learning environments have more social support than competitive or individualistic enviromental. This greater social support is extremely important where pressure to achieve is high. Greater social support is also important for students from non-traditional backgrounds. Educational environments should match the level of social support with the level of pressure. “Challenge and security must be kept in balance.” A law student's high level of psychologicaldistress may be directly related to the general lack of social support. Cooperative Learning alleviates feelings of isolation and has positive effects on self-esteem. As to social support, studies found that students had increased social support in Cooperative Learning environments.

Cooperative Learning Improves Attitude Toward the Subject Matter. Students in Cooperative Learning environments show more positive attitudes toward their subject area, a more positive attitude toward the instructional experience, and more continuing motivation to learn the subject than students from competitive and individualistic learning environments.

Cooperative Learning Leads to Healthier Psychosocial Adjustment. Cooperative Learning environments promote much healthier psychosocial adjustment than competitive and individualistic learning.

Cooperative Learning Increases Respect for Diversity. The recent focus on developing diversity within law schools has created new challenges for faculties. Law school classrooms consist of students with multiple cognitive, social, emotional, and learning needs. Cooperative Learning can help the professor teach a diverse student group. More importantly, Cooperative Learning contributes to the ability of a lawyer to work with a diverse group of people. The ability to work in diverse groups is a skill that will be increasingly necessary in the 21st century. Cooperative Learning environments improve gender and racial interactions. Cooperative Learning teaches tolerance based on respect. Research shows that Cooperative Learning results in students liking each other more “regardless of individual differences in ability level, sex, disabling conditions, ethnic [and racial] membership, social class differences or task orientation.”

Summary. The goal of legal education should be to help a diverse student body to achieve (that is, become lawyers) to develop positive interpersonal relationships, and to promote the psychological health of the students. These goals are reciprocally related—each influences the other. Caring and committed relationships among students increase their efforts to achieve. Joint efforts to achieve mutual goals promote psychological health and social competence. The more psychologically healthy students are, the more able they are to contribute to the joint effort. The more psychologically healthy students are, the more able they are to build and maintain caring and committed relationships.


C. An Example of Use of Cooperative Learning: Results of Using Cooperative Learning in an Academic Support Program

Beginning in the late 1980s, the University of Dayton, along with other law schools, began to make a concerted effort to increase its enrollment and retention of minority students, particularly African-American students. Despite the combined efforts of the law school and the local minority bar association, the attrition rate of African-American students remained at approximately 50 percent. During the summer of 1990, in an attempt to improve the situation, the Dean appointed an ad hoc committee whose charge was as follows: “[T]o propose . . . and then develop preliminary and subsequent stages of an academic support program aimed at the academic needs of minority students (though not exclusively available to . . . [them]).” The ad hoc committee implemented a program called Academic Excellence Program (AEP) during the Fall 1990 semester directed only toward entering minority students. The program was expanded to other “at-risk” students during Fall 1991.

From 1991 through 1993, the program format included a two-hour-per-week exam-writing course. In 1993, the program began to use small groups and teaching assistants. In 1994, the program was changed to emphasize the use of small groups built around Cooperative Learning theory, and expanded the AEP Orientation to seven days and increased the use of teaching assistants.

The goals of the AEP were to improve the retention and maximize the academic performance of minority law students; and assist any entering student who may have a disadvantage which is likely to affect their performance in law school. The specific objectives of the AEP were: to assist participants in developing the legal study skills and habits that will enable them to perform to their potential; to develop the participants' exam-writing and analytical skills; to provide social support; reduce isolation; and provide positive reinforcement to the participants that they can excel; and, to provide a means of identifying those students who are having problems, and assuring that they are appropriately referred to the right resources for assistance, such as the professor teaching the substantive course, the learning center for remedial writing and reading assistance, and the counseling and medical centers where appropriate.

Academic support programs are of three basic forms: student directed, faculty directed, and full-time director. The University of Dayton has a faculty-directed program. The faculty director is responsible for the design and the execution of a proven educational process (Cooperative Learning) with increased emphasis on student performance and retention. AEP utilizes advanced group-learning techniques for skill mastery that incorporate hypotheticals and problems that stretch students' analyticalcapabilities beyond the normal curriculum. AEP is a disciplined learning environment in which students demonstrate subject mastery to peers and learn test-taking skills. Furthermore, the teaching assistant initiated processes reinforce the value of, support and initiation of, skills necessary for effective student-led study groups. Finally, AEP is a program focused on helping students build skills and not on avoiding failing grades.

To understand what AEP is, it is important to understand what AEP is not. AEP is not a remedial program. By remedial, we mean helping students whose skills fall below a minimal acceptable standard for incoming law students. Areas of remediation generally focus on reading, grammar, and writing. Generally speaking, the overwhelming majority of AEP students have the necessary minimal skill level. However, when the occasional student is suspected to have remediation needs, that student is referred to the appropriate support network (such as The University of Dayton Learning Assistance Center). Similarly, if a student is suspected of having serious emotional or stress issues those students are referred to the Counseling Center.

While AEP is a supplemental learning experience that is closely related to specific first-year courses, it is not a substantive teaching environment. That is, the focus is not on teaching the students black letter law. Rather the focus is on developing students' written analytical skills relating to legal issues. Furthermore, AEP helps to develop the ability to work effectively in groups and encourages students' interaction with professors. AEP is not a substantive tutorial program. Thus, not only are students constantly encouraged to talk with the instructor of their substantive course, one of the primary roles of the teaching assistants is to get the student to seek substantive help from the appropriate resource-their teacher.

The Academic Excellence Program has six major themes. First, AEP is based on psychological and cultural adaptation NOT compensatory education. The lineage of many aspects of law school in American comes from northern-European cultures emphasizing “rugged individualism.” The crux of “rugged individualism” is “self-assertion, individualism, and aggression.” Many students come from backgrounds which stress different cultural norms. Furthermore, minority students often suffer from isolation, language issues, writing difficulties, socioeconomic disadvantage or cultural issues which the academic support program must address.

If all students came to law school from similar backgrounds, possessed similar tools and resources, and followed similar career objectives, then providing academic support only to some might well be unfair to those not chosen. Such homogeneity does not exist.”

Second, AEP stresses encouragement and empowerment, never sending a message of incompetence. Empowerment can be of vital importance to law school success. Third, AEP is highly structured, as poorly structured programs may make things worse for students. Fourth, AEP promotes confidence, because much of success stems from a sense of confidence. Fifth, AEP encourages risk-taking in the classroom, because it is through mistakes, and correction of mistakes, that students learn. Finally, AEP encourages students to articulate their analysis in writing, as law school exams confront students with a problem and demand presentation of arguments. The purpose of the AEP is to develop skills with a focus on the students' strengths, rather than their weaknesses. Creating an environment of comfort, support, acceptance, and encouragement is of major importance.

The University of Dayton's AEP accepted a diverse group of students in the program: students-of-color, students from educationally/economically disadvantaged backgrounds, disabled or handicapped students, students from small colleges, students who are readmitted to first year of law school after dismissal, and students who are admitted by the dean rather than the admission committee are also included in the program. Students who clearly fit in any of the above categories are automatically admitted into the program if the student applied to the program. Other students are admitted to the program on a space available basis. For instance, students have been admitted to the program because they have a non-writing undergraduate major (nursing, art, or music), because they have been out of school more than 10 years, because they have family circumstances which indicate a need for support, or because they are international students who speak English as a second language. Admitting students to the program based on “an other” category serves several important objectives. First, it makes AEP accessible to all students who may feel they have a disadvantage. Making the program accessible reduces both the stigma of the program and resentment toward the program. Reduced stigma and resentment are of significant benefit to the targeted participants by reducing their environmental stress. Second, by having a program which includes students from a variety of educational and cultural backgrounds, we assure a high level of diversity. That diversity is an important way to meet cultural adaptation needs. Notwithstanding the availability of the program to a number of other categories of students, the primary emphasis of the program remains on minority retention and performance.

From Fall 1991 through Fall 1996, AEP had 171 participants. Of the 171 participants, 93 (54.4%) were admitted to the program as students of color, 11 (6.4%) were educational and economically disadvantaged, 7 (4.1%) were handicapped or disabled, 7 (4.1%) were Dean's Admit, 7 (4.1%) were Readmits, 11 (6.4%) were Other and 12 (7.0%) were admitted as Probationary students in the second semester. Students were admitted to the program based on how they self identified for purpose of admission to the program. A minority student would not necessarily be classified as a “student of color.” Consequently, the racial and ethnic breakdown is different from the number of “students of color.” Of the 171 participants, 16 (9.4%) were Asian-American/Pacific Islander, 61 (35.7%) were African-American/Black, 71 (41.5%) were European American/ White, 19 (11.1%) were Hispanic/Latino-American and 2 (1.2%) were Native-American/Eskimo and 2 (1.2%) were international students.

The success or failure of the program can be directly measured by academic dismissal rates in the first and second semesters. Dismissal rates in subsequent years are indirect measures of its success. Although skill-building is a long-term undertaking, we offer no support programs for second and third year students. The AEP program has undergone significant change so that the program will be evaluated in two parts: AEP Part I (Pre-Cooperative Learning) (1991-1993), and AEP Part II (Cooperative Learning) (1993-1996). A difference is considered statistically significant if the probability (p) is less than or equal to .05 (p<.05); that means that the probability of the observed _ difference occurring by random chance is less than five times out of a hundred. For the purpose of evaluating the program, I focus on African-Americans because we have pre-program statistics on that group.

First Semester Academic Dismissal. Reducing dismissal in the first semester of law school is the first step toward increasing graduation rates. AEP has been highly successful in decreasing the academic dismissal rate in the first semester. The overall dismissal rate (1991-1996) was 10.1 percent. The academic dismissal rate for participants for 1991-1993 (Pre-cooperative Learning) was 13.9 percent; the rate for participants for 1994-1996 (Cooperative Learning) was 6.3 percent. The overall dismissal rate (1991-1996) for African-Americans was 18 percent and for European-American 8.3 percent (p=.066). AEP was started because African Americans had an almost twenty year average dismissal rate of 50 percent. From 1991-1993 (Pre-Cooperative Learning), the African-American dismissal rate in the first semester was 30 percent. The 1994-1996 (Cooperative Learning) academic dismissal rate was 6.5 percent. The difference in dismissal rate for African-Americans between pre-Cooperative Learning and Cooperative Learning was statistically significant (p=.008).

Second Semester Academic Dismissal. The program has been equally successful in decreasing the academic dismissal rate in the second semester. The overall (1991-1996) second semester dismissal rate for participants in any part of the program is 3.3 percent, with three years (1991,1992,1995) having no students in the program dismissed. This change is statistically significant (p=.001).

Second Year and Third Year Academic Dismissal. Obviously, it would not be a good outcome to have students pass the first year and then have a significant portion of those students fail in the second year. That has not been the case. The overall (1991-1996) second year dismissal rate for participants in the AEP program is 2.8 percent For, three years there were no dismissals (1991, 1992, 1995). There were no academic dismissals of third-year students who went through the program from 1991-1993.

First Semester Grade Point Average (FSGPA). The mean GPA for the first semester for all AEP participants was 2.318 (C ). The University of Dayton is on a C (2.3) curve for first year courses. FSGPA for participants from 1991-1993 was 2.308, while the FSGPA for participants from 1994-1996 was 2.327. There was a statistically different FSGPA for African Americans and European Americans based on program design. African American FSGPA from 1991-1993 (pre-Cooperative Learning) was 1.969 (C-), while the FSGPA for African Americans from 1994-1996 was 2.312 (C ) (P=.004). The FSGPA for Other Minorities was 2.48 (C ) and there was no statistically significant difference between the years of the program. The FSGPA for European Americans was 2.39. The FSGPA was higher (2.53) from (Pre-Cooperative Learning) 1991-1993 than from Cooperative Learning (1994-1996) (2.20) (P=.038).

Second Semester Grade Point Average (SSGPA). The mean GPA for the second semester AEP participants was 2.448 (C ). The SSGPA from 1991-1993 was 2.477, while the SSGPA from 1994-1996 was 2.395. Students admitted from small colleges had the highest SSGPA (2.767) and students admitted from an educational/ economically disadvantaged background had the lowest (2.249). There was a statistically significant difference in GPA based on reason for admission to AEP. (P=.03). There was a statistically different GPA for African-Americans based on year of the program. African-American SSGPA from Pre-Cooperative Learning (1991-1993) was 2.24, while the SSGPA from 1994-1996 was 2.177. The SSGPA for European-American was 2.59. The SSGPA for European Americans was higher (2.68) from 1991-1993 than from, 1994-1996 (2.39). However, this difference was not statistically significant. (P=.069)

First Year Grade Point Average. First year GPA (FYGPA) was calculated on 106 cases. The mean FYGPA for all AEP participants was 2.453. The FYGPA from 1991-1993 was 2.475, while the FYGPA from 1994-1996 was 2.414. Students admitted from small colleges had the highest FYGPA (2.738) and students admitted as readmits had the lowest (2.277). Thus, there was a statistical significant difference in GPA based on reason for admission to AEP (P=.029). African-American's FYGPA from 1991-1993 was 2.200, while the FYGPA from 1994-1996 was 2.330. The Other Minorities FYGPA was 2.48, and there was no statistical significant difference between the years. The FYGPA for European Americans was 2.58. The FYGPA was higher (2.67) from 1991-1993 than from, 1994-1996 (2.37). For European Americans, there was a statistically significant difference between the two parts of the program. (P=.028).

Correlation of grade point average with Law School Admission Test (LSAT) / Undergraduate Grade Point Average (UGPA). Coefficient of correlations were used to show the relationship between law school GPA and admission statistics. The correlation coefficient carry not only information about the strength of the relationship, but also the direction of the coefficient. Correlation studies were done with UGPA and LSAT. A result was considered statistically significant if (p< .05). For African-Americans, there was no statistically significant correlations between UGPA, SSGPA, or FYGPA. Furthermore, where the correlations exist, they were in an unexpected negative direction: between LSAT and SSGPA (-.5395, p=. 006); and between LSAT and FYGPA (-.4908, p=.012). That is, as one variable decreased (such as LSAT), the other variable increased (such as first semester grade). Translated this means that in the second semester of their first year, African-American students with lower LSAT scores made better grades than African-American students with higher LSAT. Finally, FSGPA (.3658, p<.002) was correlated with the year of the program. African Americans FSGPA were higher in Cooperative Learning phase (1994-1996). For other minorities, there were no statistically significant correlations between UGPA and FSGPA, SSGPA, or FYGPA; or between LSAT and SSGPA. There was a significant correlation between LSAT and FSGPA (.4152, p=.025) and between LSAT and FYGPA (.2973, p=.090). Unlike African-Americans and other minorities, for European-Americans LSAT was positively and significantly correlated with FSGPA (.4774, p=.001), SSGPA (.3216, p=.026), FYGPA, SYGPA and TYGPA. The only variables that were not correlated were UGPA and FYGPA (.4073, p=.006). UGPA was correlated only with FSGPA (.2941, p=.019).

Summary. Since 1990, the University of Dayton has had an academic support program. Since 1994, the program has used Cooperative Learning. Cooperative Learning has resulted in significant improvement in student dismissal rates and overall performance of students who participated in the program. This has been particularly true for African-American students.