View from the Classroom: Teaching collaboration

Steven D. Schwinn is an associate professor of law at The John Marshall Law School. He is co-editor of the Constitutional Law Prof Blog and he can be reached at or (312) 386-2865.

Lawyers collaborate.  We consult, we review, we edit, we co-counsel.  We work with other lawyers; we work with outsiders.  Rare is the time that we work alone, all by ourselves.  Ours is a collaborative profession, and our work is the better for it.  For many of us, or even all of us, this is one of the great joys of our jobs.

But we don’t teach this to our students.  In fact, we indoctrinate our law students into an entirely different profession—one that is lonely, even alienating, and bereft of collaboration.  For example, our traditional large-size, Socratic first-year courses emphasize the professor-student relationship, leaving the vast majority of the students out of the dialogue.  This is social (insofar as all face-to-face education is social), but it’s distinctly vertical, with the knowledge-empowered professor leading the learning.  It is not collaborative in the horizontal, student-to-student sense.

Even in a first-year course like legal writing—courses that lend themselves to collaboration—students work largely in isolation.  Part of the reason relates to plagiarism: we demand that our students produce their own work and don’t borrow from others.  But this is only a partial explanation; it doesn’t fully explain our highly individualized approach.

Our grading only reinforces isolation.  We evaluate students only as individuals, based on their performance alone.  Grades do not depend on students’ work together; in fact, that would be unfair: it would encourage free-loading and put a disproportionate burden on only the most hard-working and talented.  Our grading is individual, it promotes individualism, and it discourages collaboration.

We even model individualism.  As far as our students know, our work is a highly individual pursuit.  (As we all know, students aren’t shy to compare their different professors, even in the same subject.  And they’re quick to see vast differences in approaches—differences that suggest to them that we work alone, not in collaboration, in developing our approaches.)  In fact, we’re very protective of our own teaching styles and slow to learn from our colleagues.  And we almost never engage in public collaboration about teaching—open discussions about teaching, co-teaching, etc.—that would model collaboration for our students.  (In reality, we of course collaborate all the time.  My point: students rarely see it.)

Even so, we know that students collaborate.  They form study groups, they share notes and outlines, they run hypotheticals with each other.  Perhaps most importantly, they give each other support.  In some upper-level classes and activities—clinics, skills courses, moot court, law review, and the like—they must collaborate.  But if they learn to collaborate, they’re mostly on their own.

Teaching collaboration, even within our structural and institutional constraints, is easy.  We can assign and facilitate small group, problem-based work even in our large classes.  We can use structured peer exercises in our writing courses.  We can model collaboration by expanding our own collaborative teaching efforts and opening up our other collaborative efforts (like scholarly workshops) to more students.  We can even evaluate students, in part, based on performance on collaborative projects.

Given our profession’s reliance on collaboration, we should do no less.


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