Strength in Small Numbers

Small group work in large lecture courses can be very powerful. In my Professional Responsibility course this past semester, I had 74 students and many hailed from other countries. I wanted to get them talking to each other about the material, not just passively listening to me. Small group work so integral to law school clinical teaching that we rarely pause to break it down. But the use of small groups in traditional law school courses has been growing–see, e.g., this Harvard Law School blog describing the work of a fellow Penn State prof; and this piece on small group work in Professional Responsibility courses from Albany Law’s Center for Excellence in Teaching. In my Professional Responsibility course last semester, I started with two small exercises:

Problem-Based Group Exercise: Early in the term, I broke the 74 students into 10 random groups by doing an old-fashioned “count-off” around the room. Each group received a hard copy of a PowerPoint slide projected in the classroom, containing 2 multiple choice questions from my previous exams. Both questions were directly related to the material I had covered in the first half of class that day. I sent the groups to the 4 corners of our large room, and nearby empty classrooms and hallways, for 15 minutes of discussing the questions. Upon their return, I reviewed the questions and did straw polls for the correct answer(s). I explained the correct answers, and a lively dialogue ensued about why those were the “best” or “least bad” choices, which led into a test-taking discussion. What did I learn? Budget more time for the test-taking discussion, and reserve quiet space for each group in advance. Still, the student response was very positive overall.

Legal System/Self-Regulation Discussion: Near the end of the semester, I broke the students into 6 larger groups alphabetically by last name. I gave them hard copies of question prompts about ethical dilemmas and social justice posed by the day’s assigned reading. The prompt instructed them to prepare to report back to the entire class, in any way they chose. I gave them 20 minutes to discuss, and we took another 40 minutes for the report-back. Redundancy was a slight problem, but the variations in styles of reporting back were impressive. What did I learn? Giving two or three different prompts among the groups could reduce redundancy; and assigning the project in advance would give them time to produce more polished report-backs and enable absent students to participate.

The benefits of small group work in a law school classroom go beyond the obvious “active learning is more effective than passive learning.” Connecting with other humans to solve a problem affecting the larger group is a microcosm of the practice of law. Are you using small group work in your large courses? Do you assign point values to the group work? How far in advance do you announce it? Does it work better in first-year courses or upper-level courses for you? Drop me a comment about how you are finding strength in small numbers!

One Response

  1. I’d love to see more discussion of how to use small group learning in large classes.

    I teach Legal Ethics, using the problem based course book, Legal Ethics in the Practice of Law (full disclosure, Richard Zitrin, lead author invited me to join him as author with a focus on the Teacher’ Manual, on the 4th and upcoming 5th editions). Over the semester I have each student lead small group (3-6 students)discussion twice during the semester (class size ranges from 30-60). In preparation I meet with the “TA’s for a day” and lead their own small group discussion, so they are prepared to lead discussion in the class. We weave back and forth from small group discussion to report out to small group discussion to overall problem resolution. It is a lot of work for me, but makes for some pretty terrific classes. Happy to share syllabus and or just chat.

    What are other people doing? liz

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