Teaching and Learning Forum 97 [ Contents ]

Lessons for teaching using group work from a survey of law students [1]

Archie Zariski
School of Law
Murdoch University


This research did not follow an experimental design, such as prescribing group work for some law students in a class but not others, and comparing the resulting grades or other measures of learning. Nor was it intended to lay the ground for changes in teaching by exploring students' predispositions towards group work with the intent of designing a collaborative learning program to meet them. Rather, it was the response of two law teachers [2] who felt they were doing something right and important by asking law students to work in groups and who wanted to learn whether their students reacted positively to the experience. It was, therefore more like what is called "impact research" in legal circles: an attempt to gauge the effect of a particular law or policy on those who are affected by it. Nevertheless, these researchers believe that the survey they conducted goes beyond mere feedback from particular law students and may shed light on some general principles relevant to student group work in various settings.

We have in the past received feedback in a variety of ways on how our law students have experienced group work at Murdoch, usually by way of informal conversations with them and also via comments from tutors and facilitators. However, no methodical research has been conducted at least in our law school on this aspect of legal study. This project therefore was an attempt to fill some of the gaps in our knowledge as to how students react to group work and why those reactions apparently can vary greatly amongst students as shown in the following two vignettes drawn from student reports.

Vignette One

"How the group will facilitate my learning objective of exploring the duties and obligations of a liquidator:

  1. By bringing specialist knowledge to bear on the assigned problem.
  2. Through the creation of a learning environment in which it is fun to learn.
  3. Distilling the principles of liquidation in a manner that is memorable and easy to identify with also facilitates the attainment of my learning objective.
  4. By allowing a recognition of the commercial framework within which my learning objective is situated.
  5. By ensuring that at least part of my learning objectives are satisfied through my participation in the group exercise."

Vignette Two

"Two people attended last week's workshop; myself, and S. Had there been many fewer we would have been outnumbered by the facilitator. For this reason I have had some trouble answering the question of how I think my group can help me to achieve the learning objectives I previously outlined. After some thought, two approaches I could take in answering the question came to mind. The first would be to feign confidence that our group project would be the work of more than one or two members, and to rhapsodise about the lessons we would learn from being dependant on each other in pursuing a common goal. The second approach, which I have decided to pursue, might be branded as cynical, but has the advantage over the first approach of being true.

I think that my group can help me to achieve my learning objectives by being completely apathetic. ...

I have come to this conclusion partly on the basis of two psychological constructs about groups. The first is social loafing (Harkins, Latane and Williams, "Social Loafing: Allocating Effort or 'Taking it Easy'" (1980) 16 Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 457). The second psychological construct is social facilitation (Bond and Titus, "Social Facilitation: A Meta-Analysis of 241 Studies", (1983) 94 Psychological Bulletin 265.)"

Two very different vignettes, both from the same class which took part in this research.

These polarised reports of student experience with working in groups were not acquired as part of this research but illustrate why it was pursued. How many students are "turned off" by group work and how many "turned on"? How do students prior attitudes and beliefs affect their experience of working in groups and do they change in the course of that experience? Do students realise the learning potential of working cooperatively with their peers? The issues highlighted by such diverse vignettes provided the impetus for questioning students in a methodical way about their experience of group work in law school.

Context and Focus of the Study

Student groups formed for academic purposes are certainly not unusual in the Murdoch University Law School. Tutorials are required in several units which involve group meetings and interaction on a regular basis. In addition these researchers believe that perhaps the majority of students associate themselves in voluntary "study groups" which may meet to discuss legal topics and to share notes and subject outlines. Neither of these forms of group process entail the production of joint academic work however. Tutorial presentations are individual efforts directed towards leading the group to analyse and discuss set problems for which the individual presenter is separately marked. So far as we know, study groups do not usually collaborate on a group set of notes or a joint outline but rather collect individual contributions for discussion and distribution.

These researchers and some others in the Murdoch law school decided to go further in bringing collaborative effort into the mainstream of teaching and learning for law students. This involved setting group tasks directed towards producing a joint product as an important part of the learning experience and the assessment regime. In 1993 three units coordinated by the researchers featured such group tasks.

For the elective unit "Remedies" students were required to complete a research report on practical aspects of legal remedies working in self-selected groups of two or three independently of supervision. One submission was made by each group, the same mark being awarded to all members who were required to sign a declaration of equal contribution to the project. Students were advised that one of the educational goals served by this assignment was "to foster the development in prospective lawyers of communication and co-operative skills".

In the unit "Legal Practice and Documentation" (a full year required unit) students were randomly assigned to groups of between 6 and 8 members to work on a variety of legal problem solving and writing projects which were submitted to other groups for comment and criticism. No marks were awarded for these activities. Tutors acting as 'facilitators" attended group meetings from time to time. The unit guide contained background statements about the collaborative approach to learning including the following: "In an 'information age' marked by acceleration in the increase of stocks of knowledge and in the speed of its transmission, division of labour in mental work followed by coordination of results becomes imperative. Exposure to working in groups should therefore be a valuable experience for all students as well as providing other benefits such as opportunities for peer teaching, support and critiquing."

As part of the elective unit "Alternative Dispute Resolution" students were randomly assigned to groups of between 8 and 10 members to prepare for dispute resolution exercises. These exercises were simulations involving processes such as negotiation and mediation amongst groups which took place before the entire class. A member of each group was nominated by it to act as its representative for the purpose of the role-play. Tutors acting as "mentors" attended some of the group meetings and awarded marks based on the quality of group preparation for the exercises. Students peer-assessed the performance of individual participants in the simulations. Students were advised that the group workshops and simulations "will be occupied with group participation in applying selected processes to the resolution of set problems and the practice of associated skills."

Finally, a colleague of the researchers in the law school included a group assignment in his elective unit "Taxation Policy". Here the task was to collaborate on producing a joint paper dealing with one aspect of the subject area which was assessed.

The 120 or so students in these four units were the focus of our study. Some students experienced group work through enrolment in two or more of the units in question.

The Survey Questionnaire

We decided to use a written questionnaire which would facilitate statistical analysis of responses. These were distributed in classes, completed in students' own time and deposited in a box provided in the law school. A tear-off cover page with the respondent's name was collected separately, allowing us to follow-up with those students who had not participated while preserving anonymity of the responses.

Writing the questionnaire itself led to the first favourable outcome of this research since it required the researchers to clarify their somewhat unrefined reasons for asking law students to work in groups. We found that these learning objectives could be roughly classified as related either to values or skills, recognising that these terms themselves are not well defined.

Some of the values we had in mind as being enhanced by group work were those of trust in and respect for fellow students. This led us to ask students to respond to such statements as "Before I did group work in law school, my level of trust towards other students was: High Medium Low" and to ask what their level of trust was after doing group work. As regards skills, we asked students for instance to rate the level of their "skill in organising and coordinating tasks and outcomes" before and after doing group work. Other skills touched on were "ability to resolve conflicts" and communication skills.

One section of the questionnaire explicitly stated the variety of educational objectives which the researchers believed group work could serve and asked students to rate the relevance of them to their own educational needs. Other questions sought to ascertain what support students found most useful in pursuing group work. A number of the questionnaire items dealt with the issue of assessment of group work and of unequal contributions to the joint product. One section explored the issue of conflict in groups and how it was resolved. A final open-ended question allowed students to express their "general feelings about group work".

Copies of the survey instrument are available on the world wide web using the following URL:



One of the most pleasing results of this research was the high level of participation and quality of response received from the students. Out of the target group of about 120 students 85 (over 70%) responded and of those responding 70 of them took the time to write sometimes lengthy statements on the final open-ended item. No doubt the use of follow-up procedures contributed to gaining this high participation rate but it is also likely that it reflects the high degree of salience which the issue of group work had for these students.

Here are some of the results we found most striking:

Discussion and Analysis

The last findings described above deserve more attention. What most students seem to be saying about their learning is that they are convinced group work makes a difference. But when it comes to the question of marks a little more than half of them believe group work makes no difference to the grade they receive.

It bears considering whether this finding relates in some way to other results of the survey where the respondents seem to be polarised in their responses to group work. For instance, there were larger proportions of students who reported a decrease in their level of trust towards other students (13% of respondents) and of respect for them (14%) than we would have liked to see. Another somewhat troubling result was the finding that 41% of students responding did not see "enhancing the motivation to learn" as a relevant objective of doing group work.

These observations lead me to suggest that for a number of law students something has "turned them off" group work such that they display ambivalent attitudes towards the experience. It may well be that the explanation lies in the prevalence of unequal contribution to group projects and the impact that has on learning, grades and attitudes. These possibilities have led me to analyse the responses more closely. Statistical tests were performed on the answers to several paired questions which revealed some interesting significant correlations as follows:

It should be kept in mind when considering these findings that sizeable numbers of students reported no personal change in relation to the values and skills targeted, as reported above.

Lessons for the Future?

This research has convinced me of several things which will affect my approach to student group work in the future and no doubt the results will suggest additional lessons to others.

First, I am satisfied that group work has an effect on student values, attitudes and learning. Second, that effect is not always positive and seems to depend on the perceived successes (or failures) of group processes experienced. Third, there may be a "levelling" or "homogenising" effect on student attitudes of experiencing group work related to perceptions of its impact on learning and grades.

Hopefully this research and further analysis of the information collected will contribute to preparing the way for more positive vignettes of learning in law school such as the following:

Vignette Three

"Jaques (Learning in Groups, London: Kogan Page, 1991) has stated that generally, individuals learn best when they are personally involved in the learning experience. The author further states that the quality of the learning is significantly heightened when the individual is committed to aims that the individual has been involved in setting. ...

Given the recognised effects of group dynamics upon the learning process as described briefly above, several aspects of our group may be seen as contributing to my personal learning experience."

Vignette Four

"Basically, having a group work on a single problem will also have simple personpower advantages. Whilst each member need only contribute a few hours each, this adds up to dozens of person hours spent on the single problem. Essentially, each person in the group will receive the instructive benefit of this mass of effort. Certainly, group 8 will easily produce more output than I could on my own, thus I can only benefit from the process."


  1. This research was supported by a Murdoch University Teaching Grant which is gratefully acknowledged. Thanks also go to Helen Shurven who assisted with data analysis and to Dale Montgomery for transcribing respondents' written answers. [back]
  2. This project was conducted jointly by the author and Associate Professor Gary Davis then of the Murdoch University Law School and now at Flinders University. [back]
Please cite as: Zariski, A. (1997). Lessons for teaching using group work from a survey of law students. In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p361-366. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1997/zariski.html

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