When I began teaching Constitutional Law, I was already an adherent of having students work collaboratively in preparing, solving, and presenting problems. So I designed several problems in the areas I was teaching: separation of powers, federalism (Commerce Clause), and substantive due process. Those problems failed to accomplish my purposes. The students unswervingly focused on the political pros and cons of the immediate issue (e.g., balancing the budget or regulating abortion), rather than on the underlying constitutional issues. They did not wrestle with the new material or exhibit the kind of in-depth learning that was my real objective in presenting them with the problems.
Preparing to teach the class for the second time, I rethought the role of collaborative work, its goals, and my methods for directing the students into the sophisticated learning that collaborative learning could promote. I realized students needed to address the material on some very basic analytical levels if they were to learn constitutional principles, theory, and processes sufficiently to solve problems of constitutional dimension.
I decided to create a project that would serve four goals.
· Students would achieve greater understanding of constitutional law by collaborating with others to dissect and organize one area in depth and breadth. · Students would achieve better overall learning by benefiting from the developed expertise of their colleagues, both during class discussions and by having access to “study aids” prepared by their classmates. · I would have a work product in addition to an examination to evaluate each student's performance in the course, and that work product would reflect intensive and reflective work, not simply high-pressure performance in problem-solving. · Students would learn some of the skills for working together productively- skills fundamental to effective legal practice. The project I ultimately designed worked better than I had ever imagined. Although I had the students do all the collaborative work out of class, the impact inside the classroom was immediate and pervasive. Both the classroom dynamic and the classroom discussion-held in a fairly traditional Socratic dialog starting with case analysis and then venturing into discussion, application, and prediction-were favorably affected by the learning that occurred within the groups.
In the first part of this article, I explain in detail the project design and implementation. In the second I use the education and social science research to explore how best to create and implement a collaborative learning project, and I relate the research findings to my experience with the Constitutional Law project.