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Discussion Groups - How and Why: Or,
"To Study Group or Not to Study Group? - that is the question."
A study group is the least defined, most misunderstood learning tool in law school. Some students swear by them, claiming that this was the source of their legal knowledge. Other students claim that they can't begin to study with all the voices and confusion in a study group. Some groups outline together, while some literally study the rules and exceptions of the law. Others use their study group as a glorified briefing system, dividing up the cases to be briefed by subject or days. Finally, some students' study group takes the form of a support group. In any case, this type of study group can be helpful, but is not a necessity.
However, beyond reviewing and learning the law and cases, students should also consider a discussion-type study group to create a strategy for exams. In essence, this group's focus is on problem-solving, which can help you learn efficient and effective techniques for mastering law school study. Group problem-solving is an activity that provides a practical element to the study of law. In the same way that lawyers look to other lawyers to discuss and analyze problems, a group of focused students can also think of possible methods of analysis and otherwise bounce ideas off each other.
So, do you discuss with your friends? Well, only if they fit the right mold. Think of this as work, not a sign of friendship. So where to find them? Look at the students who are in your sections, seem to be around when you are, and look like they would be interested in sharing. The "smart" guy in the class may be an asset - but only if he is willing to explain how he got to the answer, since not everyone intuitively "gets it." The quiet one who looks smart may also be a good choice, but only if he shares his ideas - you can't have someone just listening in a discussion group.
In deciding the selections of the members of your group, you may want to consider how each member learns. Ideally, it would be good to have at least one student who views the broad theories of a substantive area of law (in other words, the one who sees the "forest" or "big picture"). It is also important to include someone who knows the details of each legal rule (the "trees" or "minutiae"). It is also important to have students who contribute equally - avoid having one student dictate to the group under the guise of facilitating the process. You will miss valuable input from the whole (and besides, who says the loudest is always right?). So look for the thoughtful, the analytic, and the students that you can be around. After all, if the group is not congenial, it can't last.
In order to best learn problem solving, all members of the group need to communicate with each other. It is important for all students to become engaged in the process so that their input can become part of the problem solving. Significantly, it is important to note all the plausible solutions to a hypothetical - and let the group determine why some were not the best resolution. Ultimately, by comparing and contrasting the various possibilities, the group can see the "best" answer.
Once the group is formed, you may want to follow these steps. Initially, however, a decision is made that at a specific time the group will discuss some specific substantive area. It is important in any group to have some regularity. Although you might decide to meet once or twice a week for a two-hour session in October and early November, you might try to increase meetings as you complete your outlining and start preparing for exams. Then you might consider meeting over the weekend so you have plenty of time to analyze the issues.
Similarly, in the early stages of the discussion group, you might want to focus on some specific aspect of criminal law, say manslaughter, or a comparison of manslaughter to murder in the second degree. Later, closer to exams, you might want to cover entire areas of the law - say negligence; or jurisdictional issues. But in any situation, before discussion you all need to decide what to prepare for. So, at a meeting, someone (already selected or as a volunteer) introduces a specific problem or issue. It may come from class discussion, the students' textbook or a self-made hypothetical. You can use question and answer style resources to also come up with a question. If you are creating it, try to emulate the professor's style. Remember, you are preparing, on a small scale, for exams.
So try to be like the person who is going to ask - and grade - the exam. As you progress through the semester, you can move from simple one-issue problems to multi-issues. Note that in your exams, you will be faced with many different issues stemming from a single factual situation. So, problems that deal with multiple issues are ideal since your group can then work together to synthesize the many concepts you have learned and experience an exam-like situation. Toward the end of the semester, look at the professor's past exams. Depending on time limitations, it may be useful to distribute the problem before the meeting so that everyone has an opportunity to consider possible solutions.
At this point, you will also want to appoint a scribe to write down all of the ideas and solutions, and a leader to help keep everyone participating and focused. There may be a natural facilitator who keeps everyone on task; if so, you might want to keep that person as leader. Otherwise, take turns so that everyone has the responsibility to guide the process. Similarly, you might want to keep one scribe per subject. In this way, everyone will know that a certain person has all the information on a subject.
Start the group-problem solving session by identifying possible issues relating to the particular problem you are trying to solve. Before any solutions are discussed, make sure everyone has the problem and sees the issues. Don't be so concerned if someone's ideas seems far-fetched; the student's idea may actually be an innovative way to consider the problem.
After you have identified the issues, begin formulating possible answers and arguments and analysis, and allowing the scribe to record them in an organized manner on a sheet of paper. You will probably find that at times the conversation becomes confusing, with alternative theories of applicable law. This is a good sign because it mimics what you will need to do during an exam question. It is important to remember that you may need to explain to the professor not only why one rule is applicable, but also why a closely related one is not. Similarly, your discussion group may need to spend time deciding why one approach or rule is correct versus alternative positions. It is times like this that you will know if you really understand the rules. A lot of time people "think" they understand - yet they cannot succinctly explain it to someone else, let alone apply it to a set of facts. So, use the resources available to you - your text and class notes, supplementary material, your professor - develop your analysis as completely as possible and to resolve disagreements. Don't be afraid to stop and meet at some other time after all of you review your notes and outlines. Eventually, you need to decide what the issues are and what rules/exceptions/limitations are involved.
After you have decided on a focus, you will need to specifically apply the problem's facts to the law. Again, practicing application to the facts and the explanation of your results can help you during an exam. Moreover, using a group allows you to see other views and stretches how you approach and analyze the rules of law.
Finally, organize and summarize what you have learned. Predict how and when it might be tested. Decide the steps you took to solve the problem because this can serve as the beginning of your exam strategy. Flowchart the process you used to get to the answer. Note all questions for the professor - and make sure you ask them!
Law school is difficult, yet discussion groups and collaborative learning can make it more manageable. Just remember that each member of the group needs to be prepared in order to assist the whole. Finally, don't be surprised if the process takes time, especially in the early stages. But, similar to law school, it gets easier as you get more experience.