Jamie Sommer

Collaborative and Peer Learning Opportunities for Upper-Level Law Students

Jamie Sommer

Jamie Sommer is the Associate Director for Public Services at the Pritzker Legal Research Center and teaches legal research at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law.  She received her B.A. from Indiana University, her law degree from DePaul University College of Law, and her M.S. in Library and Information Science from the University of Illinois.


Objective: Improve collaborative and peer learning opportunities for students enrolled in Advanced Legal Research course.  Students in the course are upper-level law students who have gained practical experience from summer associate positions, clerkships and internships.  My goal was to explore ways for the students to share their own valuable learning experiences with their colleagues.

Note regarding results:  Formal evaluations regarding the course, including the three assignments discussed here, are still outstanding.  Reported results are based on an informal request for feedback from the class.

I. Practice Group Team Research Project

Savner Hall - Northwestern Law
Photos by Jasmin Shah. The new Savner Hall at Northwestern Law on Monday, April 6th, 2015.

Assignment:  The students completed a survey at the beginning of the semester stating their intended practice areas.  Based on their expressed area of interest, the students were divided into Law Practice Groups (Litigation, Intellectual Property, Labor & Employment, Criminal, Corporate and General Practice).  Using the Collaboration feature of Canvas, each group was assigned a research problem involving a hypothetical client related to their practice area.   The students worked through the problem in their practice groups, editing a Google Doc that summarized their research findings and then presented an overview of the issue and their advice to the entire class.

Results: Based on an informal survey of the class, the majority of students felt the assignment contributed to their understanding of the available resources in their intended practice area

“I learned a lot from working with my team and it kept me accountable to the rest of the group to ensure that I was learning throughout the class so that I could contribute during group work.”

Additional Resources: What are Student Groups in Canvas?  and How do I create a Google Docs Collaboration in Canvas?

II. Yellowdig Discussion Forum on Search Strategy Best Practices

Slide1yellowdig discussion forum

Assignment: Learning objectives for the course include understanding how search algorithms work in the most popular legal databases (Lexis, Westlaw and Bloomberg Law) and creating effective search queries using a combination of simple keywords, Boolean operators and proximity connectors.   In class, the students were presented with a research problem involving the economic loss doctrine in tort law and asked to identify the most relevant Illinois cases related to the issue.  They were first asked to research the issue in Westlaw and then research the issue in Lexis.  Using the Yellowdig forum on Canvas, the students were asked to post their most and least successful search strategies and how the results differed between the two databases.  They were also asked to review and comment on their colleagues’ posts.

Results:  Feedback from students was mixed when asked whether the forum contributed to their ability to construct advanced searches in Westlaw or Lexis.  The students posted some comments in response to their peers’ posts, but the online discussion was not as robust as I had hoped.  However, the posts did serve an excellent starting point for an in-class discussion during the next class session wherein we reviewed the assignment.

Additional Resources: Overview of Yellowdig Discussion Boards and Yellowdig Help Guide (pdf)

III. Anonymous Peer Review

Peer Review graphic

Assignment:  Working in teams of two, the students were assigned a research problem involving a hypothetical child from El Salvador who fled his country because of gang violence and was seeking asylum in the U.S.  The teams had to summarize their research findings in a one-page memorandum and orally present an overview of the case to me in private conference.  The students were then asked to anonymously review another group’s one-page summary using the Peer Review and Rubric functions on Canvas.

grading rubric

Results: Most research and writing assignments involve 10+ page memos, so one of the objectives for this assignment is to be able to present an extremely concise overview of their research findings.  When asked whether the peer review contributed to their ability to present a concise research summary, the students responded evenly between not at all, somewhat and a great deal.  However, during discussions after the private conferences and peer review feedback was released, several students commented on how they were surprised by the different approaches used by the groups in presenting the most important information within one page.   Without seeing the evaluations, I am uncertain whether the structure of the rubric for the peer review provided the most beneficial feedback.  In the future, I plan to rethink whether using the peer review assignment on Canvas with the grading rubric is the most effective way for students to learn alternative methods of presenting information from how their peers.

Additional Resources: How do I create a peer review assignment in Canvas?


All three of these assignments were developed as part of Northwestern’s Educational Technology Teaching Fellows program.  Many thanks to Northwestern University’s Faculty Support Services for organizing the program and providing so many wonderful learning opportunities throughout the year.  Special thanks to Erin Green who served as my consultant throughout the project.

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