Transactive memory systems and legal education

by Paul Maharg on 02/02/2009

In Transforming Legal Education I describe what transactional learning is, its qualities and how it can be facilitated in legal curricula.  It derives from John Dewey's concept of learning as a transaction between self and the world, though the term has other connotations in the domain of professional learning.  There are other, constellated terms around this key concept. For the last 20 years or so, for instance, cognitive scientists, constructivists and other have been investigating the phenomenon known as transactive memory systems (TMSs).  Just finished reading Michinov & Michinov's interesting article in the latest number of  Learning and Instruction [refs below — most recent journal number still to be posted up…] on the subject, and I want to summarise some of what they describe there, and suggest the value that the research concept has for legal educators.  

TMSs are systems developed by people who work closely in groups in order to encode, retrieve, use information in knowledge domains — sort of a shared sense in a group of who knows what, how to get it, how to use it.  What's interesting about the concept is that it bridges the differences between constructivists who argue that knowledge is constructed in group work (Vygotsky 1978, Slavin 1995) and distributed cognition research which argues that knowledge is distributed across the group in tools, environments and shared cognition.  

The first study I'd come across to define TMSs in depth was Wegner 1986.  Others have defined slightly different areas — for example King's (1998) transactive communication model — but TMSs have attracted more research.  They have three key dimensions, according to Lewis 2003 (and other, earlier research): specialization, in which group members come to recognise who has what expertise; co-ordination, where group members work with each other to develop and leverage knowledge on task; credibility, where group members trust the nexus of different specialisms, and their ongoing development. 

What's required in terms of context, of course, is not just a group working closely together, but working repeatedly at tasks.  Lewis's 2005 study stipulates at least two tasks.  Dewey, referring in much more general terms to habit, referred to the necessity — it's as strong as that — for habit to be embedded in learning processes.  Rulke and Rau 2000, intriguingly, measured this in terms of units of conversation, categorising the units as expertise-questions, declarations, evaluations (or interrogations of expertise) and co-ordination.

The Michinovs' study is useful because it isn't a lab study, but a careful analysis of 113 students working in groups of two or three, completing learning tasks in real programmes of study. How is their research, and this line of research in general, useful to legal educators?  I would say it's pretty important for us because of the following:

  1. As Pritchard et al (2006) show, if students are trained for group work, the individual learning of students is improved.   But as the Michinovs point out, repeated task completion is necessary for the development of a TMS — it takes a long time for a group to come together to develop the network.  In the GGSL Diploma in Legal Practice we require students to work together in their 'virtual firms' for the whole programme of study, for precisely this reason.  
  2. Recall the three characteristics of TMSs — specialization, co-ordination, credibility.   The Michinovs discovered that while linear performance of students in a TMS is largely due to specialization, there was a well-established positive relationship between transactive memory and student performance based essentially on co-ordination.  In other words, how students work together on tasks affects their learning.
  3. As Michinov & Michinov show in their analyses, 'improvement of linear performance [in student learning] was related to distributed expertise within groups rather than to distributed knowledge.'(p.53)  Recall the distinction between constructivists & distributive cognitivists above.  As the Michinovs themselves acknowledge, more research is needed on this point; but nevertheless their work points up the importance of enhancing student expertise in groupworking. It might also mean engaging students in the literature around distributed learning environments.   
  4. We don't know enough about what actually happens in TMSs — eg how members of a group 'share out a cognitive task to improve their performance through the development of TMS' (p.52).  In other words, we don't know enough about how our students actually engage with each other.  Barton & Westwood's work on groupwork in Ardcalloch gives us fascinating insights into how learning and trust are intimately bound up with each other; but so much more needs to be done.   
  5. There are wider resonances.  Recent articles by Burridge & Webb (in Legal Ethics & latest number of The Law Teacher) and by Bradney et al (Conversations, etc., and again The Law Teacher) on liberal & post-liberal approaches to legal education  have focused inter alia on groupwork.  In Transforming (chapter 8: 'Relational Objects: Transactions, Professionalism, E-mergence') I argue the case against Bradney's take on Sennett's The Corrosion of Character, particularly on groupwork in Higher Education, where freedom, responsibility and teams are interpreted as being masks for their opposites .  In the book I agree with Hughes (2005) and Giddens (1991) that in networks such as TMSs, there is freedom for individuals to shape and sustain a narrative of identity, social identity, and for peer production to be transformed into a new form of collaboration (adducing also Benkler's argument, 2006).  But what detailed research such as the Michinovs' reveals is that however much we talk about groupwork, argue about it, require our students to do it, we know so little, really, about both the shorter- and longer-term effects of what we ask our students to do.
  6. A key theme of Sennett's book (much of which I admire, though I strongly disagree about the application of his interpretation of teamworking to HE) is the effect of time on our lives, how time is organized for us, how uncertain we feel in the time shifts of late capitalist employment, how we deal with the effects of it on our emotions, our work patterns, our hopes and fears for the future, our children.  Memory, individual and social memory, is essential to all this.  The Michinovs' article, an apparently dry and academic study, actually goes to the heart of some of the key educational debates that we need to engage in.  


Benkler, Y. (2006) The Wealth of Networks. How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, New Haven, CT and London, Yale University Press. 

Giddens, A. (1991) Modernity and Self-Identity. Self and Society in Late Modern Age, Cambridge, Polity Press.

Hughes, J. (2005) Bring emotion to work: emotional intelligence, employee resistance and the reinvention of character, Work, Employment and Society, 19(3), pp. 603–20. 

King, A. (1998) Transactive peer tutoring: distributing cognition and metacognition, Educational Psychology Review 10, pp. 57–74

Lewis, K. D. Lange and L. Gillis (1995) Transactive memory systems, learning, and learning transfer, Organization Science 16 (6) (2005), pp. 581–598.

Michinov, N., & Michinov, E. (2009). Investigating the relationship between transactive memory and performance in collaborative learning. Learning & Instruction19, 43-54.

Prichard, J.S., R.J. Stratford and L.A. Bizo (2006) Team-skills training enhances collaborative learning, Learning and Instruction 16 (2006), pp. 256–265.

Rulke, D.L. and D. Rau (2000) Investigating the encoding process of transactive memory development in group training, Group & Organization Management 25 (4) (2000), pp. 373–396

Slavin, R.E. (1995) Cooperative Learning: Theory, Research, and Practice (2nd ed.), Allyn & Bacon, Boston, MA

Wegner, D.M. (1986) Transactive memory: a contemporary analysis of the group mind. In: B. Mullen and G.R. Goethals, Editors, Theories of Group Behaviour, Springer, New York (1986), pp. 185–208.

Vygotsky, L.S, (1978) Mind in Society, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

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