Reflecting on Legal Research Instruction

I’ve just emerged from a few weeks of first-year law student legal research instruction. During that immersion—that is, when I didn’t have time to read it—I came across an interesting post on the RIPS Law Librarian blog: Michele Thomas’s “Guiding Principles for Enhancing Classroom Experiences.” The principles arising from the author’s reflections are sound and broadly applicable, in my view.

Our teaching team happened to implement this year or have in place some of these, at least in some form. I expect we’ll look at more of these, or others, next year.

My favourite tips are Ms Thomas’s first and third:

Try New Things

Every week, I try new things. Some of them work, and some of them don’t. But I always repeat things that seem to be working well in an effort to enhance my teaching skills so my students leave this semester armed with mastery of the skills needed to move forward to next semester and beyond. Tufts University provides a short list on developing classroom activities that I find helpful.

Give Up Fear

Law school is a breeding ground for fear and anxiety. Some of that is necessary—just the nature of the beast, but encouraging students to give up fear in the classroom is important. A 2011 piece from Inside Higher Ed entitled, “The Freedom to Fail,” inspired me 1. to encourage my students to fail and 2. to fail in front of my students. Perhaps especially in a skills course, they need to feel safe giving wrong answers and learning from their mistakes. One way to encourage students to give answers even when they’re not certain they’re correct is to allow yourself to struggle a bit in front of them. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t know your stuff; it does mean that a slightly more free-form class with a lot of student questions and a lot of online demonstration in databases can help everyone learn more.

I’m now at about the same point in the legal research instruction process as was Ms Thomas in late October; I also have had a few days to reflect on the process. As ever, it’s an interesting—and educational—experience to be at the front of the legal research class.

Instead of guiding principles, I came up with a list of things I found important to remind myself of during legal research instruction. None of these is a novel notion; these are just a few things I find useful to be mindful of:

  • The specialized legal research tools—and the whole framework of legal information—has been foreign to many or most of the students before the preceding month or two.
  • To many students, legal research is sort of the broccoli and spinach of first-year law school courses, and research instruction tutorials come at a time when they’re beginning to feel the weight of their workload. Engagement can be a challenge, as can avoidance of information overload.
  • Though this seems obvious, I find it useful to actively remind myself that times have changed in the couple of decades (+) since I took the course. For example—in roughly the words of one of our students last week—we have this new-fangled internet thingy.
  • And times have changed since the last iteration of this course only a year ago. Online databases carry new features, library research tools change, and collections grow and shrink.
  • Legal information is information. Part of the librarian’s job is to understand and, as necessary, help develop the information literacy skills and awareness of each student.

In our post-instruction evaluation, we’ll consider how well we worked in the context of these points, any other ideas and issues that the team noted, and how we can better incorporate useful approaches such Ms Thomas’s guiding principles.

What ideas can other legal research instructors—and learners—share?

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