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Motivation in the Legal Research Classroom

Motivating students in the legal research classroom can be a challenge. As we know, there are many false narratives surrounding students' conceptions of legal research's importance, interest level, and ease, all of which can result in a decrease in students' motivation to engage in this subject matter.

There are two types of motivation--intrinsic and extrinsic. Extrinsic motivation occurs when students are motivated by an outside reward or punishment;[1] in instruction, this is often the grades students will get on research assignments or the participation points they might receive for actively engaging with in-class exercises.  Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, occurs when students are interested in the topic for its own sake.[2]

Due to legal research's false narratives, students entering our classrooms tend to be drive primarily by extrinsic motivation.  The problem is, as Julie Dirksen aptly notes in her excellent book Design for How People Learn, "intri…
Recent posts

Teaching and Burnout

Well, friends, it's been quite a while since I've written in this venue.  Full disclosure: the fall semester was a tough one--my library was down two teaching librarians and the load was heavy as responsibilities in this and other areas increased.  While I still enjoyed being in the classroom with my students, I didn't have as much time as I'd like to think deeply about cognitive science and educational theory, and I often started feeling badly about myself for not making more time for it, for not pushing forward in my understanding of how we can best help students learn.

The truth is that a career is a marathon, not a sprint. This is something that I spout off to others quite frequently, but is something I too often fail to keep in mind for myself.  I often feel like a hypocrite as I speak to my students frequently about the importance of self-care, when I so infrequently practice self-care myself.  Teaching, done well, uses up a huge amount of emotional and cognitiv…

Why Experts Can Struggle to Teach Novices

This week in our Slack group on teaching, there was an interesting discussion about expertise and the amount of time needed to prep for instruction. I mentioned something that I recalled reading: that experts can be less effective in teaching novices because often the expert skips cognitive steps that the novice learner needs to understand.  I thought I'd dig into this a little more today on the blog.

The fact is novices and experts learn very differently.  The major reason for this is that experts not only know a lot about their chosen discipline, but they understand how that discipline is organized. As such, what has a clear structure to the expert is a jumbled set of unorganized information to the novice.  The information presented to novices "are more or less random data points."[1]  In contrast, when the expert learns something new in her area of expertise, she just plugs it into the knowledge structure that already exists in her long-term memory. Because the new in…

Gratitude in Teaching

My favorite poet is Mary Oliver and what I love most about her work is the awe and gratefulness she exudes in merely observing the world.

She writes,
Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.
This is, I think, good advice for teachers.  As teachers, we tend to focus in, with laser-like precision, on anything that goes wrong in our classrooms. This is important--we must reflect on what doesn't work in our classrooms to improve as instructors. But, what we too often fail to do is take note of our successes.

In Chapter 3 of her new book, Geeky Pedagogy: A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to Be Effective Teachers, Professor Jessamyn Neuhaus has a wonderful section on the importance of gratitude in teaching. She describes gratitude as "an inner attitude [that] leads to an expression of thanks--taking an action--toward someone or something. It means recognizing what you received from another person or from the circumstances in w…

Letter to A First-Time (Legal Research) Instructor

Dear Friend,

Seven years ago this week, I was prepping madly to teach my first legal research class.  Three months earlier, I'd been a law student myself.  To say that I was nervous is an understatement; mildly terrified was probably a more apt description.  The truth is I didn't really know what I was getting myself into, but I knew that I wanted to teach legal research differently than I had been taught legal research, where at best it was viewed as a skill less important than everything else being taught at law school and at worst an afterthought, a skill that students should be able to do with very little training. 

There are many points I wish I knew then that I know now and that's what I want to share with you today. 


First and foremost, students will forgive many imperfections in the classroom if they know you care about their learning.  At the start of every semester, I re-read Kent Syverud's "Taking Students Seriously: A Guide for New Law Teachers,"…