Skip to main content

Research as Analysis in the Modern Legal Academy

For decades, those discussing best practices in legal education have highlighted the importance of skills education (see the Crampton Report, the MacCrate Report, the Carnegie Report, and Best Practices for Legal Education, for just a few examples). But, as legal writing, advocacy, and clinical courses have all emerged to take their rightful place as key components in law students' education, legal research has remained a shadow skill. Despite numerous reports from those hiring our students being dissatisfied with their research skills, legal research education remains relegated to the background even in first year skills classes with "legal research" in their very title.

At least in part, this is due to legal research having been divorced from the analysis that is central to the Langdellian model of legal education. In reality, analysis is central to successful research, and it is only by reclaiming research as an analytical skill in the modern legal academy that research can ever claim its place as a critical skill in preparing law students for practice. Only by tying research to analysis explicitly can we prove to administrators, our faculty colleagues, and our students how important research really is. Without that critical nexus, research will continued to be viewed as a gathering task separate from critical thinking.

In a recent blog post on DipLawMatic Dialogues, I wrote briefly about the importance of talking to our students about the analysis inherent to legal research and about the importance of allowing students opportunities to practice those analytical research skills. But what specifically are these skills? In the past months as I've been thinking about research as analysis, I've been trying to identify categories of analytical tasks that need to be emphasized to and practiced by our students. So far, I have identified at least four categories (and I'm quite sure there are more), all of which I hope to address at length on this blog in due time:
  1. Strategizing: This involves students creating a plan of attack that is appropriate to the research question or questions being asked.
  2. Assessing: This involves students critiquing sources for their credibility, a skill that's especially important to teach our Google generation.
  3. Analogizing: This involves students being able to tie the research found to their own facts.
  4. Synthesizing: This involves being able to apply multiple rules/authorities together in order to apply them to their facts.
It may be argued that students learn about some of these skills in other courses, even in their doctrinal classes. But when students are analogizing or synthesizing in their doctrinal or other skills courses, they are doing it with a body of sources they already have on hand. They are not attempting to engage in that critical thinking whilst in the middle of locating sources--a skill many students already struggle to do without engaging in in-depth analysis. Having opportunities to practice tying together the bibliographic skills of legal research with the critical thinking necessary to be a sound researcher are imperative for students to succeed in practice. That should be our mission: giving that practice and telling everyone in our professional setting that students are learning analysis in our classrooms.

Popular posts from this blog

How Having a Textbook Can Help Law Students Be More Engaged Learners

In my time teaching legal research and analysis, I have gone back and forth on whether to have a required textbook or any required readings. For me, research courses are most effective when they are practice-focused, but the right textbook or readings can help students prepare to use the resources we are teaching. But it can be frustrating to plan a class on the basis that the students have actively done the reading, only to find out that they at best skimmed it. As I look forward to next year's classes, I have once again begun to contemplate whether or not to require a text. 

For legal research courses, a textbook can help the course have legitimacy. The optics are good; law students may see the course as more substantive and therefore more worth their time. But requiring a textbook (yet another expense for students) is superfluous if the students aren't engaging with it effectively, or at all.

I started doing some background reading on the value of utilizing textbooks and the …

Four Aspects of Effectual Teaching (& Why Instructional Design Is the One Missing In Many Law Courses)

There are four general components of teaching, which all must come together for a teacher to be successful:
Knowledge of the Subject Matter: Most instructors in higher education have this covered. The largest potential hurdle of this aspect of teaching is perhaps remembering to view the material from the perspective of the beginner learner, as opposed to from the teacher's own advanced learner status. In my first year of teaching, I found this to be an issue, as I jumped over steps that were so obvious to me that I didn't even notice them anymore. It was only by students asking questions that illustrated I was missing an important step in their comprehension and by watching the legal writing professor I co-taught with that I began to break down my material into pieces that were more digestible for my students.

Interaction with Students: Instructor-student interaction can take a myriad of forms. As L. Dee Fink writes in Creating Significant Learning Experiences,

"Teacher-stud…

Helping Students Learn to Learn

One aspect of learning that I see students struggle with the most is applying the skills they have learned to new scenarios or situations. It is critical that students are equipped with the ability to continue to advance in their profession and in their knowledge after they have left our courses and law school altogether. This is true for two reasons. First, it's not possible for students to learn everything there is to know about the law--or even one topic within the law--during the course of law school. There's simply too much content to learn; the best we can hope for is to identify the fundamental knowledge for our subject areas and do our best to make sure our students know that material. Second, even if they could learn everything, they would have to be able to continue to learn as new areas of law emerge and preexisting areas of law evolve.

In his book, Creating Significant Learning Experiences, L. Dee Fink identifies three different meanings for "learning how to l…

Using Backward Design in Course Development

There are different methods instructors use to design their courses. In his book Creating Significant Learning Experiences, L. Dee Fink identifies three major approaches:
In the first approach, the instructor picks out some number of major topics within their course subject matter, then preps lectures for each topic. Then he or she adds in a final exam and sometimes a midterm, and the course is ready to go.  Fink notes that this approach is less time-consuming, but "pays little or no attention to the quality and quantity of student learning." [1] He explains that this type of learning "has a relatively short half-life and, more significantly, does not meet the educational needs of students and society today." [2]In the second approach, instructors still designs their course around major topics, but rather than focusing solely on lectures, he or she incorporates a variety of active learning opportunities. This approach is more engaging for students, but it still does…

Six Reasons Why Individual Research Conferences Are A Good Idea

I hear from a number of my fellow law librarians that they don't like doing research conferences with their students. The number one reason I hear for why is that they take up a tremendous amount of time--which is completely fair, given time is a commodity most law librarians are short on.

For me, the benefits of research conferences far outweigh the time needed to perform them. Here are just a few reasons why I include them in my research courses:

1.  As I've already noted elsewhere, they are a great way for instructors to model for their students how to collaborate and communicate in a way similar to what they'll do in practice. Conferencing is a lawyering skill that students need to practice during their legal education.

2.  Individualized feedback is critical to student learning (and it's required under the ABA Standards for experiential simulation courses).  Research conferences allow us to provide feedback in an atmosphere that all but guarantees that our student…