Skip to main content

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 research out there in the field of educational theory shows that textbooks can help students to be more active learners both inside and outside the classroom--if we teach students how to use them adeptly. It may seem odd that law students do not already know how to be active readers, considering that they already made it through undergrad, but it is clear that many are not reading as proficiently as they could be.


There are a few, easy-to-incorporate critical reading strategies we can teach our students to help them become better readers:

  1. Previewing: Students learn more effectually when they have a big picture. As Saundra Yancy McGuire writes in her book Teach Students How to Learn,

    “For maximally engaged reading, you must give yourself a preview of what you're about to read. We know the brain is much more efficient at learning when it has a big picture and then acquires individual details to fill in that big picture.[1]

McGuire recommends advising students to start their reading by looking at section captions, print in boldface or italics, and any charts or graphs. This will give students a big picture about what they’ll be reading.[2]

  1. Formulating Their Own Questions: Prior to beginning to read, students should also formulate a few questions that they want the reading to answer for them. This gives them an internal motivation to want to complete the reading. McGuire notes:

    “You need to give yourself a reason to read. Just like no four-year-old likes hearing, ‘You have to,’ neither does your brain. So you need to come up with questions that you want the reading to answer for you. Then you’ve tapped into your genuine curiosity and are much more motivated to read.”[3]

    When we (and our students) read, our minds have a tendency to drift. Having formulated their own questions, students have an internal goal to help them focus on their reading.
  2. Paraphrasing: Students should try reading one paragraph at a time, and then putting the information from that paragraph into their own words. With each paragraph, students should do the same thing, folding in the information from all the previous paragraphs. This allows them to break down the reading into digestible pieces, but that are tied together into a big picture when they reach the end of the reading assignment.
  3. The above strategies can be tied together with more commonly-used law student strategies, such as highlighting, making annotations and writing down questions in the margins, and outlining. Students should also make an effort to do any exercises included in the textbooks

By doing the first two suggestions alone, even if students merely skim their reading (or don’t do their reading at all), they have greater context for the material they’ll be learning about in class.

Previewing and formulating questions can take as little as 10 minutes, which every student should be able to make time for prior to class. Collecting the questions the students formulated at the start of class will also help to encourage previewing. An added bonus is the fact the reading usually takes less total time than students’ previous reading method because students’ minds stay focused on their reading task when they have questions they want answered and have a task (the paraphrasing) to do as they go.


Additionally, because students have questions to which they want answers, they also tend to listen more actively during the lecture. As Cook et al. explains:

By previewing, students become primed for pattern recognition, may experience more frequent spikes of interest in the material being taught, and even have more courage to ask questions in class because they are more comfortable with the instructor’s discourse.[4]


In legal research courses, we too often find students less engaged, whether it be because students (of their own accord or due to the influence of others in the legal academy) think the course is not difficult or is not as important as other courses. Textbooks are one tool we can use to help our students engage more, when paired with these easy-to-implement learning strategies.



[1] Saundra Yancy McGuire with Stephanie McGuire, Teach Students How to Learn: Strategies You Can Incorporate Into Any Course to Improve Student Metacognition, Study Skills, and Motivation 47 (2015).
[2] Id.
[3] Id.
[4] E. Cook et al., Effect of Teaching Metacognitive Learning Strategies on Performance in General Chemistry Courses, 90 J. Chemical Education 961, 963 (2013).

Popular posts from this blog

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,"…

Helping With Student Focus & Motivation in the Remote Classroom, Part 3: Limiting New Technologies to Reduce Extrinsic Cognitive Load

A librarian colleague used to say to me, "Technology is great until it's not." This couldn't be more true in the classroom.  As many of us prepare for a fall entirely or partially online, there's a rush to familiarize ourselves with lots of new educational technology to teach our classes. There's this sense that if you're not using the best and newest ed tech in your class, you're doing something wrong.

Fortunately, the science doesn't back this up.  Using too many different types of technology can be a contributing factor to cognitive overload in students. Cognitive load is a term cognitive psychologists use to describe the mental challenge that the limitations of working memory puts on a student's learning.[1] Basically, working memory is extremely limited in both time and duration. Humans can only hold on to between four and nine "chunks" of information at any given time,[2] and can only hold on to new information in their working…

Helping with Student Focus & Motivation in the Remote Classroom, Part 4: Building An Online Teaching Presence

I've written before about how important it is to show students you care about their learning and about them as humans, in part summarizing Kent Syverud's excellent piece, "Taking Students Seriously: A Guide for New Law Teachers. It is harder to show students that you care about them in a remote environment than when you see them in a physical classroom every day, where you can smile at them, easily ask them how they're doing as they enter the room or when you run into them in the classroom, or notice through their body language if they are having a hard time and reach out. But we know that showing we care matters; our students try harder and engage more when they feel like their learning matters to their instructor. It takes more intention to show you care about students in the online classroom, but it's imperative that we find ways to show we do.

So what are some ways that we can show students we care in the remote learning environment?
The first is to build a te…

Helping with Student Focus & Motivation in the Remote Classroom, Part 1: Considering Serial Position Effect

One of the issues I'm most concerned about in teaching online is keeping the attention of my students.  Many students this spring have reported difficulties with motivation and staying focused during their remote learning experiences.  Over the next few weeks, I plan to write about some of the strategies legal research instructors can consider to help their students stay focused and motivated in the classroom.

Today, we're going to kick off that project by writing about serial position effect.  Serial position effect is the simple principle that most people will remember the information at the beginning and end of a list or lecture, and forget most other items that come in the middle.[1]  The obvious implication for teaching, then, is that the points we teach at the beginning and end of a class session are the ones students are most likely to remember, and therefore we should emphasize our most important concepts during those most impactful time frames.  We must design our cla…

Helping with Student Focus & Motivation in the Remote Classroom, Part 2: Prioritizing Transparency

One factor leading to decreased focus and motivation in online classes is the uncertainty many students feel in the virtual environment.  This uncertainty can arise from students never having taken an online class before, from having distractions at home that they don't have in their in-person classes, or from using technology with which they're not familiar.  This uncertainty can lead to students disengaging with the class, as they feel disconnected from the content, their instructor, and their classmates.

To support students undergoing this uncertainty and help them stay engaged, provide as much clarity as possible.  Being clear about expectations will help students gain some balance in an uncomfortable situation.  There are a number of ways we can help students minimize their discomfort--from making sure online class modules are standardized in their format within the learning management system to designing a syllabus with well-structured, clear course requirements.  One me…