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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).

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