Skip to main content

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 students will hear the feedback instructors are giving. While written feedback can be helpful, we have no way of knowing that our students are actually carefully reading the constructive criticism we are giving them. Even if they are carefully dissecting our comments, feedback is more valuable when students can follow up with questions about professors' commentary. While some students feel comfortable enough to come to office hours and ask questions about our comments, others are unlikely to do so. In an in-person meeting, students hear and have time to reflect on the feedback, and then are able to move forward in the learning process as partners with the instructor.

3. Research conferences allow us to meet each student where they are in the learning process. In the classroom, instructors are forced to teach to the median to move class forward. But, there is no "one right way" to research and analyze legal issues, particularly given the variety of platforms and search strategies at researchers' disposal.  Teaching to the median results in both losing students who have moved beyond the average skill level and leaving those students behind who are struggling the most and need instruction to their current abilities. As such, conferences can become one of the most meaningful learning opportunity for the vast majority of our students, as we can cater instruction to exactly where each student is in their abilities.

4.  Conferences provide excellent feedback for the instructor about how well their students are learning.  Conferences give us an opportunity to learn more about what is and is not working well for our students individually and collectively.  This reflection allows us to make adjustments in our teaching methodology as the course proceeds.  Having met with all of his or her students, the instructor is able to identify global issues with with the class is struggling. The instructor can then revisit those issues, which may be a benefit to those students who had greater issues in other areas and didn't have a chance to discuss the global issues in their conferences.

5.  One-on-one conferences allow us to build relationships with our students that result in their being more engaged inside and outside of the classroom.  Conferences helps teachers and students to build mutual respect.  Conferences, when structured to meet students' individual concerns about their efforts, make students feel heard and valued. This, in turn, results in them staying more engaged as active partners in their own learning.

6.  Research conferences are a better pedagogical tool than waiting to meet until students have started writing, because it allows us to work with our students when they are engaged most deeply in legal analysis and when they are not distracted by trying to communicate that analysis in writing. Research conferences allow students to work out their analysis prior to putting pen to paper, likely resulting in better written and analyzed first drafts of their papers.

Popular posts from this blog

Research Instruction and Resilience

Law students can quickly become frustrated when they struggle with legal research--perhaps due to the fact that one of the narratives they tell about research is that it's easy. This may be especially true for students suffering from a fixed mindset

Students need help building resilience to overcome this frustration and to be able to accept critical feedback.  Legal research instructors can help students overcome these struggles and stay engaged in their intellectual growth by taking concrete steps to build their resilience.  In fact, most research courses are well-positioned to help students grapple with failure because most already include multiple assessments that will give students room to practice and develop their skills throughout the semester. These multiple opportunities for performance allow us to observe and point out our students' growth.

In her recent article, Framing Failure in the Legal Classroom: Techniques for Encouraging Growth and Resilience, Professor Kac…

Changing the Narrative About Legal Research

I attended an interesting talk by a colleague and friend recently that has me thinking about re-writing narratives. Specifically, I've been considering how to re-write the narrative about the importance of legal research in legal education.

Legal research instruction has long taken a back seat in the legal academy.  It's even been described as the "stepchild in legal education."[1] As a skills course, it's traditionally been considered of less import than doctrinal courses, though thankfully this seems to be improving. Even within the first years skill course, the dedicated time for students to learn legal research, research often takes a backseat in time and emphasis to legal writing and oral arguments, despite being the foundation needed to be successful at both. This happens despite those hiring new attorneys commenting regularly about their discontent with students' research skills.

It's unlikely in most cases that more time is going to be formally al…

Battling Law Students' Fixed Mindset

Many students show up to law school with fixed mindsets--the belief that each person is born with a particular intellectual ability and that they there is little to nothing one can do to surpass that innate intellectual level.  A large proportion of law students were classified as smart early on in their learning experiences and have been academically successful their entire educational careers.  Many faculty members had a similar experience as they advanced from primary school to secondary school to undergrad and finally to law school--where most continued to succeed academically.

For some law students, however, law school is the first time in their lives that they have struggled to succeed immediately.  This can have a disastrous result, because those with fixed mindsets have a tendency to equate mistakes with failure.  These students then have a tendency to avoid challenging themselves, to ignore constructive criticism, and to give up or not try.[1]  In their minds, they are just n…

Reflection in the Legal Research Classroom

Reflection is a critical component of experiential learning.  We see in ABA Standard 303 that experiential courses must include multiple opportunities for self-evaluation.  Self-evaluation is critically important to legal research.  Students must reflect on and assess their research methodology each time they research to continue becoming more efficient legal researchers and to determine what research strategies work best in which situations. [1]

Reflection relates to several ideas found in cognitive theory that have been shown to result in stronger learning and retention:

Retrieval: recalling recently-learned information; Elaboration: finding a nexis between what you know and what you are learning; and Generation: putting concepts into your own words and/or contemplating what you might do differently next time. I've been contemplating how to better incorporate reflection into legal research classes. At the beginning of this semester, at the recommendation of a workshop I attended …

Desirable Difficulties in Legal Research Instruction

Challenges that result in stronger long-term learning are known as "desirable difficulties." Studies in how the brain works provide solid evidence that struggles in learning can actually be beneficial to the learner.

So how does the brain work? Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown et al., gives a concise version, explaining that first the brain undergoes encoding to create memory traces, "converting sensory perceptions into meaningful representations in the brain."[1] Next comes consolidation, during which the brain has to solidify these not fully-formed memory traces; this involves "deep processing of the new materials, during which scientists believe the brain replays or rehearses the learning, giving it meaning, filling in blank spots, and making connections to past experiences," which helps learners to organize and strengthen their learning.[2] 

When you allow space out your learning, as opposed to practicing something y…