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Students Forget Most of What We Teach (And What To Do About That)

Studies show that humans forget most of what they learn. But, students acquire new knowledge better when we keep a couple of things in mind:

1)       Students learn better when they have a clear understanding of why they are being expected to learn new tasks and information. As such, it is critical that we explain to students why we are teaching what we’re teaching. Tying curriculum back to practical application can help students understand the importance of what they are learning. 

For those of us teaching legal research, this is vitally important. We have to tell students why being strong researchers is central to their ability to be efficient lawyers—that they will be spending approximately 35% of their time conducting legal research in their first few years of practice. We have to explain to them that research is an analytical skill that they must practice in context so they can learn to do this critical lawyering skill effectively. It’s also important that we explain the importance of their research skills to our colleagues; if they minimize the importance of research to the practice of law--or simply ignore its place in the practice of law, so too will students. Unfortunately, the message that research is a critical and challenging skill for students to learn seems to be lost in legal academia. As the experts on research in the building, it is our responsibility to spread this message at any opportunity we have—whether teaching to a full class of 1Ls, doing orientation for journal students, having a one-on-one appointment with a students, or discussing curriculum with our doctrinal colleagues.

2)      Students forget what they’ve learned when they don’t use their newly attained knowledge regularly. Maintaining one’s skills requires continual reinforcement.

This is especially true of legal research, where we use a variety of resources, most of which are constantly improving and adding tools. What does not change is the research process, which students should be practicing throughout their law school careers. Limiting required research instruction to the first year means that we must incorporate opportunities for research throughout the upper-level curriculum—much more than is currently being done at most law schools. There must be enough courses in the 2L and 3L curriculum that incorporate the practice of research (and the analysis inherent to research) that students cannot avoid exercising these critical skills. Since law schools are unlikely to mandate research instruction after the first year, we need to convince our colleagues that incorporating research-centric activities into their courses will make them better lawyers and better analytical thinkers. (The good news is that these types of exercises integrated into the curriculum will also help the law school to show the ABA that we are meeting the formative assessment required by the ABA Standards). This may require us (law librarians) being willing to partner with our colleagues to develop exercises, to be willing to do a guest lecture, or to find other creative ways to ensure students are maintaining the skills we’ve taught them in the first year. What is clear is that 3L students are leaving law school without sufficient research skills (their employers tell us as much when they describe the lackluster skills of newly hired attorneys)—and it’s not because they weren’t taught the basics in the first year; it’s due to students not practicing those skills regularly over the next two years, and particularly not in a way that allows them to get formative feedback from expert researchers.

It is only by emphasizing the importance of these skills and giving our students enough consistent practice throughout their law school careers that they can make significant progress toward become effective researchers.

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