Skip to main content

The “Burden” of Being An Excellent (Legal Research) Teacher


The challenge of being an excellent teacher stems from the necessity of having to be an expert in two areas, one’s subject specialty and the craft of educating. For law librarians who instruct, this means first being an expert in using constantly-evolving legal research databases, not to mention those newly developed resources that we must quickly learn to use, and in the analytical process inherent to legal research. Staying fully abreast of changes to the huge volume of legal materials could alone be a full-time job. When combined with efficiently and effectively serving our patrons, engaging in collection development, and doing any of the other dozens of tasks that librarians undertake on a daily basis, it becomes easy to see why finding the time to hone our craft as teachers would be difficult. Despite these challenges, it's critical that we make time to do so.

As one scholar explains,
Really good teachers who want to preserve their skills and get better over time have to go into the same kind of hard training that all other practitioners of immensely difficult crafts commit themselves to, and for the same reasons. Teaching is just as complex a practice as any disciplinary research, and this is the reason why being an excellent teacher is harder than being a good researcher: it forces the good teacher to endure the same training on two fronts—research and training—while standard issue or inferior teachers often endure hard training for the sake of disciplinary knowledge, but take it for granted that good teaching will follow automatically because they are so good at their discipline.[1]

Most law librarians, like most law school faculty in general, are not trained to be teachers. We didn't take classes on curricular design or educational theory. But as librarians spend more time in the classroom, it is critically important that we are more than just “standard issue" teachers. Both to show our value to our colleagues in the legal academy and for our students to view our classes as critical in their legal upbringing, we must demonstrate our excellence in this area—and we cannot do this without honing our craft through critical self-evaluation of our teaching. Furthermore, because our time in the classroom with students is often limited (I don't think I've ever heard a law librarian say they really get sufficient time to ensure students have a strong grasp on their research skills), we must use that time in the most effectual means possible, to make certain that our students are ready for the practice of law. Because our time with the students is insufficient, we must make the most of it.

We cannot maximize our instruction by relying solely on our subject matter expertise. Trial and error, enthusiasm, and good intentions will only get us so far. We need to rely on reflection and analysis, and root ourselves with a teaching vision that takes into consideration not only our content, but background classroom dynamics, delivery, and teaching methodologies. We must have an educational philosophy that serves as the basis for our learning outcomes, our assignments, and our interactions with students. We must cultivate our teaching skills thoughtfully and deliberately.




[1] Marshall Gregory, Teaching Excellence in Higher Education 13-14 (Melissa Valiska Gregory ed., 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 toda y.  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

Why Experts Can Struggle to Teach Novices

This week in our Slack group on teaching , there was an interesting discussion about expertise and the amount of time needed to prep for instruction. I mentioned something that I recalled reading: that experts can be less effective in teaching novices because often the expert skips cognitive steps that the novice learner needs to understand.  I thought I'd dig into this a little more today on the blog. The fact is novices and experts learn very differently.  The major reason for this is that experts not only know a lot about their chosen discipline, but they understand how that discipline is organized. As such, what has a clear structure to the expert is a jumbled set of unorganized information to the novice.  The information presented to novices "are more or less random data points."[1]  In contrast, when the expert learns something new in her area of expertise, she just plugs it into the knowledge structure that already exists in her long-term memory. Because the new

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 worki

Motivation in the Legal Research Classroom

Motivating students in the legal research classroom can be a challenge. As we know, there are many false narratives surrounding students' conceptions of legal research's importance, interest level, and ease, all of which can result in a decrease in students' motivation to engage in this subject matter. There are two types of motivation--intrinsic and extrinsic.  Extrinsic motivation occurs when students are motivated by an outside reward or punishment;[1] in instruction, this is often the grades students will get on research assignments or the participation points they might receive for actively engaging with in-class exercises.  Intrinsic motivation , on the other hand, occurs when students are interested in the topic for its own sake.[2] Due to legal research's false narratives, students entering our classrooms tend to be drive primarily by extrinsic motivation.  The problem is, as Julie Dirksen aptly notes in her excellent book Design for How People Learn , &qu

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 works