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Rethinking Learning Outcomes in Legal Research Courses

Learning outcomes have obvious value to our institutions.  ABA Standard 301 requires that law schools "establish and publish learning outcomes" that are designed to prepare students for "effective, ethical, and responsible participation" in the legal profession.  Usually, individual course outcomes should then align with these school-wide learning outcomes.  We include these learning outcomes in our syllabi to show our compliance with the ABA standards in our accreditation visits.  But learning objectives can, or at least should, also have a pedagogical benefit.  After all, we are including them in our syllabi for a reason--to give our students an idea of the learning experience they are about to have in the course. They should also give students a clear picture of what they should be taking with them from the course into the actual practice of law.

As Edmund J. Hansen writes in Idea-Based Learning: A Course Design Process to Promote Conceptual Understanding, the way many instructors are writing the objectives they're including in their syllabi might be failing in this regard: "[T]he narrow focus of behavioral objectives with action words suggesting small performance tasks does not always capture enough of what we want students to learn about a subject matter." [1]  Add this to the fact that learning outcomes are packed into syllabi with other humdrum information like course procedures and weekly topics that don't seem to relate directly to those learning objectives, and students are unlikely to recall a single course learning objective later in the semester, much less later in their career.  Instead, learning outcomes should focus less on concrete actions and more "in favor of abilities students gain and maintain for the rest of their lives." [2]

Hansen recommends that instructors, in designing learning outcomes, look first to the big ideas that characterize their discipline, selecting two or three in which to ground their course. [3]  So what are these big ideas in legal research courses?  Legal research syllabi tend to focus on concrete bibliographic skills, likely because the school-wide learning outcomes, while generally identifying legal research as one of the broad areas to be included in the learning outcomes, tend to focus on skills like employing primary and secondary sources appropriately and using proper citation. In these school-wide learning outcomes, legal reasoning or analysis and problem-solving are usually found in a separate learning outcome, divorced from legal research.  The word "analysis," a critical component to effective legal research, tends to be missing in the research-related learning outcomes, other than implicitly being included in the ability to create and implement a research plan.  Likely, you'll find aspects related to research in most, if not all, of the school's designated learning outcome areas: legal analysis and problem-solving, professional skills like working in a team, professional ethics; oral and written communication; etc. 

To my mind, the role of analysis in legal research ought to be one of the big ideas in which we ground our research courses.  Reclaiming analysis when we're writing our learning outcomes for research courses is of critical importance, both for librarians' place as educators in the legal academy, but more importantly to help our student understand the importance of analytical thinking in legal research.  One of the key ideas they should take with them after their legal research courses is that research is not simply a rote, mechanical task.  In order to do so, we must look beyond our institutions' research-centric learning outcomes when selecting learning outcomes for our individual courses and emphasize the analysis and problem-solving inherent to legal research.  Then, once we've identified these learning outcomes and included them in our syllabus, we need to go return to them again and again throughout the semester, pointing out the times when our students are engaging in analysis.

[1] Edmund J. Hansen, Idea-Based Learning: A Course Design Process to Promote Conceptual Understanding 29 (2011).

[2] Id.

[3] Id. at 35-36.

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