Skip to main content

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.

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

Helping with Student Focus & Motivation in the Remote Classroom, Part 4: Building An Online Teaching Presence

I've written before about how important it is to show students you care about their learning and about them as humans , in part summarizing Kent Syverud's excellent piece , "Taking Students Seriously: A Guide for New Law Teachers. It is harder to show students that you care about them in a remote environment than when you see them in a physical classroom every day, where you can smile at them, easily ask them how they're doing as they enter the room or when you run into them in the classroom, or notice through their body language if they are having a hard time and reach out. But we know that showing we care matters; our students try harder and engage more when they feel like their learning matters to their instructor.  It takes more intention to show you care about students in the online classroom, but it's imperative that we find ways to show we do. So what are some ways that we can show students we care in the remote learning environment? The first is to

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

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

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