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

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…

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 …

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…

Four Aspects of Effectual Teaching (& Why Instructional Design Is the One Missing In Many Law Courses)

There are four general components of teaching, which all must come together for a teacher to be successful:
Knowledge of the Subject Matter: Most instructors in higher education have this covered. The largest potential hurdle of this aspect of teaching is perhaps remembering to view the material from the perspective of the beginner learner, as opposed to from the teacher's own advanced learner status. In my first year of teaching, I found this to be an issue, as I jumped over steps that were so obvious to me that I didn't even notice them anymore. It was only by students asking questions that illustrated I was missing an important step in their comprehension and by watching the legal writing professor I co-taught with that I began to break down my material into pieces that were more digestible for my students.

Interaction with Students: Instructor-student interaction can take a myriad of forms. As L. Dee Fink writes in Creating Significant Learning Experiences,


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…