Skip to main content

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:

  1. Retrieval: recalling recently-learned information; 
  2. Elaboration: finding a nexis between what you know and what you are learning; and 
  3. 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 last year, we began using guided notes handouts in our first year legal research workshops to help students focus on what they were supposed to be learning.  Basically, the handouts provide students with spaces to jot down key ideas and research methods, in an effort to help them follow the lecture and ensure they are not missing key concepts. What I have found in using them, however, is that while students can track the lecture in a way they probably enjoy, they are not being challenged to transfer their knowledge from the screen or whiteboard to their notes.  Instead, they are merely transcribing key ideas from the PowerPoint slides with little effort to tie it to what they've learned before; I get the distinct impression that a significant portion of the class is not listening carefully, but are instead simply reading the slide (this despite an effort to reduce minimize text on the slide to increase their attention on the instructor and the topic at hand).  Students would be better served by incorporating an activity that isn't as easy, but requires them to work a little harder. 

I've been thinking that trying something new next year might work better--having students write out their own summaries of the key concepts we're teaching after introducing new information.  This would allow them to engage in retrieval, elaboration, and generation as they reflect on the knowledge they are acquiring. In Make It Stick, the authors discuss a study where students listened to lectures throughout the semester. [2]  For some concepts, students wrote out their own summaries of the concepts they were learning, putting the information into their own words.  For others, students copied down key ideas from a slide (effectively what our students are doing with the guided notes handouts). [3]  On tests given later on, students scored higher on those where they'd generated their own summaries than on those they'd merely copied down. [4]  The reflection also helped with retention in follow-up tests months later. [5]

The guided notes handouts might still work, with a little tweaking. Rather than distributing the handouts at the start of the lecture component of the workshop, I'd give them out after the lecture was complete and give the students time to retrieve what they've just been introduced to and fill out the handout. I'd probably add some reflection questions as well to assist students in their reflection (see bullet-point list of questions below). This could be challenging to fit in during a relatively short 50-minute class, but the benefits of including this in the curriculum seem to warrant its addition. Perhaps the reflection questions could be completed after class, and then the entire guided notes handout could be turned in for participation points (rather than a grade).  This would require them to do some critical thinking about the concepts introduced and give me feedback on what students are understanding and what concepts they're struggling to grasp.

In my upper-level research courses, I'd also like students to start doing reflections after readings and lectures, as well as after completing in-class exercises and simulation assignments.  For example, we can ask our students to consider the following: 
  • What are the key ideas?  
  • How does what I'm learning tie into the four-step research process?  
  • Is there anything I read about/was introduced to in the lecture that I cannot connect to what I previously learned?
  • What went well in my research process?  
  • What did I struggle with?  How can I avoid those struggles next time? 
  • What might I need to learn for better mastery?
Legal research conferences are another effective way to introduce reflection and self-evaluation into the curriculum.  After completing their research assignments, but prior to meeting with me for their research conferences, I have students fill out a research questionnaire that prompts them to think critically about their most recent research experience. [6]  The questionnaire asks them to consider what they felt successful at and challenged by in the research assignment and form the basis of our conversation during the conference. [7]  Making these conferences center around the students' answers to the questionnaire also show the students that their concerns and questions are valued. [8]

What's clear is that giving students time to reflect is not only important to strengthen their learning, but it's required in experiential simulation courses under the ABA's standards. 



[1] Alyson Drake, The Need for Experiential Legal Research Instruction, 108 Law Libr. J. 511, 517 (2016).

[2] Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning 88-90 (2014).

[3] Id. at 89.

[4] Id. at 90.

[5] Id. at 90.

[6] Alyson Drake, On Embracing the Research Conference, 111 Law Libr. J. ___, Appendix A (forthcoming 2019). 

[7] Id.

[8] Id. 


Popular posts from this blog

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 w…

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…

Spaced Repetition & Interleaved Practice in Legal Research Instruction

Researchers refer to single-minded practice as "massed practice." This concentrated practice is thought to embed skills into memory. Unfortunately, while many students and teachers believe this to be the best way to learn, research doesn't support that idea. The problem with massed practice is that it is often accompanied by quick forgetting. Practice is important, but it is considerably more effective when it's spaced out--there's better retention and mastery.

It can be tough to convince our students of the benefits of spaced repetition. As Brown et al. point out in Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning:

 "[T]hese benefits come at a price: when practice is spaced, interleaved, and varied, it requires more effort. You feel the increased effort, but not the benefits the effort produces. Learning feels slower from this kind of practice, and you don't get the rapid improvements and affirmations you're accustomed to seeing from massed practi…

The Effect of Personalization on Student Learning

A group of ten separate studies illustrated that conversational cues can have a deep impact on student learning, particularly for deep learning that allows students to transfer their learning to new situations.[1]Students presented with information in a less formal and more personal manner performed significantly better on problem-solving tests than students hearing identical information presented in a more formal manner.[2]
In her article, Legal Education in the Age of Cognitive Science and Advanced Classroom Technology, Deborah Merritt provides three reasons why personalization deepens learning:
“First, encouraging listeners to think of themselves as a reference point may enhance their interest in the subject, which produced more active cognitive processing. Second, personalizing information may help listeners relate new data to existing mental schema; extending mental frameworks in this manner encourages deeper learning. Finally, listeners may respond to the social cues of convers…