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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. 


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