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Elaborative Interrogation in the Legal Research Classroom

One type of activity legal skills professors can incorporate into their classrooms is elaboration. As described by Yana Weinstein and Megan Sumeracki in Understanding How We Learn: A Visual Guide, "[e]laboration describes the process of adding features to one's memories."[1]  It helps with organization of information within the knowledge structures in one's minds, making it easier to retrieve this information later. But what activities will help students to add features to their memories?

Weinstein and Sumeracki recommend three elaboration techniques that can all be applied to the legal research classroom: elaborative interrogation, concrete examples, and dual coding.[2] Studies of each has shown improvement in student learning and long-term retention. Today, we're going to look specifically elaborative interrogation.

With elaborative interrogation, students ask themselves questions about the reason and way things work.[3]  While it's easy to presume law students are doing this sort of analytical thinking when engaging in research skills, given the transfer of knowledge and long-term retention problems that plague law students' research skills, it's obviously not happening for all students. With simple prompting of our students, it could.

The basic structure of the elaborative interrogation technique is to ask a series of questions that will allow your students to explain the main ideas and make connections between major concepts. One study on elaborative interrogation showed that the "quality of the answer mattered," with students performing "best when they produced an adequate response to the question;" however, a poor answer was still better for learning than no response.[4] It's also important to note that elaborative interrogation is best used when students are familiar with a topic, rather than when a topic is originally introduced.[5]

Self-explanation is a subset of elaborative interrogation, in which students explain their problem-solving steps aloud while they work on a problem.[6]  In a 1994 study, one group of students were given prompts to self-explain as they worked through a group of problems, while another group was left to solve problems as they usually did. The group prompted to self-explain performed significantly better when tested on their understanding of the concepts.[7]

Self-explanation may work particularly well for legal problem-solving. Because legal research is a process, with various methods and strategies that can lead to answers, having students explain their process out loud is a great way to help them retain strategies that work well in certain situations. It may also help them to discern which strategy may work best when faced with research problems in the future--helping to fix the transfer of knowledge problem.

Legal research instructors can have students complete a research problem while explaining their choices as they walk through the problem. This might work particularly well in a legal research conference, where the instructor can ask questions that help the students make helpful connections between new learning and prior learning on an individual basis. While this will undoubtedly take a significant amount of time, it will only serve to boost the beneficial nature of research conferencing

It's critical that the self-explanations are happening aloud, not just in students' minds, so we know they are actually engaging in self-explanation. This could make self-explanation more challenging to do in-class if you want to directly supervise all students, but you could try having students explain their reasoning to one another. James Lang gives a number of easy-to-implement self-explanation activities in his excellent Small Teaching. It can be as simple as asking students to answer the question "Why are you doing that?"[8]

Self-explanation should help students recall steps to take when they are using similar research strategies in the future, as well as help students relate previously-learned skills with new skills, particularly important for legal research's circular and flexible nature. It also helps students to recognize when they are confused about a step in the process--talking aloud helps them recognize their lack of understanding. I'll be doing a lot more asking "Why?" to my students this fall; it may freak them out at first, but I think it'll ultimately result in them thoughtfully considering their research choices, determining for themselves why certain strategies work best in particular situations, and help them to select good strategies when they encounter future problems.

[1] Yana Weinstein & Megan Sumeracki with Oliver Caviglioli, Understanding How We Learn: A Visual Guide 102 (2019).

[2] Id. at 104.

[3] Id. at 105.

[4] Id. at 106.

[5] Id.

[6] Id. at 107.

[7] Id.

[8] James Lang, Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning 137-165 (2016).

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