Skip to main content

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 today. 


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," 43 J. Legal Educ. 247 (1993), recommended to me by Professor Susan Kuo, a colleague at the University of South Carolina School of Law, early in my career.  Syverud gives three propositions about teaching, which have all proved true in my experience:
    • "Your students will know whether you like and respect them, and if they know that you do not, you will fail as a teacher."[1]
    • "If your students know that you like and respect them, they will forgive a great deal in the classroom."[2]
    • "If your students know that you like and respect them, they will come to you for as much advice and support as you have the time and energy to provide."[3]
Caring can be shown in any number of ways, no matter how introverted or extroverted you might be, including setting clear expectations, showing some empathy to the challenges inherent to being a law student, being accessible for questions and concerns students might have, or sharing your own excitement for your subject matter.

Second, it's okay not to know everything; you know enough or you wouldn't be the one at the front of the class.  Imposter syndrome in the classroom is no joke.  Most of us feel it at one point or another (I would even go to so far as to say that if you do feel it, you're probably doing something right).  But you were hired for your expertise and are there because you have knowledge that you can share with your students.

That being said, it's absolutely okay to say you don't know the answer to a question and it actually models to students that it's normal not to have all the answers--something many law students struggle with.  After class, find the answer to share in the next meeting.  Your students will appreciate your forthrightness and your humanity.

Third, knowing enough isn't enough to make you a good teacher.  Even with all the expertise in the world, it takes work to be a good teacher, a person who is able to help another person gain expertise in that area.  In fact, studies show that experts oftentimes have a difficult time teaching novices because our brains can make leaps that the novice learner's brain cannot.  To be a good teacher, you have to put some thought into how learners learn--and not rely just on how information was conveyed when you were the learner.  Ask yourself how you can help your students retain their learning long-term, how you can engage them, and how you can support them in their learning. Sure, it can be scary to try new things in the classroom, but keep in mind that first and most important point--that as long as students can tell that you care about their learning, they'll going to forgive a learning strategy that may fall flat in its first iteration.

Fourth, you're not alone.  We all start somewhere and as long as you're dedicating time and space to working on becoming the best teacher you can be, you're doing something right. Additionally, there's a network of law school professors who care and thinking deeply about their teaching and who are dedicated to moving legal education toward a curricular model centered around helping students learn.  No doubt there are also some in your law school building.  Find those folks, share ideas, learn from them, and thank them.  If you're a law librarian, you can even join us in some conversations surrounding teaching and learning this fall using Slack.

I know you can do this, even if you're mildly terrified like I was once upon a time.


[1] Kent D. Syverud, Taking Students Seriously: A Guide for New Law Teachers, 43 J. Legal Educ. 247, 247 (1993).

[2] Id. at 248.

[3] Id.


Popular posts from this blog

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