Posted in Lessons Learned, Teaching

Easier Said Than Done? Constructing Good Legal Research Assignments

frustratedOne of my biggest research interests is legal education, understanding its evolution, current trends, and best practices.  Most of my teaching currently is confined to the standard lecture format, but I look forward to someday trying a flipped classroom and online education.

In addition to course format, I am also deeply interested in best practices for assignment construction.  I don’t currently teach much outside of our four guest lectures for the Legal Research & Writing course each year, and we do not craft the research assignments for that course; but I have assisted a colleague in drafting questions for various research assignments in Advanced Legal Research and other upper level courses.

For the most part, these assignments consist of what I would call “fetch” assignments – a series of short questions that ask the student to simply retrieve various, usually unrelated, legal documents.  This kind of assignment is no stranger, having been around for generations; and its questions, though often unrelated to each other, will speak directly to the skills taught in the preceding lecture and whether or not the student has paid attention.  Of course, this is not the only kind of assignment that corresponds with a research skills course.  Many programs have writing-intensive research assignments, asking students to follow a fact pattern and write a brief or memo, conducting research entirely on their own.  Our own Advanced Legal Research course culminates in the students’ creation of research guides on a topic of their choosing.

There are two key advantages, as I can see it, of these latter, writing-intensive assignments:

  1. Students are put to task to actually show that they know how to research on their own, without being prompted by a pointed question.
  2. These assignments are more likely to leave a lasting impression on the students than a series of random “fetch” questions.  I believe students are more likely to remember these resources and how/when to use them from having completed the more reality-based assignments.

The assignments I have assisted with are fetch assignments, but I try to tie some “reality” to the fetch questions that I create.  For example, my questions usually have a mini hypo at the beginning, such as “A client comes to you asking for…” or “Your boss has asked you to research….”  By starting my questions this way, I hope to convey to the students that these are the kinds of research situations they are likely to confront in the real world.  Often I will use the same hypo for three or four questions as well, to show how one client scenario can cause you to research several different types of primary and secondary sources.  Does this help the students remember the particular resource I was asking them to use?  I don’t know.  I’m sure I could conduct an assessment of this, but remember, this isn’t actually my class – I’m writing these questions for another colleague!

We have noticed, and I’m sure we’re not alone, that students, at least in the first half of the semester, are quite stressed out by these assignments, having become so accustomed to the standard exam-only format of the law school curriculum.  So when we craft questions for these assignments, we try to be as straightforward as possible, and we emphasize to the students that the assignments are not designed to be tricky; we just want to know that they are comprehending the lecture material.  So what has astounded me is how hard it is to construct a question that is actually straightforward.  Even when it seems like I am basically spoon-feeding them, the students will return frustrated, off-the-wall answers.

Therefore, my new research mission, I have decided, is to learn how to construct effective legal research assignments that won’t frustrate the students or me.  (Okay, that exact goal is probably a pipe dream, but you see where I’m going!)  Exploring concepts such as problem-based learning, reverse-engineering courses, and scaffolding assignments, I hope to learn how to better construct research assignments and curricula so that when more teaching responsibilities come my way, I can better ensure that students leaving my classroom have mastered the AALL Legal Research Competencies and are prepared to enter their legal careers as effective legal researchers.

 

Author:

I am the Assistant Director for Public Services at Indiana University's Maurer School of Law. My research interests include exploring how emerging and existing technologies can be used to enhance library services and legal education as well as how to address knowledge gaps and meet the educational expectations of today's law students.

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