Posted in Presentations, Teaching

How is Legal Research Like Math?

I participated in a reading group at IU this year in which educators from all different departments on campus read a book called Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Help Improve Student Learning, by Jose Bowen (check out the website here).  The book talks about flipping the classroom so you can more effectively use face time to ensure student comprehension.  During one of our discussions, I was sharing my teaching experiences in the 1L legal research curriculum, how students would come to me a month or so after my Fall lectures on case law and statutory research and say, “Your lectures made sense to me at the time, but now we have a new client file.  How do I do it now?”  I’d always be a little crestfallen that they couldn’t extrapolate to the next research scenario.  But another participant in the group who teaches freshman math piped in and said that she has the same problem.  And that’s when I realized: Word problems are word problems.  Whether you’re talking about mathematical concepts or legal concepts, students encounter the same struggles.

Those of you who read my blog on a regular basis (bless you!) know that I am relatively new to law librarianship, only two years in.  In today’s climate, more emphasis is put on strong legal writing skills than on legal research, especially in the 1L curriculum.  I was counting it up the other day, and realized that, in an entire academic year, I get at the most 3 hours to teach basic legal research.  Now, I’m not here to argue about that – it is what it is, and you work with what you’re given.  After swapping stories with colleagues at other schools, I feel fortunate that I get to come into the 1L classroom at all!  But having only that short amount of time does mean I have to make it count, and how do you do that?

Well, judging from my experiences with my students and my little epiphany in the reading group, it occurred to me that perhaps my students’ main problem is that they cannot see the forest through the trees.  Maybe I need to focus a little more on the big picture.  In my last lecture of the Spring (in January), we mostly review everything I’ve taught them.  So this year, I used a Prezi for this part of the lecture.  Now Prezi gets a lot of flack: (1) many people use it mostly because it’s flashy and different than your standard PowerPoint, and (2) its setup – zooming in and out of each point of the presentation – has been known to make people seasick.  However, I like Prezi because it sets you up to focus on the big picture.  You literally start with the big picture, zoom in to focus on individual points, and zoom back out to the big picture again at the end.  If you don’t like the Prezi experience, fine.  But you can’t argue with that organization.  (And by the way, my Prezi did not make anyone sick, and students came up afterward to thank me, because it was the first time that everything was put together for them.)

I decided to share this experience and expand upon it for the CALI Conference for Law School Computing this year.  My idea was to share not only my Prezi, but also to envision how the same presentation – The Basic Legal Research Process – could be conveyed through other visual formats.  I didn’t do anything too mind-blowing, instead focusing on the tried-and-true, like PowerPoint, Keynote, and other linear slideware like Haiku Deck and Google Slides.  I also threw in mind-mapping, with an example from Coggle, and more static visuals like posters, bringing an example of one made in Canva, or teaching from a LibGuide.  For the presentation, I showed examples of each, talked about the pros and cons, and gave suggestions of where each visual might best serve the education process.  Like I said, not mind-blowing, but instead purposefully focusing on existing technologies and how best to use them to optimizing learning and retention.  In preparing for this presentation, I learned a few things:

brainWhile I thought it was just good practice in teaching, it turns out that visual aids are scientifically proven to aid in education.  It comes down to how the right brain and left brain work together.  [Warning: This will be incredibly simplified, as I am not a cognitive scientist!]  In a typical law school classroom, where students read the cases before class and listen to lecture and maybe a little Socratic Method during class, the left brain is really well stimulated.  This is because the left brain absorbs individual pieces of data, as from a book or a lecture.  But the right brain needs a little more.  The right brain makes connections between those individual pieces of data, and does this best in a visual format.  So even having a simple PowerPoint of bulleted slides accompany your lecture fires the right brain into action.  By using both the right and left brain, we learn better.  It aids in our memory – we retain and can recall information much better.  And then there’s the issue of learning styles.  There are many theories out there, but generally I found six learning styles:

  1. Oral – learns best by talking it out (think: Socratic Method)
  2. Aural – learns best by listening (think: lecture)
  3. Verbal – learns best by reading (think: reading the cases, handouts, etc.)
  4. Kinesthetic – learns best by acting it out (think: trial advocacy courses)
  5. Tactile – learns best by touching (think: clinics)
  6. Visual – learns best with visual aids

Now you would think that the argument for visual aids in the classroom is because visual learners need them.  That’s true, but as it turns out, visual aids benefit every learning style.  Again, this goes back to optimizing use of both the left and right brain.

Clearly, I was thrilled to find this out, as it backed up the premise behind my talk.  But we’ve all seen terrible PowerPoints, and those critical of visual aid use in teaching are not entirely incorrect.  There are many ways to use visuals incorrectly in teaching, but, as was the punchline in my talk: That’s on the speaker.  Blaming the technology is like shooting the messenger.  Instead, it’s the person behind the message that’s to blame.  For every visual aid faux pas, there’s a solution:

  • Too wordy?  Focus on fewer words, more images (Relevant images, I should say; it turns out putting pictures of kittens on every slide is unlikely to help your audience remember your points!)
  • Reading the slides?  Ouch – that’s the worst!  And as it turns out, not only is that bad form, but that impedes learning as well.  It seems counter-intuitive, but if you read your slides to your audience while they’re trying to read them as well, that’s redundant, and they will actually retain it less well than if you had a few bullet points on your slide for them to read, but you elaborated on these points in your lecture.
  • Too flashy?  Yeah, that’s easy to get carried away with.  A good rule of thumb with visuals is: Everything you do should have a purpose.  Create your visuals thoughtfully.  Sure, I can make my slides bounce onto and off the screen, but what does that convey?  Too flashy = distracting = difficult to retain.
  • It’s a crutch: It’s easy for a speaker to let the visual take over.  A common complaint of students is that when professors use visuals the class becomes far less interactive.  You have to remember that the visual is merely an aid.  Just because you have a PowerPoint up does not mean you can’t pause for class discussion. For example, put a hypo up on a slide and work the class discussion into the visual.

What you should notice here is that in each of these scenarios it’s not the technology that has failed, but the speaker.  It is critical to know how the technology works and how best to use it to convey what you’re teaching.  Don’t use it just because you think you have to; use it thoughtfully.  Finally, make sure the technology fits.  As I concluded in my presentation, some technologies – PowerPoint, Keynote, Prezi, etc. – are still top dog for use in lectures; other technologies, like LibGuides and posters, might be better to bring up at the end of class as a study aid after-the-fact.  I even thought it could be really powerful to create a mind map interactively with your class in a review session; that way it’s not a map of the professor’s mind, but of the collective class mind instead; while untested by me, I have a hunch that doing something like this with the class would really help students grasp the concept.  (If you try this out, please let me know how it goes!)

If you’re interested in more about this presentation, you can check out my materials here.




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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