Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Teaching Students to Use the Books

(Note: I did not know that Betsy had posted an entry about print vs. electronic information until I was ready to post this.)

When lawyers, judges, firm or court librarians speak to a group of academic law librarians, they almost always say that they want us to teach students to use "the books".

Potential employers tell Deans and Career Services offices that they can't afford LexisNexis or Westlaw, or that students aren't allowed to use them unless they have a client to bill, so students need to be able to do research in books.

Of course, the need to teach students to do research in a variety of formats is apparent to academic law librarians. The problem is one of the "leading a horse to water" variety. No matter what we do to teach them, too many students don't learn to do legal research in print until they are actually required to do so on the job.

Sometimes students manage to block completely any memory of non-electronic research. Years ago a student came into the law school library from his summer job and asked whether there was a way to find cases in print. Not how to do it, but if it was even possible. And every summer a couple of bright, helpful students come to a member of the legal research faculty and suggest that we ought to warn the students that they won't always have unlimited access to Westlaw and LexisNexis. (We do just that on many occasions.)

This is not a rant about students. I think that the fact students are unable to retain this information year after year speaks to our failure, not theirs. What's that old saying about doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results? So, what have we tried that doesn't work, and what can we do that might work better?

One of the popular strategies for "forcing" students to learn to do legal research in print is withholding their Westlaw and LexisNexis passwords – or only allowing very limited access – during all or part of their first semester. In my opinion, that tactic has had exactly the opposite of its intended effect. It makes full access seem like such a prize that once students achieve it they never go back if they can avoid it.

Until this year, we followed the model of giving first-year students limited access to Westlaw and LexisNexis during the first semester, and requiring the students to complete their first semester exercises in print resources only. This year we are integrating formats and teaching about types of materials (cases, statutes, etc.), how they are organized, and the different ways to access them.

Will our new approach work? At this point, three weeks into the semester, it's hard to say. The students seem to be receptive. I think that having to reorganize lesson plans and explain things in a new way is improving my teaching. Format independence also seems to make it easier to compare what we are teaching to something the students already know. I guess the test will be how comfortable the students are with "the books" on their jobs next summer.

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