Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Improving Research Skills

The students who participated in my study are now practicing lawyers. They research and argue for changes in the law on a daily basis. If, as Barbara Bintiff argues in her seminal piece Thinking Like a Lawyer in the Computer Age, 88 Law Libr. J. 338 (1996) electronic searching deprives these lawyers of a full understanding of legal rules and principles, promotes ill conceived arguments, and impedes their ability to think like lawyers then something must be done.

After revealing the sub-par skills of my students it would be hypocritical for me to not make any changes to the way I teach legal research. This summer I spent a month or so revamping the first few weeks of my Advanced Legal Research class. My old model for the course was based on the assumption that students who took the upper division elective class already had basic research skills. I focused almost entirely on research in specific subject areas: legislative history, administrative law, environmental law and other perennial favorites. The results of my study threw the gauntlet at my feet. I developed three new sessions designed to do the following:

Reinforce basic skills; Expose the shortcomings of researching in the print and electronic environment; Skills to select the most appropriate research methods and tools; Electronic database training with emphasis on shortcomings and comparisons between vendors.

In developing these new sessions I found materials from two of our colleagues extremely helpful. Paul Callister, Director of the Leon E. Bloch Law Library & Associate Professor of Law, has an excellent online tutorial that served as a partial pedagogical model for the revisions to my course. I am especially fond of his discussion of precision and recall which I introduced to my students this year with some success. I would be interested in hearing any comments from others who have delved into the precision vs. recall discussion in legal research courses.

Charles Ten Brink, Professor of Law & Director of Library & Technology Services at Michigan State University College of Law, wrote an excellent article, A Jurisprudential Approach to Teaching Legal Research, 39 New Eng.L. Rev. 307 (2005). He argues that advanced legal research courses must introduce students to “the underlying principles of research” including jurisprudential concepts.

Is anyone else aware of other excellent materials for teaching fundamental basic research skills?

What experiences have others had in teaching basic skills and the pros and cons of electronic searching? Post your comments.

No comments: