Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Teaching Legal Research: On Beyond BI

The Sept. 29, 2006 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Careers section, has a thought-provoking column by James M. Lang, "Beyond Lecturing." (link) Prof. Lang, like many others, wants to promote other teaching styles in addition to the venerable lecture. He makes an interesting reference to the Journal of College Science Teaching, Sept., 2005, in which T. Michelle Jones-Wilson reports on adding small-group problem-solving techniques to brief lectures, teaching biochemistry at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania (Teaching Problem-Solving Skills without Sacrificing Course Content). The Lang column also cites McKeachie's Teaching Tips, by Wilbert McKeachie, a guide for college teaching:

...students recalled 70 percent of the material covered in the first 10 minutes, and only 20 percent of the material covered in the last 10 minutes.

The small group technique, added to a brief high-light intro lecture covering the main points of the reading for class, seems like an excellent way to teach legal research. You can only absorb, follow or understand so much about DOING legal research from listening to and watching a lecture. That is certainly the point behind the general librarian backlash against "biblographic instruction" or BI. Any skills course is going to be more interesting to the students, and better-understood when there is a portion of the class devoted to practicing the skill. One astounding piece of Lang's article reports that Jones-Wilson's students come to the classroom in large numbers even on days when she has cancelled class. They come to work on the assignments together in their groups.

Our reference librarians at Suffolk have used a mix like this in producing four workshops for the 1-L students in the LRW course on statutes, digests, Shepards and secondary sources. I have seen it used to very good effect by visiting reference librarians in my advanced legal research class as well. The teacher introduces the main points of the research tool or the special subject's resources. The lecture portion takes perhaps a half hour or less, usually. This picks up on the McKeachie statistic that students tune out a lecture after 20 minutes or so, and really fade in the last minutes of an hour (well, 50-minute) lecture. Yet, it recognizes that some students may not have read the material, and others may not have identified or understood the key points. It lets the teacher cover complex material in a direct and (we hope!) clear fashion. But it avoids the tune-out and reinforces the learning by letting the students practice with the material covered.

I'll know I have a winner in my course when I hear the students are meeting even on days when the class is cancelled!

This essay is illustrated with an image of Dr. Seuss' great book On Beyond Zebra, from The title inspired my title, and I admire Dr. Seuss' (Theodore Geisel's) creative flair and sly addresses of social issues in many of his books.

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