Monday, September 03, 2007

Teaching Research Skills

I had a conversation the other day with one of the faculty of our academic support program. She said that many of the students she saw in academic difficulty were taking my advanced legal research class, and were loving it. That’s always good to hear. She went on to say that the class, being focused on skill and practice gave students who had not been doing well in substantative law classes a chance to do well, feel competent. And that one class like that could feed into growing confidence in other classes. This was not something I had ever considered. It was a different way to look at what I do.

My class, like most research, writing or advocacy classes, lets students DO things and does not require the same set of skills as a final exam in a substantive course. I give the students worksheets, which sometime are rather time-consuming to complete. They are supposed to finish the worksheets before class and bring them in. We check them as complete and give them back to the students. Then, the class session is mostly taken up with the students reporting what they found, and the adventures they had in the finding.

My inspiration for the worksheets were the “bibliography” classes I had in library school, which required us to “learn” various types of resources. The difference is that I am teaching law students, not library students who expect to be required to learn how to use many sets to the point of being able to teach others about them. So, I lure the law students into exploring and testing resources with open-ended questions that send them to a choice of sources. My sheets are not set up so that there is any one single answer, and I don’t care so much what the students find. The questions are designed, instead, to encourage the students to explore and test the various resources – print or electronic. They discuss HOW they found things – did they use an index or table of contents? Did they use a menu or a search box? And how did it work? Were they satisfied or if not, what complaints? Why did one person get it to work and another did not? It’s the process, not the product we focus on. Could they find the answer in another resource and how did it compare?

I had followed the education arguments about different “intelligences,” and designing class so that it appealed to people who learn in different ways. What I had not considered was that success in one class affects success in other classes. I felt so pleased to hear the course was assisting students in such an unexpected way. I have students from the various journals, but was not aware that the course was drawing a different group. I am sure the same purpose can be served by clinic courses and oral advocacy classes, various practicum courses like client counseling or alternative dispute resolution. I do fear that some profs in the substantive law courses tend to see these alternate, process-oriented classes as being “soft.” I really like the trend that some professors of traditional courses are co-teaching with practice-profs, so you have classes that included drafting and contracts law or the tax practice and research class I co-taught with my colleague here for some years. I hope this grows! The more I read about adult learning, the more it seems to require a variety of teaching methods and skills.

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