Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Multi-State Bar Exam on Research Skills?

The National Conference of Bar Examiners is still considering how to create a test of legal research skills that can be administered, scored and validated. If that test is ever added to state bar examination requirements, it will not be long before advanced legal research becomes a required subject at many schools. At this point, there are only a handful of schools (actually only one that I know of) that has a required advanced research class. That school is University of Maryland, who reported at the NE2007 regional meeting on their experience.

When the 3 credit class became mandatory before graduation, there was a sudden strain on the law library staff. They tried a distance class approach over the summers, in hope it would relieve the time pressures they felt. The upshot, as reported by Susan Herrick, was not any actual help with the time pressures of teaching a mandatory class to the full student body. They used Blackboard to post distance-lectures, which were composed of PowerPoint slides shows with voice-over. They were also able to post handouts, camtasia videos, and research problems. The students used Blackboard to upload their answers to the problem sets and to upload their scores from CALI problems assigned.

The librarians liked the ability to work far ahead of the class and post presentations and problems early, controlling release times as needed. The students very much liked taking the required class as a distance program. Student enthusiasm was not necessarily tied to how well they did on the class. Students liked being able to take the class asynchronously, using summer time to fill a requirement while they worked or even traveled. But librarians had to exert some control and nix students taking the course when there was not a viable library nearby for them to use. They also had problems with techical issues, and students away from the campus had difficulty with technical support. But the bottom line for the librarians was that the distance course was not a time saver, even after offering it twice. So many things change in research, that the librarians could not simply re-use old problems and handouts. They still had to do all the grading, and other administrative tasks. The number of librarians available to teach was not increased as the number of students required to take the class skyrocketed. There is a lesson here for libraries.

At the NELLCO board meeting a week or two earlier, we heard about Fordham Law School's success with librarians teaching compressed classes in special topics of legal research. They offered the classes on Fridays and Saturdays, compressed into 7 week classes. The librarians at Fordham were paid as adjunct professors, though they were not given release time from their reference duties. The classes were over-enrolled, with wait lists for all the offered topics. They offered such topics as international, foreign and comparative research. In addition, the librarians separated out the basic legal research from the traditionals LRW class. They coordinate their research teaching with that of the writing teachers. If a student does not pass the research component, they cannot pass the LRW class. Fordham director Bob Nissenbaum said he still received lots of requests for librarians to make guest appearances in regular law classes. He did say his reference staff was very tired and over-extended during the period of the 7-week classes.

I have to say I was excited to hear about the bar exam adding research as a topic. But having faced the issue of teaching research to an entire school of students, vicariously, I have some real reservations about how it can work. I suspect the schools will have to add more bodies to help teach the research.

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