Monday, November 02, 2009

Helping Our Students Bridge the Gap: Expert Legal Researchers

I have spent a couple decades by now teaching legal research. I started with the optimistic idea that I could just pour the information into students' heads. Well, not quite that naive, but nearly. Early on, we lectured, and then gave our students worksheets, and reading assignments to introduce them to the various research tools. But over the years, I began to feel that the lecture was really not doing much, and the worksheets were where the learning (if any) was happening. I thought back to my own days as a library school student. The bibliography classes were hugely time- consuming, but we really learned how to understand all those different tools, how to teach ourselves new resources in the future, and how to evaluate and choose them, too. I thought, that is what I think the law students really need. Nearly anything I teach them NOW will be different by the time they graduate. So, I went to work on creating a bunch of worksheets that showed the law students how to look under the hood at various types of legal research tools.

Then, I spent the next decade or so scaling them back... Ahem. Those bibliography classes WERE very time-consuming after all. I do read all the comments on my student evaluations, and take them very seriously. I was practically killing my students. So, after continual tinkering, I have seriously stream-lined the worksheets, but the core of the class is basically the same... For most of the classes, the students have a worksheet to complete beforehand. They have a reading assignment that will help them understand what is going on, if the resources are strange. Then, the class is mostly spent discussing what they found and how they found it, and what they thought about what their experience was. I don't really care WHAT they find, so much as HOW they find it, and there are a LOT of different ways to find things. The discussion is the whole thing. What they liked, and didn't like. What worked and what didn't .... And why do they think it didn't.

I did not really have words to explain this until I was reading a book for a reading group I signed up for at our Teaching Center. Metacognition is one word that explains part of what is going on in my class. Metacognition is thinking about knowing. And it seems to be one step toward deeper understanding of any subject... to think about what you know, and how you know it -- the process of learning. It's a hot topic in cognitive psychology applied to learning theory. The book I'm reading is Why Don't Students Like School: A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom, by Daniel T. Willingham (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass) 2009. (WDSLS)

In WDSLS, Willingham makes a number of points useful to classroom teachers at all levels, from kindergarten through college and post-graduate levels. The book is easy to read, and moderately entertaining, and the points are easy to pull out of the text, laid out in special fonts and boxes. There are entertaining illustrations and puzzles to help make his points. But I did not really catch fire, feeling that I saw a strong connection between this book and my own thinking about the problems of teaching legal research, until about two thirds of the way through.

Suddenly, at page 104, Willingham is talking about the difference between experts and novices:

... transfer [of previous learning to new situations] is so difficult because novices tend to focus on surface features [that is the surface difference between problems] and are not very good at seeing the abstract, functional relationships among problems that are key to solving them [that is, seeing the abstract similarities that make problems analogous, so one can transfer the solution of a previous problem to the new problem]. Well that is what experts are great at. They have representations of problems and situations in their long-term memories and those representations are abstract. That's why experts are able to ignore unimportant details and home in on useful information; thinking functionally makes it obvious what's important. That's also why they show good transfer to new problems. New problems differ in surface structure, but experts recognize the deep, abstract structure. That's also why their judgments usually are sensible, even if they are not quite right.
This is what lawyers and librarians mean when they say, "You get a feel for the shape of the law." They mean that after you do enough legal research, you begin to see the underlying similarities that let you solve the research problem by recognizing the abstract, functional relationship to previous research problems you have solved, which may look on the surface like very different problems. And you can very quickly guess where the answer will lie, and look for it much more efficiently. But it has never been something I could articulate for students any more clearly than the little quip about knowing the shape of the law.

And I now have a way to articulate for my students what I am trying to do with the classroom discussions. If they will discuss and argue about what they find, not to show me or get my approval, but to explain to themselves and help themselves see what they know and how they came to know it, they will be stepping much farther along the path toward making themselves into experts. They will be taking the time they spent on the worksheets and supercharging it, by making it into a much richer experience.


Marie S. Newman said...

Interesting post, Betsy. Thanks. I'm going to have to buy the book you cite and have a look at it.

savarona said...

Fascinating. I, too, am now interested in the book.