My library recently expanded our advanced legal research course offerings. As part of the expansion, we are teaching two sections of a traditional advanced legal research class and have been using instructor-librarians, for which this has been their first foray into teaching a for-credit course. In preparation, we provided a list of the topics to be covered, discussed pedagogical issues, and even allowed for mock classes. The results have been great. But one theme has been prevalent in our post-class discussions: can we provide even more standardization for our traditional advanced legal research classes?
What do I mean by standardization? Essentially, it would involve each class looking the same. There would be similar presentations, homework assignments, and in-class exercises. As we continue the discussion about moving to this model, we are having regular, evolving conversations on the issue and are in the process of creating a shared network folder to act as a repository for the materials from prior legal research classes. Come to think of it, we may be building our own version of the National Legal Research Teach-In.
So what do we view as some of the benefits and drawbacks of a standardization model for legal research instruction? On the positive side, the library, law school, and students would know that a common theme is being introduced in the classes. Over time, there would be a well-established understanding of exactly what was going to come from these classes. There would be no surprises. Standardization could also cut down on preparation time for the instructor-librarians. Everyone spends a lot of time putting together PowerPoint presentations, homework assignments, and discussion topics for in-class. If the classes were standardized and this type of work was accomplished on the front end, the classes would be ready for anyone to step in and assume the instructor role if needed.
Obviously, there are also negatives to standardizing our instructional efforts. Does everything need to look the same? As I mentioned earlier, we have two instructor-librarians teaching the same class this school year. They have each taken a unique and very interesting approach to teaching the same topics. They have different personalities and styles, and this variety has generated positive responses from the students. Standardization could stifle this individual voice. If we asked each of our classes to look the same, we may not see excellent examples of innovation such as storytelling or the flipped classroom.
With all of this in mind, how does everyone else handle the substance of your legal research classes? And who out there has found that happy medium of standard subject matter with the individual voice included?
This semester, I’ve struggled with whether I need to show different research platforms when I teach research. In the past, I’ve shown the different options available; lately, I have a bias I need to which I must admit. For the last six months or so, I’ve had trouble showing students (and even professors) Lexis. I hate to be partisan. I hate to show Westlaw’s product without showing Lexis’ too. But lately, I find myself making excuses as to why I can’t show Lexis Advance.
I can’t because Lexis Advance does not do the things that I want to do as a researcher. Lexis Advance seldom allows for drilling down to information through a table of contents. Students cannot see the contents of a resource I am discussing, even when I get to it through browse sources. The searching (even after the update last week) is often clumsy.
Twice in the last week, I had patrons ask specifically how to do something in Lexis Advance. In both cases, I showed them the best option and they said “I guess I should use Westlaw.” One wanted to find state statutes by popular name. Not possible on Lexis. Today I couldn’t even find the U.S.C.S. Popular Name Table in Lexis Advance (I think it might be there, but I couldn’t tell). The other wanted to see a list of the Florida Secondary Sources available in Lexis Advance. Of course, one can go to Browse Sources, narrow to Secondary Sources, and then select Jurisdiction. But it’s clumsy in Lexis.
And I so badly want to show Lexis Advance. There are so many reasons to: the price (often lower than Westlaw); the higher usage by small firms and solos; my intrinsic sense of fairness. And there are a couple of amazing things in Lexis Advance. Their grid view for Shepard’s is my favorite updating tool. Lexis’ coverage of bar journals is also very good. Much of the rest of Lexis Advance is not great for law school research.
So, do I need to show the different platforms? I am beginning to think I don’t. This is nothing new – law librarians used to be able to teach research by giving students a list of legal resources to review. That bibliographic instruction technique no longer works well when there are hundreds of thousands of documents. Teaching about research process and information use is better for legal research now. For more on this, see Michael Chiorazzi & Shaun Esposito, Commentaries on Hicks’ ‘Teaching Legal Bibliography’: With an Addendum by Robert Berring, 28 Legal Reference Services Q. 9 (2009).
All the systems will be different in a couple of years, so if students learn the process of using resources really well they should be able to use any resource. That is better than showing them Westlaw and Lexis and Bloomberg and LoisLaw and Fastcase and…well, you get the idea. In fact, showing all the platforms may lead not to student comfort with the resources but instead to student confusion.
Again, this is nothing earth shattering, but I am going to let go of my guilt for not demonstrating Lexis and redouble my effort to teach process to new legal researchers instead of focusing on platform.
How are you handling personal preferences in teaching various platforms?
My colleagues and I proposed a session on digital badges in legal research for the AALL Annual Meeting. Much to our chagrin, we were turned down, but we are undeterred. We’re still talking about digital badges and what they might add to our online legal research course.
We’re all familiar with badges from Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Each badge is a tangible indicator that a scout has met prescribed criteria for learning and achievement in a given area – aeronautics, survival skills, physics, poetry, animal care, and so on. The military uses visible indicators of achievement as well, with stars and bars indicating rank and medals showing honors.
Digital badges are also indicators of learning and achievement, just intangible (requiring no sewing, ironing, or pins!). Once earned, digital badges are stored electronically in a “backpack” or portfolio, and there are badge clearinghouses where you can keep your backpack. Badges can then be communicated to instructors, supervisors, potential employers, or anyone else who might be interested in credentials. Badges can also be displayed on personal websites, blogs, and social networking environments.
Mozilla’s Open Badges is one of the leading digital badge sites, with free software and an open technical standard that anyone can use to design, create, and issue badges. The open standard allows for reliable verification and allows badge earners to collect in one backpack badges from many different sites. Earners can also control the sharing of their badges for different audiences. .
One of the reason badges are intriguing is because they can carry all sorts of metadata about the criteria plus data about the actual achievements of the earner. For example, a badge for a legal writing class could contain information about the course requirements, when and where the course was taken, the grade earned, assignments, grading rubrics, and the actual written work of the student. This would give a potential employer much more information than a mere transcript or résumé.
I can imagine implementing badges in a number of different ways in our online legal research course: perhaps a badge for all those earning As, a badge showing mastery of statutes and regulations, a badge for state- or topic-specific research. Maybe we create a legal research metabadge – a conglomerate badge created by earning several smaller badges. Would the possibility of earning badges provide better motivation to the students than a mere grade? Would badges be perceived as meaningful or gimmicky? Would badges change learning outcomes or are they just about communicating what’s already being achieved? Can we garner the institutional and technical support necessary to begin experimenting with badges? Will they be passé in two years?
Obviously, I have a lot of questions still. My research into badges will continue. In fact, I’m enrolled in a MOOC where I can earn badges for learning about badges. And I don’t have to sell cookies!
In February of 2011, AALL asked the Member to Member Question,“why did you become a law librarian?” One respondent said, “I decided to be a librarian when I was 12….”
This type of response seems to be more of the exception than the rule. Many of the other members’ answers to the Member to Member Question included the words “by accident.” The “accidental law librarian” has become something of a running theme in our profession.
Last year, there was even a book published called The Accidental Law Librarian by Anthony Aycock. The author recognized that many people ‘fall’ into the profession. The book offers an introduction to law librarianship for those who are new to the profession, including sources of authority, the basics of legal research, answering legal reference questions, looseleafs, WEXIS, and library administration.
The often accidental nature of our profession means that there are potential law librarians all around us. And the anecdotal evidence shows this to be true as more law students are approaching the reference desk asking about law librarianship. Because law librarians are in a good position to stumble upon those who are interested in the profession, it means that we can advocate for law librarianship and mentor, mentor, mentor!
At Cooley, the law librarians started a formal research assistant position to aid those interested in advanced legal research techniques. As a prerequisite, the reference assistant must have taken Research & Writing and have an understanding of basic legal research.
During the law student’s tenure as a reference assistant, he or she has the opportunity to work closely with the reference librarians and gain hands-on experience in a wide variety of areas, including the following:
- Performing a reference interview
- Learning advanced research techniques like state-specific legislative history
- Additional experience with a proper research strategy and terms and connectors searching
- Organizing research for faculty liaisons
- Collection development techniques
- Other skills necessary to fulfill research requests (PACER, SEC filings, etc…)
This position is in a controlled setting, and the research assistant works under the watchful eye of the librarians who are not only open to questions but also offer suggestions for improvement. As a former research assistant, I can attest to the invaluable experience of working with a librarian with 40+ years in the profession.
It has been Cooley’s experience that law students who are interested in law librarianship gravitate toward the position. And at least three of our former research assistants have found employment as law librarians.
The research assistant program is a great success, and it is a wonderful way to provide additional one-on-one research instruction to students.
For more information see:
Serena Brooks, Educating Aspiring Law Librarians: A Student’s Perspective, 97(3) Law Library Journal 517 (2005).
The RIPS Teach-In Kit Committee has extended the deadline for RIPS Teach-In Kit submissions to Friday, Feb. 21. Help create a valuable Kit by submitting your instruction materials today. Details are below.
Help Take Legal Research Instruction to the Next Level
Do you have a great lesson plan or assignment that you’d be willing to share? How about handouts or PowerPoint slides? If so, then we need your help!
The RIPS Teach-In Kit Committee is currently accepting submissions for the 2014 Teach-In Kit. The Teach-In Kit is a resource where law librarians can share materials and ideas to help improve legal research instruction. We hope you’ll consider helping out your colleagues by submitting your materials to this year’s Kit. We invite you to send contributions as email attachments to Shawn Nevers at email@example.com.
Prior contributions have included course syllabi, lesson plans, research guides, assignments, lecture notes, handouts, examinations, quizzes, PowerPoint slides, tutorials and games. Examples of past submissions can be found in kits from previous years.
The semester has wrapped up, and the students are off to think about something other than law school. Our faculty are busy grading, and their library needs are not as frequent. Therefore, it sounds like a perfect time to reflect on the past year and make those soon-to-be broken resolutions for 2014. Yes, I want to lose a few pounds, exercise, and spend more quality time away from work and with the family. But what are my new year’s resolutions as a law librarian? While you think about what you want to do in the upcoming year, here are a few of my thoughts:
Bring new ideas into instructional sessions. This may be in the form of a new class proposal, a different one-off lunch session, or even a new pedagogical idea. Something new can be beneficial for not only the students but also for you as you recharge with a new approach. At my library, we have several things we will be working on in the upcoming year. We are working on a new course, becoming more embedded in the law school’s seminar offerings, and we are discussing some flipped classroom experiences for the summer RAs. Why not try something different? It may turn out to be a success. In this article, Capital University Law School professor Angela Upchurch writes about “Optimizing the Law School Classroom through the ‘Flipped’ Classroom Model.”
Mentor, mentor and mentor. Even if you are new to the law librarian profession, there is someone out there that can learn from your experience. Everyone has had a boss or a co-worker that has provided fabulous career or job-related feedback. The law librarian profession is full of people willing to help another librarian to achieve their goals. Now is the time for you to be that person. The next time a law student asks what it takes to be a librarian or a co-worker asks about their career, take the time to listen, reflect and then give great advice. You can also explore the American Association of Law Libraries’ Mentor Match program.
Learn about an area outside your comfort zone. I was in a conversation recently and was described as a life-long learner. I don’t think of myself in those terms, but I guess they are appropriate. But why wouldn’t I want to learn about new things that are, at least somewhat, relevant to my career? So as you plan your upcoming list of things to do, why not go ahead and take that course you have been thinking about or take advantage of an opportunity that you don’t think you have time for within our busy lives. It will add more to your perspective as a librarian and may even come in handy in your daily tasks.
So those are a few of the things I will be thinking about for 2014. How about everyone else? Do you have any good suggestions for things to work on in the upcoming year?
Ah, tis the season for holiday parties, time off, and perhaps snow (although it is in the 80s here in Florida this week). But for most of us, it is time to really plan next semester and think about projects for next Fall (it will be here sooner than you know!). We often want student or faculty or employer information on what resources are being used, what research skills are lacking, and maybe on what changes should be made to classes or to reference services.
In this post, I want to give some resources on using focus groups. Instead of doing surveys or relying on anecdotal evidence (is that an oxymoron? Can something be evidence if it is anecdotal?), think more along the lines of inviting people to chat with you in small focus groups. Many librarians had research methods classes that addressed different methods of data collection for patron needs, but I always forget about doing focus groups.
Focus groups are usually made up of a homogenous group – so ask first year law students or first year associates, and don’t mix and match demographics. This allows for more open conversation, as the participants are often comfortable with each other. In a focus group, the questions asked by the moderator are open-ended to allow for all responses, which then can be elaborated upon. There is a preference for outside moderators or facilitators, but time and resources usually mandate an internal moderator. One of the tough things for many facilitators is the need to simply be quiet in a focus group and let the conversation happen. Listening, not asking, is the key.
Many resources on focus groups in libraries come from public library settings. There are a few examples from academic libraries, often detailing actual focus group topics, which may be helpful. Other professional libraries also have information on how they have used focus groups. Whether you are looking for general information or looking to plan a very specific project, focus groups allow you to get to deeper information than surveys.
There are some bibliographies and books, but not all of them are recent. This is an area that continues to develop as libraries work to support different kinds of learning and research. In addition to resources from schools, there are resources that generally set out how to conduct a focus group which are helpful. Here are a couple of them, but there are many more available. As spring approaches, consider trying a focus group to see what your patrons want in the new year!
Have any of you used focus groups in your libraries? If so, please share your experience in the comments.