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Tomay-toh, Tomah-to

December 12, 2011

Photo courtesy photon_de

What shall we call it?

I noticed in the comments of the blog on law student legal research competency standards, that people were discussing the possibility of calling the standards legal information literacy standards. I am not sure where this conversation went after this, but I was wondering if it might not be a good idea to use both terms instead of choosing one. In fact, I propose one more phrase, law student research skills standards.

Legal Information Literacy

As a law librarian, I feel a strong camaraderie with other law librarians. Law librarians talk about legal information literacy standards. When we want to talk to each other, this is a useful term to use because it is the language that we use to describe a comprehensive understanding of the lay of the land. However, this may not be the best term to use to sell this concept to our patron base. Consider this blog post by Wayne Bivens-Tatum, an academic librarian at Princeton University, on the concept of information literacy. Bivens-Tatum argues that information literacy is a goal that only reference librarians have any hope of ever achieving, and that students do not need to be information literate.  Although I do not agree that information literacy  goes beyond the skills needed by law students,* I do believe that information literacy is the language of librarians.

Law Student Research Competency Standards

By contrast, professors understand the language of competency. This is the language of professional responsibility for lawyers. Law professors know that lawyers must be competent, so it is reasonable to use this language when speaking to them. When serving our patrons, we want to use the language of the patrons, we don’t expect them to necessarily know what an ILL is, but we let them know that we can order a book for them from another institution. In the same way, maybe we should talk to them about information literacy using language that is meaningful to them.

Law Student Research Skills Standards

Recently, the buzz word in law schools has been skills. Law students are starting to realize that the most important thing to their future employers will be their legal skills. Might using the term “legal skills” and providing students with opportunities to demonstrably achieve those skills with a certificate program, motivate students to take seriously the study of legal research? I would like to try it and find out.

What can we do with it?

Learning Objectives

I can imagine us converting the information literacy standards into a set of learning objectives. Then we can create tests to evaluate student mastery of particular learning objectives. If we all do it together and share our results, we can get it done fairly quickly and we can all have a handy diagnostic tool. We would also have a blueprint for creating and evaluating legal research certificate programs.

Adult Learning Methods

We can create lessons to teach our students very specific and clearly delineated skills. We can talk to them about what they are learning so that they can see the big picture and so that we are partners in their education. We can develop relationships with them by teaching them consistently over the course of their education. We can invite them with common sense appeals to their intelligence. We can entice them with prizes to be won. We can do whatever it takes to help them achieve their goals.

On Gimmicks and Prizes

Law students are stressed out. They have so many chores and if a prize will make it easier for them to stay on the path, then I am for it. I used to believe that prizes were juvenile and insulting. Now I can see that giving a prize, especially a good one, is a way to be kind to your students. The kindness is not that you are giving one student a thing. It is that you are giving all the students the gift of positive motivation to learn something. If it makes it easier for them to learn, I am for it. I kind of wish I had access to free tickets to concerts or something valuable so that I could give my students prizes every week.

The Role of CALI

I envision research being taught in small groups in sessions of 20-30 minutes, with relevant CALI lessons being used. We could tailor the CALI lessons to teach the specific learning objectives, and we could have a diagnostic test at the beginning of the lesson and another at the end to see if the lesson worked as a teaching tool. If it doesn’t work, we can improve it. More than one of us can try teaching the same learning objectives, and we can see which strategies worked better than others.


I think it is good to have almost interchangeable terms to use that different stakeholders can understand and relate to as being important. Legal Information Literacy, Law Student Research Competency Standards, or Law Student Research Skills Standards, are all descriptive terms that can be used in the Google search box to find the same or overlapping sets of documents.

  • What would you want to do to participate in creating a standardized educational program for our law students and new associates?
  • How would you present it to your patron base?
  • How would you motivate your students to learn?

* Unlike academic scholars who learn about substantive topics, with an existence separate from the literature on the topic, law students need to learn how to find and use the most up to date information to craft a strong argument. Although I do not think they need to worry about finding or missing the exact perfect case, I do believe that there is merit to law students acquiring the kind of deeper understanding of the big picture that information literacy provides, over knowledge of how to manipulate databases.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Ron Wheeler permalink
    December 14, 2011 12:42 pm

    As usual, great post. I just want to clarify that at the AALL Executive Board meeting in March 2011, the Board voted to adopt the name “Law Student Research Competencies and Information Literacy Principles.” So both the tomay-tohs and the tomah-tos were embraced.

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