The course evaluations from my first year of teaching legal research suggested that I was guilty of “Death by PowerPoint.” Coming upon my second year of teaching legal research this past summer, I vowed to change that. I decided I wanted to make the course integrated by getting the students more involved via live searches and active participation.
The first few weeks were, in my opinion, successful. I was able to get them involved in the class by having them come up to the front and demonstrate a Westlaw or Lexis search tactic that I taught them or tell me how they would conduct a search for a topic in a particular resource. In one class, I flipped my old way of tacking on legislative history research at the end of a lecture on statutes to having the class go through the process of how a bill eventually becomes a law and then becomes codified. The students became my mock committees, governors signing the acts, and legislator proposing the bill during a live demo on how a bill becomes a codified law. I even showed them the Schoolhouse Rock “How a Bill Becomes a Law” video to liven things up at the beginning of class. Through each step of the process, I showed them where the documents from that step – committee reports, committee transcripts, signed Acts, Statutes at Large- were located in Thomas, West/Lexis, and in print. Teaching this way seemed to make the students more responsive.
Then, I had what I thought to be a novel way to teach secondary sources. I divided the students into 16 equal groups and assigned them all a secondary source to present on during the next class. I gave a mini hypothetical to each group and made my instructions clear. I wanted to know how they used the resource to find their assigned topic and what the resource covers. I would add bits of pertinent information about the resource during a brief class discussion after the group presentation to better fully cover the resource. The results were mixed.
The first few presentations went really well, but there was a definite drop off in active listening by the time the sixth group presented, somewhere around the 40 minute mark of class. The students gave great demonstrations of the materials they were assigned, but paying close attention to each group’s spiel on a secondary resource did not seem a high priority towards the later part of the class.
I wanted feedback from them on the effectiveness of this method of learning and if they preferred this to straight lecture. At the end of class, I had them complete three statements on a piece of paper: 1) I think this is/is not an effective way to learn about secondary resources. 2) I prefer/do not prefer this method of instruction to straight lecture. 3) I would improve this method by…..
Forty of 56 students thought this was an effective way to learn about secondary sources. Sixteen of 56 did not. When asked about their preference between straight lecture and group presentations, the class was split 28-28. I did receive valuable feedback with the open ended question about how to improve the method. Most were concerned that they only really learned one source really well and the other sources not so much. Some wished each group would have done a short PowerPoint so they could have a visual and the group discussion simultaneously, thereby combining the PowerPoint method with a group participation one. One student even suggested that the group presentations be done in the form of a song.
I learned a lot about using group presentations for legal research class via this trial by fire. The comments from the students in the evaluation sheets will no doubt guide my decision of whether or not to teach it the same way next year and give me ideas of how to improve the method. So, stay tuned for “Secondary Legal Resources: The Musical”?