Flipping the Classroom for 1L Legal Research Instruction

In an ideal world, the beginning of fall semester would go off without a hitch. All the books would be available in the bookstore, all the database links would be working, all the email accounts would be accurate, and all the classes would be ready to roll well in advance. But this is the real world of course.  This fall, my colleagues and I are suddenly and unexpectedly short-handed when it comes to teaching the first-year students. We simply don’t have the person-power to provide lectures and exercises tailored to each of our legal writing professors as we have done for many years past. The solution? We’re flipping the classroom.

In a flipped classroom, material that would normally be in a classroom lecture or presentation is given beforehand online. The classroom time is then used for hands-on work, practice exercises, and discussions. To flip 1L legal research instruction, I am creating a series of lessons using the university’s course management system (a Sakai-based CMS).

Each lesson consists of several digital “pages.” The pages include text for the students to read, illustrations and diagrams, and screencasts introducing the major legal research databases. The screencasts are interactive, requiring the students to type and click as instructed. The interactivity captures kinesthetic learning opportunities. I am also keeping these screencasts short – under 3 minutes. Watching someone else navigate a screen gets tedious so quickly, and I am hoping that the brevity and interactivity will keep the students’ attention.

The lessons are then followed by an in-lab session with a librarian. In the labs, we will be skipping our usual presentations and diving right in to research problems. The plan is that we will do one problem with the students – brainstorming search terms, formulating the search, choosing the right starting point, selecting for jurisdiction, filtering, assessing, updating, and expanding. The students will then have time to experiment with their assigned research problems while the librarian offers suggestions and answers questions. This allows us to streamline our instruction and still offer some hands-on instruction geared toward the problems assigned by each writing professor.

When we proposed this plan, some of the legal writing professors expressed concern that the students wouldn’t bother with the pre-class flipped material, that the only way to assure they pay any attention is to have them sit as a captive audience for an in-class lecture. There may be some validity to this concern, but online instruction offers workarounds. First, the course management system lets us require each page of the assigned lessons. Of course, the students can simply click their way through without sparing the material a glance if they want. So in addition, each lesson is followed by a brief assessment. These assessments are intended to check that the student has reviewed the material, not to truly test comprehension. I am keeping them short (3 to 5 questions) and light (a multiple choice question offers the answers Deputize, Colonize, Shepardize, or Textualize). The course management system will automatically grade the assessments, and we can report the results to those writing professors who want to see them.

All in all, I’m excited about the expected outcomes. The students will be getting consistent instruction across all sections; the instruction can take advantage of online capabilities such as interactive screencasts, self-paced learning, and assessment; and the lab time will produce more hands-on practice and real learning. I see the flipped classroom as giving us a shot at the best of both worlds.

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