Research Process In The Databases

A recent post by fellow RIPS blogger, Shawn Friend, got me thinking about the importance of process over platform in the legal databases and the current struggle we all face with numerous platforms.

Academic law librarians are starting to regularly encounter students who are “digital natives.” This term is defined as those who were “born during or after the general introduction of digital technologies and through interacting with digital technology from an early age, have a greater understanding of its concepts.”

With that in mind, platform will become increasingly less important overtime. When our students enter law school, they will be much more adept at searching electronic databases, in general.

Instead of getting caught up trying to instruct on the nuts-and-bolts of each database (and there are many with distinct nuances), it is more important to emphasize a research process that works in any database. This teaching strategy also allows the instructor to avoid overwhelming the students with too much information.

At Cooley, we teach a four-step research process:

  • Preliminary Analysis – searching secondary sources for an overview of the topic
  • Codified Law – searching constitutions, codes, court rules, and regulations
  • Binding Precedent – searching case law that the court must follow from a particular jurisdiction
  • Persuasive Precedent – searching case law that the court may follow from other jurisdictions

This research process can be geared toward any database – whether the user must search using pre-search filters or by choosing a particular source from the word wheel. As long as the user can maneuver the database to find relevant secondary sources, he or she will be able to fulfill the first step of the research process and so on.

If the students use the research process to keep their research strategic and organized, they should feel comfortable using any database. And it is important for students to feel comfortable with the databases because they will generally only research in a way that is comfortable to them.

This was observed by Alison Head and Michael Eisenberg among undergraduate students at the University of Washington. The students showed little variation in their research strategies and defaulted to resources like Google and Wikipedia for introductory research, with little regard for efficiency or effectiveness. As Head and Eisenberg observed, the students may be aware of the range of resources needed to carry out their research effectively, but they fall back on strategies as similar and repetitive as possible.

Instead of focusing on the various platforms, we should make the students comfortable with a process that works in any database — a process that will become similar and repetitive to the students and one that they may actually use.

What types of process-oriented teaching/instruction do you use?

For more information see:

Michael B. Eisenberg and Alison J. Head, Lessons Learned: How College Students Seek Information in the Digital Age 2009 Project Information Literacy,

About Jamie Baker

Jamie Baker is the Associate Dean & Director of the Law Library at Texas Tech University School of Law. She teaches Intro to the Study of Law, Civil Trial Research, & Academic Legal Writing, as well as sessions in the Legal Practice program and Excellence in Legal Research program. She blogs at
This entry was posted in Legal Research, Legal Research Instruction, Teaching (general) and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Research Process In The Databases

  1. charlottedschneider says:

    Reblogged this on Charlotte D. Schneider's Blog and commented:
    Since I don’t teach more than a few guest lectures, and while I teach process and how the students should think about the information–any information–I never really thought about the steps of the process. I like the way this 4-step process, and I agree with it wholeheartedly.

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