Designing a Legal Research Course

by Tig Wartluft

Nearly two years ago I started a new position. My very first day I attended the law school’s faculty meeting; during that meeting it was announced that there was going to be a change to the required 1L courses that fall: a new legal research course. I happened to be sitting directly behind my boss, who turned around and said something to the effect of “Oh, yeah, I forgot to tell you, you’re designing and teaching that course.” Thankfully, I had the help, assistance, and knowledge of two other law librarians who were also new hires and would also be teaching sections of the new course. There lay the charge given to three new-to-the-institution librarians: design a research course that we would be teaching in less than a year.

One of the early unanimous decisions was to design our course as we wanted it and not to simply choose an existing textbook as the central backbone of the course. Of course, making this decision meant that we had to do more design work.

Phase 1 – Define the Course Conceptually

We began with determining how we were going to approach the course design: from a high-level conceptual approach steadily drilling down until we had a syllabus full of content; or looking at the content we needed to cover and moving from content up to an overall course. Being librarians, it was off to do research! (See articles at the end of the post). Armed with the knowledge espoused in amazing articles, we recognized that we’d need to teach more than simply the legal sources, we’d also need to teach general legal information literacy skills. So what guidance do we as law librarians have for teaching information literacy and legal research skills?

We started with the ABA Standards, specifically Standard 302 “A law school shall establish learning outcomes that shall, at a minimum, include competency in … legal research…” (ABA Standard 302(b)). Great! We’re on the right track, the ABA states that our students have to be competent in legal research! What does that mean? Thankfully, AALL has worked on this same problem and promulgated Principles and Standards for Legal Research Competencies. We used these competencies (along with Paul Callister’s article) to create course-level learning objectives. At this point, I felt that we were halfway to completion and that things should start to easily fall into place, ultimately resulting in a syllabus fully informed by our learning objectives. I was — niavely — feeling happy and optimistic; we’ve got this!

I had recently read Robert Linz’s article about using research plans and logs as a tool to anchor a research course around and suggested this method to my colleagues. At least one other co-worker had read this article as well, and we quickly agreed to use this framework as a scaffold on which to build our content. So far, so good!

Phase 2 – ?phases

Then, we noticed a missing step in the process. Like the underpants gnomes in South Park (who’s business plan is: Phase 1 – collect underpants; Phase 2 – ?; Phase 3 – profit!) we felt like we had Phase 1 – create course level learning objectives; Phase 2 – ?; Phase 3 – Syllabus!

The literature (both law library and educational design literature) warned about potential pitfalls when a course is designed around a set of content instead of the content being dictated by the learning objectives. So the question became: how do we organize the obvious content that we must include (how to access and efficiently and effectively use legal sources) without allowing that content to override and muddy the course we’ve painstakingly conceptualized?

We tried to create lecture-level learning objectives, but that quickly became overwhelming and could potentially mislead us into leaning on the course content to define the course rather than have our vision of the course define the content. We debated the tried-and-true method of legal research courses: teach print sources then the databases… that didn’t fit well with our course goals to focus on the transferable skills of legal research and to prepare the students to be information literate regardless of format or future digital platform GUI changes.

Phase 3 – Syllabus!

We did eventually succeed! But to get there we had to cross the Phase 2 question mark. Eventually, after several weeks, I went back to something I had taken an interest in years ago while I was a Psychology undergrad: Gestalt psychology. In next month’s RIPS post, I’ll provide an introduction to Gestalt theory and how I used it as an approach to organizing potential topics and content into a syllabus. For now, to understand the connection, I need to explain what is considered Gestalt psychology today: a small set of rules governing visual perception, began as an investigation into how the human brain worked, specifically, how the human brain reasoned and learned.  Those underpinnings of Gestalt theory bridged our Phase 2 gap and gave me a vehicle to link the content we had to cover with our course-level objectives in an organized and supportive manner. I could suggest we organize our course in such a way to harness the Gestalt insights into how our brains learn to improve retention and highlight the underlying transferable research skills we are teaching. We can structure the course so that we are highlighting the skills mentioned in our learning objectives instead of potentially obfuscating those skills through a deluge of format and/or software specific facts. Once I had, after several weeks, a sample syllabus to work from, my co-workers added suggestions and made tweaks until we had a mutually agreeable structural skeleton for our course. This wasn’t our last troublesome issue, but it felt like the largest.

If you enjoy this series peering into the planning of a course, please make a comment, if there seems to be an interest I’ll plan on discussing, in November, some of our other planning issues that we had to overcome. Additionally, I’d love to hear in the comments how you may have hurdled this missing step (Phase 2) in your course creation process.

Selected Further Reading

Margaret Butler, Resource-Based Learning and Course Design: A Brief Theoretical Overview and Practical Suggestions, 104 Law Libr. J. 219 (2012).

Paul Callister, Time to Blossom: An Inquiry into Bloom’s Taxonomy as a Hierarchy and Means for Teaching Legal Research Skills, 102 Law Libr. J. 191 (2009).

Janet Fisher, Putting Students at the Center of Legal Education: How an Emphasis on Outcome Measures in the ABA Standards for Approval of Law Schools Might Transform the Educational Experience of Law Students, 35 S. Ill. U. L.J. 225 (2011).

Robert M. Linz, Research Analysis and Planning: The Undervalued Skill in Legal Research Instruction, 34 Legal Reference Services Quarterly 60 (2015).

Theodore A. Potter, A New Twist on an Old Plot: Legal Research is a Strategy, Not a Format, 92 Law Libr. J. 287 (2000).

Correction: 9/19 The original post misspelled author Robert Linz’s last name in the body of the post.

This entry was posted in Information Literacy, Inspiration and Design Ideas, Legal Education Standards, Legal Research, Legal Research Instruction, Teaching (general) and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Designing a Legal Research Course

  1. Lee Ryan says:

    I very much enjoyed this first post, and would love to hear more from you about planning a course. Thanks for your time and insights!

  2. Brittany says:

    A few additional issues I’d love to delve more into are tweaking the course after the first go round, creating research problems for class and the assessment method/project.

  3. Pingback: Designing a Legal Research Course: Phase 2-? | RIPS Law Librarian Blog

  4. Pingback: Identifying & Resolving First-Time Course Issues | RIPS Law Librarian Blog

  5. Pingback: Third Time’s the Charm | RIPS Law Librarian Blog

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