Designing a Legal Research Course: Phase 2-?

by Tig Wartluft

In a previous post, I discussed three phases of designing a legal research course. During Phase 2, the question became: how do we organize the obvious content that we must include without allowing that content to override and muddy the course we’ve painstakingly conceptualized? This post continues that conversation.

Kurt Koffka, one of the founders of Gestalt psychology wrote that an individual who has a lot of knowledge knows many facts, but the individual who knows the singular system containing those facts knows and perceives more. The goal of Gestalt psychology was to determine what happens when “thinking really works productively” to solve a problem. (Wertheimer, 1966). This makes the Gestalt approach easily applicable to legal research, as legal research is “in essence a process of problem solving.” (McCrate Report, 1992).

The concept of ‘the whole is greater than the sum of the parts’ originated in Gestalt psychology. Gestalt theory has found that “structured wholes . . . are the primary units of mental life.” (Wagemans, et al., 2012). Our brains recognize patterns; too many facts and our brains start to look for the simplifying singular structure containing those facts. Our brains, like all physical systems, show a tendency to maximize stability with a minimum of energy. In other words, our brains are lazy. We can harness that laziness to our advantage through thoughtful organization of the information we present.

Gestalt investigations into visual perception led to identification of several principles of organization: proximity, similarity, continuation, and common region, among others. Organizing the skills we present to our students using these principles reinforces learning and improves recall, but presenting legal information skills contrary to these innate patterns will camouflage the very skills that we are trying to highlight. An organizational pattern that our brains use as shorthand is proximity.


Figure 1

For example, Figure 1 shows a series of eight dots in a line. By varying the spaces between the dots (line two shows proximity) or the color of the dots (line 3 shows similarity) our brains interpret the information differently. Each line contains eight dots, but at no time does our brain encode ‘eight dots.’ It recognizes a line of dots, several sets of pairs, or alternating sets of black and grey dots. If we’re trying to teach the concept of eight black dots, our students’ brains are obfuscating that point by looking for and encoding the most easily digestible pattern.

If we want to teach research literacy skills, we must organize the information so that the skill is the overriding pattern. I take a skill, like using a citator to find cases interpreting a specific statute, and ask the students to use that same skill in multiple databases. This highlights the similarities even if the individual user interface steps change when moving between databases.

On the other hand, if we present information in a way that camouflages the information we’re presenting, the organization of our instruction could be working against our objectives and lowering retention and recall. To this end, one of the organizational shortcuts that Gestalt research has shown our brains take is grouping items contained within a common region.

In legal research terms, by focusing on a singular database for several skills, students may be encoding the information based upon the common region (the singular database), mistakenly learning that ‘[insert database name here] has everything!’ instead of learning the showcased skills in a transferable way. By focusing on the database, we have unintentionally camouflaged our instructional goal due to the learner’s propensity to ascribe meaning through the common region, the database.

By applying the Gestalt organizational principles to bolster the learning objectives in our course, the syllabus was organized around research skills being applied across research tools instead of focusing on the use of the individual tools. Using the brain’s default encoding practices to highlight the transferable skills required to be a literate legal researcher allowed our learning objectives to inform the content of the course hopefully allowing for greater retention and recall by our students.


Am. Bar Ass’n Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, Legal Education and Professional Development – An Educational Continuum: Report of the Task Force on Law Schools and the Profession: Narrowing the Gap, July 1992. (Known as the MacCrate Report).

K.Koffka, Principles of Gestalt Psychology (1935).

Irvin Rock & Stephen Palmer, The Legacy of Gestalt Psychology, Sci. Am., December 1990.

Johan Wagemans et al., A Century of Gestalt Psychology in Visual Perception: I. Perceptual Grouping and Figure-Ground Organization, 138 Psychol. Bull. 1172 (Nov. 2012).

Max Wertheimer, Productive Thinking (Michael Wertheimer ed., enlarged ed., 1968).

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

One Response to Designing a Legal Research Course: Phase 2-?

  1. Kerry Fitz-Gerald says:

    I agree that a skill “sticks” better if students are asked to perform it in multiple databases. I also believe that an important meta-skill is the ability to move comfortably within a variety of databases/platforms (and even better, to be able to figure out how to do a familiar task in an unfamiliar platform). But I’d love to hear how you and others choose how much to include. Taking your example of citators, is it enough to teach just Westlaw and Lexis? Or do we also show them how to do this on Bloomberg, Casemaker, and Google Scholar? My students will be better prepared for the realities of their practices if they can work comfortably in any of these, but there’s simply no way to teach all skills in all platforms within the confines of a 2 credit class.

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