Identifying & Resolving First-Time Course Issues

by Tig Wartluft

As promised, here’s a quick round-up of some of the issues we ran into as we created and ran our new research course for the first time. Some of the issues we expected, but some were completely unexpected.

Consistency

The biggest issue that we expected to have, and tried to minimize, was consistency. The plan was for four sections, each to be taught by a librarian. Four individual approaches, even to a common topic, meant that there would be variations between the sections. We knew that the students would be comparing the sections, so we tried to be as consistent as we could with four individual approaches. To that end, we used a shared syllabus. Although each instructor could modify the syllabus, starting with a common syllabus meant that the topics covered and their order would be essentially identical across all sections. The graded assignments and their due dates were common to all sections; however, to account for any differences in instruction between the sections, the students in each section were only graded against their own section. This combination of identical graded assignments and in-class and ungraded exercises allowed us to compare individual strategies to topics. Additionally, allowing instructors the freedom to approach the course topics individually, but providing a common structure to the course, we were essentially conducting four trials of the course – a process that allowed us to significantly improve the course for it’s second incarnation. Because we could pick and choose the best approaches of the four, we now have a solid course during what is only our second offering.

On a related issue of consistency and one which we did not expect, was first-year faculty consistency across the curriculum. While planning the research course, we had worked closely with the legal writing professors to make certain that our assignments and general timing of subjects on the syllabus were coordinated. However, we did not expect confusion to bloom based upon conflicting approaches to topics with the other first-year professors. Most of the confusion sprang from differing use of terminology. For example, I taught that Westlaw and the others were databases of sources, whereas some of the substantive-course professors used “database” to refer both to Westlaw, in general, and to individual sources, or groups of sources, within Westlaw (as was common terminology when using the old classic website). 

The Textbook

The next major issue was the textbook. Because we chose to design our course first and pick a book second, we expected the textbook to not perfectly parallel the course. However, we assumed that we’d be able to find a textbook that would be substantially similar in approach. We didn’t. We picked a book because we felt we needed a book for that first year, but, I at least, assumed that the textbook wouldn’t be too much of an issue because we would simply assign the chapters in the order of our syllabus. As the end-of-course student reviews showed, having a book that didn’t parallel the course was a big deal to the students. So for this year, the second offering of the course, we designed a custom book – taking chapters from various legal research books from a single publisher and supplementing the chosen sections with our own entries and organizing the whole collection around our syllabus. Our writing professors had taken this approach to their course several years ago, and it seemed to work well. So far, my students seem to view our custom book favorably.

The unexpected issue regarding the book was that due to bureaucracy and the fact that the law school starts classes a week before the rest of the campus, our custom edition only arrived in the bookstore on the second day of class. Because it was a custom book, the publisher wouldn’t print any copies until they received an order from our bookstore, after which it would take three to four weeks to print and ship the books. Additionally, our bookstore sat on the order for about five weeks, apparently thinking that the publisher had already printed the books. The combination of those time frames meant that our books, ordered from the bookstore in June didn’t arrive until after law classes had begun in mid-August.

Exercises and Assignments

The final issue was hoping that our exercises and assessments were both timed well and designed well. Since the research course was new, we could only guess as to how long any assignment would take our students. Before the first graded assignment was handed out, we were able to see how long it took our students to complete in-class exercises. However, our graded exercises added several levels of difficulty to those early in-class exercises, so we were really guessing as to how long the assignments should take our students. Being a two-credit course, we wanted to make sure we weren’t asking for the same amount of work as the students’ other three-credit courses, but we didn’t want to underestimate either and have the students see our course as  easy one. 

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Photo by Tig Wartluft: Dealing with unexpected issues

Obviously, not all our exercises worked perfectly the first time around. For example, I attempted to create a reference book of individual assessments of specific secondary sources. I provided a template for each student to review one print and one electronic secondary source. However, I did not spend class time explaining how to review the sources, assuming, incorrectly, that the students would find the assignment to be straightforward. I was wrong. The exercise was such a fiasco that I made two changes to the secondary source section of the course for the second offering: (1) I dropped that ill-fated assignment entirely, and (2) I added two additional class periods for secondary sources as it was apparent from the first time through that the students, as a group, did not possess the level of information literacy skills that I had assumed they would. Other instructors had similar results with some of their exercises, however we pooled our collective experiences, and this fall we were all able to benefit from sharing with each other our exercises that worked well.

An unexpected issue with our new assignments was that our final project, which was created before the course began, dealt with a state law issue set in California. Unfortunately, about one to two weeks before we were set to handout the final, California promulgated state-level regulations exactly on-point which settled our proposed issue. We quickly attempted to adapt the problem to make it a federal issue instead of a state one, and inadvertently introduced an error regarding the controlling federal statute. The error wasn’t identified until after we had handed out the problem.

These certainly aren’t all the issues we ran into, but these were the major ones. Many, if not most, of these issues were able to be addressed before this fall (the second time the course was taught). While I feel that our course helped our students last year, I also feel that we significantly improved the delivery of the course this fall by addressing the issues presented and continuing to revise and learn from the delivery of the course. 

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

One Response to Identifying & Resolving First-Time Course Issues

  1. Lee Ryan says:

    Thanks for continuing this series!

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