by Tig Wartluft
Previously I’ve written about the process of creating a legal research course and the changes we made to that course after we taught it for the first time. Now that the semester has come to an end, I’m starting to review and assess the second rendition of the course, and I’m already making a list of tweaks and adjustments for the third time around. On the whole, I’m happy to say that the changes we made after our first time definitely improved the course. I feel that this second run through was a more targeted and polished course. Additionally, I feel that the changes we will make before teaching the course for a third time will be significantly smaller than the last set of changes.
Sitting here looking at the start of my list of suggested modifications, I’m noticing that they fall into three categories: (1) topics where we need to start at a more basic level; (2) topics where we need to either be more precise using our terminology or where we will need to define our terminology more precisely; and (3) places where I want to alter my explanation of a topic for better understanding. I will provide some examples of the first two, the third essentially addresses my own personal idiosyncrasies and presentation examples.
1. Starting at a More Basic Level
Determining what basic step of knowledge to begin teaching a topic is a moving target. Each group of students will have a different set of educational backgrounds, so I’m not sure that we can definitively determine the proper starting step without boring the students who know the basic information already. Yet, we have to be sure not to lose those students who don’t already have a basic understanding of a topic.
For example, how much information do you assume students already know about the three branches of government? I had one student tell me that the introduction I give on the structure of government, and their related primary sources, was wasted time because everyone in the class had taken a year of American history in high school. Yet other students in the same section told me they enjoyed the Schoolhouse Rock “I’m Just a Bill” video. Perhaps most distressing, to me at least, was the fact that many of my students had never heard of Schoolhouse Rock! They were too young! It is painful that we get older every year and the incoming class remains the same age!
Another example is teaching what an index is and what a table of contents is. Last year I assumed that all the students would have a basic working knowledge of the parts of a book and how to use those finding aids. I was wrong. So this year I made sure to demonstrate the indexes for various sources on Westlaw and the Table of Contents on Lexis. The demonstrations helped but led to unintended conclusions. Next year, I now know, I have to expressly address the fact that those items are not database specific, but rather exist in many sources of all formats. I thought I mentioned that, but apparently not explicitly enough. I am finding out that many students have never used these finding aids and that they don’t know, inherently, how best to utilize them. Thus, I have to make sure to start one step earlier in the process, to explain these at a more basic conceptual level than I initially thought I would.
2. Defining Terminology More Precisely
While I was very careful of the term ‘authority’ and of using that term to mean two separate concepts, I missed several other terms that we as attorneys, or myself personally, used in more than one way. For authority, I made certain to explain both usages: primary and secondary authority, and binding and persuasive authority. And made certain to thereafter speak about primary and secondary sources and binding and persuasive precedent. I was much more careful about these terms and definitions the second time through the course and I saw an increased level of understanding because of my specificity.
Unfortunately, I’ve noticed several other terms that I now need to use with more precision next year. Two examples: rule and issue. Early in the semester I spoke about identifying the legal rule in a case and in determining the legal issue(s) implicated by a hypothetical. Our legal writing faculty were using the same terms so the students were picking up these concepts quickly as two of their courses were both addressing the . . ., well . . , the issue. At some point during the term, I realized the students were getting fuzzier on what an issue statement should look like and what information it should include. I’m embarrassed to say how long it took me to realize a potential reason for the increased confusion. While the writing faculty were still instructing the students on how write an issue statement, I had morphed my use of ‘issue’ to not solely refer to the legal issue they were researching, but was also using ‘issue’ to mean a factual issue that had to be addressed in their summaries. Looking back, this was understandably confusing to the students, but I hadn’t noticed until their assignment answers to a particular repeated question, which had been correct earlier in the term when they responded with a legal issue, started to, incorrectly, include factual issues as well.
Additionally, once I broached the topic of regulations and executive agencies I realized, too late, that I had been asking the students to provide summaries of what they found while researching using the traditional IRAC style which asked them to state the rule… of law. Additionally, our writing faculty had been working with the students to pull out the rule(s) from cases. Now I was calling regulations, rules. And to further complicate things, I was talking about the rulemaking process. Needless to say, there were some very interesting summaries of regulatory research problems.
Looking at the students’ final research projects, I can see those areas of the course that I explained well, those areas that I need to explain more fully in the future, and those areas where I inadvertently caused confusion through imprecise language. It’s a good reminder about exactly how new and different 1L year really is from undergraduate. Some of last year’s students didn’t realize until their summer internships how much our research course helped them. I can only hope that this year’s students will look back at this course this summer and remember some of what we taught, and if we’re really lucky, our students will recognize and appreciate that they learned something from us. If even one student is helped in their career because of this course, the whole process of planning, implementing, and refining this course will have been worth every minute.