Leveraging Confusion in a First-Year Legal Research Course by Ditching the Textbook

Guest blog by Matthew Flyntz, Research Law Librarian for Instructional Services, UC Irvine School of Law

This past summer, as I was developing the one-credit Legal Research Practicum that the librarians teach in the first year here at UC Irvine, I spent a fair amount of time thinking about what (if any) book I wanted to assign. I thought back to my own first-year research and writing class and my advanced legal research class, and it occurred to me that I didn’t actually do the assigned reading in those classes. I was a fairly diligent student, so that was not out of sheer laziness (although that played some part). Rather, the readings didn’t help me learn in those classes. I wanted to do something different in the class I was developing, so I took the plunge and ditched the textbook.

There was a certain amount of freedom that came from this decision. I could teach the research process how I and my colleagues wanted to, without having to conform our teaching to the language of a particular text. But I still wanted students to do something to prepare for each class. As it turned out, I had just read Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel, and their lesson that “[t]rying to solve a problem before being taught the solution leads to better learning, even when errors are made in the attempt” was noodling around in my brain. It occurred to me that the traditional method of legal research instruction (assigning a reading that explains how to do a task, demonstrating the task in class, giving students an opportunity to practice the task, followed by evaluating students on the task) doesn’t take advantage of this lesson. I wanted to develop a way for students to engage with the topics before class in a way that intentionally created confusion, so that they would have that “aha!” moment when the answer became clear in class.

With this in mind, I developed a set of pre-class assignments that asked students to do a range of tasks that they would have no idea how to do. And honestly, these first drafts were bad. They were too challenging, and they didn’t create meaningful confusion. For example, in an early draft of one assignment, I had students pull up a statute on Westlaw or Lexis, and asked, “How would you locate cases that have discussed this statute?” I was hoping they would answer Notes of Decisions, but they would have no way of finding that answer aside from clicking around wildly. A colleague suggested a way of letting students engage with the databases in a way that would create more meaningful confusion. The final question went something like this: “Notes of Decisions provide access to cases that have discussed your statute. Explore the Notes of Decisions tab and try to locate cases that have discussed _______.” They will still be confused, since they’ve never looked at Notes of Decisions before, but they will at least have something to work with. The answer isn’t a flat “I have no idea, and I don’t know why you’re asking me this.”

These assignments are graded purely on a good-faith effort basis. We do not expect students to find the “right” answers, and we told them this during the first class session. As I review their work, I can see how they struggled with the assignment. That’s exactly what we wanted when we designed the assignments – for them to struggle so that when we discussed these topics in class, they would want to see how to resolve their confusion. It seems to be going well so far. Time (and student evaluations) will tell if the students hate these assignments, but from our perspective, they are preparing the students for class in a more meaningful way than readings would. I don’t think I’ll ever go back to using a text in my legal research instruction.

About malikahhalllibrarian

Malikah Hall is a Reference Librarian and Instructional Assistant Professor at Texas A&M University. She was previously the Diversity Fellow, Research Services Librarian, and Lecturer in Law at Cornell University. Malikah is very active in AALL where she is the current RIPS Law Librarian Blog editor, Immediate Past Chair of PEGA-SIS, a member of the AALL Diversity & Inclusion Committee, and a member of the AALL Legal Research Competencies Review Special Committee. Malikah graduated from North Carolina Central University with a J.D./M.L.S. joint degree. In her spare time, she enjoys playing with her sweet dog and anything true crime related.
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