HEA Teaching Research Skills to Law Students (5 February 2014)

I attended and presented at the HEA workshop on Teaching Research Skills to Law Students at the Institute for Advanced Legal Studies in London. The event was attended by both librarians and academics, and was so popular even the reserve list was full.  Not even the TUBE strike prevented a full house!

Recent developments in legal information literacy by Ruth Bird, Bodleian Law Librarian, University of Oxford

Ruth set the scene for the day, outlining the information skills gap of new university students, and some of the key information literacy standards, and developments in legal education.

Rosemary Auchmuty (University of Reading) made some interesting observations on legal information literacy, including:- the focus on preparing students for careers as lawyers, not as legal academics or into non-law professions (only 50% of law students follow a career in law); and different interpretations of key information literacy skills by academics and librarians, with librarians focusing on information retrieval, and academics on the use of information.

Personally, I think the AALL legal information literacy standard is better suited to developing transferable research skills regardless of the students final destination.

What research skills do our students need? a brainstorming session in small groups

I worked with Caroline Ball (University of Derby), Suzanne White (Coventry University) and Chris Umfreville (University of Wolverhampton).

  • Transferable research skills for students going into non-law professions
  • Understanding the research question and defining the scope of research
  • Practical application of black letter law to the research question
  • Developing advanced skills for LLM students: from spoon feeding to independent research

Case Study 1: University of Reading by Rosemary Auchmuty and Ross Connell

Research skills are embedded into the whole curriculum, and learnt in the context of substantive subjects, rather than front-loaded and taught in isolation in a legal research skills module.  Gave example of embedding legal research skills in a second year land law module (level 5).  Academic and librarian design, deliver and assess legal research skills together.  Reading have fewer contact teaching hours than many other institutions, and so make use of a variety of teaching methods including self-study workbook and online tutorials.  Assessment is in the form of a poster (group work, presentation and research skills), and a multiple-choice quiz on Blackboard.

Case Study 2: University of Greenwich by Sarah Crofts

Again, legal research skills are embedded into the whole curriculum, and learnt in the context of substantive subjects.  Library teaching sessions are embedded across the curriculum.  Librarian writes some of the assessments, but does not mark them.  Gave example of second year (level 5) assessment, where students have to research a topic and write an essay on a student they have not been taught.  Essay question is selected to be current, so that it can not be answered by textbooks, and students have to use primary resources and journal literature.

Case Study 3: University of Leicester by Eugenia Caracciolo, Jackie Hanes, Dawn Watkins, and Loveday Hodson

Our presentation was entitled The Invisible Librarian, and it discussed the challenge of teaching legal research skills to 450+ undergraduate law students with limited resources.  We teach legal research skills in the first year Introduction to Law module (level 4), and they are not embedded into the curriculum thereafter.  My contribution to this teaching is a single 1 hour library induction and legal research skills lecture.  Not an effective method of teaching legal information literacy skills!  I outlined plans to introduce longer practical sessions, for the teaching materials:- to be written by me, but delivered by academics in exisiting tutorial sessions.  I also outlined plans to develop online tutorials, pre-record the library lecture, and perhaps develop an elearning module for legal research.  Dawn Watkins introduced an innovative way of studying case law:- a creative writing exercise based around a real case (true liberal arts education!).  And Loveday Hodson discussed the problems of assessing legal research skills, in terms of both divising an appropriate assessment, and having the resources to mark the assessment.

Case Study 4: City University by Emily Albon

Emily is a law librarian plus – she is also responsible for the Law Bore website, and mooting and careers events at City University.  Emily runs the first year (level 4) legal research module.  Students attend a two hour lecture and a two hour workshop. (Emily repeats the workshop 10+ times to accomodate the 300+ students).  Students are assessed using an online legal research quiz in Blackboard – although Emily marks the assessments manually, because marks are also awarded for method.  Emily has some very good teaching ideas, including using everyday objects (e.g. toy car or shoe) to develop key words, and using ipads and other mobile devices in the workshops (because IT classrooms are not large enough).

Case Study 5: University of Salford by Nicola Sales

Nicola outlined how she has used flipped classroom methods to teach legal research.  Nicola presented a similar session at the BIALL Conference (2013), which is also written up in an article in Legal Information Management.  Legal research skills are taught in a first year (level 4) english legal system module.  In flipped classroom teaching, students undertake preparatory learning in advance of the class (e.g. online lectures and tutorials).  The contact teaching time is then spent in practical workshops (not lectures), and students are able to practice their legal research skills.  Students are assessed by a combination of quiz in Blackboard, and a research trail and bibliography.  They must also complete both Lexis Library and Westlaw user certificates.  I was particular keen on Nicola’s idea of speed referencing (think speed dating but with OSCOLA), and I intend to try this teaching method out later this month.

Case Study 6: Keele University by Fiona Cownie and Scott McGowan

Fiona has introduced a legal research skills module at three universities, and has published many well regarded books on the english legal system and legal skills.  Again legal research skills are taught in a first year (level 4) module, and include a mixture of lecture, self-directed study, and workshops.  Students are assessed by completed an essay on a topic that they have no previously studied.  Like me, Scott is not just a law librarian, and he supports a number of other departments, and his time is limited.  He cited use of mixed media and availability of a wide range of support materials as key to teaching legal research successfully.

What is best practice?

It is most common for legal research skills to be taught in a stand alone module in the first year, in isolation from substantive subjects.  There is a risk that students do not practice their legal research skills, and that they may not be assessed again.  (Law students are generally assessed by 100% unseen examination for their substantive subjects).  It is better practice for legal research skills teaching to be embedded into the curriculum, and taught and tested in across the 3 or 4 years of study.  However, this requires cooperation across the law school.  There was general agreement that academics and librarians need to work together to improve legal research skills teaching.  This is something that is alredy happening at the University of Leicester – but that may take a few years to achieve.

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