Teaching research skills to Law Students: a workshop on best practice

This workshop was funded as part of one of HEA Social Science’s strategic priorities 2013 – 14 Teaching research methods in the Social Sciences

This blog post was compiled by Rosemary Auchmuty, University of Reading (r.auchmuty@reading.ac.uk).

Background

It used to be assumed that students would have a grasp of basic research skills on arrival at university or would pick them up in the course of their studies.  Law librarians would conduct a library ‘tour’ (physical or virtual) and that was the end of their involvement in the law curriculum.  When it became apparent that students (both home and, especially, international) did not have the requisite skills, most law schools introduced an element of research training into a Legal Skills module in the first year of the LLB, in which the law librarian might be offered a single slot to showcase his or her wares.  The problem with Legal Skills modules, however, is that students often fail to see their ongoing relevance and, having passed the assessments, promptly forget much of what they have learnt.  Yet when students seek an answer to a legal research query, it is often to the law librarian and not the law teacher that they turn.  Law librarians have in fact been doing much of the legal research training of our students without a formal pedagogic role, and sometimes without the academics’ fully grasping what they are doing.  Recently some law teachers have involved law librarians from the outset in the design and teaching of modules with embedded legal research skills; and it is these initiatives, and the potential for further collaborations, that the organisers (Rosemary Auchmuty of the University of Reading and Jules Winterton of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies) wished to focus on in this workshop.

The main aim of the workshop, therefore, was to share and explore ways in which, working together, law librarians and law teachers might deliver legal research skills (whose importance was highlighted in the recent Legal Education and Training Review Report) in ways that students will perceive as relevant and will be able to apply throughout their studies.   A secondary aim was to share and explore ways of establishing better dialogue between law librarians and law teachers, a relationship too often seen as one of deference and service rather than collaboration and sharing of skills.  We think the aims were achieved, though it is obvious that much more work needs to be done to deliver legal skills effectively in law schools and to get law teachers and law librarians to work together in ways that recognise their equal contributions.

The workshop

In spite of the tube strike, about 40 people made their way from all over the UK to the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies in London, many striding valiantly up crowded pavements from mainline stations.  The greater proportion of participants were librarians rather than academics, and the waiting list confirmed that librarians rather than academics were keen to attend a workshop such as this.  What emerged during the day helped to explain this: it is clear that many law schools still delegate skills teaching to librarians and fail to integrate their work closely, or at all, into the academic curriculum.

After welcomes from the organisers and from Helen Jones of the Higher Education Academy, Ruth Bird (Bodleian Law Librarian) opened proceedings with a presentation on Legal Information Literacy Standards: an overview of the developments in the US & the UK.   Ruth outlined the reasons why law librarians should be involved in legal information literacy (as librarians call it), described the evolution of standards over the past five years, and outlined the contribution of the BIALL Legal Information Literacy group to the Legal Education and Training Review (LETR) report.  She concluded with a discussion of the Report’s finding that many legal trainees are deficient in such skills and its recommendation that legal research skills need to be addressed at a number of stages in legal services education training, including at the undergraduate level.

A brainstorming session in mixed groups of academics and librarians established very early that the two groups had slightly different ideas of what was meant by ‘legal research skills’.  The focus of most librarians is on teaching students how to find all necessary and appropriate resources using the most comprehensive and efficient methods, while the academics viewed this as the starting point – for them, ‘legal research skills’ encompass the ways that students use those sources and the development of critical thinking.

The organisers had invited case studies from UK law schools and we are very grateful to the six institutions who responded.  These were not intended to be prescriptive ‘best practice’ but simply examples of what is being done across the sector.  We recognise that law schools differ enormously in their approach to legal education, as evidenced by representatives at the workshop from institutions at both ends of a spectrum which ranges from a close focus on professional legal skills to the development of critical intellectual skills as part of a general liberal education.  The hope was that participants would find something useful they could take back to their own institution, though this might vary from institution to institution.

  • Rosemary Auchmuty and Ross Connell from University of Reading

Resources discussed in Rosemary’s and Ross’s presentation can be accessed via the links below:

Researching case law developments online LW2PLP self-paced tutorial workbook

LW2PLP Tutorial workbook and questions

Researching Case Law Developments Online [Westlaw UK exercise] Formative assessment – Questions

 

  • Eugenia Caracciolo di Torella, Jackie Hanes, Dawn Watkins and Loveday Hodson from University of Leicester

 

  • Sarah Crofts and Lucy Yeatman from University of Greenwich

 

  • Fiona Cownie and Scott McGowan from Keele University

 

  • Nicola Sales from University of Salford

 

  • Emily Allbon from City University

 

It was evident that the best research skills training is a collaborative effort between librarians and academics and that, moreover, skills need to be embedded in the law curriculum, not simply introduced in the first year and ignored thereafter (as happens at a number of institutions).  This means not only building skills development into each year of the students’ programme but also linking them to substantive law assessments at each stage.  This of course requires collaboration between librarians and individual lecturers but, more than this, it requires a high level of involvement of law librarians with academics.  Although participants felt they generally enjoy good relationships with the law schools they serve, they are not always as thoroughly integrated into programme design, review, teaching and assessment as they need to be to ensure that students actually acquire and develop the skills the LETR report identified and academic staff expect.  This helps to explain the low attendance of academics at this workshop, since they tend to leave skills training to librarians, and the enthusiastic participation of so many librarians, since they tend to deliver the work.  Law schools vary in the degree to which they have recognised the need to build skills development into their academic programmes but it also seems clear that many librarians do not really know what academics are doing in the line of research skills training above and beyond their own involvement or even what academics want from librarians.

Some fantastically creative ideas were put forward by presenters and participants and, at the end of the workshop, everyone was asked to name at least one suggestion they would take back to their own institution.

The proceedings were filmed and the videos of the presentations are available via: http://ials.sas.ac.uk/library/teaching_research_skills.htm  

I would particularly like to thank the Institute staff for their administrative and support work as well as the use of their superb central London facilities.

Discussion

How do we get law teachers to take research skills seriously and work with librarians to embed them in our programmes?

If you would like to contribute ot the discussion, please use the ‘leave a reply’ facility below.

 

3 thoughts on “Teaching research skills to Law Students: a workshop on best practice

  1. Pingback: Teaching research skills to Law Students: a wor...

  2. Pingback: Research skills: a failure of imagination — Paul Maharg

  3. A very useful write-up – I attended the day and found it really helpful. Thank you for drawing together the salient points. I have been able to send this information to some of my lecturers.

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