Legal research assessment: take a multifaceted approach

Legal research assessment: take a multifaceted approach

December, 15, 2010 • Posted by 0 Comments

In ‘Legal Research Assessment’, author SImon Canick recommends “a multifaceted approach” to teaching legal research, recommending that tutors select assessment tools to suit course objectives to keep students engaged in the process and to ensure that they become stronger, more confident legal researchers.

Canick recommends that legal research instructors seek to provide their students a working knowledge of important research tools, strategies with which to develop a rational research plan, and the skill to conduct research efficiently, among other things. Given the range of desired outcomes, it would be difficult to argue for the use of a single assessment tool. “Inherent in the quest for variety is the recognition that some assessment measures are more appropriate for some subjects or skills than they are for others.”

In his conclusion, he states: “A well-conceived legal research class may utilize short-answer assignments, quizzes, and scavenger hunt exercises as a means to establish a baseline of knowledge with critical sources. To follow it, teachers are advised to employ a series of research problems, with grading based upon students’ ability to describe a coherent and logical progression. The problems’ “answers” are less important than the selection of sources, reasonable use of those sources, and adherence to a plan. The assessment tool for such exercises might be some combination of research logs, Socratic dialogue, in-class presentations, or student-prepared Captivate/Camtasia/CamStudio screencasts.

As a final project, a pathfinder, however practical you might make it, is not sufficiently process oriented to stand on its own. If we believe that the most essential skill that teachers can impart is the ability to handle confidently and accurately research projects on unfamiliar subjects, then you should consider a process-oriented exam or another research project instead of (or in addition to) the pathfinder.

Using multiple assessment tools benefits your class whether you teach 1Ls or ALR. The rationales for variety—e.g., that different students learn in different ways, and that assessment should be tailored to the competencies being developed—are the same for both groups. In any legal research course, our objective is to teach multiple skills, which may include creating a research plan and choosing a source to start off, memorizing the official sources of legal materials (and where/how to find them), evaluating the benefits and drawbacks of indexes and full text searches, knowing when print-based research can still help, researching with a time pressure, selecting the most appropriate databases on Lexis or Westlaw, using natural language or terms and connectors, and assessing free Web sites, among hundreds of others. Some skills, like learning the difference between the Statutes at Large and the United States Code, are well suited for objective assessment tools like quizzes; others, like deciding the best place to start researching a complex issue, can best be evaluated with tools like research logs or direct observation. The administrative burden of teaching large first-year classes may make research exercises less practical, but leaving them out entirely would be a disservice to students.

Ultimately, the variety of available assessment tools suggests that there is room for creativity and that there are many appropriate alternatives. So long as instructors use a multifaceted approach, selecting assessment tools to suit their course objectives, students will be engaged in the process and will become stronger, more confident legal researchers”.

For the full article, see: Legal Reference Services Quarterly; Jul-Dec 2009, Vol. 28 Issue 3/4, p201-217, 17p