Incorporating Small Research Assignments into Upper-Level Doctrinal Courses

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By Aida Alaka from Washburn University School of Law

Much ink has already been spilled decrying the writing skills of law students and lawyers and calling for increased opportunities for writing across the curriculum. Rightfully so. But the observations underlying the movement for writing across the curriculum come primarily from faculty and other third parties, not the students. What students often do complain about is the lack of research instruction after their first year. Not only do they recognize that they might not be as efficient in electronic and library research as they should be, but they are also aware that they lack fluency in subject matter research generally. By following these four or five steps, upper level faculty can help law students refine their critical research skills without inviting an insurmountable grading burden.

  1. Integrate Research Days into Your Course Plan:Devote half of two classes during the semester to researching in the subject matter. One of those days can focus on print resources and the other on electronic resources. Faculty members with recent practice experience will be covering familiar territory. Others might wish to collaborate with their librarians, many of whom would be more than happy to guest lecture.
  2. Tour Relevant Agency Web Sites:Take students on a tour of agency sites applicable to your course. Students often leave law school unaware of the abundance of information contained on federal and state regulatory agency web sites. Discovering these resources can help students and recent graduates overcome the anxiety inherent in researching unfamiliar territory.
  3. Assign Research Problems:Assign short research problems. Researching issues relating to your course will help solidify the information presented in class. This can be done in large as well as small classes. For courses with many students, the class can be divided into small groups, with each group responsible for different research tasks. If assignments are spread throughout the semester, grading the results need not be burdensome. The assignments can lead students to the state counterparts of federal laws, applicable regulations, opinion letters, pending legislation, and other issues that are related to the course but which you cannot fully cover during the semester.
  4. Share the Results in Writing:Post written research results on your course TWEN or Blackboard site. To provide students with the benefit of their peers’ research, post their one-page research results and the detailed steps – including missteps – they took while conducting their research.
  5. Share the Results in Class:Provide students with the opportunity to present their research results. If the class is small enough, have the students present their research problem, their solution, and the steps they took to arrive at the solution. This will provide students with a valuable opportunity to orally communicate legal findings before they must do so in practice.
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