Incorporating Experiential Learning: Practice-based Research Exercises

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January 2014 Idea

By Sophie M. Sparrow, University of New Hampshire School of Law

Multiple studies have identified legal research and factual investigation among the top ten skills lawyers need to be successful. Legal writing and clinical programs teach these skills well; students benefit from additional practice in specific areas. Incorporating practice-based legal and factual research assignments across the curriculum, or at least in multiple upper-level doctrinal courses, helps all students come closer to developing as lawyers. Practice-based research exercises can be as simple as finding a specific jurisdiction’s requirements for a legal will, or as elaborate as learning how to navigate the FDA’s approval process for a new medicine. They can last part of a class or an entire semester. They can be graded or not, completed individually or in groups. Related to important course concepts, these experiential exercises help students understand the kinds of questions, resources, authorities, and facts that arise in practice. They can also help students see the complexity of accurate, efficient, effective practice.

Here’s one way to incorporate practice-based research exercises, adapted from Gerry Hess’s “Factual Investigation-First Exposure,” from Gerald F. Hess et al., Techniques For Teaching Law 2.

Exercise. Students worked as a 5-7-person team of associates for 60 minutes to collaboratively draft a 1-page memo to their supervising attorney analyzing a client’s potential products liability claim. The memo constituted 10% of their course grade.

Preparing the students for experiential learning. Students had read about and had classes on products liability. During a previous class, a law librarian spent part of the class showing students how to find jury instructions, verdicts, forms, and practice materials on products liability. Students had also read a short summary of facts about a client who was poisoned by carbon monoxide by swimming near a powerboat. Out of class, students individually researched specific facts about carbon monoxide, the boat manufacturer, and model. They also individually researched a state’s strict products liability law and jury instructions.

Engaging the students during class. Students received additional facts in class, and collaborated in groups to prepare a 1-page memo analyzing the client’s potential claim and its likelihood of success. After 60 minutes, each group posted their memo to the course website, read other groups’ memos, and wrote responses to reflective questions about the assignment.

Feedback to students. Students self-assessed by comparing their memo to others, reviewing a rubric, and reflecting on the experience. From the teacher, groups received a rubric, comments, and grade. Individual students received brief comments on their reflections.

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