Teaching Connections In Legal Research

A law librarian's role in today's information age is to help students make connections and bridge the knowledge in action gap.

A Chronicle of Higher Education article discusses the connections that are made in everyday life to a given discipline.

Small connections between course material and everyday life pop up all the time. When we are deeply embedded in our intellectual pursuits, the world seems to orient itself around them. New connections form continually. Reading the news, watching our screens, talking with peers or our children — all of those things become moments of potential connections with our disciplinary passions.

That phenomenon, according to research in teaching and learning, is what separates an expert in your field (teacher) from novice learners in your field (students). 

As the authors of How Learning Works argue, "One important way experts’ and novices’ knowledge organizations differ is the number or density of connections among the concepts, facts, and skills they know." Experts have thick tapestries weaving together all of the many things they know. New experiences are threaded easily into that tapestry, continually expanding and reshaping it.

By contrast, new learners tend to have information, ideas, or skills lodged in their minds in discrete, isolated places. Connections that seem obvious to us may never occur to them. New information and experiences do not automatically slot into the places where we (as the experts) might expect them to go. And while we can help by giving students suggestions for how to organize their knowledge and make connections, true learning occurs when students make new connections on their own.

In the realm of legal research, this is where a law librarian can step in to make a strong, lasting impact. After all, over 30% of a new associate's time is spent doing legal research. Giving law students the ability to understand and make connections between a fact pattern and the sources that they need to cite to make arguments and where/how they might go about finding those sources is an extremely important part of their training as future lawyers.

If we want students to develop expertise in our fields, then, we have to help them thicken up the connections — from the first week of the semester to the fifth, from the last course they took in our discipline to this one, from the course material to their lives outside of class. The more connections they can create, the more they can begin to formulate their own ideas and gain a wider view of our fields.

The newly established ABA outcomes require formative assessments that will help us create and thicken connections through feedback from the first week of the semester to the fifth. And researching across the law school curriculum will help the students make connections from the last course they took to a new one. And learning to think like a lawyer and understanding the sources that inform arguments help the students to connect the material to their lives outside of class.

As mentioned, each of these connections help the students internalize the legal research process, and they can begin to formulate their own ideas and connections to gain a wider view and understanding of the important role of legal research to practice.


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