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Information literacy and legal research skills education in the UWA Bachelor of Laws Degree

Robyn Carroll
Law School
Sheelagh Johnston
Law Library
Eileen Thompson
ECEL Executive Dean's Office
The University of Western Australia


Introduction

The ability to conduct legal research is one of the many essential skills that a lawyer needs. The proliferation of electronic resources and searching tools has heightened the legal profession's awareness of the importance of research skills for lawyers. If Law students are in any doubt as to the importance of knowing how to find the relevant information they need only be given the following scenarios:

Scenario A: Day 1 as a Vacation Clerk

You are assigned to a solicitor who asks you to "Find me the Duff Beer case and whether it has been distinguished in another case? Oh and while you're at the Supreme Court Library, photocopy these US cases...There could be a problem with the citations ...they're from an authority list".

Scenario B: Day 2 as an Articled Clerk

Your Principal says "I need a copy of the Non-Contentious Probate Rules and the Dividing Fences Act by 10 am AND I want you to find out if the Second Schedule of the Beekeepers Regulations has been amended since 1988".

Integral to legal research skills is the concept of information literacy. Information literacy can be defined as "the ability to locate, evaluate, manage and use information from a range of sources for problem solving, decision making and research" (Bruce, 1995).

Applied to Law, information literacy means the ability to:

On this analysis, while it is difficult to separate problem solving to find the law (legal research) and applying the law to solve a problem (legal method), it is apparent that there are different skills needed for both. The specialised nature of legal research tools has meant that, increasingly, reference librarians have become more involved in the research aspect of legal education. In some Law Schools discrete units on legal research are taught by Library staff. In the remainder of the paper, we describe the innovative approach of integrating legal research skills into existing Law units that has been developed at the University of Western Australia (UWA).

Background to the integration project

Until 2000 Law students received six hours of formal legal research skills instruction in one unit only, the first year unit Legal Process. Increasingly, concerns about the limited opportunity to cover important aspects of legal research were leading academic staff to make ad hoc arrangements for the reference librarians to provide additional instruction to students in some compulsory and elective units. In addition, as many of the students are enrolled in five-year combined degrees, they had limited opportunity in the early years of their Law degree to practice the research skills they were taught in Legal Process.

Feedback from law firm librarians and some graduates confirmed the need for more time to be given to legal research skills training in the degree course. To meet this need the Law School and Library at UWA jointly initiated a project aimed at improving students' legal research skills. As a consequence, in October 1999 funding was received from the UWA Teaching and Learning Initiatives Scheme to "develop and implement a collaborative strategy for improving information literacy through integration of legal research skills instruction into law units at all levels of the Bachelor of Laws".

Following best practice (Biggs, 1999), the project aimed to ensure that evaluation of student learning outcomes were embedded in a contextualised learning environment and assessed both declarative knowledge (facts) and functional knowledge (how and when to apply factual knowledge). This approach is supported by the weight of research evidence that indicates that the learning strategies of students are more effective if taught in a well designed program that integrates subject matter with the learning strategies relevant to the discipline (Chalmers & Fuller, 1996). The aims of the project were also consistent with the finding of the National Board of Employment, Education and Training (1994) where the benefits were reported of librarians working closely with academic staff to develop library and information retrieval skills in students.

The integration project

Aims and objectives

The aims of the project were to design and implement a strategy to integrate legal research skills instruction into Law units at all year levels of the degree. Consistent with these aims, our objectives were to:

Strategies

During the early stages of the project five key strategies were identified. The first strategy was to determine the areas and levels of skill competency that students should acquire during the degree. The second strategy was to identify the year levels and compulsory units in which research skills might be taught. These units were selected by applying various criteria, including whether informal arrangements already existed, the assessment structure in the unit, and timing within the degree structure. As a result of integrating legal research into seven compulsory units, the amount of instruction time each student receives has increased from six hours to more than twelve hours.

The third strategy was for the Faculty's Research Skills Coordinator to explore with the coordinators of the units in which legal research skills would be taught the best ways to integrate that instruction into the unit. To assist that process, a detailed planning checklist was created. The fourth strategy was the preparation of teaching materials for each new class by the library staff. These materials provide a record for students of the legal research tools and problem solving methods used during class and other research activities.

The fifth strategy, which evolved as a logical follow on from the first four strategies, was to create a Student Manual.

Student Manual

Objectives

There were a number of objectives in creating the Student Manual. These included:

Contents

The Student Manual consisted of an A4 two ring binder and was distributed to all first year students at the beginning of semester. The purpose of the Manual and the importance of legal research skills were explained to students at that stage. The Manual contained an introduction and overview of the information about the integrated program of research skills instruction they would receive during their degree course. A copy of a chapter on legal research from a leading text in the area was included. The teaching material for the first module covered in Legal Process was also included.

The concept of a Student Manual was unique in that it was not directly associated with any particular unit of the course. The Manual was progressively compiled following instruction by both academic and Library staff, and through a combination of lecture, demonstration and practical classes. Various self directed worksheets were developed. The potential value of the Manual as a resource both while at Law School and in the workforce was explained to students from the outset. The outcomes of the first year of implementation of the project are discussed below.

Evaluation

A feedback sheet was placed in the back of each Manual. Students were requested to complete the feedback sheet and hand it in during second semester. A total of 188 responses were received. (Approximately 80% of students commented on Question 1. There was a dramatic decrease to about 30% for Questions 2-5.) A summary of the results of the feedback survey are outlined in the following table (Table 1).

Table 1: Summary of responses

Question Strongly
agree
AgreeDisagreeStrongly
disagree
Manual was a useful resource for my study 40126202
Content of Manual well structured/easy to follow 6112250
Materials supplied for inclusion appropriate 4714100
Manual helped me feel confident about finding information resources I need for my study 36125234

Conclusions

The nature of the integration project is that it will take at least five years for the learning outcomes to be evaluated in full. The responses to the survey at the end of the first year of the project suggest that there are likely to be long term benefits from the Student Manual strategy of the integration project. However, until we are able to survey this first group of students at the end of their degree, we will not be able to evaluate the impact of the Manual properly and whether we have met our objectives.

Plans are now being made for the Manual to be available online and to make the site accessible to graduates. The encouraging evaluation of the legal research Manual in 2000 has also led us to consider using the Manual in a similar way to incorporate legal writing skills.

References

Biggs, J. (1999). Teaching for Quality Learning at University. Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.

Bruce, C. (1995). Developing Information Literate Graduates: Prompts for Good Practice. [viewed 30 Jan 2001] http://www.fit.qut.edu.au/InfoSys/bruce/inflit/prompts.html

Chalmers, D. & Fuller, R. (1996). Teaching for Learning at University: Theory and Practice. London: Kogan Page.

National Board of Employment, Education and Training (1994). Developing Lifelong Learners through Undergraduate Education. Commissioned Report No. 28, August.

Authors: Robyn Carroll, Senior Lecturer, Law School
Email: rcarroll@ecel.uwa.edu.au
Sheelagh Johnston, Law Library
Eileen Thompson, Executive Dean's Office, ECEL
The University of Western Australia

Please cite as: Carroll, R., Johnston, S. and Thompson, E. (2001). Information literacy and legal research skills education in the UWA Bachelor of Laws Degree. In A. Herrmann and M. M. Kulski (Eds), Expanding Horizons in Teaching and Learning. Proceedings of the 10th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 7-9 February 2001. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2001/carroll.html


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