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More Technology Doesn't Mean Better Research

Back when I was in law school, we accessed LEXIS and Westlaw on a stand-alone monitor; the Internet still wasn't available for public consumption. Today, law students have LEXIS and Westlaw available at their fingertips 24/7, as well as all sorts of research capabilities on the Internet. And yet, why is it that today's students apparently aren't any better at researching than their predecessors?

Tricia Kasting takes a crack at answering that question in her article Students Lack Legal Research and Information Literacy, (6/28/06).  Kasting writes:

Print sources gave us defined resources and an existing intellectual framework. Electronic methods facilitate the finding and using of information. Both have their strengths and weaknesses. We teach students print and electronic resources, but their technical computer proficiency -- Internet and then Lexis and Westlaw -- makes these the preferred methods. Finding information is easy -- too easy. Why spend time with the books, when online produces usable results and is familiar?

My simple contention is that current law students have good information technology skills, but are deficient in information literacy skills. Many students seem to equate computer skills with search skills: I am computer literate equals I have good research skills. Technical competence with a program or search engine is confused with the analytic skill to use the program effectively and efficiently. For example, students learn how to construct a search query but look for New York state case law in the Allstates database. It works, but is not efficient. Secondary materials -- other than law reviews -- are not considered. Document retrieval, Shepard's and KeyCite are specific functions easy to identify and, hence, use. They engage in discrete information seeking acts, but do not identify the specific question to be answered; if this question relates to the issue; and how the issue relates to the legal concept. They have identifiable technical skills, but are not information literate.

I've seen these deficiencies in many law clerks whom I've hired in recent years. Though I'll often advise them to take some time reading a law review article or treatise to get a sense of the broader research questions, they often hop right to compiling cases. 

Kasting seeks advice on how to refocus the teaching of legal research to get students to focus more on analysis and how to attack a question rather than bulk gathering of information. I don't have any suggestions, but I hope that law schools address this problem soon.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on June 29, 2006 at 06:00 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)


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