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Hutchinson, T --- "Where to Now? The 2002 Australasian Research Skills Training Survey" [2005] LegEdDig 59; (2005) 14(2) Legal Education Digest 15

Where To Now? The 2002 Australasian Research Skills Training Survey

T Hutchinson

[2005] LegEdDig 59; (2005) 14(2) Legal Education Digest 15

14 Legal Educ Rev 2, 2004, pp 63-91

Legal research is a fundamental ‘lawyering’ skill, and as such its importance in legal education has had more recognition than other discipline-specific attributes. However, in 1988, when an initial review of research skills training in Australasian law schools was completed, the predominant philosophy appeared to be that the skill would be developed via a process of ‘osmosis’. Since then, a transformation of sorts has occurred. Legal research training has become an integral part of the curriculum of most law courses offered within the Australian region.

This paper firstly reviews the developments taking place within higher education as reflected in the various government reports. It then outlines the relevant literature on literacy competency within information sciences. Also pertinent is the law schools’ response to doctrinal research skills training. Several reviews of the Australian higher education sector have taken place and these reports have reinforced the need for universities to reconsider the generic skills and personal attributes of the graduates they produce.

Legal research is a traditional legal skill. However, the various reports on legal education documented the slow rate of change in relation to skills training. Beginning with the 1987 Pearce report, and the subsequent McInnis and Marginson report in 1994, there was recognition that ‘any movement towards skills development within law schools had been slow’. An initial scan and informal survey in 1988 demonstrated that very few law schools were ‘attempting to teach legal research in a formal manner’. However, a survey in 1995, covering 30 Australian, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea law schools, demonstrated that most law schools were by then offering some form of legal research training, mainly at undergraduate level.

The 2002 survey instrument was based on the previous surveys in order to allow for some comparison. Survey forms were sent to the deans of all law schools for distribution to their legal research teaching staff. Forms were also sent to the law librarians at all law schools in Australia and New Zealand. The initial question was directed at actual research training for the bulk of the student body. The survey asked whether the law school offered subjects teaching research skills at the undergraduate level. Respondents were asked whether their law faculty offered a traditional orientation program and tour for first year students in which legal research skills were included. The responses were fairly evenly divided on this.

The next series of questions tried to tease out some basic aspects of the undergraduate courses being offered. There are several methods of introducing research skills training into the curriculum. The schools seem to fall into categories based on four main issues: (1) whether the research units are compulsory; (2) whether the units are separate, or research training is included as part of a larger compulsory foundation unit; (3) whether the research skills training is only included in an elective unit; and (4) whether there is anything offered beyond first year leading to ‘capstone’ experiences prior to graduation.

Only 11 of the respondents reported that postgraduate research training courses were being offered for this cohort. The remaining 14 said that there were no such courses. This response is particularly disappointing given the emphasis being placed by government policy on research training needs and completions.

Five units were reported as being jointly co-ordinated by academics and law librarians. On the one hand, this might point to the faculties’ commitment to ensuring that the students have the best of both sources of instruction, that is, more technical expertise from the law library staff, together with more end-user substantive critique from the academics. On the other hand, less positive interpretations might be placed on the arrangements, such as: (1) academics seeking assistance so as to reduce the inordinately heavy preparation loads involved in the units; (2) academics seeking assistance because of the logistics of teaching skills to large numbers of first year students; and (3) academics seeking ways to lighten the teaching load in such units because they are not substantive subjects and therefore less likely to lead to productive personal research and publications.

A glance at the web outlines for these various units suggests a mixed assessment regime including a series of exercises, assignments, research assignment, final exam, exercises, small group presentation, class participation, skills assignment, research assignment, final exam, reflective essay, research essay, class assessment, ethics, teamwork exercise, group research topic, oral presentation, class tests, assignment and short presentation.

Skills levels are notoriously difficult to examine. It is also very difficult to differentiate between student skills levels. There have always been difficulties associated with implementing the research units. In regard to undergraduate units, teachers identify difficulties in motivating students and in high teacher-student ratios. There was also recognition of the need for integration and reinforcement of the skills at a later year level: ‘Greater integration of techniques taught into other courses, or else the skills atrophy’ and ‘Need research in all 4 yrs of degree’.

One difficulty identified in previous surveys was the tendency for research units to be changed constantly, with a consequential additional preparation time burden on those teaching them. Legal research materials tend to change every year in any case, so any change in format doubles the time taken to prepare materials. Not surprisingly, there has been a gradual recognition of a need for skills reinforcement later in the law degree. This is reflected in the survey responses. So, as well as the compulsory first year research curriculum, six schools reported that research was compulsory in two or more years. This development makes good sense considering the rate of change in legal research sources over the years of the law degree, in addition to the need for a ‘capstone’ course to reinforce earlier skills training. Aligned with any change such as this is the need for a coordinated approach to the inclusion of research skills in the degree. This is to ensure minimal duplication and incremental skills development. Unfortunately, there seems to be only a modest recognition of the need for non-doctrinal research methodologies being included in research training.

When combined with research, legal writing skills do not seem to be achieving the required number of teaching hours commensurate with the importance of excellent communication skills for lawyers. Of course, the survey results do not take account of legal drafting units being offered in the degrees, or indeed of writing components in other units. However, the common view among law teachers would seem to be that the students should have good language and writing skills when they begin a law degree. Formative assessment can encourage good writing style. Bad writing can be penalised in a minor way through summative assessment criteria included within research assignments, for example. Unfortunately, this may not be sufficient.

Overall, there has been a transformation in the curriculum response to legal research in the last fifteen years in Australia. However, the impetus for change seems to have slowed in the last five years and there is still need for improvement. Teaching is uneven between the various law schools. Many schools have not taken notice of the real need for inculcating research and updating skills in their graduates, especially when taking account of government agendas and the electronic revolution affecting research methods. There are also still reports of fundamental difficulties, such as student motivation, high teacher-student ratios and wide disparities in the capabilities in the student population, especially at the postgraduate level.

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