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Designing and assessing the feasibility of an active learning approach to the teaching of legal research.

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This study set out to design and assess the feasibility of an active learning approach to a legal research module. The study was a case study of the second year undergraduate Legal Research Writing and Reasoning (LRWR) module on the Pietermaritzburg campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal. This module forms part of the basic law degree curriculum. The author, a subject librarian at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, has been involved with this module for several years. The module is situated within the general lecture timetable and the lecture format is unsuitable for a module such as this one that requires practical work. Students of law need to have a sound knowledge of the published legal literature because of the particular nature of the role of legal literature in the study of law, the vast array of literature available and the complex presentation of information within the sources of law. Students of law also need to be able to read, understand and apply the law to given situations. Legal education in South Africa has undergone considerable changes since 1994 alongside those in higher education generally. Since 2001 the LLB degree has become a four year undergraduate degree replacing the old three year undergraduate plus two year post-graduate qualification. New national qualification requirements emphasise a range of skills such as problem-solving, numeracy, computer skills, writing, and finding and using information. This is partly as a means of redressing the differential preparedness of students for university, a legacy of schooling of variant quality that was a feature of Apartheid governance prior to 1994. Thus students are having to complete the law degree in a shortened time period; do not have the benefit of an undergraduate degree before embarking on the law degree, and need to develop competencies in a range of skills and knowledge adjacent to substantive law modules. Information literacy is a process, an active problem-solving process and an amalgam of skills and knowledge concerned with identifying an information need, finding, evaluating and using a range of information to answer that need in appropriate ways. The problem-solving nature of the study of law, the new national requirements for a legal education and the characteristics of information literacy suggest that these three elements could be usefully combined in an active learning and teaching process to enable students of law to develop a holistic approach to learning skills and knowledge of legal research, writing and reasoning in the South African context. The research questions that arose in response to the research problem required an investigation into current research and writing with regard to information literacy, legal education, learning, teaching and assessment and whether an active learning approach was feasible with a large class size of approximately 130 students. The situation in South African law faculties as regards legal research teaching and learning needed to be considered to situate the current study in the broader national context. The literature review enabled the development of a theoretical framework for the LRWR module that took cognisance of a range of national, institutional and classroom climates, aims, objectives, outcomes and content for modules, the study of law, characteristics of learners and factors affecting their performance, teaching strategies, instructional design, assessment and information literacy. The module itself was designed in terms of a problem-solving situation which encompassed a range of integrated skills in order to manage the problem. An active learning approach was adopted in the form of group and class discussion, with a range of scaffolded written, oral and practical exercises and assignments to help students investigate the problem scenario from a number of perspectives. The design of the module required data in the form of demographic characteristics and work habits of the students in the class inclusive of learning styles which were acquired through the application of a questionnaire and learning styles inventory. Knowledge and skills with respect to module content were measured in terms of a pre- and post-test. A reflection exercise and focus groups provided evidence about how the students responded to the overall design of the module and in particular the active learning approach. The data collected and analysed suggested that the integration of information literacy, problem-solving processes with respect to the study of law and active learning was feasible and successful in this large class situation to varying degrees. The students in the module had expanded their repertoire of skills and knowledge, had appreciated the relationship between research, writing, reasoning and discussion and enjoyed the active learning approach. The contribution this research makes is with regard to the character, design and implementation of information literacy programmes in academic libraries in South Africa in particular, given the dearth of published practitioner research in this country. The research has also provided a comprehensive theoretical and practical framework for developing an information literacy programme within the changing South African legal education context. The research in this specific context usefully provides a baseline from which to develop and promote information literacy as a critical approach within the study of law.


Thesis (Ph.D. (Information Studies)) - University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg, 2008.


Active learning., Information literacy., Legal research., Legal research--Study and teaching.