An Exploration of the Cognitive and Behavioural Dimensions of Law Students' Online Legal Research Processes
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Legal research is an essential skill for lawyers and a fundamental part of Canadian law school curricula. In recent years, legal research has shifted from a print-based activity to an online one. Legal research educators have argued that this transition requires law students to learn a new set of research behaviours and cognitive skills (Callister, 2010; Harker, 2013; Wheeler, 2011). However, this literature is largely conceptual in nature, and very little is known empirically about the experiences of law students as they conduct legal research online. The current study addresses this gap by examining the cognitive processes and online research behaviours that occur when law students conduct online legal research. Five second-year law students from an Ontario university performed an online legal research task that was recorded. After completing the task, participants did a virtual revisit think-aloud (Beach & Willows, 2017), in which they verbalized their thoughts while viewing the screen recording of their research session. Participants also completed a demographic questionnaire and a semi-structured interview after the session. The data was analyzed using qualitative methods to gain an in-depth understanding of the participants’ experiences conducting online legal research. The analysis resulted in a taxonomy of cognitive processes during online legal research that closely resembles the cognitive processes and knowledge types described in Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy of Learning Objectives (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001). In addition, empirical evidence was found for key cognitive processes previously identified in the legal research literature, namely, evaluating and selecting relevant legal information; creating a research plan and reflecting on research processes; and the application of metacognitive skills. With respect to online legal research behaviours, this study found three broad categories of research behaviour that were prevalent throughout the participants’ research sessions: (1) Information-seeking behaviour, (2) Reading, and (3) Notetaking. The study findings provide insights into the cognitive processes and research behaviours in which law students engage when conducting online legal research. These findings can inform the ongoing development of instruction, learning outcomes, support tools, and prompts to help students conduct online legal research more effectively.