Research looks at reading and reasoning skills of law students

University Park, Pa. -- Attorneys must have a strong capability to read cases purposefully and efficiently. Most students who enter law school display an array of good reading skills; however, legal discourse and accompanying literacy practices require the development of a new set of reading proficiency.

A growing body of research demonstrates that law students struggle, to varying degrees, with legal discourse and its multiple purposes throughout law school.

“We often hear that law students need to learn to think like lawyers, but they also need to learn how to read like lawyers,” said Dorothy Evensen, professor of higher education and senior scientist in Penn State’s Center for the Study of Higher Education.

Evensen has conducted extensive research on assessing law students’ reading strategies. She is one of the pioneer researchers on the matter. In the late 1980s, Evensen theorized that many law students struggle in their case reading and reasoning capabilities.

At the time, she was working as an item writer for the reading comprehension section of the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), which measures, in part, students' ability to read complex texts.

“I knew that the kind of reading tested by that instrument was different from the reading required in law school,” she said.

But Evensen’s instinct ran counter to the perceptions of most law professors, who saw no problem with the ability of law students to read cases.

“I thought differently based on my understanding that law constitutes a specific discourse,” she said, “and that part of learning law is learning how to negotiate within this new discourse and its relative genres. I designed a study that hypothesized that students at the top and bottom quartiles of their law school classes employed different reading strategies while reading, and that they would produce respectively better or worse recitations of a law-related text.”

Her hypotheses were supported by the evidence she collected. Her work, published in 1991 in the journal Reading Research Quarterly, stands as an important study of law students’ reading.

“Indeed, my study, which was built around an excerpt from a law review article on a tort theory, was replicated using legal cases in 2007 by Leah Christensen, a professor of law at Thomas Jefferson School of Law,” said Evensen.

More recently, Evensen and colleagues completed a three-year study on law students’ case reading and reasoning skills. Evensen worked with James Stratman (University of Colorado at Denver), Laurel Oates (Seattle University School of Law), and Sarah Zappe (director of assessment and instructional support in Penn State’s College of Engineering) on the project, sponsored by the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC), which administers the LSAT.

Their work was aimed at testing a series of hypotheses, some of which made predictions about performance on the researchers’ case reading and reasoning tool and the LSAT.

“We predicted that correlations between our ‘test’ and the LSAT would be low, and indeed they were found to be. The reason relates to the demands of legal discourse and the fact that the LSAT does not attempt to assess facility with legal discourse or literacy,” said Evensen.

“We operationalized the various purposes of case reading and designed a way of assessing them,” said Evensen. She and her colleagues developed a prototype, multiple-choice test to assess case reading and reasoning skills among law students. This work was primarily aimed at testing a theory of case reading. But it also has practical applications since this flexible, adaptable assessment tool that can be used in various law school contexts.

The researchers are contracted to write a forthcoming book that introduces the assessment tool and gives examples of its various uses. "Facilitating the Development of Case Reading and Reasoning through Formative Assessment: A Workbook for Law School Teachers" (Carolina Academic Press) is aimed at law professors of different varieties, including doctrinal teachers, legal writing teachers, academic support personnel, and clinical staff.

“In the book, we demonstrate how multiple-choice items can be written as formative assessment tools,” said Evensen. “We contend that all law school teachers are responsible for facilitating the development of necessary and extensive literacy skills among their students.”

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Last Updated April 15, 2010