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Boolean guess who? Using gamification to engage first year law students with advanced legal research techniques

A hand holding a question mark which shadow is an exclamation mark, on a navy background

Legal research and writing are compulsory skills for all Australian law students.  Students at Bond University are taught legal research techniques in their first semester foundational law subjects. 

This post will explain how first semester educators and law librarians work together to teach legal research skills using games to increase student engagement and understanding.  By using gamification in teaching, we can make what could otherwise be a dry class on legal research super fun and engaging!

Low-tech games can be designed easily with limited resources for use in the classroom.  The use of low-tech games by librarians, such as scavenger hunts, have been proven to engage students and improve collaboration.  Some old classic board games have been reinvented to teach our law students the basics of Boolean search techniques. 

This post will focus on the game Boolean Guess Who?

Boolean Searching

Named after the 19th century Mathematician George Boole, Boolean searching uses Boolean connectors (or operators) to form a logical relationship between search terms.

Most law students are taught how to use this technique by being shown how to use common connector or operator words.  See the example below:

In our experience, leaving first semester students to experiment with these connector words on their own can be overwhelming.  By embedding Boolean search techniques into a series of workshops across our first semester subject Legal Foundations A, we are increasing student confidence to use the best research techniques as early as possible in their studies.

Boolean Guess Who? – How it Works

First semester students are invited to attend a one-hour workshop on legal research skills.  The session starts with all students playing the game with the librarian and the educator. 

A Guess Who image, like the one below, is shown on the screen to all students.

The following instructions are displayed:

We start with a classic game of Guess Who?  Instructions go something like this:

  • ‘This person has glasses OR a hat.’ (There are 9 possible results.)
  • ‘This person has a hat but NOT glasses.’ (There are 3 possible results.)
  • ‘This person has a hat AND glasses.’ (It has to be Jay!)

The students understand very quickly what each of the connector words do.  Even though the word AND usually suggests an addition of some sort, use of the word AND in research limits their search results.  Use of the word OR increases their search results etc. 

Once students have grasped the basics, they can move on to more complex searches as below:

We then ask the students to work with each other and continue their game, constructing their own searches and checking their results.

You may be wondering what Guess Who has to do with legal research.  The answer is, absolutely nothing!  But teaching Boolean search techniques to first semester students can be overwhelming when you start throwing in complex legal terms.  First semester law students have yet to complete any substantive law subjects, so they have limited knowledge of legal terminology or areas of law at this early stage in their studies.  The technique will be used in most of their substantive law subjects as they conduct research papers in areas such as contract law, constitutional law, criminal law etc.  Understanding the search technique is what is required at this early stage. 

In our experience it is a great way to teach a technical legal research skill to first semester students in a way that doesn’t overwhelm them.  More importantly, it is easy to implement and never fails to engage the students!

We know there are some creative law teachers out there.  So, tell us, what games have you developed to engage your law students?  We would love to hear about them!

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