Skip to main content

Cognitive (Over)Load in First Year Legal Research Instruction


The research and analysis that we teach our students are processes, but when our students’ grades are based primarily on the documents they produce, students can have a difficult time internalizing those processes. This is partially due to what cognitive psychologists refer to as cognitive load. Cognitive psychologists define cognitive load as “the mental burden that managing working memory imposes on a person.”[1] 

According to a 2015 law review article on cognitive load and legal writing:

"Cognitive load theorists opine that the process of learning complex new information can exhaust a student’s finite working memory, perhaps capable of holding as few as two or three elements at a time. The complexity of the ‘element interactivity’—the interaction between various elements of the material to be learned—alters cognitive load. Thus, the complicated process of analyzing legal problems, researching their possible solutions, and communicating that analysis in writing can overwhelm students’ working memories . . . ."[2]

The article describes three types of cognitive load:
  1. Intrinsic cognitive load: This is the mental burden essential to learning the materials at hand. 
  2. Extraneous cognitive load: This is the mental burden that is not intrinsic to learning the material at hand. It is often obstructs learning and is caused by poor instructional design.
  3. Germane cognitive load: A sub-type of intrinsic cognitive load, it's the mental burden that memory uses to develop the structures of long-term memory.[3]
As instructors, then, our job is to optimize learning by reducing the extraneous cognitive load. In first year legal research and writing courses, students may struggle to learn due to the broad variety of tasks being taught: research, writing, analysis, oral advocacy, negotiation, etc. Because students have so many tasks splitting their focus, they tend to focus on the product that is most immediate—usually some sort of graded writing assignment. This hampers their ability to learn the analytical process that is research, as they rush to simply gather sources they're "supposed to find" for their writing assignments. Students struggle to absorb the research process and the analysis that is critical to successful researching because their working memories are busy trying to communicate the information from the sources they have located, on which the majority of their grade will be determined. Additionally, even though we know legal research differs from the research most students have done earlier in their academic careers, the research in their first-year courses may feel the most familiar to them out of all the new skills they are learning. This may cause students to minimize the need to focus on legal research since they are struggling with so many even more foreign skills--especially if the importance of research skills is not emphasized in the class.

As research instructors, we must explain the import of giving students opportunities two distinct types of practice: 1) exercises to practice their bibliographic research skills—how to locate certain types of materials, separate from engaging in any analysis; and 2) assignments to practice the analytical process inherent to research without worrying about producing a written document. This might require a re-working of the curriculum. In most first year skills courses, we see two scenarios. In the first, instructors incorporate the bibliographic type of practice exercises because students must first and foremost know how to locate different types of materials. They don’t have time to focus on research analysis skills separate from students' writing assignments, causing students to struggle with the analytical side of research as they research their first open memo. In the second, instructors attempt to merge the two types of practice into one assignment, which may be too much for students to absorb cognitively. This may cause students to focus more on research as a gathering skill rather than as an analytical skill. It may be challenging to fit multiple research assignments into an already packed curriculum due to the overabundance of topics covered in 1L skills courses. But, given that studies show both that new attorneys will spend a considerable amount of their time conducting legal research and that their employers are unhappy with where their research skills currently stand, it’s time to advocate for making more room for research instruction. Including exercises that allow students to process both sets of researching skills separately will ultimately produce the kinds of researchers prospective employers want to hire.



[1] Terri L. Enns & Monte Smith, “Take a (Cognitive) Load Off: Creating Space to Allow First-Year Legal Writing Students to Focus on Analytical and Writing Processes,” 20 J. Legal Writing Institute 109, 110 (2015).
[2] Id. at 111.
[3] Id.

Popular posts from this blog

Embracing Learner-Centered Pedagogy

Most educators pride themselves on putting our students first and try to make teaching decisions with our students' best interests in mind. But, what does learner-centered teaching really mean?

In their 2017 book, Learner-Centered Pedagogy: Principles and Practice, Kevin Michael Klipfel and Dani Brecher Cook set out to answer this question--and how it can be applied to teaching in a librarianship context. When asked to articulate what having a learner-centered approach means, most point to individual exercises or classroom techniques they employ or try to avoid, but are unable to describe the philosophy as a larger concept.

Ultimately, Klipfel and Cook's definition of learner-centered pedagogy is "who we are as people matters."[1] They explain it in further detail as: "Our conception of learner-centered pedagogy encourages library educators to encounter the learner as an individual with personal interests, preferences, and motivations, and uniquely human set of …

Recognizing and Supporting Unlearning In the Classroom

Students in legal research classes or workshops often struggle with unlearning.  Since most students have done some type of research during their undergraduate education, we are asking them to do something (at least somewhat) familiar in a new way.  When students are try to unlearn something, they will understandably stumble over old habits.  After all, if they've always done research a certain way, like tossing search terms into a Google-like search box, it's become automatic for them, a task they do without any conscious thinking. When we ask them to use an index or Table of Contents or another tool instead, it takes conscious effort for them not to resort to their ingrained research habits.

In fact, it's actually more challenging to make a conscious effort to change an existing habit than it is to make a conscious effort to do something new.[1]  Their previous processes have already become streamlined in their brain and building new structures based on new learning is h…

Reflection in the Legal Research Classroom

Reflection is a critical component of experiential learning.  We see in ABA Standard 303 that experiential courses must include multiple opportunities for self-evaluation.  Self-evaluation is critically important to legal research.  Students must reflect on and assess their research methodology each time they research to continue becoming more efficient legal researchers and to determine what research strategies work best in which situations. [1]

Reflection relates to several ideas found in cognitive theory that have been shown to result in stronger learning and retention:

Retrieval: recalling recently-learned information; Elaboration: finding a nexis between what you know and what you are learning; and Generation: putting concepts into your own words and/or contemplating what you might do differently next time. I've been contemplating how to better incorporate reflection into legal research classes. At the beginning of this semester, at the recommendation of a workshop I attended …

Changing the Narrative About Legal Research

I attended an interesting talk by a colleague and friend recently that has me thinking about re-writing narratives. Specifically, I've been considering how to re-write the narrative about the importance of legal research in legal education.

Legal research instruction has long taken a back seat in the legal academy.  It's even been described as the "stepchild in legal education."[1] As a skills course, it's traditionally been considered of less import than doctrinal courses, though thankfully this seems to be improving. Even within the first years skill course, the dedicated time for students to learn legal research, research often takes a backseat in time and emphasis to legal writing and oral arguments, despite being the foundation needed to be successful at both. This happens despite those hiring new attorneys commenting regularly about their discontent with students' research skills.

It's unlikely in most cases that more time is going to be formally al…

Revamping the Lecture

Lecturing has a bad name in today's world of experiential learning, but it's an often necessary component to legal research classes as students have to have some bibliographic information before we jump into the databases. As I conclude one semester and begin prepping for the next, I've been doing a lot of reading on how I can make my lectures more effective and engaging learning experiences for my students.

As Todd Zakrajsek notes in his 2017 Teaching in Higher Ed podcast on Dynamic Lecturing, "You can't just take bad examples of something and claim that the whole concept is bad." Instead, we should focus on what makes a lecture compelling for our students in our course planning and evaluate our lectures after our classes for their efficacy, reflecting on what worked well and what didn't.

So how can we make the most of our lectures?  Here's a few ideas I've come across:
Make your objectives clear to your students. Don't hide the ball--let you…