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

Making "Thinking Time" for Curricular Development

In academia, we often hear faculty discuss the need to find time to write.  I've recently been reading Helen Sword's Air & Light & Time & Space, in which she discusses the need for those very things in writing.  In the first chapter, she notes, "[A]cademics talk constantly about making time, finding time, carving out time to write. We fantasize about having more of it, and we bemoan our chronic lack of it."[1]

I find the same is true for developing and assessing curricular programming. As librarians, true public servants, our profession is rooted in our service to others. Even if we are not scheduled for the reference desk or to attend a meeting, our "availability" is our calling card and in some cases our badge of honor.  It's expected that we will stop what we're doing should a patron come to our door or call on the phone.

The problem is that without free time to think, to think uninterrupted, we cannot innovate.  We keep with the stat…

Cold-Calling in the Law Classroom

In the years I've spent in legal academia, both as a student and a teacher, there's never been a great deal of discussion about the efficacy of cold-calling students. In the past year, however, I've heard arguments by faculty members that cold-calling works as a form of formative assessment for class, despite the fact that only one student is answering a given question. Recently, however, as I've been exploring brain science, I've been wondering about how much learning actually takes place inside classrooms where cold-calling is the primary method of instruction. Are we making learning more difficult than it needs to be?

I've written briefly before about the effectsof retrieval. Retrieval is the stage of the learning process in which students access information from their long-term memories.[1] Regular practice retrieving information leads to both long-term retention of information (basically, because we have had practice finding information in the knowledge st…

Intuitions About Teaching and Learning

Most learners rely on their own intuitions when selecting their study strategies. The same is true of teachers; we look back to our experiences as both students and teachers in deciding which strategies to use with our students. But how reliable are these intuitions?

It turns out, not veryreliable.

When relying on intuition, both students and teachers can select strategies that may not help learners be successful. We can see this in the tendency of college students to see reading and re-reading their textbooks and notes as the best way to learn.[1] Studies overwhelming demonstrate that re-reading takes more time on the part of the learner, but does not improve students' abilities to retain information in the long term.[2] To learners, however, re-reading feels good. As Yana Weinstein and Megan Sumeracki describe it in their book, "The more we read a passage, the more fluently we are able to read it. However, reading fluency does not mean we're engaging with the informatio…

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 …

Spaced Repetition & Interleaved Practice in Legal Research Instruction

Researchers refer to single-minded practice as "massed practice." This concentrated practice is thought to embed skills into memory. Unfortunately, while many students and teachers believe this to be the best way to learn, research doesn't support that idea. The problem with massed practice is that it is often accompanied by quick forgetting. Practice is important, but it is considerably more effective when it's spaced out--there's better retention and mastery.

It can be tough to convince our students of the benefits of spaced repetition. As Brown et al. point out in Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning:

 "[T]hese benefits come at a price: when practice is spaced, interleaved, and varied, it requires more effort. You feel the increased effort, but not the benefits the effort produces. Learning feels slower from this kind of practice, and you don't get the rapid improvements and affirmations you're accustomed to seeing from massed practi…