Skip to main content

Fighting Law Students' Cognitive Dissonance

I remember being told at some point, either during law school or my early teaching days, that there was a study of law students where it was determined that 90% of law students believe that they will graduate in the top 10% of their class. Obviously, at least 80% of them are wrong, and that's assuming that none of the 10% who don't predict their top-10% success end up in the top of their class.

As such, cognitive dissonance can be a huge detriment to student learning in law school.  When students don't receive the grades they believe they will--or should--receive, most are unable to process it. As Saundra Yancy McGuire puts it in Teach Students to Learn: Strategies You Can Incorporate Into Any Course to Improve Student Metacognition, Study Skills, and Motivation,

If our courses are telling these students that they're not the smart, competent individuals they believed themselves to be, what do they do? Their normal psychological self-defense mechanisms activate. They begin withdrawing psychologically; they might sit further back in the classroom or lecture hall. . . . [T]he discouragement of thwarted expectations prevents them from working harder. Moreover, even if they are able to rally and work harder, doing more of what they already know how to do is not likely to help. They need to learn a different way.[1]

The first step in fighting cognitive dissonance is to ensure students know that this one grade on this one assignment is not the end-all, be-all. We must convince our students that their grade is not an indication of how smart they are; rather, it is a reflection of their preparation—which is something they can adapt. In legal research classes and any skills course in law school, it is important to emphasize student learning as a process. No student is going to be a perfect researcher at first. Student only get better through consistent practice.

We can also help students combat cognitive dissonance by helping them come up with learning strategies. In her book, McGuire differentiates between studying and learning. She describes one student’s understanding of how the two differ as:

“’Studying is focusing on the ‘whats,’ but learning is focusing on the ‘hows,’ ‘whys,’ and ‘what ifs.’ I am particularly fond of this response. The student who gave it went on to elaborate, ‘I find that when I focus on the ‘whats,’ if I forget them I can’t recreate the information. But when I focus on the ‘hows,’ ‘whys,’ and ‘what ifs,’ even if I forget the ‘whats,’ I can recreate them.”[2]

This is why focusing on process with our legal research students is important. Even if our students forget exactly what to do to run a search in a particular database, they can remember the steps of successful researching. At Texas Tech, the librarians have five sessions with the students in the fall semester; it is centered around Rombauer's four-step research process: 1) preliminary analysis; 2) codified law; 3) binding precedent; and 4) persuasive precedent. By emphasizing the overall process, a concrete set of four steps easily remembered, students have a strategy by which they proceed no matter what or with what database they're researching.


[1] Saundra Yancy McGuire with Stephanie McGuire, Teach Students How to Learn: Strategies You Can Incorporate Into Any Course to Improve Student Metacognition, Study Skills, and Motivation 17-18 (2015).
[2] Id. at 31.

Popular posts from this blog

Why Experts Can Struggle to Teach Novices

This week in our Slack group on teaching , there was an interesting discussion about expertise and the amount of time needed to prep for instruction. I mentioned something that I recalled reading: that experts can be less effective in teaching novices because often the expert skips cognitive steps that the novice learner needs to understand.  I thought I'd dig into this a little more today on the blog. The fact is novices and experts learn very differently.  The major reason for this is that experts not only know a lot about their chosen discipline, but they understand how that discipline is organized. As such, what has a clear structure to the expert is a jumbled set of unorganized information to the novice.  The information presented to novices "are more or less random data points."[1]  In contrast, when the expert learns something new in her area of expertise, she just plugs it into the knowledge structure that already exists in her long-term memory. Because the new

Helping With Student Focus & Motivation in the Remote Classroom, Part 3: Limiting New Technologies to Reduce Extrinsic Cognitive Load

A librarian colleague used to say to me, "Technology is great until it's not." This couldn't be more true in the classroom.  As many of us prepare for a fall entirely or partially online, there's a rush to familiarize ourselves with lots of new educational technology to teach our classes. There's this sense that if you're not using the best and newest ed tech in your class, you're doing something wrong. Fortunately, the science doesn't back this up.  Using too many different types of technology can be a contributing factor to cognitive overload in students . Cognitive load is a term cognitive psychologists use to describe the mental challenge that the limitations of working memory puts on a student's learning.[1] Basically, working memory is extremely limited in both time and duration. Humans can only hold on to between four and nine "chunks" of information at any given time,[2] and can only hold on to new information in their worki

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 works

Cognitive Disruptors in Legal Education

The pandemic has had a significant impact on all of our lives (biggest understatement ever).  However, with the return to in-person learning at many institutions, there has been this feeling that we should have returned to our "normal" teaching strategies in an effort to get back to the way things were. But of course, we know that things are not the same.  People traumatized by the pandemic--loved ones being gravely ill and dying, extreme isolation, financial stressors due to industries being impacted, and more--are experiencing lingering effects of the past two years.  Burnout has become the buzz word, as entire circles of friends and colleagues report feeling emotionally, physically, and mentally exhausted. This means that our classrooms should not go back to normal.  We must consider what might be impacting our students' ability to attend to and retain new information presented in our classrooms.  I've written before about cognitive (over)load and the limits of wo

Helping with Student Focus & Motivation in the Remote Classroom, Part 4: Building An Online Teaching Presence

I've written before about how important it is to show students you care about their learning and about them as humans , in part summarizing Kent Syverud's excellent piece , "Taking Students Seriously: A Guide for New Law Teachers. It is harder to show students that you care about them in a remote environment than when you see them in a physical classroom every day, where you can smile at them, easily ask them how they're doing as they enter the room or when you run into them in the classroom, or notice through their body language if they are having a hard time and reach out. But we know that showing we care matters; our students try harder and engage more when they feel like their learning matters to their instructor.  It takes more intention to show you care about students in the online classroom, but it's imperative that we find ways to show we do. So what are some ways that we can show students we care in the remote learning environment? The first is to