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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.

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