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

Letter to A First-Time (Legal Research) Instructor

Dear Friend, Seven years ago this week, I was prepping madly to teach my first legal research class.  Three months earlier, I'd been a law student myself.  To say that I was nervous is an understatement; mildly terrified was probably a more apt description.  The truth is I didn't really know what I was getting myself into, but I knew that I wanted to teach legal research differently than I had been taught legal research, where at best it was viewed as a skill less important than everything else being taught at law school and at worst an afterthought, a skill that students should be able to do with very little training.  There are many points I wish I knew then that I know now and that's what I want to share with you toda y.  First and foremost, students will forgive many imperfections in the classroom if they know you care about their learning.  At the start of every semester, I re-read Kent Syverud's " Taking Students Seriously: A Guide for New Law Teachers

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 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

Research as Analysis in the Modern Legal Academy

For decades, those discussing best practices in legal education have highlighted the importance of skills education (see the Crampton Report, the MacCrate Report, the Carnegie Report, and Best Practices for Legal Education, for just a few examples). But, as legal writing, advocacy, and clinical courses have all emerged to take their rightful place as key components in law students' education, legal research has remained a shadow skill. Despite numerous reports from those hiring our students being dissatisfied with their research skills, legal research education remains relegated to the background even in first year skills classes with "legal research" in their very title. At least in part, this is due to legal research having been divorced from the analysis that is central to the Langdellian model of legal education. In reality, analysis is central to successful research, and it is only by reclaiming research as an analytical skill in the modern legal academy that resea

Four Aspects of Effectual Teaching (& Why Instructional Design Is the One Missing In Many Law Courses)

There are four general components of teaching, which all must come together for a teacher to be successful: Knowledge of the Subject Matter : Most instructors in higher education have this covered. The largest potential hurdle of this aspect of teaching is perhaps remembering to view the material from the perspective of the beginner learner, as opposed to from the teacher's own advanced learner status. In my first year of teaching, I found this to be an issue, as I jumped over steps that were so obvious to me that I didn't even notice them anymore. It was only by students asking questions that illustrated I was missing an important step in their comprehension and by watching the legal writing professor I co-taught with that I began to break down my material into pieces that were more digestible for my students. Interaction with Students : Instructor-student interaction can take a myriad of forms. As L. Dee Fink writes in Creating Significant Learning Experiences , "Teac