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The Psychology of Competence

In his book Teaching Excellence in Higher Education, Marshall Gregory describes what he calls the “psychology of competence.” In its simplest form, “the psychology of competence” starts with the idea that students have been striving for adult competence from the moment of birth—from learning to feed themselves to learning to drive. As such, by the time they are young adults, they are “competent” in a number of activities and view themselves highly, having reached that level of competency.

Gregory argues that students’ view of themselves as competent leads to two destructive tendencies that have a marked effect on their future learning. First, students have a tendency to view themselves as more competent than they actually are. This, in turn, causes many students to believe they do not need to work hard to become more competent in areas where they perceive that their own competence has been achieved.  Second, they want to hold on to the feelings of competence they’ve worked so hard to gain and so strongly resist any implications or statements from their instructors that they still have more to learn or, even worse, that they are beginning learners.

These tendencies may be even more deeply ingrained in law students, who, having completed their undergraduate educations, may view themselves as competent learners. They may react with shock or even disdain at the idea that they still have a great deal to learn about learning in law school. As Gregory notes:

[Students] are especially not prepared to hear that competence is not the same thing as excellence, or that the size of the gap between everyday competence and excellence is like an ocean that they must learn to navigate over a period of years rather than like a brook they might vault over.[1]

This may be especially true with legal research. Few students make it through their undergraduate education without engaging in some sort of research. As such, they may especially fight against the idea that they are not already competent researchers, despite the fact that the research they’ve previously conducted may bear little resemblance to the complex, analytical reasoning required in legal research. As such, we need to bring these differences into the foreground, never assuming that students recognize how legal research differs from their previous educational experiences, all the while acknowledging students’ earlier efforts to avoid alienating them.


[1] Marshall Gregory, Teaching Excellence in Higher Education 9 (Melissa Valiska Gregory ed., 2013).

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