Skip to main content

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).

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