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Helping Students Learn to Learn

One aspect of learning that I see students struggle with the most is applying the skills they have learned to new scenarios or situations. It is critical that students are equipped with the ability to continue to advance in their profession and in their knowledge after they have left our courses and law school altogether. This is true for two reasons. First, it's not possible for students to learn everything there is to know about the law--or even one topic within the law--during the course of law school. There's simply too much content to learn; the best we can hope for is to identify the fundamental knowledge for our subject areas and do our best to make sure our students know that material. Second, even if they could learn everything, they would have to be able to continue to learn as new areas of law emerge and preexisting areas of law evolve.

In his book, Creating Significant Learning Experiences, L. Dee Fink identifies three different meanings for "learning how to learn":
  1. Learning how to be a better student: There are a number of excellent resources out there on how to help students learn how to succeed in higher education, including Saundra McGuire's Teach Students How to Learn: Strategies You Can Incorporate Into Any Course to Improve Student Metacognition, Study Skills, and Motivation (2015).
  2. Learning how to construct knowledge in different domains of inquiry: This is why law school focuses so heavily on legal analysis. We're helping students learn how to ask and answer their own questions. But an important aspect of this is helping students know how to seek out information that will allow them to answer those questions--legal research. Demonstrating to students that the legal research is inextricably tied to analysis is a key step in helping student learn how to keep learning.
  3. Learning how to be a self-directing learner: Finally, Fink discusses the need for students to be what he calls self-directing learners. He uses the phrase "self-directing" as opposed to "self-directed" to emphasize that the students are active participants in this process. He writes that there are two prongs to students' abilities to become self-directing: 1) They must be able to diagnose their own needs and 2) they must be able to design a learning plan.[1]  As such, self-reflection is a critical component to self-directed learning. Students must be able to analyze what they need to learn, and then reflect back on their previous legal research experience to discern what worked well and what did not for answering their questions, and consider what is likely to be successful for their current learning needs.

    Fink looks to Phil Candy's 1991 research on self-directed learning and proposes some strategies teachers can use to help students become better self-directed learners:
    • "Make use of learners' existing knowledge structure.
    • Encourage deep-level learning.
    • Increase questioning by the learners.
    • Develop their critical thinking capabilities.
    • Enhance their reading skills.
    • Enhance their comprehensive monitoring (of their own learning)." [2]
All of these types types of learning are skills students should practice throughout their legal education. Given that research is key to at least two of the types of "learning to learn", incorporating much more research-based analysis into students' legal education beyond the first year is necessary for their future success.


[1] L. Dee Fink, Creating Significant Learning Experiences, Revised and Updated: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses 59 (2013).

[2] Id. at 60.

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