Skip to main content

Desirable Difficulties in Legal Research Instruction

Challenges that result in stronger long-term learning are known as "desirable difficulties." Studies in how the brain works provide solid evidence that struggles in learning can actually be beneficial to the learner.

So how does the brain work? Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown et al., gives a concise version, explaining that first the brain undergoes encoding to create memory traces, "converting sensory perceptions into meaningful representations in the brain."[1] Next comes consolidation, during which the brain has to solidify these not fully-formed memory traces; this involves "deep processing of the new materials, during which scientists believe the brain replays or rehearses the learning, giving it meaning, filling in blank spots, and making connections to past experiences," which helps learners to organize and strengthen their learning.[2] 

When you allow space out your learning, as opposed to practicing something you just learned immediately and repeatedly, your learning is strengthened because retrieval is more challenging.[3]  Basically, when you practice recalling a new skill or topic immediately after being introduced to it, it is easier to recall and consolidation isn't as deep. When you letting learning recede a little bit, learning is harder to recall, but learning is deeper.

Let's apply this to legal research instruction. In many instances, we introduce one type of source to our students, for example, statutes. They learn all the ways to retrieve statutes (table of contents, index, etc.) and they immediately get practice finding statutes both in-class and as homework. They may even feel good (and you as the instructor may feel equally good) because they seem to have grasped it so quickly.

After a day or a few days of statutes, however, we move on to the next type of source and focus solely on it, moving entirely away from statutes. The students will eventually get another chance to practice locating a statute, but it may not come until several weeks later when they are doing an open memo problem. Their learning recedes too far.  Because their practice was rapid and close to the time they were initially introduced to the material, their consolidation wasn't as deep and many of them struggle when asked to perform their skills in the context of a larger problem.

Consolidation would be stronger if throughout the semester, opportunities to research a statute were sprinkled into the curriculum--even as a beginning of class warm-up or by finding a statute in conjunction with whatever new source students are learning to help build those connections. Because law students are learning so much at once, their cognitive loads are full, so after even a week away from a type of source, it is helpful to give them a problem or two to help them continue to consolidate their learning.


[1]  Peter C. Brown et al., Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning 72 (2014). 

[2]  Id. at 73-74.

[3]  Id. at 74-75. 


Popular posts from this blog

The Power of Prediction in Legal Education

Are law students retaining what we teach? As educators, we should care that our students are taking their learning with them beyond our classes. To do so, we need to look to the science to discover ways that we can help our students to retain what they're learning. One evidence-based strategy for increasing retention is to use predictive activities in our classrooms. Predictive activities ask learners to give answers to questions or to anticipate outcomes about which they do not yet have sufficient information. They prepare our students' minds for learning by driving them to seek connections that help them to make accurate predictions. In doing so, students open up their minds to make connections between the new learning they're doing and the preexisting knowledge schema that exist in their long-term memories. By trying to answer questions without sufficient information to do so, it helps prepare the long-term memory to fit the new information into the preexisting knowledge

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

Elaborative Interrogation in the Legal Research Classroom

One type of activity legal skills professors can incorporate into their classrooms is elaboration. As described by Yana Weinstein and Megan Sumeracki in Understanding How We Learn: A Visual Guide , "[e]laboration describes the process of adding features to one's memories."[1]  It helps with organization of information within the knowledge structures in one's minds, making it easier to retrieve this information later. But what activities will help students to add features to their memories? Weinstein and Sumeracki recommend three elaboration techniques that can all be applied to the legal research classroom: elaborative interrogation, concrete examples, and dual coding.[2] Studies of each has shown improvement in student learning and long-term retention. Today, we're going to look specifically elaborative interrogation. With elaborative interrogation , students ask themselves questions about the reason and way things work.[3]  While it's easy to presume law

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

Motivation in the Legal Research Classroom

Motivating students in the legal research classroom can be a challenge. As we know, there are many false narratives surrounding students' conceptions of legal research's importance, interest level, and ease, all of which can result in a decrease in students' motivation to engage in this subject matter. There are two types of motivation--intrinsic and extrinsic.  Extrinsic motivation occurs when students are motivated by an outside reward or punishment;[1] in instruction, this is often the grades students will get on research assignments or the participation points they might receive for actively engaging with in-class exercises.  Intrinsic motivation , on the other hand, occurs when students are interested in the topic for its own sake.[2] Due to legal research's false narratives, students entering our classrooms tend to be drive primarily by extrinsic motivation.  The problem is, as Julie Dirksen aptly notes in her excellent book Design for How People Learn , &qu