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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. 

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