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Recognizing and Supporting Unlearning In the Classroom

Students in legal research classes or workshops often struggle with unlearning.  Since most students have done some type of research during their undergraduate education, we are asking them to do something (at least somewhat) familiar in a new way.  When students are try to unlearn something, they will understandably stumble over old habits.  After all, if they've always done research a certain way, like tossing search terms into a Google-like search box, it's become automatic for them, a task they do without any conscious thinking. When we ask them to use an index or Table of Contents or another tool instead, it takes conscious effort for them not to resort to their ingrained research habits.

In fact, it's actually more challenging to make a conscious effort to change an existing habit than it is to make a conscious effort to do something new.[1]  Their previous processes have already become streamlined in their brain and building new structures based on new learning is hard work.  As Julie Dirksen writes in her incredibly accessible and informative text Design for How People Learn, the "streamlining process is a natural blessing for learning, but it poses a difficulty for re-learning. When learners must change or replace an existing practice, you have to deal with the fact that your learners already have momentum."[2] She further explains that "old information and procedures get in the way of new information and procedures."[3]

This can lead from resistance to students. They may be less motivated to learn due to the misconception that they already know and like a method of researching, even if that method may not be as efficient.  As instructors and instructional designers, we have to expect and plan for this.

First, we need to remember that learning is a process and that students with preexisting, streamlined structures are not going to give up their keyword searching based on a single presentation or a few practice exercises asking them to use other methods.  Repetition is your friend here.  Multiple opportunities for performance over time is key in helping students build new structures to replace or modify their previous habits.

We also need to expect that some frustration is natural to this process. We're asking students to let go over something that perceive has worked well for them in the past.  Backsliding will occur.  Students will revert back to old habits, especially if they aren't required to continue utilizing a new skill.[4]  This is where encouragement in the legal research classroom is so important.  If they forget about a skill they've only been introduced to one other time, gently correct.  I find that telling two things works well: 1) suggesting they not to beat themselves up for not being able to use a new-ish tool perfectly, as they've only seen this skill once before and 2) reminding them that that's why we're practicing again--so these helpful new tools become habit for them, too.



[1] Julie Dirksen, Design for How People Learn 11 (2d ed. 2016).

[2] Id.

 [3] Id. at 13.

[4] This is why students need opportunities to practice their research skills beyond the first-year legal skills course.  One semester or a few sessions spread across the first year are not enough to ingrain these habits to a level that will overcome habits from their entire previous educational experience.

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