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Intuitions About Teaching and Learning

Most learners rely on their own intuitions when selecting their study strategies. The same is true of teachers; we look back to our experiences as both students and teachers in deciding which strategies to use with our students. But how reliable are these intuitions?

It turns out, not very reliable.

When relying on intuition, both students and teachers can select strategies that may not help learners be successful. We can see this in the tendency of college students to see reading and re-reading their textbooks and notes as the best way to learn.[1] Studies overwhelming demonstrate that re-reading takes more time on the part of the learner, but does not improve students' abilities to retain information in the long term.[2] To learners, however, re-reading feels good. As Yana Weinstein and Megan Sumeracki describe it in their book, "The more we read a passage, the more fluently we are able to read it. However, reading fluency does not mean we're engaging with the information on a deep level, let alone learning it in such a way that we can actually remember it and use it in the future."[3] Likewise, students who engage in more effective strategies are likely to see them as not as effective for their learning--often because they require more effort on the part of the learner.[4]

We further compound our faulty intuitions with a tendency to engage in confirmation bias activities, in which we attempt to find evidence proving that our intuited strategies are good for our learners and simultaneously ignore evidence that suggests our intuitions might be flawed.[5]

In the area of legal research instruction, one major intuition-based strategy we engage in is massed practice. Massed practice of skills feels good; both teachers and learners feel like their students are better absorbing new skills. When practice is spaced out, it feels more painful. When we attempt to retrieve information from the knowledge structures in our long-term memory, as required by spaced practice, it takes more effort than the massed practice in which learners have no time to beginning forgetting.[6] Yet, for long-term retention, studies have shown that spaced repetition is far superior.

Certainly, the myth of massed practice is not the only teaching technique that legal research instructors choose to use based on their intuition and past experiences. We must dig deeper than just because it "seems" like this strategy has worked well in the past. I continue to be amazed as I read more of the cognitive theory research how strategies I've never considered before have been scientifically shown to benefit learners and how strategies that are commonplace in legal academic can be a detriment. We need to be conscious of the reasons why we are structuring our courses in certain ways, and be thoughtful in our choices when selecting teaching strategies.



[1] Yana Weinstein & Megan Sumeracki with Oliver Caviglioli, Understanding How We Learn: A Visual Guide 23 (2019).

[2] Id.

[3] Id. at 23-24.

[4] Id. at 24.

[5] Id. at 23.

[6] Peter C. Brown et al., Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning 47 (2014).

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