Skip to main content

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).

Popular posts from this blog

Letter to A First-Time (Legal Research) Instructor

Dear Friend,

Seven years ago this week, I was prepping madly to teach my first legal research class.  Three months earlier, I'd been a law student myself.  To say that I was nervous is an understatement; mildly terrified was probably a more apt description.  The truth is I didn't really know what I was getting myself into, but I knew that I wanted to teach legal research differently than I had been taught legal research, where at best it was viewed as a skill less important than everything else being taught at law school and at worst an afterthought, a skill that students should be able to do with very little training. 

There are many points I wish I knew then that I know now and that's what I want to share with you today. 


First and foremost, students will forgive many imperfections in the classroom if they know you care about their learning.  At the start of every semester, I re-read Kent Syverud's "Taking Students Seriously: A Guide for New Law Teachers,"…

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 in…

16x16 Challenge, or How A Tweet Resulted in Building a Community of Law Librarians Thinking & Writing About Teaching

Twitter is a space in which I've made connections with so many Law Librarians and many others within legal academia--and strengthened connections with others--and learned so much from and been inspired by colleagues across the country.

This past weekend, Emily Barney, Technology Training & Marketing Librarian at Chicago-Kent College of Law, was live-tweeting a panel from the WP Campus (Where WordPress Meets Higher Education) Conference called "The Infamous 9x9x25 Challenge," by Todd Conaway, from the University of Washington--Bothell. Started in 2013 at a community college in Arizona, faculty members were challenged to write 25 sentences a week for 9 weeks about teaching and learning. It gave faculty members the chance to reflect on what they do, share experiences and ideas, and see what their colleagues are up to over the course of the semester. And the challenge has spread in various iterations to college campuses across the United States.

This seemed like a wonder…

Students Forget Most of What We Teach (And What To Do About That)

Studies show that humans forget most of what they learn. But, students acquire new knowledge better when we keep a couple of things in mind:

1)  Students learn better when they have a clear understanding of why they are being expected to learn new tasks and information. As such, it is critical that we explain to students why we are teaching what we’re teaching. Tying curriculum back to practical application can help students understand the importance of what they are learning. 

For those of us teaching legal research, this is vitally important. We have to tell students why being strong researchers is central to their ability to be efficient lawyers—that they will be spending approximately 35% of their time conducting legal research in their first few years of practice. We have to explain to them that research is an analytical skill that they must practice in context so they can learn to do this critical lawyering skill effectively. It’s also important that we explain the importance of t…

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 stud…