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Cognitive Disruptors in Legal Education

The pandemic has had a significant impact on all of our lives (biggest understatement ever).  However, with the return to in-person learning at many institutions, there has been this feeling that we should have returned to our "normal" teaching strategies in an effort to get back to the way things were.

But of course, we know that things are not the same.  People traumatized by the pandemic--loved ones being gravely ill and dying, extreme isolation, financial stressors due to industries being impacted, and more--are experiencing lingering effects of the past two years.  Burnout has become the buzz word, as entire circles of friends and colleagues report feeling emotionally, physically, and mentally exhausted.

This means that our classrooms should not go back to normal.  We must consider what might be impacting our students' ability to attend to and retain new information presented in our classrooms.  I've written before about cognitive (over)load and the limits of working memory.  Classical theories of memory suggest that working memory is limited in both size--how many pieces of information can be held in working memory (traditionally 4 to 7 "chunks" of information)--and duration--how long we can hold information in working memory (traditionally about 30 seconds without rehearsal).[1]  Modern memory theory calls into question the size, and now believe that the size is much closer to 4, and perhaps even smaller in terms of what can actually be used.[2]  How much information is in one "chunk" of information will vary greatly; experts will be able to hold much more in their working memory because the information in the knowledge structures of their brains have strong interconnections, while each individual piece of new information may comprise a chunk for a novice.[3]  

If we have these extreme limits in situations where learning is optimal, we must consider what this means in those learning situations that are not optimal.  Even undergoing normal law school conditions, due to the large volume of new information being presented, students are likely losing vital information presented to them due to the constraints of working memory and the structure of lecture-based law school classes, where understanding may emerge through Socratic method over the course of a class period.  

But we know that psychological stressors have significant impacts on the working memory.  Exhaustion, depression, and other emotions can serve as cognitive disruptors that take up the very limited space in students' working memories.  When students are worrying about ill family members, for example, their attention--critical for sensory impressions to enter the working memory--splits, leaving less room for those students to process their learning.  What's more--efforts to regulate those negative thoughts and focus actually contribute to cognitive inefficiency.  The same cognitive functioning required for successfully engaging in learning is used to control emotions.[4]  Furthermore, our BIPOC and first-generation students are likely especially impacted--as stereotype threat, imposter syndrome, and societal injustices can act as additional cognitive disruptors taking up space in the working memory.

So what can we do to help students learn as effectively as possible?  First, we can focus our class coverage to the most important topics and avoid trying to cover too much.  If the focus of law school is to help students think like lawyers, then surely they learn more by deeply analyzing a few topics than by cursory coverage of wider range of topics.  By covering less but in greater depth, we can help students see patterns in their legal analysis, deepening the knowledge structures in their long-term memory.  The more interconnected the information in their long term memories, the larger the chunk students can retrieve to use in their working memory.

Second, we can make sure that class content is clearly presented.  Sometimes, the meandering nature of Socratic method means that the line to understanding is not straight.  This can make it more difficult for students to put the pieces together, especially when dealing with cognitive disruptors.  Summarizing major points and helping students see the through line will ensure that all students understand the analysis involved in the court's decision and how it might be applied to future fact scenarios.  Studies show that when students are focusing on solving a problem, there is little room in their working memory to remember the steps they used to solve it, meaning they might come to the right conclusion without transferring the successful strategies into their long-term memory.[5]  When we break down the steps in the analysis for the students, it helps them to successfully transfer it to their long-term memories to be used the next time they encounter a similar problem.  Then, giving students multiple chances to utilize those analytical steps will help ensure this learning is engrained in their long-term memory.  Repeating these important pieces of information again and again will help insure students dealing with cognitive disruptors do not lose important concepts.

Living and working in the pandemic is hard for both instructors and students.  But the strategies we use to help students learn best in these circumstances will be beneficial in all learning environments. We all have distractions, we all have issues that come up that cause extra burden on our cognitive capacity. Taking time to make adjustments to our courses to minimize the negative impact of cognitive disruptors will help all learners be more successful.  



[1] Michelle D. Miller, Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology 94 (2014).
[2] Id.
[3] Amanda L. Gilchrist, How Should we Measure Chunks? A Continuing Issue in Chunking Research and a Way Forward, 6 Front Psych. 1456, 1456 (2015).
[4] Toni Schmader, Michael Johns, & Chad Forbes, An Integrated Process Model of Stereotype Threat Effects on Performance, 115 Psychol. Rev. 336 (2008).
[5] Cognitive Load Theory in Practice: Examples for the Classroom, Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation (2018), at 11.

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