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The Power of Prediction in Legal Education

Are law students retaining what we teach? As educators, we should care that our students are taking their learning with them beyond our classes. To do so, we need to look to the science to discover ways that we can help our students to retain what they're learning. One evidence-based strategy for increasing retention is to use predictive activities in our classrooms.

Predictive activities ask learners to give answers to questions or to anticipate outcomes about which they do not yet have sufficient information. They prepare our students' minds for learning by driving them to seek connections that help them to make accurate predictions. In doing so, students open up their minds to make connections between the new learning they're doing and the preexisting knowledge schema that exist in their long-term memories. By trying to answer questions without sufficient information to do so, it helps prepare the long-term memory to fit the new information into the preexisting knowledge structures.  

Part of the reason students have a difficult time retaining information is because they have a hard time pulling it out of their long-term memory. It's a messy set of winding, messy pathways in there! But when students can connect new learning to something that they are already able to find in their long-term memories, it makes it easier for them to retrieve the new learning when they need it because they already have some practice navigating those pathways. Studies show that making predictions about material you wish to learn increases your ability to understand that material and to retrieve it later.  

Studies also show that students who do predictive activities engage more thoroughly with the material. Cognitive scientists believe this happen because students pay closer attention to the material to find out if they're right or wrong. The predictive activity hooks students' emotions into the learning that's taking place. Students get a little boost of excitement or pleasure if they're correct, and they get a little feeling of frustration if they're wrong; both compel them to pay more attention.  Stoking students' curiosity also increases motivation for learning.

Finally, these questions helps students recognize the gaps and misconceptions in their own understanding. By breaking a students' assumption that their understanding is stronger than it is (a common occurrence when students rely on re-reading to gauge their understanding), it can push them to strengthen their understanding--by asking questions, visiting office hours, or doing more practice questions.  

These types of questions lend themselves easily to teaching the law. Taking a principle the students have already encountered in an earlier case, you can give students the facts of the next case you'll be discussing and ask them to write down a prediction about the case's outcome at the end of class, giving the reasoning behind their prediction. Then they'll read the case for homework and you can begin the next class by addressing their predictions--were they right or wrong?  If they were right, was their reasoning correct? If they were wrong, where was their reasoning flawed?  Was there a new factor that they hadn't considered?  This will help them prepare for the kind of critical thinking they'll need to do on the exam and in practice, and will help them remember the law far better than with reading and Socratic method alone.

These types of questions work well in a skills class, too. I've been using them in my legal research courses for several years to help students retain the skills they're learning. One example:

  • What should be considered in their preliminary analysis of a legal problem and why?  This question requires students to think back to prior research they've done to consider what would be helpful to include in a legal research plan. In doing so, they're able to articulate why analysis before jumping into the databases is important based on their own experiences, rather than just me telling them so. By taking a few minutes to seriously consider this question (this is a 2-3 minute exercise, so it doesn't eat up a ton of class time), they are much more likely to remember how to break down their analysis of a legal problem. When we go through the list of questions and concepts they should consider in identifying core concepts and formulating their key issues, the things they've missed also tend to stick in their minds better because of that sigh of frustration.
The power of prediction exercises is significant. Two of the things I'm most concerned with as an instructor are student engagement and retention of learning, and prediction exercises boost both. Prediction activities can take up only a few minutes at the start or end of class, making them easy to fit into even a crowded curriculum. As we think about our course goals and identify those aspects of a course that we want to ensure our students take with them out into practice, tying them to a predictive activity is one way to greatly increase the likelihood they'll hold onto those lessons.

Worried about students retaining the wrong answer to a prediction?  Just make sure that you quickly correct incorrect predictions.  Evidence-based studies have shown that incorrect predictions don't impair learning as long as instructors provide the correct answers to students in a timely manner.

For more on predictive exercises, check out James Lang's excellent Small Teaching; McTighe & Judy Willis's Upgrade Your Teaching; and Benedict Carey's How We Learn.

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