Skip to main content

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.


Popular posts from this blog

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

Helping With Student Focus & Motivation in the Remote Classroom, Part 3: Limiting New Technologies to Reduce Extrinsic Cognitive Load

A librarian colleague used to say to me, "Technology is great until it's not." This couldn't be more true in the classroom.  As many of us prepare for a fall entirely or partially online, there's a rush to familiarize ourselves with lots of new educational technology to teach our classes. There's this sense that if you're not using the best and newest ed tech in your class, you're doing something wrong. Fortunately, the science doesn't back this up.  Using too many different types of technology can be a contributing factor to cognitive overload in students . Cognitive load is a term cognitive psychologists use to describe the mental challenge that the limitations of working memory puts on a student's learning.[1] Basically, working memory is extremely limited in both time and duration. Humans can only hold on to between four and nine "chunks" of information at any given time,[2] and can only hold on to new information in their worki

Reflection in the Legal Research Classroom

Reflection is a critical component of experiential learning.  We see in ABA Standard 303 that experiential courses must include multiple opportunities for self-evaluation.  Self-evaluation is critically important to legal research.  Students must reflect on and assess their research methodology each time they research to continue becoming more efficient legal researchers and to determine what research strategies work best in which situations. [1] Reflection relates to several ideas found in cognitive theory that have been shown to result in stronger learning and retention: Retrieval : recalling recently-learned information;  Elaboration : finding a nexis between what you know and what you are learning; and  Generation : putting concepts into your own words and/or contemplating what you might do differently next time. I've been contemplating how to better incorporate reflection into legal research classes. At the beginning of this semester, at the recommendation of a works

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 wo

Helping with Student Focus & Motivation in the Remote Classroom, Part 4: Building An Online Teaching Presence

I've written before about how important it is to show students you care about their learning and about them as humans , in part summarizing Kent Syverud's excellent piece , "Taking Students Seriously: A Guide for New Law Teachers. It is harder to show students that you care about them in a remote environment than when you see them in a physical classroom every day, where you can smile at them, easily ask them how they're doing as they enter the room or when you run into them in the classroom, or notice through their body language if they are having a hard time and reach out. But we know that showing we care matters; our students try harder and engage more when they feel like their learning matters to their instructor.  It takes more intention to show you care about students in the online classroom, but it's imperative that we find ways to show we do. So what are some ways that we can show students we care in the remote learning environment? The first is to