I’d like to discuss one last concept that students can leverage to understand law more effectively. This concept is cognitive schema theory (CST). Like the other topics I’ve discussed in this series, CST is widely accepted in educational psychology.
Like self-regulated learning, CST is a subset of constructivism. Constructivism holds that real learning happens when students make a concept their own by actively discovering knowledge using their own reasoning processes. It embodies the old maxim that instructors should be the “guide on the side” instead of the “sage on the stage.” The problem, as I’ve noted before, is the misguided impression that instructors are indeed there to be the sage on the stage and that the sage is obliged to make doctrine and schema effortlessly obvious.
So, what is CST, and how can it help?
CST focuses on the active construction of knowledge by creating cognitive structures around which information can be assimilated and stored in long-term memory. A cognitive schema is a heuristic that promotes the encoding and retrieval of knowledge. In essence, organizational frameworks or mental structures aid the learner both in putting together the arrangement of a topic and in recalling that information. For instance, the memory palace (or “method of loci,” a tool that’s existed since Aristotle) structures ideas and facilitates learning, encoding, and recall.
A law school example….
In my criminal law class, students should have “put the course together” something like this (detailing only the insanity defense):
No doubt, law professors could mentally construct something like this instantly. To the expert, the substance of schemata is simple; we know the information almost reflexively and the mental structure of the information is downright obvious. But for the novice learner, schemata pose a distinct obstacle. Their knowledge is limited, but a failure to construct an accurate schema inhibits learning and obfuscates understanding.
Why does this matter? In law school, the linear nature of the progression of courses leaves students thinking that the material is linear, too; there are no subsets or sub-subsets, just a bunch of unconnected rules. Students’ outlines often have too few subsets and sub-subsets; they don’t break the material down into appropriate “levels.” Then, when they take exams and try to access the information they’ve learned, their minds have to sort through 160 isolated topics in search of the needle in the haystack. Instead, students should create mental pathways to each of those 160 topics by realizing that all of them fit into, say, five main topics. Each of those topics breaks into maybe three or four subtopics, each of which contains three or four sub-subtopics, etc. It’s become clear to me over the years that this is a frequent problem that impacts students’ performance substantially.
The problem is even worse in bar study. Some bar preparation companies place particular emphasis on the outlines they’ve been refining for thirty years. Not long ago, those outlines were the epicenter – and selling point – of the courses, and I’m sure there's no rush to de-emphasize materials it’s taken so long to create. As a result, some companies present the organization of the subjects as a fait accompli, and many students never really construct that organization independently. Instead, assignments require students simply to re-read the outlines repeatedly, leaving them continuously hazy about the schema of the given topic.
The problem with all of this is that when students don’t see the organization of the subject – the connections between what seem like distinct topics – they learn, issue spot, and recall less well. In an exam, they’re sifting through 160 unconnected rules, slowly searching for that needle in the haystack. But, we know that by applying cognitive schema and connecting the rules in a way that creates mental pathways, students actually can improve performance significantly.
In my next post, I’ll describe methods of study, both in law school and for the bar exam, that employ cognitive schema, the testing effect, self-regulated learning, and spaced repetition to enhance performance.