“He who knows most, knows best how little he knows.” Thomas Jefferson.
In my last post, I discussed “the testing effect” and how it can help students learn law better. Today’s post focuses on metacognition and self-regulated learning (SRL). Unlike the testing effect, these two interrelated topics have some exposure in legal education, and that exposure has led to studies concluding that metacognition and SRL lead to better results. Like the testing effect, however, too few students know about these concepts, and the traditional law school environment doesn’t emphasize their use. This is problematic, because metacognition and SRL could be game-changers in legal education.
More below the fold….
An important problem exists in terms of how students view their role in their legal education. In high school, the overabundance of standardized testing leads to teaching-to-the-test. Teaching-to-the-test leads to excessive control over students’ learning in an attempt to control test results. In college, the modern devaluation of critical-thinking skills, created perhaps by a de-emphasis on liberal arts education, leads to a failure to teach students to control their own learning. It’s not a surprise, then, that one study showed that law students, despite their high intelligence, generally do not start law school with strong metacognitive skills.
As a result, many students enter law school ready for their professors not only to teach them law but also to police their learning process. Too many assume that faculty are (or should be) giving them all they need to succeed. They assume that reading the assigned materials, briefing cases, and attending classes will suffice. Outlining starts, if at all, towards the end of the semester; and as exams approach, common wisdom has it that students should reread outlines and take a look at professors’ old exams to game how they test.
This is woefully inadequate….
Enter metacognition and SRL….
The broadest definition of metacognition derives from its origins in epistemology. There, metacognition is the process of knowing that one knows. More narrowly, according to Beran, et al (2012) in the field of cognitive science, metacognition is monitoring and regulating the internal process of cognition. The commonly used phrase is “thinking about thinking.” In educational psychology, the emphasis is on monitoring and questioning one’s learning with the purpose of improving the result of the learning task; “do I really get it, and if not what should I do about?” A recent study found that students with higher incoming indicators improved performance better after formative assessment than others, and the authors theorized that those students’ stronger metacognitive skills explained that difference.
Meanwhile, one can think of self-regulated learning as actualizing metacognition. SRL, as Dean Michael Hunter Schwartz quoted, "involves the active, goal-directed, self-control of behavior, motivation, and cognition for academic tasks by an individual student.” Learning is something students do, not something that is done to them. SRL involves planning how to learn, monitoring the learning as cognition occurs, and then critically reflecting on the success of the learning task with an eye towards finding and eliminating weaknesses. Given that the heart of this approach is self-awareness and critique, it’s no surprise that studies have shown that healthy skepticism is a trait most associated with academic success in law school.
Importantly, SRL necessitates that students own the learning and not outsource that responsibility to others. (Hence, my aversion to students receiving “tutoring.”) Certain practices in law school can hinder that goal. When the crowd mentality convinces students to stick to the conventional wisdom of law school studying, that hinders SRL. When faculty tell students that they may not use any materials other than the casebook, that hinders SRL. When faculty dissuade students from taking practice exams – either explicitly or implicitly by declining to post old exams – that hinders SRL. Due to these practices, students are unable to assess their own strengths and weaknesses objectively, and their learning suffers.
Instead, the law school environment needs to promote SRL. To that end, legal educators need to convey that, because of the volume of law to learn, students’ exam prep starts the day after orientation. To start that prep, students need to do several things on a weekly basis.
Obviously, students need to prepare for class adequately and attend class. Most students follow these steps but do no more. They leave class with misunderstandings (whether they know it or not), and they do nothing to fix the misunderstanding or even determine objectively whether they have them. This is the Rumsfeldian unknown unknowns – they don’t know what they don’t know.
As a result, I counsel my 1Ls to take three additional steps at the end of each week. First: Synthesize. In this step, students need to synthesize the law fully by using their reading notes, class notes, and whatever hornbooks are appropriate. (This is where we sometimes fail students. Rightly believing that a great deal of commercial schlock exists in the supplement market, faculty sometimes tell students not to use any resources other than the casebook. This not only ignores the fact that plenty of hornbooks are of solid quality, but it also ignores the need for students to correct their own learning weaknesses. When I taught criminal law, for instance, I recommended Dressler’s “Understanding Criminal Law,” and I gave students the advice to stay away from the resources of lesser quality).
Second: Outline. Here, students should memorialize their synthesized knowledge immediately. Thanks to the “forgetting effect,” at the end of a given week students know much more about that week’s doctrine than they will know even just a few days later. As such, they should memorialize this knowledge at the time when it’s at its peak. An additional benefit is that if students outline material weekly, they won’t have 600 pages of casebook to outline at the end of the semester. (The end of the semester is then devoted to refining the outlining, self-testing on its substance, and taking practice exams.)
Third: Objective Self-Testing. After synthesizing and memorializing, students should objectively test themselves on their learning. Using multiple-choice questions, CALIs, Examples & Explanations problems, or any other method of questioning, students should prove to themselves that they successfully synthesized the law in the previous steps. If they find weaknesses, they should return to the step one and sure up their knowledge.
I’ve consistently found that this approach substantially improves students’ knowledge and performance. Using these methods, students employ metacognition and engage in the three steps of SRL. Not only does this approach benefit students in law school and on the bar exam, it also makes them better lawyers. While other new associates need handholding and feedback from senior associates and partners, self-regulated learners can better monitor their own knowledge and performance.
Next time, I’ll address the concept of “spaced repetition.”