Illusions of Competence: Obstacles to Learning & Which Learning Strategies Really Work

Illusions of competence are obstacles to learning. Yet, learners are unaware of the existence of such illusions or their own susceptibility to them. Such is the nature of illusions, right?

Learners unwittingly develop illusions of competence by an over relying on ineffective, passive learning strategies such as rereading, rote memorization, and cramming study. These illusions of competence made students believe that they have learned because the information seems familiar; therefore, it is perceived to be well learned. Research from cognitive science tells a much different story. Illusions of competence make learning “feel” successful, but actually impede learning.

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Reflective Practice in Legal Education: “Debriefing” Our Work

Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.

So begins Tim Casey’s recent article, Reflective Practice in Legal Education: The Stages of Reflection, published in the Clinical Law Review. I recently had the pleasure of witnessing Casey’s presentation on Reflecting Practice in Legal Education at the Legal Writing Institute’s One Day Workshop at California Western School of Law, where Casey is a Professor in Residence and the Director of STEPPS Program.

In his article, Casey notes that while the ABA accreditation standards require externship programs to include reflective practice, few legal educators have studied the process of reflection, developed models for reflective practice, or know how to teach reflective practice. Casey’s article excellently defines reflective practice, then thoroughly outlines the stages of reflective practice using concepts from cognitive psychology and education theory.

In his presentation at Cal Western, Casey discussed moving law students from thinking about the “self,” concretely, and dualistically to thinking more universally/globally, abstractly, and contextually.

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Measuring Law Student Learning Outcomes Using Pre and Post Testing

I recently wrote about the counter-intuitive value of pre-testing, giving a test of material not yet learned, in order to prime the brain for learning to come and establish expectations for learning objectives.

I have since stumbled across an article published early this year by David J. Herring and Collin Lynch entitled Measuring Law Student Learning Outcomes: 2013 Lawyering Class. Herring and Lynch discuss the ABA’s potential shift from input measures to output measures for legal education, increasing the focus on establishing learning outcomes as well as ongoing evaluation of the attainment of established outcomes.

Herring and Lynch used a pre- and post-test design for comparison within one particular subject, focusing on measuring the core skill of legal reading and cross-case reasoning. The researchers found that in contrast to traditional law teaching alone, pre-test followed by supplemental instructional interventions, produced significant learning gains. For more about the study and results, see Measuring Law Student Learning Outcomes: 2013 Lawyering Class.

Frequent Quizzing Makes Information Stick

The act of retrieving information from memory challenges the brain, it greases the wheels of memory.

This greasing the wheel in studying using retrieval methods is hard work – creating and answering quizzes on information you are reading and learning instead of merely reading and re-reading. Creating and answering the quizzes feels uncomfortable and ineffective, which leads to erroneous judgments that the material is not being learned. When information is easy to study and learn, students believe it has been learned well, when the opposite is actually true.

According to Mark McDaniel with Washington University in St. Louis:

“I think most people want learning to be easy and effortless. They want a magic bullet for it. And learning is not easy and effortless. It takes work, and it takes effort and time and dedication.”

The most effective study and learning methods are not only hard, but they are counter-intuitive. Retrieval, the testing effect, and distributed practice are all research-proven to be much more effective than reading & rereading, highlighting, rote memorization, and cramming. Yet, students don’t know about these research-proven study and learning methods OR don’t believe that they are more effective than “tried and true” methods.

Students are never taught how to study.

“One of the gaps or problems in the educational system is that no one ever helps a student figure out how to learn, and yet that’s the primary challenge a student is faced with. You’ve got to assist them with how to do that. And that’s where I think we’re failing somewhat,” according to McDaniel.

Traditional class structures in higher education also feed into and encourage bad study habits. Professors lecture, give a midterm exam, and a final exam. This assessment structure leads to students rereading, reviewing notes, and cramming right before exams. This is even more pronounced in law school where Professors lecture via Socratic Method and only give a final exam.

Frequent quizzing is a smart and effective learning tool. Frequent quizzing over the course of the semester forces students to continuously retrieve material they are learning repeatedly over the course of a term. Each retrieval attempt creates more durable learning. Quizzes can be incorporated into any syllabus, even in courses where Professors choose to give final summative exams.

For more, see Studying With Quizzes Helps Make Sure The Material Sticks.



Failing Forward: Why Flunking Exams Is Actually a Good Thing

How about this heretical idea: Why not give the final exam on the first day of class?

Research on pre-testing (testing/quizzing students on information not yet learned) shows that wrong answers on a pretest aren’t just useless guesses. These attempts actually change how we think about and store information, priming our brain for learning to come. This pretesting effect is the most potent when pretesting is followed with prompt feedback (i.e., the right answers).

A recent article in the New York Times Magazine by Benedit Carey discusses research by Elizabeth Ligon Bjork with UCLA’s Bjork Learning and Forgetting Lab finding that pretesting can raise performance on final-exams by an average of 10 percent.

How is it that students can study – read, highlight, memorize information – open an exam and see material they studied and still bomb? Students are easily duped by misperceptions of fluency: if information is easy to remember at the time of studying, it is well learned. This fluency illusion (another illusion of competency) leads to a belief that the information has been learned to termination of study.

The best way to dissipate the illusion is testing (not just “for a grade” summative testing), but testing yourself by trying to recall something from memory without a cue. Testing as study. Testing itself becomes an introduction to what students will and can learn, instead of final judgment on what they didn’t.

The (bombed) pretest drives home the information in a way that studying as usual does not. We fail, but we fail forward.

Benedict Carey is also the author of “How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where and Why It Happens,” published by Random House, from which his article is adapted.