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.

Students’ Illusions of Competence Lead to Ineffective Study & Learning Behaviors


Illusions distort our senses, create false ideas, beliefs, and expectations, and lead us to see things that do not really exist.  Illusions of competence in study and learning behaviors leads to early termination of learning, overly ambitious expectations, and unfortunately, poor performance.

Modern undergraduate students are overly confident in their study and learning skills. Yet, research shows that these students overwhelmingly rely on ineffective and improvised study and learning behaviors (re-reading, highlighting, massing study), and even when taught about effective study strategies (retrieval, self-testing, distributed practice, interleaving, etc.), continue to buy into their “illusions of competence” in their study methods. Undergraduate students take their illusions of competence to law school and are often dumbfounded when their “tried and true,” yet wholly improvised study methods fail them in their law study.

A wealth of empirical evidence on effective study behaviors exists from thousands of studies at the undergraduate level from the fields of psychology, educational psychology, cognition. For a great summary, check out the Bjork Learning and Forgetting Lab. Yet, legal educators are often unaware of the research from other disciplines relating to learning.

My recent article available on SSRN, “Illusions of Competence: Using Empirical Research on Undergraduate Study Behaviors to Maximize Law Learning,” summarizes the empirical research on effective (and ineffective) study behaviors for the legal educator and recommends concrete, practical ways to integrate the research into the law school classroom. Administrators, law professors (doctrinal, skills, clinical, etc.) and law students will all benefit from learning which study behaviors work, and which done.