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Monday, June 06, 2011

Enhancing "Ability to Transfer" in Law Schools

The New York Times has an article about perceptual learning that arguably has implications for law school teaching. The article cites experiments that suggest that  when subjects/students are exposed to "visual, fast-paced" materials that "focus[] on classifying problems rather than solving them," they quickly learn to identify patterns and discern relevant facts. As one of the scientists quoted in the article notes, "[t]he brain is very good at sorting out patterns if you give it the chance and the right feedback” (emphasis mine).  This research arguably has implications for how traditional law school teaching methods might be reformed or supplemented to enhance students' "ability to transfer" abstract legal principles to new factual situations, and I'd love to see a study of this kind conducted at the law school level .  At a minimum, such a study might confirm for students that one of the most effective methods of studying for law schools exams (or the bar) is by working as many problems of the relevant type as possible beforehand. I vaguely remember reading a study (in the Journal of Legal Education?) some years ago that reported that a group of students who worked a professor's old exams at regular intervals throughout the semester got better grades at the end of the semester than a group of students who had been subject to extra tutorials with the professor each week. I'd like to see a similar study based on the perceptual learning techniques mentioned above. Any takers?

Posted by Lyrissa Lidsky on June 6, 2011 at 07:49 PM in Lyrissa Lidsky, Teaching Law | Permalink


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Great link. This reminds me of another recent NYT piece suggesting that the best way to study is to take practice tests: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/21/science/21memory.html

FWIW, when students ask me for study tips, I often share one simple phrase--"train like you fight." The "fight" is the final exam. It involves writing 2 thorough essay answers and responding quickly to some multiple choice questions. What's the best way to "train" for that fight? Write out answers to practice essay questions and, to a lesser extent, run through lots of multiple choice questions. I have not done any studies, of course, but the students who take my advice (many, sadly, do not) often improve dramatically from first to second semester (I teach a year-long Contracts course).

Posted by: HR Anderson | Jun 7, 2011 4:10:37 PM

FYI: As of this past year, I give 1L's a practice mid-term, final and 4 practice essay Q's they have to turn into me in the fall with similar assignments in the spring. In the past, I had fewer such assignments but always used some. They get significant feedback (model answers and what-not) for each one. It's been a ton of work, but I've noticed significant improvement on the exams. Depending on the experiment, I might be game. I'm about to start restructuring Property I & II with a new text book, so the timing for change is good.

Posted by: Jen Kreder | Jun 6, 2011 11:34:28 PM

This probably isn't the piece you referenced, but I found Does Practice Make Perfect? An Empirical Examination of the Impact of Practice Essays on Essay Exam Performance, 35 Fla. St. U. L. Rev. 271 (2008), to be a compelling article on the subject, and it is one of the reasons why I give both a practice midterm and a practice final with feedback.


Posted by: Colin Miller | Jun 6, 2011 9:02:14 PM

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