July 26, 2006
Multitasking and Law School Learning Are a Bad Mix
A new study suggests that while students may be able to multitask as they are learning, "distractions affect the way people learn, making the knowledge they gain harder to use later on," according to an Associated Press story reported widely yesterday. (ABC News reported the story under the title "Distractions Impede Learning.") The study demonstrated that distractions actually change the way a person learns, making the learning "less efficient and useful," according to UCLA psychology professor Russell A. Poldrack.
Poldrack explained that " 'the brain learns in two different ways. One, called declarative learning, involves the medial temporal lobe and deals with learning active facts that can be recalled and used with great flexibility. The second, involving the striatum, is called habit learning . . . . The problem . . .is that the two types of learning seem to be competing with each other, and when someone is distracted, habit learning seems to take over from declarative learning.' "
The implications for our students is that multitasking in class or in study times causes them to be inefficient regarding the most important kind of learning required by law school: learning that can be used and applied later "with great flexibility." Students, many of whom have grown up multitasking as they studied and multitasking on their computers while in class, are likely to continue the practice in law school, unaware of the distractions' negative effects.
One of the reasons academic support programs are so important is that they make explicit the new study approaches students must employ to be successful in learning the law. Many of our students are shocked to find that their study methods, which had served them well prior to law school, are suddenly less effective than before.
Two things probably account for the phenomenon: first, learning to read and reason like a lawyer is significantly more demanding than the learning required in many undergraduate programs, so inefficiencies that students' natural intelligence compensated for in the past are being exposed as the compensation strategies break down; second, the type of learning is itself quite different from the learning to which they became accustomed in their earlier educational careers because law school learning focuses almost exclusively on gaining knowledge in order to apply it in new situations that demand both flexibility and precision.
The new findings are another reason we should encourage our students to abandon surfing the Internet and other distractions while in class or while studying. Distractions interfere with precisely the kind of learning law school demands; we should be explicit about that effect so that students recognize and eliminate what may be among the most debilitating practices in their study methods. (dbw)
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