Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Unified Learning Model and Legal Education

One of the major points in Reforming Legal Education: Law Schools at the Crossroads is that legal education reform should be based on how adult students learn. I believe the best model of student learning is in Duane F. Shell et. al., The Unified Learning Model: How Motivational, Cognitive, and Neurobiological Sciences Inform Best Teaching Practices (Springer 2010). (Some writers on legal education reform have used a learning model in Patricia L. Smith & Tilman J. Ragan, Instructional Design (1999). I prefer the Shell model because it adds motivation to the earlier models.)

Their model looks like this:

1. Learning is a product of working memory allocation.

2. Working memory’s capacity for allocation is affected by prior Knowledge.

3. Working memory allocation is directed by motivation.

When humans learn something, it becomes Knowledge stored in the brain–in long-term memory consisting of the firing potentials and interconnections of neurons. The authors state, "Knowledge is everything we know. It not only means facts and concepts, but also problem solving skills, motor behaviors, and thinking processes." They continue: "Knowledge . . . is entirely the result of the micro-architecture of the brain. . . . It is due to neural patterns in that region having been strengthened and weakened in ways that correspond to learning algebra, calculus, etc. The strengthening and weakening of neurons is learning. Thus, the micro-architecture of the brain and as a result, virtually all of our knowledge is the result of learning."

Working memory is the key to learning. Working memory has two functions–temporary storage and processing of information. Storage is the "process of turning a specific [sensory] input into a permanent trace" in the long-term memory. The senses receive a great deal of input, which is aggregated into sensory output and sent to the working memory. However, the working memory cannot handle all this sensory input, so one of its roles is "attention"–to process some of this input and ignore other parts. Attended memory activates neurons in a temporary memory area, which "creates a neural representation of the sensory input in working memory." "Long-term potentiation" preserves this input for a few hours. "If the neural pattern does not decay, it activates a neural pattern in the cortical region that produces a permanent memory trace of the original input."

Although working memory has only about four slots, these slots can hold from single letter to complex chunks (schemas). A chunk is "a connected grouping of knowledge." From a neurobiological viewpoint, chunks are neurons connected by synapses.

Working memory is devoted to a task when slots are available for input and attention or processing is directed to the slot. Attention directs sensory input, and it prevents a temporary memory from being erased. Novelty and salience affect attention. Humans can focus attention, and this mainly depends on concentration

When the trace is the same as a neural pattern already in long-term memory, the pattern is fired, and it is strengthened in the long-term memory. If this happens frequently, the pattern is further strengthened, and working memory recognizes it more quickly (called retrieval). When two sensory inputs are in working memory then stored in long-term memory, the two inputs will form a neural pattern. When one of inputs is retrieved, it fires the neuron of the other one because the neurons are chained together (matching). This function also occurs when more than two inputs are involved in the pattern. The fact that this can continue infinitely "is how our knowledge of things and concepts are built." In other words, "when one part of a chain is matched, the entire chain is activated because patterns are linked by chaining of neurons" (Pattern matching). Thus, with the help of long-term memory and chunking, "the amount of knowledge potentially available for processing in working memory can become quite large. . ." In sum, "learning is about connections."

Motivation affects working memory. Just because working memory slots are available does not mean they are being used. Working memory is substantially connected to and receives input from the emotions. Emotion affects attention and allocation of working memory. More specifically, "Motivation in working memory is derived from emotional inputs as well as from knowledge that has been stored about previous performance, goals, rewards, and ourself. These motivational influences determine the effort level that is put into learning."

Based on the model, these authors have developed five rules of learning:

1. New learning requires attention.

2. Learning requires repetition.

3. Learning is about connections.

4. Some learning is effortless; some requires effort.

5. Learning is learning.

I have applied this model to law teaching here.

(Scott Fruehwald)


| Permalink


Post a comment