Monday, November 25, 2019

The Practical Effect of Neuromyths and Cognitive Biases

Jim and I have been talking about educational neuromyths and cognitive biases on this blog the past couple of weeks.  Today, I would like to bring all this together by discussing the practical effect of neuromyths and cognitive biases.

The learning styles neuromyth: "Students learn best when they are taught according to their preferred learning styles."  No, they don't, as Jim showed here.  The problem with this neuromyth is that it causes students to adopt a limited learning mindset.  "I can only learn visually."  Students should be taught that all methods of learning are effective.  The more learning tools a student has the better learner she will be.  In fact, teachers should challenge their students and help them break away from their preferred mindsets.

Multitasking: That people can do several task at the same time.  No, multitasking hurts learning. (here)  Working memory requires full attention to a task.

That students can just passively absorb a lecture.  No, learning is an active activity.  Researchers have shown that students learn much more with active learning than passive learning.  (here at p. 117-20)  When students are listening to a lecture, they should take notes--take notes selectively, not like a tape recorder.  They should think about the material.  How does it relate to what I have previously learned?  What implications does this material have for other things?  Challenge the material and your professor.  Do I agree with the point?  Ask questions.  When studying, think how the material relates to what you already know.  Again, challenge the material.  Reflect on what you have learned.  Self-test yourself on the material.

Here are a few more pernicious educational neuromyths:

  • That listening to classical music helps learning
  • That one summative assessment at the end of the semester shows how well a student has done in the class
  • That the Socratic/case method is the best and only way to teach law students effectively
  • That students will become ethical lawyers if you just teach them the rules of ethics (here)
  • That students are stuck with the intelligence they had at birth (the fixed mindset)
  • That students don't need to learn practical skills in law school.  They can pick them up on the job.

Of course, pernicious neuromyths are not just limited to education; they affect our everyday lives.

That you can drive and use your cellphone at the same time.  No, no, no.  This relates to multitasking above.  Scientists have shown that humans have only limited attention.  A person who is driving should focus on driving.  Even a hands-free cellphone can be dangerous.  And, of course, this neuromyth has lead to many serious injuries and deaths.  I read recently that a woman had been sent to jail for several years for manslaughter because she killed someone while texting and driving.  The AAA says using a cellphone while driving is just as dangerous as drunken driving.

Here are a few others:

  • That smoking is not dangerous to my health
  • I know that driving drunk is dangerous, but I am a very good driver
  • I'm only going to the store for a few minutes; the kids will be safe
  • That someone who holds a political opinion different from me is a bad person
  • That every right-minded person thinks the same way I do
  • That vaccines cause autism

You can find a much more extensive discussion of neuromyths and cognitive biases in my books,

Understanding and Overcoming Cognitive Biases For Lawyers And Law Students: Becoming a Better Lawyer Through Cognitive Science (2018) and

How To Grow A Lawyer: A Guide for Law Schools, Law Professors, and Law Students (2018).

(Scott Fruehwald)

Please feel free to add additional neuromyths in the comments.



November 25, 2019 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Here's The Biggest Educational Neuromyth of All: Multitasking

Jim and I have been talking a lot about legal educational neuromyths on this blog recently.  Here is the biggest one: the effectiveness of multitasking. 

The reason multitasking is ineffective is that working memory is limited, and, consequently, humans must focus their attention on the main task.  Taking your attention away from the main task hurts your ability to do the main task, and the attention you devote to other tasks is superficial.

Multitasking can hurt your learning.  As one author (here) has recently declared, ""You may have heard that multitasking is bad for you, but studies show that it kills your performance and may even damage your brain. Every time you multitask you aren't just harming your performance in the moment; you may very well be damaging an area of your brain that's critical to your future success at work."

The author continued:

"You may have heard that multitasking is bad for you, but studies show that it kills your performance and may even damage your brain. Every time you multitask you aren't just harming your performance in the moment; you may very well be damaging an area of your brain that's critical to your future success at work.

Research conducted at Stanford University found that multitasking is less productive than doing a single thing at a time. The researchers found that people who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information cannot pay attention, recall information, or switch from one job to another as well as those who complete one task at a time.

They found that heavy multitaskers — those who multitask a lot and feel that it boosts their performance — were actually worse at multitasking than those who like to do a single thing at a time. The frequent multitaskers performed worse because they had more trouble organizing their thoughts and filtering out irrelevant information, and they were slower at switching from one task to another.

Multitasking reduces your efficiency and performance because your brain can only focus on one thing at a time. When you try to do two things at once, your brain lacks the capacity to perform both tasks successfully.

Research also shows that, in addition to slowing you down, multitasking lowers your IQ. A study at the University of London found that participants who multitasked during cognitive tasks experienced IQ score declines that were similar to what they'd expect if they had smoked marijuana or stayed up all night.

It was long believed that cognitive impairment from multitasking was temporary, but new research suggests otherwise."

Multitasking in meetings and other social settings indicates low Self- and Social Awareness, two emotional intelligence (EQ) skills that are critical to success at work."

The problems with multitasking are very relevant for legal education.  If a student doesn't devote her full attention to a class, she gets very little out of the class.  Learning is an active activity; a student cannot passively absorb a class with the mind being a sponge.  Similarly, when studying a student needs to devote his entire attention to the studying.  No texting or checking your cellphone every minute.  In fact, just listening to music hurts a students' ability to learn.  I love to listen to classical music, but I don't do so when I am working because it affects my ability to concentrate.

In sum, students would be much better learners, and get better grades, if they stopped multitasking.

(Scott Fruehwald)


November 24, 2019 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Another neuromyth bites the dust - this time it's font choice

Since the topic of neuromyths (and debunking them) seems to be popular these days (here, here and here) based on the passionate discussion they engender, here's another one to ponder, the idea that fonts affect reading ease. More specifically, the blog Shanahan on Literacy, written by Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chi­cago Timothy Shanahan who was also the Founding Di­rector of the UIC Center for Literacy, debunks the myth that certain specialty fonts which have become popular in recent years can help dyslexic children read better or more easily. Despite the popularity of these fonts with educators, Professor Shanahan points out that there is no empirical evidence to support their use. He also alludes to a larger point that most "print design alterations" have little effect on reading ability (though he does note that things like line-spacing and white space can affect readability). Indeed, he mentions a study involving dyslexic children that found using harder to read font actually improves comprehension and engagement with the text because it makes students work harder - a point I recall hearing elsewhere that's applicable to the general reading public. Professor Shanahan concludes his blog post by reminding everyone that teaching students to read is just plain hard work for students and teachers alike, an observation backed-up by cognitive psychologists like Professors Daniel Willingham and Steven Pinker, suggesting that many of these neuromyths may be driven by the wishful desire to find shortcuts to the otherwise hard work that classroom learning takes. 

Despite the above, however, it should be pointed out that one of the commenters to Professor Shanahan's blog post is a dyslexic reader who said things are not so cut and dried as the empirical data would suggest because he finds that font and color choice do indeed make reading easier for him under some circumstances. By way of another example, I require my students to use Arial 12 font because I've always thought it was easier on my eyes than Times New Roman when it comes to grading lots of papers. But perhaps that's just an aesthetic preference on my part rather than one based on any cognitive differences or benefits.  What sayeth you?


November 20, 2019 | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

The Single Reason Why People Can't Write, According to a Harvard Psychologist

I think the headline is overstating it, but this is an important reason why intelligent people don't write well--why they have trouble communicating with other intelligent people.  And, it's a cognitive bias.  As I told you yesterday, they are everywhere.  (here)

The Single Reason Why People Can't Write, According to a Harvard Psychologist by Glen Lebowitz, discussing a book by Steven Pinker.

Here's the subtitle:

"This common affliction is behind so much unclear and confusing writing in the world today."  That's better. 


"For Pinker, the root cause of so much bad writing is what he calls "the Curse of Knowledge", which he defines as "a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know. The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose."

The solution:

"How can we lift the curse of knowledge?" asks Pinker. "A considerate writer will...cultivate the habit of adding a few words of explanation to common technical terms, as in 'Arabidopsis, a flowering mustard plant,' rather than the bare 'Arabidopsis.' It's not just an act of magnanimity: A writer who explains technical terms can multiply her readership a thousandfold at the cost of a handful of characters, the literary equivalent of picking up hundred-dollar bills on the sidewalk."

"Readers will also thank a writer for the copious use of for example, as in, and such as, because an explanation without an example is little better than no explanation at all."

"Before hitting publish and sending your writing out to the world, it's better to be honest with yourself about how much your reader is likely to understand a given passage or sentence. Before you commit your writing to print-- or to the internet-- take a few moments to make sure that what you write is clear and understandable by as many of your intended readers as possible."

I treat the "curse of knowledge" in depth in Chapter Four in my book Understanding and Overcoming Cognitive Biases For Lawyers And Law Students: Becoming a Better Lawyer Through Cognitive Science (2018).

I strongly agree with everything in the article, except for the overstated headline, which Professor Pinker didn't write.

It is the role of the writer to communicate with the reader.  If an article is poorly-written, the reader will often just give up.  The writer needs to make sure that she writes so the reader can understand her.  She needs to consider the readers' education and background.  A Harvard physics professor may know nothing about Kant.

Legal writing professors talk a lot about audience when teaching.  A lawyer must always consider his audience.  When I was a lawyer, I sometimes wrote for an in-house counsel of a corporation, while other times I wrote for clients who just had a high school education.  A lawyer must write very differently for these audiences.

The same is true for other kinds of communication.  When teaching, a law professor must realize that her students are novices.  Novice law students do not have the same sophisticated cognitive machinery for law that law professors do.  In other words, law professors must slowly develop law students legal reasoning abilities.  For example, I advocate that first-year professors teach explicitly, rather than by "hiding the ball."  Also, law professors should teach their student mini reasoning skills--rule-based reasoning, reasoning by analogy, distinguishing arguments, synthesis, and policy-based reasoning.  Many law students graduate without truly understanding what "think like a lawyer" means.

I was very happy to read this article about Professor Pinker on how the curse of knowledge affects writing because it illustrates the practical importance of understanding and overcoming cognitive biases.

(Scott Fruehwald)  


November 19, 2019 | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, November 18, 2019

Cognitive Biases: Urine Tests, Legal Education Neuromyths, and Lawyers

There has been a lot published on cognitive biases, legal education, and lawyers over the last couple of months.  I decided to write a short article summarizing this material:

"Over the past few years, I have been studying cognitive biases, and now I see them everywhere. They are pervasive in both our public and private lives. They affect how we see politics, do our jobs, and relate to others. Understanding cognitive biases is especially important for legal educators and lawyers.

This article introduces cognitive biases, then shows how they affect medical decisions. The article then discusses cognitive biases in connection with legal education and lawyers."
(Scott Fruehwald)

November 18, 2019 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, November 15, 2019

Save the date! The Institute for Law Teaching and Learning's 2020 summer conference on "Hybrid and Online Legal Education"

It's coming June 11-13 at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law.  Be there!  Details on presentation applications and registration will be forthcoming (and posted on this blog) but for planning purposes, here are the basics you need to know:

Institute for Law Teaching and Learning—Summer 2020 Conference

Effective Instruction in Online and Hybrid Legal Education

June 11—13, 2020

University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law

Little Rock, Arkansas 

Conference Theme:  The future of legal education has arrived, with more and more law schools moving toward teaching part or all of their J.D. program online.  During this conference, we will explore how law professors can design and implement methods for teaching effectively in online environments, including both synchronous and asynchronous formats.  After an opening plenary examining data regarding the effectiveness of online education, the subsequent plenaries and concurrent workshops will address the following topics in the context of online and hybrid courses and programs:  course and program design, assessment of student learning, active learning and student engagement, teaching methods, providing feedback, and collaborative learning.

Conference Structure:  The conference will consist of three plenary sessions and a series of concurrent workshops that will take place on Thursday, June 11; Friday, June 12; and the morning of Saturday, June 13.  The conference will open with an informal reception on the evening of Wednesday, June 10.  Details about the conference will be available on the website of the Institute for Law Teaching and Learning, 

Registration Information:  The conference fee for participants is $285, which includes materials, meals during the conference (three breakfasts and three lunches), and the welcome reception on Wednesday, June 10.  The conference fee for presenters is $185.  Details regarding the registration process will be provided in future announcements.


November 15, 2019 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 11, 2019

The Continuing Importance of the Socratic Method

I have often criticized the use of the Socratic method in law school.  I think that this traditional method of law school teaching is overused and that professors often apply it in a superficial manner.  However, I also believe that proper use of the Socratic method is important in developing law students' legal reasoning and problem-solving abilities.  It should be refined and employed with other teaching methods, such as problem-solving exercises, formative assessment, and metacognitive questioning.

Last week, I discussed a section of Deborah L. Borman & Catherine Haras, Something Borrowed: Interdisciplinary Strategies for Legal Education for its debunking of legal education neuromyths, particularly learning style theory.  This article also has an important discussion of the continuing use of the Socratic method.

The authors write, "This criticism notwithstanding, the Socratic method employs many of the cognitive principles discussed in this paper: The Socratic method uniquely leverages prior knowledge, engages students in real-time practice and feedback, and incorporates testing as a social learning experience that is personally meaningful for students. Proponents generally agree that the Socratic method provides many benefits to teaching and learning, including the ability of professors to teach large bodies of students in an active manner; the development of cognitive skills, as in teaching students to “think like a lawyer”; the ability to help students hone their verbal communication skills; and proof that asking critical questions results in good analytical writing. The Socratic method at its best is an example of one education technique that law education does particularly well: teaching students to dialogue by increasing their self-awareness and practice. The Socratic method is a deeply metacognitive skill.

They continue, "as the conversation begins to explore disagreement and eventually becomes a dialogue, the aim is for disequilibrium, creating opportunities for renewed understanding that comes from difference. Disequilibrium brings new understanding to the topic under discussion, and at the conclusion of the dialogue equilibrium may again be restored. In an inquiry it is our disagreements as well as our agreements that shape the dialogue. In a dialogue, we aim for a renewed understanding that comes from exploring ideas in disequilibrium. In this process, we reconstruct our previous knowledge."

The authors then make a very important point, which is not usually discussed in connection with the application of the Socratic method: "Critical thinking is driven not by answers but by questions."  The authors add, "A focus on answers defies critical thinking. Answers often signal a full stop in thought. Only when an answer generates a further question does thought continue its life as such. That is why only students who ask questions are thinking and learning."

The authors then present a method of adding question formulation to the Socratic method.  I will let you read the details of their method in their article.

We have often stressed on this blog that, if law professors are going to continue to use the Socratic method, they need to do so in a more rigorous manner.  In their article, professors Borman and Haras have presented an innovative approach to doing this.

(Scott Fruehwald)

November 11, 2019 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Something Borrowed: Interdisciplinary Strategies for Legal Education by Deborah L. Borman & Catherine Haras

The Journal of Legal Education has just published an exciting new article by Deborah L. Borman & Catherine Haras:  Something Borrowed: Interdisciplinary Strategies for Legal Education.  There is a lot to this article, but, in this post, I want to concentrate on a section that we have often discussed on this blog: educational neuromyths.

They begin, "In this article, we posit that while some traditional law education strategies and techniques are historically successful in developing critical-thinking abilities, additional teaching and learning theory and practice methods borrowed from other education disciplines are necessary for students to transfer learning from school into practice.” (Note: my co-blogger, Jim Levy, would say that this has been my mantra since I joined this blog in 2011).

They continue, "The neuromyth most closely held by faculty is the one widely associated with the classroom, the theory of learning styles. . . . The premise of learning styles is this: Students learn best by their expressed preference for a learning mode, whether visual, auditory, or kinesthetic." "It is true both that people exhibit preferences for receiving information and do not process information more effectively when they are taught according to that preferred learning style. In other words, there is a difference between the way we prefer to receive information (often these are emotional/ noncognitive choices) and the way we actually learn. Learning styles are associated with subjective, not objective, aspects of learning. The preference for how people study is not a learning style but is based upon typing, also little supported from primary research.”

“In the thirty years since learning styles theory was propagated, the myth has mushroomed in scholarly publications, graduate curricula, posters, conference papers and workshops. Rigorous research has failed to demonstrate that learning styles affect learning. Individual learners show preferences for the mode in which they receive information (e.g., visual, auditory, kinesthetic) but learn no better when they receive information this way. Neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists alike widely pan the theory.” (I have left out the footnotes in the above. However, the points in the article are supported by rigorous research.)

“In 2018, the theory of learning styles continues to be disproved, just as the theories continue to be believed. The consensus among researchers and learning theorists is that we are often poor judges of our own learning, something to keep in mind when we resist disbelieving neuromyths.” “Unfortunately, Pandora’s box has been open for thirty years. Misconceptions about learning abound. Many of these have found their way into classrooms, if not teaching scholarship.” (For why, see here.)

The authors also discuss other neuromyths. “This incredible neural interconnectivity makes the ‘left brain-right brain’ theory of personality highly improbable and thus roundly debunked by neuroscientists.” Similarly, “The idea that people use only ten percent of their brains is also a neuromyth. One cognitive scientist writes that the idea is, in the first place, impractical: ‘Brain tissue is metabolically expensive both to grow and to run, and it strains credulity to think that evolution would have permitted squandering of resources on a scale necessary to build and maintain such a massively underutilized organ.’ The ubiquity of the ten percent myth probably comes from journalistic treatments of scientific papers by early researchers of brain function.”

Finally, "It is also tempting to believe that our students, most of them digital natives, learn differently from the people who grew up before the internet. This myth is also refuted by neuroscience. The learning difference may be a result of technological pressures, which have wrongly influenced public perceptions: that students of this generation somehow learn differently from their forebears and should be taught differently."

The authors conclude: “No wonder it is so hard to give up the fallacies. They are ubiquitous, having been insinuated into everyday jargon and practice, including law, reemerging as a kind of folklore. The fallacies have become, to some extent, part of every teacher’s prior knowledge. And like all lightly held, hasty ideas, these fallacies may keep us from making real change in our classrooms.”

Professors Borman and Heras have done a great service to legal education by debunking these neuromyths in such an important journal. Hopefully, in the future, legal educators will look to cognitive science when adopting new teaching methods, rather than unsupported fads. (There’s my mantra again, Jim.)

(Scott Fruehwald)

A last word from the article, "eminent education researcher John Hattie, writes: 'We are all visual learners, and we all are auditory learners, not just some of us.'"

November 7, 2019 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 4, 2019

Georgia to join majority of states that require lawyers to possess professional competence in technology use

Robert Ambrogi's always timely and informative LawSites blog is reporting that the Board of Governors of the Georgia Bar has voted to approve a change to the Rules of Professional Conduct that would mandate a duty of competence when it comes to a lawyer's use of technology.  The new rule is now open for public comment until December 1, 2019 at which point it will be submitted upon motion to the Georgia Supreme Court for approval. If adopted, Georgia will join 37 states, according to Mr. Ambrogi, that have embraced similar professional duties of technology competence. The proposed change to the state bar of Georgia's Rules of Professional Conduct states as follows:

Rule 1.1 Competence

Maintaining competence

[6] To maintain the requisite knowledge and skill, a lawyer should keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology, engage in continuing study and education, and comply with all continuing legal education requirements to which the lawyer is subject. (emphasis added)

Mr. Ambrogi has more details about a lawyer's professional duty of technology competence here.



November 4, 2019 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, November 1, 2019

The Anti-Vaccine Movement and Cognitive Biases

A major public health crisis has developed in this country because many parents wrongly believe that measles-mumps-rubella vaccines cause autism. This falsehood has caused a serious outbreak of measles in several parts of this country. This year (as of March 12), there has been at least 228 reported cases of measles, a potentially lethal disease, in the United States. WHO recently declared the anti-vaccine movement a top 10 health threat because of unnecessary measles outbreaks in several countries.

The anti-vaccine movement began in 1998 with a now withdrawn paper by discredited doctor Andrew Wakefield, which claimed a connection between childhood vaccinations and autism. Since the paper’s publication, numerous studies have confirmed the safety of MMR vaccines, while none have supported the paper’s conclusion.

Yet many parents, advocates, and professionals continue to claim that the MMR vaccine is unsafe. Why? The answer is cognitive biases–thinking errors that influence human decision-making and judgment. Copious information on the safety of vaccines by doctors, scientists, and the mass media has not been enough to eliminate the pernicious influence of the anti-vaccine myth. The public must be educated on how cognitive biases work and how they affect thinking to eliminate the anti-vaccine myth.

Cognitive scientists have made enormous advances in understanding how the human brain works, including how humans make cognitive errors. Human brains evolved just as physical characteristics did. Consequently, many of humans’ thinking processes developed for survival in primitive times. This process produced ways of thinking that are different from reality--cognitive biases.

According to Daniel Kahneman, humans use two types of thinking. System 1 is intuitive thinking, which operates automatically and controls the details of our lives, such as walking, eating, and driving. System 2 controls tasks that require conscious decision-making, such as buying a house, running a business, deciding whether to launch missiles. Cognitive biases occur when thinking relies uncritically on System 1 (intuition). So, anti-vaccinators are relying on their intuitions, which are unreliable, rather than conscious judgement, which is much more likely to reach the right conclusion.

The most important bias for the anti-vaccine myth is illusory correlation–assuming a connection between two unrelated events. (The individual perceives a cause and effect relationship when there is none.) With the autism myth, someone sees that a child with autism was vaccinated so she assumes that the vaccination caused the autism without any proof of a connection. This is like ancient man believing that a human sacrifice brought much needed rain.

Under the confirmation bias, people focus only on information that supports their position. For example, a person mentions five studies supporting her position, but ignores the ten studies that don’t. People also ignore faults with the studies that support their view. Anti-vaccinators only look for evidence that supports their position. In addition, this “evidence” is not based on scientific research, but on rumors and falsehoods.

Similarly, the Semmelweis reflex causes individuals to reject evidence that contradicts a strongly-held idea. Most Renaissance thinkers rejected Galileo’s observations because they were inconsistent with their strongly-held notion that the universe revolved around the Earth. Anti-vacinators ignore the avalanche of scientific evidence that demonstrates the safety of MMR vaccines because it contradicts their views on vaccines and autism.

Emotional reasoning was also important in creating the anti-vaccine myth. Emotional reasoning is allowing emotions to affect one’s interpretation of reality. Parents’ understandable need to protect their children caused them to let their emotions affect how they viewed vaccines.

Finally, the bandwagon effect helped spread the anti-vaccine myth. The bandwagon effect is the propensity to believe something because many other people do so. Social media has created a bandwagoning effect for the anti-vaccine myth.

How can we overcome cognitive biases, like those that created the anti-vaccine myth? First, many researchers believe just having knowledge of cognitive biases reduces their frequency. Second, slowing down one’s thinking can eliminate cognitive errors. With important decisions, you should check your System 1 intuitions with your System 2. Consider all evidence, even that which contradicts your ideas. Separate the objective from the subjective and avoid lazy thinking. Critically consider all reasonable alternatives. Add reflection and self-monitoring to your thinking processes. Create problem-solving strategies. Be able to explain your reasoning process. Consider the consequences of making a mistake. Third, don’t let emotions alter your thinking. Evaluate whether your decision is based on emotion or System 2 thinking. Fourth, understand that just because two events are connected in time does not mean that one event caused the other. Finally, exercises exist to help people overcome their cognitive biases.

It is tragic when parents learn their child is autistic. However, it does no good to blame the wrong cause (vaccines). The anti-vaccine myth only creates more problems by helping the spread of dangerous diseases.

(Scott Fruehwald)


November 1, 2019 | Permalink | Comments (0)