Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Recent Scholarship on Law Student Learning

A Rutgers Law School colleague, Professor Eugene Mazo, recently gave an informative presentation about the latest scholarship on law student learning as part of a faculty pedagogy workshop.  The handout he distributed was both illuminating and validating for many of us who teach students that recently completed their undergraduate degrees. 

Some key takeaways from Professor Mazo's presentation are below.  His literature review can be downloaded at Teaching Workshop Literature Review.

Jennifer Cooper, Smarter Law Learning: Using Cognitive Science to Maximize Law Learning, 44 Cap. U. L. Rev. 551 (2016).

Asserts that law schools are inheriting academically adrift students with weak critical thinking, problem solving, and writing skills because these students were not challenged by sufficiently rigorous reading and writing requirements in their undergraduate studies. The article reviews cognitive science research to recommend strategies to improve law student learning.


  • Many students entering law school lack strong critical thinking skills for legal educators to build on. Compared to previous populations, these students often have poor and ineffective study habits, weak critical thinking and writing skills, and are less academically prepared for law study.
  • “Academically adrift with illusions of competence.” These students have “illusions of competence” in their reading, writing, and study habits, leading them to rely on improvised and ineffective study strategies.
  • Law schools have been slow to adapt—expecting to educate modern students with same strategies of the past even though undergraduate studies are not adequately preparing them.
  • Students enter universities not only poorly prepared for the academic tasks but also with attitudes, norms, and behaviors that are counterproductive to academic commitments. Despite their lack of preparation, students arrive at colleges and universities with strong convictions about their abilities and with illusions of competence. These students have high academic expectations and professional ambitions but fail to realistically appreciate the necessary steps to achieve their goals.
  • Ineffective study strategies commonly used by students are passive: re-reading, highlighting, memorizing. Problem is that repetition and re-reading (as with memorizing a course outline) create an illusion of fluency: the belief that if information is familiar and easy to recall, then it is well-learned.
  • Re-reading/memorizing also creates the illusion of mastery of the underlying ideas. Fluency lulls learners into believing they learned and understood the material. “Information that is easy to process is judged to have been learned well.” This also leads students to prematurely terminate studying.
  • Retrieval and self-testing destroy the illusions of fluency, competency, and mastery.
  • Because students are unaware of the ineffectiveness of their selected study behaviors, they remain committed to poor study habits—they cannot gauge their own learning.
  • Students therefore need direct, explicit instruction on effective learning strategies.
  • Targeted instruction on learning methods leads to substantial improvement in academic performance.


Rebecca Flanagan, The Kids Aren’t Alright: Rethinking The Law Student Skills Deficit, 2015 BYU Educ. & L.J. 135 (2015).

Research suggests that incoming law students are less prepared than previous generations of law students. Undergraduate education has changed over the last forty years. Many of today’s college graduates do not have the fundamental thinking and reasoning skills necessary to master the law school curriculum. Law schools can no longer assume all students enter post-graduate legal training with the academic preparation, proficiency in critical thinking, or time management skills necessary to master “thinking like a lawyer.”


  • College students spend less time studying during their undergraduate years. College students expect higher grades with considerably less effort than previous generations. However, there is little institutional evidence law schools have been aware of the empirical research on the decline in skills acquisition at the undergraduate level.
  • Success in law school requires at least two hours of reading for each hour of class time. Full-time law students need to spend at least thirty hours a week preparing for class. Students who are used to studying less than five hours a week during their undergraduate years are going to be have a rougher adjustment to the thirty hours of reading time required to keep up with law school classwork, and will have an even more difficult adjustment to the outlining, practice exams, and study group work that requires an additional five to seven hours week.
  • Students have a “customer orientation.” The change from student-as-learner to student-as-customer has strong negative implications for motivation and personal investment in the learning process. The consumer orientation, and corresponding extrinsic motivations, “radically alters” the fundamental nature of education. Students no longer see themselves as partners in a relationship designed to further growth; consumer orientation frames the relationship between student and teacher as customer and service provider, with the customer expecting satisfaction.
  • Students who view education as an economic transaction become preoccupied with their GPA, sacrificing “deeper, critical analytic learning” in pursuit of a credential they can exchange on the market. Students expect “to be given high grades in return for paying tuition and showing up.”
  • Because an essential element of legal education is the ability to “grapple with uncertainty in order to develop professional judgment,” college student’s consumer orientation leaves them unprepared for the pedagogical challenges they must face as law students.
  • Grade inflation at the undergraduate level has a role in the decline of study time, reduced learning, and student under-preparedness, because students no longer need to study long hours to earn respectable grades. Students, accustomed to very high grades in return for little work during their undergraduate careers, are unprepared for the amount of work required to receive a passing grade in a law school class. Adding to students’ frustration, they have not gained the fundamental thinking skills necessary to master the more complex reasoning and analysis law school requires to earn the grades they are accustomed to receiving.
  • The lack of rigor in the undergraduate curriculum lulls students into a false sense of competency. Students who have only received A’s and B’s, through little effort, are unprepared for the challenge of law school academics. Students are less likely to understand that being admitted to law school is not enough to succeed in law school.

A literature review can be downloaded at Teaching Workshop Literature Review.

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Very useful. The "consumer" mind set is especially challenging for faculty who face credibiity challenges because of color or gender. It takes courage to abandon "banking" methods (giving students facts to hoard) and teach experientially.

Posted by: Peggy Cooper Davis | Jan 3, 2019 10:08:03 AM

Such a wonderful piece of writing! Really appreciate it! Thanks for the encouragement.

Posted by: Neillie Craig | Jan 5, 2019 5:20:36 AM

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