By Marybeth Herald • February 05, 2016•Writers in Residence
The beginning of February brings us the annual celebration of Groundhog Day. If you barely took note of it this year, I understand your apathy. This dubious holiday is based on a nonsensical notion that a particular groundhog named Punxsutawney Phil in Pennsylvania can predict the length of winter. If you believe that, you might also be game for a flat earth day.
Although I do not buy into the weather prediction powers of a random rodent, I do appreciate that it was the inspiration of one of my favorite movies, appropriately titled “Groundhog Day.” For those of you who have not had the pleasure, the movie tells the story of grouchy weatherman Phil, played to comedic perfection by Bill Murray. Mysterious circumstances force Phil to live the same day repeatedly. Each morning, he hears the same alarm, and wakes to the same events, with the same people reciting the same script. As it dawns on him that he is doomed to repeat that day endlessly (and he frankly did not like it the first time he lived it), he feels despair over his inexplicable predicament. At first, his only consolation is that he can eat anything he wants and does not have to floss.
Gradually Phil begins to see things he missed the first few hundred times through the same day and improve his responses to the scenarios. He finally begins to get it right, becoming more kind, more empathetic, and generally less of the jerk he was in the beginning. He learns how to live a better life and finally wakes up to a new day as a wiser person. That is not a spoiler because the movie is all about the details of how he comes to find enlightenment on a funny and entertaining journey. So, if you haven’t seen the movie, it is worth a look.
A Movie about Learning Theory?
I will confess that most people just enjoy the movie. After all, it has a 96 % score on Rotten Tomatoes. I, however, see a parable about learning theory. When learning a new skill, such as legal analysis or negotiation, the key is to actively practice, get feedback, and alter your practice based on the feedback, and then practice again. That is how expert performers do it.
Phil, for example, took more than a few tries to connect with his producer and bumbled through many miscues until he finally understood how to relate to her. Real life does not offer unlimited opportunities. At some point, the object of our romantic interest might move on to a quicker study. In law school, there is usually a one-semester limit for learning particular material, and a legal case has a shelf life as well.
Shortening the Learning Curve
Phil might have sped up his process a bit if he had caught on to the game earlier. Understanding metacognition, a fancy word for thinking and learning about how we learn, can save time and aggravation. It means taking active control of your learning, including planning your approach, using tested tactics, and monitoring your progress. You don’t have to be an educational psychologist to engage in metacognitive strategies. Cut to the chase and read what the experts found after years of study.
Now you might not like the conclusions of these experts, but ignore them at your own risk. Many of the strategies, such as the one listed above – practice, get feedback, and practice again – may echo the advice that your piano teacher used to dole out. The reality is that active practice of the skill that you want to acquire is essential to learning it. I can passively watch a number of videos of champion marathoners, but unless I get out on the road and practice running, well, the result will not be pretty. In “Groundhog Day,” until Phil starting practicing his life skills, he was not hitting his potential.
Moreover, if you practice the wrong thing many times, you may just be acquiring a bad habit. That is why you need to get feedback on your performance. For law students, this may mean working on more old exams and then comparing your answers to the ones on file. When your professor spins one of those crazy hypotheticals in class, try to formulate your own answer even though another student might be the one in the spotlight. Those hypotheticals are step-by-step demonstrations of how to solve a problem. They give you practice applying the rules that you are learning.
As you practice, you may discover that you do not really know the rule well enough, or that while you may be able to recite the rule, applying it to different facts stopped you cold. This feedback is essential, because it will burst your illusion of knowledge. We often harbor optimistic illusions as to how fast and deep we are learning. Taking illusions into exams, negotiations, or trials can be devastating. Better to understand that you do not understand before the big day.
In “Groundhog Day,” Phil achieved a happy ending after repeated failures in his learning efforts. Unfortunately, failure is essential to learning. By adopting some expert learning strategies, however, your outcomes could be just as happy but much faster in coming. More on these strategies in my next post.
Marybeth Herald is a law professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego and author of Your Brain and Law School (2014.)