Your Brain, Law School, and Law Practice: Learning 101

How much do you know about the art and science of learning? 

Okay – pop quiz:

Which of the following statements is true?

a. Students have distinct learning styles, including auditory, kinetic, and visual.
b.  Humans use only 10% of their brain.
c.  Beliefs about intelligence can affect a student’s learning.
d.  All of the above.
e.  None of the above.

Think you have the right answer?  Read on and check.

Why care about how your brain learns?

If you are a law student or lawyer, you have spent (and will spend) hours mastering new subject areas.  It begins when you sit in Torts or Contracts for the first time in law school and you are concentrating on reading the cases and learning these new rules.  Then come more cases and rules, and as they pile up, you may find yourself sympathetic with a scene from the 1950’s sitcom “Lucy” where the title character makes a valiant effort to keep up with a fast moving conveyor belt of candy she must wrap.   Spoiler: the conveyor belt wins.

How can we win the fight against the continual onslaught of material we have to master whether it is for a class, a bar exam, or a new client? Graduate school and practice require us to be self-regulated learners, but the tools are not often explicitly taught.  Scientists have extracted some insights about the best ways to learn and study that may make you a more efficient and faster learner so you do not end up like Lucy.  Here are two techniques that produce results.

1.  Test Yourself Frequently

No need to wait for the teacher’s pop quiz or final.  Practice testing is an easy and effective way to learn material in the safety and security of your study space.  Close your book after you read the case and see if you can explain the material to yourself.  After class, look at your notes and try to articulate the concepts or arguments discussed.  If you can’t articulate the key points, well, you may need to take another look.  If you are leery of getting the reputation as the odd person that seems always to be mumbling about legal concepts, try working with a friend or study group.

This self-testing provides instant feedback on your progress and we have already talked about the value of feedback – it is a key component in gaining expertise.  Also, every time you practice retrieval, you consolidate your memory of the information

Many students test themselves with flash cards.  But be careful with flash cards.  Often these cards are focused on learning rules and law is about extracting rules, applying rules, and solving problems in a variety of situations.  So do not get too cozy with your cards. Your professors, the bar examiners, judges and juries are not satisfied with the recitation of a rule, but rather how it applies in a new situation.  Move on to higher levels of testing to learn what you actually need to know to practice law. Take practice tests from previous years in the class or sample questions from study guides.

Testing yourself with problems requires you to retrieve the rule, thus reinforcing it.  But more important, studies show that we learn better when we can attach meaning to the material.  That concept is especially important in law where abstract rules (Miranda warnings must be given to persons “in custody”) need concrete situations for understanding.   Thinking about the meaning with an actual problem (can you be “in custody” in your house, at the police station, or in jail on an unrelated offense?) will help you remember the rule and teach you how to apply it, a double learning bonus. 

The advantages of the testing method are:

1.  It is fast, efficient, and it works.

2.  It gives you immediate feedback on what you actually know, bursting that dreaded illusion of knowledge that can trip up the overly optimistic brain.

3.  The learning is durable.

2.  Space Study Over Time

You have probably heard this technique framed more colloquially – don’t cram for tests.  Cramming for a test is a poor way to learn material so that it sticks with you.  Fast in, fast out, as far as the brain is concerned.  Distributing your study over time is the better way to retain the fundamentals.  And committing the fundamentals to long term memory frees up your more limited working memory as you tackle more complex legal problems that need a certain level of basic knowledge.   

Studying ahead of time gives you the chance for repeated exposures.  You might not master the material in one session or two but you do not need mastery at each session.  Gaining familiarity with the concepts and terms pushes your knowledge further and makes the next session easier and more fruitful.

You might have heard this advice already, and even have good intentions about following it, but well, you just procrastinated too long and cramming becomes the only viable option.  More on a solution to the pesky problem of procrastination in a future post. 

Did you Get the Right Answer?

The correct answer to the pop quiz was (c).  Answer (a) is wrong.  Although many people believe that students have different learning styles – visual, oral, kinetic - there is no evidence to support this theory.  All humans learn best through a variety of methods.  Answer (b) is also a “neuro-myth.”  We use all of our brain and there is no free floating storage space.  There is evidence, however, that our mindset towards learning can influence how effectively we use our brains.  If students believe that the brain is capable of growth, understanding the brain’s plasticity, students are more motivated to put the work into learning.  If someone believes that intelligence and capability is “fixed,” however, they are more likely to give up and not put in the hard work and deal with the messy failures that learning requires.

Don’t worry if you got the wrong answer.  Give the quiz to someone else and see if you can explain why (c) is the right answer.  If you can explain it, you are more likely to remember something about your brain. 

Marybeth Herald is a law professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego and author of Your Brain and Law School (2014.)



I definitely agree with frequent testing. I think this is tougher to achieve after law school. I may regret saying this but I sometimes wish that more CLE courses would offer tests. Not tests that are graded, but tests that people can take and go over.

Julie Cummings

I like that you support your articles with scholarly journals. In your article this month, I learned how important it is for students to believe that the brain is capable of growth because then they will be more motivated to put the work into learning. Thanks for sharing your findings.


This was surprising to me, I always thought that some people learned better by doing, others by reading, etcetera.  “Although many people believe that students have different learning styles – visual, oral, kinetic - there is no evidence to support this theory. “ I love your posts!!

Bari Burke

Because there is so much talk currently about learning styles, I found your post especially valuable.  I plan to share it with my students.  Thank you.

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