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Metacognition for Law Students

Dawn K Young

Metacognition for Law Students
imaginima via iStock

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If you are a law student, chances are you have come across that long-standing legal education motto: “In law school, you will learn how to think like a lawyer.” As a first-year student, you are taking doctrinal and legal writing courses to help you learn substantive law and employ logic to construct arguments. As an upper-class student, you are probably taking a clinical, experiential, or trial advocacy course (in addition to doctrinal courses) to develop your lawyering skills. Indeed, these cognitive-focused and skills-orientated courses are the hallmark of what law school is all about.

However, in learning, as in professional practice, substantive knowledge (doctrine) or procedural knowledge (skills training) alone are insufficient for self-directed growth. If you did not do as well on your exams as you hoped, you will need to commit to learning.You will need to understand how you learn so that it translates to self-directed improvement.

What Is Metacognition?

In recent years, educators and the bar have recognized that metacognition skills are important for exam performance and lifelong logic and reasoning. But don’t take my word for it. The Carnegie Report and the American Bar Association have also emphasized the value of striving to be self-reflective, self-regulated learners in law school and practice.

[T]he essential goal of professional schools must be to form practitioners who are aware of what it takes to become competent in their chosen domain and to equip them with the reflective capacity and motivation to pursue genuine expertise. They must become “metacognitive” about their own learning.—The Carnegie Report

For the purposes of Standard 302(d)….professional skills…include skills such as, interviewing, counseling, negotiation, fact development and analysis, trial practice, document drafting, conflict resolution, organization and management of legal work, collaboration, cultural competency, and self-evaluation.—ABA Interpretation 302-1

Often described informally as “thinking about how you think and learn,” metacognition involves: (1) the awareness of what you bring to the learning experience (awareness of your own personal resources—your cognitive knowledge) and (2) the ongoing process of actively planning, monitoring, evaluating, and creating learning strategies to complete a particular task (regulation of your learning).

The key to metacognition is continually asking yourself self-reflective questions throughout the learning process. This allows you to take inventory of the learning tasks involved, discover what’s working and what’s not, and actively monitor and adjust your cognitive processes to gauge if you have truly mastered the material. It is about being aware and in control of your cognitive processes to improve the quality and effectiveness of your learning.

How to Integrate Metacognition to Improve Grades

If you spend a lot of time studying but feel like your countless hours of hard work have yet to help you on exams, it is time to take a good look at your study habits. By incorporating metacognition into your study routine regularly, you can improve. In Expert Learning for Law Students, authors Michael Schwartz and Paula Manning recommend that students engage in the “self-regulated learning cycle”—a cycle consisting of 3 phases:

  1. the planning phase,
  2. the monitoring and implementing phase, and
  3. the evaluating phase.

If we take a closer look at each phase, the cycle can best be understood as a series of steps:

Step 1: Get in the Right Mindset

Your mindset matters when you engage in a learning task because it drives you throughout the learning process. If you believe that you can master an academic task through deliberate practice and strategic effort, you will persist when you encounter setbacks or even when you fail. However, if you believe that your intelligence and abilities are set in stone and are things you cannot change (e.g., “I’ve always been bad at writing,” “Everyone here is naturally smarter than me,” or “I just don’t get constitutional law.”), you may hold yourself back by selecting tasks that are easy for you. This will limit your learning.

Students who embrace a growth mindset, first conceived by Stanford Professor Carol Dweck, believe that their most basic abilities and intelligence can be developed through purposeful effort, good strategies, and input from others. Their mindset leads them to take on challenges, work effectively, and persevere in the face of struggle. Expert learners understand that brains and talent—the abilities they were born with—are just the starting point. Expert learners understand that setbacks in the learning process are a necessary part of growth.

Studies show that mindset is malleable. All of us oscillate between fixed and growth mindsets, but we can become more growth minded over time.When you are confronted with an academic task, pause. Take some time to figure out where your mindset is. For example, if you are in class and not following the civil procedure lecture, or do not understand your professor’s comments on a legal writing assignment, recognize that you can manage your fixed mindset and develop strategies to help shift out of your fixed mindset thinking.

To illustrate, your self-talk could look like this:

  • I can do better. I may not understand the court’s rationale in Pennoyer v. Neff right now, but I will.
  • I can improve my legal writing. I just need to master the CREAC paradigm fully.

Step 2: Plan Your Learning Task

Once you are in the right mindset for your learning task, the second step involves planning and preparation. This is, essentially, all the thinking you need to do before performing your task. Often, students dismiss this step because they believe it is just “thinking about what they have to do” (eye roll—isn't that a time waster?). Don’t be tricked. It is a crucial step because you are figuring out what you need to learn and how you will go about doing it. According to Schwartz and Manning, there are five metacognitive questions you can ask yourself as you plan your learning task:

Question 1: What is the task that’s required of me?

At the beginning of any learning task, all students ask this obvious question. Expert learners, however, frequently make conscious, thoughtful decisions when answering this question.

Let’s say your criminal law syllabus states the following:

Week 2            Actus Reus      pp. 86-117

Week 3            Mens Rea        pp. 119-140

Week 4            Quiz #1

When you look at these typical entries in a law school syllabus, it is clear that you will need to read specific pages in your casebook and prepare for the quiz that will take place in week four. However, many students get so wrapped up in the day-to-day grind of reading for class that they fail to engage in the necessary activities to prepare for a quiz, midterm, or exam. As you know, professors do not schedule in time for preparation activities. They expect students to schedule critical test-prepping activities on their own.

Question 2: How should I classify this task?

Not all learning tasks are alike. In law school, you are required to engage in multiple tasks every day, so classifying your learning tasks can help you select the most effective learning strategies.

Suppose your contracts professor assigns two cases to read (the task). Reading and briefing these cases will require you to engage in different learning strategies, such as:

  • Reading comprehension (skimming the text before reading; actively engaging with and responding to the text)
  • Synthesis (moving into the text in an evaluative manner; making sense of the two cases; extracting rules from each case, and evaluating the rules collectively to create a governing rule)
  • Organizing concepts/cognitive schema (outlining the rules to understand the relationships between concepts)

Question 3: What is my higher motivational goal for this task?

Research shows that when students develop intrinsic motives for learning—when they engage not just for external reward (e.g., good grades, course credits, an interview with a prestigious firm) but because they find the learning task itself interesting and enjoyable—they are more likely to attach meaning to their studies. When students enjoy learning for its own sake, they outperform those with lower academic intrinsic motivation.

Expert learners consciously create interest in learning tasks (even the tedious ones) because they figure out why they are important for the course and their future. In other words, they self-motivate by focusing on their higher goals.

For instance, you could ask yourself:

  • How will mastering this task help me to become a lawyer?
  • Even though I’m in law school to fulfill my dream of becoming a public defender, I will develop an interest in my contracts course because (1) it’s important for all lawyers to have a basic understanding of contracts law because we enter contracts every day (e.g., contracts to buy a cup of coffee, to buy a home, to get medical treatment), and (2) criminal lawyers often sign contracts with their clients and employers (the district attorney’s or public defender’s offices).
  • I just have a love for learning and revel in academic challenges!

Question 4: What are my learning goals when planning for this task?

Expert learners establish learning goals focused on learning the material instead of being preoccupied with just getting it done. They understand the importance of setting specific “mastery” learning goals that are concrete, short-term, and achievable. For example, instead of stating your learning goal like this: “I will learn the rules related to personal jurisdiction,” try rephrasing your goal so that it is more specific and concrete.

An expert learner may state their learning goal like this:

  • By Friday afternoon, I will identify all the ways in which a defendant has sufficient minimum contacts with the forum state to justify forcing him to defend a lawsuit in that state. I will paraphrase the rules from my casebook and class notes in my own words and then enter them in my civil procedure outline.
  • On Saturday morning, I will work through four short hypos I’ve agreed to work on with my study group to solidify my understanding of the “minimum contacts test.” Then, I will meet with my study group to review and compare our answers.

Question 5: What strategies will I select to reach my learning goal?

Expert learners select and tailor specific strategies or techniques to help them achieve their learning goal. They do this by deciding which cognitive techniques they will use to learn and which motivational techniques they will use to maintain focus when learning gets difficult.

Cognitive techniques. Because cognitive techniques are so varied and task-dependent, you should focus on how you learn best. What is your preferred learning style? The following is a list of the most common learning style classifications:

  • Visual learners prefer to “see” concepts. They like all forms of visuals, such as flowcharts, concept maps, and charts.
  • Auditory learners prefer to learn from hearing. They enjoy listening to lectures and class discussions. They enjoy participating in discussions to flesh out their ideas.
  • Read/write learners prefer to learn through the written text. They like to learn through reading and often express themselves in writing.
  • Kinesthetic learners prefer to learn by doing. They often learn best through the experience of applying what they are learning.
  • Multi-modal learners may prefer a combination of these learning styles. They prefer using multiple strategies to absorb information.

Motivational techniques. Motivation is what can help students maintain their attention and behavior. It also gives them the energy needed to lead learning tasks to completion and helps them sustain activities over time. Using motivational techniques is especially helpful for students when they face burnout.

Strategies to increase motivation are largely a matter of personal preference, but here are some examples of what expert learners have found helpful:

  • Create small rewards for yourself as you complete certain steps in the learning process (e.g., a walk to the coffee shop, a short workout, or a phone call with a friend).
  • Cultivate affirming self-talk. (e.g., quotes, mantras, Bible verses, or passages of wisdom can help you inspire you to refocus)

Step 3: Perform Your Learning Task and Self-Monitor

The third step in the “self-regulated learning cycle” is the performance phase, where learners do the work they have been planning. This involves tracking your attention. For example, have you ever experienced reading a page in your casebook repeatedly, only to realize you have no idea what is going on? If yes, you have engaged in what Schwartz and Manning call “pseudo-studying”—participating in an activity that looks like studying but really is the result of poor attention monitoring. So, what can you do to focus your attention?

You could create a short checklist on a small pad of paper (not your computer) that indicates your immediate to-dos during your study time in the law library, your room, or wherever you are studying. The physical act of crossing each item off your list can bring a sense of personal satisfaction as you complete each task.

To illustrate, your list could state: “First, I will read and brief Marbury v. Madison for constitutional law. Second, I will review Prof. West’s comments in my appellate brief again and then fine-tune the analysis in my second CREAC. Third, I will...” By having this short checklist nearby, you will start to build momentum and sustain your motivation. You can even jot down your own mini reward for getting items one and two crossed off and completed.

Expert learners not only perform their learning tasks, they actively and accurately self-monitor learning. Expert learners closely assess whether they know the material by incorporating self-testing as an integral part of their study sessions. For example, they frequently apply the concepts they have just learned by doing practice problems and multiple-choice questions—they get their hands on anything that asks them to summon their knowledge and check if it is correct.

Expert learners also monitor and evaluate whether they are being efficient with their time. While they study, they keep their eyes on the clock and ask whether they need to streamline their activities to be more efficient.

Lastly, expert learners identify deficiencies in their comprehension and know when to ask for help. I once asked a teaching assistant (a high-performing student who was top 1 percent of his class) if he could share his number one “secret to academic success,” and he replied:

I absolutely took advantage of almost every available resource the law school provided—whether it was attending academic success workshops, meeting with my professors, asking for help from teaching assistants, and talking through the material with my study group. I never let a week go by without me fully understanding the concepts.

Step 4: Take Some Time to Self-reflect on the Learning Experience

Reflection is the act of looking back to process experiences. It involves reflecting on your learning experiences to facilitate more effective and fulfilling metacognition in the future. In other words, it is about looking back and reflecting on the strategies, tools, resources, and processes that were or were not helpful in achieving your desired outcome.

One way to self-reflect is to assess the learning experience with specific criteria. For example, after learning new material, you could ask yourself the following questions:

  • After testing myself on the concept with practice problems, how well did I perform? Engage inopportunities to test your knowledge because it is the best way to gauge mastery of the material. As mentioned before, expert learners take advantage of as many resources as they can get their hands on. Whether taking optional practice exams, exercises, or problems or seeking help from professors or classmates, expert learners are eager to obtain an external, objective evaluation of their efforts.
  • How well did I learn this concept? Did I master it? Be honest with yourself. What was the depth of your knowledge of the concept? Did you understand it on a deep level, or did you understand it on a surface level?
  • Did I make efficient use of my time? Should I increase or decrease the time I spend on this task in the future? Law students have a limited amount of time and are required to engage in multiple tasks day-to-day, so assess whether you learned the concept as quickly and efficiently as possible.


After evaluating your learning task, explain why you did or did not perform well. If you did not master the concept because you failed to put forth sufficient effort or selected the wrong learning technique(s), it is time to try again with some adjustments. Be patient with yourself. It is common to go through several cycles and multiple instances of trial and error, struggle, and failure. That is how you will improve!

In sum, by going through each stage in the “self-regulated learning cycle,” you are actively using your metacognitive skills (e.g., thinking about your thinking) throughout the learning experience and taking control of your learning. Remember, poor academic outcomes are fixable. Bad grades or negative feedback are not the result of your poor ability or intellect but are due to correctable causes. But you need to figure out what went wrong and put forth the effort.