Memo: Learning How to Learn

[ Mara Masters, 1L at Emory Law ]

We are in the throes of Open Memo Season at my law school.

Everyone has a ghostly absence behind their eyes. The doctrinal professors have been perfecting their comedy routines in an attempt to cheer everyone up.

 Sisyphus Pushing rock uphillAs the process of writing has gone on, I have been surprised at how frequently I have heard very organized, very proactive students telling me how many all-nighters they have pulled trying to finish. I thought it was just me who had been working diligently and ahead of schedule. Yet, I still got slammed by the Sisyphean disappointment of perpetually feeling like I was getting closer to the finish line only to realize that the more work I completed, the farther away from being done I felt.

In typical Mara fashion, I procrastinated on finishing my memo by researching why I couldn’t finish my memo. Here’s what I learned: It’s so difficult in part because it is metacognitive reprogramming.

Metacognitive Reprogramming is as complicated of a process as it sounds, neurologically speaking. Though, as a framework for understanding why 1L is so stinking hard, it’s pretty simple. As we learn new information and build new processes of learning, our brains are making new neural pathways. In other words, we are utilizing a significant amount of unconscious mental energy trying to learn how to learn.

Here’s an example of what that looks like.

I spent more hours than I care to admit reading and rereading my cases in preparation to write my memo. I made a very thorough outline (15 pages long, folks), and a detailed step-by-step plan. This was my long-perfected method for tackling complicated writing assignments and it served me well through undergrad and masters programs. But it failed me when it came to the open memo because I underestimated the amount of time and energy it would take to translate all of that work into a cogent, organized, 20-page analysis of a legal issue. If you asked me to explain all of the nuances of the issues to you, I could, but I struggled so hard to translate my understanding of the situation into a product that still felt foreign to me.

If you’ve never written an open memo, or researched on Westlaw or Lexis, or analyzed full court decisions on your own, you are learning how to do those things at the exact same time that you are being expected to do them. I don’t see this cognitive overburdening as a flaw in legal education. In fact, like difficult exercise that tears down muscle before it rebuilds it, this process is important for learning new concepts. The flaw that I see in legal education is that we interact with assignments like the open memo as though this process was not happening, and then we have nothing to attribute our seemingly over-taxed minds to, except that we are incapable or unintelligent.

So then what do we do about it?

First, give yourself a break. You are bright and capable, and you need to preserve the energy you are expending on doubting yourself to do your work. Get some sleep. Drink some water. Eat a snack. This is not only important for your mental and physical health, but also helps to boost cognition. A recent study found that when people were dehydrated, they made about 12% more mistakes than when they were not.

Second, try to give yourself rest days. Just like working out your biceps every day will be counterproductive, if you work nonstop on the same task, your brain will get fatigued and be a puddle of mush instead of a brain. If you can’t afford a whole day off every week, build break times into your daily schedule. I apologize for all of the exercise metaphors here, but analogies are also metacognitive tools that help us tie new knowledge to preexisting knowledge (this is called neural reuse), which makes it easier to understand and harder to forget!

Giving your brain time to rest also allows it to catalog short term memory into long-term memory. Sleep is a huge part of this as well. Don’t skimp out on sleep. Lack of sleep weakens your cognitive abilities. It makes work more difficult and slower. It makes you feel like you need to skip more sleep in order to finish everything. It’s a vicious cycle. Just go to bed.