The Best Way to Succeed is through Failure

About a month ago, I had my first law school dream. I was in my Legal Research and Writing class and the teacher was slowly passing out our partial closed memos: the first real gauge of success or failure for 1Ls. My professor turned to me and winked, sliding my paper across the desk. I gathered my strength and craned my neck to peek at the grade: 31/30, an A++! The class applauded and I stood up to bow, knowing my hard work had paid off.

Fast forward to reality, and It’s not so rosy. Odds are, if you’re a 1L reading this, you probably didn’t get the grades you were looking for. But don’t be afraid! Academic failure, especially this early into a term, not only serves as practical motivation for the future, it can actually be the best way to learn.

In law school, it’s easy to fall into what psychologists call “fluency illusions”. Maybe it comes from highlighting a book, maybe it’s reading a pre-made outline over and over, but it’s a false sense of security. We think we know the material, but come test day, the illusion comes crashing down. Studies show that failing tests can be the best way to shatter these “fluency illusions”, paving the way to future success.

In Jennifer Reynold’s latest Civil Procedure class, she introduced a memorization contest: if your group could memorize ten rules of Civil Procedure, you were free to leave early. It was fun to see how different groups approached the same task of memorization. Some groups immediately started quizzing each other, others found rhyme schemes to recite, and yet others sat in silence, reading the rules over and over to help themselves memorize. So of all these, what does science say would be the best method? Turns out, it’s the one that allow you to fail.

According to Columbia University psychologist Arthur Gates, the ideal ratio of memorization to rehearsing is about ⅓. That is, for every minute you spend reading the material, spend two minutes attempting to recite it from memory. So even if you feel like you don’t understand the material yet, the simple attempt of trying to recite it from memory helps you to understand which rules you’ve actually memorized and which still need more focus. The early failures in memorization turn into quick acknowledgments of what one doesn’t yet know, leading to more efficient studying.

So what can you do if your professor gives only one test that serves as the compete grade for the term? In these cases, professors usually give examples of exams from previous years. Try to take them as if they’re a real test! According to science, learning to understand the pretest, and perhaps failing at it, can be the best way to succeed during a real test. So here’s to failure. Instead of shying away from it, let’s embrace failure as the powerful learning experience it truly is.

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