Can so-called “brain training” help law students?

The results of a pilot project at Texas Tech University School of Law suggest so. First-year law students who went through several training sessions on how to improve their executive functions were better able to interpret information, identify key information and express big picture concepts, according to a new paper on the study.

“If a lawyer’s brain is the lawyer’s main tool, it’s critical that we teach students how to use that tool effectively,” wrote former Texas Tech law dean Darby Dickerson, who is now dean at John Marshall Law School in Chicago. “Brain training is the missing gap in our program of legal education, and appears to be the key to helping students achieve their full potential. It can help them successfully complete the academic program, pass the bar examination, and build a successful life and career.”

Texas Tech launched the pilot in the fall of 2015 in partnership with the Dallas-based Center for Brain Health. During orientation, the new students learned about basic neuroscience concepts and the role of the brain’s frontal lobe, which is often referred to as the command center. The clinicians from the Center on Brain Health then led multiple small-group sessions where students were exposed to strategies intended to improve their ability to focus; their ability to zoom in on key information and place that information into the bigger picture; and their ability to update their ideas and perspectives in light of new information.

The students were given nine basic strategies to follow, and were provided opportunities to put those strategies into action during the small group sessions.  Among the strategies were:

  • Identify two top priorities for each day
  • Do just one task at a time
  • Zoom in on the most critical facts and information
  • Zoom out to place information into a broader context

Clinicians from the Center on Brain Health tailored some of the training materials to the law student audience. For instance, some of small session exercises involved quickly reading legal cases and identifying, distilling and efficiently explaining the issues at play and how that legal concept can be widely applied.

Following the mandatory orientation training, the first-year students also completed a “booster session” 30 days later.

Student feedback was mixed. Some commented that the training helped them to synthesize cases batter, helped them develop better study habits, helped them to stop multitasking, and helped them to identify priorities. Others said that some of the strategies offered were unrealistic and that the training sessions were too long.

But assessments of the students before and after their brain training sessions concluded that they had a positive effect. Observers found that the students demonstrated an improved ability to express big-picture lessons and recall details within a lengthy text, according to Darby. The students were also better able to interpret information and prioritize the most important information while blocking out less important information, the researchers found.

Further study is needed to determine the long-term value of brain training at law schools, Darby wrote, but the early signs are promising.

“To develop a successful program, law schools must make a long-term commitment and collaborate with trained neuroscientists and clinicians,” she wrote. “They must be willing to integrate brain training throughout a student’s legal education, not just at one or two points.”