True North: Navigating for the Transfer of Learning in Legal Education

81 Pages Posted: 27 Sep 2009 Last revised: 13 Dec 2012

See all articles by Tonya Kowalski

Tonya Kowalski

Washburn University School of Law

Date Written: February 17, 2010


As lifelong learners, we all know the feelings of discomfort and bewilderment that can come from being asked to apply existing skills in a completely new situation. As legal educators, we have also experienced the frustration that comes from watching our students struggle to identify and transfer skills from one learning environment to another. For example, a first-semester law student who learns to analogize case law to a fact pattern in a legal writing problem typically will not see the deeper applications for those skills in a law school essay exam several weeks later. Similarly, when law students learn how an equitable doctrine like unclean hands applies to a particular torts problem in one class, only the smallest percentage will then see the potential application for the doctrine in a contracts course with another professor. Fortunately, research in “transfer of learning” offers the legal academy tools to help students encode knowledge – whether doctrine or skills – in such a way that they know better when and how to retrieve it for later use.

This Article is the first to offer legal educators a comprehensive approach to the transfer of learning across the entire curriculum. It is also the first to propose that law schools should employ maps based on schema theory to help students encode knowledge for future transfer, as well as to conceptually integrate their courses. This approach uses meta-schema based on core lawyering skills - in both their abstract and applied forms - in order to help students attain a basic sense of orientation and to know how particular skills will manifest, depending on the contexts in which they are used. This “Core Skills Approach” then goes beyond the use of maps to encourage students to use maneuvers, including a wide array of transfer strategies, to cue previous knowledge across the conceptual bridges that span the distance between school and practice.

Keywords: transfer, transfer of learning, legal education, schema, metacognition, curriculum, legal writing, law clinic, academic support, active learning, lawyering skills, metacognitive, transfer of knowledge, transfer of training, critical thinking, generalizability, motivation, legal skills, humanizing

Suggested Citation

Kowalski, Tonya, True North: Navigating for the Transfer of Learning in Legal Education (February 17, 2010). Seattle University Law Review, Vol. 34, No. 1, 2010, Available at SSRN:

Tonya Kowalski (Contact Author)

Washburn University School of Law ( email )

1700 College Avenue
Topeka, KS 66621
United States


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