Paul L. Caron

Friday, August 2, 2019

Learning Theory And The Law: Spaced Retrieval And The Law School Curriculum

Brian Sites (Barry), Learning Theory and the Law: Spaced Retrieval and the Law School Curriculum, 43 Law & Psychol. Rev. 99 (2019):

Over one hundred years of learning theory endorse a core learning method and its component parts, and studies in a variety of disciplines and settings have repeatedly verified their supremacy as learning tools. Yet law schools largely make no use of them. One of the schools that does, however, reported a 19.2% increase in bar passage among students using it; and another law school cited it as a pivotal component of its multiple top bar scores in a state with a dozen law schools (many of which have similar or higher predictors).s Yet the typical law school curriculum ignores it, the traditional law classroom makes little use of it, and innumerable law students-who often do not know about or use the theory-are led instead down the opposite path by professors. This article advocates for changing these mistakes.

The learning tool at issue is spaced retrieval. Studies have shown that spaced retrieval and its component parts, spaced repetition and retrieval theory, lead to better, more durable learning. Their value has been established in a variety of educational settings ranging from middle school to medical school, and from the study of mathemtics to Monet. Further, reported improvements exceed a letter grade increase. What student wouldn't desire a letter grade improvement in learning mastery (even if the curve prevented an actual letter grade increase)? What law school wouldn't want to see something in the range of a ten percent increase in bar exam scores?

Not all educators ignore this approach, and other disciplines have already tapped into its power. For example, many in the medical field (including medical students, residents, and doctors in practice) use spaced retrieval, as do many STEM programs. But how is it that, despite decades of empirical study validating these tools, and other fields coming to the table in growing numbers, law schools are once again late to the learning theory party?'

Unfortunately, legal academia is a central part of this problem. Many law professors, myself included, have looked too little at the science of learning and how learning theory studies should affect classroom behavior. In the legal field, there is underproduced empirical evidence validating adopted educational approaches. For example, where are the decades of studies supporting (or even studying) the "one final exam" law school model?' Institutionally, we too rarely promote such studies" and also too rarely tap into the fields that have already produced a wealth of such knowledge.

This is not a matter of blame but of responsibility. We owe it to students to do better. Until recently, I did not recognize the power of spaced retrieval. But the mountain of studies validating it demand attention. Around the same time Langdell was popularizing the case method, cognitive science and learning theory were already establishing the validity of spaced repetition; we have overlooked these tools for far too long.

Nearly any law school course can be designed to both capitalize on spaced retrieval in-class and foster its use outside of class. Neither change requires significant revision to a typical course, and faculty can adopt or draw from a wide variety of resources to simplify the process. But even if massive change is required, the benefits accruing to students warrant such modifications. Further, those benefits will aid the law school through better alumni performance on bar exams, the MPRE, and potentially increased success in practice. As law schools adopt spaced retrieval more fully, those benefits will grow proportionately.

This article advocates for formally integrating spaced retrieval into the law school curriculum. Part I demonstrates that spaced retrieval has been well established and examines the studies supporting it and its component parts, spaced repetition and retrieval theory. Part I also includes details about the myriad of studies demonstrating spaced retrieval's effectiveness. This article departs from the path of other spaced retrieval articles by demonstrating the strength of spaced retrieval research to thereby facilitate the adoption of spaced retrieval into the law school curriculum. Finally, Part II describes ways to apply spaced retrieval in the law school curriculum. A list of classroom exercises, experiential learning tools, and potential assessments that facilitate the goal is available online.'

Gabe Teninbaum (Suffolk), Here's the Best Way to Learn:

What’s the best method for students and professionals to remember more and score higher on the bar and other important exams? It turns out, scientists have an answer: spaced repetition. That’s according to the New England Journal of Medicineand American Psychological Association. These findings confirm hundreds of peer-reviewed, published studies, as well as the best-selling book on learning theory, Make it Stick, which touts the method. 

If you’ve never heard of spaced repetition, there’s a reason for that: it’s never been applied to legal education before now, or, for the most part, anywhere. That’s because, although it has been studied and understood for more than a century, using it outside of a lab only became feasible with the invention of smartphones. 

Even though spaced repetition has barely penetrated legal education, this isn’t to say it hasn’t been used elsewhere: medical students have been shown to remember about three times as much information when preparing for the medical boards if they use spaced repetition instead of traditional techniques. This has, in turn, prompted attention in publications like the New York Times and the Harvard Business Review, among others. ...

Maximizing the likelihood of passing the bar requires law students to work hard, and more. When it comes to identifying the tool that will most effectively help them, the science is clear: Spaced repetition makes people learn more than any other technique.  As more students and schools adopt this method, so too will more students and schools find success on the bar exam.

Legal Ed Scholarship, Legal Education | Permalink


"If you’ve never heard of spaced repetition, there’s a reason for that: it’s never been applied to legal education before now, or, for the most part, anywhere." Professor Teninbaum you need to do more research. I and several others have been advocating spaced repetition for many years. I used it in my teaching, and I am sure many others have done the same.

Posted by: Scott Fruehwald | Aug 4, 2019 12:25:36 PM