Here's the best way to learn

By Gabe Teninbaum

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 Medicine and 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 theHarvard Business Review, among others.

So how does it work? Think of spaced repetition as an update to traditional flashcards that, while easy to use, operates on sophisticated artificial intelligence algorithms.

Its effectiveness is based on several well-studied scientific principles. First, whenever a person learns something, they immediately begin to forget it. The rate of forgetting varies from person to person, but predicting when a person will forget (what researchers call the “forgetting curve”) is feasible with special algorithms built for this job.

As applied to spaced repetition, harnessing the forgetting curve works like this: for every flashcard a user reviews, they are prompted to report how well they knew the answer. If a user knows it well, he or she won’t see the card again for a longer time; if the user struggled to remember, he or she will be shown it again sooner. Based on each answer, the system customizes to a user’s learning needs and prompts studying at just the right time.  In other words, it’s charting that user’s individual forgetting curve and feeding them review content at just the right time.

As users learn with spaced repetition, another well-studied scientific principle kicks in: the spacing effect. The spacing effect says that as long as people review information at the right time (as dictated by their personal forgetting curve), they forget more slowly and need to remind themselves less often.That means that to memorize a new concept for the long term, one might have to review it a day after first seeing it, but then not again for three days and, after that, not for seven days and, after that, not for 30 days and, after that, not for 90 days, and so on.

To maximize these benefits, students need only study about 10 minutes a day. The result is that while the average user would be expected to remember less than 25% of what they studied a week after reviewing it, with spaced repetition algorithms, it is 92% (and this 92% recall would remain at that level in perpetuity, as long as the user continued to follow the ever-decreasing queues to review the information). Moreover, when compared to cramming, spaced repetition takes far less total time.

What it means is that, a law student preparing for the bar exam can load flashcards with black letter law, relevant hypotheticals, and test tips (like mnemonics) into a spaced repetition system, and then optimize their learning of the content. A few minutes a day spread over the summer would convert to near-perfect recall of points of law that the student might otherwise have only a passing familiarity with. Not only does this allow students to rack-up extra points on the bar by correctly identifying the law, but it serves as a building block for other core bar prep skills, like being able to make narrow distinctions and the ability to present nuanced arguments reflecting an understanding of complex applications of law to facts.

The benefits go beyond that, too. For first-year law students studying for contracts, property, or torts, using spaced repetition gives them an advantage not just on their specific exams but also years later when studying for the bar because the bar largely tests on topics covered in the first year. That means when others are re-learning first year content for the bar, spaced repetition users will only need to do occasional reviews of concepts they’ve banked in memory for the long term. 

However, this technology isn’t just for 1Ls or bar preppers: People at all stages of their legal education can benefit. Upper-level students can, of course, study for the bar, but they can also create and collaborate with classmates to make sets of cards for other courses that aren’t bar tested.

My own experience has made this an important part of my teaching and has become an outside passion, too. After first learning about this science in a Wired Magazine article several years ago, I built a web site, SpacedRepetition.com, so law students could use this science for legal content. There are now about 9,000 users for the site. In addition to flashcards created by law professors, the system also allows students to create their own cards and share them with others (to date, there are nearly 325,000 student-created cards on the site). The site also now hosts Wolters Kluwer’s Emanuel® Law in a Flash series. 

The results have been terrific. For example, one law school offered subscriptions across its entire graduating class, and students who used the site were 19.2% more likely to pass the bar than those who didn’t. Another school with a similar arrangement had a 21% bar pass advantage for SpacedRepetition.com. There are also wonderful individual anecdotes: Students who wrote their dean after using it suggesting the site be used by all students; and four time bar failers passing on the fifth try after using the site.

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.


Gabe Teninbaum is a professor at Suffolk University Law School, where he serves as director of the Institute on Legal Innovation and Technology.  He has also held appointments as a visiting professor at MIT, as a faculty associate at the Berkman-Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard, and is currently a vsiting fellow at Yale Law School’s Information Society Project.  He has been called “perhaps the most tech-savvy law professor in the country” by the ABA Journal.  He is also the founder of SpacedRepetition.com and can be reached at gabe@spacedrepetition.com


 

 

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