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Spaced repetition: A technology to learn far more with less effort

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Spaced Repetition

After more than a decade of life on the professor-side of the podium, I still recall how difficult it is be a law student.  I remember being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information I was expected to know: elements of crimes, hearsay exceptions, UCC sections, and the holdings of endless con law cases. Adding to the tension was the need to be able to retain it all, and be able to spit it out, on the spot, when cold-called in class. Twice a year, I remember the stress of cramming hundreds of pages of outlines and briefs before exams.  Then came the bar. Oof.

I think the lives of law students are so challenging, in part, because memorization in the context of law school doesn’t mean being “familiar with” or “approximating” a information.  It means knowing language verbatim, and being able to reel it off accurately (often under pressure).  A single punctuation mark can – and has – changed the meaning of case outcomes, so committing accurate information to memory is vital.  And, of course, professors make sure students are doing this work by focusing their testing on these very nuances and intricacies.

None of this will come off as revolutionary to law students, but I next want to propose something that I think is revolutionary for legal education: there is a better way to learn in law school that can change the law school experience for the better.  In short, there is a method that allows students to memorize more than ever before – and to do so in less time than it takes to cram as most currently do.  Using it improves exam performance, makes class less stressful, and helps improve school-life balance.

This technology is called spaced repetition.  If you’ve never heard of this technique, it’s because it’s never been applied to legal education before now. However, its use is widespread in other fields, most notably, medical education.  It’s also received attention in publications like the New York Times and the Harvard Business Review, among many others.

It’s very simple to use for students, but operates on a sophisticated underlying algorithm. To do it, users access a spaced repetition platform and study digital flashcards that are optimized for that specific user’s needs.  

Whenever any person learns new information, they immediately begin to forget it. The rate of forgetting varies from person to person, but predicting when a person will forget (their personal “forgetting curve,” as it’s called in the scientific literature) is feasible with special algorithms built for this job.  For every flashcard users review, they are prompted to report how well they know the answer after reviewing it. 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 answers, the system customizes to a user’s learning needs and prompts studying 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, 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 3 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 harness these benefits, students need only study about 10 minutes a day.

For first-year law students studying for contracts, property, or torts, using spaced repetition gives them an advantage not just on their course-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 material, spaced repetition users will only need to do occasional reviews of concepts they’ve banked in memory for the long term. 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.

After first learning about this science in a Wired Magazine article several years ago, I became interested in applying it to legal education.  I built a website, SpacedRepetition.com so law students could use this science for legal content.  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 200,000 student-created cards on the site). It has about 6000 users, and the data doesn’t lie about how it helps.  For example, one midwestern 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 4 time bar failers passing on the 5th try after using the site.

If you’d like to improve your ability to remember – and to do so with a dramatic improvement in efficiency and accuracy – you should try spaced repetition. You’ll remember to thank me once you have.

Gabriel Teninbaum Gabe Teninbaum is the founder of SpacedRepetition.com, as well as a law school professor and assistant dean with over a decade’s worth of experience as a faculty member. Using this site, students can study Emanuel Law in a Flash flashcards, use the Boost Deck (professor-created content designed to prepare them for the bar exam), or create content (and share it too - there is a library of over 500,000 user-created cards) a study it using a spaced repetition algorithm. He can be reached at gabe@spacedrepetition.com