One thing new law students are unlikely to realize when attending their first year in a “socially distanced” format is just how much learning they’re missing out on. I’m not talking about the learning during class time: even for those taking all of their courses remotely, most law schools are effectively training their faculties to deliver terrific classes via Zoom, and I expect most professors will rise to the occasion.
It’s all the informal learning that will be lost: conversations across the cafeteria table, or while grabbing a drink with section-mates after a long week; study groups in the library, and talks in the hall before classes. A huge amount of learning takes place in these moments, from clarifying concepts discussed in class, to getting help connecting two seemingly unrelated cases.
It’s important that we bridge this learning gap because the same hurdles to students’ success will remain in place for students, pandemic or not. The final exam will still require students to identify and analyze the relevant issues; essays will still require students to parse statutes and remember key con law concepts. The bar exam won’t lower its standards, either, even if students didn’t have an easy 1L year.
So, the question is, given our realities, how can we help to close learning gaps so that there’s no knowledge deficit for law students? Is there a method that, even while stuck in our apartments, away from others, allows students to memorize more than ever before – and to do so in less time than it takes to cram as most currently do? And beyond that, can this be done in a way that improves exam performance, makes class less stressful, and helps improve school-life balance?
One solution for these challenges is the science of 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 received attention in publications like the New York Times and the Harvard Business Review, among many others.
It’s simple to use, but operates on a sophisticated underlying algorithm based on over a century’s worth of scientific research. From the studies, we know that whenever a 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 is feasible with special algorithms built for this job. For every flashcard users review using spaced repetition, 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 user’s answers, the system customizes to meet their individual learning needs and prompts studying at just the right time.
As students use it, another 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.
This ultimately means that students study in spare moments, and end up remembering far more than they thought imaginable (up to 4 times as much) by doing so.
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.