Tuesday, April 23, 2024

The Outline Test

Exam prep is nearly upon us.  Now is the time when the academic support world is finishing up the semester-long project of convincing students to use effective study methods instead of traditional but flawed ones.  I wager that most academic support faculty urge students not to spend their study time endlessly re-reading outlines.  There is plenty of scientific evidence showing that this passive learning method is suboptimal.[1] 

But we face obstacles.  First, students have heard from everyone who has ever gone to law school – aunts, uncles, parents, friends, random passers-by – that re-reading outlines is the best way to study.[2]  Those folks are wrong,[3] but coupled with the fact that students have been wrongly taught since grade school that re-reading constitutes “memorizing,”[4] this reinforcement from well-meaning supporters is powerful.

Also, instructors sometimes tell students to focus on re-reading outlines repeatedly.  Plenty of legal educators fall for the post-hoc, ergo prop[5] and anecdote[6] fallacies and believe that because they were successful using certain methods, those methods are optimal.  The advice of a well-meaning professor is particularly compelling.  After all, when the person doing the grading tells you to do something a certain way, going against that grain feels awfully risky. 

So, you have a student who is on the verge of academic dismissal who is dead set on re-reading outlines.  What can you do?

Enter what I call, “Outlines Tests.”  An Outline Test converts passive learning to active learning.  It moves students away from the “illusion of mastery,” and pivots them towards “uncued recall practice.”  The illusion of mastery is a byproduct of re-reading.  When a student reads a torts outline twice on Monday and then again on Tuesday, their perception on Tuesday is that they know the material.  However, this perception arises out of recognition, not cognition, meaning that although they feel like they have memorized the rules, the reality is that they merely recognized the material from Monday.  If forced to write out the rule without looking at the outline, the student would quickly realize that their perception of mastery was an illusion.    

Uncued recall practice has the opposite effect.  Also called “The Testing Effect,” this method uses testing as learning.  If a learner takes a test, unaided by external materials, they are forcing themselves to recall information without cueing.  Educational psychologists agree that uncued recall practice is superior to cued practice (e.g., re-reading outlines) even though it feels harder.[7]

Here is how Outline Testing works.  First, the learner reads a heading in their outline and stops.  They then look away from the outline and try to recall everything they know on that single topic.  So, if they hit the heading in their Civil Procedure outline on joinder (God help them), they should read that heading and mentally recite every nook and cranny of their present knowledge.  When they are done, they read the joinder portion of the outline to observe which parts of the outline they forgot or misstated.  Employing metacognition, they then circle back to those newly discovered weaknesses and reformulate them.[8] 

Thus, instead of Zombie reading through a 50-page outline, Outline Testing evokes engagement by leveraging every human’s ego-driven desire to get questions right.  The added bonus is that this method plays into the student’s desire to listen to supporters and instructors.  By conducting the post-testing outline read, the student is complying with the advice of friends, family, and faculty, thus easing their anxiety about breaking rules. 

That is not to say that this is the optimal method.  I would like to see students also taking closed-book practice exams.  These force students not only to recall the rules but apply them in the context of a problem.  This would result in practice on issue-spotting, rule knowledge, application of law to fact and, if timed, exam time management.  But if a sufficient amount of practice materials are not available, or they are entirely banned, Outline Testing at least fosters some form of active learning, via uncued practice, and pulls students away from focusing solely on re-reading. 

Louis Schulze, FIU Law

[1]  See Brown, et al., Make it Stick (2014); Roediger HL 3rd, Karpicke JD, The power of testing memory: Basic research and implications for educational practice, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1, 181–210 (2006).  See generally Jennifer M. Cooper & Regan Gurung, Smarter Law Study Habits: An Empirical Analysis of Law Learning Strategies and Relationship with Law GPA, 62 St. Louis U. L.J. (2018) (finding evidence that the use of practice problems in law exam preparation is positively associated with performance).

[2]   “A majority of students repeatedly read their notes or textbook (despite the limited benefits of this strategy), but relatively few engage in self-testing or retrieval practice while studying.”  Karpicke, J. D., Butler, A. C., & Roediger III, H. L., Metacognitive strategies in student learning: Do students practice retrieval when they study on their own? Memory, 17(4), 471–479c (2009)

[3]  Many scientific publications demonstrate that re-reading is less effective.  See e.g., Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T., Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4-58 (2013) (investigating the efficacy of ten different study methods and concluding that passive learning techniques, such as re-reading, highlighting, and summarizing notes, were all low-utility methods).

[4]  “A significant body of research demonstrates that compared to simply rereading or even elaborative study techniques such as concept-mapping, free recall during study increases memory of various types of information."  C.L. Bae, D.J. Therriault, J.L. Redifer, Investigating the testing effect: Retrieval as a characteristic of effective study strategies, 60 Learning and Instruction 206-14 (2019); see also Jeffrey D. Karpicke, Janell R. Blunt, Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping, Science, 331,772-775 (2011). 

[5]  This logical fallacy occurs when the speaker reasons that the concurrence of two events proves causation.  Thus:  “I used this method in my 1L exams, I succeeded in those exams, therefore this method caused the success.”

[6]  This logical fallacy occurs when the speaker relies on a personal and/or singular example to support a proposition.  Thus:  “I used this method in my 1L exams, so this method must be effective.”

[7]. See Butler, A. C., Repeated testing produces superior transfer of learning relative to repeated studying. J. of Experimental Psych: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 36(5), 1118–1133 (2010); Bruchok, Christiana; Mar, Christopher; Craig, Scotty D.  Is Free recall active: The testing effect through the ICAP lens, J. of Interactive Learning Research (2017) 28(2), 127-148 (2017) (stating:  “A robust positive effect of repeatedly testing target information as compared to spending extra time studying the same information, a phenomenon commonly referred to as the testing effect or retrieval practice, has been reported in a wealth of literature.”)

[8]  This method is similar to one discussed in the Karpicke and Blunt paper, supra, note 4.  There, the authors suggested that creating a “mind map” (i.e., flowcharts) in an uncued fashion would further enhance an already effective learning method. 


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