Monday, August 5, 2019

Spaced Retrieval as an Essential Teaching Technique

Those of us who study legal education innovation are often concerned about the slow pace of adoption of proven, effective learning techniques by law schools and law teachers.  Over ten years ago, both sBest Practices and the Carnegie Report criticized legal education for using, antiquated ineffective teaching and learning techniques.  While some professors have enthusiastically adopted teaching innovations, many, many law professors have not.  Our students are the ones who suffer from this inertia.

Brian Sites has just published an excellent article on one of these underused techniques: Spaced Retrieval. Brian Sites, 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?"

"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."  (emphsis added)

(Scott Fruehwald)

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