Spaced Repetition: A Method for Learning More Law in Less Time

By Teninbaum, Gabriel H. | The Journal of High Technology Law, January 2017 | Go to article overview

Spaced Repetition: A Method for Learning More Law in Less Time


Teninbaum, Gabriel H., The Journal of High Technology Law


"For our whole education depends upon memory, and we shall receive instruction all in vain if all we hear slips from us." (1)  -Quintilian 

I. Introduction

Imagine that you are a law student researching ways to maximize your chances of passing the bar exam. Now imagine that, in your research, you discover a method that has been proven to allow users to remember nearly four times more than other methods, (2) as well as to dramatically improve performance on tests. (3) You find that it has been thoroughly studied and shown effective, time-and-again, for more than 100 years. (4) You also learn that this method has been called the single best way to study by the Association for Psychological Science, (5) "the new way doctors learn" by Time Magazine, (6) and been recommended in the New York Times, (7) Wall Street Journal (8) and Harvard Business Review. (9) You find that celebrity proponents of the method include everyone from a Wikipedia founder (10) to the all-time record holder for single-day winnings on Jeopardy! (11) In one recent use case of this method in legal education, an entire graduating law school class was given the option to use this technology. (12) Students who chose to do so passed the bar exam at a rate 19.2% higher than classmates who did not. (13) You learn that this result is consistent with the decades of research on the effectiveness of this method, including a finding that medical students preparing for their boards remembered nearly three times as much when using this technique. (14)

So, if you were this hypothetical law student preparing for the bar (or, for that matter, a law professor or law school dean interested in helping your students), would you be interested in learning more? If so, read on.

What you have discovered is "spaced repetition" ("SR"). (15) This learning and memorization method has the potential to improve the way law students learn and prepare for exams, and this paper explores it. Discovered in the 1800s, SR has only now become feasible outside of the lab because modern technology, particularly smart phones and the internet, make it apply and modify a special algorithm that works to best help each individual user. (16)

SR is an alternative to traditional "cramming" and has been proven to help users retain knowledge for the long-term with less study time and greater retention rates. (17) Its effectiveness is based on a combination of scientific factors, but it's simple to apply: users look at electronic flashcards on their smart phone or computer, rate how well they knew the answer, then review the card again when prompted based on an algorithm working behind the scenes. (18) When matched with excellent content on the cards, SR users become much more efficient and effective learners and test-takers. (19)

To grasp the potential for SR, consider the bar exam: to prepare, students typically complete three years of full-time courses, then, after graduating, take an expensive commercial bar preparation course, during which they spend three months studying full-time. (20) Still, for many, the difference between failure and success on the bar exam can be a razor's edge. (21)

What if, for every student on that edge of failing, we could give them eight more points on the bar, and save them some time in the offing? (22) That is exactly what SR appears capable of doing. (23) A study summarizing the results of over fifty 20th century studies testing SR showed that users of this method improved testing results by at least half a standard deviation. (24) Translating that advantage to the multi-state portion of the bar exam (to say nothing of any advantage it might provide on essay portions), a half a standard deviation improvement would bring a bar examinee earning eight extra points on the MBE alone. (25) The effect: many who would fail the bar would now pass. (26)

In the following pages, this article explains in greater detail how SR works, (27) and summarizes the research behind it. …

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