If you’re searching for new ways to learn and new tools to try as a law student in order to work more efficiently and smarter, we’re looking at something that can help with that! It’s a tool that could benefit law students, as well as bar studiers later on.
We are presented with overwhelming amounts of information to memorize throughout law school and of course while studying for the bar exam. Trying to learn and memorize all of the information can often feel like drinking from a firehose. And as you may have already figured out, last minute cramming doesn’t work! It may have worked for you in high school or college, but it doesn’t work for law school classes. But there are other studying and learning techniques that do work. We are going to look at the scienced-based technique called spaced repetition that can help you throughout law school as well as the bar exam. Then we will tell you about a program you can use to try it out.
What is spaced repetition?
Spaced repetition is a well-documented learning technique that incorporates strategically timed review to maximize memory retention. To memorize a new concept, you generally need to review it frequently at first, but less often as it becomes stored in your long-term memory. The idea is to review material at timed intervals, with longer gaps for material you know well and, initially, shorter gaps for new material that you’re mastering. It’s the opposite of cramming and promises better retention.
Because, in reality, cramming does not serve us in the long term. It may have served us at some point and that’s why we did it. For example, in 5th Grade geography we may have memorized all of our spelling words or the state capitals the night before our test but quickly erased them from our memory as soon as we walked out of the classroom. What’s the capitol of Vermont again? Cramming may work in a pinch, but it simply doesn’t work for long term retention.
Law school teaches us concepts that build on each other, and during bar exam prep we are asked to memorize an enormous amount of information. Cramming is not an effective tool for learning the law, nor is it helpful for concepts that build on each other.
How does it work?
Spaced repetition, however, is very effective for long term recall and extremely effective for concepts that build on each other. There is science to prove it. The science behind spaced repetition can be traced back to the work of German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus. He studied memory and came up with a curve showing the rate at which memories decay – a curve known as the Forgetting Curve. His Forgetting Curve shows how the information we learn is lost over time when we do nothing to retain it.
Ebbinghaus determined that we forget 90% of the information we learn within three days. Ever heard of cramming referred to as the garbage dump theory of learning? This is exactly why! Because we cram it all in, use it on the test and then dump it out, forgetting 90% of the information we just crammed in. However, in studying the Forgetting Curve, Ebbinghaus learned that the more subjects reviewed material, the less they forgot. By reviewing material at spaced intervals, it becomes more ingrained in your long-term memory and you are less likely to forget it. No more garbage dumping! And the best part about spaced repetition is that you can potentially commit more information to memory in less time!
The key to spaced repetition learning is to review the material at the precise moment that you are about to forget it. This reinforces the memory. Every time you do that, the rate at which you forget the information lengthens and the information becomes more solidified in your long-term memory.
Spaced repetition is not unique to law study. It’s used in many contexts where large volumes of information must be memorized. It has been effectively used by medical students and people trying to learn foreign languages.
For law students, this is a promising approach to learning the black letter law. It’s suitable for bar study, especially the MBE and MPRE. It can also be used for exam prep during law school.
So how might this work? Well, there are some apps and websites that can help (one of which we will talk about in a minute), but the best way might just be to use good old-fashioned paper flashcards! The beauty of the flashcards is that it enables you to sort material by things you know and things you are still learning. The concepts you are still learning you will obviously want to review more frequently. As you learn the concepts, you will review them less frequently, but you will still review them periodically.
For your law school classes you could create flashcards for the major concepts and legal rules in all of your classes. We recommend doing this early and often so that you are not creating an enormous amount of flashcards at once and also so that you have the flashcards to review throughout the semester or bar prep period. Creating flashcards is a great way to actively engage with and review the material you have covered each week.
You could put them in a flashcard box labeled Box 1 which you review for 30 minutes a day. When you feel like you know them, you could move them to a box labeled Box 2. Box 2 could be reviewed every other day. When you feel like you know those, you could move to Box 3, which is reviewed once a week. From there, you could have a Box 4 to review bi-weekly, and perhaps a Box 5 to review just before the test.
Now, if you are reviewing Box 3 and get a card wrong, you will move that one back down to Box 2. That way it gets reviewed more frequently. When you get it right again, you move it back to Box 3. Your cards will move back and forth between the boxes throughout the semester or bar prep period, depending on if you are able to recall the information correctly.
Now that you’ve heard the basics of what spaced repetition is and how it works and explored using it in one exercise, you’ll want to check out our next post on more ways to implement it into your work as a law student!
Looking for some help to do your best in law school? Find out about our law school tutoring options.