This series has addressed four concepts from educational and cognitive psychology: (1) retrieval practice (“the testing effect”); (2) metacognition and self-regulated learning; (3) spaced repetition; and (4) cognitive schema theory. Each of these concepts alone can improve students’ performance in law school and on the bar. Together, they can make an enormous difference. The problem is that it’s hard to convince students to use these methods when so many forces convey the message that they should stick to popular but antiquated and ineffective methods.
In this post, I’ll describe a number of specific methods that differ from traditional ones but improve students’ success in law school. In my final post, I’ll do the same in the context of bar exam study.
Law School Study Methods Employing Cognitive and Educational Psychology.
The Four-Step Study Plan. Many students spend the entire first-semester reading cases, attending classes, and doing little else. That’s a mistake for two reasons. First, although reading cases helps students see analysis, it’s crucial actually to practice it. Second, as students go along in the semester, they often lack appreciation of whether what they think they know is the same as what they actually know – the “unknown unknowns” as Donald Rumsfeld once said. They leave the classroom either thinking they understood the material or realizing that they didn’t. Instead of clarifying, though, they often leave that process to the end of the semester, thinking they’ll have time to clarify during exam prep. Then they realize they don’t.
Due to this, students need to put the course together throughout the semester and test their own knowledge via self-regulated learning. Enter the four-step study plan, pictured below.
This is a weekly plan, executed by students, incorporating self-regulated learning, metacognition, and the testing effect. By outlining each week throughout the semester, students memorialize their knowledge when it is at its sharpest, start setting up their cognitive schema of the course, and minimize the amount of outlining and clarifying just before exams (at which point they should be practicing and studying). The multiple-choice questions then allow them to assess objectively whether they truly understand the materials. If they get seven or eight questions out of ten correct, they can move on to the next subject. If not, they circle back to Step Three to clarify their understanding.
While I try to persuade students to take this approach from day one, some do not. When students underperform in the first semester, however, switching them to this plan in the second has led to statistically significant grade increases. I’ve seen students go from sub-2.00 first semester GPAs to 3.50 second semester GPAs; from the bottom of the class to Dean’s List; from the brink of dismissal to a top 10% semester GPA and booked 1L courses. Because this approach comports with what we know about how learning really works, especially compared to traditional methods, it produces results.
Schema + Spaced Repetition. Another method, again completed weekly, takes advantage both of schema theory and spaced repetition to promote understanding and “digestion” of a course. At the beginning of the semester, students sketch the “big picture” of the course, using either the course syllabus or the casebook’s table of contents. See Figure One, below.
Each week, students add detail to the schema. See Figure Two, Below.
At some point each week, it will become impossible to include micro-details on the schema due to a lack of space. When students get to this “detail point,” they mark that point with a number. These numbers then continue in order at subsequent detail points. See Figure Three and Four, Below.
Those numbers each correspond to a notecard, on which the student records the details of the particular legal issue. This should include rules, cases, hypos, etc. See Figure Five, Below.
On the back of the card, the student writes a word or phrase summarizing the contents of the details to be used in self-testing using spaced repetition, as described below. In this case, the student would write "Self Defense/ First Aggressor/ Peterson."
Until this point, this method employs cognitive schema to help the student see the organization of the course and create the cognitive pathways to the knowledge. After this point, it uses spaced repetition to help the student encode the knowledge, reinforce it, and grow the neurons and synaptic connections involved in storage.
After adding to the course schema as described above at the end of the week, students then cumulatively test themselves on the course materials using the cards created as detail points. They look at the card content summary on the back of the card, prompting them to mentally rehearse everything about that subject. When finished, they flip the card over and judge how well they knew the material.
Importantly, students don’t need to test themselves constantly on all cards; we know from spaced repetition that the better one knows a subject, the less one must revisit it. Accordingly, after self-testing on a card, the student should grade her knowledge either as strong, medium, or weak. If her knowledge is strong, she places that card in a green rubber band. If her knowledge is medium, a yellow rubber band, and weak gets a red rubber band. A student reviews the green pile every third week, the yellow pile every other week, and the red pile each week. As the student’s performance improves on a card, she moves it to the next highest pile of cards and continues this throughout the semester.
This method takes advantage of schema theory, spaced repetition, and even the testing effect. It has been estimated that an overall spacing period of three months can result in 90% retention compared to just 20% when the material is crammed. For students seeking a more high-tech version of this process, they can use SERIOUS, which allows them to make their own virtual cards and uses an algorithm to retest each card at the optimal point.
Realizing that this post is absurdly long, I’ll stop here. In my next post, I’ll discuss methods that harness cognitive and educational psychology to support students’ bar exam study.