In my last post, I noted that I’d provide more details about teaching students how to teach themselves so as to improve their performance. I should be clear here that I’m not espousing the old Kingsfieldian line of “[y]ou teach yourselves the law, but I train your minds [to think like a lawyer].” What I’m saying instead is: “Law school academic support courses should teach you how to teach yourselves so that you can take your doctrinal classroom learning further.”
This post’s focus is “retrieval practice,” otherwise known as “the testing effect.” (Although somewhat related, this is not the same as formative assessment, one of the major aspects of new ABA accreditation standards). Students can use forced retrieval practice to learn with greater effectiveness and efficiency than traditional studying. The problem is that most don’t even know about it, let alone use it.
More below the fold….
So, what is “retrieval practice”? Retrieval practice consists of using free-recall exercises to trigger one’s knowledge or understanding of a subject not for assessment purposes but actually to promote learning itself. According to Roediger & Butler (2011), these free-recall exercises enhance encoding in a manner superior to other methods. Importantly, these exercises cannot say: “Which one of the following is a correct explanation of common law self-defense” – with a list of different explanations, one of which is correct. Instead, “free” recall requires the student to articulate the answer absent any cueing. Thus, if the question was: “Explain common law self-defense,” and the student had to recall that information without any prompts, that tactic solidifies the knowledge better than simply rereading an explanation of common law self-defense repeatedly.
Some might claim that the increased fluency with the information is due simply to re-exposure. But Roediger and Karpicke (2006) disproved this hypothesis, showing that the testing effect is not due to repeated exposure but is instead due to enhancing cognitive “retrieval routes.” The processing of information through free-recall solidifies these routes through the impact of “desirable difficulties” – the idea that when learning is harder, it is more effective.
And that’s one reason why students don’t like and don’t use retrieval practice. When they get answers wrong, they feel like they’re not learning the material (despite the fact that they really are). By contrast, when they reread notes or outlines, they feel like they are learning because they recognize the material when they read it through again. The problem, according to Karpicke, Butler, & Roediger (2009), is that this is not real learning but instead the “illusion of mastery” – it feels like learning because you “know” the information, but in reality you’re merely recognizing it. This is why so many students say that they “knew the material backward and forwards” even when their exams show otherwise.
Many students spend substantial time in bar prep and during the “reading week” just before finals doing just that – rereading. That’s a significant mistake because rereading is one of the worst ways to learn material and self-testing is actually one of the best. The following chart demonstrates the results of studies proving this point.
In fact, the testing effect actually works before the introduction of material and even in the absence of individual feedback. Thus, testing is also a way to learn subjects initially and not just to promote retention. Thanks to the inaccurate learning training many students receive in high school and college, which emphasizes testing not as a way to learn but only as a way to assess, these concepts seem downright absurd.
And that brings me to my broader point. Instead of considering tactics like re-teaching or spoon-feeding doctrine to promote bar passage, law schools should be undoing the learning misunderstandings that so many students bring into their legal education. As a starter, law schools should provide students access to rigorous practice exams and encourage them actually to complete (and not merely peruse) those exams prior to finals to take advantage of the testing effect.
Does all this mean giving students constant forced retrieval quizzes in classes? No. Although frequent testing would be ideal, widespread adoption of such a scenario might be unlikely. Instead, I contend that students – with the support of their instructors in helping them appreciate appropriate resources – should be engaged in these retrieval practice exercises on their own. This would take advantage of the testing effect and promote self-regulated learning and metacognition.
I’ll take up those concepts in my next post