Retrieval practice protects against stress

Stress, especially high stress testing like the LSAT, law school exams, and the bar exam, impairs our memory and decreases our performance. Some law students with text anxiety “blank out” during exams due to acute stress and cannot remember anything they learned. What if you could make your memory and all of the material that you learned immune to stress?

Learning by using retrieval practice and self-testing makes your memory more “stress resistant” than if you learn by rereading or memorization. Retrieval practice – recalling information from memory without any cues and taking practice tests – is a learning super tool, much more effective than restudying or rereading. Researchers have already proven that retrieval practice is better for learning than rereading because it builds knowledge and calibrates learning by helping learners understand what they do and do not know.

Now, researchers have now proven that retrieval practice also protects what we have learned against acute stress.

“[U]sing a highly effective learning strategy to strengthen memory at encoding inoculated memory against the deleterious effects of the delayed stress response.”

[Read more…]

Frequent Quizzing Makes Information Stick

The act of retrieving information from memory challenges the brain, it greases the wheels of memory.

This greasing the wheel in studying using retrieval methods is hard work – creating and answering quizzes on information you are reading and learning instead of merely reading and re-reading. Creating and answering the quizzes feels uncomfortable and ineffective, which leads to erroneous judgments that the material is not being learned. When information is easy to study and learn, students believe it has been learned well, when the opposite is actually true.

According to Mark McDaniel with Washington University in St. Louis:

“I think most people want learning to be easy and effortless. They want a magic bullet for it. And learning is not easy and effortless. It takes work, and it takes effort and time and dedication.”

The most effective study and learning methods are not only hard, but they are counter-intuitive. Retrieval, the testing effect, and distributed practice are all research-proven to be much more effective than reading & rereading, highlighting, rote memorization, and cramming. Yet, students don’t know about these research-proven study and learning methods OR don’t believe that they are more effective than “tried and true” methods.

Students are never taught how to study.

“One of the gaps or problems in the educational system is that no one ever helps a student figure out how to learn, and yet that’s the primary challenge a student is faced with. You’ve got to assist them with how to do that. And that’s where I think we’re failing somewhat,” according to McDaniel.

Traditional class structures in higher education also feed into and encourage bad study habits. Professors lecture, give a midterm exam, and a final exam. This assessment structure leads to students rereading, reviewing notes, and cramming right before exams. This is even more pronounced in law school where Professors lecture via Socratic Method and only give a final exam.

Frequent quizzing is a smart and effective learning tool. Frequent quizzing over the course of the semester forces students to continuously retrieve material they are learning repeatedly over the course of a term. Each retrieval attempt creates more durable learning. Quizzes can be incorporated into any syllabus, even in courses where Professors choose to give final summative exams.

For more, see Studying With Quizzes Helps Make Sure The Material Sticks.



Failing Forward: Why Flunking Exams Is Actually a Good Thing

How about this heretical idea: Why not give the final exam on the first day of class?

Research on pre-testing (testing/quizzing students on information not yet learned) shows that wrong answers on a pretest aren’t just useless guesses. These attempts actually change how we think about and store information, priming our brain for learning to come. This pretesting effect is the most potent when pretesting is followed with prompt feedback (i.e., the right answers).

A recent article in the New York Times Magazine by Benedit Carey discusses research by Elizabeth Ligon Bjork with UCLA’s Bjork Learning and Forgetting Lab finding that pretesting can raise performance on final-exams by an average of 10 percent.

How is it that students can study – read, highlight, memorize information – open an exam and see material they studied and still bomb? Students are easily duped by misperceptions of fluency: if information is easy to remember at the time of studying, it is well learned. This fluency illusion (another illusion of competency) leads to a belief that the information has been learned to termination of study.

The best way to dissipate the illusion is testing (not just “for a grade” summative testing), but testing yourself by trying to recall something from memory without a cue. Testing as study. Testing itself becomes an introduction to what students will and can learn, instead of final judgment on what they didn’t.

The (bombed) pretest drives home the information in a way that studying as usual does not. We fail, but we fail forward.

Benedict Carey is also the author of “How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where and Why It Happens,” published by Random House, from which his article is adapted.

Students’ Illusions of Competence Lead to Ineffective Study & Learning Behaviors


Illusions distort our senses, create false ideas, beliefs, and expectations, and lead us to see things that do not really exist.  Illusions of competence in study and learning behaviors leads to early termination of learning, overly ambitious expectations, and unfortunately, poor performance.

Modern undergraduate students are overly confident in their study and learning skills. Yet, research shows that these students overwhelmingly rely on ineffective and improvised study and learning behaviors (re-reading, highlighting, massing study), and even when taught about effective study strategies (retrieval, self-testing, distributed practice, interleaving, etc.), continue to buy into their “illusions of competence” in their study methods. Undergraduate students take their illusions of competence to law school and are often dumbfounded when their “tried and true,” yet wholly improvised study methods fail them in their law study.

A wealth of empirical evidence on effective study behaviors exists from thousands of studies at the undergraduate level from the fields of psychology, educational psychology, cognition. For a great summary, check out the Bjork Learning and Forgetting Lab. Yet, legal educators are often unaware of the research from other disciplines relating to learning.

My recent article available on SSRN, “Illusions of Competence: Using Empirical Research on Undergraduate Study Behaviors to Maximize Law Learning,” summarizes the empirical research on effective (and ineffective) study behaviors for the legal educator and recommends concrete, practical ways to integrate the research into the law school classroom. Administrators, law professors (doctrinal, skills, clinical, etc.) and law students will all benefit from learning which study behaviors work, and which done.


Mapping the Law – Using Visual Mindmaps in Legal Education

Try to remember something, to pull something out of the recesses of your memory. For example, what you did with your significant other on your last anniversary or more specifically, what gift you gave your significant other at that anniversary. Having trouble pulling it up? (The brain is not a computer after all).

Now try to visualize where you were. Images help memory recall. Associating strong visual and mental images with verbal or abstract information makes that information easier to recall in the future.

Professor Jeffrey Ritter of Georgetown Law leverages the power of mental imaging in “Mapping the Law: Building and Using Visual Mindmaps in Legal Education.” The video is part of the Igniting Law Teaching conference hosted by LegalEd at American University, Washington College of Law. Igniting Law Teaching provided a forum for professors experimenting with cutting edge technologies and techniques in law teaching to spread ideas to the broader legal education community.

You can read more about images and memory devices in Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel.