Want to Make Learning Stick? Make it Harder

Spacing and interleaving might sound like unusual pedagogical practices, but they might just be worth employing with your law students. In Want to Make Learning Stick? Make it Harder over on Age of Awareness at Medium, Nick Soderstrom argues for the adoption of some different techniques to improve learning outcomes.

Spaced out…

Cramming and long periods of practising the same thing over and over again are common techniques for law teachers and law students to teach and learn new ideas and concepts.  But what if the opposite was demonstrably better at getting law students to remember and apply new concepts and skills?

I, like many of you I presume, crammed a lot when I was in school, especially in college. I’d study the material over and over again for hours on end. This is what learning scientists call massed practice, and research shows that it’s ineffective when it comes to learning.

We’ve all been there – highlighter in one hand and coffee or energy drink in the other, inexplicably surprised by the fact that we’ve been sitting there until sunrise.  Does it work?  It might do in the short term, but if we’re preparing law students for life in the profession then it’s a short term gain for a long term loss.

‘Spacing’ – spreading revision out into shorter blocks to improve retention.

This goes somewhat against the grain for traditionally taught law subjects that tend to work through topics in the syllabus episodically, for example, moving from offer to acceptance to consideration etc.  Once a topic is dealt with, its over.  Working with later law students, they will often then compartmentalise their understanding of the law in the same way, without seeing the bigger picture.

What Soderstom proposes, however, is really easily implemented in law school, for example:

  • If law students are going to understand repudiation in contract, there has to be a contract with offer, acceptance and consideration in the first place.  Why not get law students to identify them as part of a repudiation hypothetical?
  • If law students are going to understand self-defence, there has to have been a criminal offence committed. Why not get law students to identify the elements of the offence that the accused is said to have committed?

There’s also some clear consistency with pedagogy generally.  For example, Lev Vygotsky talked about students’ learning happening in the space between what they can do and what they are capable of doing, but need to learn – what he referred to as the zone of proximal development.  Learning is, therefore, a process of students building on what they already know.

ZPD

If we label topics covered in previous weeks as things law students can do, and the new topic what they are about to learn, spacing as a form of review to support the new concept becomes a powerful tool.

Lets put a pin in that…

The other problem of long periods of single-topic revision, according to Soderstrom is that it also produces short term improvement but doesn’t contribute to learning over time.

Suppose you want to improve two of your swim strokes — say, your backstroke and butterfly. If you’re like most people, you would put in all your practice with the backstroke before moving on to the butterfly (or vice versa). This is called blocked practice because each of the separate to-be-learned skills are practiced in large chunks, or blocks. Like massed practice, blocked practice might produce rapid short-term gains, but those gains will quickly vanish.

Interleaving‘Interleaving’ – reviewing more than one skill at a time by pausing practice on one to practice another. 

This is a really challenging idea – something that Soderstrom acknowledges.  But, again, there is some sound pedagogical support for it.  Piaget, for example, in his work in children’s learning found that learning is strengthened when a student begins to build links between concepts. Independent ‘snippets’ of knowledge or skills are quickly forgotten but networks of ideas are remembered.

In order to build those networks, law students need to be able to see how the underlying principles fit together.  If we come back to the examples of contract and criminal law, for example:

  • Offer and acceptance have to work together and often happen almost instantaneously. If we slow time down to walk through the exchanges that happen in the formation of a contract then looking at elements of offer and acceptance aligned with the back-and-forth of contract negotiations can help explain what it looks like in the real world.
  • For criminal offences, the physical and mental elements of an offence have to present. Depending on the nature of the offence, the accused will have to have the intention to do a physical act (and judges often talk about these things as if they are indivisible). If action, intention, accident and (for example) intoxication were interleaved, law students would have a more complete picture of the offence, rather than being exposed to offences in one module and then defences in a completely different module with no apparent connection.

So while spacing and interleaving might appear challenging to implement, I’m going to give them a try.

If you’re interested, drop me an email and maybe we can share lesson plans!

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