Best Practice Contributors Highlighted in Best Articles of 2019

A big congratulations to our very own bloggers, Jennifer Bard and Benjamin Madison, for being featured on the TaxProf Blog!

Jennifer Bard’s article, “Are the Students Failing the Bar Exam Today Canaries in the Coal Mine warning us of a More General Need to Change Legal Education?” and Benjamin Madison’s article, “New Rubrics Available to Help Law Schools that Have Adopted Learning Outcomes Related to Professional Identity Formation” were both listed as TaxProf Blog’s “Best Legal Education Articles of 2019.”

Active Retrieval Practice: Known to Improve Learning but Underappreciated?

Exam time has arrived in law schools.  Students who want to excel on exams (and later, as attorneys) would do well to try out active retrieval practice.  To understand the value of retrieval practice, some brief discussion of well-established cognitive science is necessary.  Learning involves (1) taking knowledge into short-term working memory, and then (2) moving it from working memory to long-term memory by actively using the knowledge.[1]  In their excellent book, Teaching Law by Design, Dean Michael Hunter Schwartz, Professor Sophie Sparrow, and Professor Gerald Hess explain this process of storing learning in cognitive schema.[2]  They liken schemata to a “folder system[] provided for users of computer operating systems.”[3]  As they observe, however, storing knowledge “isn’t enough.  To analyze a problem, students must recall (“retrieve”) what they have learned and use that learning . . . .”[4] 

Research on cognition demonstrates that meaningful learning in any discipline requires the learner to perform some form of active retrieval exercises to be able to use the knowledge in analyzing and solving problems.   Active retrieval methods are ways in which the learner recalls knowledge and uses the recalled knowledge to solve problems or answer questions.[5]  Recalling for mere “knowledge checks,” sometimes called rote learning, is not effective.[6]   In the law school arena, a student can recite a memorized rule but not be able to apply it to fact patterns in a way that shows understanding.   Effective retrieval-based learning activities require the student to solve problems or to answer questions.  By doing so, the learner strengthens her understanding  of, and ability to recall, the knowledge.[7]  In law school, mid-term exams require students to recall information at least in mid-semester.  The problem there is that neuroscience shows a marked forgetting curve: if learning is not retrieved within a few days of its being stored, the knowledge is lost and must be relearned.[8]  Indeed, retrieving and using the knowledge are the critical parts of developing meaningful learning. 

               Spurred by the adoption of ABA Standard 314, my colleagues and I have been giving mid-term exams and using a variety of interim assessments designed to have students to recall information from previous classes. I regularly have a mid-term that includes multiple-choice, essays, or both.  The exams are graded and students receive a model answer. I discuss with students the answers to the assessments and common mistakes (e.g., failing to state rules accurately, insufficient application of facts in supporting one’s analysis).   The exam and follow-up discussions achieve the goal of providing the “meaningful feedback” that ABA Standard 314 seeks.   The mid-term is also summative. My experience is that many students do not take a practice, ungraded mid-term seriously. Having the exam count, but not so much as to prevent a student from recovering from a poor exam, helps to ensure that students prepare for and spend time on the mid-term.

               Another way that I have incorporated active recall practice is by using multiple-choice polling questions.  In the first class after we finish a course segment, we begin the class with multiple-choice questions that students answer by polling.    I ensure participation by recording the polling, by student, and including their responses (or lack thereof) as a class-participation part of the grade.  In answering the questions through polling, students must recall knowledge to analyze the question and reach a conclusion.   For example, after completing the study of removal jurisdiction and procedures, I use a series of multiple-choice polling questions that explore the many nuances of removal.   These sessions provide “meaningful feedback” to both students and to me.   If everyone misses a question, you can be sure I go back to discuss the area.  I also encourage anyone who missed a question in these polling sessions to meet with me after reviewing the topic addressed by the question.

               I urge students not to rely solely on the mid-term and the polling sessions as a means of ensuring they have learned material well.  Instead, I highly recommend preparing answers to essays under timed conditions.  At times I provide a model answer after they practice an essay. I also invite students to meet with me to go over their answers.   In these discussions, I almost always find some area in which a student has a mistaken understanding of a rule or concept.  If we did not uncover that misunderstanding, a student could repeatedly recall a flawed rule or approach.  Hence, I appreciate more than ever the wisdom of Standard 314’s emphasis on formative assessment.   After resolving any misunderstandings, I encourage a student to rewrite an answer.  That allows the student to revisit the topic and solidify her understanding.  Indeed, the act of writing itself helps students to embed the rules and concepts more firmly in their memory.[9] 

               What is true for law school is also true for the Bar Exam.   Last summer Sara Berman and I created a podcast for the ABA on practicing tests (essays, Multistate Performance Tests [MPTs], etc.) as some of the most effective ways to prepare for a state’s Bar Exam.[10]  Ideally, a student learns everything she needs to know in law school Bar review is just that–review.  More often, Bar applicants have a vague recollection of rules and concepts from their time in law school.  In other words, Bar applicants often find themselves relearning rules and concepts.  In so doing, they will learn more effectively by practicing an essay or MPT answer and by submitting these answers for grading to their Bar Preparation company and the faculty at their law school who help Bar applicants.  In doing these exercises, they benefit for at least two reasons.  First, it will identify areas in which the applicant’s knowledge of rules and concepts is so weak that she cannot answer a question.   Knowing that, the applicant can review that area and know that she needs to do so.  Second, exercises such as practice essay answers will require applicants to recall the rules they do know and apply them.  The more they do so, the more likely they are to remember them on the Bar. 

               Repeated, active retrieval practice is one of the best ways to learn to perform on exams or in law practice.  Yet, despite the data showing its effectiveness, such practices are not the norm in higher education.[11]  The practice is likely not the norm in law schools.   Standard 314 ought to help to some extent increase active retrieval before the end of the law school semester.  Yet, at present students are not spending their time as wisely as they could. Instead of preparing detailed outlines, and memorizing rules or flash cards, they would learn more from methods that require them to recall and apply legal rules and analysis.   Indeed, one might say this fact is one of the best kept secrets in law school. Perhaps it is time to let this secret out.


[1] Michael Hunter Schwartz, Sophie Sparrow & Gerald Hess, Teaching Law by Design 4­–7 (Carolina Academic Press 2009).

[2] Id.

[3] Id. at 5–6.

[4] Id. at 6.

[5] Jeffrey D. Karpicke, A Powerful Way to Improve Learning and Memory: Practicing Retrieval Enhances Long-Term, Meaningful Learning, American Psychological Association (2016), available at https://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2016/06/learning-memory (last checked Dec. 6, 2019).

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Louis N. Schulze, Jr., Using Science to Build Better Learners: One School’s Successful Efforts to Raise its Bar Passage Rates in an Era of Decline, 68 J. Legal Educ. 230, 245 (Winter 2019).

[9] Bryan Goodwyn, The Magic of Writing Stuff Down, 75 Educational Leadership 78–79 (April 2019).

[10] Sara Berman and Ben Madison, Practice Makes Passing, Episode 6 of American Bar Associations Path to Law Student Well-Being Podcast series, available at  https://www.spreaker.com/show/path-to-law-student-well-being  (June 22, 2019).

[11] According to Dr. Karpicke, college students likewise use rote learning methods more than they use active retrieval exercises.  See Karpicke, supra note 5.

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