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Spaced Repetition & Interleaved Practice in Legal Research Instruction

Researchers refer to single-minded practice as "massed practice." This concentrated practice is thought to embed skills into memory. Unfortunately, while many students and teachers believe this to be the best way to learn, research doesn't support that idea. The problem with massed practice is that it is often accompanied by quick forgetting. Practice is important, but it is considerably more effective when it's spaced out--there's better retention and mastery.

It can be tough to convince our students of the benefits of spaced repetition. As Brown et al. point out in Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning:

 "[T]hese benefits come at a price: when practice is spaced, interleaved, and varied, it requires more effort. You feel the increased effort, but not the benefits the effort produces. Learning feels slower from this kind of practice, and you don't get the rapid improvements and affirmations you're accustomed to seeing from massed practice. Even in studies where the participants have shown superior results from spaced learning, they don't perceive the improvement; they believe they learned better on the material where practice was massed." [1]

Obviously, since this kind of learning requires more effort and doesn't lead to rapid improvement, students may push back against it. There are a couple ways we, as instructors, can help. The first is to explain the science to our students. Be upfront about its benefits to learning and why you are using this methodology--to ensure our law students fully absorb these critical research and analysis skills that they will be using over their lifetime in practice.

The second is to plan our syllabi carefully, spreading out skills across the semester. For example, rather than spending multiple class sessions focusing solely on statutes and then moving on to cases, blend these skills across the semester (and, where possible, across students' entire law school careers) so they are re-engaging with the skills they were introduced to in past weeks throughout the semester. Yes, this can challenge both the student and the teacher, as the grasp of each individual skill will come slower, but the good news is that interleaved practice has the same benefits as spaced repetition--long-term retention and mastery of the skills.

An added bonus is that interleaving and variation also help students "learn better how to assess context and discriminate between problems, selecting and applying the correct solution from a range of possibilities." [2] Given that employers and teachers of legal research report that students have difficulty applying their research skills to new contexts, it is clear that while interleaving and spaced repetition may challenge our students more, they would also better prepare our students for practice.

[1] Peter C. Brown et al., Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning 47 (2014).

[2] Id. at 53.

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