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Exam Prep Success: Spaced Repetition & Other Resources

April 23, 2024

Do you need a break? Science shows that taking deliberate, planned breaks from studying, a technique called spaced repetition, may make the time you spend studying more effective. Read on for more tips & resources.

Author: Paul Riermaier

Do you need a break? Science shows that taking deliberate, planned breaks from studying, a technique called spaced repetition, may make the time you spend studying more effective. Read on for more tips about how to make your studying as efficient as possible. We’ll also discuss some general exam preparation resources that are available at Biddle.

Spaced Repetition Overview

Spaced repetition is a learning process that relies on repeated exposure to material at regular intervals, rather than continuous or prolonged cramming. Brian Sites, Learning Theory and the Law: Spaced Retrieval and the Law School Curriculum, 43 LAW & PSYCHOL. REV. 99, 104 (2018). By returning to material at spaced repetitions, you can counteract the forgetfulness that naturally occurs over time and more readily retain information.

Anyone who has tried to keep a mental grocery list is familiar with the memory loss that occurs as you get farther away from your first exposure to information. For example, if you are headed to the grocery store to buy apples, yogurt, cereal, polenta, and strawberries, it’s pretty easy to remember those five items immediately after seeing them. However, when you have to remember that list at the grocery store you might find that some of the items have already faded from your memory.

The spaced repetition process works by anticipating when a piece of information is likely to fade from your memory and interrupts that forgetting process with a reintroduction to the information. This reintroduction of information over time increases the information’s stickiness in your memory until it eventually is not at risk of being forgotten. The chart below shows how forgetfulness is arrested by regular review of information.

Chart: Forgetting curve and work of Ebbinghaus

Diagram attribution: Productive.Fish, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Spaced repetition was first conceptualized and tested in the 19th Century. Id. at 104. Following a resurgence of interest in the technique, the efficacy of spaced repetition has more recently been tested in higher education environments and its effectiveness has been demonstrated among biology students, math students, med students, and surgical residents. Gabriel H. Teninbaum, Spaced Repetition: A Method for Learning More Law in Less Time, 17 J. HIGH TECH. L. 273, 287-88 (2016).

While spaced repetition can help with both retention of information and understanding, it should not be the only study technique that is used. Rather, spaced repetition should be used in conjunction with other techniques like working through practice exams and case analysis exercises. Louis N. Jr. Schulze, 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, 247 (2018).

The effect of repeated exposure to information via spaced repetition and regularly retrieving that information from your memory, like when taking a practice exam, leads to better overall retention and mastery of material. Brian Sites, Learning Theory and the Law: Spaced Retrieval and the Law School Curriculum, 43 LAW & PSYCHOL. REV. 99, 107 (2018).

Using Spaced Repetition 

One of the challenges of incorporating spaced repetition into your learning repertoire is knowing how to space the learning repetitions. Helpfully, there are now online tools that incorporate spaced repetition algorithms in conjunction with feedback from the learner on the difficulty of remembering a piece of information have vastly improved the ease and effectiveness of using spaced repetition. Gabriel H. Teninbaum, Spaced Repetition: A Method for Learning More Law in Less Time, 17 J. HIGH TECH. L. 273, 289-93 (2016).

Some commercial, paid products that use spaced repetition are available, like SpacedRepetetition.com, which is designed specifically for law students and SuperMemo.com, which is focused on language learners. However, a free open-source tool called Anki is widely used among spaced repetition learners. 

One benefit to Anki is that users can create their own “decks” of learning material. There is quite a bit of theory that goes into effectively formulating a deck, including that a card within a deck should be as simple and straightfoward as possible and include only the minimum information needed. Piotr Wozniak, Effective Learning: Twenty Rules of Formulating Knowledge, SuperMemo (last visited April 22, 2024).

Another nice feature of Anki is that users can share any decks that they have created with others. For example, here are decks on the Federal Rules of Evidence, Property Law, Criminal Law, and the MPRE. Of course, when working with decks created by others you should first evaluate whether the information included is accurate and relevant to your studies. Explore some of the decks and see whether using Anki or a comparable spaced repetition tool would be appropriate for your learning. And if you need more information about how to use Anki there are different tutorials available on the web.

Before we conclude discussing spaced repetition, let’s test your memory. Can you recall the five items on our grocery store list?

I’ll give you a moment. 

And if you said apples, yogurt, cereal, polenta, and strawberries, well done! If not, just remember that forgetting information is natural and there are techniques, like spaced repetition that can help you more easily retain important material.

Other Exam Preparation Materials from Biddle

Spaced repetition likely is best suited for rules-based subject matters, like evidence. If you are looking for other material that may help prepare for exams, Biddle has a number of resources that you can consult.

Book Cover: Getting to Maybe
Getting to Maybe: How to Excel on Law School Exams

This classic guide provides advice on how to succeed in law school and effectively prepare for and take exams. Material covered includes tips for briefing a case, how to outline a statute, and advice and exercises for issue spotting.

 

Book Cover: Mastering the Law School Exam
Mastering the Law School Exam: A Practical Blueprint for Preparing and Taking Law School Exams

This book focuses on the typical features of a law school exam and looks at common features and pitfalls of certain course-specific exams, including torts, criminal law, civil procedure, contracts, property, evidence, and constitutional law. Notably, in Chapter 10, the book goes into detail about how to best use practice exams to prepare.

And in line with the advice to use spaced repetition in conjunction with retrieval and application exercises, like taking practice exams, the author notes that “Memorization of the rule, by itself, won’t help you to master the reasoning process … . Only ‘doing the questions’ will help you get better at answering them.” SUZANNE DARROW-KLEINHAUS, MASTERING THE LAW SCHOOL EXAM : A PRACTICAL BLUEPRINT FOR PREPARING AND TAKING LAW SCHOOL EXAMS 199 (Second ed. 2023).

Book Cover: How to Write Law Exams
How to Write Law Exams: IRAC Perfected

This guide does not cover exam study and preparation practices but is instead focused exclusively on effectively formulating and writing a successful law school exam response. The author states that there are two steps to succeeding in a typical law school course, learning the material and then “present[ing] your knowledge in the best possible light,” which is achieved via a well-written exam response. STACIE STRONG, HOW TO WRITE LAW EXAMS : IRAC PERFECTED 2 (Second ed. 2020).

 

Bok Cover: Law School Success in a Nutshell

Law School Success in a Nutshell: A Guide to Studying and Taking Law School Exams

This guide in the Nutshell Series provides guidance on making the most of your law school experience, including a section that covers different study aids and how to prepare for and take exams. Also included are sample exam questions and answers.

 

Study Aids and Past Exams

If you are looking for study aids for a specific topic, check out the Study Aids Research Guide, which details Biddle’s large collection of digital study aids and course supplements. And you can find Penn Carey Law Past Exams on the law school’s SharePoint site. Past exams are made available based on each professor’s individual policy and are not managed or controlled by Biddle Law Library.