“One weird trick” to improve retention

And that is as far down the path of click-bait marketing as I’m going at this time. But, it’s a good time to share with you a conversation that I have a dozen times with different law students at the beginning of spring semester.

Usually, a student consults with me in hopes of finding ways to improve upon their first semester performance. As a starting point, I’ll ask them to describe how they prepare for class. Most of the time, the student will say something like, well I look at my notes or the syllabus to see what the day’s assignment is, and I start to read. And then this is the point where students’ methodologies begin to diverge.

After they describe their class preparation routine to me, I ask the question, “When do you review material?” And typically the answer is either “once a week when I update outlines,” or “I don’t, and that’s why I’m asking for help.”

I then ask the student to commit to trying something new for at least two weeks. Some students are trusting and say, “Sure, anything, I just want to get better.” Other students are a bit more skeptical, “Maybe? Can I hear what you want me to do first?” And after getting either a commitment to try or a request for more information I launch into the following spiel:

When you sit down to study, before your open your book, syllabus, or planner to see what the reading assignment is. I want you to sit down with a blank page or a blank document and spend 3 to 5 minutes writing down everything you remember from the last few days in that course. Then once your timer goes off, take that no-longer blank document and compare it to your class notes from the last class or last week of classes and see what you didn’t remember. If it’s important, you’ve refreshed your memory through the omission and if it is not important, then it’s good you didn’t remember it.

At this point, some students raise their first objection, “But, Professor Baldwin, it takes me so long to read. I’m afraid that by putting review at the beginning I won’t get through my reading.” To which I respond:

This is why I’ve asked for you to commit to doing this for two weeks. For the first week, it is going to extend each study session by about 20 minutes, but once you get the hang of it, I’m confident that you’ll discover you’re spending less time working through the material.

Cue the puzzled looks. “Adding an activity to the beginning of my reading can help me read faster?”

I know it sounds wholly counter-intuitive, but in many cases, yes.

Then I tell a really bad joke.

“How long does it take you to reach 60 mph when you get in the car and press the accelerator?”

“I dunno, a few seconds”

“Never! Because you didn’t start the ignition.”

Just like driving a car requires us to undertake a few actions to make it operational, our brain is aided by us taking a few actions to orient it on the thing we want it to focus on.

So, this blank page review serves two important purposes for law students. First, it helps students practice recalling information, which is a necessary condition to success on law school finals. Secondly, it helps students’ brains transition from whatever they were doing into the head-space for the class they need to read for. Without an exercise like the blank page review I described above, the student spends the first few pages of reading in transition from whatever was going on into the head-space for the subject and so it is inefficient reading that is time consuming and doesn’t have the highest values of comprehension or retention.

Try it for two weeks. Let us know how it goes in the comments below.