By Rupert Swallow
In this post, I discuss my difficulties in making the transition from English to Law and how using spaced, interleaved active recall, specifically with the app Anki, hugely improved my learning experience.
Perhaps a little unusually, I have two undergraduate degrees. Some ask how, most ask why. Essentially my first is in English Literature at Durham University, and then I did a second in Law from Cambridge University, in two years rather than the usual three. Initially I found changing from English to Law quite challenging. Because my Law course was accelerated, I had to hit the academic ground running. Instead I was in danger of falling flat on my face. However, discovering evidence-based learning strategies transformed my experience. Hopefully my story will be helpful for anyone starting a new course and finding it a little overwhelming.
Starting a New Course
While English and Law do share many skills, such as being able to write clearly and succinctly, the subjects are also quite different. Notably, the amount of content one has to learn, retain and apply in Law is definitely greater than in English.
Like many people, I struggled through my first term, constantly close to being submerged beneath a never-ending deluge of textbook chapters, cases and legislation. I read pages and pages and then remembered precious little in the tutorials. I couldn’t imagine learning everything for the end of year exams. More than anything, I kept thinking ‘Surely it shouldn’t be this hard. There must be a better way.’
Towards the end of my first term I had a conversation about this with a girl in the year above, who mentioned something called Anki. She said it was great for learning legal cases. I also began to research the science of learning. The more I looked into it, the more I discovered the treasure trove of evidence-based learning techniques; as well as the TILE website, Make It Stick is a must for anyone interested in ‘studying smarter, not harder’ (1).
Discovering there were science-supported ways of learning was a game-changer for me. Inspired, I started learning Law using a blended mix of spaced, interleaved retrieval practice with Anki flashcards, ‘connecting the dots’ using mind maps. Doing so, I made my way through the rest of the year, and the next, with much less struggle, enjoying my learning a huge amount more as a result.
Below I’ll briefly cover six strategies for effective learning, before focusing on how I use Anki to combine active recall, spaced repetition and interleaving to make the most of my time learning the Law. Finally I’ll discuss two studies to explain the surprising benefits of interleaving different types of questions.
Six Strategies for Effective Learning
As elaborated in many of the other articles on this website, there are a number of proven strategies for effective learning, supported by evidence from studies in cognitive psychology.
The main ones are (‘Six strategies for effective learning’, see Figure 1 below):
- Active recall — bringing the information to mind
- Spaced repetition — where studying is spread out over a period of time, rather than ‘massed’
- Interleaving — switching between topics during periods of learning
- Dual Coding — combining words and visuals
- Concrete examples — using specific examples to clarify abstract concepts
- Elaboration and Generation — expanding on a topic and creating connections between different ideas
Anki is essentially a digital flashcard app. It is free and available on Windows, Mac and mobile. It is really simple to make and review cards, and Anki uses a user-adjustable algorithm which will resurface, each day, the cards that you are about to forget. You review these along with your new cards. This means that you are constantly testing yourself on material you learnt a while ago. In one fell swoop you combine active recall (learning strategy 1) with spaced repetition (learning strategy 2).
As you can see, I have split the subject of Contract Law into a number of decks and subdecks (Figure 2). When you choose to review a particular deck, cards are presented randomly. This, importantly, brings interleaving (learning strategy 3) into play.
The two main types of card are 1. Basic ‘front – back’ flashcards (Figure 3), and 2. Cloze ‘fill in the blanks’ flashcards (Figure 4). You can see examples of both types below. The two kinds of cards are suited to different kinds of questions. ‘Front-back’ cards work very well for example for cases, because you can put the fact pattern on the front, and then the name of the case and the judicial decision on the back. Questions where more context is needed are better suited to ‘fill in the blanks’ cards. With both, you’ll see that you are first asked a question, and then shown the answer. Depending how well you answered, you choose one of the 4 options which pop up at the bottom. The time interval with that option dictates when you will see the question again.
Active Recall and Spaced Repetition
The TILE website already has several excellent articles on both active recall and spaced repetition, so I’ll only touch on them.
Active recall is the process of calling information to mind, of testing. Many studies show it is much more effective for learning than for example rereading, highlighting, summarising, or even concept mapping (3). Students also tend to underrate its efficacy. Active recall is at the heart of Anki, since every flashcard is a little test, requiring the user to pull the information from their memory.
The benefits of spaced repetition are similarly well known. In summary:
The spacing effect refers to the nearly ubiquitous finding that items studied once and revisited after a delay are recalled better in the long term than are items studied repeatedly with no intervening delay (4).
The key is to review something just as you are about to forget it. This has the dual benefit of maximising the spacing effect, and meaning you spend the least time working on each area. In practice, it’s easy to find the sweet spot with a few tweaks to Anki’s settings (if you want to learn exactly how, please see my blog article here).
Interleaving is the process of studying several disparate topics in one session. It has powerful, and often overlooked, benefits for learning, as two important studies show. In the first study, maths questions were practised either blocked by problem type, or mixed together (5). Interestingly, although the Blockers performed better in practice, the Mixers significantly outperformed them in the final test (see Figures 5, 6, and 7 below). More on this below.
The Mixers were constantly having to decide what kind of question they were being asked, and which piece of information to apply. Practicing discriminating between question types strengthens the neural pathways leading to the relevant pieces of information. By contrast the Blockers never had to use this kind of cognitive effort, because they knew what kind of question they were answering. This explains the Mixers’ higher test scores.
As an aside, the authors also show there are negligible benefits to studying something you already know (‘overlearning’) (6). This is why the ‘easy’ button in Anki is so useful; you waste very little time on what you already know.
In the second study, college students learnt to recognise art by relatively unknown artists (4). One group studied all works of one kind, then moved onto the next kind. The other group studied the artworks mixed up, i.e. interleaved. As in the maths study, students learnt the styles better when paintings were interleaved than when they were massed together.
More than this, they were also better at judging the styles of works they had not seen; studying the paintings interleaved showed the differences between the styles, increasing their ability to distinguish between them (7). This is relevant because it is exactly the skill that Anki teaches when it presents cards randomly from a deck/topic area, and exactly the skill which will be tested in an exam paper.
As with active recall and at odds with the objective outcome of this study, interleaved practice did not feel especially effective. Most learners were sure they had learnt better with the massed learning strategy than with the interleaved strategy, even after they had seen their test results. In spite of how it feels, we should interleave our learning; trust the science!
I’m sure many people have felt like I did during my first term of Law, whether they are changing subjects and starting a new course; TILE recently had a talk on this very subject. I hope you’ve found something practical here to help you. Even if you don’t start using Anki regularly, I would highly recommend having a think about how you currently learn, and how you can make learning easier for yourself.
About the Blog Post Author:
Rupert Swallow studied English at Durham and Law at Cambridge, and will shortly start a career as a solicitor. Over the last 3 years he has increasingly used evidence-based learning techniques both personally and professionally as a tutor to make the most of work hours, and free up time for his other interests such as photography, ski racing and juggling. He is pleased to contribute to the TILE Network’s Student Voice series. You can find more of his articles about studying, English, Law, and university, on his website: https://rupertswallow.com/
TILE Student Voice
This is a new section of the TILE Network that features the student voice in learning and teaching. We want to shine a light on the student perspective when it comes to teaching and learning practice and what better way to do this then letting the students express this themselves. This series also aims to give students to opportunity to engage in science communication and writing. Broadcasting scientific findings to a wider audience is a valuable skill and TILE provides students with the platform to practice that skill.
If you are a student and interested in contributing to the TILE Student Voice section, get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make It Stick. Harvard University Press.
- The Learning Scientists ‘Six strategies for effective learning’ resource available at: https://www.learningscientists.org/downloadable-materials.
- Karpicke, J. D., & Blunt, J. R. (2011). Retrieval practice produces more learning than elaborative studying with concept mapping. Science, 331, 772-775.
- Kornell, N., & Bjork, R. A. (2008). Learning concepts and categories: Is spacing the “enemy of induction”? Psychological Science, 19, 585-592.
- Rohrer, D., & Taylor, K. (2007). The shuffling of mathematics problems improves learning. Instructional Science, 35, 481-498.
- Rohrer, D., & Taylor, K. (2006). The effects of overlearning and distributed practise on the retention of mathematics knowledge. Applied Cognitive Psychology: The Official Journal of the Society for Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 20(9), 1209-1224.
- Kang, S. H. K., & Pashler, H. (2012). ‘Learning painting styles: Spacing is advantageous when it promotes discriminative contrast.’ Applied Cognitive Psychology, 26, 97-103.