Law & politics

Puzzling Law

Los Watkins explores the impact of word puzzles on students’ retention of learning

Los Watkins, Lecturer in the Middlesex University School of Law, provides a personal analysis of the pedagogic use of word puzzles in his teaching.

When our students arrive at University, we ask them to approach the study of law in a number of different ways. For instance, we ask them to self-motivate and self-learn to a far greater extent than they have been used to in their school and college education. We also ask them, essentially, to do three things with the law they are taught: to know it, to understand it, and to analyse it.

We ask that they learn cases and statutes, so that they can cite the relevant law; we ask that they understand it in order to choose the apposite case or statute; and we ask that they apply the law to particular issues or scenarios. This, traditionally, has been the accepted route to academic training as a lawyer.

Puzzling Law

However, I would suggest that in addition to these three requirements, we also need to structure our course modules to aid retention of the first two above, knowledge and understanding, in order to aid rapid analysis. This paper will examine, briefly, the theory of academic legal retention through the traditional teaching model, and give an account of my own attempt to aid students in their own personal retention of law.

Modes of learning

If we consider three widely recognised modes of learning, Surface Learning (generally accepted as learning by rote – simply acquiring knowledge without necessarily also acquiring understanding), Deep Learning (the optimum, where the delivery of rich core content to students is in innovative ways that allow them to acquire knowledge, understand and then apply what they have learned) and Strategic Learning (where students strategize their own learning – for instance, ‘question-picking’ for an upcoming exam), then it has been generally accepted that the most effective educative results are gained by the practise of deep learning  (“…knowledge acquired at a deep level of understanding is more likely to be retained than knowledge acquired at a surface level of understanding, and knowledge tested more than once during a course is more likely to be retained than knowledge tested only once.”Bacon and Stewart, 2006.)

Studies have also shown – the most widely disseminated being from the National Training Laboratories Institute for Applied Behavioral (sic) Science in Maine, USA – that the initial learning experience is at its most effective when backed up. In this study, average knowledge retention rates two weeks after a lecture were only 5% of the content accurately retained when no extra retention activities were used, but this percentage rose to 75% when the lecture was followed by reading, discussion groups, demonstration and practice, and to 90% when peer-teaching activities were also added.

Enhancing information retention

Given this data, I decided to see how I could best aid students with their retention in my seminars. It is usual that in seminars and workshops, we discuss, demonstrate and practice, and give students the opportunity to present (“teach”) to their peer group, but in order to try and enhance retention rates, I decided to employ some word puzzle activities in different module groups. Puzzles were chosen as all students, I presumed, would be familiar with some form of this pastime, and would not, therefore, require  training or instruction to add to the complexity of the exercise.

Completing puzzles would also require students to utilise retention and cognitive skills such as application, rather than simply repeating back pure knowledge-based information. My study covered three years in two different universities, with one module group kept as a baseline control to the usual seminar format, and a multiple-choice questionnaire (mcq) completed by all groups, whether participating in the puzzles or not. The study covered Tort, and specifically, Psychiatric Injury.

I decided on three different types of puzzle: the traditional crossword, the word search (where words are secreted within a square of random letters) and missing letters with clues, where some of the word/s are partially completed. The clues and words were designed to be very simple – mostly the names of the most important cases, and none were ‘cryptic’.

The effects of ‘puzzling’ law

The initial results from the exercise were interesting insofar as the students found the last two types of puzzle familiar and easy to understand but, with very few exceptions, the crossword was something they had not attempted before, and they found the concept challenging.

I tested the student retention level of the subject area after a few weeks using a further mcq and taking their verbal feedback on how they had found the exercise. The latter was positive in that they had enjoyed the exercise, with the exception of the crossword, which they generally disliked. The retention through the mcq was also positive, with the average score in every case being higher by 8% in the groups which had done the puzzle exercise. In the end of year exam, the Psychiatric Injury question was attempted by, respectively, 16% and 18% more students than in the previous year, where there had been the usual seminars, and average marks for the question were 7% higher.

Whilst there are, of course, very many variables in these results – for example, standard of student, exact question, comparison with other questions – which may have had an effect outside of the puzzle issue, there does seem to have been an increase in retention and students seem to have felt more comfortable with the area of Tort.

This blog is a personal study, initially concerning my attempt to address the knowledge retention issue in a specific module. In that area, the use of the puzzles as a pedagogical tool did indeed seem to increase students’ retention of information, and (they said) made their seminar and therefore study of that area of law more interesting.  Given the initial encouraging results of the exercise, I therefore intend extending the use of puzzles in my seminars.

For further exploration of academic references, please contact Los via email

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