Law School Academic Support Blog

Editor: Amy Jarmon
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Bar Takers: Better Learning via Linear Studying or Recursive Studying?

Congratulations December 2018 graduates!  What a herculean achievement!  Simply put, outstanding!

Nevertheless, I know that for many of you, right now it feels like a bit of a let down because you find yourself right back right back in the classroom as you prepare for your bar exam in February 2019.  

That's exactly how I felt.  Simply put, graduation felt a bit disingenuous as I had so much work left to be done to earn my law license.  However, let me be frank.  As you approach your bar studies, you are no longer a law student but a law school graduate.  It may not feel like much of a difference, but its important to recognize - throughout these two months of your bar review learning - that you are a new person with a new professional identity, trained and well-seasoned to think through, analyze, and communicate solutions to vast arrays of legal scenarios.  

Despite such remarkable progress as demonstrated by your law school graduation, many bar takers stumble in the first few weeks of bar prep, finding themselves increasing at odds with how to best learn and prepare themselves for the bar exam.  I sure did.  I spent much of the first few weeks trying to learn the law by, well, listening to professors talk about the law and watching professors talk about solving legal problems with the law.  Big mistake!  Cost me a lot of valuable time!  That's why I write to you, dear law school graduate and now bar taker.  Instead of focusing on learning the law, focus right from the get-go (i.e, that means right now, today!) on working through lots of practice problems each day.  In short, I was, unfortunately, a "linear learner," as Professor Catherine Christopher says in her wonderful book entitled Tackling Texas Essays (Carolina Academic Press 2018): https://cap-press.com/books/

I. Linear Learning

Let me explain a bit about the difference between linear learning and recursive learning.  As depicted by Professor Christopher in the diagram below from her book on successfully preparing for the bar exam , linear studying has a defined path.  And, as a bonus, it sure looks nice and orderly, leading to the illusion of a direct straight-line path to success.  Indeed, right now, many of you are focused (solely?) on watching videos, reviewing your notes, reading your commercial outlines, and making gigantic study tools.  But, if you are like me, you aren't yet taking practice exams (or are only doing very few of them at the most).  

 Figure 1  

Linear Learning (Professor Christopher 2018)

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However, as explained by Professor Christopher, that's a big problem.  Here's why.  You'll end up spending most of the 8 - 10 week bar prep period doing very few practice problems, trying instead to master the law so perfectly so that you'll have enough confidence in the last few weeks to do well on practice problems.  In short, you are afraid (I sure was!) to tackle practice problems because there's so much to know (and so many ways to make mistakes).  

However, that's a big problem because it's in our mistakes that we learn best.  We don't really learn by watching others. Who ever learned to play piano, play soccer, dance, or even litigate a case without practicing (which means "rehearing" and "acting out") what you hope to accomplish in the future with polish?  No one prepares to become an expert without first being a novice.  

But, as Professor Christopher comments, it feels really terrible, really terrible, to practice problems so early on because we make so many mistakes. But, if we delay practicing problems until the last few weeks possible, we make that practice much more of a high stake experience, in the words of Professor Christopher, such that there's no wiggle room for errors in our practicing experiences (so that there is no room for learning, either).  In my opinion, linear studying leads to disappointment and frustration.

But, there's good news ahead, for those of you who engage in recursive learning.

II. Recursive Learning

Now here's a bit about recursive learning.  As depicted in the diagram below from Professor Christopher's text, successfully preparing for the bar exam involves learning in a circular recursive process rather than a straight-line linear process.  

Figure 2

Recursive Learning (Professor Christopher 2018)

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As Professor Christopher explains, the first step - "reading and reviewing" - involves watching lectures, taking lectures notes, and reading outlines [about 4 hours or so per day].

But take note of second step in the circular process: "work to understand."  That means that we get involved in the learning, we take center stage, so to speak, in our own learning by "work[ing] to understand the material" so that it becomes real to us.  Just like learning a language, in which we start to start learning to speak and write a language by...speaking and writing a language! For bar takers, that means in this second stage that we make our own personal condensed notes or flashcards or other study tools to "help...get the information into [our] head[s]."  (Here's a snappy suggestion: Just take hold of one (1) blank piece of paper, and, referencing your lecture notes in hand, write down, scribble, flowchart, and doodle the major take-aways from that day's lecture.  Note: Don't let yourself get bogged down by trying to re-write your entire lecture notes; rather, focus only on big picture concepts because people pass the bar based on the big picture principles rather than the nitty picky details.).  [about 1 hour or so per day].

The last step takes real bravery, discipline, and honesty too.  And, it's vital for your learning. Start right away that very day, each day, by digging into actual bar exam questions, working through them one by one, using notes and outlines freely, and then reviewing practice answers afterwards to assess what went well along with concrete ways to improve with future practice problems.  Here's a key tip for your practice sessions:  Be super-curious when you miss a question; poke back around to the fact pattern - like a detective - to figure out whether you missed the question because you missed a rule or, more likely, you missed an important trigger fact in the fact pattern.  So, for example, if you write a picture-perfect IRAC essay but then notice that the problem didn't involve that rule, go back and figure out where in the facts the correct rule was triggered.  In short, don't just test yourself through practice problems but rather use the opportunity to learn through practice problems.  [about 3 to 4 hours or so per day]. (Then, as illustrated by Professor Christopher's diagram, the next day we begin again with another bar review lecture.). 

The great news is that throughout this process, while you might not feel like you are doing much learning, you are really dancing with the materials, making them your own, developing and finessing your critical reading, organizational, and writing skills.  In short, you are productively on the path to successfully preparing for your bar exam.

So, in the midst of this bar review season, take courage. Indeed, be of good cheer, as the holiday saying goes, because true learning takes its shape in you - step by step - through the daily process of recursive learning - (1) reviewing, (2) working to understand, and (3) then testing yourself through practices problems.  To be personal, I wish I had known this at the outset of my bar prep season.  So, feel free to step out of the "line" and learn!  Oh, and congratulations again on your graduation from law school!  What a wonderfully momentous accomplishment!  (Scott Johns).

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/academic_support/2018/12/better-bar-prep-linear-learning-or-recursive-learning.html

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