Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Memorization v Understanding

If you are taking the February Bar Exam, you might be currently feeling the panic of how much you have to memorize. Well, don't! I know, easier said than done, so let me give you some tips.

Full disclosure - this is from an upcoming book, The Ultimate Guide to the UBE,  written with my co-authors Toni Miceli and Tania Shah. (I have edited it slightly for brevity)

So hopefully this helps you tackle all the memorizing you need to do. And remember, it doesn't feel like you have much time, but you DO, just use it wisely!

Why Not Just Memorize?

First of all, memorization is a bad word. We hate it. We want you to remember, or recall, but not memorize. Why do we make such a big deal about this? Well, for a couple reasons:

First, our brain is awful at memorization. Briefly, we have short term memory, long term memory, and memory retrieval. Short term memory can also be called working memory. It’s like a short picture that only lasts a few minutes. Next is long term memory, where memories are stored for – you guessed it – the long term. And finally, memory retrieval, or the ability to pull that information out of long-term storage so you can actually use it. This is the piece you are concerned with for the bar exam and it is also the most difficult to achieve.

So, your aim isn’t really to “memorize” – that is just putting information into storage, perhaps without understanding what it even means or how to apply it. Your aim is to remember the information and be able to recall it when you need it on the exam. Recall means that you can remember a concept AND remember how to apply that concept. If you have only memorized the law, but don’t sufficiently understand it, you won’t be able to effectively apply the law. 

Also, if you focus on memorization, instead of learning, you will get overwhelmed and stressed.  It is pretty much not humanly possible to memorize ALL the law that is tested on the bar exam, so if you are striving for memorization, you are already fighting a losing battle. Striving to memorize that much law verbatim is a stressor you just don’t need.

Conversely, if you work to understand the law, meaning you have a general understanding of the concepts, the recall part comes naturally, without the struggle. We once had a student who had taken the bar 13 times before he met us. After working with him, we realized he had memorized all of the rules, and we mean verbatim. He could tell you the rule number, and the exact wording. But he kept failing because he didn’t know how to apply the rules he memorized to the question. We want more for you – so stick with us and learn just how to get to that magical recall stage!

Okay – So There Is Some Memorization Involved

Even though we stress that recall and understanding is better than memorization, there ARE some things you will need to memorize. After all, whether it’s an essay or MBE question, you need a rule before you can start to do your analysis. In addition, there are some rules where it is important to know it verbatim, such as the various standards of review in constitutional law. So, what CAN you do to make that memorization process a little easier?

  1. The Power of Story and Emotion

Let’s start with a story. Memory is often tied to stories, and strong emotions. That is why our autobiographical information is easy to recall. We might smell a certain food, and fondly remember a lovely family celebration we had as a child. These memories are typically vivid and strong. That’s because we process them as stories, not facts. If you are at a party, you don’t focus on individual details to remember, like the color of the walls, or the music playing, and consciously try to memorize it. You remember it because it’s happening to you – it’s a story. In addition, you are more likely to have a vivid memory of that party if you are feeling a strong emotion, usually intense happiness.

So, how do you make this work for bar review? The act of studying doesn’t make for a good story, and you aren’t likely to feel very strong emotions (at least not about the material you are studying). You may be feeling frustration, or stress, but those feelings actually have a counterproductive impact on memory.

That means it’s up to you to manufacture stories and happiness for the bar exam. Don’t just stare at outlines, or black letter law. Instead, complete more and more practice questions, which are, themselves, stories. Or, even better, make up new hypotheticals of your own – the more ridiculous the better. If you’ve seen any of us lecture on any bar topic, you know we love crazy stories. We are sure our students often roll their eyes and wonder why we are being ridiculous. But it’s to help with memory. The more absurd or ridiculous our examples, the more likely you are to remember the law!

Also, manufacture happiness, as much as you can. Studies have shown that people who are placed in a room with simple smiling faces do better on memory tasks. So, surround yourself with happy photos or pictures of your pets. Call one another on zoom and make up ridiculous hypotheticals until you are all laughing. You don’t have to be happy about taking the bar exam to manufacture happiness that will help you be properly prepared for the bar exam.

  1. Practice

Remember how we mentioned that practice questions are actually stories? That means that each MBE fact pattern you read, and each essay hypothetical you mark up, are stories that you can hold onto! So, not only will practice questions make you better at tackling the actual essays or MBE questions on your bar exam, but practice questions give your brain stories to hold on to, which also helps your memory! For instance, if you are trying to memorize the rule for parol evidence, completing 10 MBE questions on parol evidence, and then really reviewing the answer and explanation for each question and learning from each question, will serve you much more than just reviewing your outline over and over again. Actively engaging with the material trumps passive reading and re-reading of the material every time.

  1. Chunking

In cognitive psychology, chunking is a process by which a larger unit of information is broken down into smaller units (or chunks) of information, that are easier to retain in your memory. Research shows that your brain can typically only remember 7 items at once. By chunking related items together into these smaller chunks, you are reducing the number of items your brain has to remember.

So, what does chunking information mean for you and your bar exam preparation? The short answer is that chunking is going to help you memorize learn the law you need for the bar exam, and help you group it in ways that will assist you in both recalling and applying it, as needed.  So, the first step in chunking is to think not just about how the pieces of information relate to each other, but also about how you will need to use the information. This is one reason we place practice so highly. When you go to memorize the law, you can’t memorize it in a vacuum.

Spacing It Out So You Don’t Space Out

Your brain learns more effectively when you space out information. Think of it like this: If you are building a brick wall, you need to let the mortar in between the bricks dry before you stack even more bricks on top, or the wall will topple. Similarly, you let one coat of paint dry before you put on another. The same is true with memory. By taking strategically placed breaks between study, we can improve our memory of that material. So how does this work? Read on!

  1. Let’s Begin with the Forgetting Curve

It is almost universally accepted that memories decay over time. The good news is that researchers have discovered that we can predict when those memories will begin to decay. This is known as the forgetting curve.  In 1885, psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus discovered that beginning just after a person learns new information, their ability to remember that information (or recall it) starts to decay. He tracked how much information his subjects could recall over time, and discovered that the greater the period of time in between the subject taking in the new information and being asked to recall it, the smaller amount of that information the subjects were able to recall. However, Ebbinghaus also discovered that while the initial rate of decline in recall is fairly steep, the rate of decay declines with time. This means that memories that “survive” become less likely to be lost over time. This also means that the longer you are able to retain a memory in the initial stage, the slower the information will decay over time

  1. The Spacing Effect

So, how do you slow down this memory loss, or memory decay? The answer lies in spacing out your study. Spacing out learning and review helps adjust the forgetting curve. If you allow longer periods of time in between review sessions, you’ll improve memory.

Now, the trouble with the spacing effect for purposes of your bar exam preparation is that you really have too much learn, and not enough time to learn it in! So, what can you do instead? You can still apply the concept of spacing but pair it with something called interleaving.

Interleaving is mixing subjects up as you study. So, while normal, or “blocked”, practice is the idea that you will study one concept, or topic, until you feel comfortable and then move on, interleaving is the mixing of those subjects. Interleaving has been shown to be more effective than blocked practice for developing problem solving skills, and also leads to long term memory retention – both things useful for the bar exam!

Interleaving also forces the brain to continually retrieve information, which is also something you need for the bar exam because each MBE or essay prompt is different from the last, which means your short term memory won’t help you. Interleaving also improves the brain’s ability to differentiate between concepts. Again, something you need for the bar exam!

So what is the catch? Well, because interleaving involves retrieval practice, it feels more difficult than blocked practice. So, it’s going to feel worse. It’s going to feel like you aren’t understanding concepts. So, it’s important to remind yourself that while this style of studying feels worse, it has better long-term results. Think of interleaving like working out; you know it’s working when you are sore the next morning.

So, each day during your bar exam preparation study a variety of topics. Yes, there will be instances where it makes more sense to focus on one topic for a few hours. But if you are looking to increase your ability to recall the information, make sure you are switching in between torts and contracts, and then civil procedure, and then property, and so forth.

Another version of interleaving, which isn’t quite as effective, but is still helpful, is to change how or what you are studying. Don’t spend one full day practicing MBE questions, and then another full day practicing essays. Similarly, don’t spend one day completely listening to videos, or reviewing outlines. Instead, complete 15 MBE questions, and then write out one essay, and then review some flashcards, and so forth. The more you are making your brain jump between topics and activities, the more your brain has to work, and that means your brain is more likely to recall the information you are studying. You are also less likely to lose focus or get bored, which again, means you are more likely to recall the information.

  1. The Testing Effect

Finally, to our favorite part of the puzzle – the testing effect. We mentioned before that practice increases memory. We regularly hear students stress over getting questions wrong during practice and review. While we understand why they might get frustrated, they are missing the point of the practice – by testing yourself, you are actually increasing the odds that you will remember that concept the next time it appears before you.

Basically, people recall previously-learned information at a higher rate when they have tested themselves, versus just passively observing or reading the information. This is why we encourage you to complete more practice questions instead of merely reviewing your outline. There is a time and place for passive review, but your memory really gets better each time you actively engage with the material by testing yourself on it.

In addition, while testing without feedback will help with recall, the effect is even stronger when the testing is associated with meaningful feedback. So, what does this mean for you? Make sure to fully review each and every answer and explanation, whether it is an MBE question or an essay question! In fact, that is one of the purposes of this book: reviewing with meaningful reflection and feedback. 

Finally, as you practice bar exam questions, don’t think of doing practice questions as assessment, or as an indicator of how much you know. While practice questions can be both of those things, we want you to start thinking of practice questions as a way to increase long term memory!

Studies show that self-testing even a single time can be as effective as reviewing information five times. One study gave students a schedule to learn vocabulary words, some including testing and some including studying. A week later, the students who did the testing remembered 80% of the vocabulary words, while non-testing students only remembered 35% of the vocabulary words. Now, first, we should point out that memorizing vocabulary words is easier than memorizing legal concepts. In addition, the bar exam is asking you to APPLY those legal concepts, which you can’t do with memory alone. So think about it – do you want to do one multiple choice question, or review your flash card five times? We think the answer is pretty clear.

So – what’s the takeaway from this chapter? Well, practice definitely makes prepared because it helps your memory and your recall. And again – breaks are still a good idea!


(Melissa Hale)

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