Thursday, February 11, 2021
Wow; do I ever get distracted...with emails...incoming snapchats....Facebook posts....and just the overall buzz of the omnipresent internet. There is so much NOISE that takes up so much of my TIME that I seem to get so LITTLE done. That's particularly true for me in preparing for big exams because, to be honest, I am a big-time procrastinator...with a CAPITAL P!
In fact, I was just fretting about how much I had to do (which, of course, is related to my procrastination issues) when I came across an article by Lucette Lugando describing how surgeons stay focused during organ transplants.
Hum...That's what I need. To Focus. To Stay on Task. To Just Get Something Meaningful Done Today! http://www.wsj.com/articles/how-surgeons-stay-focused-for-hours-1479310052
So, here are a few thoughts that I gleaned from Lugando's article that might be especially handy for law graduates preparing for the Feb 2021 bar exam (and for people like me who live to procrastinate):
First, put away my cellphone. Turn it off. Hide it. Ditch it.
As detailed in Lugando's article, "Transplant surgeons, whose work includes stitching minuscule blood vessels together, minimize their distractions. No one checks cellphones in the operating room during surgery."
No one checks their phones? Really? Are you kidding? Of course not, at least not during surgery. And, bar exam preparation requires us to do surgery, so to speak, on our study tools and on loads of practice exams.
Thus, as I create study tools or as I learn by taking practice exams, I can help myself mightily by placing my focus on my work at hand... rather than the cellphone that is so often in my hand...by removing the "cellphone temptation" out of my grasp. Who knows? It might even lower my anxiety to stop looking at it constantly.
Second, sharpen my field of vision to just the essentials (working on my study tools, practicing lots of exam questions, and looping the lessons learned from my practice problems back into my study tools) by creating an environment that is free of my own personal distractions...so that I focus on learning rather than the noise that is so often around me.
As Lugando points out, "The surgeons often wear loupes mounted on eye glasses to magnify their work, which limits their field of vision to a few inches."
In other words, with respect to bar exam preparation, maybe I need to limit my field of vision to the "few" essentials, namely, creating study tools, testing my study tools out through practice exams, and then editing my study tools to incorporate what I learned about problem-solving through the practice exams.
There's a saying, apparently by Winston Churchill, that says: "You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks." Or, as Bruce Lee put it, "The successful warrior is the average [person] with a laser-like focus."
So, instead of having the cellphone bark at you constantly, you might just try out what surgeons do...and turn your focus into a laser by getting rid of distractions during the final two weeks of bar prep as you create your study tools and practice lots and lots of bar exam problems.
In the process, you'll become, to paraphrase Bruce Lee, a bar exam champion. (Scott Johns).
Tuesday, February 9, 2021
Here it is, Tuesday evening, and I am finally settling down to write another blogfest – this, like many weeks, despite having specifically placed this high enough up on my to-do list that I genuinely expected to be starting in the early afternoon. The problem – one I am sure we are all familiar with – is not the writing, but all the other things I had planned to finish beforehand, which took far longer than I had originally estimated they would. Fortunately, such difficulties are illustrative of this week’s topic of discussion – the planning fallacy and how to counteract it.
The planning fallacy is a simple psychological phenomenon: human beings’ predictions about the time needed to complete a future task are usually significant underestimations. In some cases, wild underestimations: for example, when construction began on the Sydney Opera House in 1959, it was expected to be completed by 1963, but the site was not actually finished until 1973. Daniel Kahneman and his partner Amos Tversky were the first to describe this phenomenon, more than forty years ago, and Kahneman writes about it in his wonderful book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. He explains it as a kind of optimism bias, a tendency of people to adopt the rosiest scenarios as they imagine how a task will proceed. Later scholars added other nuances to this explanation. One reason for this apparent optimism bias, for example, might be the self-serving human tendency, when considering similar past situations, to take personal credit for all the things that went right (and thus assume they will go right again in the future), but to attribute errors and delays to outside forces that they presume will not occur again.1 Nassem Taleb, in his book Antifragile, suggests it may not only be a psychological phenomenon, but also a consequence of a natural asymmetry: whenever circumstances or events cause a deviation from a well-laid-out plan, chances are far greater that the disruption will lead to delay than to expedition, so that the sum total of all deviations would always be expected to be postponement.
How many times have we seen the planning fallacy in action amongst our students? Just in the past month, I have met with returning students, vowing to perform better in this coming spring semester, who base this determination on unaccountably confident projections of all the steps they will complete to do so. I have worked with February bar examinees, noses to the grindstone, who despite their genuine efforts are finding themselves slipping behind their intended schedules. Not every student suffers from this bias, of course, and many of those who experience the bias don't actually suffer for it, either because they start with ambitious goals that leave plenty of leeway or because they find the extra time and energy to offset their underestimated projections. Still, every year brings a significant crop of students who do not perform as well as they might have, because they seriously underestimate how long it will take them to complete an essay test question, compile a useful outline, learn the rules governing a specific legal topic, research, draft, and edit a significant writing assignment, or attend to the demands of student organizations.
Fortunately, the psychologists and scientists who have studied the planning fallacy have suggested a few strategies that can be used to counteract it, and these strategies are easily adoptable -- or correspond to techniques already used -- by academic support professionals. In his book, Kahneman suggests the use of reference class forecasting -- that is, making predictions of the time needed to complete a task based not on a person's (or an entity's) internal sense of how long it should take them, but on observations of actual outcomes in prior similar situations. In other words, if I were going to build an opera house, I might start off by assuming I could get it done in a few years, but if I considered how long it took to build the one in Sydney (and of course in other locations), I should understand that it is likely to take more than a decade. Many of us do something at least adjacent to this with our students already -- providing them with estimates about how long they should expect to take to complete a case brief, for example, or to study for the MPRE -- but the idea of reference class forecasting suggests that it might be even more powerful to refer specifically to prior performances by other students. Instead of saying, "You should devote at least 24 hours," it might be more effective to say, "Last year, every student who devoted 4 hours a day, every Saturday and Sunday, for three weeks, completed this successfully."
Another suggestion is the use of the segmentation effect. It has been observed that a person's estimate of the total time it will take to complete a task will be longer -- and thus likely more accurate -- if they are asked to segment the task (break the task down into a number of sub-tasks), to estimate the time it will take to complete each sub-task, and then to add all those times together to come up with the total time.2 However, there is a cognitive cost to being mindful and particular enough to break complex tasks down into numerous sub-tasks, and, without help, this kind of approach may be hard to learn and sustain. Fortunately, this is just the kind of help we can give, especially to inexperienced students who may not be able to envision how a long-term task can be broken down, or even what all the steps involved might be. By providing students with a framework of what to expect, and encouraging them to think realistically about what it will take to build each part of that framework, we can help them to stay on track, or at least in the general vicinity of the track, by using the segmentation effect.
Finally, another tool that has been suggested to combat the planning fallacy is the implementation intention, a term coined by Peter Gollwitzer for a particular model of thinking about future actions. Encouraging people to think specifically about when, where, and how they will act towards their goal tends to make them more likely to move forward steadily, and in a timely way, towards them. For example, people who received a telephone call in which someone asked them what time they planned to vote, from where they would be heading to the polling place, and what they would be doing just before they left to vote -- all questions designed to prompt them to think about when, where, and how they would vote -- were more likely to vote than those who did not receive the phone call.3 The mental IF-->THEN statement (as in, "If I am aiming to take a practice exam, then I should get a copy of an old exam from the library on Friday") is the implementation intention that moves people apace towards their goals. This, too, is something that academic support professionals do, or can do. By querying students about the specifics of how they expect to achieve their long-term goals, we can induce them to map out their plans in advance, changing vague ambitions about what they would like to achieve into articulable steps (the implementation intentions) that they can follow methodically to their desired ends within the time they have available.
It is a natural human tendency to overestimate what can be done in a given period of time. By helping our students account for this tendency, even if we cannot help them complete everything, we can at least help them get in a position where they've done enough to succeed.
1(1995) It's About Time: Optimistic Predictions in Work and Love, European Review of Social Psychology, 6:1, 1-32,
Tuesday, February 2, 2021
Sarah Schendel, Listen! Amplifying the Experiences of Black Law School Graduates in 2020, __ Nebraska L. Rev. __ (forthcoming 2021).
From the abstract:
Law students graduating in 2020 faced a number of unusual challenges. However, perhaps no students faced more emotional, psychological, logistical, and financial challenges than Black law school graduates in 2020. In addition to changes in the administration of the bar exam (including the use of technology that struggled to recognize Black faces) and delays in the administration of the exam that led to anxiety and increased financial instability, Black communities were concurrently being disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic led to increased care-taking responsibilities for many, concerns over the health of family members, and a lack of quiet and reliable space to study. Black law school graduates already struggling to juggle these challenges were also confronted with a rise in anti-Black police brutality, and the racist words and actions of politicians. As a result of this unprecedented series of stressors, many Black law graduates struggled to focus on studying for the bar, with some choosing to delay or abandon sitting for the bar altogether. Many expressed anger, disappointment, and betrayal at the profession they have worked so hard to enter. This Article summarizes the survey responses of over 120 Black law students who graduated in 2020 and were asked how the COVID pandemic and increased anti-Black violence impacted their health, education, and career aspirations. It seems likely that the impact of 2020 on the presence and wellbeing of Black lawyers in the legal profession will be felt for years to come. As professors, deans, lawyers, and policymakers reexamine the function of the bar exam and confront inequalities in legal education, we need to listen to these graduates’ experiences.
Foundational ASP Scholarship:
Paula Lustbader, From Dreams to Reality: The Emerging Role of Law School Academic Support Programs, 31 U.S.F. L. Rev. 839 (1997)
From the abstract:
Reviews the history, rationale, development, and different program structures of Law School Academic Support Programs; briefly summarizes learning theory and explains how ASP can implement those theories to teach academic skills; and suggests that notwithstanding the significance of helping students develop solid academic skills, probably the most important work that ASP professionals do is to provide the non-academic support by making the human connection to students and believing in them.
(Louis N. Schulze, Jr., FIU Law)
Thursday, January 28, 2021
I sometimes think that those who fall behind were left behind.
That might be particularly true in legal education.
Learning well is also about being well, about finding a place within the community of learners to belong, about developing the confidence that one has what it takes to thrive in law school. And there's research to bear this out, especially with respect to bar exam performance.
According to researchers on successful mindset interventions for bar takers:
"As Mindsets in Legal Education (MILE) researchers, we designed, administered, and evaluated the online productive mindset intervention referred to as the California Bar Exam Strategies and Stories Program (the program). In partnership with the State Bar of California (SBC), we streamlined and simplified the enrollment process while improving participation on the July 2018 and July 2019 California bar exams.
Proven Effectiveness: Working closely with the SBC, we conducted a preliminary analysis of the program in January 2020. The results suggest that the program increases the likelihood of passing the bar exam, after controlling for LSAT and GPA, by between 6.8 to 9.6 percent, depending on the analysis conducted.
Boost for First-Generation and Underrepresented Minority Students: The program particularly helped applicants who were first-gen college students and underrepresented minorities, according to our analyses.
Reductions in Psychological Friction: Our analyses suggest that the productive mindset intervention succeeded by reducing psychological friction. Among applicants studying for the exam, it fostered stress-is-enhancing and growth mindsets that helped them succeed in the face of stress, anxiety, and mistakes."
Too often, I think that the law school experience is filled with needless "psychological friction." That was certainly true of my law school experience.
As one turning forty in law school, I spent most of my time alone, worried about how to keep up, worried about being called on in classes, worried about being shown up to be an imposer, utterly unsuitable for the practice of law. Because of that experience, which still bites into my heart, I find myself often wondering what my students are facing, especially in the midst of this on-going pandemic.
Rather than wondering, perhaps I should ask? Perhaps I should listen more? Perhaps I should...
It's really up to us to help our students not fall behind by being left behind. That's a tremendous challenge...and responsibility...for us as legal educators. (Scott Johns).
Sunday, January 24, 2021
As I prepared the emails I send to my students this week, I realized there are only 4 weeks of studying left. This bar season seems to be flying by. For all of you taking the bar, I copied a version of the email encouragement I send to my students around this time. You have been through unprecedented times, and you only have a few weeks left. Keep up the good work.
"Congratulate Yourself Because You Have Made it a Long Way!!!
The Marathon is Nearing the End. You Only Have . . .
4 WEEKS LEFT!!!!!
You made it a long way. Bar Review is a marathon, but you are closing in on the finish line. You only have a little longer in the class, and then you self-study the last few weeks. If you haven’t already, this is definitely the time to eliminate distractions and focus on bar review.
Many of you are now getting nervous about your MBE scores and what you will do on the essays, and YOU ARE NOT ALONE!!! The vast majority of bar examinees are getting nervous at this point. Use your fellow classmates as support through this process. Contact us at the law school if you need help. This is a hard process, made even harder by your class’ circumstances. However, we are here for you in any way we can.
. . . (OCU specific info)
You can still improve your MBE score during the last few weeks of bar review by spending a few extra minutes at night studying small sub-topics you are struggling with (ie – hearsay, negligence, etc.) You will learn more law, which will improve your MBE scores.
Lastly, complete your practice essay exams and send them in for feedback. You are approaching the last leg of the race, it is time to turn on another gear. Prepare to Conquer the Bar!!! Remember, You Have the Knowledge, Skills, and Ability to Pass the Bar!!"
Saturday, January 23, 2021
There's exciting research concerning the relationship between student engagement, academic success, and bar exam success.
In brief, according to AccessLex, research findings "suggest the probability of bar passage is highest not only among those who consistently perform well in law school, but also among those who have a rocky start but improve along the way." And, based on work of the Law School Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE) organization and others, student engagement is a powerful tool that can lend a hand in helping students improve academic performance.
Now, AccessLex and LSSSE are looking to partner with more law schools to conduct further empirical research into this exciting field of possibilities. [In my mind, I picture a triangle to illustrate the learning relationship: The Legal Education "Learning Triangle" ].
To learn more, AccessLex and LSSSE is hosting a free webinar on January 26, at 2 pm EST. If you've ever wondered about the relationship between student engagement and success, now's the chance to learn more. And, now's the chance to participate in empirical research for the public good.
Here's the link for more details and to register:
Thursday, January 14, 2021
I just got out of class. An online zoom class, not surprisingly. But, in reflection of the first class, I had a bit of a surprise. I did a whole lot of talking and talking and then, even more, talking. You see, I took a glance at the audio transcript file. And it was quite an eye-popper.
I did most of the talking, which means that my students did very little.
It makes me wonder whether I left enough time in the midst of my words for my students to learn. I once heard a brilliant teacher say something to the effect that "the less that I talk the more that they [my students] learn."
Of course, as the saying goes, the "proof is in the pudding."
Which leads to my next surprise. I try to end classes with asking students one thing that they learned along with one thing that they didn't understand. Well as you might expect, I didn't leave enough time for the last question because, you guessed it, I spent too much time talking.
But, in response to the first question, what they learned, well, they learned about what I liked (snickers!) and where I ate lunch on the first day of the bar exam (the liquor store since I forgot my lunch), etc. In other words, it seems like they learned a great deal about me but perhaps not as much about bar preparation, which is the subject of our course.
Lesson learned, especially for online teaching...speak less and listen more. In short, trust them to learn by learning together, as a team, rather than just trying to pound information into their heads. I sure learned a lot today. Next class...my students are going to learn plenty too! (Scott Johns)
Tuesday, January 12, 2021
When I was a kid, I saw an episode of the TV series Maude that was broadcast on November 1, 1976 – the day before Election Day. Maude, the assertive main character, was trying to convince everyone to write in Henry Fonda for President. When her featherbrained neighbor Vivian asked Maude why she was in such a rush to get the idea out, Maude looked at her severely and explained that the election was happening tomorrow.
“Tomorrow?!” exclaimed Vivian. “And it seems like only yesterday it was Halloween!”
Well, today, with the results of the October bar exam barely in hand for many examinees, we have leapt right back into preparation for the February exam. Perhaps the final casualty of the Endless Summer is the strict reduction of time to process the relationship between all that happened before the exam and the results that came out of it. Individuals who just found out in late December or early January that they did not pass have had to decide very quickly whether to register for the February exam. A California repeat examinee could still register next week, with as few as 32 days left before the exam is administered. And while many states and law schools have seen an increase in bar pass rates compared to July of 2019, we have entered the February bar study period without some of the data we might ordinarily use to assess the reasons for any changes in passage rates. At least here in New York, some of the granular data about subject-matter performance on the MBE portion has not been provided, and information about statewide trends have only been reported in the most general terms. This makes it harder to determine the effects of the delay, of the changes in format and delivery, and of strategies adopted or resources provided in response.
Tomorrow is February?! It seems like only yesterday it was October!
Thus, even though the February bar exam represents a great stride towards “normalcy” in many jurisdictions – in that it will be delivered on a traditional set date, with typical full UBE content – this will still be an unusual administration, affected by ripples of the pandemic. Some repeat examinees will be facing a compressed study period, although I have observed that a least a portion of them, perhaps spurred to greater-than-normal pessimism under the circumstances, began preparing prophylactically even before scores were announced. In any case, those of us who work with repeating graduates may be asked to provide additional support.
More frustrating to me is having to determine what aspects of the support provided to our examinees over the five months between graduation and the October bar would be most advantageously replicated over the next two months. The extended prep period was, I felt, grueling for all involved, but it provided time and motivation for examinees and teachers alike to try new strategies. Based on our results, some of these strategies appear to have beneficial. But which ones? And are they replicable between now and the end of February, or were they successful because, and not in spite of, the long stretch of time before the October administration? Without all the information I wish I had, this feels in some ways similar to what many of us had to do this summer: reacting to a novel situation without certainty, and ending up (very likely) relying in part on intuition and extraordinary effort.
Hopefully, knock on wood, fingers crossed, things won't feel this way come summer 2021. For now, the one thing I am fairly certain played an important part in my examinees' performance that is likely replicable now was the increased sense of camaraderie and support that they reported as a result of the very high-touch summer and fall. With so many changes so frequently, and with unbelievable levels of anxiety among bar studiers (who on the whole are not typically known for tranquil, detached attitudes), I initiated what would turn out to be bi-weekly (or more frequent) Zoom meetings to pass along news, share strategies, and provide opportunities for feedback. Already feeling isolated by the pandemic, the students reported that these meetings helped them feel connected to each other and to the school, and it appears they took more advantage of the resources we made available (including lots of one-on-one meetings with me). This was kind of a form of intrusive counseling. It seems to have worked, at least under those recent conditions, which in some ways are still ongoing. So, while I am still hoping to develop more clarity about how other specifics contributed to examinees' performance, this is one lesson I took from yesterday that I can apply today to help my examinees prepare for tomorrow.
Wednesday, December 2, 2020
I write this, or some variation of it, a few times a year. And I do so because I feel passionately that it needs to be heard. Many of you are getting Bar Exam Results right now, and if the news is good, great! Congrats! However, for some of you, the news is less than idea. That's ok too. Read on!
First and foremost, this does not define you. Trust me, we have all heard stories of prominent lawyers, judges, and politicians that have failed the bar, sometimes multiple times. I could make you a list of all of the successful lawyers that were unsuccessful on the bar exam their first time. In fact, you likely have bosses, professors, or have met judges or elected officials that have failed the bar, and you might not even know! That's because failing the bar does not define them. If you try to make a list, you won’t find “failed the bar” on Wikipedia pages, or official biographies, or resumes. It’s not because it’s some secret shame, but because no one cares. In 5-10 years, no one will care how many times it took you to pass the bar. In fact, they won’t care in 6 months or a year. It seems like a defining moment right now, but it isn’t. Your defining moments come from the way you treat clients, the way you treat colleagues, and what you choose to do with your license once you have it.
So, take a few days to be upset, it’s ok. Also, remind yourself that you are in a pandemic! And for most of you, the goal posts around the exam kept changing. There was so much extra stress involved in this last Bar Exam, and to be honest, so much extra stress in life. Sure, you might be sitting here thinking that you don't want to make excuses, and that's admirable. But, this isn't an excuse, it's reality. You were likely studying for, or taking the exam, in less than ideal circumstances. So, given that, cut yourself some slack.
Then, remember that you don't owe anyone an explanation. No one. Yes, you have a duty to be honest. If you currently have a law related job, or are in the hiring process, yes, you have to tell your employer or future employer. And you can't pretend to be licensed when you are not. But beyond that, you don't have to explain this to well meaning family or friends, or anyone else. However, you also want to trust me when I say that more people will understand than you think, and very few people will judge.
So finally, dust yourself off, and start looking towards the next bar. Also, remember that failure is not the opposite of success, it’s a part of success. Every successful lawyer has failed – on the bar, at trial, in a negotiation, not getting a job. Every failed politician has lost a race. Every failed Olympian has lost a game or a match. That failure is a normal way to achieves success in the future. However, for that to be true, you have to learn from failure. So, what can you do?
FIRST: Look at your score (if your state gives you the breakdown) and request back your essays (if you can). It's going to be hard, you likely don't want to look back. But you can learn so much from those scores and the essays!
Once you have your essays, I want you to do a couple things. Review your answers. Now that you are removed from the day of writing, what do you notice? If possible, compare them to the sample answers. See if you can pick out patterns. Don’t just focus on the conclusions, or the issues spotted. Did the sample answers use more facts? Or have a more in depth analysis? Be honest with yourself. Also, if you have a varied set of scores (one essay is a 1, while another is a 5) compare the 2. What is the difference? Don’t just shrug it off as you know one subject better. Pay attention to the writing in both.
THEN: Look at your score. How close or far away are you from passing? Did you do better on a certain subject? Is your written score considerably better than your MBE score? This is an excellent place to start. Some things to keep in mind:
- If your essay score is higher than your MBE, it may be tempting to place most of your energy into MBE practice, and forget about essays. This will only result in your score “swapping.” So, while it is good to note that you might need more work on the MBE, don’t forget that you aren’t carrying the score wit you so you still need to practice essays. The reverse is true if you did better on MBE than the essays.
- Perhaps you did really well on the torts MBE, but your lowest score was civil procedure. Again, do not just focus on civil procedure, and forget other subjects. Your scores will just swap places, and not improve overall.
- You might be only 2 points away from passing. Great! However, your score is still starting from scratch. Meaning, in one sense, you only need 2 more points, but that’s not how the bar works, obviously. You have to still work to get the points you already got AGAIN, and it is likely you forgot things, and are out of practice.
NEXT: Think about external factors, ya know, like a pandemic!
Did something unrelated to the bar impact your studying? Perhaps a health issue, physical or mental? Perhaps a family emergency, or ongoing family issues? Did you have a good place to study? Or time? Much of this might have been beyond your control, and it might feel like you are searching for excuses, but really, you are analyzing the situation so you can create a plan moving forward.
Have you suffered from anxiety in general or related to exams? If you do, are you being treated for the anxiety?
These things can and will impact your studying. Not matter how much time and effort you put in, if you are not physically and mentally healthy, you won’t process the information correctly.
Not to mention, if there is something in your life that is distracting you, that will also impact how you process information, which will impact your score.
REVIEW: Your study habits!
The most important thing you can do is practice. Many bar students get caught up in trying to memorize every sing law, or master every subject. While this is admirable, and takes quite a bit of time and effort. However, mastering the bar is a SKILL. You need to practice. When I work with repeat takers, I often find that they knew the law, and they studied hard, but didn’t practice enough essays or enough timed MBE.
This matters for a few reasons. One is timing. You can know all the law in the world, but if you can’t write an essay in 30 minutes, you will struggle to get the scores you need. Similarly, doing 100 MBE questions in 3 hours is not easy, even if you DO know the law. You need to practice the timing, and practice for the stamina.
Secondly, the skill being tested on the bar is applying the law to the unique set of facts. Yes, you need to know the law to do this, but knowing the law is not enough. You need to practice the application.
This means that writing essays, fully out, not just passively reading sample answers or issue spotting, is key. It has to be a priority in studying.
In fact, all of your studying should be active. Don’t focus on rewriting, or reviewing, outline after outline. Again, yes, you need to know the law, but you are also more likely to remember the law if you apply it – in MBE questions, writing essays, and so forth.
FINALLY: Meet with your Academic Success Professor, if you have one. We are here to help, I promise! I always hope that if my students aren't successful, they will come see me right away. We want you to! And we want to help you go through those essays and that score report, and create a game plan. Trust us, it's what we do! Maybe you don't know why one of your essays was given a 1, while another was a 5. We are trained to help you! We can help you with all of the above!
LAST: Change it up. Your Academic Success Professor can likely help you identify ways to change the way you studied, or identify different resources you might use.
Also, don't forget about non standard testing accommodations. I've had students fail the bar because they use non standard testing accommodations all through law school, and then decide not to apply for those same accommodations on the Bar Exam! That's just silly. You are entitled to them. Yes, the application process can be frustrating, but at least try.
Finally, if you don't have an Academic Success Professor to help you out, here are some resources that I give to my students:
CALI lessons! Which are free, always a bonus!
- CALI Lessons on improving multiple choice:
- CALI Lessons on improving memory: https://www.cali.org/lesson/18157
- CALI Lesson on issue spotting: https://www.cali.org/lesson/18169
- CALI Lesson on improving analysis: https://www.cali.org/lesson/18171
Other Resources, sadly not free, but some can be helpful. If you do have an Academic Success Professor, they might have discount codes, or other ways to help you get the below resources.
- Adaptibar: https://www.adaptibar.com/
- Strategies and Tactics for the MBE: https://www.amazon.com/Strategies-Tactics-MBE-Bar-Review/dp/1543805728/ref=sr_1_1?gclid=CjwKCAiA-vLyBRBWEiwAzOkGVArOgksVIJF-Ay7c5WMFApM2Dic8N2-DFZSxm95A23E0b-sHif7OthoCQmQQAvD_BwE&hvadid=241627170717&hvdev=c&hvlocphy=9021760&hvnetw=g&hvqmt=e&hvrand=7692014818673609309&hvtargid=aud-840076997981%3Akwd-555060935&hydadcr=22595_10356262&keywords=strategies+and+tactics+for+the+mbe&qid=1583177627&sr=8-1
- Private tutors, which can help you create a plan and personalized study process. I send my students to:
Above all else, don't give up! I'll say it again, this does NOT define you, not as a person, not as a future lawyer. This is one small hiccup on your road to a fantastic career. And it's frustrating yes, but you WILL get past it!
Thursday, November 12, 2020
In general, I don't believe in show and tell lectures. In particularly, I'm not convinced that a few powerpoint presentations about the benefits of mindfulness or positive growth mindsets can make much of a difference in academic performance. But, I do believe in the power of show, tell, and do experiences in changing lives for the better. And, there's research out of California funded in part by AccessLex to support my supposition.
As previously detailed, a brief intervention focused on belonging can make a big impact on undergraduate academic performance, especially for underrepresented minorities. Be-Long-Ing! It's Critical to Success (Oct. 3, 2019). Now, researchers in partnership with the State Bar of California and funding from AccessLex have expanded that work to the field of bar licensure. https://mindsetsinlegaleducation.com/bar-exam/
The brief 45-minute online program was made available to all bar takers for both the July 2018 and July 2019 California bar exams. Id. Interested bar applicants were able to freely sign-up for the program, which was timed to coincide right before bar preparation studies began. "The program include[d] an introductory film, stories from prior test takers, and a writing activity in which participants share[d] insights and strategies that m[ight] be useful to them and to future test takers." Id. In their research, the authors controlled for traditional bar performance predicators (LSAT and LGPA) along with psychological factors, demographic factors, and situational factors to evaluate whether the brief 45-minute intervention yielded statistically beneficial improvements in bar exam outcomes. Id.
According to a summary of the findings, "[t]hose who completed the full program and thereby received the full treatment saw their likelihood of passing the bar exam rise by 6.8-9.6%. Among all people who passed the bar after completing the program and thereby receiving the full treatment, one in six would have failed the bar if they had not participated in the program (emphasis in original)." Id. Significantly, as stated more completely in an article by the researchers, "[t}he program particularly helped applicants who were first-gen college students and underrepresented minorities, according to our analyses." Quintanilla. V., et al., Evaluating Productive Mindset Interventions that Promote Excellence on California’s Bar Exam (Jun. 25, 2020).
In finding evidence in support of the program, the authors posited a possible social-psychological explanation for the promising results:
"The California Bar Exam Strategies and Stories Program was designed to improve passage rates by changing how applicants think about the stress that they encounter and the mistakes that they make when studying for the exam. Our initial analyses of the effect of the program on psychological processes suggest that the program worked as intended, by reducing psychological friction. Participants appear to have succeeded in the face of stress, anxiety, and mistakes by adopting more adaptive mindsets. They moved from a stress-is-debilitating mindset to a stress-is- enhancing mindset. They learned to reappraise the anxiety they experienced. And they shifted toward meeting mistakes with a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset." Id.
As I understand the research, the researchers provided bar takers with research about tactics to turn stressors from negatives into positives and engaged bar takers in implementing those strategies. In my opinion, a primary reason why the intervention was so promising rests with the last step of the intervention, in which bar takers took positive action to help future bar takers, by having bar takers write letters to future takers sharing their experiences in learning to transform frictions into pluses.
In short, the intervention empowered people to make a difference, not just for themselves, but also for future aspiring attorneys. That's a wonderful win-win opportunity. And, there's more great news. The researchers are looking for additional participants to expand the program to other jurisdictions. For details, please see the links in this blog. (Scott Johns).
Thursday, October 22, 2020
Here's a quick read describing the concrete steps and the rationale behind those steps that led to increases in bar exam success for one law school's graduates. But be forewarned. It didn't happen due to sudden magical moments as students prepared for their bar exams. Rather, as Professor O.J. Salinas documents, the remedy took shape as a community-wide effort right from the start of their students' legal educational experience as 1L students. O.J. Salinas, Improving Bar Exam Success: Curricular Changes at the University of North Carolina, The Bar Examiners (Summer 2019).
Sunday, October 4, 2020
Tiger Woods may be the best golfer ever, and he started swinging clubs when he started walking. He engaged in deliberate practice and prepared mentally as early as 6. He is the epitome of hyper-specialization. Todd Marinovich experienced similar training in football. His father was the strength and conditioning coach for the Oakland Raiders, and he started training his son when he was extremely young. His dad planned for him to play quarterback and make it to the NFL. Marinovich set many national high school football records and did make it to the NFL. However, his NFL career ended abruptly due to off-the-field issues. His intense focus did not result in greatness in the same way as Tiger Woods. Most people believe Tiger is the hard work breeds greatness story and Marinovich is the exception. David Epstein in his book Range argues Tiger is actually the exception, and his work may provide advice for our students.
Epstein compares generalists to hyper-specialists in Range. He argues the general public sees Tiger and believes specialization early is the best way to achieve success in life. He then proceeds through the book with constant examples of individuals who were generalists with multiple areas of expertise that both succeed and out-performed the hyper-specialists. Multiple stories in the book involved teams in problem solving competitions. The teams that included different specializations solved more problems and were always more accurate. He also discussed NASA's leadership. Under leaders that encouraged cross-departmental communication, missions succeeded at higher rates. Leaders who discouraged communication encountered disasters that lost lives. His argument is people who hyper-specialize only see the problem they study, the old-saying that "if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." Individuals with broader knowledge have more problem-solving tools and approach situations with analogies to other areas.
The book is interesting, but also enlightening for our students. This definitely helps with career advice. I tell students to intern in different offices and specialties. They can find what they like, and they will see different perspectives. This is also important for bar preparation. I encounter students every year who worked exclusively in Criminal Law or Family Law, for example, who won't approach other subjects. They don't want to practice Property, so they ignore it. Students can use other subjects' ideas or rules to help on the MBE. I always try to get students to use all the rules in their toolbox to reach the "right" answer, even when the rule is from a different subject. Hyper-specialization, or hyper-focus in law, can be a detriment when preparing for a test designed for a generalist.
Broadening our knowledge is both fun and can make us better problem solvers.
Wednesday, September 30, 2020
Or, at least one of the Bar Exam is next week. The last one, so to speak. (Edit -I was informed FL is even later!) It’s been a crazy ride and I know that you are all exhausted. We, as Academic Success Professionals, are exhausted as well, and we see you and hear you.
It’s been rough, and there have been many hiccups, and on that – I have no advice.
However, I CAN give you some advice on how to spend your final week before the exam.
- Do something for yourself: Even if it means taking an afternoon or two off, do something for yourself. This is going to look different for everyone; it could be going for a run, binging a silly tv show, or spending some (socially distanced) time with friends or family. The point is that you are taking your mind off of the exam, and off of the law. Your brain needs this break so that you can be your best on exam day. My suggestion is to take Sunday afternoon and to do whatever you can to make yourself happy.
- Get enough rest: I’m not trying to mother you, I promise, and science will back me up. You need enough rest to do well on the exam. Start making sure you are getting enough sleep as early as Friday night. On a side note, also make sure you are eating well. Your brain needs fuel! And speaking of rest, that brings me to my next point.
- Don’t cram, or learn brand new material: Don’t stay up all night studying, or push yourself to your limit. You’ve already been pushed to your limit, and you don’t need to pack in that many more hours of study, especially at the expense of sleep. Instead, focus on what you do know, and perfecting that! Now is not the time to do a crazy amount of practice essays. Now is the time to work on fine tuning what you know. Maybe outline essays, so you are more comfortable with rule statements, or do very small sets of MBE questions. In fact, it’s a great time to redo old MBE questions that were wrong, and really make sure you learned from that question.
- Work on memory: Now is the time to memorize details, whether they be requirements for various hearsay exceptions, scrutinies for constitutional law, or something else. You don’t need to memorize everything, it’s ok. But take the time to memorize the things where exact wording is important. Do so in small chunks. Your brain can really only handle memorizing for about 5 minutes. So, work on memorization techniques in between doing other things. This is also why outlining essays can be useful, as it’s a great way to work on memory AND issue spotting.
- Don’t be afraid to make things up!: No really, make things up. I promise if you need to make up a rule it won’t be that absurd. You have a law degree, and you’ve been studying for this exam for what feels like forever – whatever your brain makes up will be close to accurate, I promise. Not every rule statement has to be exact, or perfectly worded. And, making up a rule and putting forth a well thought out analysis is much better than not tackling an issue.
- Be confident, and be kind to yourself: Finally – you got this! Be confident. You have a JD, and I promise, that means you know more than you think. Remind yourself that you are capable, and knowledgeable, and that you CAN do this. And, if this bar administration didn’t work out for you, and you had to delay, that’s ok as well. Similarly, if you don’t get the news you want in terms of results, remind yourself that this Summer and Fall have been hard on all of you, and you need to cut yourself some slack.
I can’t wait to have all of you as colleagues.
Thursday, August 20, 2020
It's been many months that some of our Spring 2020 graduates have been waiting to take postponed bar exams. Florida, for example, just recently postponed its postponed exam, from July to August and now to October. If that sounds exhaustingly frustrating, it is... So here's a suggestion for the many September/October bar takers that might just help rekindle a bit of the flames of learning:
Get your heads out of the books and instead take time each day to work through some of the latest current events because much that is in the news also relates to bar tested problem-solving.
For example, take today's federal court indictment following the early morning arrest of former White House adviser Steve Bannon on conspiracy charges: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-bannon-idUSKBN25G1J4. Try locating the indictment and the arrest warrant. Once found, here's a few things to ponder: (1) What authority if any does Congress have to adopt the criminal statutes that are the basis of today's indictment? (2) Did the federal government have probable cause to arrest Steve Bannon, and, if so, why? and, (3) What are the elements that the government must prove for the conspiracy charges?
Here's another possible bar-issue in the news: Many businesses and restaurants are delinquent on rent contracts due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And, some business owners are seeking rent abatement. Others are seeking reimbursement from their insurance contracts. https://www.forbes.com/sites/paulrosen/2020/03/26/what-happens-with-contracts-amid-the-covid-19-pandemic/#774454d342af These sorts of things raise a number of bar issues, such as, (1) What contract law applies to these contracts? (2) Do the defendants have any contract defenses, such as impossibility? and, (3) How should courts interpret force majeure clauses?
Finally, here's another news item to tickle a bit of bar exam intrigue. This case involves whether a lawyer has a defamation claim against an online reviewer when the review stated that the lawyer "needed to go back to law school." https://www.abajournal.com/news/article/need-to-go-back-to-law-school-comment-isnt-libelous-appeals-court-rules After reading the article, here's some thoughts to ask: (1) What are the elements of defamation? (2) If you were an appellate court judge, would you reverse the lower court's decision on whether the statement was actionable and why or why not? and, (3) Does the lawyer have any First Amendment issues as a member of the bar (a public officer of the bar?) and why or why not?
Of course, there are lots more issues in the news, from the COVID-19 pandemic to election interference to protester arrests to lawsuits against the President seeking TRO's and PI's, etc. Search them out. Find the civil or criminal complaints. Figure out whether the courts have personal jurisdiction and subject matter jurisdiction. Focus on the substantive elements. If it's a civil case, figure out if you could intervene as a party in the case. Work through how you would rule or litigate these matters. In short, this is not time to turn your backs on the news. Our world needs your voices now more than ever. So, over the course of the next month or two in preparation for postponed bar exams, feel free to take breaks from the books and take time to talk through and work out what's happening in the legal news of today. And in the process, you'll be learning more about the law. (Scott Johns).
P.S. Not sure how to get started, here's a helpful link with summaries of current legal news-making events: https://www.abajournal.com/news/
P.S.S. For entering first-year law students, taking a gander through the daily news in academic support groups can help bring life to the law, whether they are studying contracts, or torts, or constitutional law, for example.
Wednesday, July 1, 2020
So, most of you had a scheduled practice test this last week, or will have one soon. It’s likely you’re feeling many things, so let’s talk about what the score means, and what you can do.
First, the score tells you where you are NOW, not whether you will pass or fail. Before I tell you what you can do AFTER the exam, I want to tell you a story.
Once upon a time, there was a bar taker. Right around July 1st she took a practice exam from BarBri. This was so long ago that you had to do everything by hand, including the grading. As she graded, it slowly occurred to her that her score was not great. Really not great. She got 90. Not 90%, but 90 questions right out of 200. Yikes. And she thought she was good at multiple choice. This came as quite a blow to her ego, and she was very distraught. There might have been some wallowing, crying, and ice cream.
So, after some wallowing, she did what I’m going to tell you to do, and ended up getting a 148 raw on the actual MBE. I only point this out because that’s an increase in 58 points. And trust me, if she can do it, you can too.
So, first and foremost, remember that the practice test is PRACTICE. It’s designed to help you learn. You have 4 weeks, and in some cases more, before the bar exam. That means you are still learning!
Next, if you didn’t do well, allow yourself some time to wallow. Grab the ice cream, go for a run, clear your head. Do what you need to do. Then come back, and let’s assess and learn.
First, get out an excel spreadsheet or make a chart in a word doc. You’re going to track what you did wrong, and what you did right.
Obviously, track which topics were better and worse. Did you get more wrong in contracts than torts? But, go a step further, and track the subtopics. So many people will come up to me, frustrated that they aren’t doing well in a particular subject. But what PARTS of that subject are you struggling with? For contracts are you getting all of the damages questions wrong, but doing fine with formation? This matters for two reasons. First, it matters because it helps you decide where to spend your time. Don’t just think about spending your time with “contracts”, but focus it further. In addition, if you notice you are struggling with damages, don’t assume that you don’t know the law. Line up some wrong questions and see if you notice a pattern. Is it the way the question is being asked? Or are you struggling to pick the right answer out of 2?
That brings us to the next important step of tracking. WHY did you get the answer wrong? Don’t just assume it was the law. Could it be something else? Were you reading carefully? If not, mark that down as “RC” or reading comprehension. Did you miss the law being tested? Perhaps you feel confident that you know the rule against perpetuities, but you didn’t recognize that it was being tested in this question. Were you second guessing yourself? Did you have the right answer and change it? Did you miss an important fact?
The point is to look for patterns. Everyone assumes they don’t know the law, but you graduated from law school! No small feat! That means you know something, I promise. So, look for other patterns. For example, most of the time when I get multiple choice questions wrong it’s careful reading. I read quickly and miss important facts, or don’t pay close enough attention to the call of the question. But now that I know this about myself, I can watch for it and remedy it. I also tell students who find they second guess themselves frequently to do the math – what would your score have been if you had NEVER second guessed yourself? If your score would have increased, use that as motivation to NOT second guess yourself. The point is, knowing the patterns help, and will help you study more effectively.
Also, if the law is the reason you got it wrong, be specific. Is it that you didn’t remember the law? Or that you didn’t understand it? Your answer to this changes your review. If you just failed to remember an element or an exception, working on memory will help. But students often assume this is the fix to all things, when in fact, they don’t fully understand the law. If that’s the case, merely memorizing the law will not help you get the question right. To test this, use your outline. With the law in front of you, can you get it right? If the answer is no, it’s not memory, and you need to look elsewhere.
As you track, think of a takeaway per question. So, if I got 90 right on my practice test, that’s 110 opportunities to learn something new. Yes, I know, cheesey. But it works, I promise. Remember 58 points! So, if I can learn 110 new things, that’s an increase in your points for sure. Statistically, about 20-30 points. Your takeaway should be something that you can use on multiple questions. It can be a reminder that when a question asks you for the BEST defense, it doesn’t mean defendant will win. It can be putting a nuance or an exception on a flashcard. It can be the reason why one answer is better than another. For example, if a contracts question asks about breach of contract, an answer choice that talks about reliance or estoppel will be wrong, because that’s not a contract.
The point is to learn something from each question. I promise, it WILL work. Don’t just go back to your outlines and redo them, or make them prettier. Don’t just review law or re-watch videos. Dive into those questions and really learn.
A few last multiple choice notes. It’s important to practice using pencil and scantron (actually bubbling in answers) before the test, potentially multiple times. It’s also important to practice in timed conditions. Make the test conditions as test like as possible – limit bathroom breaks, don’t drink water, or eat. Set a timer. If you plan on using ear plugs, wear them.
If you are struggling with multiple choice in general, our very own Steven Foster has a CALI lesson for that! https://www.cali.org/lesson/18100
Finally, good luck, and remember practice makes perfect!
Thursday, June 18, 2020
Want to know about what this summer's bar takers are facing in trying to prepare for bar exams?
See the letter that was written by the Dean of Seattle University's School of Law to the Washington Supreme Court, in which Dean Clark speaks from the heart about what what this season's bar takers are encountering in trying to prepare for bar exams.
Note: This is the letter that coincided with the Washington Supreme Court's decision to recognize diploma licensure for admission to the practice of law:
With some states moving to online bar exams, four (4) academic support educators have teamed up with the ABA Journal to share top-notch tips for expertly preparing for success on online bar exams. Here's the link to read the expert suggestions from Prof. Goldie Pritchard (Michigan State), ABA author Sara Berman (AccessLex Institute), Prof. Courtney Lee (University of the Pacific - McGeorge), and Prof. Joe Regalia (UNLV): https://www.abajournal.com/academic-support-experts-offer-advice/.
Wednesday, June 17, 2020
More advice on memory, and how to improve it! Last week I wrote a bit about improving memory for the bar. However, I want to dive a bit deeper into the topic.
I’m going to talk about three aspects of memory, that if used in your studying, can actually help you vastly improve what you are trying to memorize!
The forgetting curve says that we can predict when you will forget information, the spacing effect shows that if we study just before we would forget we can improve memory, and the testing effect tells us that testing ourselves improves memory. Using these three things together can really help! I’m going to particularly focus on the testing effect, as I think that’s something you can easily employ while you study.
The Forgetting Curve
It is almost universally accepted that memories decay over time. Researchers, over time, have discovered that we can predict when the memories will begin to decay. This is the forgetting curve. It was first discovered by psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus in 1885. He found that beginning just after a person learns information, their ability to remember the information, or recall, starts to decay. When he used nonsense syllables to test, it only took 20 minutes for the average test subject to have a less than 60% likelihood of recalling a syllable. An hour, it was less than 50%, and a day later, test subjects had lost nearly 70% of the information. A month later, learners retained only 20% of the material.
Ebbinghaus also discovered that while the initial rate of decline 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 a student is able to retain a memory in the initial stage, the slower the information will decay over time.
The spacing effect says that if you properly space yours studying, this slows memory loss, or memory decay. Basically 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 things like the bar exam is that you really have too much learn, and not enough time! So, what can you do instead? You can still apply the concept, but use it with something called interleaving.
Interleaving is mixing subjects up as you study. So, 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. This works particularly well with the bar exam. Interleaving ha been shown to be more effective than blocked practice for developing the skills of problem solving, and also leads to long term memory retention! Both things useful for the bar exam!
Interleaving forces the brain to continually retrieve information, since each practice prompt, is different from the last. This 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! However, 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 getting concepts. So, it’s important to remember that this studying feels worse, but has better long term results.
So, each day 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 civ pro, and then property and so forth.
Something else you can do, which isn’t as effective, but still helpful, is to change how or what you are studying. Don’t spend one day on MBE, and another on essays. Or one day completely listening to videos, or reviewing outlines. Do 15 MBE questions, and then 1 essay, and then review some flaschards, and so forth.
Finally, my favorite, the testing effect. I have mentioned before that testing increases memory. I hear students stress over getting questions wrong during practice and review. I understand why they might get frustrated, but they are missing the important fact that by testing yourself, you are actually increasing the odds that you remember a law.
Basically, people achieve higher rates of recall of information already learned when they have tested themselves, versus just passively observing. So, this is why I encourage you to do more questions instead of reviewing your outline. There is a time and space for passive review, but your memory really gets better each time you “test”. In addition, testing without feedback will help with recall, but the effect is stronger when the testing is associated with meaningful feedback. So, what does this mean? Make sure to fully review each and every answer!
Remember, as you practice for the bar, don’t think of doing practice questions as assessment, or an indicator of how much you know. They can be both of those things, but 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. Think about that – do you want to do one multiple choice question, or review your flash card five times? A study used a group of students who were given schedules to learn vocabulary words – the schedules were studying OR testing, and another group that was given a schedule to study AND test. A week later, the students who did the testing remembered 80% of the vocabulary words, versus 35% of non testing students. Now, I should point out that memorizing vocabulary 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. But that’s another reason why the testing effect is so useful!
So, your overall takeaway form all of this should be that practice DOES make perfect, and does help memory. In addition, breaks are still a good idea!
Note: To write this I relied heavily on the following:
n.d. Bjork Learning and Forgetting Lab. Accessed June 15, 2020. https://bjorklab.psych.ucla.edu/.
Teninbaum, Gabriel H. 2017. "Spaced Repetition: A Method for Learning More Law in Less Time." Suffolk University Journal of High Technology Law.
Wednesday, June 10, 2020
I keep getting asked about memorization for the bar exam. Specifically, “How on earth am I supposed to memorize all of this?” and “Do you have any tips on memorization?”
So, here we go!
First of all, memorization is a bad word. I hate it. You want to remember, or recall, but not memorize. Why do I make 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 minutes. Next is long term memory, where memories are stored. And finally, memory retrieval, which is what you are concerned with for the bar exam. This is also the most difficult to achieve. So, your aim isn’t really to “memorize”, but to remember and recall.
Also, if you focus on memorization, instead of learning, you will get overwhelmed and stressed. So, reframe the idea in your mind for more success.
So, what CAN you do?
The power of Story and Emotion
Memory is often tied to stories, and strong emotions. This 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. (Carey, 2014) or (Tyng, Amin, Saad, & Malik, 2017)
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. Maybe frustration, or stress, but those actual have a counterproductive impact on memory. So, it’s up to you to manufacture stories and happiness. Don’t just stare at outlines, or black letter law. Do more and more practice questions, which are stories. Or, even better, make up new hypotheticals of your own, the more ridiculous the better. If you’ve seen me lecture on any bar topic, you know I love crazy stories. I’m sure my students often roll their eyes, and wonder why I’m being ridiculous. But it’s to help with memory. The more absurd or ridiculous my examples, the more likely you are to remember the law.
Also, manufacture happiness, as much as you can. Studies have shown that test subjects that are placed in a room with simple smiling faces do better on memory. 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.
Speaking of stories, practice! Each MBE fact pattern, and each essay hypothetical, are stories! So, not only will practice make you better at tackling the essays or MBE questions, but practice gives your brain
stories to hold on to. The examples will help your memory! If you are trying to memorize the rule for parol evidence, doing 10 MBE questions, and really learning from each question, will serve you better than reviewing your outline over and over again.
In cognitive psychology, chunking is a process by which individual pieces of an information set are broken down and then grouped together in a meaningful whole. The word chunking comes from a 1956 paper by George A. Miller, "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information". This was because the brain can typically only remember 7-8 items at once.
So, what does chunking information mean for you? Well, let’s think of a grocery list.i
So, you have to buy the following:
You might want to chunk by meal. For example, Bread goes with turkey and cheese, and maybe tomato. Milk goes with Cereal, and maybe those go together with orange juice. As I’ve listed it, the items are random, so there is no way to remember them. Or there is, but it’s very difficult. But grouping by the meals will help your memory.
Alternatively, you can group by where the items are in the store. It is likely that the orange juice and milk are together, and the so are the bread and cereal, and the turkey and cheese.
So, the first step in chunking is to think about how you will need to use the information. This is one reasons I place practice so highly. When you go to memorize the law, you can’t memorize it in a vacuum. You have to think about how you will be using it, and then chunk from there.
Our brain learns more effectively if we space out information. So, this is more support for my theory that breaks are magic! Think of it like this, if you are building a brick wall, you need to let the motor in between the bricks dry before you stack too high. Similarly, you let one coat of paint dry before you put on another. You get the idea.
So, while studying for the bar, space out your studying. While it might feel like you don’t have time, you need the space to solidify your knowledge.
Take breaks! I wrote an entire blog about this last week. But your brain can only process and remember so much at once. Essentially, if you are reading 50 pages of outline, without a break, you are only likely to remember the first and last few pages. That’s a waste of time! Take frequent breaks, and break up what you do. The more active you are, the better.
Write an essay with open notes. Do a set of 5 MBE questions, and then review the applicable law. Mix up subjects. All of that will help with memory.
General Mental Health
Finally, I mentioned before that if you are frustrated or stressed, that doesn’t help with memory. That means you have to take care of yourself mentally while you are studying. This is going to vary for everyone, but make your mental health a priority. And if you feel yourself getting frustrated or overwhelmed, see above and take a break!
Finally, remember that your aim is to learn, not merely memorize! Also, this is just meant to be a primer, and is already too long for a blog post. There is so much more to be said about various memory techniques.
Carey, B. (2014). How We Learn: The Suprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens. New York: Random House.
Tyng, C. M., Amin, H. U., Saad, M. N., & Malik, A. S. (2017). The Influences of Emotion on Learning and Memory. Frong Psychology.
i I completely took this idea from Paula Manning at the 2015 AASE Conference in Chicago, and have been using it ever since!
Wednesday, June 3, 2020
Dear Bar Takers,
I’d like to talk to you about breaks. I see you. You are overwhelmed, you are stressed. Some of you don’t even know if you have a seat. Let me stress – I see you.
In addition, I’d like to acknowledge that there are a million things making it hard to focus right now. I’ve been struggling to focus, and I’m not studying for an exam. The non bar exam world is causing a great deal of anxiety, anger, sadness, and fear. For some, more than others. It’s understandable to have those emotions, and not feel like you can 100% focus on the exam in front of you, especially if you aren’t even certain when you’ll take it. That’s all valid.
So, I want to talk about breaks, and why they are important. Taking frequent breaks helps improve your memory and focus, and helps reduce stress. Basically, research tells us that your brain can only focus for so long. It doesn’t matter how studious or determined you are, the human brain will not stay focused for 8 hours straight. In fact, if you aren’t taking practice exams to work on your stamina, I suggest taking a short break every hour or so. This is not my advice, this is advice from the neuroscientists.
Specifically, if we don’t take breaks, our brain gets fatigued. Once an hour, if not more, stand up and stretch. Or go for a brief walk. Switch your focus. All of these things help you improve memory and focus.
Also, taking breaks for mental health is ok. In fact, it’s encouraged. If you are getting frustrated with a topic of a question, take a break. Walk away and grab lunch. Take a walk outside. Just take a break from the frustration. If you push through, and continue to attempt to study while frustrated, your brain is not processing the information. It’s also ok to plan for entire mental health days. Your brain might need a longer break, and that’s ok too. If you are struggling to focus, maybe current events or family worries are weighing on your mind, step away. Do something for yourself and come back to studying later.
Finally, taking breaks for your physical health is ok and encouraged as well. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had students get sick, maybe a bad cold for example, and they refuse to take a break. Not only are they not letting their body heal, which is not ideal for the long run, but your brain isn’t as focused as it could be, nor is it properly processing information. It’s far better to take a few days off, fully heal from the cold or other illness, and then dive back in feeling better.
So, in summary, while it is important to get in enough study hours – which are, let’s be honest, many – you owe it to yourself to take care of yourself. This includes breaks, and taking time for yourself. It’s also ok to be human, and give yourself permission to have unfocused days.
In addition, reminding yourself of your motivation is going to help improve your memory and learning. Write a litter to yourself, or a post it to put on your laptop. Why did you go to law school? Why do you want to take the bar exam? Yes, I know, you want to take the bar exam so you’re licensed. But why do you want to be licensed. Keeping your goals and motivation in sight, literally, will help you focus and learn.
I’d also like to stress the importance of a different kind of break. We learn best by doing different things. So, don’t just focus on video lectures. Or do an entire day of MBE questions. (Unless you are taking a practice test.) Mix it up. Spend 30 minutes writing an essay, and then review it. But then, do 15 MBE questions. Then watch parts of a video. The more you jump from one item to another, the better your brain is working, and the less likely you are to suffer from fatigue and lack of focus. The same goes for the subjects. Many students think they should spend a day, or even a week, on only one subject. But you actually stretch your brain, so to speak, by doing a mix of subjects.
Finally, despite my profession as bar professor type person, I can assure you that the bar exam is not the most important thing in the world. It really isn’t. Yes, you need to pass it to be licensed. And I want you to be licensed! But it doesn’t define you as a person, and if you fail, or have to take time off, that won’t even define you as an attorney. So, what I’m saying is that if this is not the right time for you to take the bar exam, that’s ok. There is no shame in that. You need to do what works best for you, and if that means delaying the exam because you are afraid for your health, you are focused on other things, too anxious or unfocused right now, or any number of reasons, the exam will still be there in 2021.
No matter what you choose, good luck! I look forward to seeing you as a colleague soon.