It’s a given that skill development requires practice and it seems logical that the best way to do this is to practice one skill at a time (“blocking”). Blocking is when you repeatedly practice a skill/concept until you are proficient, and then move on to the next skill/concept. So why does a typical commercial bar prep daily schedule look like this?
– Read Corporations outline
-Watch Corporations lecture
-Write Corporations practice essay
-Practice Evidence MBE questions
-Write Contracts practice essay
At first glance, this seems counter-intuitive: you need to focus on one subject at a time in order to master it. You can’t learn when you mix them up. However, this “mixing-up” is better for overall learning. It incorporates the concept of “interleaving,” which is when you mix practice of several distinct yet related skills. For example, if you want to learn skills X, Y, and Z:
Blocked practice would look like this: XXXYYYZZZ.
Interleaved practice would look like this: XZYXYZYXZ
Again, interleaving seems counter-intuitive: how can you learn Z if you haven’t yet learned X? Although it is true that learners using interleaving will initially perform worse than learners using blocking in practice sessions, interleavers will outperform blockers in the long-run (i.e., on the bar exam).
Studies consistently show that when we mix up the study material, our ability to sort and connect information is enhanced and the result is a better and more complete understanding of the concepts. Interleaving does make learning more difficult but this is a good thing because we learn more effectively when challenged. Your mind is less likely to wander because you brain continually has to focus and re-focus on different material.
Tips For Integrating Interleaving Into Bar Prep
- First, study the material. This is why bar exam subject lectures are sequential. You have to know what you are supposed to learn before you can acquire the skill.
- Mix up material. Incorporate spaced repetition and focus on one concept/task at a time but then cycle back to previously learned material. Warning: don’t confuse this with multi-tasking. What you think of as multi-tasking is actually task-switching which is not effective for learning. It wastes productivity because you have to expend brain energy to switch gears and you never allow your brain to really focus on one thing. What is more effective is to focus on one concept/task at a time
- Make deliberate connections. As you practice different concepts, identify connections between them so you see the relationship of the parts to the whole.
- Interleaving is more effective in the long-run so don’t get discouraged if things don’t automatically “click.” Easy doesn’t equal effective. Know that you are making progress and keep pushing through.
Commercial bar prep has officially begun. First-time takers should be studying full-time for the next eight weeks. This is not optional. This is brain science. This is common sense. If you want to pass the test you have to prepare for it. This requires the right attitude. You can’t be so afraid of the bar exam that you avoid preparing but you can’t underestimate it either. You must respect the test.
The bar exam is often analogized to running a marathon. Running a marathon is hard and in order to do it you must respect that being able to run 26.2 miles takes dedication, hard work, and proper training. You will not win the marathon but you will finish it. The same is true for the bar exam. You are not ready today but you will be. It won’t be easy, but you can do it if you work hard and train properly.
Let me clarify what I mean by hard work and proper training:
- You have to work hard from day one, not just the last few weeks.
- You only get a break when you’ve earned it.
- Proper training means doing things you don’t want to do.
- Because you can’t predict what might happen, you train for anything and everything
Just as you would not train for a marathon trying to do as little as possible or think your natural talent will get you through, don’t prepare for the bar exam thinking “All I have to do is pass, I don’t need an A. I don’t want to over-study,” or “I’m a good test-taker. I don’t need to practice that much.”
On the other hand, you can’t be so scared of what’s ahead that you avoid proper training. If you know the marathon has some big hills, you train for them. Hills are a challenge for even the best runners but not preparing for what’s ahead will make those hills feel like mountains. The bar exam has hills, too. Your hill might be a particular subject, it might be multiple choice, or maybe it’s self-confidence. Whatever your “hill,” you cannot run around it.
Respecting the bar exam is finding the balance between being cocky and being scared. It means putting in time and effort even when it’s hard. When you respect the test you accept that you are imperfect but see each day as an opportunity to improve. You do not give up or look for the easy way out. You keep going.
It’s no secret that preparing for the bar exam includes doing lots of practice questions. However, if all you do is practice question after question, you will not improve your ability to do well on the bar exam. Practice is one part of the learning process. In order it to enhance learning and promote skill transfer you must assess your performance and adjust accordingly. Simply answering questions without assessing what you did and how you did it focuses on remembering content from the past. This will not change your future performance. Your goal is to learn the material and transfer skills from practice to the actual exam- this requires you to look forward.
The Learning Process:
You can assess essays by comparing your response to the model response and identifying similarities and differences. You can assess multiple choice questions by comparing your process for reaching a particular answer it to the provided answer choice analyses. Yes, this takes time but when it comes to learning for the bar exam, think quality over quantity. The time you spend reviewing bar exam answers should equal the amount of time you spend doing bar exam questions.
Learning is a constant process of discovery- a process without end. Bruce Lee
Some of you start commercial bar prep this week and some of you are still taking law school exams. Everyone needs to create a study schedule. Time is a limited resource so don’t waste it. There are 168 hours in a week and approximately 50 of them go to bar prep. This leaves 118 hours for everything else and you’d be surprised (or not) at how quickly it can get away from you when you factor in things like: sleep, personal hygiene, family/child care, commute time, food (shopping, preparation, eating), housekeeping, exercise, religious observance, personal time…
Time management is about consciously knowing how much time you spend on specific activities. Time management is about making good decisions ahead of time instead of having to do something because you have no other option. Time management is about making decisions instead of excuses. Don’t use life as an excuse not to study but don’t use studying as an excuse not to do life.
Either you run the day, or the day runs you.
– Jim Rohn
Making a schedule is one thing but sticking to it is another. A good place to start is to assess your time management skills. Identifying your strengths and weaknesses will help you set goals, prioritize tasks, and track how you actually spend your time. Take advantage of the great time management tools available. Whether you prefer a planner or an app, there is something for everyone.
Bar Exams v. Law School Exams
Law school exams and the bar exam both test analysis and problem-solving. However, this is where the similarities end.
- Law school exams are sequential in that you take one exam at a time spread out over 1-2 weeks, and each exam tests one subject. Therefore, studying tends to be “massed practice,” where you focus on one subject at a time and let go of that information once you are tested on it.
- The bar exam is one exam that tests multiple subjects (and skills) at the same time. Although the depth of material might be less than a law school exam, you don’t know what will be tested or how it will be tested (MBE or essay). Therefore, you have to store large amounts of material and be able to retrieve it on demand. You must prepare for everything and anything.
Cramming Doesn’t Work
Cramming might *work* for law school but it won’t work for the bar exam. Your brain needs time to learn and retain the material. In 1885 German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus published his ground-breaking study on memory and learning where he described the forgetting curve (decline of memory) and how spaced repetition decreases its effects.
Spaced Repetition Works
Every time you recall and review information, it becomes more embedded into long-term memory. Your brain is able to organize and “file” information which builds connections between and among concepts. This is what makes it possible to store and retrieve more information over time. Therefore, massed practice (repeating something 10x in one day) is less-effective than spaced repetition (repeating something 10x over ten days).
On the bar exam, you not only need to know information but you also have to retrieve it. Repeated engagement with material spaced over time is the most effective way achieve this. Spaced repetition provides context, which in turn provides cues for retrieval. Being able to access information then makes it possible for you to engage in higher level reasoning (i.e., legal analysis). Therefore, stop making excuses and start studying.
The bar exam tests many subjects and skills so simply putting in 40-60 hours a week is not enough. You need to make progress every day and every week. There is no playing catch up so before you begin full-time bar study, take some time to plan ahead. Start with the commercial bar prep schedule and develop a study plan that is both comprehensive and realistic. As you do this, keep in mind the following:
- Personalize your schedule. Write out your schedule and chart what you want to do each day. Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing. You know what you are capable of doing and that’s what matters. Use the schedule to motivate you- a visual reminder of everything you’ve done. You should never wake up and think, “What am I going to do today?”
- Protect your productive time. Avoid time sucks. You know what I’m talking about- email, social media, texting. You intend to spend 5 minutes on Snapchat but 30 minutes later you are still there. One text or tweet might take a few seconds but they add up to a lot of wasted time. Disconnect when you are studying and don’t re-connect until you are finished doing what you need to do. Tell family and friends you are not available. If they insist on being able to contact you, put your phone in another room and tell them they may call if it is an absolute emergency (FYI- a celebrity having a baby does not fall into this category).
- Educate your friends and family: Friends and family love and support you but they might not understand why you are studying so much. When someone helpfully says, “you’re smart, you’ll pass,” don’t scream at them or roll your eyes. Thank them for their support and respectfully and nicely educate them on the process. You want these folks around after the bar exam so don’t push them away now.
Time management is about being accountable for your time. No commercial bar prep schedule can make you do the work. If you want to pass the bar exam, commit to the process. It might be hard at times, but you have to push through and keep moving forward. One step is better than none.
For those of you planning on taking the MPRE in 2017, the NCBE has increased the test fees. On-time registration is now $95 and late registration is $190. You might not be thrilled about the price increase but $95 is better than $190 so be sure to register on time to avoid paying double. Below are the 2017 test dates and registration deadlines but you don’t have to wait until the deadline to register. In fact, registration for ALL the 2017 test dates opens on December 12th. Your best bet is to plan ahead, pick a test date, earmark $95 and register as soon as you can.
Test Date Regular Registration Late Registration
March 18, 2017 January 26, 2017 February 2, 2017
August 12, 2017 June 22, 2017 June 29, 2017
November 4, 2017 September 14, 2017 September 21, 2017
More information on the MPRE including how to register and score services is available on NCBE website.
Not sure how to study for the MPRE? Check back in February as the Bar Exam Wizard will have a post (or two) on MPRE study strategies. In addition, most commercial bar prep companies offer free MPRE courses with no strings attached (you don’t have to sign up for the bar prep course in order to get the MPRE course).