Practice, Make Mistakes, Learn

The end of commercial bar prep lectures means the start of focused review and practice. It does not mean the start of memorizing your outlines, nor does it mean you spend 90% of your time reading outlines, making flashcards, etc. You need to spend at least 50% of your study time doing practice questions. Off note. No outline. Using only your brain.

For MBE questions, this isn’t too tough because you’ve already taken a practice exam without your notes/outline. Essay questions are another story. This is because, for multiple choice questions, your brain only needs to recognize the material, but for essays your brain has to produce it. This is a slightly different skill that you need to develop. The way to develop the skill is to… practice. The first couple of essays might be awful but that’s ok. We learn from mistakes, oftentimes better than from our successes.

Go into this stage of bar prep with a growth mindset. Expect to make mistakes so you can use them to improve. Don’t wait to practice when you think you can do it *right.* Practice with the goal of learning how to do it right. mistakes


MBE: Practice the Process

People either love or hate multiple choice questions, there is no in between. Unfortunately for all the haters, if you want to pass the bar exam you better learn to at least like multiple choice questions. Focus on quality, not quantity. Doing thousands of practice questions is not an efficient or effective way to prepare because it puts the emphasis on the product instead of the process. If you miss questions you need to figure out why. And in order to change the outcome, you have to change the input. This means taking time to review- not your answers but your process.multiple-choice

Reading answer explanations is not the best way to review. Instead, identify the correct answer choice and then figure out why it is correct and why your choice is incorrect. This is not fun because it requires effort and forces you to do the work. However, if you can identify the mistake in the process, you can address it.

Most people make mistakes because you read the hypo and then go straight to the answer choices for help. Don’t. The answer choices are not there to help you. They are not your friends. Three of those choices are there to distract you from the best one. They look attractive with shiny words and pretty facts. Don’t get seduced. Get back to the fact pattern because that’s where the central issue is waiting. It’s your rock so find it and hold on to it. Once you’ve got a solid grip on the central issue, put wax in your ears and sail past those sirens.

Rely on your good friend IRAC to help you work through without getting distracted or seduced by those answer choices.

  • I: read the call of the question to get a sense of the general issue, then read the hypo and identify the central issue triggered by the facts.
    • When practicing, it’s a good idea to write this down. It will serve as an anchor when those answer choices try to seduce you away.
  • R: once you know what the central issue is, recall the relevant rule.
  • A: apply this rule to the answer choices and eliminate any that aren’t both factually and legally correct.
    • Factually correct: addresses the central issue.
    • Legally correct: applies the relevant rule.
  • C: stay in control and don’t be distracted or seduced.
    • You need to control the question, not the other way around.

Keep practicing but focus on the process instead of the product.


Constructing Bar Exam Essay Responses

You already know bar exam essay questions are different from law school exam essay questions. Bar exam essay questions are straight-forward: no unnecessary facts, red herrings, or tricks. Unlike law school exam responses which require in-depth analysis, counter-analysis, and policy arguments, bar exam responses should be simple and formulaic with shallow fact application. They are easy but different so you must learn how to construct a strong response.

The title of this post is constructing bar exam essay responses. Not answering or writing essay responses. Constructing. There is a difference. You are being graded on substance, structure, and style, so you have to learn the what and the how. Constructing a response means focusing on the process, not the product.

  • Learn in context: seeing the question is a preview of what you be tested on and how it will appear on the exam. Fact patterns repeat and question structures are often based on a basic pattern. If you identify what those patterns are, you know how to prepare for them.
  • Practice perfect: use your notes/outline when you go through the questions and don’t worry about timing. At this stage, you are learning how to learn: what facts trigger certain issues, how to develop synthesized rule statements, how to produce a response that is complete yet within the character count (3900 characters, including spaces).

Here is an example that illustrates these points:

You get a Torts essay question where the plaintiff is a repair person injured while fixing the sink. She tripped on a tear in the carpet while walking from her toolbox to the sink. You know its negligence and think, “duty, breach, cause, damages” and go to the commercial outline where there are 12 pages on the topic. This is too much information. You flip through and under “duty” you see a section on “landowner liability.” You see that the landowner’s duty depends on the plaintiff’s status at the time of injury and realize that your analysis should focus on this rule, not the general “duty, breach, cause, damages.” You confirm this by looking through the hypo again where you see facts about plaintiff’s status as an invitee as well as the open and obvious defense. You use the outline to craft synthesized rule statements and then work through the problem making sure to apply the specific facts to your rules.  

“Bad Fall”  by  Louish Pixel  Courtesy Flicker
  • Did this take a little longer than 30 minutes? Probably.
  • Do you now have a strategy for how to answer a premises liability question? Yes.
  • Is it a better response than had you tried to use “duty, breach, cause, damages?” Absolutely.

Stop trying to rush the process. It takes time but it will pay off in the end.


Learning in Context, Part II

You already know that studying for the bar exam is different from studying for law school exams. Law school exams are at the end of an entire semester of learning, they are spread out over a week or two, you can study for one subject at a time and engage in more linear/sequential learning: organize your notes, create an outline, memorize the outline, practice using it to answer questions.

This doesn’t work for the bar exam because you are tested on all the subjects (and skills) at once. You can’t study and learn one subject and then move on to the next because this linear/sequential method only stores the material in your short term memory. Your short term memory is like a file folder- it can only hold so much. It works for law school exams because you are tested on one subject at a time. For the bar exam, you need to store information in your long-term memory. It’s not about what you know but what you can do with what you know. question-2004314_1920

This is why the commercial bar prep companies assign practice problems throughout the process. Answering questions when you don’t “know” the law feels counter-intuitive. However, it’s based on proven learning theory called retrieval practice which basically forces your brain to recall information and helps develop memory cues. In order to learn both the substance and the skills, consider using your notes/outlines to answer questions. It’s not cheating. It’s learning in context and it’s a focused and efficient way to learn. Stop trying to memorize pages and pages of notes and then doing practice problems. You’ve basically created a trash bag of information in your brain that you have to sort through and file. Instead, streamline your learning by seeing how the material is tested while at the same time organizing the information in your brain.

Another method of learning and storing information in your long-term memory is the concept of interleaving. Click here to learn about interleaving and how it works.

The next time commercial bar prep assigns practice problems, resist the urge to skip them in favor of memorizing your notes. Instead, embrace the concept of learning in context and use those notes to work through the questions. Your brain will thank you.


Bar Exam Studying: Learning in Context

Yesterday I wrote about the importance of learning how to construct bar exam essay responses.  At this stage of bar prep, practicing the process is important and so it using your notes/outlines as you answer questions. This is learning in context which is an efficient and effective way to absorb a lot of material and develop skills in a condensed period of time. Here are additional suggestions for learning in context:

(1) Time reviewing = Time doing. After answering a question, compare it to the released response and reconcile the differences. Don’t assume the released response is correct or that you are wrong. Figure it out.

Why do this? Reviewing your work helps you learn and remember both process and substance.

(2) Build a rules outline. Go through essay responses and pull out the synthesized rules from each and add to a running list for each subject.

Why do this? Creating a complete and concise outline as you go along breaks up a big task which makes it easier to remember the individual rules and how they fit together.

(3) Create a key term bank for different subjects. As you work through the material and answer questions, certain words and phrases will show up again and again. Make a list of these key terms for each subject and make sure you use them in your responses.

Why do this? It facilitates learning because it helps organize and connect concepts, and also serves as a trigger for when your mind goes blank (and it will). If you can remember one word, you can create a rule.

(4) Answer the same question twice. Make note of which essay questions you answered early in the study process and in mid-July (when you actually know the law), answer them again without using notes. Compare your responses. You will immediately notice things you much you’ve improved.

Why do this? It is proof that you know and understand the material. It also gives you a feel for what you know well and what you don’t so you can focus your studying on the weaker subjects.

There is no one right way to study and learn. Try a few of these strategies and see what works best for you.


Preparing for the MBE: Do & Review

The Multistate Bar Exam. AKA: the MBE. 200 multiple choice questions on seven subjects. Almost every jurisdiction requires it so you can’t avoid it. And with more and more jurisdictions adopting the UBE, which weights the MBE 50% of your total bar exam score, you better learn to love it.


Everyone has advice about the “best” way to prepare for and do well on the MBE. However, be wary of  strategies that involve gaming the system or require little effort. The best way to do well on the MBE is the same way to do well on an essay exam: Know the material, practice the process, assess your performance. Assessing your performance does not mean looking at your score. It means figuring out HOW you got that score and WHY you missed particular questions.

This is not fun and it takes time. But it works. That is because time reviewing should equal time doing. What is the point of doing 17, 34, or 100 MBE questions if you don’t take the time to review? Reviewing means more than reading answer explanations. This is important but it only addresses one aspect of the test, the substance. You also need to review your process: the analysis you engaged in that lead you to choose a particular answer choice.

One way to review your analysis is to keep a log as you answer MBE questions. Write down your thought process as you eliminate and choose different answers. Again, this is not fun and it takes time. But it works. You’ll notice patterns in how you approach different questions and different topics. Are you missing Property questions because you don’t understand Property or because you don’t like reading the long hypo and get lost in the all of those facts?  Figure this out and you’ll be able to correct yourself adjust your process.

Want more on how to do well on the MBE? Check out this post  on how to use IRAc and this one for general strategies.




Growth Mindset for the Bar Exam

Mindset Matters

You’re at the point of studying where it’s getting hard. So hard that you are not sure if you can do it. When faced with a challenge, it is completely normal to feel self-doubt. People deal with these feelings of doubt one of two ways: Some give up, some push forward. The difference is not ability or intelligence. The difference is mindset.

Fixed Mindset v. Growth Mindset

If you have a fixed mindset you believe that qualities like ability and intelligence are fixed. If you have a fixed mindset you believe that talent dictates success. You quit.

If you have a growth mindset you believe that ability is a skill that can be learned and developed. If you have a growth mindset you believe that talent is a part of the equation, it is the starting point. Effort, changing strategies, getting input from others, and resilience are what leads to success. You keep going.

It’s Decision Time

You are at a pivotal point in bar study. Yes, it is hard and yes, your confidence is wavering. How you handle it is what matters. If you are looking for an excuse to quit, you can stop reading. Give up and never find out what you are capable of doing.  Let the bar exam win.

If you want this, then let’s keep going. Stanford Psychologist Carol Dweck is the leading expert on motivation and mindset. Dweck says we must acknowledge that we all have fixed and growth mindsets. In order to develop a better growth mindset, we must first acknowledge the fixed mindset feelings. We must also acknowledge the the next step is a choice. We can choose to give in to the fixed mindset or chose to respond with a growth mindset attitude. How can you do that? Below is a wonderful graphic with 9 ways to acknowledge and respond to a fixed mindset.


You can do this.