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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.