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.


Tips & Strategies for Learning in Context

Learning the material tested on the bar exam does not mean you should simply memorize that material. Memorization is a lower-level skill and the bar exam does not test your ability to memorize. It tests your ability to demonstrate an understanding of the concepts. Instead of memorizing, you should be learning. Learning means you know, understand, and can apply material. No bar exam question is going to ask you to rattle off the definition of consideration. Instead, the question will ask you to explain whether consideration exists under a certain set of facts. You can’t do this if you have memorized but not learned the material. So stop reading your notes over and over and think about what you can do to learn the material. For example:

  • Use notes/outlines to answer questions. This provides context for the material because you see both what and how it is tested. It also helps you identify gaps in understanding- if you can’t apply the rules to a fact pattern, then you don’t understand that law.
  • Spend as much time reviewing as doing. Checking your work helps you see not only why you missed something but also why you got it right. It reinforces both process and substance.
  • Create a Phrase That Pays (PTP) Bank. As you work through material, you will notice that certain words and phrases show up again and again. Make note of those works in a PTP Bank. This facilitates learning because it organizes and connects concepts, and serves as a trigger for when you mind goes blank (and it will). If you can recall one PTP, you can create a rule.
  • Construct a rules-only outline. Go through essay responses and for each subject, pull out the synthesized rules and add to a running list. Creating a concise rule outline as you go along breaks up a big task and makes it easier to learn the individual rules and how the rules fit together.
  • Answer questions more than once. Make note of essay and MBE questions that you found particularly tough and answer them again July (when you have a better handle on the law). You should notice an improvement. This helps you identify gaps in understanding and serves as proof that you’ve learned the material.

Focus on the process and keep moving forward. Trust yourself and your abilities.