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.


When Bar Prep Gets Overwhelming

You’re two-three weeks into bar prep and it’s not fun anymore. It’s likely you feel overwhelmed and don’t trust your abilities or the process. You are telling yourself (and anyone who will listen): I can’t do this because…

I’ve always had open-outline exams so I’ve never had to memorize this much material.
I can’t keep up with everything on the commercial bar prep schedule.
I’ve never been good at essay/multiple choice/standardized tests.

First, these feelings are completely normal and expected. You feel this way because you’ve let the bar exam take control. You think you are following the process but it’s likely you are still trying to prepare for the bar exam the same way you would study for a law school exam. You are trying to master each subject before going on to the next. As you are finding out, this won’t work.

Second, it’s time to make a decision and you have two options: (1) do or (2) do not.yoda

I recommend option one.

Yes, you feel overwhelmed but you can push through it by changing your approach. Stop trying to memorize massive amounts of material and focus on learning it. One way to learn material is through something called interleaving which, along with spaced repetition involves mixing up study material in order to create connections between concepts.

What is most important about the learning process is that it is effective in the long-run. As you go through the process you will make a lot of mistakes, forget rules, struggle to understand concepts. Your brain is working and it will come together.