Picture this—you had the rule for express conditions down cold on Monday, but when the rule pops up on a practice essay on Friday, you draw a complete blank.
Meet your bar examination foe—the Forgetting Curve.
First discovered by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinhaus in the late nineteenth century, the Forgetting Curve proves human memory “leaks” over time. After conducting a series of experiments, Ebbinghuas established that, by default, we forget approximately 75% of what we have learned after only six days. Given that the bar examination in every jurisdiction is “closed-book,” it’s probably no surprise to learn that this can have disastrous consequences for bar exam takers.
Fortunately, that’s not the end of the story. The good news is that there are multiple strategies you can employ while studying for the bar exam to combat the ill effects of the Forgetting Curve.
Spaced Learning – Review on the Regular
Luckily for bar exam takers everywhere, Ebbinghaus also discovered that reviewing information during key “dips” in the Forgetting Curve drastically improved memory. The antithesis of cramming, this technique (commonly known as “spaced learning”) requires learners to review and recall information at optimal spaced intervals. Because it forces you to use active recall, utilizing spaced learning means you will not only remember information but remember it faster.
While there is some debate about the “best” spaced learning intervals, you should plan on reviewing and recalling information during the biggest “dips” in the Forgetting Curve. This means that if you covered express conditions on Day 1, for example, you should plan to come back to it on Day 3, on Day 6, on Day 16, and on Day 35. Some forgetting is likely to set it between review sessions, but don’t worry—it will be slower than before each time.
Variation – Mix It Up
There are two primary ways to practice new skills (e.g., tackling MBE questions and drafting performance tests). With “blocked practice,” you learn a particular skill (e.g., juggling), then practice that skill over and over again. By contrast, in “varied practice,” you learn multiple skills (e.g., juggling and sword swallowing) and alternatives between practicing each skill. Varied practice enhances the retention and application of new skills and improves the ability to transfer learning from one situation to another.
What does this mean for you? Instead of devoting particular days to memorization, MBEs, essays, and performance tests, mix it up and incorporate different tasks each day. You definitely don’t need to do everything every day, but you may need to make an effort to practice at least two different skills during each study session. Sidebar, if you need assistance with the MBE portion of the exam, we can help!
Interleaving – “Sally Studies Several Subjects Down by the Seashore”
When you interleave, you study multiple subjects during a single study session. Contrast this with what you are probably used to doing—studying one concept or topic at a time until you feel you’ve mastered it (this is known as “blocked” practice). Studies have shown that interleaving is more effective than blocked practice when it comes to developing long-term memory retention and problem-solving skills because, when you interleave, you are forcing your brain to work to continually retrieve information. This will feel considerably more difficult than blocked practice because you won’t be able to rely on your short-term memory but remember, you are building the connections and pathways that will lead to better results.
How does interleaving work when you are studying for the bar examination? Simple—study a variety of topics each day (there are 14 to choose from if you are taking the exam in California, after all). So, for example, your study plan may look like this:
- Monday: Civil Procedure, Professional Responsibility, Contracts
- Tuesday: Torts, Real Property, Wills & Trusts
- Wednesday: Contracts, Business Associations, Professional Responsibility
- Thursday: Real Property, Remedies, Torts
- Friday: Business Association, Community Property, Civil Procedure
It’s okay to focus on a single topic for a while, but if your goal is to maximize memorization, make sure to consistently switch it up.
The Testing Effect
We’ve saved our favorite strategy for last.
Practice may not necessarily make perfect, but it definitely makes better. Simply put, testing improves memory. Also known as retrieval practice, testing yourself works because every time you work to retrieve the information you’ve learned, you form connections between the synapses in your brain. Building these connections through testing makes it much easier to access the information on future occasions (like during the bar examination).
The key is to incorporate active, as opposed to passive, practice into your schedule each day. This means working through MBE questions and writing out essays and performance tests (under timed, closed-book conditions) rather than spending time passively reviewing your outlines or flashcard. It will be frustrating to forget a rule or miss a trigger fact, but making these mistakes now is actually a GOOD thing because the likelihood is that you will remember the next time.
A final note – while self-testing is great for maximizing memorization, self-testing followed by self-assessment is even better. Make sure to spend time reviewing every MBE question you answer and every essay or performance test you write. Once you’ve mastered the Forgetting Curve, get help preparing for your essay questions here.
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