Practice Makes Perfect When Studying for the Bar Exam

Bar exam preppers, take note.

After pitting a variety of test-preparation methods against each other, researchers at Kent State found that writing practice exams was the most effective method for successfully preparing for actual test-taking. Their findings, released in 2013, stated specifically:

Practice testing and distributed practice received high utility assessments because they benefit learners of different ages and abilities and have been shown to boost student performance across many criterion tasks.”

Incidentally, the lowest marks for effectiveness were given to summarizing and highlighting study materials in preparation for testing.

I know that it’s hard to break old habits and for many students, studying for the bar exam translates into sitting down with a pile of books, trying to plow through mountains of law while furiously writing outlines. It probably feels like you’re working hard. But are you working smart?

I’ve had plenty of talks with my students about why we write practice bar exam essays in our bar review course. Week after week, subject after subject, it’s practice, practice, practice. Students will sometimes ask, how are we supposed to learn the material when we spend so much time writing essays? But that IS learning. The practicing is where the learning takes place. You need to learn how to pass an exam, not teach a course in Constitutional Law. So you practice writing Con Law essays, using that pile of books as a resource.

The brain is imprinted with knowledge much more effectively when that knowledge is used than when it is just passively received through listening or reading. Think about the subjects you took in school—the classes where you sat in lecture and took notes tend to be a blur, but the papers you wrote tend to stick in your memory. I even remember the paper I wrote about Edgar Allan Poe in junior high. Writing, consulting sources, then writing again—this is how we best learn challenging material.

Practice testing works. It works better than sitting in front of recorded lectures for hours, trying hard not to daydream. It works better than sitting bleary-eyed over outlines with a highlighter asking yourself why it seems like you should be highlighting everything. It works better than writing your own outlines. Practice really does make perfect.

Is it a lot of work? Okay, I’ll admit it’s not the easiest route to bar prep—some successful students have called it boot camp—but the research bears it out. It’s effective. And that’s what matters when you’ve got an exam to pass.

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K., et al. Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Science in the Public Interest, January 2013. 14:1.