10 lessons from studying for the bar exam
In my very first post on this blog, I asked: “Do you know how to learn?“. Despite spending the majority of my life so far studying and learning, I wasn’t sure whether I could actually answer with yes.
So throughout the past two years, I’ve made an effort to actively question my old ways of studying and applying the principles that are backed by sciences to see how that would go.
My bar exam ended 2 weeks ago. I haven’t become an expert in learning, but I surely know a lot more about it than when I started out.
So here they are, my 10 lessons from studying for the bar exam:
1. Ditching summary writing is a game changer
I’m ultimately very thankful that I developed RSI in my hands after the first exam. If it weren’t for that, I probably would not have had the courage to leave the corner stone of my exam preparations in the past: writing detailed summaries & re-reading them later.
Instead, I had to opt for the Question Book Method. I would read through the material and write down a bunch of questions regarding the content – and that’s it. I didn’t even write down any answers to cut down on the strain on my hands.
And it worked surprisingly well.
- First, writing summaries is a huge time dump. It used to take the majority of my study time and leave relatively little time in the end to go through the material again.
- Second, writing summaries is quite hard. As a study has shown, it can in theory be an effective study method, but few students do so correctly. It’s easy to drift off to transcribing material instead of summarising it.
- Third, learning with summaries can be tricky if you don’t structure them correctly. It’s very tempting to just re-read your summaries later. Re-reading is one of the worst study techniques however.
Writing down questions enabled me to consume a lot more material a lot faster, meaning there was more time in the end to actual go through my questions and internalise the topic. Questions also naturally lead to Active Practise, which is considered to be one of the most effective study techniques
My main regret in this area is, that I didn’t start early enough with it. At the beginning of my preparation time leading up to the bar exam, I wanted to simply get going so I started reading material without having a concise study plan in place. That meant I had to go through those books again to create questions to learn with later.
What I should have done is taking the time to really analyse the learning challenge before me and consider how different approaches would affect my later studying. This so called Meta-Learning turned out to be a key step in my learning approach.
2. Active Practice is effective – and so much harder
Active Practice has been the biggest boost to my studying when it comes to the effectiveness of time spent. Instead of mindlessly re-reading my notes (which would at some point inevitably lead to me going through pages without really internalising things), I tried to answer the questions that I had written down.
I combined this with a very simple spaced repetition system. On the first go, correctly answered questions got a yellow mark, wrong ones a red mark. After that, I kept practicing only the red questions until everything was yellow. The second, later round would grant green to correctly answered questions, yellow to shaky stuff and red to wrong answers. Then, I’d repeat the above and practice the weakest areas until everything was green.
I found this to be a very time effective way to get the benefits of spaced repetition without having to spend too much time on putting questions into a dedicated system like Anki. With enough time available, Anki surely is superior (and there’s a ton of great material out there that explains how to leverage it’s power), but given my time restraint, I opted for the quickest approach.
How to decide whether a dedicated system like Anki or writing flashcards is worth the time compared to my approach of simply writing down questions in text books (even omitting answers)?
To me, that would depend on how often you intent to go through them. If it’s realistic to go through all the material five times or more or for a longer time, the extra effort should be worth it. If I’m struggling to make two passes happen, ditching as much additional work as possible is the name of the game for me.
The one caveat with Active Practice? It is so much harder.
There’s a reason re-reading is low utility when it comes to learning. It’s not hard for our brains to read things, even less so if it’s familiar with the content. In general, struggle and required focus correlate with more effective studying (if you can do it hungover, it’s probably not effective).
So towards the end of my preparation, I’ve noticed a growing mental resistance towards going through my questions because I knew it would be hard. That in turn had a noticeable negative impact on my daily study time.
That doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t recommend Active Practice as the main pillar of a study regime. But it shows the importance of rest & reset periods, so that your brain is actually able to perform the hard tasks you put in front of it.
And it also means that at the end of the day, it’s ok if I don’t stick to my ideal plan all day, every day. Showing up on most days is good enough.
3. A more detailed study plan has reduced marginal utility…
Another big change that turned out to be correct was to stop writing detailed study plans.
I used to spend a great deal of time outlining every day of the upcoming months, assigning topics to revise on a specific day and calculating my progress.
Besides the obvious time investment, the plan just didn’t work. Inevitably, after a few weeks, I’d be out of synch and in need for a redo. Plus, “having to make a plan” turned into a hurdle that made me feel as if I couldn’t possibly do any meaningful work until I had figured out what to work on.
This time however, I opted for the so called Retrospective Revision Table.
Instead of detailed planning for the upcoming weeks, I simply filled in a table with whatever I had studied on that day, using a color-code to indicate my proficiency.
The only real planning ahead required was to scope the area of the exams and note down the general topics to be covered – something necessary anyway, that barely took meaningful time.
That had several benefits:
- It freed up a lot of time to actually study
- It showed me at a glance with topics where missing & where I was weak, meaning I’d always work on an area that offered me the biggest improvement for the time invested
- There was less frustration about the inevitable failure of a pre-determined plan
4. … but planning ahead is also crucial
That being said, I did plan a bit and in retrospective, the importance of a certain type of planning has become clearer to me.
Having thought in advance about my study strategies and the “how” of studying proved to be very valuable. Not only did it help me to actually implement my newfound strategies. It also served as a great reminder to do the right kind of work when things got more stressful instead of just reverting back to the next best thing.
I had a rough sketch of big milestones that I wanted to achieve by a certain time. Before each part, I sat down for 25 minutes and quickly sketched out which learning goals I had and with which methods I’d try to achieve them. While doing so, I used my summaries in my blog posts as reference to make sure I’d actually implement my findings.
This worked great for most of the time. Towards the end, when things got a bit more stressful and my energy levels were lower, I noticed that I barely found the time for it anymore. Less so because I actually didn’t have time and more so because I didn’t feel like taking a birds-eye perspective anymore.
Luckily, I had already roughly drafted my program for the last weeks. If I had to do it again, I’d make sure though to create a plan for the last two weeks a bit in advance so that I would not revert back to old ways.
5. If things feel arbitrary and isolated, chances are, I lack overview
About one third into my preparation, I complained that the stuff I had to work through (mainly procedural law) was a collection of arbitrary, random and isolated facts that had little to do with the systematic and interconnected material law I had encountered so far.
Oh boy was I wrong.
I had simply no idea what I was doing. I didn’t have an overview of the big picture and was lacking the contextual knowledge to sort information out.
The longer I worked through topics though and the more I formed a complete picture, the more it became obvious that just as in any other area before, there was a system to the madness.
So the next time I feel that something is just a bunch of arbitrary and isolated facts, I’ll try to step back and work on getting a better overview first. Building knowledge structures is a key part in boosting learning, as you change from internalising randomness to understanding patterns.
6. Good feedback is paramount, but scarily rare
My hand problems forced me to be very picky about the practice I got – I couldn’t write mock exams that would then be graded, so I had to look for mock exams that already came with detailed solutions.
While doing so, it became clear that a lot of the solutions available did a very poor job in fulfilling their main purpose: giving feedback.
Writing mock exams in law combines several different skills that are equally important. Knowing the law is only one step – it’s at least as important to give your arguments in a clear & concise manner and to adhere to the formalities expected by practitioners.
Yet, most solutions provided only a rough bullet point style explanation of the material law. That’s however the part least relevant to feedback in a mock exam. The law itself can be practiced in many ways (with the question book method, for example), whereas the writing & style part can’t.
So my take-away here would be, that just because the existing system provides institutional feedback, doesn’t mean it’s good feedback.
It’s important to think about the areas you actually need to get quality feedback on and compare that to your practice: are you really getting the feedback you need?
One thing that helped me a lot was to ask other students for copies of their work so that I could compare different styles and writing. If I had to do it again, I’d form a study group that exchanged their writing regularly for others to grade.
7. Clear separation fights time creep
Another improvement compared to earlier exam periods was a better separation between study time and the rest of my day.
I used to feel like all I’d ever do during exam period was studying – yet at the end of the day, it felt like little actual progress was made.
Switching to the Pomodoro Technique helped in two ways:
- Creating defined windows of study time meant that off-time felt more real. It kind of trains your brain to jump more consciously from work to play time and vice versa.
- Even on days where I worked on things where progress is hard to measure, I had at least the number of Pomodoros as a prove to myself that “I did something”
What’s more, working with Pomodoros on a regular basis gives you a better feeling for the time actually spent on studying. Do you know how many hours you actually study focused? I didn’t before (it’s actually a relatively low number, given that it’s the main activity of the day).
Two things I’d like to improve going forward are my rituals before and inbetween work sessions.
- My brain would probably get even better at switching between work & play mode if I would implement a small ritual in the beginning of the session, like doing a round of Box Breathing followed by putting on noise cancelling headphones. I tried to do so from time to time but didn’t really manage to make it a habit.
- Earlier on during preparation, I was quite disciplined with my breaks. I’d refrain from hogh-dopamine activities (checking social media for example) and would instead do stretches or declutter a bit. As my energy got lower and lower towards the end, I found myself more often than not disregarding my own advice and quickly updating Twitter or Slack, inevitably leading to longer-than-necessary breaks (which took away from my actual free time). Next time, I would want to work more actively on stacking the deck in my favour here
8. Don’t forget to have fun
Still, I was unsure on whether it would be a good idea to dedicate several hours a week for a full month to a non-learning activity, just two months before my bar.
In retrospect, taking the course was the right call. Not only was it a great experience in itself – it also helped me sustain my effort on studying. In particular amidst a pandemic, where activities are quite limited, the course proved to be the fun side hustle necessary to recharge my battery.
During the last month of my preparation, after the course, it was quite noticeable to me that I was lacking such an activity, which impacted my energy levels and with that my ability to sustain focus for as long as before.
So the clear lesson here would be: don’t forget to have fun and do enough things that recharge your battery. Otherwise, your learning effort will suffer and those hours saved by refraining from fun stuff will go to waste.
9. My energy levels are the limiting factor
A fun side activity wasn’t the only thing though to help me recharge my energy.
Different to earlier exam phases, I made a conscious effort to work out daily (or at least every second day) and stretch. It wasn’t a lot of sport, maybe 20-30 minutes a day, but it always left me feel better and more balanced.
It was particularly useful as an afternoon reset. My daily energy graph is sky high early in the morning, reaches a first slump before lunch, resets a bit after a nap and drops low around 4 pm in the afternoon.
Thanks to a quick workout around that time, I usually recovered enough to focus again after dinner.
Same goes for meditation. I currently meditate in the morning, when I am fit anyways, so I don’t notice an immediate impact as with sport. What I do notice though is whenever I skip a session or two. I am more moody, more easily aggravated and generally far less balanced than when I adhere to my routine.
Spending another hour studying a day might seem impactful – but it’s only worth it if I have the energy to do so. So before I skip an activity to make more room for studying, I ask myself: is it really an expandable activity or do I need it to recharge my energy levels?
10. Just because you can memorize something doesn’t mean you should
Writing questions for anything that comes up during the initial readings is generally a good idea, but before internalisation starts, it’s worth pausing for a second to see whether it’s actually necessary to memorise that fact.
For most of my preparation, I went through my questions and simply tried to remember the answers. I had forgotten, that during the exam itself, we would be allowed to use some official resources that already contained some of the phrases I was trying to memorise.
In addition, many facts become redundant once you understood the underlying concepts and are instead able to figure out the correct solution on the spot instead of relying on your memory to catalogue all correct answers.
So for my next study project, I would like to do a better job questioning the worth of certain information and whether I actually need to internalise it.
Notes to myself
So if I had to do my bar exam or any other big exam again, here are my notes to myself:
- Protect time for balancing activities like workouts, sport and that one fun thing in my day
- Create a simple “time to work” ritual and stick to it rigorously
- Plan activities during Pomodoro Breaks and stick to them
- Look for good feedback – question whether the readily available feedback actually helps me move forward
- When things feel random, zoom out and look at the bigger picture
- Don’t just “start” for the sake of it. At the very beginning, plan out the how of the study project. What is used for first exposure? How will I internalise things?
More posts on studying
Check out all my posts on how to study effectively: