Stop “Studying” and Start Learning: The Underrated Practice of Practice

Back in college, I gave my cheat sheet for our engineering midterm to a girl. How do you say no to a girl? Answer: You can’t.

It had all the equations needed, but she got the lowest score in the class because she didn’t know how and when those equations applied. She hadn’t practiced applying those rules to similar problems.

You’d think they’d be plug and play, but they’re not. Context matters. Knowing when and how to use them matters.

She was my gf at the time btw. Awkward! Oh well, live and learn.

When you don't practice for the bar exam

And that’s what I want to talk about—learning.

“Do I really know this?” It’s natural to question yourself at every step when preparing for the bar exam.

What people try to do:

  • Consume material to cover all the subjects first
  • Obsess over rules and get overwhelmed
  • Collect more tools than is possible to look at and reconcile
  • Endlessly seek the “best” tool
  • Fill in the available time

This is when we pour our coffee, make room on our desk, organize our pens, turn on the computer… and then just stare at the words.

How to actually find out:

  • Apply what you learned as you go (you find out what’s missing)
  • Set up the issues in an essay (rules will flow)
  • Study what’s been done in model answers (don’t reinvent the wheel)
  • Simplify (get an outline or two; tack on other tools as you need)
  • Plan around tasks to be done (constraints force you to get creative and focused with your time)

Tedium and busy work aren’t actually productive.

It’s not putting in the time itself that makes you better. Improvement comes from constant feedback and learning every time you try to solve a difficult problem.

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Everything you get wrong while practicing can be a painful lesson you carry over to future instances. Embarrassment is the best way I’ve found to learn a lesson. Bar preparation is emotional preparation.

This seems obvious enough. Why aren’t more bar takers doing this? Why so overly concerned with memorizing (over recalling and applying rules and issues)? Why focus on sheer quantity of questions (over reviewing answers carefully and perhaps redoing them)?

It feels safe. It’s hard to empathize with your future self when you could avoid full effort and blows to your ego right now.

It sucks when the time comes to check your answers. You can’t bring yourself to turn to the answer key.

In a situation where opportunities are abundant like when preparing for the bar exam, I think it’s more exciting to fail. Every failure comes with valuable data to correct course next time. 

Often times, people will tell you a good reason but not the real reason. That’s completely useless except to your ego. Sure, maybe we want to guard against angry critiques (even those might be useful), but maybe we should guard against sugarcoated results too.

How can you take that failure and apply it later? What will you try to remember? What can you tweak and improve the next time?

Think of it this way:

Whatever you’re about to do can’t be worse than not seeing your name on the pass list… and the fear that closes in around you each time that happens.

I, too, was a struggling bar taker once (a repeater)! Nothing made sense, and I was exhausted from forcing myself to do things that weren’t helping me LEARN.

My main problems with my failed California bar attempt according to my score report: essays, raising issues correctly, and the MBE somewhat. Hell, everything was substandard:

(FYI, in California, an average raw written score of about 62.5 historically allowed one to be on track to get to the passing 1440 scaled score, assuming the MBE score was also on track. As you can see, my written score was over 100 points away from that benchmark.)

The unifying cause of these problems: lack of thoughtful action.

Like a lot of people, I was just going through the motions of “studying”: dutifully watching lectures and reading outlines in exhaustive detail, showing off my “stressful” life to other people, and following the regimen my prep company told me to do. (Kaplan, I’m throwing you under the bus.)

Looking back, it wasn’t very thoughtful. Now I know that effective bar prep requires thoughtfulness.

It doesn’t have to be exhausting if you position yourself to gain from the experience. Otherwise, it’s like complaining about your daily commute instead of just moving closer to work.

I spent way too much time memorizing and listening and “studying” and not enough time practicing and learning. It’ll get you to the point where you know the rules in theory, but will you know when to apply which ones? Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting tomato in a fruit salad (mostly because tomatoes are gross).

Knowledge doesn’t give you experience or intuition.

On the other hand, it turns out practicing and self-critiquing your work help you accomplish everything you seek:

  • Getting better at identifying issues
  • Memorizing and remembering rules through active recall
  • Knowing how to apply the rules you memorized (important!)
  • Picking the right answer on the MBE more often (assuming you understand all explanations and learn from them)
  • Gaining confidence

In other words, practicing will help solidify everything, including memorization.

Once I figured that out… Now THAT was exciting. It’s only obvious in hindsight because you’re surrounded by competing advice mixed with your own uncertainties and overwhelm.

It’s so easy to read a rule statement and think, “Great, got it, that’s how an offer works, duh.” It’s a different story to know when to use that rule and how to use it.

Studying for the bar exam isn’t just about “studying”; it’s about preparation. Practice as if it were the real thing, and do the real thing as if it were practice.

Even then, what good is practice if you don’t learn anything from it? You might as well not have done it at all.

If you’re doing questions and seeing if you got the right answer/issues/rules… but not doing anything about it, that’s busy work. That’s simply measuring your current skill level—like getting on the scale, getting off, and getting right back on again hoping to see improvement.

You might be getting spooked by all this, but it’s actually a simple fix (even if uncomfortable): Self-critique your work.

You already know what you should do. You just have to bring just enough momentum to get started.

Your task on the hot seat is to solve problems correctly, not just to read or remember or understand things.

So stop studying, and start learning. Solve problems now and learn from them. Exploit your knowledge, not only to solidify what you’ve studied, but to practice raising issues, applying rules, eliminating wrong choices, and picking the correct choice.

You won’t always be ready with perfect information, but you can learn it by attempting to use it anyway and filling in the gaps afterward. Using your knowledge tells you what you’re missing.

“No prize fighter can go with high spirits into the strife if he has never been beaten black and blue. The only contestant who can confidently enter the lists is the man who has seen own blood, who has felt his teeth rattle beneath his opponent’s fists, who has been tripped and felt the full force of his adversary’s charge, who has been downed in body, but not in spirit, one who, as often as he falls, rises again with greater defiance than ever.”—Seneca

You either learn or succeed. Don’t let the bar be a learning experience.

Brian

PS: Want some help with learning and practicing for your bar exam? Take a look at my condensed outlines, essay flowcharts, and other study tools here. There are plenty of samples and information so you can make an informed decision.
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