Being Wrong Helps You Learn to be Right

bar-exam-trainingWhat is the best way to study for the bar exam?  My students know that I want them to think about studying for the bar exam more like training for an athletic competition than traditional studying. Students who focus the bulk of their time and energy on watching video lectures and reading outlines are less likely to pass than students who spend most of their time and energy on practice tests and quizzes. In fact, some recent research supports what I have observed anecdotally. Researchers from the University of California published a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, in which they found that getting answers wrong was just as effective as getting answers right in learning new material.

The study used a set of quiz questions where the questions were fictional (in other words, there was no truly right answer.  For example: What peace treaty ended the Calumet War?”). Some students “studied” for the quiz by reading a list of the questions with the answer provided right underneath each question. Other students “trained” for the quiz by being shown only the question and having to guess the answer before getting to see the right answer. After that, both groups of students had to take the quiz without looking at any answers.

The researchers found that getting an answer wrong was actually helpful in learning the right answer:

“Unsuccessful retrieval attempts enhanced learning with both types of materials. These results demonstrate that retrieval attempts enhance future learning; they also suggest that taking challenging tests—instead of avoiding errors—may be one key to effective learning.”

Furthermore, they also found that when people were given immediate feedback about wrong answers, they learned the material more efficiently.

There is a common myth that if you do the practice quizzes and tests and keep getting answers wrong, you will reinforce the wrong information. But this study directly contradicts that conclusion. The clear result is that getting a question wrong, especially when you get immediate feedback, will help you learn the material.

Prepare for the Virginia Bar Exam by Getting Practice Answers Wrong

The major bar prep courses — barbri, kaplan, and others — usually offer some form of online quizzes or flashcards. Also, with most programs you can set these quizzes to instantly “grade” each question as you answer it.  This is a very effective method of learning, especially for the MBE. When you get a  question wrong, you will get immediate feedback. As a typical law student, it will annoy you that you got it wrong. If this happens enough times, the right rule and method of applying it will eventually stick with you and you’ll start getting that particular type of question correct.

Don’t cheat yourself out of the opportunity to learn efficiently. Too many students don’t do enough of the practice quizzes or flashcards and think that they’re studying effectively by watching lectures and reading outlines. Focus your energy on the active study elements that provide an ability to test yourself and get instant feedback. Getting the answer wrong will help you get the answer right.