Why Bar Exam Studying is Like Computer Programming

memorizing for virginia bar examComputer programming has a lot of rules. And these rules have to be structured and applied in a specific order to make the computer do what the user would like. Bar exam study is the same. We have legal rules to memorize, so that we can apply them in a specific way on the bar exam. This is especially true in bar exam essays. While many tutors focus on helping students spot issues and apply rules, I find that too many students actually do not know the rules well enough.

Computer programmers were first to adopt this scientifically proven method for learning rules. It is called the Anki Method, and its a little-known secret that bar exam students are starting to figure out. The Anki Learning Method relies on two important and research-backed principles of learning. First is Active Recall Testing and the second is Spaced Repetitions. At its heart, this is just using flashcards — but using them in a very specific way, with very specific timing, that aligns with published research on the human brain and memory.

Active Recall Testing for Bar Review

University research demonstrates that active recall testing is far more effective at building strong memories than passive studying. There are two reasons for this.  First, just the act of recalling something strengthens your memory, and increases the chance that you will be able to remember it again. Second, when we’re unable to answer a question, it tells us we need to return to the material to review or relearn it. Using the Anki method, you embrace getting an answer wrong because it sparks you to focus on those things until you consistently get them right. Many people worry that getting an answer wrong will hurt their bar review. Not true. Getting answers wrong will inspire your brain to remember it correctly and avoid the pain of being wrong.

Spaced Repetition for Bar Review

The spacing effect was reported by a German psychologist in 1885. The basic premise is that we remember more efficiently if we review the material at specific points over time. You study material and test recall. Then wait a specific amount of time (depending on how well you learned it) before reviewing it again. The stronger your recall becomes, the longer the time between repetitions should be. Since a memory gets stronger each time you successfully recall it, the time between reviews gets bigger and bigger – so you may see a question for the first time, then 3 days later, 15 days later, 45 days later, and so on.

What makes the Anki Method so effective is an algorithm programmed to present you with exactly the right question at the moment you most need to review it so that you will remember. Computer programmers were the first to catch on and apply all this university research to create software that helps users study in a way that is highly effective for permanent retention. But since then, the method has proved transferrable to many fields, including languages, law, and medicine.

How to Use Anki in Bar Prep

For MBE study, the major bar review courses usually have an online flashcard app where you rate how well you knew each card as you progress through the deck. This is fine for the full MBE questions, and it is a pretty effective variation on the Anki Method. But the long, complex MBE-like questions do not lend themselves to flashcard study as they are. Plus, the act of creating flashcards will improve your recall as well. For the Virginia-specific rules of law, you really must create your own flashcards. I have yet to see a bar prep course that adopts a true Anki method for the state-specific portion of the exam. Here is what to do.

  1. Download Anki — it is free and available for MAC, PC, iPhone, and Android. It will also “sync” your cards to the cloud.
  2. You’ll quickly see that Anki is a flashcard program. You create “decks” and your decks consist of “cards” that have a question side and an answer side. After installing it, you’ll see that you can click “shared” to see decks that others have created. You can download and use these for free.
  3. Create your own decks. It is to your benefit to create your own flashcards and decks. Here is how to know what to put in your deck for the Virginia Essays:
    1. Read a practice essay or full MBE question and attempt to outline or answer it.
    2. If you there is any aspect of the question you don’t recall perfectly, create a card for that one rule. Note that you are not copying the whole MBE question onto a card. That would be a waste. Instead you want to isolate the single rule or principle of law that you didn’t remember correctly and put just that on the card. Each card should be very simple and contain only one rule principle or set of factors.
  4.  Take a look at the Anki manual to be sure you understand how to create decks and cards.
  5. After creating cards, you will enter “study” mode. For each card, you will attempt to think of the correct answer, then view the correct answer, and then rate how well you did at recalling the answer. There is also a mode where you can type in the answer rather than rating how well you did.
  6. Each day during your bar review, you will return to Anki and it will automatically show you all the cards for you to review that particular day.

If you use Anki each day, I promise you will learn the material and not forget it. It is an incredibly effective method.  Need more reasons to use Anki? Read how some other people are using Anki to be memory superstars.