Everything You Think You Know About Learning is Wrong

Everything You Think You Know About Learning is Wrong

Bar study can be frustrating because most of what we think about how learning happens is wrong. Bar study asks you to do things that most of us grow up thinking are designed to test what you learn, not help you learn. These myths can make bar study feel very uncomfortable. Here are five myths about learning that make bar study awkward.

Myth 1: Learning happens by listening to a teacher in a classroom.

Most of us grow up listening to teachers in a classroom, and expect to passively learn what we need to know from the words that come out of their mouths. In bar study, that translates to passively listening to bar review lectures and thinking that you are supposed to walk away understanding all of the rules. You can’t. The lectures are just one step in the learning process. It’s an introduction. You aren’t expected to walk away from lecture fully understanding everything, and you definitely aren’t supposed walk away having it all memorized.

Myth 2: Reading is Studying

Many of us grow up thinking that in order to study, we need to re-read our notes (or outlines). But that, too, is passive. Most of us learn very little through reading. In fact, it gives us a false sense of what we know because we think that if we understand the words on the page, we actually understand how the law works. But recognizing words on a page doesn’t actually mean we could restate it or, more importantly, apply it to a set of facts. Just like with lectures, reviewing outlines is an essential component of bar study, but it is just one component. It’s not where deep learning happens. You need to be more active than that.

Myth 3: You Need to Study One Thing at a Time

Another myth that often tricks bar studiers is that they have to study one thing at a time. Students feel like they can’t move on to civ pro if they haven’t mastered contracts. The truth is that your brain learns more when it works harder. Spacing out your study so that your brain has to come back to things over a period of time will actually help you remember more. This is called spaced repetition.[1]

Law students are used to cramming for finals. They study contracts for a period of time, take the final exam, and then start studying criminal law. But breaking up your study is actually a more effective method for learning. This means that in bar study, you shouldn’t wait until you feel like you’ve mastered something before you move on. During the first part of bar study, when you’re still doing lectures every day, this means keeping up with the lecture schedule, even when you feel uncertain about a particular doctrine. In phase two, when lectures are over and you’re memorizing, it means moving through each subject quickly and doing multiple subjects per day. Develop a schedule that allows you to come back to each subject more times, spacing out your study, and forcing your brain to work harder to remember.

Myth 4: In Order to Learn Something New, Something Else Must Be Forgotten

Students often tell me that when they learn something, they forget something else. But your brain does not have finite capacity. The human brain continues to grow, even in adults.[2] So, learning a new concept is not actually going to make you forget an older one. It’s all still in there. Law school, and bar study, rewire your brain. Your brain will grow and expand to remember what you need to. (That doesn’t mean you will remember everything about every rule that could possibly be tested on the bar. You won’t. Fortunately, you don’t need to. But, it does mean that learning what an impleader is doesn’t mean you’ll forget the elements of defamation).

Myth 5: Questions are for Testing

This is perhaps the most pervasive, and dangerous myth perpetuated by our schooling today. Students do practice questions as if each one is summative assessment – there to test what you know and tell you how you would perform on exam day. But testing is actually where the learning happens.[3]

Bar study requires you to test yourself every day. You should be doing some form of practice (MBE, MEE, or MPT) every single day. Ideally, you would do a set of MBEs and an essay each day, and an MPT at least once per week. Many students get stuck thinking that they can’t do the practice until they “know” the doctrine. They don’t want to do practice questions until they are “ready,” meaning when they know the doctrine. Don’t be that student.

Practicing is learning. It is not only how you learn the test, putting yourself into the mind of the bar examiner and understanding how they think and formulate questions. Doing practice questions – applying the law – is actually how you learn the law. It forces your brain to work hard to figure out a problem. The harder your brain works, the more you remember. That is why practice questions is where the real learning happens, not in lecture or outline review. It’s also why you will learn some new rules through practice, that weren’t in your bar review lecture or outline. It’s all designed to help you learn more.

So, remember, trust the process; do more practice than you think you’re ready for; and have confidence in your ever-growing brain!


[1] James Gupta, Spaced Repetition: A Hack to Make Your Brain Store More Information, The Guardian,  https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/jan/23/spaced-repetition-a-hack-to-make-your-brain-store-information.

[2] Helen Shen, Does The Adult Brain Really Grow New Neurons? Scientific American,https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/does-the-adult-brain-really-grow-new-neurons/

[3] See. e.g., Bart Schuster, Learning Through Testing, Association for Psychological Science, https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/learning-through-testing (September 20, 2012); Cynthia Brame and Rachel Biel, Test-Enhanced Learning: Using Retrieval Practice To Help Students Learn, Vanderbilt Center for Teaching, https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/test-enhanced-learning-using-retrieval-practice-to-help-students-learn/.