After receiving failing bar exam results, I always hear students say “I don’t understand why I failed, I did everything my bar review course told me to do.” My response is always the same: “You probably did not do what worked best for you.” Commercial bar preparation courses are a one-size-fits-all approach to bar studying, but law students come in all different sizes. A student who graduated with a 4.0 GPA from law school is getting the same bar exam study plan as a student who graduated with a 2.0 GPA. Due to declining law school application qualifications, many graduates can no longer rely solely on their commercial bar preparation study plan in order to be successful on the bar exam on their first attempt. Further, and unfortunately, many students do not realize this issue until they are on their second, third, or higher attempt taking the exam.
Recognizing that commercial bar preparation courses alone may not be sufficient to prepare our current law students for the bar examination, this article discusses how law school academic support programs should focus on teaching students how to study and how to adapt their learning for first time bar success.
What is the Epidemic?
This epidemic is not new news. Nationally, law schools are admitting a large number of underprepared students. In part, this problem is related to the work ethic of undergraduate students, which has experienced a tremendous decline. From 1961 to 2003, the percentage of undergraduate college students studying twenty hours per week outside of class declined from 67% of students to 20% of students. What does this essentially mean? Students are entering law school not knowing how to study.
Much literature exists about the claim that undergraduate education is no longer providing students with fundamental and critical thinking skills they need to succeed. This notion of the current underprepared law student is demonstrated in declining national bar passage rates as the mean MBE score has been declining every year since 2013. Because students have declining credentials, and have difficulty studying (in part because they never really had to before), we are facing a bar passage crisis. If the one-size-fits-all approach of commercial bar studying is not cutting it, what can we do?
Queue adaptive learning. Adaptive learning emerged in the area of technology, where learning platforms were created to personalize teaching and material engagement. This technology uses preset rules or algorithms to shape content to the student’s individual needs and can provide necessary remediation and extra content for that student. Imagine that you could give your students their own personalized course, made specifically for their strengths, weaknesses, goals, and engagement patterns. Further imagine a course that adapted in real-time to their activity and adjusted moment by moment to their performance and their engagement level. This is adaptive learning technology. The question is, do you think students’ commercial bar preparation courses do this?
The answer is, unfortunately, no. Although commercial bar preparation companies currently advertise themselves as personalized, they often offer such individualized assistance on a small scale, such as giving students an extra question set in a subject or subtopic they are struggling in or having students answer questions about law they are not understanding. However, every student, no matter how strong or weak, experiences the same course – the same day-to-day study plan, the same lectures, and the same assignments. Students then hold on to the promise of their commercial course: if they complete 75% or more of the course, they will pass the bar exam. Students pursue the robotic and anxiety-fueled routine of checking off boxes to increase a number, rather than increasing their individual performance. Because our students’ commercial bar preparation courses will not be true adaptive learning technology tools, I believe we need to teach our students to be adaptive learners in order to combat this epidemic.
Combating the Epidemic: Three Steps to Teaching Adaptive Learning
Step 1 – Planning: Students have difficulty with long-term planning, as they are so often focused on the short-term. Students are not used to having to plan out years of schooling, as they cram studying and cram for exams. Further, students do not necessarily understand what their bar exam risk factors are and typically hold on to the promise of their commercial bar preparation courses – “If I do all of my work, I will be fine.” However, it’s important that we teach students to adapt their learning to target their bar exam risk factors in their final years of law school.
How can we do this? Each student, at some point in their second year of law school, should have a mandatory meeting with an academic support professional to begin planning for their success on the bar exam. Prior to the meeting, students should fill out an individualize worksheet that gets them to think about planning. The worksheet and meeting should cover the following questions:
What are your bar exam passage risk factors?
How can you work on remedying those risk factors prior to the bar exam?
Which classes should you take in your third year to maximize your bar success?
This meeting assists students in adapting their learning to focus on long-term learning goals. This first step is critical, as each student will also learn the importance of planning and scheduling, which is necessary for each student during bar study as they create and plan individualized study schedules week-to-week.
Step 2 – Performance: When students are studying for the bar exam, they are constantly in a state of performance. Although they are learning and memorizing an abundance of substantive law, they are also practicing multiple choice questions, essays, and performance tests. While in law school, many students stick to only one learning strategy and do not self-monitor their learning. Rather, students are quite passive with learning, simply looking at correct answers after doing some practice questions and moving on without much thought. The process of self-monitoring for bar exam success is critical, due in large part to the short amount of time students have to study. This process enables students to diagnose their own weaknesses in learning and analyze them in relation to the chosen learning strategies to determine whether they need to change their strategies, or to determine whether they need to focus on one subject more than any other. Teaching students how to engage in this process throughout law school will only strengthen their ability to adapt their learning while studying for the bar exam.
Multiple Choice: When students are doing multiple choice questions in either an academic support remedial class or a bar review class in their third year, I think it’s important to teach them to work actively with questions so they can adapt their learning. In both my second year course and my third year course, I provide students with a “Tracker Chart” for their multiple choice questions to assist them with learning to work actively with questions and to then adapt their learning.
So, if a student did not know a lot of the law, they can adapt their studying to more memorization and review. Further, if a student was constantly going too fast through questions and missing issues due to reading comprehension, they can adapt their learning and slow down. Each column in the above Tracker Chart assists students in adapting some portion of their studying, learning or test taking. Then, at the end of each multiple choice assessment, I provide students with a self-assessment worksheet to further adapt their learning for the following week. The self-assessment worksheet contains variations of the following questions:
1. What was your overall percentage on this question set?
2. Based on your results, what material do you need to go back and review?
3. Which topics are giving you the most trouble, and which topics do you need more practice questions on?
4. When in your study schedule are you going to incorporate this additional practice?
Essays and Performance Tests: As the current law student has difficulty adapting their learning, improving their strategies to strengthen their writing can be especially challenging. In my second year support class, and in my third year bar review course, I give students writing assignments (either an essay or performance test) once per week. I not only provide feedback on their writing, but I have the students self-evaluate each week as well. After a written assignment, I give the students a worksheet to assist them in self-evaluation to adapt their learning for the next assignment. Whether it be an essay or performance test, the following are sample questions you can provide your students with for facilitating adaptive learning:
1. How did your answer compare to the model answer? Did you miss any issues? If so, which ones and why?
2. How strong were your rule statements as compare to the model answer?
3. Did you use all of the necessary facts to formulate your answer? Which facts did you miss? Why?
4. Did you outline your answer before writing it?
5. How much time did you spend on the assignment? If you went over any allotted time, on which part of the writing process did you spend more time on?
6. What is your plan to strengthen your MEE/MPT writing performance?
7. Where are you going to schedule additional practice in your study schedule to strengthen your performance?
Step 3 – Reflection: Similar to passive studying, students also rarely reflect on their work, and most often do not even think to do so. Reflection is critical in adaptive learning for the bar exam because if students do not reflect on their study schedules and decide if it is what they personally need after reflecting on their performance, they fall victims to the epidemic. The student must reflect on their self-evaluation of how they are doing and determine how they could approach learning tasks differently, and then must adjust their schedules and techniques to improve performance on future tasks.
I give students weekly self-assessment worksheets to facilitate reflection both in my second year skills class and in my third year bar review class. Here are some sample questions that can be used in self-assessment weekly worksheets:
1. Do your study strategies work? What is working, and what is not working?
2. Do you see an improvement in your performance from last week?
3. How are you going to remedy what is not working for you – what are you going to do differently?
4. When you are studying, are you incorporating practice and review of the topics you’ve already covered?
5. What is your individualized study schedule for the upcoming week?
6. Why did you craft your schedule this way?
If students can learn to adapt their studying before bar review, they will carry these practices with them to their commercial courses. Students no longer become focused on hitting a completion percentage in their bar review course, but instead focus on their own personalized learning goals for success. Although there’s not one overall solution to the current bar passage crisis, students adopting adaptive learning is one step to bring us forward and combat the epidemic.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING
Rebecca Flanagan, The Kids Aren’t Alright: Rethinking the Law Student Skills Deficit, 2015 BYU Educ. & L.J. 135 (2015).
Michael Hunter Schwartz, Expert Learning For Law Students (2d. ed. 2008).
Marilla D. Svinicki, Student Learning: From Teacher-Directed to Self-Regulation, 123 New Directions For Teaching & Learning 73 (2010).
Barry J. Zimmerman & Andrew S. Paulsen, Self-Monitoring During Collegiate Studying: An Invaluable Tool for Academic Self-Regulation, 63 New Directions For Teaching & Learning 13 (1995).