We are pleased to welcome Brian Hahn to the Bar Exam Toolbox. Brian is the founder of Make This Your Last Time, and is a second-time passer of the California bar exam and is here today to share a few memorization tips when it comes to the bar exam. Welcome, Brian!
Back in college when people were more willing to hang out with me, two girls lived across my dorm hall. I did end up going out with one for 2+ years. Let’s call her Tina (because that’s her name). We were talking one time, and … you know that feeling when you immediately realize you screwed up.
I accidentally called her by the name of the other girl.
Time slowed down sufficiently for me to perform some expert damage control, but since then I’ve been using notepads and association devices and whatever I could use to remember people’s names. I’m so bad that I need to recall a fictional character’s name to then remember my coworker’s name.
That’s OK because most people admit to forgetting my name within seconds. And the fact is, your bar exam requires you to remember a lot of shit. The typical brain is made for processing data but not so much for forcing discrete information to be inscribed into your memory forever. Unless you’re a savant and/or egoistically unstable like Mike Ross, I wouldn’t count on photographic or monstrous memory.
However! The brain is great at making powerful connections: When the same neurons get triggered over and over, the connection gets stronger; as those neurons are fed that input less and less, the connection drops. Sounds like, you know, a muscle.
Put simply, you can train your brain to remember the important stuff through repetition. No wonder habit evidence is more powerful than character evidence!
“Oh, here we go again. You’ve said that like 20 times already.” Instead of promoting me to Admiral Obvious, why not tell me the arsenal of techniques that you use to remember all the stuff you need to know for the bar? Yeah, thought so.
Frequency of recall and attempts to recall are the basis of all memorization, and you can even leverage what you already know.
The following are some ways you can use to solidify that hazy jumble of rules in your head. Feeling baller? Try them in combination. Note these are for medium- to long-term memorization.
1. Test yourself through recall in real situations.
You do this all the time.
For example, when you first drove to a new place, you had to follow directions or a map. You do it a few times, and one day you try it without relying on the map. Maybe you get lost; maybe you remember the way. Either way, you’ve soon familiarized yourself with the route.
If you’ve ever played an instrument and wanted to play a piece well, you had to practice. In particular, you might have exercised deliberate practice, where you focus on one part of the piece or even one aspect of that part (tempo, dynamics, one hand, etc.) instead of the entire piece.
You don’t remember your student ID number the first few times, but you probably still remember it now after having had to fill it out so many times. Same with your phone number, your account passwords, your buddies’ AIM screen names (even if barely anyone uses it anymore), etc.
Committing something to memory is accomplished by initially failing to remember, then attempting to recall it over and over. In other words, what your brain remembers what it needs to remember.
Just so you know before we go further, “knowing” something is merely the cost of entry. You must be able to apply what you know to solve a problem. You could have the fanciest lockpicking set, but you won’t be opening locks anytime soon. Your teenage kids might “know” what’s good or bad for them, but they won’t realize it until they see it for themselves.
When I was a freshman in college, a classmate wanted my cheat sheet for the midterm. It had a list of equations to be used for particular circumstances. She got the lowest score in the class because she assumed just having my cheat sheet was sufficient. If she had used them to practice instead, she probably would have done better.
Therefore, you must test yourself with real MBE questions and essays, even if you are not familiar with the issues.
The benefits are three-fold (on top of giving you the practice you need):
- You learn how a particular issue and a particular rule/exception interact contextually. Forcing yourself to know the rules in theory won’t help as much because knowing the rules in abstract is just half the battle.
- You emulate the exam with questions that have actually been used, so you learn and absorb the actual testing style. Something always feels off about generic brands, same with questions manufactured by prep companies.
- Even if you don’t know the rules, failing at the question tells your brain, “Dude, I really need to know this, so make that connection!” You’re less likely to forget after becoming interested in it (to the extent you can).
Don’t be afraid of failing horrifically the first couple times. Don’t be afraid of redoing problems. Feedback and adjustment in the face of failure are where improvement comes from.
2. Understand the concepts.
They say the best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else. This means you have to understand it beyond just knowing what the words in the rule statement say. Fortunately, you don’t need to teach the law to anyone but yourself. Even if sometimes you don’t know how to explain something out loud, you just need to “get” it.
This is great! You don’t have to memorize every word of what your outline tells you as long as you can say it in your own words, accurately. Being able to accurately reword it is evidence of understanding. It also helps if you can see why the rule is that way (the policy). Now you don’t need to test yourself as frequently.
So despite swearing loyalty to Barbri, you don’t need to state the rules exactly as it tells you. When the time comes, succinctly write the rule as if you were explaining it to someone.
Caveat: Do focus on well-established general elements and not freestyle it into a mess so that you don’t stick out like a nail on a board among a sea of Barbri drones. You want to use key buzzwords to blend in and sound somewhat similar to other applicants so that the grader can assume you got the rule right.
Example 1. For strict scrutiny, mention: government, necessary classification, compelling interest, although you can phrase the rule any way you want.
Example 2. For larceny, mention: trespassory, taking, carrying away, personal property, of another, intent to permanently deprive. Even if you write them out as 6 elements in your general rule, you can discuss related ideas together. For instance, on your answer, you might make the headings “Taking and Carrying Away,” “Personal Property of Another” and “Intent to Permanently Deprive,” then discuss whether it was trespassory (i.e., that it was taken without consent) somewhere in your answer (probably under intent, if the facts fit).
Furthermore, you can link a particular concept to something you already know:
- Referring back to my real-life example of using a fictional character’s name to remember my coworker’s name, you can associate ideas together to serve as a reminder, instead of using brute recall. For example, I only have to know that there are two types of intoxication defenses for SI crimes and one for GI crimes for me to know that they are involuntary and/or voluntary intoxication. And it makes intuitive sense that involuntary intoxication would get more slack and thus is a defense for both (i.e., it’s the only type of intoxication defense for GI crimes).
- You can sparingly create mnemonics. Too many of them lose their purpose because they’re supposed to help you remember stuff, not create more things to memorize. If you need to make mnemonics of mnemonics, you probably have too many going on.
- You can create visual tools, such as a table. For example, I made a table for admissible internal vs. external evidence for the various methods of impeachment. Visually remembering that the location of the phrase “Never admissible” is on the right side immediately tells me it is for extrinsic evidence. (These tables are available in my Magicsheets btw.)
3. Rote memorize.
And of course, we have the favorite of college students who want to party but also appear nerdy by choosing a biology or psychology major: rote memorization.
You thought you were out of the woods with the “understand the concepts” method above. If you actually understand all the bar law, please stay still while we send a team of scientists to capture and keep you alive as a valuable specimen.
Let’s go back to the first method: testing yourself with real questions through recall. It would be tough if that’s all you did because some rules have not been tested in past essays.
Which means there needs to be some rote memorization.
Again, it’s the frequency of recall that improves your memory. Not frequency of reading it and saying “yeah I know this”—but recall and attempts to recall. It’s OK to not remember. It’s the attempting and testing yourself that count.
So you can ask yourself: “What’s needed for organizational standing?” Recite the answer. Keep testing yourself until you get it. You will have trouble with some rules. Don’t stop testing when you’re merely familiar with what you see! Test yourself again in a few hours, the next day, in a few days. The more you do it, the better you retain it.
Wanna take it a step further? Take strategic breaks.
(Feel free to skip to #4 below if you want to focus on bigger results. We’re going into tactical territory with what should happen in theory.)
The memorization process tends to operate under the serial position effect (“the tendency of a person to recall the first and last items in a series best, and the middle items worst”). Look at the U-shaped graph in the Wikipedia article I just linked. With a large set of things to know and too much to memorize, this effect happens a lot during your study. Let’s tweak the graph so that recall dips across an arbitrary length of study.
Now does it follow that putting a break in between the time spent trying to memorize improves recall? Stated differently: If your typical recall rate is like a U as shown in the article above, does spiking your usual study period with an artificial “end”—say, a planned 10-minute break in the middle—create a W (double U) representing greater recall?
Moreover, research on taking mental breaks (even small ones) shows “[t]hat learning and memory depend on both sleep and waking rest may partially explain why some of the most exceptional artists and athletes among us fall into a daily routine of intense practice punctuated by breaks and followed by a lengthy period of recuperation” (emphasis added).
And “[d]uring downtime, the brain also concerns itself with more mundane but equally important duties. . . . the brain consolidates recently accumulated data, memorizing the most salient information, and essentially rehearses recently learned skills, etching them into its tissue.”
Resting more (guilt-free!) while being more productive sounds good to me (-:
In sum, you can buff your rote memorization by trying to recall frequently, not relying on familiarity, and taking strategic breaks. Trying to solve real problems and trying to accurately recite your understanding of a rule can also be a conduit for remembering. (The ultimate combination? Teaching someone.)
An aside on flashcards: I personally prefer organized outlines over flashcards because flashcards tend to encourage you to figure out what it says on the other side word for word without necessarily understanding relationships among related concepts.
Not only are flashcards the embodiment of busy work, they are also costly financially, spatially, and temporally. Like you buy blank cards, spend time making them, and have messy stacks all over the place forcing you to organize them, etc. What a drain on your cognitive load.
Tim Ferriss said it best: “Being busy is a form of laziness—lazy thinking and indiscriminate action. Being busy is often used as a guise for avoiding few critically important but uncomfortable actions.” (I think I saw him at a Chipotle once. By the way, I am bribable with sufficient Chipotle, so send me some gift cards.)
Well, whatever floats your boat, tugs your jugs, rocks your socks. I’ll admit that buying study guides in the form of flashcards has its advantages, but making them yourself goes against everything I fight for in this world.
4. You’ll have to check out my post to see what this shocking technique is (nice clickbait, bro) + when to start memorizing
5. Dude, how do you expect me to remember all this (and more)? Summarize!
- Memorize things by testing your recall frequently.
- Test yourself with real scenarios, e.g., past essays, real MBE questions.
- Understand the concept of what you’re trying to memorize.
- Shortcut the recall process by associating it with what you already know. Create mnemonics sparingly on a need-to-know basis.
- Recite the rules as if you’re explaining them to someone while including keywords.
- Brute force your way by rote memorizing; improve your brute recall by avoiding mere familiarity and planning breaks.
Now I want to ask you: What has worked for you when trying to memorize a large amount of information? Have you tried the methods discussed above? Let me know.
Brian Hahn is a second-time passer of the California bar exam who thinks prospective candidates and repeaters should listen to him over people who happened to pass the first time. Visit Make This Your Last Time for more actionable and real discussion of bar prep and other free goodies.
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Did you find this post helpful? Check out some other great articles:
- Tricks for Memorizing Law for the Bar Exam
- What are the Magic Outlines to Help Pass the Bar Exam?
- Please Do Not Spend All Your Time Studying the Law
- Some Find Making Handwritten Study Materials Helpful
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