We are pleased to welcome back to the blog Dr. Jared Maloff, a clinical psychologist. He specializes in helping students who need testing accommodations navigate the California bar exam. In past articles, he has shared with readers how to apply for accommodations and the decision factors to consider when applying for help. He’s back today to talk about state-dependent learning and how it applies to preparing and taking the Bar Exam. Welcome back, Jared.
I have posted on the Bar Exam Toolbox several times in the past regarding testing accommodations for those with ADHD, learning disabilities and anxiety disorders. The focus of my post today, however, will be related to the way in which test takers need to prepare themselves for the bar exam. Within my practice, I work frequently with test takers who are prescribed medication for either ADHD, anxiety or both. Medication does not alleviate symptoms of learning disabilities thus this population will not be discussed.
Those who are prescribed with medication who will be taking the bar exam frequently ask me whether they should take their medication on the day that they are assessed. My response is always that they should take their prescription medication not only when I assess them, but also whenever they study for the examination. Test takers are often surprised to hear this as many with ADHD, for example, choose to just take their medication during examinations. Those who take their prescription medication in this way, however, are inadvertently placing themselves at a disadvantage.
State-dependent memory or state-dependent learning is the phenomenon through which memory retrieval is most efficient when an individual is in the same state of consciousness as they were when the memory was formed.
When learning of this phenomenon in school I recall that my instructor stated that “if you are drunk when you study for the test, you have to be drunk when you take the test.” She was of course using this extreme example to illustrate a point and I certainly would not recommend taking the bar exam drunk, but the science behind this issue is very clear. Miles and Hardman (1998) had participants learn and recall a list of words in one of the two states: at rest or during aerobic exercise. Participants who recalled the words in the same state they learned them in recalled significantly more words than participants who recalled the words in the opposite state. This was true for both resting and exercising, so the exercise itself had no impact on memory.
When one takes a prescription stimulant medication it alters the brain by bringing it from a state of over-stimulation to a normal, baseline level which enables people to sit still and concentrate. The Miles and Hardman study conclusively indicates that one’s ability to demonstrate learning is significantly improved when one’s physical state during the exam matches their physical state while studying. Using stimulant medication to counteract ADHD during the bar exam will be most effective if the test taker uses the same medication and dosage while preparing for the exam.
The same is true for those using medication to counteract symptoms of anxiety. I see a lot of clients who are not particularly anxious people but become terrified to the point of figurative paralysis during exams. For these clients who need to be able to reduce their fear response yet also stay vigilant enough to be successful on the bar exam, Propranolol (Inderal) is often used. Propranolol is a beta-blocker originally developed to treat hypertension but which also has been shown to erase the fearful element of an emotional memory (such as doing poorly on past exams, or panicking during past exams). Benzodiazepines such as Xanax, Klonopin and Ativan are successful in reducing anxiety but may impair memory which would not be good in terms of one’s performance on the bar exam.
The bottom line however is that whatever medication one is planning to use while taking the bar exam to mitigate symptoms of inattention, hyperactivity or anxiety, it is best to use the very same medication while preparing for the exam to facilitate memory storage and retrieval of important data.
Dr. Jared Maloff is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist specializing in helping bar exam candidates with disabilities such as ADHD, learning disorders and anxiety gain necessary testing accommodations on the exam. Dr. Maloff can be reached at (310) 712-5480 and www.BeverlyHillsPsychologist.com
* The Bar Exam Toolbox crew reminds you that this is not medical advice and you should speak to your own medical professional before taking any of the drugs mentioned in this post.
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Did you find this post helpful? Check out some other great articles:
- Podcast Episode 73: Seeking Accommodations in Law School and on the Bar Exam (with Dr. Jared Maloff)
- Warning Signs You May Need Extra Help As a First Time Bar Exam Taker
- The Ins and Outs of Studying for the Bar Exam
- Are You Studying the Right Way for the Bar Exam?
- How to Get Twice the Amount of Time on Your Bar Exam Prep
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