One of the biggest struggles I have faced while studying for the bar exam during the COVID-19 pandemic has been remembering substantive law. Like many 2020 bar exam takers, I was scrambling to figure out What to Do When Exam Dates Were Pushed Due to Coronavirus. Suddenly my 8-10 week preparation window was pushed to 14-18 weeks. Like many of my classmates, I was already 50% into my commercial bar exam course when the cancellations were announced. Ultimately, a series of unfortunate events in my personal life forced me to take 3 weeks off of studying, so I was grateful to have a little breathing room. But having reviewed all of the federal material prior to the break, I came back to studying with over 500 flashcards I had previously made but no memory of the learning I did while actually making them. No matter how many times I reviewed my flashcards, nothing stuck. And I was getting bored.
With only 7 weeks left in preparation, I became desperate for a new study strategy to recollect all of the information I had effectively flushed from my brain in my 3-week absence. One of my medical school friends suggested I use Anki. “It’s a tool that every medical student uses to study for board exams,” she told me. Well, isn’t medical school board exams the equivalent of law school bar exam? They have to memorize an inordinate amount of information just like we do. That seemed to make sense. So, I began my research.
What is Anki & Why My Brain Loved It
Anki is a spaced repetition flash card tool. It is open source and free for the desktop app, but costs money to buy the mobile version. I have only been using the desktop version. There are literally a million YouTube videos on creating effective Anki cards, so I watched two tutorials, downloaded the app, and then began creating. The interface itself is easy – like Quizlet, there is a front side and reverse side to every “Basic” card. For the “Cloze” card features, you can create a fill in the blank flashcard filled with information all on one side, then hide certain blanks behind a toggle button until you uncover them. It was a great way to test what I already knew, then check the answers.
But the most important part of Anki (as opposed to other flashcard apps) is that it has an algorithm that pushes information to your long-term memory. Every time you work through a flashcard, it makes you answer whether the information was Easy, Medium, or Hard. Based on your answer, it recalibrates a flashcard back into the deck to bring it up in another session. Medical students on YouTube and my own friends have attested to memorizing entire diagrams and passages of information using Anki for their board exams. Using the interface for only a short while, I completely understood how they found success in their studying.
The coolest thing about Anki, however, has been the ability to make more than basic front and back flashcards. Apart from “Cloze” cards, which I mentioned above were fill in the blank cards, I could also create a card where I could test myself on a diagram. The topic was Duty of Care for Landowners, and I could screenshot an image of a diagram, blur out sections for Trespasser and Licensee, and drag them into an Anki card. A few runs of the flashcards, and suddenly I had the full diagram imprinted into my mind for future reference. If it sounds like magic, it definitely felt like it.
What I have learned in this process is that the brain is a curious muscle. You need to keep exercising for information to stick and for results to manifest. But, more than that, if it encounters an age-old routine, it gets bored and refuses to cooperate. I ran into this learning-block during the pandemic for the first time in my life. Because my learning was stretched beyond the usual 8-10 block, I had become habituated to the repetitions of my own process. And I couldn’t see results! Anki forced me to active recall and offered me the information in timed increments. For my brain, it was thrilling to try something new. And that melted all the walls it had built to hinder my learning.
Working Towards MBE Success
Knowing the substantive law to the best of your ability is obviously the foundation to MBE success. As detailed in How to Learn from Your MBE Mistakes, IRACing each MBE question is crucial to passing the bar exam. But that can only be accomplished when you can pull rules from the rolodex of your mind. Additionally, I hoped to use AdaptiBar to prepare for the MBE on the bar exam. But between keeping up with my commercial bar course and doing practice questions on Adaptibar, I found I wasn’t performing very well.
Making Anki flashcards to review substantive rules helped me focus on weak areas, so that I could effectively tackle MBE questions. Even while making the flashcards, I noticed, for example, that Civil Procedure took me ages to review and complete cards for, while Torts took me only a few hours. Although I’m still in the process of making flashcards, I have retained SO MUCH information from just creating my decks and even more by reviewing them each day. If you’re looking for a new study tool, try this!