Not that long ago, bar prep looked a lot different than it does now. For starters, there was essentially only one commercial bar prep provider in most locations. There were live, in-person lectures by a professor who traveled around to different locations, and you had to show up to the lecture site to get the information. There were outlines and practice essays, but they were only available on paper. To complete practice MBE questions, you actually had to pencil in your answer. There were no progress trackers or extra homework assignments. You were given all the basic materials and information you needed, but were ultimately on your own when it came to fashioning your study plan and assessing your progress. This was not necessarily a bad thing.
Now, of course, bar prep has changed. There has been a proliferation of bar prep companies, courses and study aids, and the vast majority of these services involve online components. While the increased choice amongst bar preparation providers is almost certainly a plus for students, the incorporation of online modules and services is more of a mixed bag. If you’re getting ready to start bar prep, and particularly if you are a repeat test taker, it’s worth considering whether a low tech, old school approach to bar prep might serve you best.
The Drawbacks of Online Bar Prep
From electronic “flash cards” to live streamed lectures to MBE questions, you can complete on a mobile app, it seems every component of bar prep can now be conveniently accessed from your laptop or cell phone. While there are many benefits to the increased use of technology in academic settings, there is more and more evidence showing that students simply learn less when they use technology. For example, researchers at Princeton and UCLA conducted a series of tests comparing students who took notes on a laptop versus those who took notes by hand. Even when controlling for distractions (i.e. the laptops used in the study were disconnected from the internet), the students who took notes by hand consistently out-performed the laptop users. Other studies have similarly found that the availability of laptops and cell phones in the classroom both distracts students from their task and decreases learning outcomes. Importantly, law students are not immune to the negative impacts of technology on learning. A study into the use of laptops in the law school classroom showed that the vast majority of law students use laptops for non-class purposes for a significant amount of class time.
Some of these results may seem obvious when you honestly evaluate how technology affects your study habits. When you’re sitting in a lecture hall with nothing but a pen, paper, and speaker to listen to, there are only so many places your mind can wander. But when you’re going to watch a recorded lecture on your laptop, it’s tempting (and easy) to simultaneously spend a few minutes browsing the internet. Online bar prep may also make it easier for you to procrastinate or take short cuts. When you can view the lectures whenever you want, there’s less of an incentive to get started on time and more temptation to watch the lectures on double speed. Similarly, when you’re completing all of your practice essays and MBE questions on your computer, you may be tempted to first check your email, or social media, or whatever it may be, instead of simply sitting down and focusing on the task at hand.
Online bar prep has another significant drawback that is specific to exam taking. By completing most (or for some students all) of your practice questions on a computer, you fail to simulate the conditions under which you will take the actual exam. When you take the MBE, you will need to bubble in a scantron-type sheet with a number two pencil, not click on an answer with your mouse.
How to Go Low Tech
If you’re interested in going low tech for bar prep, implementing the approach is fairly straightforward. First, make a point of watching the daily lecture at the lecture site. Even if your location is live streaming rather than using an in-person speaker, going to the site will help you start your day on time. When you’re watching the lecture, complete the outline you’ve been provided with pen and paper and put a self-imposed moratorium on checking your cell phone. Second, complete practice MBE questions by reading the questions in a book and circling the answer. This method will replicate the exam taking conditions and keep you away from the distractions of your laptop. If you plan on typing during the essay exam portion, it’s fine to complete your answers on your computer just like you will during the test. Lastly, to the extent you find them useful and have the time, make your own study aids. Writing out key concepts or physically flipping through paper flashcards will keep you away from any technological temptations. One final tip – if you’re having difficulty staying off your phone while your studying, try to find a study location where the internet is inaccessible, such as a basement library that has poor cell reception.
The Middle Ground Approach
While high tech bar prep may have some significant drawbacks, it’s worth noting that technology does provide some unique advantages. When you can complete practice questions or review outlines on your phone, you have the opportunity to study anywhere and anytime, which is particularly helpful to students who are working or have non-traditional schedules. Many of the new online tools offered by bar prep companies also incorporate algorithms and other technology that is supposed to improve retention of the material. To reap the benefits of technology without suffering from the drawbacks, a middle ground approach may be best: incorporate the online features of bar prep to take advantage of these new learning tools, but make a point to also review outlines on actual paper and complete plenty of practice questions by hand.
Ultimately, the key is to figure how you will learn best, so that you can incorporate the most effective strategies into your study plan.
For more helpful advice, check out these articles: