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How to Beat Any Test

Lessons learned from studying for two bar exams can help students study.

Key points

  • To successfully pass a test, a person must acquire the skills and knowledge being tested before they take the test.
  • A growth mindset is a useful way of thinking that helps increase one's chances of success, but it takes time to learn.
  • Psychological phenomena, such as stereotype threat, and false beliefs can hinder one's efforts to study and performance on a test.
  • A variety of evidence based techniques, used together, can help a person learn skills and knowledge as quickly as possible.

1. Two bar exams. Ten weeks of study for ten hours a day. Twenty-seven subjects. Twenty-four hours of testing. One long summer.

My brain would shut down at the nine hour mark, my eyes scanning the same set of words in the same sentence, the same set of words in the same sentence, the same set of wo…until I put the books away and went home. It broke in week eight; I spent two days outside throwing a tennis ball at the library wall, chatting with anyone who walked by.

Tuesday was New York; five essays divided into twenty, a legal analysis exercise, and fifty multiple choice questions. Wednesday was a 200-question multiple choice test that counted toward both states. Thursday was New Jersey; six essays.

The bar is pass/fail. Some students add pressure to their studies, mistakenly assuming some arbitrary portion of students must fail. Having been evaluated on a curve for years, it’s hard to believe the bar is different, even when the people running the test tell you so. I listened. For the first time in my life, I was rooting for a D.

* * * * * *

A bugbear sat on my shoulder, whispering words that grated against my ego, presenting correlation as cause, as if the failures of others foretold my own. I believed it for a moment - two whole weeks in October. Until then, I walked out the room anytime someone suggested the pigment protecting me from the sun played a role in my performance. This time, I discovered a discrepancy, both in pass rates and my own thinking.

I chose the school I attended because I linked my chances of passing the bar to the fingerprint of its most recent class. Ninety percent of them passed. My groundless confidence in this idea displaced my prior belief that I could pass any test if I was willing to work hard enough for three years.

The class I put my faith in would be gone for four years by the time I started to study. No problem; my brain updated the odds after each year’s results were made public. Eighty-nine percent of my classmates passed. The whispers lingered.

That October, they abruptly intensified. The class had done well, but the twenty something who happened to be black hadn’t. My brain tried to quiet the noise, the conflict of being a member of both groups, but I was Schroedinger’s student, simultaneously expecting to pass and concerned I could fail, with no way to know which would occur for a year. The cat had it easier.

It chose “black student.” No, I chose “black student.” From the moment I wrote my admissions essay, I embraced being African-American with the same enthusiasm as I had once celebrated my Panamanian heritage, except that instead of participating in every cultural event I could find, I spent three years shadowboxing the whispers. After all that effort, I was looking at an apparent failure. One without explanation (yet). My chances tanked. And with that, summer began.

2. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Personal expectations. Parental expectations. A community’s hopes and dreams. Tests expose gaps in our armor and poke at the spots where we conceal our weaknesses, both real and perceived.

Eight months’ lead time helped. Without it, the fire started by the question “why did they fail” might have burned through my attention, its flame consuming my working memory and diminishing my study time, the smoke from its embers choking my synapses until I succumbed to stereotype threat, failing not because I was incapable of passing, but because I bought into the idea that people like me don’t do well on the bar exam. With it, the fire burnt itself out.

I didn’t overcome stereotype threat; I bypassed it. No psychologist was available to help me access the part of my identity that has a positive association with testing. I simply stopped thinking about it one day. With my dorsolateral prefrontal cortex turned down, with me out of the way, my brain was free to work unencumbered by my personal interest. In a quiet moment, it hit me: the results were irrelevant.

* * * * * *

The results I had paid so much attention to could be used to predict a group’s pass rate on the next test. But they couldn’t predict who would pass. That’s determined by who acquires the knowledge and skills being tested and is mediated by psychological phenomena.

The revelation left me back where I started: I could pass the bar if I put in the work. But what kind of work was necessary?

3. I was lucky: I had grown into a growth mindset (the belief that I can get smarter with effort) long before my dalliance with fortune-telling. Developing this belief was essential to everything that came after it.

Mindsets are built over time, through experience. They exist on a spectrum and most people likely operate with a mixed mindset (trusting their ability to learn in some areas but denying it in others). Finding these touchstones can help a person acquire a growth mindset for tests.

* * * * * *

By the time I started studying, I had stumbled into a useful habit, abated or avoided psychological phenomena that might hinder my performance, and learned the structure of the tests. But I still had to get the information from the books to my head to the tests.

To do this, I used a technique called study plus retrieval practice. I didn’t know research suggested this was the most effective way to learn; I just trusted the person who told me about it. The first four hours were devoted to retrieval practice. The next six were devoted to reading.

* * * * * *

First, I created flashcards, limiting the number to a maximum of 25 per subject and the content to things I didn’t know, understand, or couldn’t remember. I wrote each by hand, which is associated with better memory retrieval. And I used spaced repetition to limit the number of cards I reviewed each day. The more I remembered, the fewer cards I reviewed.

Next, I answered 30 sample multiple choice questions per day. I slowly worked my way up from 12 correct answers to the 20 I needed to “pass” day two. Each additional correct answer was a cushion, available to break my fall if I botched Tuesday or Thursday.

Using past exam questions, I drafted one essay per day, open book and untimed, practicing my writing and scouring books to write complete answers. This kind of effort has also been shown to aid in memorization. Over time, I dropped from an hour to 20 minutes to not needing to write an essay at all.

I rested. Fifteen minutes between activities. An hour for lunch. One or two days off per week. Eight hours of sleep per night. The day before. And two entire months afterward.

* * * * * *

I passed! Of course I passed; I was prepared. I didn’t know I was prepared. I felt I hadn’t learned anything. But when the proctor started the test, a floodgate opened and the law flowed out of me. The work, tiring as it was, was worth it.

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