How Practice Tests Reduce Anxiety in Bar Preparation and the Exam

Sara Berman and I recently did a podcast in the ABA’s Path to Law Student’s Well-Being Podcast series. See https://www.spreaker.com/show/path-to-law-student-well-being. Anyone associated with helping applicants prepare for the Bar exam knows that the challenges they face can affect their well-being.  In the podcast, we share our experience that applicants who practice tests regularly learn not only content and skills, but also the ability to manage anxiety as they get closer to and take the exam.

            In bar preparation, students take seemingly endless sets of multiple-choice Multistate Bar Exam questions. In addition, their bar preparation companies provide opportunities to practice essays and Multistate Performance Tests (MPTs).  Applicants need to follow the Bar company’s suggestions and to get feedback on submitted work.  They should welcome critiques and suggestions, assess their own strengths and weaknesses, and improve by building on strengths and addressing weaknesses.  If allocation of time to different study methods is an issue (and it always is), applicants need to do more—not less—practice testing than reading and re-reading outlines, flash cards, and the like.  Cognitive science indicates that people retain information better when they learn a concept by applying it in a problem-based approach. See Dani Brecher Cook & Kevin Michael Klipfel, How Dow Our Students Learn?   An Outline of a Cognitive Psychological Model for Information Literacy Instruction, 55 Reference & User Services Quarterly 34 (Fall 2015).   In studying legal rules, applicants retain more by doing practice essays or MPTs because they are learning and applying rules in the context of the facts that trigger them.

            This message may be not be welcomed by an applicant who, when she writes a practices essay or MPT answer, experiences anxiety during the practice test.   Applicants often do not want to face the reality that they do not know a rule.  They falsely believe that they must have mastered a subject area before doing practice tests.   The podcast encourages applicants to practice essays and MPTs regularly and often even if they are do not feel that they have fully mastered a subject.  Using the open-book method for practicing can help someone get the process going.  The key is to break through the resistance to doing practice tests.

            If applicants get past the reluctance to embrace practice tests, they can experience reduced anxiety as they move forward.  Again, the context of our recommendation presumes that an applicant is receiving feedback from a Bar Company representative, an academic support advisor, or both.  When applicants respond to feedback in new practice test answer and see their work product improving, that reduces their anxiety.  The anxiety does not go away but remains at a reduced level—a level at which it can motivate performance rather than interfere with it.   At such a point, it is fair to say that an applicant is managing anxiety.  

            In the podcast, Ms. Berman implored law students who might be listening to apply these principles in law school.   Practicing tests—whether essays, multiple-choice, or other tests—will benefit a student.  The student of course needs to seek feedback, recognize areas in which she can improve, and be working toward that goal.   Those students who I have seen take such an approach report (1) less anxiety on graded tests and (2) that they believe they performed more effectively.  Although the days of a class hinging on one grade at the end of the semester seem to be fading, the final exam still forms a major part of student’s assessment in many courses.  Of course, ABA Standard 314 encourages formative and summative assessment and students are receiving meaningful feedback.   By doing practice tests, such as writing an answer to a potential essay, the student can apply what she has learned from feedback and seek more.

            An excellent article on practice tests concluded that such tests may improve student performance.  See Andrea A. Curcio, Gregory Todd Jones & Tanya M. Washington, Does Practice Make Perfect? An Empirical Examination of the Impact of Practice Essays, 35 Fla. St. L. Rev. 271 (Winter 2008).   The question explored in the article is whether practice essays improve performance.  The inquiry in our podcast is different.  We ask whether practice tests allow students to manage anxiety.  We entitled our podcast “Practice Makes Passing,” to counter the view that applicants must be perfect (or have completely mastered) most subjects.  Applicants need to do their best. However, they will increase their chance of passing by recognizing that practice may well be what gets them to “good enough”—i.e., a passing score.

            The ABA’s series on student well-being is an important look at a problem once viewed solely as an attorney well-being problem. Many now accept that law schools and students are an environment that can diminish or enhance student well-being, depending on choices by the school and by the students.  By learning to manage anxiety through practice tests, law students can choose to improve their well-being. Bar applicants can do the same. By spending their time wisely in bar preparation, and including a healthy dose of practice tests, the applicant will ultimately experience less anxiety and likely perform more effectively. 

One Response

  1. Thank you for the timeliness of this post as we approach the July 4th weekend and all that means for bar exam takers and their coaches. At Albany Law School, in addition to our gifted Director of Bar Success, Professor Joe Buffington https://www.albanylaw.edu/faculty/directory/profiles?ind=Buffington,%20Joe, we include faculty “bar coach” support to address student motivation, well being, and coaching needs. This post reminds me of the faculty workshop we held on Growth Mindset, Peak Performance and Bar Success which was very helpful for me and others in performing our bar coach duties. https://www.albanylaw.edu/centers/center-for-excellence-in-law-teaching/albany-law-initiatives/celt-faculty-workshops

    The second reason this post is so timely for me is that the summer is when many of us work on updating, tweaking and questioning our course outcomes, goals, activities and assessments based on new feedback and insights. This post reminds me/us to prepare for the incoming students with course activities and interim assessments which emphasize growth mindset, provide multiple opportunities to be tested/evaluated, offer constructive feedback which can lead to improvement, and attend to law student well being.
    Thanks Ben, I will be sure to view the video.

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