The Situationist

The Bar Exam Situation

Posted by Pam Mueller on July 28, 2008

The month or so before the bar exam makes the power of the situation crystal clear. The process of studying for the bar takes thousands of intelligent and accomplished law students and transforms them into anxious, self-doubting creatures whose exam-induced neuroses often extend beyond the confines of the test, poisoning their interactions throughout the summer.

How does this stressful situation impact the lives of these formerly confident and capable law students? How can these students get past the power of the situation to let their proven capabilities carry them through the bar exam, as they have carried them through other difficult situations? Does empirical research shed any light on the subject?

Empirical research on the bar exam spans a broad range of topics, albeit unsystematically. It often produces interesting, counterintuitive, and useful findings, which suggests more research would be welcome.

To start, one study that should increase the confidence of students who, while in school, focused on areas of law not tested on the bar (e.g. intellectual property, international law, the law of underwater basket weaving) was performed by Douglas Rush and Hisako Matsuo at Saint Louis University. (An abstract can be found here.) Rush and Matsuo tracked 5 years of Saint Louis University Law School graduates who sat for the Missouri Bar. They found that law school curriculum, in this case measured by the number of upper-division bar courses (i.e. wills and trusts, corporations) taken by a student, generally had no effect on whether the student passed or failed the bar.

The courses taken by a student had no effect on their outcome if they were in the top half of their class. The courses taken also had no effect on students if they were in the bottom quartile of the class, though these are the students who are most often recommended to take such courses, purportedly to increase their bar passage chances. There was a small effect on passage rate for students in the third quartile, but there was less than a one-course difference between the group that passed and the group that failed. It is difficult to say that taking one more course was the cause of this difference.

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But law school’s over. Other studies speak more to what bar takers are feeling right now. (Bolger et al. (200 0) collected data using couples in which one partner was studying for the New York bar. His central study found that while reported provision of emotional support by the non-bar-taking partner was related to decreased depression and anxiety in the examinee, reported receipt of emotional support was actually correlated with increased depression and anxiety in the bar examinee. This effect was increased in the final week of bar study – so beware! Thus, invisible support – deliberate support, but without the examinee perceiving it – was the key to helping the examinee control his/her negative emotions, as that type of support did not impose the added cost of feeling that one needs support.

Other studies involving the same data set have provided more challenges (a partner’s physical support, i.e. cooking meals, helping with errands, is not successful in reducing anxiety or depression, but does have some effect on fatigue: Shrout, et al. (2006)) as well as some hope (the partners’ support became increasingly effective in preventing a rise in examinee distress as the examination approached: Thompson and Bolger (1999)).

* * *

The high levels of anxiety endemic to bar examinees have a detrimental effect on performance on cognitive tasks. Relatedly, discouragement considerably impairs both perception and learning. Confidence, on the other hand, has a positive effect on performance, accounting in one study for more than 58% of the variance between innate ability and actual performance on an examination. Bar examinees are subject to near-constant anxiety and discouragement throughout the summer. BarBri seems to use failing scores on practice essays as a scare tactic to encourage more studying. Exam confidence, and even global self-confidence, is generally low, and this subjective confidence will only decrease further as the test approaches (see Sanna (1999)).

These factors, if not recognized and kept in check, will likely hinder exam performance, especially with the added pressure of the test days themselves. In fact, the added pressure of test day may lower examinees’ performance in yet another way. Most individuals who successfully complete law school likely are at the high end of the spectrum for working memory capacity, as high working memory capacity is correlated to high reading comprehension and problem-solving capability. According to Beilock and DeCaro, however, individuals higher in working memory are more likely to “choke under pressure,” as the stress consumes the working memory resources needed for peak performance. Individuals who have lower working memory capacity suffer no decrease in performance in high-pressure situations.

* * *

Since keeping stress and anxiety lower is so critical, how can bar examinees decrease their anxiety and increase their confidence, thereby increasing the likelihood of performing well on the exam? Empirical research would say not via positive imagery or muscle relaxation. A dissertation by Elizabeth A. Moseley (1989) suggests that muscle relaxation and imagery training did not decrease scores on a test measuring the debilitating effects anxiety as much as the placebos (no intervention and music) did. Additionally, these interventions actually increased scores on a general test-anxiety measure.

* * *

So is there any good news? I wouldn’t have written this entry if there weren’t. Amie S. Green, in her dissertation at NYU (2006), investigated the efficacy of coping strategies on anxiety in individuals studying for the bar across the country. The study looked at active coping, planning, practical support seeking, emotional support seeking, positive reinterpretation, acceptance, religion, venting, mental disengagement, and alcohol/drug disengagement as potential strategies.

The three best strategies were 1) active coping, 2) positive reinterpretation, and 3) acceptance. Active coping (doing something to deal with the problem and persevering) was strongly associated with decreased anxiety the day after using the coping strategy. Positive reinterpretation of the problem and acceptance were also associated with decreased anxiety on the following day. However, while cause and effect is unclear, individuals who used acceptance more often as a strategy tended to have higher anxiety on average.

The three worst strategies were 1) using religion, 2) venting, and 3) mental disengagement. These three were all strongly associated with increased anxiety the following day. Practical support seeking also tended to increase anxiety the following day, but this result was not significant.

While these are the trends, individuals did differ. Some individuals found disengagement and practical support seeking to be adaptive. However, the other strategies mentioned above were generally universally adaptive or maladaptive.

In the final week (where we are now), there are a few things of which to take note: acceptance is no longer an adaptive strategy to reduce stress, and alcohol and drug disengagement is now a maladaptive strategy, rather than neutral (I hope you knew that already!).

And now it’s time to go actively cope with some Commercial Paper.

N.B. This advice, while based on empirical data, does not guarantee peak performance on the bar. If it did, I would stop studying now!

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For a related Situationist post, see “Situation of Lawyers and Practicing Law.”

One Response to “The Bar Exam Situation”

  1. […] Mueller in The Situationist asks a few intriguing questions. The process of studying for the bar takes thousands of […]

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