Bar Exam Language Support Course: Things we learned

Professor Kathryn Piper and I just finished the Bar Exam Language Support (BELS) course this past week and we wanted to share a few takeaways and things we learned given that this is a new course and, we believe, the first ever bar prep course at a law school that incorporates language learning pedagogy and perspective.

  1. Working with familiar topics: By using bar exam prep questions that the students had already studied and written answers for in a separate bar preparation course, we cleared away most of the obstacle that is background knowledge. This meant that we had the luxury of being able to truly focus on helping them with their writing. If we had used unfamiliar questions, and they in turn wrote poor answers due to lack of comprehension of the question or topic, or inability to remember the rule, then we would not have been evaluating their writing, but rather their knowledge or their comprehension. And it would have meant that we would have spent time teaching the relevant bar exam topic rather than working on writing. Working with familiar topics to enable a better focus on writing opened the door to identify and work on the actual writing issues faced by our non-native English speaking students (NNES).
  2. Speed is king: By the end of the first day of class, discussion of the bar exam writing process with our students made clear to us that speed and language processing were the biggest challenges for our students, all of whom were NNES. The speed issue manifests itself first in terms of reading speed since non-native speakers tend to take a little bit longer to read and analyze the fact pattern and question, which in turn leaves a little less time to write their answers. However, we also came to understand more clearly how language processing speed also has an impact on writing. As one student commented, “We know we need to memorize the rules and then write them down, but it takes us a long time to write down the rules.” We realized that’s because native speakers generally think in larger lexical bundles (or chunks) of language than non-native speakers. Even for something memorized, non-native speakers tend to need a little more time to process the information and transfer it to their writing or typing. And that’s because they’re thinking in smaller lexical bundles of language. An example, a lexical bundle such as “Under the FRCP” is easy to remember. But a lexical bundle such as “the first step to removing a case is to…” may be very automatic for a native speaker but require actual thinking and processing for a non-native speaker. To address this challenge, we used writing fluency exercises such as Read/Think/Write (described in the 6th paragraph of this prior blog post) with specific rules and parts of model answers as the source texts.
  3. Bar exam writing style is its own genre: We had prepared a number of model answers–all in IRAC form–written by ourselves and some helpful JD students to use in class with our students. We quickly realized that most of the models we had were not as helpful as we’d hoped because they were not written in the very efficient, direct, cut-and-dried writing style necessary for bar exam writing. Strong, native English-speaking writers can get away with a looser style. But our students’ reactions to those model answers was that they don’t comport with the style they learned and are less helpful because they were not great models of the kind of writing we were encouraging them to produce to be as efficient as possible with their time. As a result, we began generating model answers that more closely resembled the exact types of answers the students would need to write–and could realistically write well–very straightforward, formulaic, IRAC answers.
  4. Outlining: In connection with the need for speed, we focused on practicing writing quick outlines or roadmaps. We realized most students were not writing quick outlines because they already felt pressed for time. Yet we know that people who succeed on the bar exam (ourselves included) generally scrawl out a quick outline before writing an exam answer to help them think things through and stay on track. Like any test-taking strategy, outlining requires practice to feel comfortable.
  5. Shorthand: In pushing students to practice outlining, we also started to notice that many of them were not using any shorthand. Developing a shorthand system is not as intuitive for NNES who lack the same level of control over and comfort with the language. As a result, prior to any practice of outlining, we made a point of reviewing key words (e.g., “battery”) and also frequently used words (e.g., “with”) and talking about shorthand that can be used for those words. Students then had a chance to practice their shorthand in the subsequent outlining activity.
  6. Mirroring: We also realized that students often were not mirroring the language of the rule in their application sections. If the “excited utterance” exception to hearsay talks about a “startling event,” then the application section needs to also incorporate the word “startling” to demonstrate to the exam grader that you understand the rule and are applying it appropriately. We took a discourse analysis approach to working on this by first noticing the extent to which the application section of model answers mirrored language from the rule. Then we scaffolded the teaching of this by giving students a chance to write just the application section while looking at a given rule.
  7. Prepositions and collocations: A frequent source of confusion for students that undermined the coherency of their writing was prepositions. And often the prepositions were ones that collocated with certain terms and concepts. For example, it’s always [an exception “to” hearsay], not “of” hearsay. And it’s always [for the purpose “of” + verb + -ing], not for the purpose “to” + verb (base form). And we always object “to” something, not “on” something (unless we object “on the grounds of” that something). Our approach to building automaticity with prepositions was to take a model answer and replace all the prepositions with blank spaces. Students then did their best to fill in the answers, and then checked their answers. Next, to reinforce a sense of automaticity, we gave them the exact same handout and asked them to fill in the blanks again. Bonus activity: One of the reasons acquiring prepositional collocations is challenging is that prepositions are unstressed and often under-pronounced by native English speakers. To help our students train their ears, we would read the model answer out loud and students would check their answers against our reading to try and hear the missing, under-stressed prepositions. Following this out-loud reading, the students would then check answers against the original text.
  8. Articles: We watched students repeatedly struggle with articles, often in ways that can disorient a reader. So we pointed out to the students a simple (though not perfect) rule of thumb: When writing your “Rule” section, there should be more instances of “a” and “an” since a rule describes something that applies generally to any thing in that class. For example, “A search or seizure must be pursuant to a warrant, although there are a number of exceptions to this general rule.” When writing your application section, there should be mostly “the” since the application involves references to things that have already been mentioned or discussed. For example, “The sister was witnessing the actions against the boyfriend during the call.” To help practice and build automaticity with articles, we also used a fill-in-the-blank exercise similar to the prepositions gap-fill described above.
  9. Present and past tense: Similar to articles, we also recognized frequent tense confusion in student writing. And rather than just keep making corrections in red ink and admonishing the students to pay attention to tense, we started pointing out to the students that the Rule section should primarily involve present tense, since present tense is used to describe things that are generally or always true. And the Application section should use primarily past tense since it describes actual events that already took place. This rule of thumb, like with articles, helped students simplify the decision-making process when writing under time pressure.

But perhaps the most important thing we learned is that, while we went in with a language support perspective, we ended up with a greater awareness of the overlap with exam-taking strategies and the need to teach those explicitly as well. As a result, when we offer the course again this coming fall semester, we anticipate changing the name to the Bar Exam Language & Strategies course. (Which fortunately allows us to keep the BELS acronym.)

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