As ASP and Bar Success faculty know, completing practice tests is critical to success on the bar exam. I have conducted exam exercises online in bar support programs and in doctrinal classes. These sessions help students get engaged in practice testing and also help them learn how to improve their test-taking skills. The content and process for conducting these is the subject of a much longer piece, however a few brief observations to make such sessions useful for students are noted here below.
Before having students actually write essays or PTs, or take practice MBEs under timed conditions, it can be helpful to assign some background reading on how to approach these particular exams, and/or record a lecture on how to approach the particular type of bar testing format that will be the subject of the exercise.
It is helpful to start with a welcome and introduction (that can be live online or pre-recorded, then post the particular exam to be completed that session (in a downloadable PDF handout or with a link to the question(s) they are to respond to). Faculty can access practice questions in an number of free resources or in books and on websites that all students and graduates have access to. Or, you can create different practice exam opportunities for graduates enrolled in different commercial bar reviews.
I have conducted well over a hundred such workshops in real-time online classrooms and as via asynchronous online formats including with recorded lectures; both synchronous and asynchronous sessions are effective. In real-time sessions, students can ask questions while we are debriefing; in recorded sessions, they may email questions after listening to the entire class.
I always found it helpful to circulate a model or sample answer (telling students which it is, model or sample) and a self-assessment rubric. In some instances, I had students post their answers in the online classroom or on a discussion board to engage in a group editing exercise. (We employed gating functions so that students could not see others’ answers until they had uploaded their own answers. But, often, simply seeing each other’s answers was useful and help inspire some lower performing students to improve.) I also typically provided individual feedback on all student answers –by email or through the LMS.
Bottom line, most every teaching technique that ASP faculty would want to employ in a traditional exam workshop can be done in the online setting.
We would be happy to hold a future webinar on the topic of creating online workshops, and I am happy to talk with any faculty and answer questions offline as well.
In addition to using online classes for exam workshops as described above, I also used the online classroom extensively for motivational and growth mindset development sessions. The role of the mentor is often most effective as motivator rather than, say, tutor or teacher. Online mentoring, counting down the weeks before the exam, and noting challenges common to that phase of preparation can be done in real-time or recorded sessions.
I sometimes invited alumni mentors to join these online sessions in addition to communicating by email or phone individually with their assigned mentees. Hearing my thoughts each week helps students and helps mentors to more effectively assist students.
Creating an Online Alumni Bar Mentoring Program
This year more than ever, it will be important to give your graduates and future bar takers moral support. One way to do this is through an alumni bar mentoring program. Alumni are credible resources for law students; some students consider recent alumni more credible than professors, who generally went to different (often more prestigious) law schools, in a different era.
The alumni used all the same books, had the same professors and classes, and faced the same or similar challenges as current graduates. The message mentors convey most powerfully is “If I could do it, you can do it.”
In the alumni mentoring programs I created (successfully in three different law schools, one online and two in-person), we selected as mentors graduates who have recently passed the bar exam the first time around and paired them with students studying for the upcoming exam. People who just passed the bar often have the freshest and most practical advice. Also, they usually are dying to talk about their experience!
An effective alumni mentoring program can also help time-strapped ASP faculty in providing motivation and support without spending as much individual one-on-one time. Mentors serve as the front line; they interact first with the students. Every few days I sent group emails to all my mentors, and I held a weekly phone conference with them. In emails, I reminded them to let me know if any of their mentees needed to speak with me. (That saved time, too, because it often helps the student clarify the issues, and a later call from me may simply be to confirm what a mentor has said.)
In weekly calls with mentors, I addressed what may be global issues for the students that week. For instance everyone tends to be intimidated the first week in June when they realize how much material there is. Bar takers are usually frustrated by mid-June that they are getting so many questions “wrong” on practice tests. And most people tend to be burned out by the end of June but reenergized once the see “July” arrive. These are general trends, of course, but helping the mentor group see what students are facing will often help guide their individual discussions with mentees.
I also found that there is an uplifting aspect for the mentors in giving back, lending strength to those currently facing the battle. This dovetails with the legal community’s constant emphasis on “giving back”—for example, in encouraging more experienced lawyers to mentor new lawyers, and in pro bono requirements. Instill in your students, during law school, the idea that they will be responsible to come back and help the classes that follow them. (I told all my students, “When you pass, you will be responsible for helping the next class to pass.”)
In about mid to late spring, when I saw how many students would actually be sitting for the July bar exam, I contacted my “mentors,” former students who had expressed an interest in giving back after they passed the bar exam. I spoke with them one-on-one by phone to ensure they were the right fit for such a program –that they had empathy, effective communication skills, desire to mentor and sufficient time. I held a mentor orientation meeting (which can be done online), and then assigned a number of students to each alumni mentor. I tried to pair people with common issues together if possible—if I know someone has children, I worked to pair her with a mentor who is also a parent, that sort of thing.
I told each mentor exactly what I expect—that they contact their mentees by email and introduce themselves in mid-May, then reach out by phone, text, or email at least once a week in June and July. Most mentors initially send group emails to their mentees, but then answer responses individually. Many also reached out to every mentee or selected mentees by phone. Some will provide their cell phone numbers and stay in contact even during the exam.
I also held weekly online motivational sessions with the students myself and invited the mentors to comment and add to what I say. This way the mentors knew my bar exam success strategies and were able to reinforce the messages I wanted students to hear (rather than their own quirky messages). I also told mentors directly, in weekly phone meetings and in emails, what I wanted them to stress to the students that week. Mentors and I communicated by phone immediately about any student who might be struggling greatly, and often I would reach out to the student myself in such situations –always doing so when there were confidential matters.
I never expected mentors to hold extensive individual office hours but asked them to encourage students to reach out to me, and to tell me when students appeared to be falling behind, having confidence crises, or experiencing other problems. In such cases, I contacted the students directly. I would also send emails reinforcing whatever I have said to the student, copying or bcc’ing the mentor so the mentor stays consistent with the message. Obviously, I would never have repeated to a mentor something students said they wanted to be kept confidential.
There are obviously reams more to say about online teaching and learning. Hopefully, throughout this series, I have planted a few seeds about why this mode of communication can particularly useful for bar support and have helped in the national ASP effort to adapt spring, summer and perhaps fall bar support to the online environment.