Saturday, May 28, 2011

Passing the BAR review

Time to start blowing the dust off this blog and get it back underway. I'm going to shell out some old material I never got published and then get up to a regular routine soon. This is a review of an educational board game I wrote almost a year ago.

Each state in the U.S. requires all lawyers to take a multiple day exam called the BAR, which consists of essay questions and a 200 question multiple choice test called the MBE. It covers six bodies of law: Torts (think car wreck lawsuits), Property, Contracts, Constitutional, Criminal, and Evidence. This post won’t be going into any nitty gritty details but instead will discuss a board game designed to help study for this section called Passing the BAR. As someone who has taken the BAR twice and passed the MBE both times, I thought I’d offer my two cents on it.

Conceptually a multiple choice test works a bit like a roguelike. All you have to do is remove the dungeon and replace the stats with your actual abilities. Monsters in these kinds of games, like multiple choice questions, have more to do with knowing the correct reaction than blindly attacking. Turning this into a board game involves adding a lot of additional elements to this basic interaction. Passing the BAR is setup like a game of Trivial Pursuit with bits of Monopoly thrown in for good measure. You have to move across 35 spots on the board while rolling a dice that only goes up to 3. Each spot is a topic of law, when you land on a spot you have to answer a multiple-choice question. Choose wrong and on your next turn you have to keep trying until you get a question in that topic correct before you can roll. There are wild card spots that send you to the beginning or ask you a bit of legal trivia instead of a specific question. The other player reads the question to you and asks you to pick an answer.

Trying to make studying for the MBE fun is the game’s biggest problem since it tries to expand its appeal by including legal trivia and broader questions for people not taking the MBE. I have trouble imagining a player using this game as anything other than a compliment to regular studies. The MBE sucks and the only person you could get to willingly sit through this game is a corpse.

I played Passing the BAR with my classmate Laura and during the first game we overhauled most of the rules to maximize speed and efficiency. All of the Professional Responsibility questions were removed because that area isn’t covered on the BAR. The legal trivia might be a handy way to remember more obscure laws, but it ends up just distracting you from the crap you should be reviewing. Anytime we landed on a spot that called for trivia, Laura and I instead picked a topic we were having trouble with. The timer was also removed because it wasn’t really necessary, after about an hour we were ready to tear our eyes out anyway. While in Trivial Pursuit you eventually need to badger someone into giving up if they don’t know the answer, here you have four options to pick from. If anything, the biggest issue is picking an answer too soon for most players.

Another problem is that all the questions are read orally so that everyone playing can participate. Certain law question are easier to understand when read aloud than others. In Torts or Criminal Law there is usually only one or two parties with a few factors to juggle. In Property or Contracts there can be several and it often becomes too much to juggle in your head. To really handle an MBE question you need to be marking key words and ignoring irrelevant sections. Practicing reading this material and slashing things out with your pencil is an important skill because that’s how you should take the test. So you’ll be spending most of the game cutting the players off and telling them to just give you the card.

That point aside, the game is pretty useful in the early stages of BAR preparation because you’re still learning how the MBE questions work. Like many standardized tests, studying the questions is just as important as learning the material. Having to negotiate all that information orally meant I quickly learned how to categorize and spot the issue in a question in just one pass. It also helped me spot the subtle differences between similar answers because when read orally you have to recognize the wording immediately. It’s useful because while the task is almost impossible for the more complicated subjects, just trying means that when you go back to reading them it will be easier.

Overall, I spent half of the summer using the board game to study. I’d come home after studying, eat dinner, and whoever arrived that night would play for an hour before going to bed. We never once finished a game. As the summer shifted into studying the essay sections there just wasn’t enough time. You could get through about 22 to 25 questions per hour using Passing the BAR, which wasn’t fast enough when compared to the 30 you can do in less time. Laura pointed out that the nice thing about the game was that it wasn’t as demoralizing as doing problem sets. You don’t get slapped with a percentage telling you that you’re not passing at the end of the session, so there isn’t the same sense of impending doom that BAR materials usually induce. Each question also brought up its own conversation as we talked about how we’d gotten to the correct or incorrect answer, swapping memory tricks and ideas for how to dodge wrong answers.

The second time I took the MBE (I screwed up on the essay portion of banking law) I barely bothered with the thing. There was no one around to study with me and the game’s questions are, by themselves, not particularly good or bad. I’d say don’t buy it, but honestly everyone I know who has the game was given it by some deranged Uncle or Aunt.


juv3nal said...

yay! you're back!

L.B. Jeffries said...

Yeah...gonna work the private blog for a bit. I'll get some solid material put together soon.

Ben Abraham said...

Welcome back! It just hadn't been quite the same...