Practicing bar study questions can bring a riot of emotions. Bar students rejoice when they get a high score on a practice essay or MBE set, but despair when they get a low or middling score. Psychologists have found that how students react to a less-than-stellar performance is affected by the kind of goals students set for themselves.
Students who focus on performance goals –e.g., getting a certain score on a practice test— generate negative thoughts from a mediocre or poor result. These students ask the question “What is my current ability?” “Is my ability adequate?” From this orientation, these learners compare their performance to others or some standard, start to believe there is nothing they can do to improve (learned helplessness) and avoid challenging tasks that could help them grow and learn more. And a vicious spiral could ensue leading to a self-fulfilled prophesy of under-performance.
Psychologists say that a learning or process goal is better. Students who adopt a learning or process goal take the long view of learning. They ask, “How can I best acquire skills or master tasks over a period of time?” Students with this goal orientation don’t take a poor performance on a practice test as a defeat but as an opportunity to improve their skill. A poor performance is seen as a source of information on what aspects of their skill need improvement. They look back at their poor performance, figure out what skills or areas they need to work on, and change their strategies and work harder. Students with a process or learning goal orientation have greater self-efficacy (a perceived self-confidence to a specific task), exert greater effort, and persist against adversity. They are risk takers who seek out challenging problems—which, in turn, build their skills.
The takeaway is that it’s better to focus on learning or process goals. You should set goals to work on techniques or strategies or knowledge areas that will improve your bar exam test-taking abilities. If it’s hard for you to know what exact skills, strategies or abilities you need to work on after a disappointing performance on a practice set, then ask your bar mentor or bar coordinators for help. Remember, if you focus on process or learning goals, you’re less likely to let the anxiety, fear or self-doubt creep in. Setting a learning or process goal should be your reset button to click when you start to feel badly about a low score on a practice exam. Doing this will help you reframe an unhappy result into a positive springboard for improving!
(Note: Based on Carol Dweck’s research at Harvard’s Laboratory on Human Development and later at Yale. I’ve omitted citations to her classic study as well as the vast research literature on the effects of different kinds of goals on human learning and motivation.)