November 17, 2005
Some Help Coping with Stress
This time of year, the demands of the semester can begin to take a toll on students' emotional and physical well-being, and that toll can be especially great for first-year students.
Professor Lawrence Krieger of Florida State University College of Law has put together a great little booklet entitled "The Hidden Sources of Law School Stress,"in which he illuminates many of the hidden dynamics that create or exacerbate students' stress, and then offers practical "antidotes" to those dynamics and their effects.
Take a minute to read it. I think you'll find his insights and advice a wonderful tonic not only for your students but for yourself as well. (DBW)
Beyond IRAC - More Exam Hints
Are your students confused about their professors' expectations regarding exams?
Are they tired of IRAC, or IREAC, or CREAC ... or any of the many other acronymic formulaic panaceatic magical templates for exam success?
Although it's impossible for me to believe, they may even be bored by TICRA-FLIPC!
Perhaps the Seven C’s will provide them with a better sense of how they should approach exams.
In this pithy piece, Joyce Savio Herleth, Director of Academic Support Services at Saint Louis University School of Law, helps her students (and ours, by extension) understand the basics of how to prepare for upcoming finals. (djt)
November 16, 2005
What Is Minimum Competence?
For those of you involved in bar exam preparation, have you ever wondered about the putative standard for passing the bar? The standard is, allegedly, “minimum competence to practice law.” As states continue to raise their “cut scores” and lower their pass rates, the meaning of “minimum competence” becomes ever more murky.
I have some data and thoughts on this, which you can find at What_is_minimum_competence? I address these ideas: Pass rates and the “cut score”; the effect of the MBE; the “disconnect” between the standard of “minimum competence to practice law” and the means used to test meeting that standard, both on the Bar Exam and in Law School; and the widening divide between law professors and bar examiners on the meaning of minimum competence to practice law, as evidenced by the declining bar passage rates.
I also think it is time to consider possible means to test the validity of the hypothesis that adherence to the “minimum competence to practice law” standard requires ever increasing cut scores and lower bar passage rates. If you are interested, take a look at my short discussion at the above-referenced link, and let me know what you think. (mwm)
Exam Writing Is Different.
Exam writing is different from first year legal writing because, while the usual 1L legal writing class teaches writing as a craft, exam writing is a skill. What does this mean? Legal writing for class is something that students have more time to work on; in addition, almost the entire exercise is about students' organizing their thoughts and choosing their words carefully. Exam writing, on the other hand, is a formulaic way for students to show their professors that they not only understand the material but can also use it.
If legal writing is a painting, exam writing is a photograph. Exam writing must be done quickly and accurately; and while it must also be done with some creativity and is worth the same 1000 words as a painting, it has to be more stark and realistic. Some of the best 1L legal writers will not do well on their exams because they cannot leave an answer in its raw form. Rather, they need to hone their thoughts and organization until the answer is perfect; and frankly, they do not have the time to do it, so their grades do not reflect their knowledge of the subject or their writing ability.
So how do we prepare students to let the raw answer be and move on to the next question? I do the math with students, trying to make the point that one fabulous answer on a four part exam is still unsatisfactory, while four reasonably complete and cogent (but imperfect) answers will suffice. I teach them the exam mantra: "the issue is...the rule is....here we have....therefore..., next." I think I hear students muttering this during exam week, or I'd like to think that's what they are saying as they pass me in the hall....
I also advise taking old exams under exam conditions (timed without notes and books) so students can figure out their ideal ratio of time to organize vs. time to write (usually about 20%/80%). I talk about organizing answers by party (good for torts, not civil procedure) or by transaction (excellent for contracts, but not for torts), etc. I give the old tennis analogy (you still need to follow through after you’ve hit the ball) as a way of reminding students to include counterarguments and defenses. I, personally, had to write the word DEFENSES at the top of every exam in law school lest I forget to include them.
After working in academic support for a while, I have concluded that a student’s performance in the first year legal writing class may not be an indicator of how well that student will perform on exams. Oddly, only about half of the students I see find this comforting. (ezs)
November 15, 2005
The Question of Grades
One of the effects of a mandatory enforced grading curve is a preoccupation with grades, since no longer are grades merely determinative of, perhaps, the first post-Law School job. They are determinative of whether a student obtains a law degree at all. As a result, a mandatory enforced grading curve poses a unique challenge to Academic Support faculty.
Our particular curve has two components: a mandatory range of means and mandatory distribution requirements. The first year parameters seem to students to be particularly daunting. Against a backdrop of a required 77.00 GPA for good standing, professors may set their course means between 77 and 81, but must give 20%-35% D’s, 35%-65% C’s, and 15%-25% B’s.
One of the tasks that seems to fall to Academic Support here is to explain the curve, and to correct the misapprehensions students develop about it. For example, students often assume that, because 20%-35% D's are given in each course, 20%-35% of the class must therefore be disqualified each year. However, unless the groups getting below a 77 (which is the lowest “C” grade) are strictly homogenous, the actual academic attrition will be significantly lower—often around 13%. Another assumption students make is that the curve depresses grades and disqualifies students who should otherwise not be disqualified. Professor Richard Litvin and I actually demonstrated that, for a number of years, due to declining admissions statistics, the curve actually resulted in grade inflation.
Still, these examples illustrate a significant challenge posed by the existence of a severe curve that results in a significant number of disqualifications. Students perceive Law School as something of a zero sum game—for every “win,” someone “loses” and is disqualified. Of course, mathematically, with only 10%-13% academic attrition, that is not true, but it doesn’t change the fact of the student perception. So, we need to think of creative ways to focus away from the “zero sum” concept. What I like to emphasize is that students should only focus on achieving their personal best—and not on worrying about what the other person is doing, or what the Law School curve is doing. This includes just working on what methods help each particular student to learn, building on their strengths, and shoring up their weaknesses, and advising students (over and over) to not do a postmortem on exams with colleagues, and to not discuss grades with colleagues. Neither they, nor we, can alter a mandatory curve (although we might marginally affect its shape in terms of prodding the number of low grades toward the lower range of the permitted distribution). Instead, we should refocus students’ attention away from the external that they cannot control to the internal goal of achieving their personal best, which they can control. If they know they have done their best, then we have done our best as well. (mwm)
November 14, 2005
We Don't Have Arts and Crafts...
It is time for my students in academic distress to register for spring classes. Because I am often asked for advice on these matters, I am often conflicted. Should I advise students to take classes that will be sure things or to take something new and interesting to rejuvenate their passion for law school? Should I discuss exam styles with these students: "Well, he's great, but his entire exam is multiple choice," or "I hear people have needed IV fluid during the exam, but the subject is on the bar..." -- or even worse -- "Oh definitely take it with that professor, there's no exam, just a book report; no really, I'm not kidding on that"?
Do I point students in academic distress toward the easiest path; the one that might be better for their GPAs, or the one that might be more challenging but would recapture their interest in law?
After being in Academic Support for about three and a half years now, I do have some "insider" information on the professors, exams and classes; but I still try to get students to challenge themselves. I have even administered the MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator – I had to take a class to qualify to do it, so don't try this at home!) to provide some insight into students' learning styles and what classes and/or professors might be a more "natural fit" for various students' personalities.
I know that sometimes a slam-dunk kind of class can restore badly damaged self-esteem. In addition, classes that are "skills-based" can remind students about the end goal of law school: lawyering. Some students find these classes (like trial practice and negotiation) the antidote to a bad spell of more doctrinal classes. I also think that everyone should take a clinical class or do an internship; perhaps this stems from my co-op experiences in law school.
Eventually, all my advice boils down to this: take a variety of classes. Think of your course selection somewhat like using the food pyramid. Look at what you need to take and what you want to take. Mix statutory (or code) and case law classes because these are two different types of analysis you'll need for the bar. And ALWAYS take one fun class – the class where doing the work is not a chore.
And finally, it is often worth it to take the 8:00 a.m. class, especially if it is graded on a curve. Why? Because if you are the only one who shows up, you'll do better on the exam than anyone else. (ezs)
November 13, 2005
Recently, my friend Desiree Sanchez announced that she will be stepping down as the Director of Academic Support at Florida A & M University College of Law. The school is searching for a new Director.
By January of 2006, the school hopes to hire someone, preferably with Academic Support Experience, who will be able to:
- Administer academic support programs, including the teaching assistant program, academic skills workshops, one-to-one academic assistance and counseling, and bar preparation.
- Coordinate a bar review program that focuses on Florida essays and multi-state subjects.
- Conduct skills workshops on case briefing, outlining, multiple-choice strategies and techniques, time management, and exam writing.
- Supervise and train teaching assistants for first year discussion groups and tutorial sessions.
- Meet individually with 1L students and students on probation to assist with strengthening students’ study habits and analytical skills.
Are you interested? If so, please forward a cover letter and résumé to firstname.lastname@example.org by the end of this month. Questions? Call her at (407) 254-3230. (djt)