Law School Academic Support Blog

Editor: Amy Jarmon
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Monday, January 30, 2006

Academic Support Rocks and I Can Prove It!!!

Professor Tonsing is absolutely right. Academic Support does help. We can make a difference to students and now I can prove it!!! (with the caveat, of course, that I am not a mathematician, see below).  

I am just now compiling our statistics from last year to see if there is any correlation between what we do and the ultimate success or failure of our students. Interestingly, because I was out on maternity leave last spring, I have a control group of sorts to work with because our office did not see all the students who were flagged as “at risk” by their first semester grades.

In the past, we have worked with every student (in some capacity) that has received an unsatisfactory grade (defined here as a C- or below). Usually we conduct one-on-one meetings with these students and follow a curriculum that involves a review of outlining and exam taking techniques as well as many practice hypotheticals and multiple choice questions. But last year we couldn’t see everyone: and it made a difference (by my calculations, keeping in mind the last time I took a course in statistics was as an undergraduate!). It really seems (note the intentional use of the passive voice to take into account my potentially flawed statistical analysis), that seeing students one-on-one will help keep them from being placed on academic warning at the end of their first year.

Judging from our numbers, about twice as many students we didn’t see one-on-one were on academic warning at the end of the first year as those we did see. This is significant because the one-on-one triage the office engaged in involved not seeing those students who appeared to be at a lower risk for being in academic distress at the end of the year. That is, we did not see students who had one unsatisfactory midterm grade as opposed to those who had an unsatisfactory final grade or more than one unsatisfactory midterm grade. We also saw some students whose GPA’s were in the automatic dismissal (if it were the end of the year) range.

There are some variables that I could not quantify and include while doing my analysis. For example, I personally think the student who comes in to see us with the attitude of, “I messed up, please help me get this right” is always bound to make more progress than the, “my professors hate me” student. I also could not tell from the numbers if there were students who were just not capable of doing the work, no matter how much and what kind of help they were given. But even so, the numbers really do seem to point to an advantage in meeting with students individually after the red-flag of a poor grade in the first semester.

Simply put, in the end, the students we saw one-on-one did better.  I agree with Prof. Tonsing that this is a hard time of year for academic supporters, but get out your pom-poms and get going, because we really can make a difference!!(ezs)

January 30, 2006 in Meetings | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, January 29, 2006

It Works!

At this time of the year—just after the appearance of fall grades—Academic Supporters at law schools across the country meet with scores of disappointed students. 

Some are disappointed because they may be leaving law school—voluntarily or not—others because they simply did not earn grades reflective of their hard work, intelligence and aptitude.

In some ways, this is a difficult time for Academic Supporters.  In two other ways, though, this time of year is tremendous.  Here's why:

1.  Now, many students realize their need for expert coaching.  Students ask for help eagerly.  That's a plus.  Eager students are the best kind of students to work with, aren't they?

2.  Along with the stories of disappointment, we hear the stories of success.  Although the wunnelle stories are uplifting, they are to be expected . . . that is, with no law school track record, students who do very well are often surprised and elated when they receive their first "A" grades. 

But for me, the best stories of success are those coming from second and third-year students who have been challenged, who have struggled, and who have leapt over barriers, overcome their bugaboos, and tasted the nectar of the high grade for the first time.

Having received permission to post an edited version of one such story, I offer it to encourage those who are new to the Academic Support ranks.  Academic Support works. 

Keep up the good work, friends!

P.S. If you have a particularly heartwarming success story, have obtained written permission to post it, and can edit all identifiers, email it to me for possible posting on the blog.  (djt)

January 29, 2006 in Encouragement & Inspiration | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Time to Rethink Time

Now that your first-year students have experienced an entire semester of law school, from orientation to exams, they have a golden opportunity to rethink how they manage their time and make changes for the spring.  In the first days of law school, they may have received wonderful, practical advice on how to manage their time; but August and January are light years apart, and that same advice may play very differently now than it did then.  Now that they know what law school truly requires (exam results have a way of removing illusions), they are in a much better position to evaluate the effectiveness of their approaches to law school and to adjust them in realistic ways.

Your students may find Sheilah Vance's advice on time management a helpful guide as they assess their approaches to law school and refine their strategies for success.  Adapting the advice given by a number of experts in academic support, she provides students a balanced and detailed strategy for handling the demands of law school and their personal lives. (dbw)   

January 26, 2006 in Advice | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Exam Review

We all tell our students to take a look at their exam answers after the grades are posted.

Many ask, "What exactly am I to look for when I read my old answers?"

Dr. Amy L. Jarmon, Assistant Dean for Academic Success Programs at Texas Tech University School of Law, offers an answer.

"I thought the attached excerpt from an e-mail that I sent to all of my law students might be of help to colleagues," Professor Jarmon wrote to me recently. 

The excerpt is entitled: "Patterns to Look for and Questions to Ask When Evaluating Multiple-Choice and Fact Pattern Essay Exam Answers." 

Take a look at Dean Jarmon's work. I intend to post it for my students, and direct the professors at my school to this web copy of the excerpt.  (djt)

January 24, 2006 in Exams - Theory | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, January 23, 2006

It's Like Practicing Medicine in 1850

Back in old days of medicine, doctors had to have some ingenious ways of diagnosing problems inside the body without the help of the technology we now have.  I am sure there were a lot of unavoidable errors and unnecessary treatments, but they did the best they could and enough people lived on to invent the technology that makes it easier today.  Sometimes, I feel like an old time doctor, trying to figure out what has gone wrong without a clear view inside a student's head or life.

Last week, our first year students received their grades.   I have seen a number of them in my office and the hallway, and they all tend to say the same thing, "I didn't do as well as I thought I would."  Then they ask me why.  In truth, I can't know why any particular student would do worse than he or she had anticipated, but since my tap dancing is sub-par, I do make an effort to try and diagnose the problem.

What are the possible issues?  Not enough studying, non-efficient or non-effective studying, multiple choice questions, a lack of depth in answering the questions or even just running out of time because they had no idea what to expect.  The real problem is that I have to rely on hearsay to get enough information to make a diagnosis.  I have to ask students to honestly tell me about their study habits and their exam strategies.

I ask students when, where and how they studied.  I ask about how they approached their exams in the exam room, mainly to find out if they took the (well worth it) time to outline before attempting to answer the questions.  I ask how they are doing in their legal writing class, because sometimes students are trying to recreate their legal writing assignments during exams which is just not feasible given the time constraints.  I ask about any ADA accommodations in the past (see my blog entry from a week ago).

I also advise students to go speak to their professors.  They sometimes balk at this idea because they are embarrassed or intimidated.  I assure then that no professor would ever (1) Lower their grade based on such a meeting or (2) Say anything like, "well, aren't you the dumbest law student I have ever seen?"   

So what should students ask their professors about their exams?  First, ask them, "what were you looking for that you did not see in my exam?"  Find out the score on multiple choice questions vs. essays.  If the scores are markedly inconsistent then perhaps one of these is the problem.

Sometimes students use what I call, "symbolic language," which is using legal terminology in place of explaining the rule as if it were a hyperlink to a definition of the law.  This is often a short cut taken by students who are running out of time.  Sometimes students haven't used the facts they are given, or they have missed the major issues and have spent their precious time writing on the minutiae instead. 

Then I meet with the students again to process all the information I have and try to find the problem and suggest a plan of treatment. Sometimes, I am absolutely stumped, but I make an educated guess and make up a plan accordingly (sometimes I wish I could call the students in a year or so and find out if I was right like the guys on Cartalk).  Sometimes, just like any good placebo, having the plan is sufficient whether it addresses a problem or not.

But more often I feel like a doctor who practiced before CAT scans or MRI's trying to figure out what was going on inside of someone without being able to see it.  I guess the best part is that any treatment I prescribe is not really going to cause anyone any harm.  I mean, really, how can studying more effectively hurt? (ezs)

January 23, 2006 in Miscellany | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, January 22, 2006

A Great Opportunity!

How would you like to become the Director of Academic Support at Villanova University School of Law?  The School of Law is looking for the best person to fill that position.

Responsibilities include: develop, oversee and implement the law school’s academic support and accommodations initiatives including:
• academic support for students identified as at risk academically
• academic support for and preparation of students identified as at risk for passing the bar exam
• academic support and enrichment programs for the general student body, including Orientation and Pre Orientation
• disabilities and ADA accommodations support.

The Director also works with the Registrar’s staff in administering examinations, especially accommodated exams.  The Director chairs the Accommodations Committee, and working with the Academic Dean, and the Accommodations Committee, manages the law school’s ADA and oversees disabilities compliance. The Director will work closely with the counseling team in advising and counseling students generally.

Qualifications: JD and  law school academic support or teaching experience, or other comparable experience or training required;  excellent communications skills and the ability to work collaboratively with faculty and staff in developing and implementing programs; must be well versed in disabilities law as well as technologies for meeting the needs of disabled and non-disabled students; ability to work effectively with students essential.

Villanova University is an Augustinian Catholic liberal arts institution with liberal arts and graduate programs in the western suburbs of Philadelphia.  It is an equal opportunity employer and invites applications from all interested persons.  You are invited to send a resume, cover letter and contact information for three references to:

Jacalyn Sopher
Villanova University School of Law
299 North Spring Mill Road
Villanova, PA 19085     (djt)


January 22, 2006 in Jobs - Descriptions & Announcements | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Student Depression: Where Do We Come In?

At the recent annual meeting of AALS, James. J. White of the University of Michigan Law School made the provocative observation that law school professors may be taking themselves a little too seriously when they characterize law school as the primary cause of high levels of depression among law students.  He suggests that other factors may be every bit as important and that the stress-induced depression afflicting many students may be the inevitable result of engaging in a very demanding pursuit.

I have to agree with him in many respects.  During any three-year period, "life happens"; and just because one enrolls in law school, one cannot expect to be free of the normal traumas and tragedies of life until school ends.  In addition, the demands of law school parallel the demands of the profession; so no one really gets a pass on stress, failures, or disappointments either in school or afterward. 

We therefore cannot hope to eliminate most of the stresses afflicting our students.  We cannot fool students into believing that the practice will be largely stress-free or that there will not be failures or that life will step politely aside in those times when the practice seemingly needs their complete attention.  Even if we could eliminate that stress in law school, our students would be blindsided by the demands of practice, caught without having developed the coping skills essential to emotional survival in an exceptionally difficult profession.

Even so, I remain convinced that we must step up and help students learn to cope effectively with the stress of law school and to avoid the depression to which too many students and lawyers succumb.  It is true that the high level of depression among law students exists for a variety of reasons, some of it the result of the inevitable demands of the legal profession, some of it the result of unnecessarily damaging pedagogical approaches, and some of it the result of events and emotional dynamics that would have existed regardless of whether the student had enrolled in law school.  Those realities, however, underscore why we should actively engage in teaching our students how to survive those stresses.

One of the skills that lawyers must master is the ability to handle stress and to avoid depression without succumbing to self-destructive behaviors.  Law school is the natural place to begin that process, and professors and academic support professionals are the natural choices to provide that help.  After all, part of what we are doing is helping students acquire the skills to succeed in the practice of law.  We have learned, I hope, to cope successfully with the stresses of the profession; why should we not deliberately help our students to do the same?

What I find most insightful in Prof. White's observations is that we should not deceive ourselves about the inevitability of stress in our profession, and we should not convince ourselves that all such stress could be eliminated if we just taught the law properly.  Failing to understand those realities can lead us to castigate our colleagues and ourselves unfairly; to make bad pedagogical choices; and to teach our students to blame their difficulties on the school, when in fact the causes of those difficulties are complex and often self-inflicted.

That said, we still have a genuine responsibility to help our students learn to cope with the inevitable difficulties of pursuing a law degree, and we should work hard to reduce or eliminate unnecessary stresses caused by our pedagogical choices.  We should invest energy and resources in helping our students learn to handle the stresses of the profession amid the stresses of normal traumas and tragedies of life.  We should also convince our colleagues that adding unnecessarily to the inevitably stressful dynamics of a demanding profession makes no pedagogical or professional sense. 

We should also not be misled by the fact that most students survive the pressures of legal education and go on to graduate and practice law.  That they graduate does not mean they have developed healthy coping strategies.  We know that many students and lawyers learn to cope using alcohol or other substances and many others suffer serious personal consequences because they cannot balance the demands of practice with the demands of their personal lives.  We also know, if we are honest with ourselves, that many students suffer unnecessary emotional damage in law school and carry it into the profession.

It is not our responsibility to make the world perfect, and we should not berate ourselves or our colleagues because our profession can be unforgiving in the demands it places on those who pursue it.   

It is our responsibility, however, to teach our students how to live successfully in that profession.  We owe it to the profession, to our students, and to our students' future clients.  We have the ability and the means to purge our law schools of those avoidable dynamics that begin a pattern of damage and self-destructive behavior in too many students' lives.  We have the knowledge and the opportunity to help our students cope with the unavoidable mix of professional and personal demands that life in this profession will inevitably place on them.

We are neither the sole source of nor the sole solution to our students' emotional and psychological challenges.  Professor White is right:  we are not nearly so important in the world.  We are, however, powerful players for good or for ill in the midst of those challenges, and that fact carries with it responsibilities we must not ignore.  (dbw)

January 21, 2006 in Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Following Up on Exams

In a recent addition to the on-line version of Law School – Materials for Success, Professor Barbara Glesner-Fines has put together some very helpful advice for students who are coming to grips with their first set of exam results.  Check it out.  You might find it worthwhile to send an email to your students, directing them to the new chapter.  (dbw)

January 18, 2006 in Exams - Studying | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

This is no time to be a Cowboy

I spent two days over the break reading exams (construction law, no less!) to a blind colleague.  He did not hesitate to ask me for help when he needed it.  The stories he told me about going to law school and taking the bar while losing his sight were inspiring.  He is a neat guy.  When he took the bar he needed a reader and had to fashion his own accommodations at times to get through it. He passed the first time.  Granted, he is a very intelligent person, but perhaps his greatest gift was to know when to ask for help.   This is a gift I wish to bestow on my students.

Now that the grades are in, I will soon be seeing a new crop of students who performed poorly on their midterms/final.  I have a mini-diagnostic sheet I ask them to fill out when they come to see me asking about study habits (did you outline?) and life changes (did you end any relationships just before exams?).  At our preliminary meeting, I always ask the students if they have ever had ADA accommodations at school before.  A surprising number of them will say yes, but that they did not seek such accommodations in law school.  Why?  They are afraid of being stigmatized or labeled.  They fear that their professors will know that they had extra time and will grade them accordingly.

I always assure them that such accommodations are between them and the Dean of Students.  Their professors will never know.  Their colleagues will never know either (the hand-writers will assume they are typing and the typers vice versa).  Also, the exam answer given to the professor will have only their exam number on it, no indication of any accommodations and will be included in the pile with all the other exams.  Still, I find resistance.

So, then I beg students to get the accommodations they need.  I tell them they should set a "precedent" for bar accommodations now (although there is no guarantee of accommodations on the bar, it helps to have had them in law school).  I try to persuade them that this is no time to be a cowboy about exams.  I even stock the forms necessary and pass them out to students who might need them.  I have a list of people at student health services and the learning center they can see if their documentation needs updating.  Still, some students will not do it.

Eventually, when the students are seeing me because they are on academic warning, I might be able to persuade them to file the forms and get their paperwork to the Dean. It is one of the most frustrating circumstances I encounter in Academic Support when the" academic warning" designation, which will be noted on their transcript, could have been avoided.  In the end, the negative label the student feared happened by not taking steps to seek accommodations which would have been confidential.

So, as I am gearing up for my "no cowboy" speeches this semester, I will have more stories in my arsenal about my colleague (and more dog hair on my coat), but hopefully I will also have a little more success in getting students to get help when they need it. (ezs)

January 17, 2006 in Disability Matters | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, January 16, 2006

Learning from Exams

Because both legal reasoning in general and law school examinations in particular are new to first-year students, you might want to include in your second-semester academic support program some instruction in using exams as a method of improving learning.  As I have been preparing for such a lecture, I have asked my colleagues at UMKC what advice they have for students who wish to go over their exams with their professors.  Below are some of the key suggestions for students.

1) Do the hard work of evaluating your exam yourself before you ask the professor to go over it with you.  Passively asking a professor how you could have done better not only wastes your professor's time and energy, it is not as effective as actively teaching yourself by analyzing your own performance as completely as you can before asking for your professor's help.

2) Where a professor provides a model answer, spend time on your own comparing your answer to the model.  In doing so, you are likely to discover where you could have improved your responses to the test questions.  Perhaps you have left key information out of the answer, have failed to argue both sides of issues, have misstated rules, or have missed key issues, for example.

3) Ask for a grading rubric to guide your self-analysis.  The rubric will itself answer many of your questions.

4) Ask to see one or two of the best exam answers and compare yours to those.  That approach may be especially helpful because those answers provide a concrete illustration of successful answers.  One professor suggested that looking at the best answers may produce much more meaningful help than would even lengthy one-on-one discussions with a professor.

5) Force yourself to identify specific, concrete questions for the professor and list them on a piece of paper.  Try first to answer them yourself and narrow the list to those you truly cannot answer.  Doing so ensures that you have taken responsibility for your own learning and makes the resulting learning deeper and more lasting.

6) If you still have questions that would support a meaningful one-on-one discussion with your professor, keep the focus on those questions and not on attempting to elicit sympathy or a grade change.  Professors are not likely to second-guess their grading unless there is a glaring error.  They are never in the mood for complaining students who simply did not answer the questions as well as some of their peers.

7)  Whatever you do, keep your eye on the ball:  teaching yourself to prepare for exams more effectively by understanding the law more completely and accurately and by developing your analytical and communication skills more deeply and thoroughly.  (dbw)

January 16, 2006 in Exams - Studying | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Sleeping Your Way to the Top

According to an article in the most recent (January 16, 2006) issue of TIME Magazine, 71 percent of American adults do not average eight hours of sleep.

The article, entitled "Sleeping Your Way to the Top," by Sora Song, cites a 2003 sleep study's results—"The human brain is only capable of about 16 hours of wakefulness [a day] ... When you get beyond that, it can't function as efficiently, as accurately or as well."

Sleeping less than your body requires erodes productive capability, according to the researchers.

Although people think of sleep as a necessity to avoid physical fatigue, Song points out: "What most people don't realize is that the purpose of sleep may be more to rest the mind than to rest the body.  Indeed, most of the benefits of eight hours' sleep seem to accrue to the brain: sleep helps consolidate memory, improve judgment, promote learning and concentration, boost mood, speed reaction time and sharpen problem solving and accuracy."

The next time you work with your students, ask them how much they are sleeping.  Many students I encounter tell me they are "lucky" to get six hours of sleep each night.  Many "get by" on five or six.

My thought?  They are unlucky to get six hours of sleep each night.  Actually, luck has little to do with it.  Poor planning is the reason—or an unrealistic sense of priority.

Ask your students, "Would you want your lawyer to be suffering from poor memory, less than adequate judgment, less than optimal concentration, and dull problem solving capabilities when your trial begins?"

The article includes this eye-opening fact: results of sleeping too little "...may even mimic the symptoms of dementia."

Ask your students, "Do you want to mimic the symptoms of dementia in class?"

Do the math: " ... in giving up two hours of bedtime to do more work, you’re losing a quarter of your recommended nightly dose and gaining just 12 percent more time during the day.”  Trading a bit of "awake" time for a higher rate of productivity makes more sense doesn’t it?  (djt)

January 12, 2006 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Miscellany, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, January 9, 2006

Altruism—Lost and Found

Over this past weekend, my almost nine-year-old daughter did something involving more altruism than I have ever displayed in my significantly more years than that. She went into a hair salon and cut off a foot of her hair to mail to an organization called “Locks of Love,” so her beautiful hair can be made into a beautiful wig for a child who has lost their hair during medical treatment. This was a big deal; she had been growing her hair for well over two years (and was using the manager at our local Whole Foods with dreadlocks down to her knees as a role model). She did it because, “someone else needs it, and mine will grow back pretty fast.” It was as simple as that.

One of the many reasons that first year law students become depressed has been linked to a loss of altruism, a loss of the initial motivation for coming to law school that occurs almost immediately after the first set of grades appear. We should keep this in mind as classes resume this week.

As the grades come out, even those students who have done well are somewhat out of sorts. Losing sight of the light of the end of tunnel makes the tunnel seem so much longer and darker even if the ride hasn’t been all that unpleasant. Maybe the students realize this semester will require the same amount of work and the same proof that they are worthy at the end as the last one did.

But perhaps we can avoid this mid-year slump in morale by putting things in perspective for students. Think about it: 90% of the class isn’t in the top 10% of the class. That means that about 90% of lawyers out there practicing their trade were not in the top 10% of their class either. The bar is pass/fail. No one should define or re-define themselves on the basis of grades.   

Also, we need to direct students to look back at their initial motivation for coming to law school. It almost inevitably involves the words “to help” (for those who employ the words “gobs of money,” perhaps a reality check is more in order). Almost every student should still be able to do this regardless of their rank in the class.

There will, of course, be some students who will not make it through law school because their grades are unsatisfactory. We can’t act as if that is not a possibility because that would be condescending and misleading to students. However, for those students looking at their first academic C, we can remind them that in the course of their lives and careers, it will matter less and less as time goes on.

Self-esteem will also grow back pretty quickly if we remind students that they can do wondrous things for others when they are lawyers. And I am one proud mom. (ezs)

January 9, 2006 in Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, January 8, 2006

AALS - News on the Way

Your Academic Support Blog editors have been in Washington, DC, at the AALS annual conference all week. 

What a wonderful place to learn more about what Academic Support is all about, and how we can all improve what we do.  Dan and I will comment on several sessions we attended, and ideas we picked up during the conference over the next few weeks.

Those of you who also attended: please send me a publishable descriptive e-mail so we can share some of the richness of your experience with those unable to join us in the nation's capital.  (djt)

January 8, 2006 in Miscellany | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, January 2, 2006

Academic Support Spotlight

It's about time I announce that . . .

LallijpegIn August, Lorraine Newton Lalli, Esq., joined the Academic Support group at Roger Williams University School of Law.  In her new position, as Director of Diversity and Outreach and Associate Director of the Academic Support Program, Lorraine is responsible for diversity outreach and programming, and development and delivery of academic support activities and programs.

Lorraine received her B.A., magna cum laude, from Spelman College and her J.D., magna cum laude, from Roger Williams University School of Law where she was a member of the School of Law Honors Program and the salutatorian of her law school graduating class.

Lorraine, a Providence, Rhode Island native, is a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., Providence Alumnae Chapter.

During her three years at Roger Williams, Lorraine served as president of the Multi-Cultural Law Students Association.  She served as a consultant to the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society, and she went on to practice banking and finance law in the Boston office of Brown Rudnick Berlack Israel, LLP

Lorraine complements our fine group of talented professionals in the Academic Support Program Associate Director of Academic Support, Jon Strauss, and Tracy Sartrys, our Administrative Assistant.  (djt)

January 2, 2006 in Academic Support Spotlight | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)