Sunday, April 30, 2006
During exam time, a strong pressure exists for students to cut back on sleep, exercise, and nutrition in order to devote more time to study. The reality, however, is that studying at the expense of such things is subject to the law of diminishing returns; it does more harm than good.
In the years I have been teaching, including those in which I was a high school teacher, I have found that my preparing for class in the wee hours of the night seldom produces a high quality class session the following day. I find that, while my lesson plan is detailed as can be and completely logical in each progression of thought or activity, I cannot seem to execute the plan with the vigor or flexibility required to make it work properly.
Rather, I find that I cannot keep the steps clearly in mind as I try to move through the plan, I cannot think quickly enough to respond effectively to students' insightful questions or extrapolations, and I cannot adequately assess my students' areas of confusion. All my energy is focused on executing this perfect plan, and I am too fatigued to adjust effectively when necessary, so I end up unable to execute the plan after all.
The plan becomes the enemy of the lesson, primarily because I am too tired to let the point of the lesson drive the plan. I just cannot think fast enough and hold the complexity in my head completely enough to do the material justice. I find myself staring at the plan from somewhere far afield of the point of the class session, wondering how the heck I ended up so off course. My students mostly just end up staring.
As a result, over the years my practice has become to schedule preparation to avoid late night scrambles, making room for the daily fires that often wreck schedules that have no room for slippage. I have accepted the fact that at some point preparation becomes self-defeating as it cuts into rest. I have repeatedly found that a good night's sleep will allow the success of a somewhat incomplete lesson plan while fatigue will generally sabotage a more complete plan.
I suspect our students need to learn that same principle as they prepare for tests. Studying into the wee hours for a test the next morning is probably worse than stopping short of the goal and simply being rested for the exam. A rested, alert mind is more likely to fill in the gaps than is an exhausted, slow-moving mind which is trying to remember all that was crammed into it at 3:00 a.m.
Perhaps the point is that if one is not fully prepared at 11:00 p.m., one will likely not be any more prepared at 3:00 a.m. First, what is absorbed from 11:00 to 3:00 probably will not stick particularly well; and, second, the fatigue created in those hours will interfere with applying even those concepts that have been absorbed, including those that were mastered in the days and weeks leading up to the exam.
Law school exams demand complex thinking that can respond quickly to difficult combinations of issues; that sort of brain work requires energy and mental agility, two things fatigue impedes. Being unable to sleep the night before an exam is not fatal, but it is not helpful either; so there is no point creating that situation on purpose.
Let's encourage our students to protect the quality of their thinking by scheduling rest, exercise, and good nutrition during their exam weeks. If they are behind on their flow charting or on internalizing material, they probably cannot effectively close those gaps in the middle of the night. At this point hard, steady work throughout the day combined with a rested, energetic mind on each exam day is the best hope.
An exam is one of those things you just shouldn't lose sleep over. (dbw)
Thursday, April 27, 2006
Later today I will take my six-year-old for a doctor’s appointment. Her doctor’s office happens to be located inside of Children’s Hospital. Children’s Hospital in Boston is the most amazing medical facility that I prefer walking away from (with my child) each time we go. We were lucky to have it near our house (one subway stop away) when my daughter needed emergency care there a year and half ago, and we were luckier still to have left there the next day, healthy.
What does this have to do with Academic Support? Maybe not too much, but I think what I learn about life and perspective just by walking through the lobby at Children’s Hospital and to the doctor’s office each time I go might be a valuable reminder for our students. I usually leave our appointments weak-kneed and giddy with relief. The sun is never warmer and sky is never bluer than the moment we leave and rejoin our lives.
But I cannot help thinking of the people who are still there. There are the parents of the children without hair and the parents who look tired and pained. We were the tired and pained ones once—for a day and a half—and had it been longer I surely would have melted into the ground and been tracked on the bottom of someone’s shoes. And then, of course, there are the children themselves.
I did not set out to be maudlin when beginning this post; but my point is this: law school exams rank very, very, very, very low on the unpleasant scale of life when you have some perspective. (ezs)
Wednesday, April 26, 2006
Professor Rogelio Lasso of the John Marshall Law School has put together some great advice for taking essay exams in "How to Write a Good Law School Exam." Particularly helpful is his advice on how to develop and outline an answer for a typical essay question. Best of all, he includes an example question with a model outline of the first part of the answer to illustrate the techniques he suggests. (dbw)
As the semester comes to an end, I have been telling most of my students (the ones who have been seeing me based on their midterm grades) that they have earned their wings and it is now time to fly. These students have done all the work and they are ready for exams.
As part of this conversation, I always ask these students if they feel they are in a better place than they were last semester at this time. And the answer really should be “yes” regardless of whether I have worked any ASP magic on them or not. Why is this? Because last semester at this time, these students had no idea what law school exams would be like. They did not know (which is not to say it wasn’t knowable) the level of depth each answer required, nor did they understand that spending the time to outline your answer before writing it, was analogous to priming the exam pump. But now they do--or should.
I think of this “exit pep talk” like the first comforting words of Dr. Spock’s book on babies, “You know more than you think.” Or actually, sadly, more like those old cigarette ads, “you’ve come a long way, baby.” (This, of course, is language one would never use with students but I think it really captures the moment.)
Second semester first year law students (we’ll call them “SSFYs”) are far more savvy about exams than first semester students. I imagine that even those students who performed well on the first semester exams have a better sense now of why their performance was superior than they did in January. What do SSFYs know now that didn’t know then?
SSFYs know how to write a case brief that is shorter than
SSFYs know how to create a rules-based outline.
SSFYs know that Prof. Tonsing’s post on “practice” is dead on and have practiced hundreds of multiple choice questions and a fair number of essays per class, or plan to, in preparation for exams.
SSFYs know that the analysis is the most important part of the essay exam answer.
SSFYs know that the potential answers to a multiple choice question are all intended to look compelling and to not look at them before having an idea of the answer in their heads.
SSFYs know that their grade is not personal.
SSFYs feel more at home here.
SSFYs know (most importantly) they will live through exams and that the sun will indeed rise the day after they are over.
Did I teach them all this? I’d like to credit for it, but I cannot. All I may have done is make students aware that they know more than they think. (ezs)
Are you considering offering or expanding bar preparation for your students? You may want to visit Columbus, Ohio, this June.
Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio, Will host the 2006 Midwest Regional Academic Assistance Workshop “Designing a For-Credit Bar Exam Preparatory Course” June 16 – 17, 2006.
Specific information regarding the program, registration, and lodging can be found by clicking on “Registration Information” at: http://www.law.capital.edu/MRAA/index.asp.
Tuesday, April 25, 2006
As students are preparing for exams, you might direct them to Villanova Law School's helpful advice contained in the "Strategies" page of its Academic Support Program's website. The advice covers strategies for before, during, and after exams, including specific approaches tailored to different types of exam questions. Even for students who are only days away from the start of exams or whose exam periods have already begun, the page offers concise, practical explanations of strategies that can be implemented immediately. (dbw)
Sunday, April 23, 2006
According to Answernet.com, "[T]he identity of Franklin P. Jones is not clear." Whether Mr. Jones was an American businessman who lived from 1887-1929, a "humorist" of the same era, or an Oklahoma furniture store owner remains a mystery. I think he worked in a law school. As a matter of fact, I think he may have directed an academic support program. Check this out . . .
A few quotes (all net accessible) ...
- Experience is that marvelous thing that enables you to recognize a mistake when you make it again.
- Honest criticism is hard to take, particularly from a relative, a friend, an acquaintance, or a stranger.
- It's a strange world of language in which skating on thin ice can get you into hot water.
- The easiest way to solve a problem is to pick an easy one.
This last quotation is the most subtle when it comes to advising students. To paraphrase Professors Paul and Fischl (Getting to Maybe), the world of exams is a world where simply "knowing the material" is not enough. Why do students walk in to our offices after they receive poor grades, and say, "I don’t understand it . . . I knew the material!"?
Suffice it to say that when I taught Street Law to high school students, Legal and Ethical Environments of Business to college students, and the UCC to MBA students, nearly all of the students "knew the material." I doubt that one in ten would do well in law school, however.
You know why—law students need to know how to use the material to resolve complicated hypothetical problems. That represents another level (at least another zone) of thinking and doing.
So, how do students who did not meet their expectations during the first semester attempt to solve this problem during the second (or fourth) semester? Far too many attempt to solve the problem by "picking an easy one." That is, they confuse the "problem" with the solution, or the anticipated result.
How many times have you heard this as a response to your inquiry, "What do you intend to do to improve your performance?": "I intend to study harder." You see, the problem is not the "hardness" with which one studies, rather it’s identifying the problem accurately, then addressing it logically.
The problem is generally this: the student is not well prepared to respond to sophisticated hypothetical problems, in writing, under considerable time pressure. The logical remedy to the problems is . . . well . . . to practice responding to sophisticated hypothetical problems, in writing, under considerable time pressure.
Students who have played a sport, an instrument, or a character in a play all readily identify with the concept of preparing to excel at the very thing they will be judged on (tournament, recital, or opening night) by repeating the best approximation of the ultimate exercise (via practice games, practice recitals, or rehearsals) over and over and over.
Today is the 23rd of April. Most of our students begin final exams after May 1. Subtracting a bit for sleeping and eating (9.5 hours each day), that leaves at least 100 hours before the first exam ... for many students, the time extends much longer ... not to mention some time between exams. If students can answer 6 to 10 single-issue questions per hour from (for example, the Examples & Explanations series or Emanuel’s First-Year Questions and Answers), that allows time for 600 to 1000 questions divided among about 14 credit hours (up to 71 short-answer questions per credit ... thus for a 3-credit class, over 200 questions). That would require 14-hour days if a student attempted to answer all of the questions for all of the subjects before a May 1 test, but in reality there would be more days available over which to spread the time because of time between exams. Ten to twelve hours a day from now until the last exam would easily allow time to answer a total of 1000 questions before the last exam and 200 subject-specific questions before each exam.
Overkill? Gee, I don’t know. If you eat, sleep and exercise, and have a 1.9 GPA, is there something wrong with studying over 10 hours per day for a couple of weeks? Isn’t this what bar examinees do across the country for TEN weeks? And all THEY have to do is "pass" a minimum competency exam. Most of them (just to "pass") answer about 3000 sample MBE questions to prepare for 200.
That’s a ratio of 15 to 1.
My suggestion to students? Sure, review your outlines, memorize a few acronyms, and discuss some interesting policy issues with your study group friends. Then practice doing the very thing you will be called upon to do in a couple of weeks—the very thing that will determine whether you stay in school, whether you’re in the top or bottom of the class rank, whether you retain your scholarship, or whether you are selected for that interview you hope for next year. Practice strings of single-issue questions followed by a series of (for example) hour-long questions.
To be sure, "one size" does not fit "all." However, whether you choose the backstroke, sidestroke, breaststroke or medley, you’d better swim one heckuvalotta miles before you try to cross the channel.
Don’t address the "easy problem." Identify the most difficult problem, then solve it. Practice.
Note: If you want to copy any of the foregoing and send it to your students, I’ve certainly got no problem with that. (djt)
Saturday, April 22, 2006
Here is an opportunity to publish an article directed at the ASP community. Natt Gantt is looking for submissions for the spring edition of "The Learning Curve," the newsletter of the AALS Section on Academic Support.
He is looking for articles both on research projects in the ASP community and on insights from those practicing in the ASP field. He also welcomes announcements that would be of interest to ASP folks.
Natt would like submissions by May 1 but can be somewhat flexible on the submission date. For a look at articles and essays published in earlier editions of the newsletter, click on "The Learning Curve." (dbw)
Friday, April 21, 2006
Lori Shaw, Dean of Students and Professor of Lawyering Skills at University of Dayton School of Law, has done it again. In her latest ¨Professionalism¨ column for Student Lawyer Magazine (April, 2006), Dean Shaw explains how several guidelines will lead students to ¨...personal fulfillment and professional success.¨
The personal fulfillment begins today ... but so does the professional success. How so?
¨Start practicing now,¨ I tell students, ¨to be the kind of lawyer you would hire if you needed one.¨ Dean Shaw´s recommendations? (Each comes with an explanation. You need to read the article.)
Be . . .
- passionate and compassionate.
Academic support includes more than study tips. (djt)
Thursday, April 20, 2006
In the fall I wrote about having an “exam plan,” that is, a time management strategy for getting through the reading period and exams. But I have been thinking lately about having another sort of exam plan in addition to time management. I have been asking students to come up with an exam strategy, that is, a method they plan to employ while taking the exam to maximize time efficiency and organization of their answers.
I know it sounds a little like a carnival tonic, but here’s the idea: have a plan of attack for each subject. For example, a student could plan to tackle a Torts exam by creating a chart of the parties v. the other parties (after reading the question, of course), listing the potential causes of action that arise between each set of parties and then use this chart as a check list of issues to deal with in their answer. It would probably look something like this:
A v. B-negligence, battery
A v. C-negligence, tortuous interference with a K
A v. D-nuisance
B v. C-assault, etc.
In Contracts and Civil Procedure the strategy could be more chronological. Think of it as an obstacle course, what are the hurdles to be cleared? In Contracts, a student needs to deal with formation, and then the terms of the contract, and then if there has been a breach, and finally if there are damages from the breach and then remedies. Don’t forget to think outside the box and cover non- and quasi-contractual concepts as well. In Civil Procedure, a student might have to think through jurisdiction, complaint, answer, 12(b) motions, joinder, discovery, summary judgment, etc.
I have advised students that having a planned course of action before even starting the exam is a good idea. If you have a closed book exam you might want to memorize a very skeletal checklist of potential issues and immediately write it down on your exam paper. In an open book exam, bring your “obstacle course” with you. I also have advised students that this kind of planning can be done collaboratively with a study group (as opposed to outlining which should be done alone).
Personally, I had to write the words, “counterarguments” and “defenses” at the top of every one of my exams. I guess I had a problem with being wrong. (ezs)
Wednesday, April 19, 2006
For an exceptionally thorough explanation of strategies for answering multiple choice questions, I must again recommend that you check out Vernellia Randall's advice, this time to bar takers. She provides detailed explanations of question types and analytical methods for addressing them. Her advice is as relevant for law students as for bar takers. Take a look. (dbw)
Tuesday, April 18, 2006
It is Passover. And, after participating in two Seders this year (and sometime after the fourth cup of wine during the second Seder...), I came to realize that the ten plagues visited upon the Egyptians may be analogous to what law students suffer from at this time of year. For those of you not familiar with the story: God supposedly sent ten plagues to the Egyptians to protest their enslavement of the Jewish people and those plagues were: blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, blight-a cattle disease, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and the slaying of the first born (my younger children particularly enjoyed acting out the last one on their older sister).
I believe that the ten plagues that visit law students in mid-April are:
1. Stress-exams will be here in a matter of weeks, possibly less than a month at some schools. Some students are still wondering when they will "get" the material and now realize that the ship hasn't yet sailed on understanding the law but it is pulling up anchor.
2. Depression- also probably related to the timing of exams, but also to the weather improving and not being able to participate in it. Also, if students did not do well on prior exams, this new set of exams is imbued with even more meaning for them and the whole of their self-esteem may be riding on their performance now.
3. Failure to outline- the ship has probably sailed on this one. I expect to see a number of panicked students looking for recommendations on what to do if they haven't outlined yet this semester. Usually, I recommend some blending of a commercial outline and their class notes.
4. Lack of Information- about exams. What will the format be? Will there be multiple choice questions? How many? Will the professor cover last semester's material? Ask and you shall know.
5. Lack of Exercise- I know this is crunch-time but if you stop taking care of yourself, you will not function as well. It is very easy to get tunnel-vision about exams and studying if you do not leave this building. Also, if you do not distract yourself in some pleasurable way now and through exams, you will leave your imagination to run wild about the horrifying possibilities of the exams. Your imagination is almost always worse than the exam itself and panic is really time-consuming!
6. Professors Racing to Finish the Material on the Syllabus- sure we can cover fifteen cases per class from now until exams and sure, all this material will be on the exam. Ready, set, go..... It makes the Boston Marathon look like a stroll in the park. I hear a lot about the fundamental unfairness of this situation at this time of year (and every semester) because it happens all the time.
7. Library Noise- Papers are due. Outlines need to be done. The library is louder than usual. Study somewhere else....
8. Registering for Next Semester- should I take the easy class or the one that will be more interesting but might bring down my GPA? I say go for the interesting class because if you are interested you will do better. Take a class with a professor who is passionate about the subject even if they give a harder exam because, especially if this is a bar class, you will absolutely know your stuff.
9. No Summer Job- this is a real problem (especially here in the city of many law schools). But, it is not the end of the world. Volunteering, while not lucrative, will enhance your resume. Also, people who are not paying you will probably be more flexible about how much time you spend there so you can have a paying job on the side. This would be a good time to do a "connections check." You know, "do I know anyone anywhere who could help me out?"
10. Frogs- well it just can't be good to have frogs sitting on your shoulders during exams. Think of the noise. Think of the slime.
Happy Holidays! (ezs)
Monday, April 17, 2006
Professor Dionne Koller has put together an excellent set of tips for taking law school essay exams. It has great examples to go with the tips as well as advice on mistakes to avoid. Check it out and consider directing your students to her "Strategies for Taking Law School Exams . . . So They Don't Take You" as they begin preparing to take their spring set of exams. (dbw)
Saturday, April 15, 2006
For students who need to refresh their memories and rethink their strategies regarding exam preparation and exam taking, my UMKC colleague Barbara Glesner Fines's Law School Materials for Success is a great source. Having been through their first set of exams, 1L's can absorb her advice from a more informed perspective than the one they had back in November. (dbw)
Tuesday, April 11, 2006
ASP were not a safe place for students to reveal information? Could we be effective Academic Support professionals if our students could not confide in us? I doubt it. Part of the function of any ASP office is being able to support students who are having personal issues.
After all, the ASP office is often the place where students feel that they can reveal highly personal information to a faculty member who will be supportive. Is there any better safe haven in a law school for the student who is ready to “come out” or has experienced a birth control failure? I’ve certainly been on the receiving end of all of this information as an ASP professional.
But then again, sometimes we cannot, and probably should not, guarantee complete confidentiality. When do we reveal our students' secrets to the law school administration? What happens if a student tells you that they have engaged in behavior that is a blatant violation of school rules? Like cheating, plagiarism, or in some religious-affiliated schools extramarital or homosexual relations?
Like most cafeteria-style ethicists (and most lawyers), I suppose it would depend. I think I would report cheating and plagiarism because I find these things very offensive in potential lawyers. I would probably keep personal events that occur outside of school under my hat. If a student were being threatened or bullied by other students, I would probably report the incident to our Dean of Students even if the student reporting it to me asked me not to. I am happy to relieve a student of the burden of tattling, and actually, I feel that it may be my obligation to do so under some circumstances, particularly where the student is in danger.
For example, I once had student tell me that she was being ridiculed during class by other students in an "invitation only chat-room." Her clothing, comments and appearance were all fodder for the students who were dishing out the gossip. As a result, she had stopped attending the class regularly and did not participate unless called on (where she been happy to raise her hand prior to this incident). She was mortified and hurt. She begged me to do nothing, but I could not, mainly because I felt that her academics were being out in jeopardy by students who were behaving as if this were Junior High School and not Law School. She was angry at me for some time, but thanked me before she graduated a year later. Did I do the right thing? I don't know, but I would do it again in a heartbeat.
So, the ultimate question is this: can you be an effective ASP professional in an atmosphere that not only prohibits certain behaviors but also prohibits encouraging those behaviors? What does it mean to encourage? Is a failure to report a rule-breaker to the law school administration tantamount to encouraging the student to do it again in every circumstance? I don't know the answers to these questions, but I know this: I am happy to be working at a school that doesn't require me to figure it out. (ezs).
Sunday, April 9, 2006
One of the most common weaknesses students exhibit on essay exams is the inability to lay out explicitly all of the logical steps in the analysis of an issue. They often know the material and can even walk through the analytical steps accurately in their minds, but they fail to walk the reader through those same steps. The result is often a clipped explanation that requires the reader (i.e., the grader) to infer the steps in the logic. The grader, of course, will do no such thing and will never give points for what is not on the paper.
Explaining to students what it is they are missing can often be a challenge, but Professor Verneillia R. Randall of the University of Dayton School of Law provides a very helpful illustration of the problem in her "Distinguishing Analytical Sentence from a Conclusionary Sentence." Her set of example sentences would form an excellent basis for a session highlighting the analytical pieces students often imply rather than express. If students can learn to identify and include those same critical pieces in their analyses of issues, they can begin to correct the incomplete answers they often give on exams. (dbw)
Friday, April 7, 2006
An ugliness is creeping -- in fact, I am increasingly convinced, has already crept -- into law school culture. Given new power by the Internet, it is infecting law schools and inflicting real damage on our students, much as it has done in lower schools. That ugliness is peer-on-peer bullying.
Some weeks ago (Feb. 10, 2006), I suggested in this space that ASP professionals read Darby Dickerson's article, "Cyberbullies on Campus," 37 U. Tol. L. Rev. 51 (2005). I made that suggestion because I suspected that law schools have a problem they do not see and that the problem has serious implications for our students. Let me renew that suggestion.
In the weeks since that posting, I have become convinced that the phenomenon of bullying has made its way up from the lower schools and is now well established in law schools. Much of the activity is occurring on-line in student blogs seldom visited by faculty, so the torment goes on well out of the the sight of faculty; but its effects among students are widespread. Much of it rises to the level of serious intimidation or worse, is often startlingly defamatory, and is frequently rife with epithets directed at various minority groups.
I suggest that we alert our faculties to the possibility that students are being targeted and tormented by their peers and begin educating ourselves about the bullying phenomenon. Most of the empirical research has been conducted in the contexts of the lower schools and the workplace, but the findings and advice translate fairly easily into the law school context.
You would think adult students would be beyond such behavior; and you would think that deliberate, orchestrated torment of colleagues would never happen among those studying to serve as professionals in the justice system. You would also be wrong, I fear; and being wrong, you would be leaving to the mercy of very bright and very effective adult bullies the students you otherwise work so hard to help. (dbw)
Tuesday, April 4, 2006
Monday, April 3, 2006
And I don’t mean in March as opposed to May, I mean in third grade as opposed to law school.
Last week my nine-year-old took her reading MCAS (Massachusetts Cruddy and Stupid, I mean: Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment Scale) exams, and she was truly worried about it. She was afraid these exams would define her forever as either smart or not. I tried to re-assure her that this was not accurate; after all it is my job to tell (relative) grown-ups this everyday.
She didn’t buy it.
I explained that this is more a test of how well the school and her teacher are doing in the business of third grade teaching. She didn’t buy that either. I have to wonder, if I can’t convince a nine-year-old, are any of my law students reassured by anything I say? I’ve always thought that people found me believable, or at the very least harmless (for example: people ask me for directions at least twice a day no matter what city, town or country I am in!).
I find I say the same things in different ways for different students, but basically my message remains the same: exams are an indication of how well you answered a certain set of questions on one particular day out of your whole life. And while how you do on this limited assessment is important, it should not be all defining.
Which is not to say that you should not be prepared for exams: they are not, after all, random. Students need to attend class, outline in some way, and study effectively and efficiently for these exams. Students also need to know what is expected of them on exams: not the actual subject matter per question, but the level of depth required in answering each question. Our doctrinal professors do give out this information but a number of students do not engage in this highly important dialogue until after the grading is done. A number of professors offer to give students prior exam questions and then give feedback on how the student answered the question.
This is law school gold and yet students rarely partake of the riches offered. Why? I’m still not sure. A student’s imagined exam must be far worse than the real exam but, for some reason, not being surprised by the format or the way the questions are asked is not a priority for many students. I am baffled by this because the way our school prepared the third graders for the MCAS was to have them do sample questions from prior tests. This seems to be tested and proven technology for exam readiness. So, as we ease into the lovely spring days of April, I will be chanting, “old exams, old exams, old exams” in the halls here.
In the end I reassured my daughter that she was prepared because she had practiced similar questions for weeks and done well on those. This, I think she bought, because during the three days of testing her only comment was that she was excited that they recess twice a day on MCAS days and that was “cool.” And if you are ever lost in Boston (or anywhere else), come and find me and while I may not be able to help you find your way, you will be in no danger whatsoever. (ezs)
Sunday, April 2, 2006