Friday, July 14, 2006

Getting Smart

Last week, I wrote here about my "getting stupid" as I took on the directorship of my school's ASP efforts a year ago.  What I described is the phenomenon that when otherwise competent people take on new, complex responsibilities they can experience a temporary drop off in skills they had earlier mastered.  I was surprised by how much the phenomenon affected me as I tried to get my mind around a host of new responsibilities.

I was equally surprised by something more pleasant, however.  My students started getting smart.  As part of my new responsibilities, I was working with 2L's and 3L's who were in academic difficulty, and I was startled by the dramatic improvements they experienced in both grades and classroom performance.

I was introducing the students to the strategies found in the several academic support books that are available and to strategies and materials graciously given to me by ASP folks around the country.  I expected to see an improvement in students' learning as I helped them refine their class and exam preparation strategies, of course; but I was surprised at how much they improved.

Some came to me only a few weeks into the first semester and reported that, for the first time in their law school careers, they understood what was going on in class and could accurately anticipate where the professor was headed during class discussions.  Nearly all those who worked with me experienced dramatic improvements in their grades. 

What I found intriguing was that all of these students had been working very hard for a year or more, with little success.  Simple adjustments and adoption of a few learning strategies turned them completely around.  They found out that in fact they had been smart enough to excel in law school all along. 

The problem was not with their motivation or intelligence; it was with their study strategies.  They had been exerting great effort but spinning their wheels.  A few adjustments allowed the wheels to gain traction, and they were off to the races.

I know it was not some brilliance on my part that had the effect because all I was doing was showing them techniques I had learned from others.  What I was witnessing was the powerful effects of the learning strategies that have been identified and developed by the ASP community.

So if this is your first year in academic support, take heart.  While you will find the new responsibilities daunting (and you may even "get stupid" at times), you'll find the impact in your students' lives among the most satisfying experiences of your teaching career.  The good news is that you do not have to figure all of this out on your own.  Many good texts exist, as well as ASP websites, conferences, and the materials of ASP veterans who are eager to share their materials and expertise.

If you are new to academic support, welcome to an immensely satisfying area of law teaching and a great, sharing ASP community.  You will find that those who have gone before you are wonderful resources, and you will likely be surprised at how fast your students "get smart." (dbw)

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