Thursday, July 27, 2006
Okay, here's one I hadn't thought about. Someone just gave me a short article detailing the effects of dehydration on mental and physical performance. I am no fitness fanatic, but a couple of things jumped out at me.
Chronic dehydration afflicts about three fourths of Americans. That fact matters for our students because two of the effects of dehydration are daytime fatigue (dehydration is the most common cause) and impaired mental processes, including weakened short-term memory and difficulty focusing on both computer screens and the printed page.
And you thought water law was all about riparian rights.(dbw)
Water or Coke, Buzz Saw: Official Publication of the Rotary Club of Kansas City, Missouri Vol 90, 4.
Wednesday, July 26, 2006
A new study suggests that while students may be able to multitask as they are learning, "distractions affect the way people learn, making the knowledge they gain harder to use later on," according to an Associated Press story reported widely yesterday. (ABC News reported the story under the title "Distractions Impede Learning.") The study demonstrated that distractions actually change the way a person learns, making the learning "less efficient and useful," according to UCLA psychology professor Russell A. Poldrack.
Poldrack explained that " 'the brain learns in two different ways. One, called declarative learning, involves the medial temporal lobe and deals with learning active facts that can be recalled and used with great flexibility. The second, involving the striatum, is called habit learning . . . . The problem . . .is that the two types of learning seem to be competing with each other, and when someone is distracted, habit learning seems to take over from declarative learning.' "
The implications for our students is that multitasking in class or in study times causes them to be inefficient regarding the most important kind of learning required by law school: learning that can be used and applied later "with great flexibility." Students, many of whom have grown up multitasking as they studied and multitasking on their computers while in class, are likely to continue the practice in law school, unaware of the distractions' negative effects.
One of the reasons academic support programs are so important is that they make explicit the new study approaches students must employ to be successful in learning the law. Many of our students are shocked to find that their study methods, which had served them well prior to law school, are suddenly less effective than before.
Two things probably account for the phenomenon: first, learning to read and reason like a lawyer is significantly more demanding than the learning required in many undergraduate programs, so inefficiencies that students' natural intelligence compensated for in the past are being exposed as the compensation strategies break down; second, the type of learning is itself quite different from the learning to which they became accustomed in their earlier educational careers because law school learning focuses almost exclusively on gaining knowledge in order to apply it in new situations that demand both flexibility and precision.
The new findings are another reason we should encourage our students to abandon surfing the Internet and other distractions while in class or while studying. Distractions interfere with precisely the kind of learning law school demands; we should be explicit about that effect so that students recognize and eliminate what may be among the most debilitating practices in their study methods. (dbw)
Monday, July 24, 2006
If your program uses teaching assistants, here's an effective technique to help them get off to a good start and build morale. Grab a small notepad and pen, and step quietly into each TA's workshop or study group. Just watch from the back for a few minutes until you see the TA do something that is effective. It needs to be something specific and concrete.
Then step back out and, right there in the hallway, take fifteen seconds to jot a note telling the TA what you saw and why you thought it was effective. Use a "nice job!" tone in the note. It needn't be more than a sentence or two.
Then drop the note into the TA's mailbox. Little bits of encouragement like that can make a world of difference for the TA's confidence, and it gives you an excuse to say something positive with no qualifiers.
When I was a high school administrator and shared responsibility for supervising teachers, we used to always say, "Let's go out of our way to 'catch 'em doing something right.' " For the first three weeks of the school year, we would each visit the classroom of every teacher a couple of times, each time staying until we had something concrete to compliment. Each visit took no more than five or ten minutes, including the time to jot a note and drop it in the teacher's mailbox.
It was tremendously helpful in building trust. The teachers began to see us as coaches instead of supervisors and knew we were not simply looking for instructional problems or for areas in which they should improve. They began to look forward to our visits throughout the year and welcomed constructive criticism as the year progressed. I think it went a long way toward helping us administrators keep healthy perspectives as well.
Such an approach should transfer nicely to a program that incorporates teaching assistants. Most teaching assistants have little experience leading workshops and study groups, and their confidence is naturally a little shaky early on. As novices, they will have plenty of room for improvement; but they will appreciate having someone who is out, first of all, to "catch 'em doing something right." (dbw)
Thursday, July 20, 2006
Another great resource for an overview of key skills law students must acquire is Prof. Vernellia Randall's slide show, The Law School Learning Pyramid. In the slide show, Prof. Randall lays out the key intellectual skills from simplest to most complex, in a form very much like Bloom's famous taxonomy of learning behaviors. She then ties those skills to specific activities in a"Strategic Study" plan.(dbw)
Monday, July 17, 2006
"Learning is not attained by chance; it must be sought for with ardor and attended to with diligence."
Abigail Adams (1744 - 1818).
A frequent complaint these days is that law students often believe they can learn during class while instant messaging and surfing the Internet. We would do well to remind our multi-tasking students that, for all the technological advances of the past twenty-five years, learning still works the same way it always has. (dbw)
Friday, July 14, 2006
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)
Monday, July 10, 2006
Here's a great opportunity for someone who would like to take a program from inception to implementation: the University of Arkansas at Little Rock is looking for an Assistant Dean for Academic Support to create an ASP Program. The position is described below. (dbw)
The UALR Bowen School of Law is seeking an Assistant Dean for Academic
Support to plan and implement an academic counseling program to facilitate
academic success including individual academic advising for law students,
group and individual academic support programs, and bar passage programs for
law students. The ideal candidate will be an energetic and knowledgeable
professional exhibiting a high degree of organizational skills, sensitivity
Qualifications include a Bachelors degree with appropriate major and J.D.
At least two years of professional experience, preferably in higher
education academic counseling and academic program development with a
comparable, demonstrative, successful track record are preferred.
Duties and responsibilities include but are not limited to academic
counseling of students as needed, monitoring student progress, administering
and strengthening existing orientation and academic success programs, and
developing and implementing a bar passage rate improvement project for the
To apply, send a cover letter, resume and references to: Charles W. Goldner,
Jr., Dean, Bowen School of Law, 1201 McMath Avenue, Little Rock, Arkansas
72202. Screening of applications will begin immediately and continue until
the position is filled.
The University of Arkansas at Little Rock is an equal opportunity,
affirmative action employer and actively seeks the candidacy of minorities,
women and persons with disabilities. Under Arkansas law, all applications
are subject to disclosure. Persons hired must have proof of legal authority
to work in the United States.
Thursday, July 6, 2006
This last year as director of academic support was my first involvement with a year-long ASP program, and one of the strangest and most unexpected things afflicted me: I suddenly became incompetent in things I normally do well. I found, for example, that I made stupid mistakes in writing letters and emails, sometimes in really important letters and emails that I had edited several times. And I have been teaching writing at one level or another for twenty-five years! At one point, I sent an email announcing a deadline for applications to a program; and within the few paragraphs of the email and its attachment I gave three conflicting deadline dates, not one of which was the actual date I intended to convey.
I would have concluded that senility had finally set in with a vengeance, but I remembered that the phenomenon is often common among first-year law students. Studies have revealed that when trying to master high levels of especially complex and challenging material or skills, people often experience a temporary drop off in their existing skills. Because of the overwhelming nature of the new learning they are encountering, law students find similar drop offs in skills that earlier in their academic lives they had acquired with a significant level of mastery.
Taking over our academic support activities at UMKC presented a very steep learning curve for me, not only about the theories and methods associated with effective learning in the law school context, but about the simple mechanics of our existing support programs. I found that in trying to juggle all of those aspects of the job, along with preparing for my normal classes, I suddenly became stupid about the most routine kinds of activities.
The phenomenon was terribly unsettling at times and made me frequently question whether I had any business doing what I was doing. That same phenomenon afflicts many, if not all, of our first-year students.
We need to remember to tell our students that such reactions to the stress of their new endeavor are only temporary and that they are not an indication of anything other than the intensity of the learning curve. Half the battle in getting through the first year of law school is knowing that one's struggles are common and to be expected. Knowing that "getting stupid" is a normal response to unfamiliar pressures can take some of the sting out of the experience and replace it with a realistic hope that old skills will return once the new skills begin to settle in. (dbw)
Monday, July 3, 2006
Mark Padin, Director of Academic Support at Pace Law School, listens intently during one of the break-out sessions at the recent Northeast Regional Academic Assistance Workshop in Rhode Island. Yes, it's true: the entire conference was held on sailboats in Newport Bay.
Hope you have a great Fourth of July. (dbw)