Thursday, November 30, 2006
At this time of year I am inundated with students who are stressed about upcoming exams and in particular the multiple choice format that many of these exams will take. I give them all my standard advice: practice, practice, practice. Why? Well, certainly not because when they don’t get this as the punch line to the joke, “how do you get to Carnegie Hall?” it makes me feel really ancient, but rather because it (hopefully) works.
Practicing multiple choice questions from a variety of sources gives students more fluency in the language of the topic they are being tested on. I analogize (and I analogize a lot, it is a lot like, whoops…) it to moving to a new city and doing the crossword puzzle in the local newspaper. When I lived in New York and did the puzzle (on Mondays and Tuesdays only), and the clue was, “off-white,” the answer was usually “ecru.” Here in Boston, (where I can sometimes last until Thursday) the answer is, “beige.” How did I realize this? The same way you get the Wang Center.
Also, sometimes (and I know this would a very rare circumstance) doctrinal professors actually get their multiple choice questions from other sources. This means that the language used in the questions may differ somewhat from the language used in class. This really can throw students off (especially ESL students), because they are not accustomed to seeing the issue raised in this slightly different terminology. Practicing questions that come from many different sources: study aids, on-line lessons or bar review books, can help a student see the “disguised” issues more frequently.
Another strategy I offer students for dealing with multiple choice questions is to read the question with the answers covered. Then, they should come up with an answer in their heads, match it to one of the options and move on (yes, you do need to uncover the answers at some point). I think this is sound advice based on my experience as the sole food shopper in my household. (I think maybe my experience in Academic Support has played a small role, but I am not sure.) Here’s why: when I go shopping without a list, I find that I end up with many items I don’t need, fail to get some items I do need and invariably spend more time and money than I intended.
Multiple choice answers use the same marketing approach as the supermarket: make it look good, and they will buy. Almost every answer on your exam will look plausible if not downright compelling (like that $1.00 giant tub of Fluff sitting in my cabinet). That is the nature of the beast. If you go shopping for an answer, chances are you will be pulled in by the display. If you have a list (or the answer in your head) prior to your shopping trip, you are more likely to make the right choices.
And finally, like grocery shopping, you should never go to your exams hungry. (ezs)
Tuesday, November 28, 2006
Do you ever have the student who comes to your office and acts as though nothing you say is useful? You have gone to the trouble of offering your help, but he behaves as if he has been summoned to the principal’s office for a lecture. Or perhaps you have had the student who listens intently to all you have to say yet spends the semester doing none of the things you suggested and is back the following semester asking your advice.
Those encounters can be really disheartening because they make us feel that our efforts are having no impact. They can trigger bouts of insecurity because they make us feel that our efforts are somehow deficient. They can trigger resentment because they make us feel that our efforts have been wasted.
At those times, it is good to remember that everyone wastes another’s efforts somewhere along the line. We have all ignored the time, effort, and even friendship that others have offered; and we have no real excuse for having done so. Yet still we do it.
I think it may be simply a part of being human. Self-involved, we look past the gifts in front of us, ignore the time and energy expended on us, underestimate the importance of the efforts made on our behalf. We do not do so because we are mean-spirited. We usually do so because we are blind to what is ours for the taking, looking for a better answer, or at least an answer that better suits our short-sighted desires. In other words, we do so out of run-of-the-mill ignorance and self-centered ingratitude.
So why be surprised or disheartened when some of our students ignore or even scorn our efforts? They are just being human, thinking they know more than they do and dismissing sound advice in their ignorance. As Ellen Suni often says, they don’t know what they don’t know. Most of the time, their ingratitude stems from their frustration at falling short in an endeavor – schooling – that has never been a challenge to them before. It is only human that they resent our suggesting that they need help. It is only human that they believe they need do nothing more than work a little harder or find professors who “grade more fairly.”
It is also human to wake up at some point and realize what has been offered. Sometimes it is too late; sometimes it is just in the nick of time; and, I suppose, sometimes it never happens. Most of the time, it is somewhere in between. Most of the time, despite their embarrassment and their natural tendency to cover it with a sham confidence and indifference, they actually learn from us.
It is also human to do what we sometimes do: to let the few obscure the many who show their appreciation by taking our help seriously. Most students are grateful for the help we give, and most put it to good use. We should resist our natural reactions to those who do not and remember that even those who seem to waste our efforts learn more than they let on. Sometimes they are just busy being human. (dbw)
Friday, November 17, 2006
My students have come in the last week asking for advice on how to use their Thanksgiving Break to advantage for studying. Some students are so "on top of it" that they can play the entire break period. However, most students are not in that position. I make several observations to help them determine the most efficient and effective use of their time. Among the suggestions are:
- Be realistic about holiday plans. It is easy to expect more studying than can really take place. Avoid "pumpkin pie in the sky" planning. Consider travel mode, travel time, family expectations, priorities for studying, and life balance.
- Make a list of all topics and sub-topics for each final exam course. Number the list for each course. Estimate the amount of time needed to study a sub-topic in-depth (including practice question time). Note the estimate next to that sub-topic. Use a monthly calendar and enter sub-topics to learn on available days so that studying will be complete two days before the final. Then, use those two days for review of the most difficult material and more practice questions. This system gives you information on what sub-topics should be studied during the break period if you are to keep on track.
- Make a list of all paper or project tasks that you must complete. Do the same type of numbering and estimating. Use a monthly calendar with an artificial deadline two days before the due date for any paper or project to allow time for final edits. Enter the tasks on the days available. Again, this system gives you information on what project tasks should be completed during the break period for you to stay on track.
- Evaluate each course to determine what your priorities are for studying. Are you up-to-date with outlines? Are some courses extremely difficult so that you need to focus on them more? Do you need to make graphics to increase your learning if you are a visual learner? Are there supplemental materials that you need to read to clarify certain topics? Do you need additional time for memorization? Have you made a list of questions that you need to get answered?
- Consider outside things that might influence your study time. Will you be home alone while others are working? Is there another location where you can study such as the public library? What activities are mandatory to keep good relations with family or friends? When might you get up earlier or stay up later to study and still meet family obligations? Can you involve family or friends in helping you study by using flashcards or other study methods? Can you study in the airport, on the plane, or while someone else drives?
- Talk with your family and friends about why it is important for you to use your time wisely for studying as well as having fun during the break period. If you played every break during undergraduate school, they may not understand your change of plans for law school.
- If the last week of classes is after the break (as it is at our school), decide whether doing your reading for that last week of classes while you are on break will work for you. Of course, you will need to review before going to classes. For many students, reading ahead this one time will open up more flexible study time during the last week. And, consider photocopying the cases to take home rather than lugging all those books.
- Enjoy as much of Thanksgiving Day as possible for your own study situation. At minimum, take a few hours off to enjoy Aunt Flossie's pumpkin pie and Little Joey's excitement over the holiday. Even law students need to relax.
- Give yourself rewards for your study accomplishments. Make the rewards larger for big tasks and smaller for little tasks. All of us stay focused better if we know that there is a benefit at the end. What rewards work for you? Tailor your reward system to your own learning and personality.
- Get at least 7 - 8 hours of sleep every night. Law students need to charge their batteries for the upcoming marathon of exams. A regular sleep schedule that continues through the rest of the semester has big pay-offs during exams.
- Remember that you can do this! You can be successful if you focus and work hard. Have fun during the break period, but also remember your priorities. (alj)
Hosting the LSAC Southwest Regional was a rewarding experience. It was great to have the opportunity to work on the planning committee with such top-notch people as David Nadvorney, Marty Peters, Michael Hunter Schwartz, and Nancy Soonpaa. It was invigorating to hear great presentations and panels with people like Michael Hunter Schwartz, Marty Peters, Ellen Swain, David Nadvorney, Vernellia Randall, Dennis Honabach, Walt Huffman, Nancy Soonpaa, Vinita Bali, Alfred Mathewson, Joe Dhillon, Rory Bahadur, Everett Chambers, and Robert Coulthard. The learning that took place in just 1 1/2 days was amazing.
But most of all, it was the sense of collegiality and caring among the 30 registrants from 23 schools that reminded me how much I love what I do each day for my students and how proud I am of my colleagues in academic support. I was so excited to meet the newcomers to our field. What a fabulous group of new professionals to ASP! And, to see the "old timers" reach out with advice, encouragement, suggestions, and warm welcomes was equally impressive. I love the fact that we care not only about our students but also about our colleagues.
Most of us have had previous professional experiences where people guarded their turf, got puffed up with their own self-importance, and refused to be colleagues in the finest sense of the term. Most of us have watched in other experiences while people waited eagerly for others to fail so that they themselves could climb the ladder of success faster. And, in some cases we have watched others intentionally set traps for newcomers so that they would fail.
I feel blessed to be in a profession that sets high standards for performance and is concerned about best practices, but still believes in mentoring others, sharing ideas, offering help, and exploring together ways to improve. I hope that as we become more recognized by law schools as a profession with merit that we will not give up what makes us so special as academic support professionals. May we receive the recognition we deserve without losing our soul.
Thank you to all of my colleagues for your professionalism, but most of all for your warm hearts. (alj)
Thursday, November 16, 2006
Over time, I have learned that late November can be the most
difficult month for first-year law students. I know this because students begin stopping by in ever increasing
numbers to talk about their emotional state as opposed to their studies. Typically, I have to replenish my supply of
tissues at least once during the month, and it is not uncommon for me average
at least one “crier” in my office per day.
The reasons? To some extent they vary as much of our students, but the main culprit seems to be their impending examinations. Other factors include homesickness, increased faculty expectations (by November, every professor has picked up the pace), and even the worsening weather and decrease in the number of daylight hours.
Two years ago, I decided to send an e-mail to the entire
first year class addressing this phenomenon. I viewed it as an electronic version of the kind of pep talk that I
regularly give students who stop by office, and didn’t think it was all that
big a deal. Student response to my
e-mail, however, was overwhelmingly positive. Many students who I had never seen before stopped by my office to learn
how I had been able to read their minds!
Below you will find the text of the letter that I sent out to this year’s class. The letter varies somewhat from year to year, but the actual language in the letter seems to be much less important than the sentiment expressed therein. Please feel free to borrow liberally, but beware that you may me generating a lot of new business. (hnr)
I want to discuss briefly is the stress (and sometimes even
depression) that most law students seem to feel at this point in the fall
semester. As the fall semester slowly
grinds to an end, it is quite common for me to begin meeting with students who
are stressed, feel that they can’t keep up with their studies, wonder about
whether they made the correct choice in coming to law school, and in general
feel that there lives are starting to spin out of control. When I say that feelings of this sort are
quite common at this point in the year, I am not trying to minimize what anyone
may be going through. Instead, I want to
emphasize that feelings of this sort are quite normal.
At this point in the year, your professors have begun to
expect much more from you, and you may be struggling to match their
expectations. Just know that,
eventually, your analytical abilities will improve so that you can meet those
expectations. In addition, many students
are starting to feel the angst generated by the fact that fall exams are just
around the corner and folks may be worried about their ability to succeed. Keep in mind that we admitted you to this law
school because we knew that you could succeed here. On that score, nothing has changed over the
course of the past few months – you still have what it takes to succeed here.
I look forward to seeing you in class this week, and as always, feel free to contact me to set up an individual appointment.
Tuesday, November 14, 2006
One of the best pieces of advice I received before attending law school came from a friend who had just completed his J.D. at the same school a year or two earlier. He said, "Don't look horizontally." By that, he meant that I should not worry about what other first-year students were doing because they may be doing all the wrong things. Hearing from a fellow student that he "studies every night until 2:00 a.m." can be terribly misleading; for all anyone knows, that student does not begin studying until 10:00 or 11:00 at night and is in fact experiencing significant diminishing returns almost from the outset of each study session. He may also be blowing smoke.
If we had an academic support program when I was in law school, I was unaware of it, so I was on my own as far as figuring out how best to attack the material and prepare for exams. Looking to equally clueless first-year students struck me as probably unhelpful, and I followed my friend's advice for the most part. If someone talked about a specific studying technique, I was willing to listen and evaluate it against my own experience; but I was already committed to working hard, so worrying about how hard others were working did not seem useful.
Perhaps I felt that way because law school was the start of a second career for me, and I had already learned how to work like a professional, putting in a solid day's work while balancing the demands of family. I knew how to use the hours of a workday efficiently, how to ignore the clock and focus on the task, how to put in long hours while recognizing the limits of my productivity over stretches of exceptionally long days. As a result, I took with a grain of salt others' bragging about their studying into the wee hours.
Most of our students do not have the advantage of having worked in a demanding professional position before law school. They can easily fall for advice that is as likely to create debilitating fatigue as it is to create real learning. After all, undergraduate students frequently "pull all nighters," so new law students reasonably conclude that all nighters are the rule rather than the exception in the more demanding atmosphere of law school.
We should disabuse them of such notions. They need to understand that professionals do not waste time during the workday, hoping to recapture the time in the middle of the night. Professionals plan their work and move methodically through it over time. Professionals, of course, also know that the project rather than the clock may demand exceptionally long hours for several days running and that sometimes a professional has to work all night to get a project completed.
Studying, however, is best done when one is fresh and alert. The workday generally provides plenty of time to study long and hard if the day is used efficiently.
As exams approach, many of our first-year students will engage in cramming approaches that have a tendency to produce more disadvantages than advantages. If we can help them replace those approaches with effective time management, realistically paced studying, and effective study strategies geared to the peculiar demands of law school, we will be doing them a great service. That sort of advice is useful. It is significantly more helpful than what they are likely to glean from their inexperienced colleagues.
My friend was right: looking horizontally is a great way to take your eye off the ball and miss it altogether. We need get their eyes back on the ball and off each other. So you might give them my friend's insightful advice: Don't look horizontally; that way lies confusion and anxiety. (dbw)
Friday, November 3, 2006
I was recently asked by an ASP colleague - “Do you work with students who are struggling or is any student eligible to take advantage of the services you provide?” Reflecting back on my time in the courtroom, the question seemed to be assuming facts not in evidence. In my office, I try to do both. On the one hand, any student can stop by my office for help. On the other hand, some students are strongly encouraged, or even required, to work with me based on their academic performance.
Why do I approach ASP work in this fashion? My ego forces me to believe that I can help
any first-year students improve their academic performance. But, I am keenly aware that students do not
enter law school with the same skill set in place and that some will need
additional help in order to succeed. In
addition, to paraphrase the old joke about specialists and generalists, I’m
afraid that if I teach fewer and fewer students more and more, eventually I’ll
be teaching no one about everything. On
the other end of the spectrum, I run the risk of teaching more and more
students less and less so that eventually I’m teaching nothing to everyone!
Of course, a number of different factors dictate how we run our programs. For example, the administration, and sometimes the faculty, within our respective law schools are likely to have something to say about our mission. In many instances, this means emphasizing work with students whose pre-law school grades and test scores place them “at risk.” For some of us, this role is expanded to include assistance with the bar examination. This can mean working with the same “at risk” students as they complete their third year of law school, but it can also mean offering a bar prep course to the entire graduating class.
On top of all this, we have the issue of stigmatization to
consider. The more narrowly we define
the students with whom we work, the more likely it is that they will be
stigmatized by the experience. One may
certainly argue that the issue of stigmatization is less important than making
sure we apply our limited resources to the correct groups of students. On the other hand, stigmatization may
alienate this very same group of students, making it less likely that they will
receive the assistance they need.
Just for a moment, let’s put aside the issue of faculty or administration expectations. Let’s imagine that bar passage rates are not a measure of a law school’s success and that students won’t feel stigmatized when they walk through out doors. Now, you have an opportunity to design your “dream” Academic Support Program. What would it look like?
Would we serve the entire student body? Remember, this is a dream Academic Support
Program, so resources aren’t limited. Even with abundant resources, would we still emphasize working with
certain segments of the student population? How about an umbrella Academic Support Program with several sub
divisions covering work with “at risk” students, students taking the bar exam,
and minority students?
I don’t know about you, but I am eager to have this sort of
conversation at one of our future conferences. As a group, I would love to design the “dream” Academic Support
Program. I may not be able to implement
such a program, but I would love to have a goal to aim for.
Wednesday, November 1, 2006
We have reached a time in the semester when first-year students are beginning to become especially discouraged. In most schools, the students have received grades on at least a couple of legal writing assignments and on one or more midterm exams. Their grades often do not reflect their effort because the competition is tougher than what they faced in undergraduate programs and because legal reasoning requires the development of new skills. As exams approach, their confidence may be flagging badly.
As a result, this time of year is a good time for us to go out of our way to encourage students. Ironically, nearly all of those students who are struggling right now will be much more competent a year from now and will go on to be fine attorneys. They need to know that the hard work will pay off in the end and that their present frustrations will ease as they become more comfortable with legal reasoning. Many, perhaps most, simply need more experience with legal analysis and help with strategies to engage the material effectively and to demonstrate their learning more effectively on law school exams.
That deficiency in skills, however, actually provides perhaps the greatest source of encouragement. The good news for students is that their current struggles have little to do with innate ability and much to do with skills that can be learned. In other words, today's performance need not define them or their futures because the skills are within their reach.
We can encourage them by reminding them that they can master legal reasoning and that they can master the learning strategies required for law school success. They will get better and better at legal reasoning over the next three years, and we are there to help them master unfamiliar learning strategies. In fact, one day many will actually wonder what it was that was so difficult about the first year. That day for many will be as soon as next fall.
This is a great time to let them know that they can and will master what seems so far beyond their reach today. They will not be entirely convinced, but we can give them a ray of realistic hope; and they can begin to focus their energies on the process of mastering new skills. They can begin to let go of the normal and very human tendency to beat themselves up over setbacks that they believe, at the moment, are most likely explained by their own intellectual inadequacy. (dbw)