March 18, 2006
Improving Basic Study Skills and Breaking Bad Habits
Students are often shocked that their undergraduate study methods fail to serve them well in law school because as undergraduates they found significant success, at least in terms of grades, using those methods. What law school does is expose the flaws in those methods, flaws that actually hindered effective learning in undergraduate school.
Bright students often get away with poor study skills for years because their intellectual strength compensates for what are in reality self-defeating approaches to learning. The study of law is less forgiving than many undergraduate programs, so what worked as compensation for poor studying in undergraduate schools fails students when they are confronted by the rigor and intellectual competition of law school.
Those students need to evaluate their study habits even at basic levels and learn new techniques. You might direct them to Virginia Tech's study skills website for some practical help with basic study skills. Check out the entire site (not everything necessarily transfers directly to the law school environment), but click on the page "Concentration: Some Basic Guidelines" for an example of what it offers; I think your students will find some very useful advice that is as relevant to law students as it is to the undergraduates targeted by the site. (dbw)
March 16, 2006
The Interrelationship of Research and Writing
I would like to provide a follow up to yesterday's (March 15) posting to add some important context. In that posting, "Helping Students Bring Order Out of Chaos," I suggested a list of questions that students can use to help them think through how to organize a mass of research results into an outline of a scholarly article. I asked my colleague Paul Callister what he thought of my advice because Paul, who directs our law library at UMKC, also co-teaches with me a course in scholarly writing. He, not surprisingly, suggested that we must keep clear the ongoing interrelationship between writing and research.
Paul is absolutely right, and his point is important. The writing process and the research process are intertwined for the scholar because both, in reality, are different manifestations of a thinking process that begins at the first inkling of a potential topic and continues to the last editing decision.
Throughout, the research directs the writing, and the writing directs the research, right up to the last moment of the process. Anyone who produces scholarship knows that the entire endeavor, from start to finish, continually sends the writer back to rethink the material, to research it from a different angle in order to flesh it out or refine it in new ways necessary to the writer's constantly evolving understanding.
When a good writer asks, early on, why a problem is important, she has only begun to really ask that question. She knows that if she stops asking it because she has compiled some research results – even a large number of research results – she has effectively stopped thinking about a critical aspect of the problem and has closed herself to new understandings. As a good writer, she will keep that question on the table to very end.
Students need to understand scholarship in those terms. Scholarship is about actively engaging ideas and letting that engagement transform the scholar's own understanding until the last sentence is tweaked for the last time. In other words, the questions on yesterday's list are actually ongoing questions that, along with others, should have been asked and researched long before – and should be asked and researched long after – the outline of a first draft.
Within that ongoing process, of course, the questions can be put to multiple uses. The use to which my posting suggested they be put is one of organizing and focusing the writer's thoughts for the purpose of creating a structure for the article. Once that purpose has been tentatively achieved, however, they will be used again and again for multiple purposes, including revising (rethinking) the organization that initially emerged.
When students approach scholarship as nothing more than gathering and sorting an impressive mass of material, they have missed the point of the entire endeavor. They are thinking in the simplest and least useful ways about what are likely important ideas.
When, therefore, one of our students comes to us asking for advice regarding his scholarship, we must make certain he truly understands the task: to think deeply about an idea and to refuse to stop thinking deeply until the final draft is finally complete. As a result, he will find himself researching even in the last revision because even in the last revision he will still be refining his understanding of that idea. (dbw)
March 15, 2006
Helping Students Bring Order Out of Chaos: Creating an Outline of a Scholarly Article
Students often ask me for advice on how to write scholarly articles to fulfill upper-level research and writing requirements, and one of the chief difficulties they face is how to take a mass of research and organize it into an outline. I thought I might share with you a series of questions I ask my students to pose for themselves as a way of identifying the categories of information that will ultimately form the structure of their articles.
I first make certain that they know two things:
1) that they have to discover a clear thesis – a point they wish to make that can be stated in a sentence or so; and
2) that they should arrange their material by considering it from the reader's point of view – a reader who is relatively uninformed, skeptical, and possibly hostile to the thesis the student is asserting.
Given those two principles, they should see all of the questions as an extrapolation of one key question:
What does the reader need to know, understand, and believe in order to accept my basic point, i.e., my thesis?
From that question come several useful questions they should ask themselves to spur their thinking:
1. What is the point that I am trying to make – i.e., what is my thesis?
2. Why is my thesis important? (Why should the reader care?)
- Does it solve a problem?
- Does it expose a problem that needs to be solved?
- an injustice?
- an inconsistency in the law?
- an inefficiency in the law?
3. What legal theories and doctrines underlie my thesis?
4. What policies or values does my thesis exemplify or reflect, and are they likely to be shared by the reader?
5. What changes in current theories or doctrine does my thesis require in order to be accepted?
6. What practical obstacles exist to the implementation of my thesis?
7. What must be done to overcome the obstacles?
8. What shared values can I appeal to?
Given the answers to 1-8:
9. What must the reader know?
- The nature of the problem or the origin of the problem, for example.
10. What must the reader understand?
- The effect of the problem?
- The logic of the theories or doctrines underlying or setting up my thesis?
- The logic underlying my thesis?
11. What must the reader come to believe in to accept my thesis?
- The need for a solution?
- The importance of the problem?
- The importance of my thesis?
- The validity of the theories or doctrines underlying my thesis?
12. What are the logical steps for a reader to go from uninformed and unconvinced to informed and
The list is hardly exhaustive, of course, and the sub-questions under each larger question are merely examples; but I found that the list largely reflects the implicit and explicit questions I ask myself when I structure an article. From such questions the writer can identify the necessary concepts the reader must grasp and begin to see potential structures that would help the reader do so.
The writer will likely discover that several effective structures might work but will also likely discover that certain concepts must be clear before others will make sense; so only those structures that respect that fact will actually work.
I thought my students might find an explicit list of questions helpful to spur their thinking and give direction to their writing, so I scratched out this list. I thought you might also find the questions helpful (or a better list of your own making) if students ask you how to begin to bring order out of the chaos of their research. (dbw)
March 13, 2006
Request for Your Input
Please take a moment to fill out our short reader survey here. We would like to have a better idea about who is reading this blog so we can better serve you. Thanks in advance for your help. (The survey will remain at the top of the middle column throughout this week.) (dbw)