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)