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)