Law School Academic Support Blog

Editor: Amy Jarmon
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Performing Triage

Is it every appropriate to perform triage in relation to our students? I don’t mean the benign form of triage where we make assessments, and end up working more extensively with students who are in academic difficulty. Then, students whose needs are less acute receive less attention. I am talking about the more extreme form of triage that doctors in the field have to perform. In the more extreme form of medical triage a doctor may decide that a patient's injuries are so severe, and the chances of recovery so unlikely, that the patient will not receive any care. In this way, the doctor can concentrate her limited resources on patients who are more likely to recover.

Applying the analogy to the law school setting, is it ever appropriate to decide that some students are so unlikely to succeed, particularly after we have reviewed their performance during the first semester or first year of law school, that we choose not to work with them? My initial reaction to this line of thinking is that it is way beyond my pay grade! I work with student in academic difficulty, and the school’s academic rules determine who is in academic difficulty. As for incoming law students, an admissions committee has determined that the student deserves a chance at a law school education and one of my jobs is to help incoming students work up to their potential. More importantly, my subjective determination as to who may or may not succeed won’t necessarily be accurate. And, any subjective determination introduces the possibility that bias, will play a role in the decision making process.

So, if this is my thinking, then why even raise the issue of performing triage? I think some of us are performing a form of triage without necessarily viewing it as such.  Have you ever suggested to a student that she consider withdrawing from law school? I must admit that I have. Thankfully, I don’t initiate this type of conversation all that often, but it does happen. When I do have the conversation, it is usually because the student is suffering from medical or personal problems that are getting in the way of her studies and the problems are unlikely to be resolved prior to exams.

Isn’t this a form of triage? Admittedly, the student is the one deciding whether or not to withdraw, not me. Also, my motivation is to help these students, and I have concluded that the best way to help these students is to suggest withdrawing from law school at least until such time as their medical or personal problems are resolved. I know that the student’s well being is my primary motivation behind having the conversation, but don’t I benefit by having one fewer challenging student to work with? Doesn’t the school benefit, at least in a U.S. New and World Report sense, because fewer relatively weak students are taking the bar exam? Don’t my other students benefit because I now have more time to work with them?

Again, I know the student’s well being is foremost in my mind I raise the possibility of withdrawing from law school. However, when one considers the benefits that accrue to my law school when struggling law students withdraw from law school, the analogy to triage keeps popping into my mind. 

Just my two cents . . . . (hnr)

February 27, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Dealing with Law School Stress during Mid-Term Exams

My students are starting to lose their perspective on law school and life.  This week, most of the first-year students had two mid-term exams.  Legal Practice assignments are also picking up for the briefs.  Upper-division students are starting to have presentation, project and paper deadlines.  In short, everyone is a bit stressed and irritable.  My box of tissues keeps moving to the corner of my desk lately.

Here are some tips that I have been handing out regularly (and will continue to hand out as we start the downhill slide into exams).  Maybe some of them will help your students:

  • Get questions answered now by the professors.  Students often store up questions like squirrels store up nuts for winter.  The sooner the questions are answered, the sooner the student can get a deeper understanding of the material and feel more confident.
  • Use tutors or teaching fellows to advantage.  Our tutors and teaching fellows are required to have office hours each week.  Yet, many first-year students fail to use this time for additional help.
  • Evaluate whether a study buddy or study group might be advantageous at this point in the semester.  Many students go it alone at our law school.  They are often unenthusiastic about study groups because of "nightmare" group experiences in the past.  For some students, a single study buddy for each course is a better choice.  However, whether buddies or groups are used, two heads are often better than one on some topics and at some times in the semester.
  • Take one day at a time.  Do the best possible work each day.  A student can only control today's productivity and task management.  By focusing one day at a time, it is possible to stay on target and not get distracted by "what might happen when grades come out in May."  As the Chinese proverb states: "You can eat an elephant one bite at a time."
  • Do not see Spring Break as the time to do everything that one wants to avoid now.  It is tempting to see Spring Break as the catch-all for outlines, papers, back reading, and more.  However, Spring Break is too short to do everything.  Besides, some much needed guilt-free down time is possible if one does not leave everything until the break period.
  • If one gets behind on class reading because of mid-term exams or projects, do not catch up on the back reading before continuing with current class readings.  Students who try to read 50 back pages before continuing the current reading are then confused in the current classes and still behind on that reading.  Break back reading into one-case or 5-page chunks and sprinkle it through the week.  Most importantly, stay on top of the current reading. 
  • Break large tasks into smaller tasks.  For example, by dividing 50 pages of reading into 5-page chunks, it is possible to cross off small tasks and see progress on the larger task.  The sense of accomplishment makes it less onerous to move on to the next task.
  • Do the hardest or least liked task first.  Then, do the next hardest, and so forth.  Too often, the temptation is to leave unpleasant tasks to last.  However, by doing so, the task hangs there ominously all day and makes life even more dismal.  By getting the least desirable task done first, one will be more alert and get it out of the way.
  • Keep in mind that a law student is more than just a law student.  I encourage my students to remember that they are talented and special human beings who just happen to attend law school.  Law school grades do not define who they are as people.  They need to recall that they are also daughters or sons, brothers or sisters, friends, significant others, dog or cat lovers, community volunteers, and so many more roles.
  • Take time to do random acts of kindness.  By doing something nice for another, it helps one feel good.  Buy a soda for the person behind you at the vending machine.  Explain the Rule Against Perpetuities or the tax calculations for depreciation to a struggling classmate.  Compliment someone on a new hairstyle or outfit.  Smile at fellow law students.  Volunteer the answer in class when another student is stumped by the professor's question.
  • Use positive self-talk.  Optimists are more successful in academics (and life) than pessimists.  Keep inspirational quotes handy.  Count the blessings in your life.  Remember why being a lawyer is a goal and that law school is the road to that goal.
  • Get plenty of sleep.  The tendency for students at this point in the semester is to sleep less.  However, 7 - 8 hours of sleep will be more positive than staying up late to study.  Brain cells work better when they are rested.  Not only does one feel less depressed, but one is much more productive.

At times it is tough being a law student.  However, by keeping things in perspective, one can realize that it is a privilege that few people will ever have.  (alj)   

February 27, 2007 in Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, February 23, 2007

Order Out of Chaos (Again)

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.  Last spring I suggested a series of questions that students can pose for themselves as a way of developing the structure of their articles.  Here they are again:

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 have 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)

February 23, 2007 in Writing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

How About Rhode Island?

Roger Williams University School of Law is looking for a new Assistant Dean of Students.  The job posting is below. (dbw)

Assistant Dean of Students
Roger Williams University School of Law, in Bristol, RI, invites applications for the position of
Assistant Dean of Students. Start date is scheduled for June 1, 2007. This is a full-time, nontenure
track, administrative position.

Responsible for advising, counseling, and generally serving as an advocates and liaison for
students on issues relating to their law school experience, the Assistant Dean serves the needs of
students inside and outside the classroom, while providing services and information to students
navigating the complex realities of law school life. The Assistant Dean reports directly to the
Dean and is a member of the Dean’s Senior Staff.

In particular, the Assistant Dean provides law students with academic and non-academic
counseling and assists with referrals to resources on and off-campus; assists with issues of
performance, adjustment concerns, stress reduction, and other personal matters; develops and
coordinates Orientation and Pre-Orientation programming; attends and participates in many law
school functions on and off campus; works closely with the Associate Dean of Academic Affairs
on a range of student-centered academic matters and supervises Academic Support personnel and
programs. The Assistant Dean processes student requests for educational accommodations based
on handicap or disability while providing assistance, counseling, programs, and support to
students from diverse backgrounds.

The successful candidate will have:
• a strong educational record, academic and otherwise;
• a J.D. from an ABA-accredited law school;
• membership in good standing in a state bar association;
• at least five years of professional experience in a law-related setting;
• ability to work well with a diverse student body;
• ability to work collaboratively with faculty and staff;
• ability to manage multiple priorities under deadlines;
• managerial and supervisory experience;
• accessibility to Senior Staff and students during and outside of normal hours of law
school operation; and
• ability to handle highly sensitive matters with complete discretion.

Preference will be given to candidates with experience in student services (law school student
services experience is highly desirable).

Roger Williams University offers an outstanding benefits package and salary commensurate with
experience. Interested applicants should send cover letter and resume to: Human Resources,
Roger Williams University, One Old Ferry Road, Bristol, RI 02809 or indicating Ref. # 07-123.

Roger Williams University is an Equal Opportunity Employer committed to inclusive excellence and
encourages applications from underrepresented populations.

February 21, 2007 in Jobs - Descriptions & Announcements | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, February 19, 2007


The question mark at the end of the title of this post is not to ask whether anyone's listening (or reading), but rather to ask (1) whether I'm "doing it right," i.e., clicking the right buttons to get this thing up on the blog; and, if I am, (2) whether I can think of anything worthwhile to say. But here goes. Of course, my thanks to Dan and everyone who asked me to participate in this, and watch out, because I already see that it's just another forum in which I get to run on and on...

There is so much useful stuff in the posts I've read - more than enough to create several years of academic support program content. Of course I'll add to the suggestions, tips, etc. when I have something I think works, but at the moment, I've got to talk about the academic support section of torts I'm teaching. Obviously, an academic support section of a required course is not news: Kris Knaplund did it at UCLA for a long time, with great success; Michael Hunter Schwartz did it at Washburn, in a breathtakingly thougthful and comprehensive manner; and those are just the two who come to mind immediately. It's a first for me, and a natural extension of the way our ASP runs, which includes substantial participation on my part in the first-year lecture classes, with twice-weekly skills classes drawing from both the content and process of those classes. It also allows me to try out so many of the exhortations I've been passing on to our faculty members for so long.

So far it has been an exhilirating experience, at least for me. For now, I just want to share a couple of observations. First, some basic premises: I am taking the liberty of the academic support designation very seriously, with a massive infusion of the skills dimension. One form that has taken is the explicit discussion of the skills required to participate in the discussion of doctrine. In class last week, it took the unexpected turn of abandoning torts doctrine entirely, and talking about method/skills/technique in their most abstract form. The digression stemmed from my continued perception that the students' participation, i.e., their comments or responses to my questions, felt random to me, as if they weren't designed to even aim at what i wanted. (Classic example: David: "How many elements in this court's rule for proximate cause?" Student: Well, they're talking about...." David (to class in general): "Let's critique that response from the teacher's point of view. Comments?" Class: (silence) David: OK, let me be more precise. is there anything wrong with this picture (repeats question and answer)? Student: "Well, I guess if you mean that a question that begins with the words 'How many?" usually is answered by a number.") Answers that didn't reflect taking aim.

We discussed our backgrouds, both professional and academic, and the role that technique has played in our personal and professional lives. It was a worthwhile reminder to me that many of our students come to us from academic experiences that neither require nor particularly benefit from the use of a fairly consistent underlying structure. Of course that's not strictly true - it's just that those underlying structures are deeper, less articulated, less explicit, perhaps more deeply integrated into life itself. So I have been playing with bringing them up from wherever they lurk, e.g., everything from everyday activities like driving a car and (in New York, at least) taking the subway, to family matters like raising kids, to the arts, athletics (not my best forum), on to academic endeavors. We've talked a lot about the role of technique; if it's valuable, why; the downsides of mindless devotion to it; etc. I came away from that discussion with the quite clear impression that students have a deeply-held belief that "technique" is simply some form of cheating or is an inappropriate crutch or will turn their minds to mush. One student's brother is studying with American Ballet Theater, and his comments brought in a radically different perspective. People with kids seemed to appreciate the role that building blocks can play, but were susceptible to the idea that they're ok for kids but not for grownups. I know that I have talked to students about the novice-expert learner data, and learned that for many, "novice" was a clearly perforative description.

I will reach out to our Writing Center, staffed by graduate students (non-lawyers, non JD students), to talk about the relationship between creative writing and technique, form and substance. Other suggestions or observations would be welcome.

The class has been enlightening on so many levels, so fast. So here's my first tip - it takes a really long time to do this; and, if it has merit (remains to be seen), it requires a radically different time slot. At the moment, I would plan to double the class time next year. The students in the torts class have bonded in a way we in ASP see in summer programs and in other settings, but here it is in torts - they are willing to hold extra classes at night, on the weekends, early in the morning (am I?) because they have not experienced our discussions as a waste of time, but valuable in terms of their classes. And the TWEN site is bursting with rule statements, sections of outlines, comments, etc.

I think I've noticed a difference too; their conributions in class are more focused, less like a random shot in the dark, and get us through the material faster. So who knows? Maybe it works after all. I'm having a great time. (David Nadvorney)

February 19, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, February 16, 2007

Great Idea

Schmitz_2 Suzanne Schmitz, at Southern Illinois University School of Law, sent a description of a great program for 1Ls;  and I thought our readers should hear about it:

At Southern Illinois University School of Law, in early February, we experimented with a program for all one Ls, designed to inspire them to improve their performance.  On a late Thursday afternoon (with Friday being a light day), we gathered all 1Ls in the auditorium and began by showing the DVD trailer for All About Law School.  It runs about 2 minutes and ends with the law students in the video starting to share their secrets and then being silenced with the suggestion that the watcher  buy the DVD.  At this point, we had four 2Ls come to the mike and say “ I am a 2L and I improved my grade point average and I will share my secret.” 

The secrets they shared were ones we would share.  “I treated law school like a job and worked hard every day from 8 to 6.”  “I started making use of the times between classes and cut down on my socializing during the day.”  “I started outlining earlier and used only my own outline.”  “I started reviewing every weekend instead of waiting until the end.”

The 2ls I chose included men and women, those married and those not, one non-traditional student.  Coming from these 2Ls, the message was more convincing than anything a professor would say.

After this, we had two professors lead an exam review session.  Then the 1ls broke into small groups and learned about how to do weekly reviews, how to run a student organized study group, how to read more effectively, how to use computer organizers.  All but the reading session were led by 2 and 3Ls.  We provided popcorn, string cheese, apples, and candy in each break out room. 

Although we had the usual gripes about any requirement, we have had 1ls tells us they benefited from the sessions.  We consider this experiment a success and have plans to improve it for next year. (dbw)

February 16, 2007 in Miscellany | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Heading South

With mixed feelings all happy, but mixed nevertheless I tell you, dear blog readers, that approximately 100 days from today I will leave my post as Dean of Students and Academic Support Program Director at Roger Williams University School of Law in Bristol, Rhode Island. 

In June, Kristy (my wonderful wife) and I will fly to Montevideo, Uruguay, to begin the next exciting chapter of life.  After twenty years of practice in California, a few years in secondary and university education, and these most fulfilling eight years in law school academic support and student services, I am ready to make the move.  We are both excited about life in South America.

Kristy will continue to work part-time from home as a legal secretary for LawDocsXpress, performing outsourced legal secretarial services.  Because the work is all digital and via the internet, she  can work wherever the internet reaches! 

I will be working part-time.  Among other endeavors, I will be teaching lawyers to prepare for the Cambridge University International Legal English Certificate (ILEC) examination.  The ILEC is a new addition (2006) to the Cambridge ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) suite of certifications.  Typical ILEC examinees are lawyers interested in employment in an international law context or intending to obtain a further degree from an English-only law school. 

Upon arrival in Montevideo we will begin our intensive Spanish lessons, to augment our existing basic language capabilities.  We have spent a few weeks in Montevideo and have through personal contact and the amazing internet developed supportive relationships with a number of folks there, including those I will be working with.

About those mixed feelings . . .

Job satisfaction is a product of several components, not the least of which are whom we work for and whom we work with. 

As a group (a large group) the students I have worked for at Vermont Law School, at Roger Williams Law School, at the many schools I’ve visited, and as a CLEO presenter have been extraordinary.  Because of the nature of the work of academic support and student services through the Dean of Students office, many of the students I have come in contact with have been students suffering from disabilities or difficult circumstances of many sorts.  So many of these dedicated students, in my view, are heroic persevering despite (sometimes enormous) odds.  Who could ask for a better group to serve?

For more than five years I have worked with a terrific group of people the administration, staff and faculty here at Roger Williams.  Each year it seems to get better.  I couldn’t ask for a more dynamic, spirited, generous and understanding dean than David Logan … and he has a knack of attracting others of substance and verve to this school. The colleagues, the co-workers, and friends I have made in my years working in Vermont and Rhode Island have made my work a pleasure.

Those of you who have been active in this amazing field of law school academic support know what I mean when I say that this nationwide close-knit community of academic support professionals is remarkable.  The combination of who you are and what you do and what is important to you works a powerful magic. I was so lucky find this corner of the law school academic world.

The other side of the mixed feelings is Kristy and I are headed to a new continent, new climate (goodbye snow), new endeavors, new language, etc., etc. … everything new and different.  Whoa. I think no more need be said.

In addition to leaving my law school position, I will be resigning as contributing editor of this blog and as contributing editor and columnist (“The Adviser”) for the ABA’s Student Lawyer magazine.  Dan and Liz, Senior Editors of this blog, will be looking for a replacement, as will Ira Pilchen, Editor of Student Lawyer.  I’m sure Dan and Liz would welcome new talent to the blog. I’ll check with Ira to find out how he wants to go about finding a new columnist (my final column will appear in the May 2007 issue).

The administration at Roger Williams is considering restructuring the combination position I have been holding ... I’ll notify you blog watchers when a determination is made and a job description is posted (applications, I’m told, would be premature at this point).

With warm feelings and gratitude,

Dennis (djt)

February 15, 2007 in News | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Take-Home Exams

As mid-terms roll around for first-year students and for those upper-division students in two-topic courses that divide the semester into two exams, I am reminded of the perils of take-home exams.  Students often make flawed assumptions about take-home exams. 

Some students assume that these exams will be easier because they are given more time usually to take the exams - many times an entire weekend.  However, professors write take-home exams that are just as hard as in-class exams.  And, they sometimes have higher expectations if students have been given especially long time blocks to take the exam.

Other students assume that they do not really have to study because many of these exams are also open book.  However, going into any exam without serious studying is a recipe for poor performance since all exams require deep understanding of the material, the ability to apply the material to new facts, and precise use of the law and policy for the course. 

Some students worry to death about the fact that other students in the class may have more time to do well because those students do not have the same work load over the testing period given for the exam.  Take-home exams are written with the premise that all students have been learning the material throughout the semester.  If a student has been diligent all semester, the work load over one testing period should not matter.  Besides a student can only do her best.  Worrying about the competition undermines that ability.

Take-home exams can be disastrous for students unless they make wise choices as to time management, strategies, and techniques.  Some suggestions that I offer to my students are as follows:

  • Make sure that the instructions are fully understood.  How many hours or days are given for completion of the exam?  What page limits or format requirements apply?  When and where must the exam be picked up and turned in?  What materials, if any, can be referred to during the exam?
  • Study for a take-home exam as one would for a comparable in-class exam.  If it is closed book, then condense the course outline and work on memory and relationships of concepts well before the actual starting time for the exam.  If it is open book exam, do not decide to do any studying of the material while taking the exam.  Study as if it will be closed book exam so that time is not wasted time looking everything up during the taking of the exam.
  • Use the format and page limits that the professor requires.  Do not be so foolish as to decide that one can ignore the professor's instructions to write an office memorandum or letter to the client.  Page or word limits are real because many professors will not read one more word than the instructions indicated.
  • Make a time chart for the exam that matches the time given.  For example, if the time period is 48 hours for the exam, subtract out time to sleep, eat, take breaks etc.  If the time is 8 hours, subtract out less break or meal time.  Divide the remaining time proportionately among the questions based on points or suggested times made by the professor.  Finally, if the exam is an essay one, divide the time for each question into 1/3 for reading the question, analyzing, and outlining an answer and 2/3 for writing and editing the answer.  Some good typists can use a 1/2 to 1/2 formula instead.  (If an exam is for shorter periods of time, such as 3 or 4 hours, work straight through and still use the 1/3 - 2/3 or 1/2 - 1/2 formula.)
  • If a long time is given to do an exam (12 or more hours for what is in effect a 4-hour exam), read through the entire exam as soon as one is permitted to look at it.  This way, one can begin to think about the questions and how to approach and organize the material before actually sit down to work in earnest.
  • Use "bursts" and "breaks" if one has a long time period to complete the exam.  Work with an intense focus for 60 - 90 minutes.  Then take a short 5- or 10-minute break.  Then do another burst of intense work.  Continue this pattern.
  • Beware procrastination.  Assume that study preparation is going to take longer than expected.  Once the exam is started, do not delay even though tasks might be spread over several days.  Avoid the "I have all day" philosophy.  Realize that the goal is to finish the exam before the end of the "clock" so that there is time to review and edit as necessary.  Also, by not delaying, an excellent product is still possible even if illness, a family emergency, or other mishap intervenes.
  • Beware perfectionism.  Set a strict time limit on studying for the exam so that going overboard and losing valuable exam writing time do not result.  Do not over-outline or over-write answers because this is an exam, not the Nobel Prize for literature.  Do not delay the actual writing of the exam once the outline for an answer is completed.  One can broaden the analysis, include more detail, and edit as needed.
  • Stock up on ink cartridges, paper, food, beverages, and other necessities before starting.  Do not allow concentration to be shattered or time wasted by these items that could be planned for and acquired before starting the exam.
  • If writer's block occurs, take scrap paper and write anything: stream of consciousness, fuzzy ideas, or the errand list for the week.  Just start writing to help unblock the process.  Once focus is regained, move on to the actual exam.

Students tend to either love or loath take-home exams.  By using these simple strategies, all students can feel more secure in their performance on take-home exams.  (alj)      

February 15, 2007 in Exams - Studying | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Best Teacher

A few minutes ago, I asked a student how he was doing, and he said, "I'm doing okay, except for having to teach myself a couple of courses.  Maybe that's normal for law school." 

My first thought was, "No, what is normal for law school is teaching yourself every course that you take."

Students, especially in the first year, rely far too heavily on professors to "teach them the material."  I often hear the complaint that this or that professor does not make the material clear.  I understand the frustration, but the reality is that good students teach themselves the law and use class time as an opportunity to refine and extend their understanding.  They become their own best teachers.

We know, as a number of researchers have pointed out, that students read law more effectively if they have a purpose in mind as they read and if they take time to "talk to the text."  In other words, the best readers move beyond a passive approach to reading and engage the text as if they will use it to solve a problem, predict an outcome under a new set of facts, etc.  They think actively as they read, questioning their understanding often aloud and forcing themselves to clarify what they do not grasp cleanly.

One way I inspire students to read in that way is to encourage them to read as if they will have to teach the material to the class.  If they take the advice seriously, they find themselves "talking to the text" because they have to explain to themselves what they have learned before they can explain it to another.  They cannot afford to simply gloss over their confusion and hope for someone else to make it clear.  They have to tease out the logic, restate the principles in other ways, ask why as often as what, and figure out how the principles fit into the larger context of the course and of the law as a whole.

The technique is especially helpful for former teachers because they have a good sense of what being prepared to teach requires.  A good teacher must understand the material so well that she can explain it to the poorest student on the one hand and explore its outer boundaries with the best student on the other.

Law school is a place for the self-taught.  After all, practice is a place for the self-taught.  Nice, neat outlines of the law  are not generally available in the real world, where clients' problems are complex and law varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.  The lawyer who thinks he can find a treatise or even a looseleaf to solve all his clients' concerns is a lawyer who is certain to commit malpractice. 

Nor will there be a professor to make everything clear.  I like to tell students that they are free to call me for an explanation of the law when they are practitioners and I'll be happy to give it, but I'll charge $500 per hour and talk very slowly. 

Law students might as well get the message early on that they must take charge of their own learning.  Professors expect them to do so because professors usually see class time as a place to explore the underpinnings and the implications of the legal principles students have encountered, and they expect students to do most of the exploring. 

If students can learn to stop reading for class and start reading to learn deeply and to do so without anyone's help, they will finally graduate from undergraduate school, not just in form but in substance.  They will become true students of the law rather than frustrated spectators. (dbw)


February 14, 2007 in Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Ten Tips

Ten Tips for Maintaining a Healthy Mental
Approach to Law School

Student Centric

    These first five tips should be viewed as advice to new students.  Certain aspects of the law school experience are out of a student’s control and may not be subject to change.  Therefore, these tips emphasize areas where students do have control, and suggest ways for them to perform up to their potential.

1.    Stay balanced – Law school will be, and should, an important part of every student’s life.  Keep in mind, however, that you are more than a law student.  All students have multiple facets to their personalities that must be honored throughout their time in law school.

2.    Exercise – At times, law school will be a mentally draining experience.  Physical exercise can be the perfect way to recharge your batteries after a taxing day.  You’d be surprised at how much better you’ll feel after 30 – 60 minutes of exercise clears the cobwebs from your mind.

3.    Remember that you are not your grades – Too often students define themselves by the grades they receive in law school.  If all students feel that they have to finish in the top 10% of the class, then 90% of the class will judge themselves as failures.

4.    Do your best – Do not judge yourself as a law student based on the number of “A’s” you receive.  Instead, ask yourself whether you have done your best.  If this advice sounds too “new agey” for your tastes, then consider this advice from a more analytical perspective.  If you have done your best, by definition there is nothing else you could have done.  It would be illogical to expect anything more from yourself then the best you have to give.

5.    Be confident because you’ve earned the right – If you have done your best throughout the year, then walk into your examinations confident that will you perform up to your capabilities.  If you done your best in terms of preparation, then you have earned the right to be confident in the outcome of your exams.

Faculty Centric

    Professors control their classroom, and by extension they have a great deal of control as to how students experience law school.  These suggestions are ways in which faculty can help promote the mental health of their students while maintaining harmony with their pedagogical choices.

1.    Know who your students are – Law school can be an extremely impersonal experience for most students.  Many come from educational backgrounds that emphasize small classes and frequent contact with faculty.  In contrast, over 100 students are enrolled in typical classes during the first year of law school.  Classes of this size serve to distance faculty from their students and can promote feelings of being lost in the crowd.

 a.    Learn their names – Learning the names of over 100 students is no small task, but devices such as name placards can help.   

    b.    Encourage students to visit during office hours – Take time throughout the semester to encourage students to utilize your office hours to ask pertinent questions or to simply get to know you.  All faculty members announce office hours at the start of the year, but regular reminders as to your availability can go a long way towards promoting a more welcoming academic environment.

    c.    Use technology to your advantage – Even in classes with large enrollments, technology can be an effective way or reaching out to students on a more personal level.  E-mails to the entire class that provide encouragement and advice, as opposed to reminders about due dates or changes to the syllabus, are an outstanding way of maintaining contact with students.  Similarly, scheduled web chats where students ask questions to their professors and each other can help promote learning and alleviate stress. 

    d.    Schedule meetings with study groups – Setting aside certain office hours for meetings with student study groups helps maximize the use of a professor’s time and also allows more introverted students an opportunity to meet with their professors in a less intimidating environment.

2.    Use frequent and varied assessment tools – Increasing the number and type of assessments that professors perform over the course of the year serves two important purposes.  First, students are less likely to experience extreme stress during any single examination if professors provide additional assessment opportunities.  From a pedagogical standpoint, more frequent and varied evaluations provide professors with a more accurate assessment of each student’s abilities.

3.    Provide frequent and individualized feedback – While it is extremely difficult to provide students with individual feedback, the benefits are considerable.  Without individualized feedback, students are more likely to feel lost or to inaccurately assess their performance to date.  In this context, knowledge empowers students by giving them information they can use to alter their approach or can be the impetus for seeking additional help.  Importantly, faculty can also assess whether the class as a whole has absorbed key concepts

4.    Be aware that words have power – In law school, students tend to assign a high level of important to everything their professors say.  Offhand comments can have a devastating impact on a student’s psyche disproportionate to what the professor actually said.  Professors who wield this power carefully, however, can send important messages as to the value of every student’s opinion.

5.    Emphasize goals that are within each student’s control – Highlighting grades and honor boards places undue emphasis on extrinsic goals that are, at least in part, outside of a student’s control.  In contrast, goals such as achieving one’s potential are within a student’s control but still require the best that each student has to offer.


February 13, 2007 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, February 9, 2007

Keeping Kinesthetic-Tactile Students on Target

Many of my strong kinesthetic-tactile learners struggle initially in law school.  Among other things, they have never had to read this much dense material; they have never had to study this much; they have never had to sit as much; and they have never had to use such structured time management to succeed. 

In discussing study problems with hundreds of students with a strong KT preference, I have learned a number of nuances about these learners' needs.  Many of my "KT's" have deepened my understanding of this type through their descriptions of what has (or has not) worked for them.

What does it mean to be a KT?  Well, to put it simply "kinesthetic" means movement/activity.  And, "tactile" means touch/application.  These learners can usually take advantage of the preference if they include movement and active learning and "hands-on" application in their studies.  Although each KT learner is unique because of other overlapping learning styles, strong KT's do seem to share some characteristics. 

Why do so many KT's not take advantage of their preference already?  I find that these are the children, teens, and young adults who have been told all their lives by parents and teachers to sit down, sit still, stop fidgeting, get back to work, and be more like "good little boys and girls."  They have also been told by those same parents and teachers to stop getting dirty, making messes, getting into everything, touching everything, and taking everything apart to see how it works. 

Many KT's are self-conscious about what they have always felt were bad characteristics or habits rather than their natural learning attributes.  In a sense, they often need to re-discover their best ways of learning after years of suspecting they were educational misfits.  I find that this is especially true for non-traditional students who came through the educational system prior to increased understanding about learning styles.   

What can KT's do to add "movement" and activity to their studying in constructive ways?  Here are some suggestions:

  1. Pace around the room when learning a speech or presentation; when studying flash cards; when reading a case section that has the KT stumped; when learning an outline.
  2. When studying alone, talk with one's hands while learning a speech or presentation or when trying to explain a case, sub-topic, or topic to an empty chair, spouse, or family pet.  (Cats condescend to listen as long as you use a voice that suggests you are showering them with compliments.  Dogs will listen very attentively and actually look at you as though you are brilliant.)
  3. Move one's body during study: play with a rubber band, paper clip, or pen; tap a foot; shift around in the chair; twirl a strand of hair; move one's head in time to music; crack one's knuckles (yes, some of my KT's really do self-report that they do so).
  4. Take more frequent small breaks when focus is lost.  Five or ten minutes will usally help as long as the KT gets up and moves -- a walk to the water fountain; a trip to the student snack bar; a lap around the law school.  (But, make sure the break does not extend to hours.)
  5. Study with "white noise" to mask distracting external noises: turn on a fan; play instrumental music; turn the TV on at "mumble" or mute level; go to a coffee house or restaurant and sit out of the high traffic zones.
  6. Study in areas where one does not feel confined in spatial terms: a larger library table rather than a tiny carrel; the door open to the carrel; seating areas in the library that have larger chairs or couches.
  7. Study with repetitive movements or gentle recreational movements: review an outline while on the tread mill; recite rules while folding the laundry; study flashcards while on the stationary bike.  If the KT is also an aural lerner: listen to an audio tape while walking around the neighborhood; listen to an audio tape while washing and waxing the car or cooking dinner; discuss a topic with a study buddy while walking across campus.  (Some KT's have observed that you need to be a coordinated KT to do some of these techniques.)
  8. Stay active as a learner in order to maximize focus, understanding, and memory.  Ask questions while reading.  Talk with others about the material.  Participate in class discussions.
  9. Use study group/buddy time wisely: take short breaks to retain focus; avoid marathon study sessions; ask to read the questions or lead the discussion when one's focus is wandering; avoid holding group sessions in cramped or austere settings.
  10. KT's often focus better through typing notes because the rhythmic movement in typing is beneficial.   Many strong KT's comment that they lose focus when they handwrite their notes.

What can KT's do to add touch and "hands-on" application to their studying in constructive ways?  Here are some suggestions:

  1. Add touch to movement while studying: stroke the family pet; handle a smooth stone; sqeeze a stress ball; run a hand over the fabric on the couch.
  2. Do as many practice questions as possible.  It is the application that cements learning for KT's.
  3. Make up "spin-off" hypotheticals from the facts of a case after reading so that it becomes obvious how one applys the rule/reasoning/policy to new situations.
  4. If also a visual learner: use a dry erase board to outline the answers to practice questions; to construct graphics; to outline a legal memo; to solve a problem set. 
  5. Enroll in courses that focus on the application of legal concepts: clinics; negotiation; mediation; trial advocacy; client interviewing; externships; internships.
  6. Enroll in doctrinal classes where professors use "hands-on" teaching techniques as well as more traditional methods: small groups to work on fact patterns; class members arguing for plaintiff or defendant; role plays as judges; arguing a motion before the professor judge; etc.
  7. Participate in law school activities that allow you to "do something" with the law: team competitions in advocacy, negotiation, or client interviewing; income tax assistance programs; other pro bono work; tutoring; researching for professors on real legal problems (rather than theoretical projects).
  8. Gain summer or semester legal experience so that classroom concepts become "real" through dealing with clients and their cases in practical ways.

Finally, what should KT's avoid or curtail in studying?  What should KT's add to increase study success?  KT's can be distracted more easily than other types.  Here are some areas to consider:

  1. Avoid sitting near the back of the classroom because one is farther away from the professor and as a "fringe participant" can become bored and lose focus.  (KT's naturally pick the back rows of the room because they feel less confined.)
  2. Avoid sitting in areas of the room where there are distractions that will make focusing on class harder: windows for gazing outside; doors and hallways for listening to hallway noise and conversations; classmates who are chatter-boxes during class; students who work crossword puzzles or play solitaire on their computers;.
  3. Study at home only if one is not distracted by the TV, computer games, house chores, nap time, or other home comforts. 
  4. Study in a place that allows one to spread out study items while not being distracted by friends or lots of activity. 
  5. Disable the Internet capability on your computer if you are prone to instant message, surf the web, read e-mails, or shop on-line when you should be studying.  (For this reason, some KT's tell me they only study at the local coffee shops that do not have free Internet access.)
  6. Gain more awareness of becoming bored or losing focus.  Consider realistic amounts of time for reading and other study tasks when structuring a time management schedule.
  7. Include exercise in a weekly schedule for at least three times a week for 30 minutes.  By expending pent-up energy, KT's can focus better when they sit down to study.

With awareness and practice, KT's can implement additional ways to use the KT preference in conjunction with their other absorption and processing styles of learning.  (alj)       

February 9, 2007 in Learning Styles | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

New Contributing Editor

David Nadvorney, the ASP blog's new contributing editor, is the Director of the Irene Diamond Professional Skills Center at City University of New York School of Law and has been involved in providing academic support in law schools for many years. He's excited about editing the blog, which he hopes will be an outlet for expression, reaction, feedback, and support for his new experience this semester of teaching an academic support section of first-years torts.  We are thrilled to have David on board. (dbw)

February 9, 2007 in About This Blog | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, February 5, 2007

The Power of the Brief

I have just finished reading Leah Chistensen's "The Psychology Behind Case Briefing:  A Powerful Cognitive Schema," published at 29 Campbell L. Rev. 5, and it is a good read.  She taps into cognitive theory to explain the importance of effective briefing as a means of understanding the law.  She notes that

[e]xperts in rhetoric believe that thinking, speaking and writing are inseparable.  Therefore, students can use case briefs to enhance their understanding of the law by writing their briefs by hand or by typing them into their computers in a way that allows them to be conscious of their own thinking.  Contrary to simply highlighting, the process of writing allows students to more accurately assess what they do and do not understand about the case.

          Professor Christensen is absolutely right; but unfortunately, many students never recognize that dynamic in the process of briefing.  Instead, too many first-year students abandon case briefing and resort to “book briefing.”  When they do so, they drop an important tool for processing the thinking of the court and the logic of the law. 

One of my first questions for students who seek help from me is, “Tell me how you prepare for class.”  More often than not, those who are struggling answer that they highlight passages in the casebook and make small notes to themselves in margins so that they can locate the facts, the rule, and the holding.

My response is always the same:  “Start briefing every case again, focusing especially on the court’s reasoning.  You have three years of reading and discussing cases to learn how courts and lawyers think.  There is no better, more efficient way to master that kind of thinking than to force yourself every day to distill, process, and record the logic of opinions that make that thinking explicit.”

I go so far as to tell them to number the steps in the court’s explanation of the law and its application.  By distilling the logical steps and laying them out in a brief, students are forced to engage the text on a much different level than highlighting or even summarizing can provide.  Having engaged it at that higher level, they begin to transform their own thought processes and to hone and deepen their reasoning skills.

Other students will tell them briefing is a waste of time.  Of course, those students are correct if the goal is simply to read a case and be able to recite the facts and the rule.  If the goal is to learn how to reason as courts reason, mere highlighting is the real waste of time. (dbw)

February 5, 2007 in Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, February 1, 2007

In Memory of Bugs Bunny

No need to panic, no one has retired the beloved cartoon character Bugs Bunny. I am speaking of our beloved cat named Bugs Bunny (“Bugsy”) who we had to let go this weekend (and no, we do not mean it in the Donald Trump, “you’re fired” kind of way).

Let me start at the beginning. When my (now) husband and I were in law school, we started with one cat. We named her “Justice Brennan” and vowed to fill our home with a liberal majority of pets (the fish were named Holmes and Cardozo and we dreamed of our future bulldog, Thurgood). Well, Brennan (who is now 17 years old) was lonely. She would yowl at all the folks in our building as they were retrieving their mail (we lived on the first floor) as well as any passers-by when we had the windows open.

Also, when I was in New York that fall to be fitted for my wedding gown, my beloved car, Harvey (and yes, I do name everything) was stolen. I was depressed. My (now) husband tried all of his tricks to cheer me up.

We had a weekly ritual of walking home from law school every Friday afternoon and our walks always took us past a pet store on Newbury Street where they had fish, bulldog puppies and a mynah bird who screamed “911, 911.” On one of these walks we went in and saw two kittens for adoption, one was a beautiful black and white kitten and the other was Bugsy. He was gray, with enormous white tipped paws, a white tummy and little stumpy bunny tail—he fit in one hand. The pet store guy told us he was a manx- which I thought at the time was “pet store -ese” for funny looking, but I said his name should be “Bugs Bunny” because of what he looked like. Well, when you name something, you ought to bring it home (and it did ease my depression about the car a little, although Bugsy was way too small to ride on...).

So we brought him home. As it turns out (and here is the ASP link, I know it took a while…), Bugsy was my own small, fuzzy Academic Support Program. Perhaps my law school had an academic support program and I was clueless about it, but I never knew where it was or that it was available.  What did I learn from Bugsy? Three important things:

1.  Don’t try to book brief cases by using multiple shades of highlighters. I thought it was an ingenius plan:  each color represented a different part of the brief.  Pink for issues, orange for facts, etc.  But the truth is, if you follow this plan, you never read all the way through the case to get to the point and it is very hard to get highlighter off the white tipped paws.

2.  I should never study on the couch. I need a table and fairly hard chair to be productive. Students may think that they can study in law school the way they did in college, but I am not sure it translates well. It is always better to be able to have your computer, dictionary, etc. available, as well as a flat surface for your Red Bull (or other caffeinated beverage of choice).   Also, when you sit on the couch, a kitten could be in the inner workings of your sleep sofa and think it is fun to poke at you through the upholstery (especially if you are easily startled and reading for Federal Courts).

3.  Don’t forget the rest of world when you are in law school.  We should all spend some time looking  out the window at the world and greeting people as they walk by. We should also remember to look in and stay in touch with the people at home who love us.  I think a little perspective goes a long way.  Your grades and ranking are only one small facet of who you are and if you neglect the rest, you will become one dimensional and cranky.  Loving and being loved keeps you in 3-D, even if that love comes from a six-pound diesel engine-like purring ball of fluff.

I probably have a million memories of my fifteen years with Bugsy, like how he would always sit on my tummy and purr when I was pregnant but I am doling those out one at a time to my children.  As for our time together when I was in law school, thank you Bugsy for your wise lessons. We miss you. (ezs)

February 1, 2007 in Miscellany | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)