Monday, June 4, 2007

Our Own Skills I: Listening

We devote a good bit of time on this blog to the skills our students need to develop to be successful in law school.  As a new school year approaches, however, I would like to devote some posts over the next few weeks to the skills we as ASP professionals need to develop.

Near the top of the list, it seems to me, is the art of listening.  When ASP professionals first begin their work in this field, the pressure to be able to give advice to law students can result in "mini-lectures" that lay out various formulas for success to each student who appears at the door.  These lectures can become rote advice that gives an obligatory nod to the principle that students must, of course, "make the strategies their own."

What most of us discover eventually is that the most powerful thing we can do is first to listen to how the individual student is actually approaching the particular demands that concern them.  Before giving advice on how to prepare for essay tests, we can be most effective by finding out the specific ways in which a student has prepared for such exams in the past or how the student imagines she should prepare for her first law school exam.  Once we know those things, we are in a much better position to focus our advice, whether the student's current approach needs a complete overhaul or merely some tweaking.  It does no good to walk through all of the exam preparation strategies for a student whose preparation is largely on target but whose all-night studying the night before the exam is leaving her too exhausted to think clearly.  The actual adjustment that is needed can get lost in a flood of "study techniques."

We also have to become good at listening to what is not said.  We have to become adept at reading between the lines as students explain their concerns to us.  A student who is feeling overwhelmed by the workload in law school may actually be overwhelmed by outside demands.  She may be completely capable of handling the workload but is torn in several directions by family demands, or she may be spending large amounts of energy and time on inefficient preparation strategies.  Those are two very different problems that require very different solutions.

As a result, I like to begin by letting the student talk, letting him tell me what brought him to my office or, if I have invited him because his academic performance is weak, where he thinks the root of his struggles may lie.  From there, I ask open-ended questions.  If he tells me he knows the material but cannot get get it into an essay answer, I may ask him to describe what he does from the minute he enters the exam room to the moment he begins writing an answer to a question.  If his approach to the taking of the exam seems sound, I may ask him to tell me a little about how he prepares for exams.  After a series of such exchanges, I may find that his real problem is that he only thinks he knows the material because when he sees it in an outline it looks familiar but that he is doing nothing to ensure that he can marshal it when the time comes to analyze a fact pattern.

The point is to let the student help focus the advice.  Listening is the key to letting that happen.  Knowledge of effective strategies is critical to our work, but defaulting to a lecture on exam preparation risks flooding a student with solutions to problems that do not exist.  Only by helping students reflect on their own situations and their own approaches can we tailor our advice and encouragement to each student's real concerns. 

We are, in large part, diagnosticians.  We cannot diagnose what we are not looking for, and we cannot treat what we do not know is there.  So our first instinct should be to listen rather than advise. Careful, thoughtful listening can transform an otherwise routine meeting into a turning point in a student's law school career. (Dan Weddle) 

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