Law School Academic Support Blog

Editor: Amy Jarmon
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Tips for Spring Break Studying

Spring Break is almost upon us.  Although some of my students are of the cruise contingent, most students are planning to spend a major portion of their time away on law school tasks.  So, I have been handing out tips all week to those who are trying to decide how to balance fun with studying. 

The following items seem to assist many students in their planning:

  1. Be realistic in plans for studying.  Do not vow to study 15 hours a day for the entire break period.  Be realistic about travel plans.  Be realistic about when one will get up.  Be realistic about what family events will be required.  Be realistic about friends who will be home for break.  Be realistic about law student stamina at this point in the semester.  Be realistic about what must be done before you return to school.
  2. Plan ahead for studying during break as much as possible before leaving town.  Consider each day and determine when studying is going to take place.  For example, Monday may be morning and afternoon;Tuesday may be afternoon and evening; Wednesday may be an all-day event; and so forth.  Write in the tasks to accomplish each day.  Then, organize the materials that are needed to complete those tasks so that nothing will be left behind by mistake.
  3. Consider how to streamline and prioritize the study materials that need to be packed.  It may be easier to photocopy casebook readings rather than carry all of the books on the trip.  Flashcards may be useful additions for time waiting in airports.  Outlines printed out may be easier than taking a lap top along.  Take the one or two study aids that will actually be used rather than every study aid owned.
  4. Decide whether travel time can be used for studying.  Some students will have long lay-overs in airports or long flights when they can get some studying done.  Law students who are driving or flying may want to listen to audio-tapes or CD's for their courses.  Some law students who car pool recommend quizzing with flashcards on the drive or group solving of practice questions.
  5. Plan what to say to family and friends.  Family and friends may remember the relaxed and play-time atmosphere of college breaks.  They may not be prepared for law school breaks and the need to study.  At the beginning of the break period, let them know why it is important to complete certain tasks before returning to school.  Share the study plan you have made and ask for understanding.   
  6. Build in some fun time with family or friends.  If family and friends know when they will have time with their reclusive law student, they will be more understanding about supporting study efforts.  Look for compromises.  If dinner with Aunt Bessie is a command performance, then carve out other study time and ask for cooperation.  Some law students put the study plan on the refrigerator so the entire family knows what to expect.         
  7. Break down study tasks into smaller chunks.  It is easier to stay focused and feel a sense of accomplishment if a 50-page reading assignment is broken down into 5-page chunks or one-case-chunks.  Likewise, small research, writing, or editing tasks seem less onerous than doing all of the research or writing or editing. 
  8. Complete the hardest or least liked tasks first.  This way, the onerous tasks do not make the entire day miserable as they are avoided and left until last. 
  9. Build in rewards.  Use little rewards for little tasks: a cup of coffee; reading a bed-time story to a little brother; a 10-minute phone call.  Use big rewards for bigger tasks: a movie with a friend; a dinner out; an afternoon walk with the family dog.
  10. Build up a storehouse of sleep and nuitrition.  The last weeks of the semester will be very hectic.  Get on a good sleep and nuitrition regimen during Spring Break and stick to it during the remainder of the semester.  Brain cells will function better for studying and in exams.

Of course, most of all, we hope that our students have safe travels. (alj)


March 8, 2007 in Miscellany, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Lap tops: some other food for thought

I agree with today's posting that there are some definite negative aspects that can occur with lap tops in the classroom.  Having just been assigned to a sub-committee at our law school to look at this problem because of some of the negatives listed, I have been involved in several conversations on the pros and cons, possible remedies, etc.  We are just beginning our work, but it has caused me to give more thought to the issues.  (Most law schools are concerned with these issues; hence, the topic is on the agenda at the teaching methods AALS workshop this summer.)

Personally, I hope that law schools will consider some of the positive aspects of lap top use before banning lap tops completely.  I think some restrictions are needed, but I am less certain that total bans are necessary.  Although as professors we have academic freedom, we need to make our decisions with consideration of all the aspects of our student learners rather than as a reaction to some "bad" learners. 

I know that many other pros and cons will be presented to me through thoughtful discussions with colleagues and students in the coming weeks, but I wanted to list some of my current observations.  I may change my mind about some aspects of the issue, but I am definitely in search of compromises that improve learning for all students and not just some learners.  (My thanks to colleagues and students for their comments, suggestions, and examples as I have mulled over the issues to come to my current thoughts.  There are too many viewpoints and sources to name.  And, I would not want to describe wrongly someone else's position through my own processing "lens.")

Forgive the length of my submission, but putting the thoughts on paper helps me to see what gaps still need to be considered and may help others process the issues.  I know that my ASP colleagues and others will provide thoughtful comments to assist me (and all of us) in this journey for a solution. 

The reasons that I hope that law schools can find "rules of the road" that will allow for compromise and not mean a complete ban are as follows:

  • Students who transcribe every word and disengage their brains to become stenographers are not new.  (Not all lap-top users do transcription, by the way.)  Plenty of students (whether past or present) have hand-written notes with the exact same transcription style because they have developed abbreviations and other "shorthand" methods.  Because undergraduate courses may have required regurgitation of the lectures for an "A" grade, some new law students have come from educational backgrounds where transcribing and not thinking in class equaled the road to success.  Even upper-division students may use this method of note-taking if they have not been shown more effective ways.  One of the transitions in which law students need guidance is that note-taking in law school needs to be adjusted because law school in-class experiences are building toward application and not regurgitation.  Our focus should be on helping all students learn ways to be more discriminating note-takers.  If we focus on making lap tops the culprit for bad note-taking, then we miss the opportunity to correct the real problem. 
  • Learning styles differ among students and to say that no students should be allowed lap tops creates problems for some learners. 
  1. Strong-preference verbal (read/write) learners usually gain more from some hand-written materials (though not necessarily class notes).  There are far fewer of these strong-preference verbal learners in our classes than we might expect.  Many professors probably have a very strong-preference verbal style.  However, many of our students have grown up in a very different educational landscape where teaching methods varied, and students were encouraged to use their different learning preferences.  (Obviously, all of our students read and write, but the point is that it is often not a strong-preference style for our students.) 
  2. Strong-preference kinesthetic-tactile learners actually use typing to focus in class because it is movement and touch which complements their learning. (And, no, it is not the same with hand-writing for most of them.)  There are significant numbers of these strong-preference KT learners in our classrooms.  Some KT's do multi-task.  However, I have found that once these students are cautioned about why they need to avoid any multi-tasking during class to take advantage of lap tops for learning, these students use the technology to advantage and appropriately. 
  3. Strong-preference visual learners at times learn better with typed notes because they are able literally to "see" the material with the "clean" look of the typed page.  Also, the technology helps them to add visual elements during class that increase learning from their notes and briefs.  For many of these learners, a note pad is only useful to capture graphics used by the professor or that the student thinks of during class to visualize a concept or relationship. 
  4. Strong-preference sensing-sequential and sensing-global students need more detail in their notes than global-intuitive students because they learn from facts, practicalities, and details.  One size fits all note-taking does not work.  For sensing-sequential learners hand writing their notes may well cause them more anxiety and less focus on the discussion in class because they will fear that they are not getting everything down that is needed for them to learn.  Sensing-globals will possibly compensate a bit better, but only if verbal (read/write) is also one of their stronger preferences.
  • Because research shows that deeper understanding and learning take place when students process the material themselves, we all encourage students to make outlines to help them focus on the big picture and inter-relationships as well as understand the application for the black letter law.  Lap tops encourage students to produce their own outlines.  It is extremely easy for a law student to cut and paste typed briefs and class notes and to add insights to form a condensed big picture/inter-relationships/application version of the course.  By restricting lap top class notes, two problems that jeopardize learning are likely to increase.  First, students will be more likely to go with their briefs and class notes alone (which may not focus on the big picture, inter-relationships, and application) rather than type out a whole new outline.  Second, students who want a typed outline will short cut and use commercial outlines or other people's old outlines rather than make their own from scratch because it seems such an ordeal without typed class notes. 
  • I also encourage students to take their own class notes rather than depend on "scripts" which are handed down over the years for professors whose courses do not change in major ways.  Taking one's own notes forces processing of the information rather than depending on another person's processing.  (Not only may the other learner have different learning styles, but the other learner may be wrong.)  Students who are not allowed to type their own class notes may rely on a script which is more appealing than the effort of re-typing hand-written notes.  As a result, learning may well decrease for students who would have typed their own notes if allowed to do so.
  • Students in this generation are tech savvy.  They are used to typing and using the computer technology to improve learning.  For example, students use split-screen so that they can view briefs and class notes or outlines and class notes simultaneously.  Alternatively, some students will toggle among these documents.  Students use computer organizers to organize their briefs, notes, and outlines.  If we want students to process after class, then we need to enable them to do it in ways that are conducive to this generation's modes of processing.  (And, the truth is that many students cannot even read their own handwriting these days and cannot write quickly because they are so used to typing.  In fact, I have been told that some elementary schools do not even teach cursive writing any longer!) 
  • Most of us would have to admit that we had law professors who talked 90-miles a minute, were regularly confusing, and/or were not very organized in their class presentations.  And, despite my best efforts, I would have to confess that I have a few days when my fast-talking Northern mode kicks in or I may not have been as clear and organized as I hoped to be because I know my material so well.  Students often need to sift through lecture notes to make sense of what happened in class and condense or re-organize material into a useable format.  That sifting and re-organizing process is much easier with typed notes offering the technology to cut and paste, edit with bullet points and numbered steps, use find/replace, etc.
  • We may need to consider how changes in our teaching methods can help our high-tech students to learn more effectively with or without lap tops.  I shall only give three examples here.  PowerPoint slides or other graphics that are available on-line or as hard copies to all students can assist in learning.  Students who know that these slides will be available later do not feel as compelled to take as many notes and can concentrate instead on listening to the discussion and elaborating the slides in their notes.  (However, PowerPoint slides need to be more than merely lengthy paragraphs stuck on slides or slides filled with distracting "bells and whistles.") Flow charts, tables or other graphics that capture many of the class points and relational aspects of the material can also be used in the same way.  Preview (for global-intuitive learners) and summary (for sequential-sensing learners) skeleton outlines can help students to organize and understand the material more effectively. 
  • There are students who have legitimate reasonable accommodations for disabilities which require that they be able to have lap tops to use in class.  Even a complete ban on lap tops will need to accommodate these students.  By stating that there is a complete ban and then having exceptions, these students are immediately marked as "disabled" among their peers.  (Some of the requisite disabilities are not obvious and visible to others already so they only become "visible" when the students are made exceptions to a new lap top ban.  For some disabled students, this identification as disabled to everyone is a big issue.)
  • Many of our law schools have touted our wireless capabilities, lap-top financial aid, lap-top purchasing programs, high-tech courtrooms and/or other technology prowess.  By banning lap tops completely, we seem to be making an odd statement in light of all of our marketing.  Restrictions with reasonable policies, procedures, and penalties seem more compatible to our descriptions of ourselves as high-tech than complete bans do.
  • Some professors state that students will never use lap tops in the courtroom or with a clients in practice so that they are just requiring what will happen in those settings in order to increase listening skills.  This argument has some merit.  We can all become better listeners with or without lap tops.  However, the non-use of lap tops in legal settings is not as complete as suggested.  It may be true for some areas of practice and in some courtrooms.  However, I have sat in courtrooms where lap tops were used during the trial for a variety of purposes with court approval.  Many states have made major financial commitments to technology use in their courtrooms including at the attorneys' tables during trial.  And, I have also seen lap tops used in client meetings effectively for drafting, strategizing, and note-taking without being disruptive, unprofessional, or insulting to the client.  Lap tops can be professional tools if the technology is approved/explained/used appropriately in these settings.  A complete ban is no longer the reality for all of the legal profession.      

I totally agree that there are some inconsiderate, rude, abusive, and learning-challenged technology users at our law schools.  But, we don't have to throw out the baby with the bath water.  Instead, we need to deal with the problems and find solutions to allow students to use the technology in ways conducive to learning without penalizing those who are already responsible users who learn better with technology. 

So, how do we go about deciding effective ways of computer use in the classroom?  Each law school will need to make its own decisions that match its environment and concerns.  Here are some suggestions based on discussions that I have had so far:

  1. Have a law school study group to look at issues for the specific law school with members on all sides of the issue and with student, faculty and administrative input.  This study group can research the issue, gain information from other law schools if desired, and determine strategies that are appropriate to the specific law school.
  2. Have clear law school policies on what technology uses are not allowed in the classroom.  Surfing the net, instant messaging, shopping on-line, e-mailing, flashing graphics, and snide remarks about others in class would no doubt top the list.  Most students as well as faculty and administrators would readily support banning these behaviors.  Wording could be such as to include a catch-all that divides class-relevant educational uses from non-class-relevant educational uses to capture "creative" examples that may crop up. 
  3. Well-reasoned policies, procedures, and penalties should be well-publicized.  And, the penalties should be enforced.  It does no good if a professor or law school states that "X" will happen, but nothing in fact happens.  Some law schools have granted anonymity for students who turn others in so that "retaliation" is not possible.
  4. Have discussions with law students about the policies, procedures, and penalties during appropriate sessions (Orientation, class meetings, SBA sponsored events, or other venues that suit a particular law school).  Responsibility and professionalism can be included in these discussions.  Most law students are responsible and will react favorably to reasonable and explained policies, procedures, and penalties.
  5. Investigate technology for the specific campus that may solve some of the problems.  Some campuses are able to limit Internet access in classroom spaces while still activating it in other law school areas.  Some law schools are using privacy screens which make distracting graphics, screensavers, and other non-class items less annoying to responsible users.
  6. Solicit strategies that work from professors who have successful use of the computer in their classrooms.  I have heard of professors taking 5 minutes the first day to discuss responsible use and what will happen if students misuse computers (the student becomes the "expert" for the rest of the class; the student is reported to the Dean's office; the student is pointed out for non-class use).  I have heard of professors who "roam" the aisles as they teach, thus curing some of the problems.  I have heard of professors having students sign statements on proper use with the realization that they will be reported for disciplinary action if they violate the conditions.  I have heard of suggestions that the registration schedule should list the professor's lap top policy so that students can sign up for other sections if multiple sections are available.

Lap top use and misuse are important issues.  There are many valid arguments pro and con.  We shall not all agree on the final stance taken by our law schools and our colleagues, but a stance will probably be needed (with academic freedom considered, of course).  I just hope that as ASP professionals we will be a thoughtful part of these discussions and an active part of the solutions to the problem. (alj)

March 6, 2007 in Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Laptops in the Classroom: An Unhelpful Distraction?

I know this suggestion is fraught with difficulties, but I think it is worth considering:  maybe law professors should restrict or ban the use of laptops, particularly in large classes. In talking with struggling students, I have found a couple of common problems that are probably widely shared by many other students.

The first is the one we all know about.  Students are surfing the Internet, answering emails, instant messaging, etc.  They grew up multitasking with technology and think it works.  A recent empirical study, however, showed that multitasking significantly interferes with the long-term ability to apply information that was obtained during the multitasking.  They are hamstringing the very skill they will need for success on exams and for learning to apply the law in effective ways.

The second problem is that students who are not surfing, etc., are too often acting like stenographers, typing continuously everything they hear in class.  They are passively and indiscriminately recording a load of information, much of which will not be useful to them.  I have recommended to several that they close their laptops and begin taking notes by hand.  They come back and tell me that they are forced to discriminate among ideas and that they are significantly more intellectually engaged in the discussion.

Another nasty piece of this is that law schools are finding that students are using their computers to attack other students during class by spreading messages simultaneously to all the students ridiculing answers, attacking individuals’ intelligence or character, etc.  It is bad enough when someone does that to a student on a particular day, but what schools are finding is that some students are routinely targeted by a handful of other students.  It was so bad at one school that the dean wrote an article about it, warning other schools that the practice is more rampant than we realize.

Finally, I hear complaints from students about how distracting it is to have nearby students surfing the Internet, etc.  It can be tough to pay close attention when a screen three feet in front of them is flashing websites and videos.  How many of us could conduct class while trying to look past a screen full of moving images?  No wonder some of our students seem surprisingly distracted and disengaged.

I know that restricting students’ use of technology in the classroom is controversial; but many students are hurting themselves; and, worse, many are interfering with others’ learning.  At the very least, we need to figure out how to stop the abuses.  That’s a tough thing to do from the front of a room with sixty students and dozens of laptops.(dbw)

March 6, 2007 in Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, March 5, 2007

More on Multiple Choice Testing

It's midterm time here, and most teachers give multiple choice tests. (In a future post, I'll raise some questions and issues regarding the policies, advantages, and disadvantates of our practice of giving midterms each semester, but for now, here is one approach that has worked to some extent with some students (is that qualified enough?).)

Of course, I echo that the route to a good grade on multiple choice exams is the same as the one that will get you to Carnegie Hall - practice, practice, practice.

But for some, simply practicing is not enough, and some guided steps can be helpful. I suggest to students that they review their completed practice exams through three lenses: (1) doctrine; (2) application; and (3) test-taking strategies. All three are in the mix with each question, in differing degrees. They overlap, of course.

First comes doctrine - what doctrine does the question require for choosing the right answer? Is their articulation of that doctrine accurate and complete (the two criteria I set out for them in evaluating rule statements in their study groups/outlines, etc.)? If they have paraphrased the rule, e.g., from a Restatement, have they changed it or left out an element or factor?

Application: Did the correct answer to the question depend on a particular fact that they either overlooked, ignored, or didn't understand? Or, was the doctrine triggered by the absence of facts (i.e., res ipsa loquitur)? Did the facts trigger a policy that made one answer better than the others?

Test taking stragegies: Are the students using all the structural clues that the questions themselves provide as guides to the correct choices? For example, if two choices are virtually identifal paraphrases of one another, attrative as they are, neither one is likely to be the correct answer. If one choice discusses unfamiliar doctrine that was not covered in class or on the syllabus, it's good practice to have the confidence to pass it by, on the theory that "I studied, I'm prepared, if I don't recognize it, it's not because I'm unprepared." Does that particular teacher tend to put in red herring facts?

One good exercise is to take a question apart, figure out the least crummy choice out of four crummy choices (a/k/a the right answer), and then break the class up into small groups, giving each the task of adding one or two facts that will either make another answer better, or test some different doctrine.

Finally, for now, is my "margin of error" speech. There is a margin of error built into most exams, which is why an A on the exam rarely, if ever, requires a score of 100 percent. That margin of error is, to a large extent, beyond the control of the student, i.e., there's some doctrine, I didn't get, some fact I didn't recognize, some quirk I didn't pick up. The object is to narrow that margin of error so that all of hte questions that are in my control, I get right. The "three lens" technique gives some students a handle on how to do that.

March 5, 2007 in Exams - Studying | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)