March 23, 2007
The Confidence Game
Law school can be a place where confidence goes to die. A student comes into law school believing she can excel and finds herself struggling near the bottom of the class, not entirely certain what went wrong. The effort was there; the time and energy were there; but the good grades were inexplicably out of reach. After a couple of semesters, all she knows to do is to tough it out. So she slogs on towards graduation, reminded every January and June that she is not what thought she was.
Ask her how she's doing, and she may pretend not to care about the disappointments. Get her to be honest, and she'll just shrug because she is discouraged and has lost faith in herself.
Even so, like most law students, she will hang in and graduate; and, like most law students, she'll maintain through it all a genuine desire to be a good lawyer, whatever her grades and whatever her rank.
And here's the great thing: she will indeed be a good lawyer, even an excellent lawyer. But she doesn't know that now. She knows about GPA's and class ranks and lucrative offers to the top ten percent.
Eventually, she will learn that preparation wins the day in the real world of practice, not GPA's. She will find that not all great lawyers were great law students. It will dawn on her one day that, as a matter of simple mathematics, 90% of the lawyers out there did not graduate in the top 10% of the class.
Of course, she can't see any of that now. All she sees is the closed-in world of law school, the immediacy of another set of exams. That isn't all bad, I suppose; she needs to focus on the task at hand. But it couldn't hurt if we took a minute to help her see down the road a little, just so she knows that she still has every reason to be confident. (dbw)
March 21, 2007
New York Area ASP Workshop
Join us on April 19 at Rutgers School of Law-Newark from 10:00 - 3:00 for the NY-ASP workshop. The theme will be "Building Community through ASP." We will spend the day looking at how we handle various circumstances that impact our students and their ability to avail themselves of our resources.
With an eye towards creating a welcoming and supportive environment, we will work cooperatively to generate new possibilities. The day will be split between how we handle individuals and how we build a sense of community. Tentative topics related to individuals include: academic counseling conversations, personal crisis management, family pressures, and career choices. Regarding community building, we will share the various activities we engage in to create an inviting, supportive and empowering environment.
If you are interested in leading a session or if you have an idea you wish to add to the agenda, please e-mail me by April 13. If you are unable to attend but have relevant materials you would like to share, please send by the 13th as well.
I look forward to seeing you in Jersey. We really aren't that far from the city!
Pascale C. Walker, Esq.
Assistant Dean and Director of the Minority Student Program
Rutgers School of Law - Newark
123 Washington Street
Newark, NJ 07102-3094 (ezs)
March 20, 2007
In all the time I've written for this blog, I don't think I've mentioned that my husband is an environmental lawyer. His main area of work is clean air and climate change. He works for an environmental non-profit (and for those of you doing the math, that does make us the lowest paid attorney couple in all of Massachusetts) where he spends a lot of time discussing global warming (and no, my nickname is not Tipper).
Anyway, as a result of being married to "Captain Environment" (which is what I call him when my pleas for a minivan are rejected), we are big recyclers. We are the people who drain the juice boxes and put them in our recycling bin. I've tried looking for the recycling symbol on the little straws too, but so far no luck. Anyway, to do my part in reducing global warming, I am recycling an older blog entry (or as the Car Talk guys put it, "an encore presentation") on exam writing. Why? Not because my brain is empty (although my "fill brain" light did go on recently), but rather because I find that I am printing this entry out for students at least twice a day.
So here it is, just in time for spring exams:
Exam Writing is Different:
Exam writing is different from first year legal writing because, while the usual 1L legal writing class teaches writing as a craft, exam writing is a skill. What does this mean? Legal writing for class is something that students have more time to work on; in addition, almost the entire exercise is about students' organizing their thoughts and choosing their words carefully. Exam writing, on the other hand, is a formulaic way for students to show their professors that they not only understand the material but can also use it.
If legal writing is a painting, exam writing is a photograph. Exam writing must be done quickly and accurately; and while it must also be done with some creativity and is worth the same 1000 words as a painting, it has to be more stark and realistic. Some of the best 1L legal writers will not do well on their exams because they cannot leave an answer in its raw form. Rather, they need to hone their thoughts and organization until the answer is perfect; and frankly, they do not have the time to do it, so their grades do not reflect their knowledge of the subject or their writing ability.
So how do we prepare students to let the raw answer be and move on to the next question? I do the math with students, trying to make the point that one fabulous answer on a four part exam is still unsatisfactory, while four reasonably complete and cogent (but imperfect) answers will suffice. I teach them the exam mantra: "the issue is...the rule is....here we have....therefore..., next." I think I hear students muttering this during exam week, or I'd like to think that's what they are saying as they pass me in the hall....
I also advise taking old exams under exam conditions (timed without notes and books) so students can figure out their ideal ratio of time to organize vs. time to write (usually about 20%/80%). I talk about organizing answers by party (good for torts, not civil procedure) or by transaction (excellent for contracts, but not for torts), etc. I give the old tennis analogy (you still need to follow through after you’ve hit the ball) as a way of reminding students to include counterarguments and defenses. I, personally, had to write the word DEFENSES at the top of every exam in law school lest I forget to include them.
After working in academic support for a while, I have concluded that a student’s performance in the first year legal writing class may not be an indicator of how well that student will perform on exams. Oddly, only about half of the students I see find this comforting. (ezs)
March 19, 2007
Now that my students are back from Spring Break, they are more aware of how short the rest of the semester is. Many of them are beginning to plan their exam studying.
I have discovered that there are some myths out there that have been handed down through generations of law students. Unfortunately, the myths are bad ways to study for exams. So, I always go into "mythbuster" mode at this time of the semester. Here are the myths that I have to confront most frequently:
- Slack off in Legal Practice for the rest of the semester to gain more time to study for exams. You may call the course Legal Skills or Legal Research and Writing at your law school. The logic (or more accurately the illogic) behind this myth is that Legal Practice is not a "real" or "serious" course because it is only worth 3 instead of 4 credits. I point out the following to my students: a) an "A" or "B" is a 3-credit course still does wonders for your GPA; b) summer employers often look at the LP grade very closely to determine whether or not they should make an offer; c) doing well in research and writing and other legal skills is essential for clerking in the summer if you do not want to look foolish.
- Do not do any practice questions until you reach the exam period. I explain to students that this strategy is a great deal like riding a bull in a rodeo without practicing beforehand. (This is Texas, so rodeos seem a better example than skiing or some other activities that I use in other regions of the country.) I explain that the benefits of lots of practice questions over time are: a) increased ability at issue spotting; b) deeper understanding of the nuances of the law; c) increased memory of the black letter law; and d) increased skill at exam writing techniques and strategies.
- Spend two weeks focusing on each course during the next six weeks and you will be ready for exams. Since we forget 80% of what we learn within 2 weeks if we do not review regularly, this seems a real recipe for failure. (Ideally, I want them to study all semester for exams - but that is a whole other column.) I talk about the benefits of regularly reviewing each course every week for the remainder of the semester. I tell them that although they may focus on certain topics for those courses each week, they still want to review the entire outline for each course to keep it fresh. Besides, many of the students who use this method ignore the six weeks of new material and then are really in trouble. And, what do you do with this myth if you have four or five exam courses?
- Treat all of your exam courses alike in your studying plan for exams. It is a rare law student who is equally competent or equally lost in all courses. When I get them to talk about how the courses, exams, and material are different from each other, they begin to see that they need to tailor a study plan for each course separately. I suggest that they consider: a) will the exam cover the entire semester (some students have mid-terms and that material is deleted from the final); b) how many topics and sub-topics are there for each course that will be included in each exam; c) how thoroughly have they already learned each of those topics and sub-topics; d) which courses do they need more time on to be prepared for exams because they are confused about the material or how to apply the material; e) how many practice questions have they already completed.
- You do not have to study as hard for an open-book exam. Open-book exams are usually a trap. Students who do not learn the material as they would for a closed-book exam often have to look everything up. Only a general, surface knowledge of the material is often the result of believing this myth. And, we all know that you rarely have spare time in an exam to look much up in your materials.
- You do not need to study as hard for multiple-choice exams. The old college saying was that you just need recognition and not recall. Students underestimate the difficulty of "best answer" multiple-choice exam and the nuances involved. Again, general, surface knowledge of the material is encouraged by this myth.
- Save all of your absences and do not go to class the last week to gain more time to study for exams. Obviously, they see the error of this advice when I explain that professors often give additional information about the exam and tie together the material in the last week. In addition, I warn them that some professors weight the last couple of weeks of class heavily in the exam questions.
- Stop reading for your courses to gain more time to study for exams and just "pass" if you get called on during class. I often ask students if the material during the next 6 weeks will be on their exams. When they respond that it will be, then I ask how they are going to learn the material for those exams if they do not understand what is going on in class since they did not read the cases and other materials.
- Stay up as late as possible during exam period to get in those extra hours of studying. Wrong! Being alert and well-rested will provide a far better result in the exam. For my student skeptics, I tell them my horror story from first-semester 1L year about oversleeping for my Contracts exam. (I was given the full time to take the exam, but my grade was docked two steps in our grading scale. That gets their attention!)
After 5 semesters of conscientious "mythbuster" efforts, I am finding that I do not hear these myths as often as I used to when I first arrived to start an ASP program here. However, the myths still rear their ugly heads at unexpected times. A mythbuster's work is never done. (Amy Jarmon)