Law School Academic Support Blog

Editor: Amy Jarmon
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Dancing with the stars - law school version

I love ballroom dancing.  When I lived in England, I went to social ballroom dances at least three times a month in addition to weekly lessons.  Now that I am home in the States, I watch every movie about ballroom dancing multiple times and adore Dancing with the Stars.  As I watched the competition and results shows this week, it occurred to me that law school is like ballroom dancing in many respects.

In ballroom dancing, you have to learn the basic steps before you can put a dance together.  In law school, our students need to learn the basic steps such as reading cases, briefing cases, reading statutes, outlining, and using IRAC.  And, they read individual cases which are the steps before understanding the inter-relationship of concepts. 

In ballroom dancing, each dance has its own steps: the mamba is very different from the cha-cha, from the waltz, and from the quick-step.  And, the Viennese waltz is even different from the basic waltz.  Likewise in law school, the steps may differ somewhat among professors and among courses. Professors have different styles of teaching and testing. Courses may be more case-based or code-based.  Courses may be more policy-based or more methodology-based.  Cases vary in density and editor's purpose for inclusion. 

In ballroom dancing, once you have the steps learned, you must learn the unique rhythm for each dance.  If you can only do the steps and do not match the rhythm, your movements will be mechanical and amateurish.  You must learn fluidity and "become one" with the music.  Likewise, our students must learn the rhythms of their courses.  Memorization of the material (like memorization of the dance steps) is not enough.  If the students do not "become one" with the material so that their learning is intuitive and seamless, their learning will be very compartmentalized and miss the overview.

In ballroom dancing, you must practice continuously to improve.  The good ballroom dancers make dance a priority and spend hours perfecting their dancing.  Likewise, law students who practice applying the law to new fact scenarios throughout the semester at every opportunity improve their understanding of nuances in the law, their application of the law to different facts, and their organization of answers.  Practice is essential to their perfection of the steps and the rhythm.

In ballroom dancing, dancers may falter, slip, stumble, or fall during a dance.  They must dance on as though the incident did not occur and complete that dance.  They must evaluate why the incident occurred and strategize how to correct the problem.  Then, they must persist in their practice to become more expert so that such incidents become less likely in future dance events.  Likewise, law students must not become defeated by a difficult section on an exam, a bad mid-term grade, a bad course grade, or a bad semester.  They must evaluate the difficulties, choose strategies for change, and persist in their studying to become more expert as students.

In ballroom dancing, the execution of a dance at a higher level of expertise is exhilarating.  All of the practice becomes worthwhile when complicated spins and step sequences suddenly mesh into a seamless whole.  Graceful execution of the dance is a special triumph.  Likewise, a law student's improvement in grades through the honing of skills  and better performance on a paper or exam is exhilarating.  As law students become more graceful in their lawyering skills, they feel a similar sense of triumph.

As ASP professionals we need to become like dance instructors (along with our faculty) and encourage our students as they master the steps and rhythms and spins and fast foot work.  We need to train them patiently in the basic steps, help them find the rhythm for their courses, push them to repeat the tasks until they become experts, encourage them to get back up when they fall, exhort them towards graceful execution, and applaud when they master a difficult analysis or subject.

Ballroom dancing can be a life-time passion and pursuit (yes, there are tea dances for the elderly).  Let's hope that lawyering will be a life-time passion and pursuit for our students (yes, there are senior lawyer divisions for most state bars).  (Amy Jarmon)   


October 18, 2007 in Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Exam Planning ... the time is now!

Thanks to Amy Jarmon for her superb suggestions about exam preparation.  (See Amy’s October 17 blog text below.) 

One of the most important recommendations she provides – and one which too many students overlook completely, is this: “Using a very structured weekly time management schedule for the remainder of the semester will allow the student to keep up with current class material while reviewing for exams which can in turn lower anxiety because all tasks are being completed.”

The “exam plan” is critical, and (I think) it needs to be made looooonnnnngggg before the final two weeks of the semester.  I have sat with many students and assisted them in constructing detailed personalized exam study plans.  This (your personalized assistance in creating this plan) could be the most important lesson students learn from you.

To supplement and underscore Amy’s suggestions, I have pulled some material from an article I wrote a while back for the ABA Student Lawyer Magazine (I believe it appeared in the March 2006 issue if you want to find the entire article in your law library).  The article dealt with anxiety reduction throughout the semester, but included a few suggestions about exams in particular.  What follows is based on that article. 

The “old hands” at academic support are familiar with all of this, of course.  I’m hoping this might be valuable to some of you who are relative newcomers to academic support … and, in turn, that it will ripple out to the students and those whom they eventually serve. 

To excel as a law student, you need to keep your cool during study time, class time, and exam time. To excel as a lawyer, you need to do the same—even though the setting is different. Three standard law school activities—studying law with a deadline approaching, being called on in front of others to address a difficult problem, and producing cogent arguments on demand—are also standard features of most lawyers' weeks.

Law school has something else in common with law practice: collywobbles—those uncomfortable feelings in the stomach caused by nervousness, anxiety, or fear.

Students study and learn best when they are at their peak performance level, and collywobbles inhibit peak performance.

[The article suggests methods of dealing with anxiety throughout the semester, then considers the subject of minimizing exam collywobbles.] After noting that, ideally, exam preparation begins on the first day of the semester, these tips follow:

  • Exam preparation should include development of a detailed written study schedule for several weeks before the examination dates.
  • If you have not kept your course outlines up to date throughout the semester, you need to complete them at least a couple of weeks before exams. You should also schedule sufficient time for review and internalization of all key definitions, elements, black-letter rules — anything that may be an essential component of an exam answer's completely predictable portions.
  • Developing topical “mastery” — the ability to efficiently resolve difficult problems within a short time frame in writing under pressure — is essential.  Achieve mastery by writing answers to short hypothetical questions covering all the topics and issues that may be the subject of test questions. Compare your answers to sample answers to measure your achievement level.  You will recognize mastery when you achieve it.
  • Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Answer several questions similar to those you expect to encounter on each exam, under the same time and environmental conditions you will be subjected to on exam day.
  • Ask for help if/as needed.  During this final phase of preparing for exams, visit with your professors to clear up any areas of the law that trouble you.
  • Make an appointment with your school's academic support professional if you want some fine-tuning of your style.

There is no one-size-fits-all schedule, nor is there a “rule” for how many practice questions to do.  One thing I think students ought to hear, however, is based on what the bar exam professional trainers suggest.  BarBri or PMBR, for example, recommend some very large number of practice MBE questions (is it near 3,000?) before taking what is essentially a pass/fail test where scoring considerably below the “average” score will earn the examinee a license to practice law (assuming the rest of the exam is passed as well).

The actual MBE exam consists of 200 questions.  That’s a fifteen-to-one ratio.  So, if a first-year student wants to do much better than average (earn an A, for example), maybe she ought to take a look at that ratio when planning her study for the 15 multiple choice questions her Torts professor has promised.  That works out to 225 questions as a minimum. 

How does that relate to essay practice?  Well, is it unreasonable to practice answering questions for 45 hours to prepare for a 3-hour essay exam?  Maybe yes, maybe no — however, I’ve queried many students who wind up in the nether regions of their class ranks on this very subject, and discovered that the average time spent actually answering practice questions in writing (either short ones like you’ll find in the Examples & Explanations series or standard-sized one-hour essay exams) is approximately this: 1.

If it’s true that practice makes perfect, what does this (answering 1 question) make? 

Go figure.  Literally.  Figure out how many questions will make you (student) feel really comfortable going in to the exam room.  Then include that number in your exam plan. 

Hasta luego. (djt)

October 18, 2007 in Exams - Studying | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Managing Test Anxiety

For the most part, mid-term examinations are ending this week at my law school.  Each week during mid-terms, I have had students come by to discuss test anxiety.  Some of them tell me that test anxiety has been an ongoing problem throughout college.  However, most of them tell me that they have never had test anxiety until now.

There are a number of suggestions that I make in hopes of preventing future bouts of test anxiety as their final examinations approach: 

  • Reviewing outlined material regularly throughout the remainder of the semester (rather than cramming at the very end) will provide deeper understanding which can in turn create greater confidence and lower anxiety.
  • Asking professors questions that the student has been unable to resolve (rather than storing them up for six more weeks) will eliminate confusion about material which can in turn lower anxiety about the course.
  • Working as many practice questions as possible for the remainder of the semester will increase skill in applying the nuances of the law which can in turn mean the student is less likely to confront a question scenario which is a total surprise.
  • Working as many practice questions as possible for the remainder of the semester will mean the techniques for taking exams (such as IRAC) are on "auto-pilot" which can in turn mean lower anxiety about how to proceed on a difficult question.
  • Using a very structured weekly time management schedule for the remainder of the semester will allow the student to keep up with current class material while reviewing for exams which can in turn lower anxiety because all tasks are being completed.
  • Using a very structured monthly time management schedule for the remainder of the semester will allow the student to designate course sub-topics to study during review time in the weekly schedule which can in turn lower anxiety as sub-topics are crossed off after each review session.
  • Sleeping a minimum of seven hours per night will help the student be more alert and focused while studying which can in turn create a more positive perspective on law school and lower anxiety.
  • Exercising several times a week will allow the student to take advantage of one of the most effective stress-busters which can in turn lower anxiety about exams (and life).
  • Eating three nutritious meals (rather than junk food) will help the student to have more energy for productive studying which can in turn lower anxiety about getting things done.
  • Practicing simple relaxation exercises (such as deep breathing and gentle shoulder or head rotations) every day will lower stress which can in turn keep test anxiety at bay.
  • Taking several hours off from studying when the student is feeling "nothing is going in" despite best efforts will allow a change of pace which can in turn prevent a student from becoming overwhelmed.
  • Attending counseling (or biofeedback training) through the university counseling center will assist students who have histories of test anxiety in managing the problem which can in turn lower their likelihood of having future severe attacks.

Not all of these suggestions work for every student.  However, most students can find several suggestions on the list that seem good matches to their temperments and needs.  (Amy Jarmon)

October 17, 2007 in Exams - Studying, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Thank Someone Who Helped You Make It

Here's a great suggestion from Hillary Burgess:

I often hear from professors that students sometimes complain more than they thank. Since I've received so much support for my recent projects (and am in the midst of writing many, many thank you notes), I thought I'd pass along this idea.

To boost your spirits, especially since it's tending toward stress time, what about taking 5-10 minutes to thank someone on your faculty or one of your own professors from your law school days or, better yet, your ASP mentor? Thank someone from your past who would never in a million years expect a thank you note now.

It'll make both you and that person feel good right now; but more importantly, those memories are the ones that carry us and our own mentors through the tougher moments. The letters I've received from former students – and even more so the notes I've received from parents of students – have really helped me sustain some sense of sanity when faced with a stack of papers or, worse, a failing or cheating student.

So thank a random person from your past today. Just a thought.

October 16, 2007 in Encouragement & Inspiration | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)