February 16, 2007
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 15, 2007
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,
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 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 13, 2007
Ten Tips for Maintaining a Healthy Mental
Approach to Law School
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.
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.