March 1, 2007
Our Spring Break is coming up in a week. While I plan to use it to tackle Mt. St. Laundry (which is threatening to erupt), many of my students are planning on using the time to actually take a vacation. And yes, I do often tell students they need some “me time” to stay physically and mentally well, but I worry about those students who are in academic distress not taking this opportunity to really catch up before the semester comes to its inevitable crashing conclusion. I warn them that it goes really fast after spring break, but to what end?
In the spring, our program sees students who performed poorly on their midyear (or one final) exams. We even see those folks who midyear GPA’s would put them on Academic Warning if it were their year-end GPA. At this time of year when I am scheduling our next appointment, I always ask my students: so, what are you doing for spring break? The answers shock me.
What I really want to hear is this: “I plan on outlining, not every single day, but a significant part of a significant number of days until I am caught up. You know, Professor Stillman, this is a golden opportunity to catch up without more material piling up, and I could still plan a great vacation at the end of May or early June (when it’s even cheaper than in March). I also plan to do a few fun things, so I am not burnt out by the time exams come.”
But, what I really do hear is this: “going to Florida” (I wonder if the folks in law school in Florida come here to Massachusetts); “going on a cruise;” “going to the Caribbean;” and the most troubling: “planning a few sober and non-hangover days to do some work, maybe two.”
Now, while my academic support style has been deemed maternal by many (including one contributing editor to this blog), it would be overly mom-ish of me to say, “Don’t go!!! Catch up on your work and get ready for those spring finals! They are worth more towards your grades and while we never dismiss students on the basis of their midterm grades, we will dismiss you if your GPA is below 2.0 at the end of the year.” That doesn’t always stop me, but more often I tell students to take work with them. I know this as likely to happen as them taking me with them, but I feel the need to at least try to convey that this time would be better spent on outlining.
I know if it a feeble attempt, certainly outlining isn't nearly as much fun as snorkeling, etc. So as I do my laundry over spring break, I find myself wondering two things: 1. Can (and would) a student really outline on a cruise ship? And, 2. How can students afford to take these vacations when I work full time and am at home doing laundry??? (ezs)
February 27, 2007
Is it every appropriate to perform triage in relation to our students? I don’t mean the benign form of triage where we make assessments, and end up working more extensively with students who are in academic difficulty. Then, students whose needs are less acute receive less attention. I am talking about the more extreme form of triage that doctors in the field have to perform. In the more extreme form of medical triage a doctor may decide that a patient's injuries are so severe, and the chances of recovery so unlikely, that the patient will not receive any care. In this way, the doctor can concentrate her limited resources on patients who are more likely to recover.
Applying the analogy to the law school setting, is it ever appropriate to decide that some students are so unlikely to succeed, particularly after we have reviewed their performance during the first semester or first year of law school, that we choose not to work with them? My initial reaction to this line of thinking is that it is way beyond my pay grade! I work with student in academic difficulty, and the school’s academic rules determine who is in academic difficulty. As for incoming law students, an admissions committee has determined that the student deserves a chance at a law school education and one of my jobs is to help incoming students work up to their potential. More importantly, my subjective determination as to who may or may not succeed won’t necessarily be accurate. And, any subjective determination introduces the possibility that bias, will play a role in the decision making process.
So, if this is my thinking, then why even raise the issue of performing triage? I think some of us are performing a form of triage without necessarily viewing it as such. Have you ever suggested to a student that she consider withdrawing from law school? I must admit that I have. Thankfully, I don’t initiate this type of conversation all that often, but it does happen. When I do have the conversation, it is usually because the student is suffering from medical or personal problems that are getting in the way of her studies and the problems are unlikely to be resolved prior to exams.
Isn’t this a form of triage? Admittedly, the student is the one deciding whether or not to withdraw, not me. Also, my motivation is to help these students, and I have concluded that the best way to help these students is to suggest withdrawing from law school at least until such time as their medical or personal problems are resolved. I know that the student’s well being is my primary motivation behind having the conversation, but don’t I benefit by having one fewer challenging student to work with? Doesn’t the school benefit, at least in a U.S. New and World Report sense, because fewer relatively weak students are taking the bar exam? Don’t my other students benefit because I now have more time to work with them?
Again, I know the student’s well being is foremost in my
mind I raise the possibility of withdrawing from law school. However, when one considers the benefits that
accrue to my law school when struggling law students withdraw from law school,
the analogy to triage keeps popping into my mind.
Just my two cents . . . . (hnr)
Dealing with Law School Stress during Mid-Term Exams
My students are starting to lose their perspective on law school and life. This week, most of the first-year students had two mid-term exams. Legal Practice assignments are also picking up for the briefs. Upper-division students are starting to have presentation, project and paper deadlines. In short, everyone is a bit stressed and irritable. My box of tissues keeps moving to the corner of my desk lately.
Here are some tips that I have been handing out regularly (and will continue to hand out as we start the downhill slide into exams). Maybe some of them will help your students:
- Get questions answered now by the professors. Students often store up questions like squirrels store up nuts for winter. The sooner the questions are answered, the sooner the student can get a deeper understanding of the material and feel more confident.
- Use tutors or teaching fellows to advantage. Our tutors and teaching fellows are required to have office hours each week. Yet, many first-year students fail to use this time for additional help.
- Evaluate whether a study buddy or study group might be advantageous at this point in the semester. Many students go it alone at our law school. They are often unenthusiastic about study groups because of "nightmare" group experiences in the past. For some students, a single study buddy for each course is a better choice. However, whether buddies or groups are used, two heads are often better than one on some topics and at some times in the semester.
- Take one day at a time. Do the best possible work each day. A student can only control today's productivity and task management. By focusing one day at a time, it is possible to stay on target and not get distracted by "what might happen when grades come out in May." As the Chinese proverb states: "You can eat an elephant one bite at a time."
- Do not see Spring Break as the time to do everything that one wants to avoid now. It is tempting to see Spring Break as the catch-all for outlines, papers, back reading, and more. However, Spring Break is too short to do everything. Besides, some much needed guilt-free down time is possible if one does not leave everything until the break period.
- If one gets behind on class reading because of mid-term exams or projects, do not catch up on the back reading before continuing with current class readings. Students who try to read 50 back pages before continuing the current reading are then confused in the current classes and still behind on that reading. Break back reading into one-case or 5-page chunks and sprinkle it through the week. Most importantly, stay on top of the current reading.
- Break large tasks into smaller tasks. For example, by dividing 50 pages of reading into 5-page chunks, it is possible to cross off small tasks and see progress on the larger task. The sense of accomplishment makes it less onerous to move on to the next task.
- Do the hardest or least liked task first. Then, do the next hardest, and so forth. Too often, the temptation is to leave unpleasant tasks to last. However, by doing so, the task hangs there ominously all day and makes life even more dismal. By getting the least desirable task done first, one will be more alert and get it out of the way.
- Keep in mind that a law student is more than just a law student. I encourage my students to remember that they are talented and special human beings who just happen to attend law school. Law school grades do not define who they are as people. They need to recall that they are also daughters or sons, brothers or sisters, friends, significant others, dog or cat lovers, community volunteers, and so many more roles.
- Take time to do random acts of kindness. By doing something nice for another, it helps one feel good. Buy a soda for the person behind you at the vending machine. Explain the Rule Against Perpetuities or the tax calculations for depreciation to a struggling classmate. Compliment someone on a new hairstyle or outfit. Smile at fellow law students. Volunteer the answer in class when another student is stumped by the professor's question.
- Use positive self-talk. Optimists are more successful in academics (and life) than pessimists. Keep inspirational quotes handy. Count the blessings in your life. Remember why being a lawyer is a goal and that law school is the road to that goal.
- Get plenty of sleep. The tendency for students at this point in the semester is to sleep less. However, 7 - 8 hours of sleep will be more positive than staying up late to study. Brain cells work better when they are rested. Not only does one feel less depressed, but one is much more productive.
At times it is tough being a law student. However, by keeping things in perspective, one can realize that it is a privilege that few people will ever have. (alj)