Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Aesop's Fables for Law Students III

The final re-written Aesop's fable is probably less well-known than the other two that I chose.  The original fable is about a cat that has only one method of defense in danger and a fox that prides itself on its many options of defense.  When the hounds get close, the cat runs up the tree to safety.  The fox dithers about which option to use and is caught and eaten.

The Cat and the Fox:

Cat is known for adaptability, but lives day by day and task by task.  Cat reads all the cases, takes notes, outlines material, and talks with the professor.  Cat always attempts to understand material by thinking about the cases, the sub-topics, and the topics.  When perplexed, Cat draws down from the library shelves one study aid on the subject to gain more understanding.  Sometimes Cat uses different series to help with studying, but always realizes that study aids are supplements to his learning.  After additional reading and pondering, Cat goes to the professor if still confused.  Cat thinks and thinks about the material read and discussed.  After time, Cat smiles and nods his head in understanding.

Fox is known for being one of the most clever, but always seeks another option.  Fox reads the canned briefs, uses a class script, uses outlines guaranteed to be from A students, and never meets with the professor.  Fox avoids personally thinking about the cases, the sub-topic, and the topics whenever possible.  Fox goes to the library shelves and pulls down several different study aids explaining the subject.  If those study aids do not state the answers, Fox pulls down more study aids.  Soon Fox is surrounded by study aids but does not know any more than when the first was used.  Fox is disgruntled that nothing states exactly what to know and how to know it.  After time, Fox fumes and shakes his head in disgust.

One day Cat and Fox are seated next to each other in the student lounge.  "Do you understand Topic X, Cat?"  "Why, yes, I do.  X means...."  "But I have scanned multiple study aids without understanding X!  How did you understand it?"  Cat mulls over the question and responds, "I only have one way to learn and that is to think, and mull over, and ponder.  Even with other resources, I still must do the laborious thinking to make the knowledge my own."

Moral:  Having multiple resources will do a law student no good if one's natural intelligence to think about the material is ignored.  Study aids are useful supplements to help in thinking, but one must still do independent thinnking to learn.  Use study aids wisely.  Avoid shortcuts that undermine thinking.  (Students do not have to settle for shortcuts and can select more successful strategies.)

I might add that I am a strong proponent of study aids.  My office actually has an extensive study aids library for students to use.  I carry the major series of study aids - most of which are written by law professors.  However, I avoid study aids that are designed merely as shortcuts.  I do not carry canned briefs, for example, because students use those as replacements for reading and briefing.

My office provides a handout on wise use of study aids.  I also spend time talking with students about which study aids will best match their needs.  Our 1L Tutors also advise students on study aids that are appropriate for individual professors.  A number of professors recommend study aids in their syllabi.

Although I am in favor of study aids, I encourage students to make their own briefs, outlines, flashcards, graphic organizers, and practice questions.  I advise students to use study aids as supplements to their learning rather than being "study aid dependent" in their learning.  I remind students that they should learn their professor's version of the course for the exam.  I warn them that commercial aids may be wrong and, with a few exceptions, will not cover Texas law. 

Why do I encourage study aid use and have a study aids library?  There are a number of reasons. 

  • Casebooks are often bereft of previews, summaries, questions, and problems that can assist in student learning.  Even students who work very hard at their reading and briefing will not always be able to understand the material.  Study aids can add background that a student is unable to get alone. 
  • No matter how good the professor is, some students need a different approach to the material.  Students learn differently; and as a result, need to study differently.  Some students need an overview first.  Some students need summaries after learning the parts.  Some students are weak aural learners.  Some students learn from application.  The professor's teaching style is legitimate, and the students' different learning styles are also legitimate.  Study aids can bridge any gap between the two.
  • Some students are unable to articulate their questions for the professor until they have a general understanding of the material.  Study aids can facilitate their understanding so that they are then able to approach the professor and articulate their specific gaps in understanding. 
  • Practice questions are essential to students learning how to apply the material.  Unfortunately, most professors provide limited practice questions to their students.  There are a number of practice question books that can provide application experience for students throughout the semester as well as when they prepare for exams.
  • Study aids are expensive.  Not all students can afford to purchase them - even the ones recommended by their professors.  Because study aids can serve as positive supplements to student thinking, having a study aids library for short-term use allows all students access to the main series.  Those students who are considering purchases can "test drive" several study aids to match the purchases to their learning styles and the professor's course. 

Study aids can bridge the gap in understanding material.  However, students still need to use their own thinking ultimately to learn the material.  (Amy Jarmon)   

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