Law School Academic Support Blog

Editor: Amy Jarmon
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Friday, October 31, 2008

Aesop's Fables for Law Students II

I have included below the second of the Aesop's fables that I wrote for my law students in my weekly tips e-mail.  Most of you will probably remember the original version of this well-known fable.

The Tortoise and the Hare:

Tortoise methodically thinks about every question and topic: considering the rules for each issue, laying out every step, and providing relevant details to analysis.  Tortoise often answers questions in class slowly.  Tortoise mulls over remarks in study group and is never quick to answer.  Tortoise sometimes worries because the Hares seem so adept in class or study group when answering questions.

Hare can think on his feet adroitly and is never at a loss in class when called upon by the professor.  Hare gets to the point rapidly without wasting words or time on aspects that seem unimportant.  Hare is often perplexed why Tortoise is so slow when the answers seem so obvious.  Occasionally Hare is asked by the professor for more information, but Hare has never actually been wrong on an answer.

Exam period arrives at last.  Tortoise carefully reads the instructions, reads each word of each fact pattern, and takes time to make an "outline" of each answer before writing.  Tortoise allots the maximum time for each question and moves to the next question when that time is up.  Tortoise stays to the end of the exam and finishes with only minutes to spare.

Hare ignores the instructions, sizes up the fact patterns quickly, and begins writing furiously within minutes of reading a fact pattern.  Without making many notes, Hare juggles all of the rules and facts in his head.  Hare sees that the issues and analysis are obvious for the right conclusions.  Although it is a four-hour exam, Hare crosses the finish line in a mere 2 1/2 hours.  Looking around the room after turning in the exam, Hare is astonished that nearly everyone else is still writing furioiusly.  Hare chuckles, congratulates himself on his right answers, and leaves the room.

When grades come back, Hare is startled to receive only low C grades.  During exam reviews, Hare finds out that the model answers have more detail, give in-depth analysis, and are more organized.  The professor's comments on the exam indicate that Hare's answers were "conclusory" without sufficient analysis and that Hare did not use the format in the instructions.  And, to Hares's astonishment, his "right" conclusion received only one point.

Moral:  The highest grades do not always go to the swift in exams or those who are most adept in class.  To do well on exams, a law student must read the instructions, spot the issues, state the law accurately, connect the dots in orgnaized analysis, and use relevant details and facts.  (Students who are too quick off the mark can learn how to correct exam-taking errors with new strategies.)

For those ASP readers who saw my earlier three columns on the processing learning styles (October 8, 9, and 13, 2008), you will recognize that Hare would be a very high scorer on the Global-Intuitive styles, and Tortoise would be a low to moderate scorer on the Sequential-Sensing styles.  (Amy Jarmon)

October 31, 2008 in Miscellany, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, October 30, 2008

"The Law" and Academic Skills

One of the conundrums many ASP professionals run into is the use of “the law” to teach skills. Why is this a conundrum? If more than one professor teaches the same subjects (like two Torts classes taught by two different Torts professors) there are bound to be differences in coverage and interpretation of the law. This is an issue fraught with challenges, most importantly, what law do we use?  After dealing with this challenge each year, I have developed some basic strategies.

1) Use neutral law. What is neutral law? Contract formation requires offer, acceptance, and consideration. A prima facie claim of negligence requires duty, breach of duty, causation, and harm. These are very broad, general principles of law where very few professors will differ, although, as my own disclaimer, I have had a professor disagree with the harm element in negligence. I try to use examples that do not include nuances of law that are ripe for differing interpretations.

2) Always preface any discussion of law with a disclaimer about using the professor’s rules and interpretations on the exam. I frequently remind students that their teacher is writing and grading the exam, not me, and they need to use the law they are taught in class on their exams. This leads to discussion about ambiguity and interpretation in the law, which is another area where many first-year law students need reassurance that ambiguity is their friend, not their foe.

3) Use non-legal examples to illustrate legal principles. Mike Schwartz has some excellent examples that my students have raved about. Charles Calleros provides some fantastic examples in his Legal Method and Writing text. Non-legal examples provide a fabulous vehicle for discussing analogical reasoning and it’s relationship to the case method.

When speaking with reluctant professor’s, I strongly suggest explaining how ASP is using the law. Differentiate using the law as a vehicle for teaching skills from teaching the law itself. I leave plain vanilla law teaching to the doctrinal professors; that is their job, not mine. However, teaching skills to understand, apply, and demonstrate comprehension of the law is my job. It’s hard to teach the skills without a vehicle, akin to teaching car mechanics without parts of a car. I have found that even reluctant law professors are more amenable to ASP when you give them their due and reassure them you are not impugning their teaching methods or teaching skills. Once a reluctant professor is reassured you are not poaching on their turf, it’s helpful to define what you do in a way they understand. Let them know Academic Success in law school is an area of academic study just like Torts, Contracts, or Business Organizations. We have our own methods and goals. While some broad-based rules of law are necessary as vehicles for teaching skills, ASP professionals don’t need to teach the law to teach skills. (RCF)

October 30, 2008 in Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

2005 Post Revisited

Dennis Tonsing e-mailed me with a revised link for a column that he had published in April 2005 regarding non-traditional students.  In fixing the link, I read through the journal entry from Alice Marie Beard that was referenced.

Two thoughts came to mind.  First, the column reminds us of the struggles for non-traditional students.  Although written after Ms. Beard's first semester in law school in 2001, it is apropos to non-traditional students who are struggling this semester.  Second, we are fortunate that Ruth Ann McKinney has published her wonderful book Reading Like a Lawyer since this column and Ms. Beard's experience in 2001. 

Rather than just fix the link, I decided to re-publish the column that Dennis wrote.  It appears below with the corrected link to Ms. Beard's diary entry/essay.  (Amy Jarmon)   

April 1, 2005: One Hell: February Thoughts on Law School

Alice Marie Beard, a recent graduate of George Mason University School of Law, wrote this essay during her first year of law school, while attending The Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law.

Although this particular essay (diary entry)was written in February 2001, it is still instructive to those of us who deal with students, especially with "non-traditional" students.  Are we, too often, out of touch with what is going on with our students? 

This morning, I worked with a non-traditional student who was about to "jump out of her skin" with anxiety.  She hails from another state.  She has a husband, lots of bills, and an extremely annoying landlord.  She is in her first year of law school.  Her husband is still job hunting.  Her first semester grades are lower than she anticipated.  She never saw a "C" in college, was accustomed to nearly all A's.  She did the right thing: she asked for help.  (Academic support often includes more than an IRAC rehash - I referred her to professionals who will be of great and immediate assistance to her.)  In order to comprehend the profundity of the emotional impact of law school on ALL of our students, we need to become familiar with what they are going through. 

Alice Marie Beard has graduated from law school, and (in more recent essays linked to her web site) looks back on her years at "Catholic."  (djt)

October 28, 2008 in Miscellany, Reading, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, October 27, 2008

Aesop's Fables for Law Students I

As I was contemplating some common student problems recently, I realized that Aesop had covered similar behaviors in some of his fables.  So, I rewrote some fables to apply to law students and distributed them through my weekly study tips column.  I thought that the fables might be of interest to others, so I shall include a fable in each of my next few postings.

The Ant and the Grasshopper:

The Ant works all semester long at studying for exams and spends hours reveiwing knowledge to store it away in long-term memory.  The busy ant reads for every class, reviews before class, makes personal outlines, goes to the professors with questions, reviews all outlines regularly, and practices many questions to apply the material.

The Grasshopper visits with friends over long lunches and dinners, goes away on weekend trips for fun, spends hours on weight training, attends a variety of organizational meetings, and volunteers for multiple committees.  Having been called on for the semester quota in all classes, Grasshopper merely scan reads the cases for class.  Grasshopper delays outlining because it is such drudgery.

In October, Grasshopper sees Ant in the library yet another day.  "Why do you toil so diligently on learning the law, Ant?"  "Because I want to understand and remember what I learn, Grasshopper."  "But that is so much work, Ant.  Surely, you are overdoing it!  I shall enjoy the semester far more than you and still have time for learning closer to exams."

Ant has reviewed all but a few days of new material when the exam period begins.  Thre is plenty of time for more practice questions.  Ant is not stressed because the work has been done over several months.  Ant gets A and B grades on the exams.

When Grasshopper gets to exam period, a frightening amount of material is still unlearned.  Grasshopper is anxious in the exams and cannot remember some rule variations because short-term memory is fuzzy.  Grasshopper cannot choose the "best" answer on multiple-choice questions because the nuances are beyond his understanding.  Grasshopper gets only low C grades and mourns that "The Great Middle of the Class" will be his eternal destiny.

Moral: The law student who works hard throughout the semester will reap rewards including less stress.  The law student who plays away the days will reap lower grades than could have been earned with diligence.  (Procrastinators can morph into consistent studiers by changing study habits.)

At the end of the weekly e-mail, I always encourage students who are having problems with that week's skill to make an appointment for assistance.  A number of Grasshoppers have taken advantage of individual appointments since the posting.  (Amy Jarmon) 

October 27, 2008 in Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)