Law School Academic Support Blog

Editor: Amy Jarmon
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Friday, November 7, 2008

We Can’t Multi-Task

I know some people will disagree with me, but we can’t multi-task. I don’t mean we can’t walk and chew bubble gum, but I do mean we can’t email friends, talk on the phone, and write a blog entry. However, I am also an offender of my own “no multi-tasking” rule. I multi-task because it has become an unfortunate habit reinforced by cultural cues. Like all bad habits, it’s hard to break. But it is also something that I am working on changing about myself, because it’s a cultural phenomenon that is harming law students who don’t know how to just focus on reading, OR writing, OR listening. Culture has told us that we need to be doing five things at once, but it’s a message that dooms many students as they try to email in class, listen to the lecture, and take notes. As ASP professionals, we need to model the best learning behaviors, but we are often interrupted by students who need help, phone calls, and emails for appointments, all while we are working on lesson plans, writing projects, and correcting assignments.  There has been some wonderful research that has come out recently that helps us push back against the cultural messages that tell us we are lazy if we are only juggling one task at a time.

To understand multi-tasking, we need to break apart three interconnected phenomena; productive daydreaming, multi-tasking, and self-interruption. When people (including some of the most respected ASP directors) argue that multi-tasking is not a problem, I believe they are actually talking about the related phenomena of productive daydreaming. Productive daydreaming, as its name suggests, is a good thing in moderation, and aids our thinking and processing. Productive daydreaming forces you to tune out when you have too much on your mind. It’s watching the snow fall, listening to running water, or doodling figure eights in the margins of notebook paper. It helps you make connections between material, connections that cannot happen when you are focused on activity. Productive daydreaming is often the product of too much multi-tasking; our brains become overstressed, and we start to tune everything out. Productive daydreaming is confused with multi-tasking because you are ostensibly participating in two things at one time; you are in a class while watching the snow fall. However, it is not multi-tasking because you are not engaged in any activity at all; you are letting your mind wander. Some of the best advice I received about starting a tough writing project came from Prof. Doug Kaufman of the Neag School of Education at UCONN. Productive daydreaming activities, such as mindlessly cleaning your kids rooms when you should be writing, are actually a critical part of the writing process, because they are giving our minds the chance to breathe. Too much productive daydreaming is not productive, such as when it becomes chronic, which brings me to the next activity often confused with multi-tasking…self-interruption.

Self-interruption is checking your email five minutes into a project, moving onto new project without finishing the last one, or channel-surfing. Self-interruption differs from multi-tasking because it is the rapid movement from one activity to another, rather than multiple activities at one time. Self-interruption has been called “attention-deficit trait” because it is a cultural phenomena, not a biological problem. We have taught ourselves to focus for shorter and shorter periods of time. Self-interruption can also be the product of depression or disillusionment towards a goal or project. This is a disaster when it is a habit of law students. Legal arguments are often complex and interconnected; it is impossible to follow and understand a legal argument if you self-interrupt after five minutes of reading. Self-interruption prevents students form reaching a flow-state that is critical to processing classroom discussion or casebook reading. It takes discipline to break multi-tasking and self-interruption habits, but it’s essential to doing well in law school.

So what have I learned about breaking the multi-tasking habit? I am reducing the number of distractions I have available to me when I am working on a complex project. Right now, I am typing the blog entry and listening to “Morning Edition” on NPR. My email is not up, I am not talking on the phone, and I am not playing with anything on my desk. Soon, I hope to work on only one thing at a time. (RCF)


Multitasking Can Make You Lose ... Um ... Focus
Published: October 25, 2008
Experts are finding that multitasking can put us under a great deal of stress and actually make us less efficient.

Learning to Multi-Task: Don't Bother
By John M. Grohol, Psy.D.
October 30, 2008

November 7, 2008 in Learning Styles | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Helping Students Manage Stress

Exams start at our law school immediately after the Thanksgiving Break this year.  With just four weeks left, the students are becoming more stressed each day.  Those who have been distributing their learning throughout the entire semester are holding up far better than their classmates.

Here are some of the tips that I offer my students to help them manage their stress during this time of the semester.  The tips are not in any particular order as to priority. 

  • Break every task down into small steps.  It is easier to motivate yourself to complete a small task.  You will feel less stressed about the progress you are making because small tasks will get crossed off your list more quickly.
  • Get assistance from others when you are confused about course material.  Go to your professors on office hours.  Go to the teaching assistants or tutors for your 1L courses.  Ask questions of classmates who understand the material.  Work with a study partner or group to review material.
  • Condense your outlines multiple times to avoid stress about forgetting material.  Someone described this process to me as follows.  After you know the material in your full-length outline, condense it in half to "son of outline."  After you are confident with that version, condense it in half again to "grandson of outline." 
  • Have a memorized mini-outline to reduce stress in the exam.  At least a week before the exam, condense your course to the front and back of one sheet of paper.  In a closed-book exam, you write the mini-outline down on scrap paper once the proctor says you may begin. Voila - security blanket extraordinaire. 
  • Practice applying the content for each course.  The more questions you do, the more confident and less stressed you will be in the exam.  A myriad of fact scenarios during your studying means you will be less likely to meet something on the exam that you have never thought about previously.  And you will be more aware of nuances when applying the law.
  • Practice exam-taking techniques for each course.  By doing plenty of practice questions, you will have your strategies on auto-pilot: how to organize your answers, how to write concise sentences, how to calculate a time-chart for the exam, how to approach the fact patterns most efficiently, how to use IRAC.  You will be less stressed over how to take the exam and will focus instead on the actual questions asked. 
  • Surround yourself with positive people.  Whether it is face-to-face or by telephone, have contact with people who will encourage you and raise your self-esteem.  Avoid people who are all "doom and gloom" about exams.
  • Choose study locations that help you focus and lower your stress.  Many law students cannot study at the law school because the stress level is so high.  Consider studying at other academic buildings on campus, the main campus library, coffeehouses, classrooms at your local church or synagogue, or your apartment complex conference room.
  • Become an even nicer person.  You will feel better about yourself and lower your stress if you focus on others rather than yourself.  Help another student who doesn't understand a topic.  Buy a cup of coffee for the student behind you in the lunch line.  Take cookies to your study group.  Volunteer in class when another student is floundering in answering a question.
  • Get in touch with your spiritual side.  No matter what your belief system is, being in touch with a power greater than yourself can be calming.  You will be less stressed if you do not feel alone in carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders.
  • Get 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night.  You will focus better, be more productive, and retain more information.
  • Eat nutritious meals.  Your body will function better, including your brain cells.  Avoid caffeine and sugar overload.
  • Exercise at least 45 minutes three times per week.  Exercise is one of the most effective stress busters.  Avoid exercising too late at night,however, as it can disrupt your ability to sleep.

In addition to tips, I provide my students with a handout of easy relaxation exercises.  Most of the exercises can be done anywhere - even in the exam room.  (Amy Jarmon)

November 5, 2008 in Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

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)   

November 4, 2008 in Miscellany, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, November 3, 2008

Reaching Out To Doctrinal Faculty

With so many new folks joining our ranks, I wanted to add a suggestion about reaching out to doctrinal faculty. This is one of the more difficult parts of the job for many new Academic Success professionals. For younger ASP professionals, it can be intimidating. Many doctrinal faculty have been teaching their subject area for 20-30+ years. This would put some new ASP faculty in diapers or elementary school when their doctrinal counterparts first starting publishing. Another, more difficult stumbling block to establishing relationships with doctrinal faculty is hostility. Not all doctrinal faculty know what ASP does, some are skeptical of what ASP is, and a few are just hostile. Thankfully, these types are few and far between at most schools, and growing fewer in number with each passing year. Despite these difficulties, it is greatly beneficial to build relationships with doctrinal faculty at your school. It may not be possible to build relationships with all the faculty, but reaching will build bridges into the classroom that will make your job more rewarding and your life much easier in the long run.

I have a few strategies for opening the lines of communication.

1) Ask your students. The best way to open a conversation is to offer help. How do you know what to suggest? Ask your students. Ask them how their classes are going, what they are working on with their professors, and if they have any special projects coming up. If a class is holding a moot court, offer to help judge. If a class is turning in practice exercises, offer to help the professor help students  who are struggling. Most professors will jump at the chance to get extra help.

2) Ask to observe classes. This is especially useful if a class has a special project or presentations. Once you have a general idea from your students of the type of project and when students will present, email or call and ask to sit in to observe student work. By asking to observe student work, you are taking the pressure off the professors because they will be less worried you are there to judge their teaching methods. Use the observations you make in the class to open the door to a conversation with the professor. Let them know how helpful it is for you to see your students “in action.” More confident teachers will be interested in your observations from the back of the class; where the students playing games or surfing the net? Be careful if you are asked about student behavior to never name names, over unsolicited advice, or impugn teaching methods. Offering judgment-neutral advice if you are asked, such as suggestions about seating arrangements (circles instead of rows), will be welcomed by more confident instructors who want to increase student engagement but don’t know how.

3) Ask for syllabi, and ask questions. Most professors are willing to share their syllabus for a class. Use the syllabus to ask questions; such as why they chose to start with negligence instead of intentional torts. Tone is important when asking questions; judgment-neutral inquiries about why they made the choice. (RCF)


I will be presenting on this topic for the NY-area ASP Professionals Conference Nov 14 at Brooklyn Law School. If you are attending, please feel free to ask me questions about this topic. (RCF)

November 3, 2008 in Advice | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

6th annual New York Area Academic Support Workshop at Brooklyn Law School Nov. 14

Brooklyn Law School and New York Law School will host the 6th annual New
York Area Academic Support Workshop at Brooklyn Law School on Friday,
November 14, 2008.
As usual, this will be a small and rather intensive gathering of
academic support professionals and colleagues.  While most are from the
New York area, we invite and welcome ASP professionals from all over the
country. Last year people came from across the Brooklyn Bridge, up and
down the east coast, and from as far away as Texas and California. The
goal of these workshops is to share ideas and materials; everyone who
attends will be asked to propose a portion of the agenda and to lead
part of the discussion. In order to be able to share ideas effectively,
we plan to cap the number of participants at 20.

The morning session will focus on the intersection of ASP and doctrinal
teaching. Our plan is to include doctrinal professors who use ASP
principles/techniques in their classrooms, and also to discuss ways to
encourage more doctrinal faculty in our schools to do so.  We therefore
encourage doctrinal faculty interested in academic support, those doing
solely ASP work, and those doing both, to attend this event.
Participants should suggest a topic related to the theme and plan to
make a short presentation, offer materials, and/or lead a roundtable
discussion of a question or problem related to our work.

The agenda for the afternoon session of the workshop is open and we ask
participants to lead a short (15-20 minute) discussion on an ASP topic
of your choosing. Last year we discussed ASP's role in Introduction to
Law during Orientation, ASP and the Bar, and we brainstormed ways to
keep students motivated from 2nd semester to the Bar. It is not
necessary that you have all the answers, only that each of us shares our
thoughts, questions and materials in a structured way.

We plan to start the morning session at 9:30 a.m. (breakfast will be
provided), break for lunch (we'll serve that, too) and work through the
afternoon.  We hope everyone will also be able to join us at a local
restaurant for dinner.

For people outside the immediate NY area, this could mean an overnight
stay on Thursday, and maybe Friday as well.  Because this is not a
formal conference we do not charge any registration fee, but also cannot
arrange hotels, etc.  If you will need a hotel, the Marriott is directly
across the street from Brooklyn Law School, and there are several B & Bs
in the Brooklyn Heights area. If your travel budget does not cover a
hotel for a one-day workshop, we will seek volunteers to provide local

Please let us know if you are interested in coming for all or part of
the day, and what thoughts you have to share or topics you would like to
We look forward to hearing from you.

Linda Feldman
Brooklyn Law School

Kris Franklin
New York Law
(718) 780-7929(212) 431-2353

November 3, 2008 in Meetings | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)