Thursday, January 29, 2009

Learning Life Skills

Many law students are surprised when I announce some of the topics that we will work on in our weekly sessions.  They expect me to talk only about reading and briefing cases, outlining course material, and taking tests.  Instead, I add a number of life skills to the list: managing time, curbing procrastination, using learning styles, promoting memory, and managing stress.

At first some students are skeptical that these skills will have much impact on their grades.  However, as we explore these topics, my students begin to realize that law school is not just about torts, contracts, wills and trusts, or other legal topics.  Yes, the legal course material is important; it is not everything for success, however.

I meet some law students who are intellectually bewildered by legal analysis and unable to succeed.  But more often I meet students who are unable to tap their potential because they do not know how to set up a serious study regime for a very different intellectual challenge. 

Law school is not as much of a special place for special people as some would like the outside world to think.  Yes, it is difficult.  Yes, you have to be intelligent.  Yes, you have to be committed.  But, no, you do not have to study round the clock, lose sleep, and never see your family or friends.  The old adage about studying "smarter" does hold true.   

Time management is critical to good law school grades.  A rigorous time management schedule can help students make time for all of the different tasks: reading and briefing, reviewing before class, making outlines, reviewing outlines, memorizing rules, applying the law to practice questions, and writing memos or papers.  Most of my students who go from poor or mediocre grades to high grades will study outside of class for 50-55 hours per week.  Most of these same students were used to studying less than 20 hours per week outside of class when they came to law school.  Although "front loading" one's studying sounds daunting, it works far better than the alternative of cramming.  Consistent time management throughout a semester is rewarded by deeper understanding of material, greater retention of material, more sleep, less guilt, less stress, greater life-school balance - oh, and better grades. 

Procrastination is highly prevalent as I mentioned in my posting last week.  A number of strategies can be implemented by students to chip away at their procrastination tendencies.  Curbing procrastination means better time management.  Better time management means less procrastination. 

We rarely enter settings where material is presented specifically for our precise learning styles (absorption and processing).  However, if students know how to use their own preference combinations, they can learn more efficiently and effectively because 1) they know how to convert material to their own advantage and 2) they can use strategies to learn when they are confronted with their non-preferences.  Furthermore, they can adapt their learning style strategies for group or "solo" learning.

The student grapevine thrives on study myths that fly in the face of research on memory.  By understanding how memory works, students suddenly realize the disadvantages of cramming and depending on working memory (aka short-term memory).  Unlike undergraduate education where they had a number of courses they saw as superfluous to "real life" and unworthy of memory retention past the exams, most law courses have a longer "shelf life."  When I mention that good memory work during law school can mean less re-learning of material during bar review or later legal research, the light bulb goes on for students.

By proactively using all of these other life skills, students are able to lessen stress.  Learning additional methods to cope with stress can increase their resilience in any stressful environment.  Life balance becomes easier to attain when life skills come into focus.

Being more successful in law school is usually enough incentive for law students to tap their potential.  However, when I talk about how these same life skills will benefit them in the daily world of legal practice, the skills take on another meaning.  Any attorney can expound on time management, procrastination, learning style differences in meetings/teams, retention of the law, and stress.  If one gains good life skills during law school, one's life after law school will be far more pleasant.  (Amy Jarmon) 

       

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