Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The uncomfortable road to gaining competence

It is the heartbreaking time of the semester for some of my 1L students.  Until now they have been telling themselves that "everything is new" and "just work a little harder" to assuage their feelings of being overwhelmed.  But now, it is Week 5; they are still feeling inept.  The hardest part is that they look around and see other students settled into the routine and apparently doing well.

What is holding some students back from "getting it" when others seem to be so at ease?  Unfortunately, there is no one answer.  I cannot offer a "magic bullet" to students who are struggling.  However, I can explore several topics with them to look for potential causes and suggest possible solutions.  For most students, working on some or all of the following areas will help them get re-oriented and start to have success:

  • Reading:  Active reading provides far greater benefits than "doing time" over the pages.  Some students have had undergraduate professors who lectured on everything they needed to know so they would skim read the textbook.  For law school, they need to read critically and process before class.  If law students do not have access to an ASP professional to help with their critical reading skills, they can turn to Ruth Ann McKinney's book, Reading Like a Lawyer
  • Briefing:  Students who skip briefing entirely are unlikely to gain depth of understanding.  Students who overbrief by including everything become lost in the details and are inefficient with their time.  Students who depend on canned briefs will not learn the skills they need for reading critically and briefing.  Students need to balance the essentials with the details in their briefs.  They need to use their briefs to help synthesize cases.
  • Outlines:  Undergraduate students may have merely regurgitated lectured material for A grades on exams.  Multiple tests with no comprehensive final exam encouraged them to use a "cram and forget" cycle of studying.  Outlines in law school allow students to cope with massive amounts of material and one final exam.  By condensing their briefs and class notes into a master document with the essentials for applying the law to new fact situations, outlines focus on the bigger picture with enough depth for accurate analysis. 
  • Review strategies:  Many law students do not realize that review each week is crucial in law school because of the amount of material to condense, consolidate, and learn with depth so that long-term memory is cultivated.  Reading outlines cover to cover each week keeps all the material fresh.  Intensely reviewing sub-topics or a topic as if the exam were next week allows the student to gain depth of understanding of specific material.  Undertaking memory drills helps to transfer precise rule statements, definitions of elements, or methodologies into long-term memory.  Completing practice questions for material that has been intensely reviewed previously allows the student to see what she really did understand and to practice exam-taking strategies. 
  • Analysis of fact patterns:  Some law students do not understand that legal analysis is very structured.  Opinion is not equivalent to legal reasoning.  Kowing the gist of the law is not enough.  A conclusion without sufficient analysis is inadequate.  Practice questions allow students to apply IRAC (or whatever structure the professor prefers) until they become adept at it.
  • Analysis of multiple-choice questions: Law school multiple-choice questions usually look for the "best" answer.  Careful analysis of each answer choice is needed rather than picking by gut.  Again practice questions allow students to apply strategies and analyze any patterns in wrong choices.     
  • Time management:  National statistics tell us that most college students study per week less than half the hours that law students can expect to study.  For some law students, a substantial increase in study time will increase their understanding.  A structured time managment routine will allow them to get all of the necessary study tasks done each week: reading, briefing, reviewing before class, reviewing class notes, outlining, writing memos/papers, and reviewing for exams. 
  • Procrastination:  Procrastination is a common problem for law students.  Their procrastination may have had little impact previously because the workload was "doable" and the competition was not intense.  Procrastinating students often have motivational problems.  Breaking tasks into small steps and creating rewards for completing tasks are just two possible strategies. 
  • Learning styles: Law students may not understand how to use their absorption learning styles to advantage and how to compensate for their shadow styles.  In addition, they may not realize that all four processing styles (global, intuitive, sequential, and sensing) are needed for competent legal analysis.  Each student has two processing styles that are preferences and two that need to be cultivated.  A variety of strategies can assist learners to use both their preferences and non-preferences well. 

When all of the standard techniques and strategies to help students result in little improvement, one may need to consider whether an undiagnosed learning disability exists.  A few 1L students each year are confronted with problems because they can no longer compensate for undiagnosed ADHD/learning disabilities in their academics.  Unfortunately, only testing can resolve whether or not a student has learning disabilities/ADHD.  One should not jump to the conclusion that every student having difficulties in law school has a learning disability, but in some cases it might be worthwhile for the student to be tested.  (Amy Jarmon)     

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