Friday, March 12, 2010
Another essential professional skill set that contributes to law school success are the social skills necessary to engage others. Just five years ago when I started in ASP, I would not have thought this was something that ASP could or should be involved in teaching. I thought it was something that students either had by the time they reached law school or could never acquire. In the past two years, my thinking has evolved along with the students. There are two developments that I believe changed the skill set of incoming students; use of the internet as the primary means of communication, and the increasing number of students with Asperger's or autism-spectrum disorders enrolling in law school.
I do not believe use of the internet and the concurrent loss of face-to-face social skills are generational; I see them in older students who have years of work experience as well as young students weaned on the internet. This is the product of the internet age; if you spend most of your time working on a machine with limited face-to-face human interaction, your social skills will suffer. However, I have started to weave lessons in professionalism and communication skills into my ASP courses. Students who do not have the ability to make small talk need that skill to develop relationships with their peers and need to know how to make professional or academic small talk to get to know their professors. Law school is the time to hone those skills; it is essential for a lawyer to know how to communicate. Including peer-to-peer activities in ASP classes and workshops forces students to get out from behind their screen and learn to work with others. Scheduling joint programs with Career Services that focus on etiquette and business skills can help teach these skills explicitly. Why does teaching social skills fall into ASP? Students who struggle in law school are sometimes the most isolated socially as well as academically, leading to emotional and mental health issues that compound their suffering. Students learn better from peers than from lectures. Study groups can be an incredibly effective means of testing understanding of the material.
It was two years ago when I first encountered students with autism-spectrum disorders in law school. Working with undergraduates as well as law students, I see that this is going to be more common as services for these students expand and they reach their academic potential earlier in life. Law schools, in their present state, are not ready to handle the challenges or provide the services necessary for these students. These students know they have a challenge, and seek out help. ASP is usually where they land. They struggle academically because they do not follow some of the informal banter between professor and student that shapes so much of class time; they struggle in the hyper-competitive environment that fosters a "say one thing, do another" style of communication; they struggle because disabilities are still seen as weakness by many of their peers and professors. Many of these students need explicit instruction in how to behave during office hours with their professors. They may need additional support after meeting with professors to decode conversations that include sarcasm and facial expressions that these students cannot read. They may need to be placed in a study group facilitated by someone in ASP because their peers find them a little strange and they are hesitant to disclose a disability as the source of their uniqueness. Many of these students do very, very well in the courses that use formal logic (future estates) or value procedural fairness instead of theoretical, abstract notions of justice. They have a great deal to contribute to the field, and to their classmates.
Lessons in social skills and communication, interwoven into the fabric of lessons on academic skills, or taught explicitly, are becoming necessary. (RCF)
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
There are a couple of skills that feel more akin to life management or corporate training that academic support. One of them is time management. It is essential to doing well in law school, and it is a skill most students come to law school believing they already have in their repetoire. After teaching this skill many times, I have a few helpful suggestions that make the lesson more effective.
1) Tell them it is a new skill set. They may have academic time management down to a science, but academic time management doesn't require you to measure your work in 6-minute increments. By reinforcing the idea that time management is a professional skill, not remedial training, students are more likely to buy-in to the lesson. Using old billable hour time sheets can help students visualize the change.
2) One of the best books I have found for lessons that support time management as a professional skill is Dennis Tonsings 1000 Days to the Bar (HEIN). There is an excellent chapter on scheduling, with wonderful charts, that help students map how they use their time.
3) There are fewer external checkpoints in law school to help students benchmark their studying. With academic time management, students have formative assessments (quizzes, midterms) that serve as a check throughout the semester. After each checkpoint, students could reassess their study system and make adjustments. Many times, a test or a midterm covers the material up to that point in the semester, and the final only covers material from the midterm to the final. Not the case at most law schools; the entire grade rests on one test. Therefore, students need to create checkpoints early in the semester to benchmark their work. The only way to hold oneself accountable is to plan early; scheduling is critical. Law school won't provide external checkpoints, so students need to learn how to schedule them into studying.
4) Students should try using multiple calendars. A semester calendar can help students map their overall study schedule. A monthly or weekly calendar can help students see smaller, essential engagements. A daily calendar or a to-do list can help students stay on track throughout the day. For many people, checking things off of a to-do list or crossing them off a calendar provides a wonderful sense of accomplishment. Law school doesn't provide many things students can feel good about, but this is one small way students can reward themselves.
Tuesday, March 9, 2010
Some law students have been studying for exams all semester by staying on top of their course reading, adding to their outlines each week, and conscientiously learning new material while reviewing past material. In truth, this ongoing process is the key to the highest grades because deeper understanding and long-term memory result.
However, most students are only now beginning to think about exam study. Depending on the school, they are 6 - 8 weeks out from exams. For many, they will be on the "downward slope" when they return from Spring Break.
There are four kinds of review that students need to accomplish as they study for exams. If all four kinds are included in their study plans, they are more likely to master their courses and garner better grades.
First, one needs to learn intensely each topic. This type of study has deep understanding as its goal. It is the "could walk into the exam on Friday" kind of learning. It may take several study sessions to reach this level of learning for a long topic that was covered over multiple class sessions. Intense learning may need to include additional reading in study aids or time asking the professor questions in order to clear up all confusion and master the material. In addition to learning this one part of the course, the student should consider how it relates to the course as a whole.
Second, one needs to keep fresh everything in the course. This type of study is focused on reading one's outline cover to cover at least once a week. It makes sure that the law student never gets so far away from a topic that it gets "foggy." Students forget 80% of what they learn within two weeks if they do not review regularly. After intensely learning a topic, it would be a shame to forget it. Constant review reinforces long-term memory and provides for quicker recall when the material is needed.
Third, one needs to spend time on basic memory drills. This type of study helps a student remember the precise rule, the definition of an element, or the steps of analysis. For most students, these drills will be done with homemade flashcards. Some students will write out rules multiple times. Other students will develop mnemonics. Still others may have visual reminders. The "grunt work" of memory can be tedious. However, if one does not know the law well, one will not do well on the exam.
Fourth, one needs to complete as many practice questions as possible. This step has several advantages. It monitors whether one has really understood the law. It tests whether one can apply the law to new fact scenarios. It allows one to practice test-taking strategies. And it monitors whether one needs to repeat intense learning on a topic or sub-topic because errors on the questions indicate that it was obviously not learned to the level needed.
Ideally students need to set aside blocks of study time to accomplish each of these reviews every week for every course. The proportion of time for each course will depend on the amount of material covered, the difficulty of the course for the student, and the type of exam. (Amy Jarmon)