Law School Academic Support Blog

Editor: Amy Jarmon
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Coping with brain cells that cry "Uncle"

A number of my students have expressed concern about their inability to focus by late afternoon because their brain cells are, to put it simply, exhausted.  They find they cannot learn one more rule, absorb one more concept, or read one more word.

At the same time, they feel pressured by the amount of daily work and the need to focus seriously on exam review.  As a result, their stress and anxiety levels are soaring because their flagging focus is contrasted with an increased need to use every minute well.  They feel guilty for taking a break in the afternoon instead of chugging on through their work.

Let's face it, law students expect the impossible from their brains.  They want maximum performance at every moment without considering the realities of mental "heavy lifting."  And, they want that maximum performance even if they are not taking care of themselves so that their brain cells are rested and nourished.

I suggest that my law students first evaluate whether their "care and feeding" regimens are sound. 

  • Are they getting a minimum of seven hours sleep a night with a regular sleep pattern (going to bed and getting up at the same time during the school week)?  If not, their brain cells are fatigued and will not learn or retain as much.  Tasks will also take longer when brain cells are tired.
  • Are they getting three nutritious meals a day?  If not, their brain cells do not have the nourishment for the mental tasks they are being asked to undertake.  Junk food and sugar- or caffiene-rich foods do not count as nutritious brain food.
  • Are they getting some physical exercise each week?  If not, they are not expending stress that can impede focus.  They are also not allowing physical exercise to increase their restful sleep to restore brain cells.
  • Are they interrupting their concentration with electronic distractions?  Today's students often constantly disrupt their concentration with cell phone calls, texting, IMing, and e-mailing.  Even a few minutes disruption can alter study results.  Self-discipline is needed to avoid being an electronic junkie.  Inbox storage capacities and voicemail were invented for a reason - dealing with the inflow of items when it is convenient after dealing with important tasks first. 

Once we have checked out the basics, I move on to some other possible suggestions to help them get over the afternoon slump in brain power.

  • Lack of focus may be the result of low blood sugar levels in the body.  A healthy snack (raisins, an apple, nuts, a granola bar) may give the boost needed to re-focus and get through the next class or assignment.  Snacking on candy bars or drinking colas or energy drinks will temporarily give a boost, but result in a later crash.
  • It is okay to take a break at the end of a long or difficult class day.  It is not uncommon to have a brain slump in the late afternoon.  This may be the perfect time to take a break for one or two hours to rejuvenate oneself before further study.  However, students need to make sound decisions about their breaks.
  • A workout break may be ideal because the student's exercise will defuse stress and promote better sleep later in the evening.  Even a brisk walk outside for 15-20 minutes may have a positive effect.
  • Running errands may be a useful break so that necessary tasks can be completed while getting a change from studying.
  • Combining an hour dinner with an hour of workout or errands may be a smart move.  Getting ones nutrition along with an entirely different task set can be reinvigorating.
  • Sitting down at the computer to answer e-mails, surf the Web, or check out Facebook may not be the ideal break.  These tasks tend to morph into expanded breaks - one hour becomes two hours.  Also, sitting in front of a computer screen can be innervating rather than rejuvenating.  If ones next study task is sitting in front of a computer screen working on an outline, the break period may actually increase the monotony of the follow-on study task.
  • Watching TV or playing computer games may have the same downsides as a computer break. 
  • A power nap of twenty minutes might be useful.  However, a two-hour nap is likely to disrupt that evening's sleep schedule and make one more groggy.  (If a student needs long naps every day, then it usually means that a regular sleep schedule is lacking.  If one gets seven or more hours per night during the same time period each night, the need for naps should disappear within two weeks.)

Students need to realize that the in-depth and critical thinking required when studying law willbe mentally exhausting at times.  An appropriate period of down time before going back to the next demanding task is not unreasonable.  Forcing oneself to continue studying when brain cells cannot absorb any more is counter-productive, frustrating, and stressful.  

Many students can improve focus with greater self-awareness and common sense solutions.  For students with severe, long-standing focus problems that do not respond to moderate changes in routine, there may other factors such as illness, anxiety disorders, learning disabilities, or ADHD interfering.  Obviously, these types of problems would need to be diagnosed and treated by appropraitely trained professionals.  (Amy Jarmon)   



October 23, 2010 in Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, October 22, 2010

Report from the LSAC Regional Workshop: Building a Bar Program

The recent LSAC regional workshop, “Building a Bar Program” was filled with useful information regarding every aspect of law school bar preparation programs.  

The agenda included:

 Carlota Toledo’s virtual presentation via Skype: “Using Skype to Reach Out of State Bar Takers”

 Courtney Lee’s presentation: “Building a Continuum of Academic Support”

 My Bar Exam Related Work in Progress: "Legitimizing and Integrating Bar Preparation Programs"

Laurie Zimet’s presentation:  “Diversity in the Profession”

Twinette Johnson’s presentation: “An Introduction to Program Design: Convincing Your Faculty that a Program is Valuable and Viable”

Jennifer Carr’s presentation:  “The Voluntary Third Year Program”

Barbara McFarland’s presentation:  “The For-Credit Program”

Odessa Alm’s presentation:  “The Post Graduation Program”

Paula Manning’s presentation:  “Psychology and Stereotype Threat”

Lessons in a Box:

            Chris Ide-Don’s lesson on “Multiple Choice Exams” 

            Russell McClain’s lesson on “Performance Exams” 

            Dan Weddle’s lesson on “Essay Exam Writing"

Mary Lu Bilek’s presentation:  “Defining Success: Evaluating and Improving Your Program”

As you can see by the list of presenters, we were graced by a stellar group of ASP veterans.  The conference was useful for ASPers looking to add bar preparation elements to their academic support program, create a new bar support program or enhance a current bar support program at their school.  Although I gained many new insights from the presentations, the most important take away from the two day conference for me personally was the feeling of camaraderie, encouragement, collaboration and support that was apparent in every presentation, interaction and discussion.

Additionally, this conference provided me with my first opportunity to present.  I greatly benefited from the process of preparing my presentation and the constructive feedback I was given during my presentation.  Presenting a work in progress is an interesting and appealing endeavor.  The “work in progress” or article is not complete (or possibly even started), you may have some ideas stewing but do not have concrete conclusions per se, and you have endless possible directions that your article may take.  Essentially, this incredible flexibility allows you to safely go out on limb. 

Once I came to grips with the fact that my work in progress was still just a work in progress and not a polished finished product, I could focus on what I wanted to gain from my session.  New insights, a critique of my current ideas, comments on organization and structure, and suggestions for expansion or narrowing were a few of my goals.  Not only were those goals met, but a thoughtful discussion of my topic (Legitimizing and Integrating Bar Preparation Programs and Techniques into the Broader Law School Curriculum) ensued.  More importantly, with every raise of a hand or comment given, I felt overwhelming support for my article but really that support was for me. 

My initial nervousness faded as I fully engaged with a truly dynamic group of individuals.  As Mihaly Csiksezentmihalyi would characterize it, I was experiencing “flow”.  Not everyone agreed with my initial thoughts, many even played the role of devil ’s advocate by challenging my premise, ideas and research, but I remained focused and motivated in a strangely euphoric state.  Wow, it was fun!

I write this post not to exalt my article or draw attention to my presentation.  Instead, I write this post to encourage everyone to take advantage of such opportunities in the future.  When you see, “Call for Proposals”, in an email subject line, do not automatically hit the delete key.  If you are excited to present or publish but do not know where to start, simply ask!  Ask someone at your school that you respect, ask someone you admire that has presented or published a piece that has inspired you, ask through the ASP list serve, or ask me. 

There are increasingly more opportunities to advance your scholarly ideas or innovative teaching techniques.  Although many of us are too busy to even keep up with our daily work schedules, you should not let finding the time hold you back.  The benefits you reap from presenting, writing, or researching far out weigh the burden it may place on your schedule.  In addition, the support and encouragement is a great confidence boost.  Find your “flow” and go out on a limb, you won’t regret the experience.

Many thanks to LSAC, Kent Lollis, and the planning committee(Odessa Alm, Hillary Burgess, Paula Manning, and Russell McClain), for the Topical Conference and for giving me the opportunity to present my work in progress. 

(Lisa Young)

October 22, 2010 in Bar Exam Preparation, Bar Exams, Meetings | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Stefanie Sidortsova Becomes Interim Director at Vermont

Please welcome Stefanie Sidortsova to the ASP community!  Stefanie has become the Interim Director of Academic Sucess Programs at Vermont Law School.  She has been the writing specialist at Vermont for the past two years.  During spring semester after the new Director arrives, she will continue to serve as the writing specialist and as an Assistant Professor for ASP.  You can find Stefanie's bio here: Stefanie Sidortsova.  (Amy Jarmon)

October 21, 2010 in Academic Support Spotlight | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Man's Best Friend as a Study Buddy

If anyone had suggested to me several years ago that I would tout dogs as study buddies, I would have laughed.  However, I have found that my students can use their furry friends to help them study in several ways.  Bear with me as these suggestions do have evidence of working for at least some of my dog owners and their pets.

Dogs are incredibly loyal and expressive companions.  These traits ideally suit them to be study buddies. 

Law students have to read and brief cases every day of their lives.  However, they will often learn and retain more if they recite out loud after these tasks.  Explaining a case helps the student prepare for in-class recitation and checks her understanding of the case - if you can correctly explain it then you really know it.

Of course, one could explain the case to an empty chair or a blank wall.  But behold ones furry friend.  By explaining the case to ones dog, a responsive audience is available.  A dog will smile at your voice, cock its head in attentiveness, and perhaps even bark or wag its tail to signify how brilliant you are.  In addition, your discourse with your dog will lull it into thinking that you are paying attention to it even when you really are not.  No more guilt about ignoring your pooch while you study.  Ah, a true symbiotic relationship!

Another example is that dogs often come over to check on their owners during long study periods.  Assuming that your animal is not actually asking to go outside, you can use this interaction to advantage as well.  Let your dog's visit amount to an accountability check. 

Pretend your pet is checking to see if you are focused on the task at hand, finished the case you were supposed to have read, or completed some other task that you should have finished.  If you are not on-task, then you need to admit it to your dog and get back to work.  After all, you do not want to embarrass yourself again about being a slacker on the next accountability visit.

Finally, dogs and humans need exercise as well as companionship.  Many law students learn by listening to the various audio series on law topics.  By listening to Contracts, Corporations, or some other course on your iPod while you jog or walk with your dog, you have accomplished two important tasks at once.  Voila, more symbiosis.

Oh, and for those of you who own furry felines instead, I can tell you from personal experience that the first reciting step does work with cats.  However, they are not inclined to look interested or give you any feedback regarding your brilliance.  The accountability step may work as long as they do not lie down on the book or paper that you are reading.  But most certainly, they will not tolerate companionable exercise.  (Amy Jarmon)




October 20, 2010 in Miscellany | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Claudia Diamond Is New Director at University of Baltimore

Claudia Diamond joined the University of Baltimore staff as Director of Academic Support in mid-Spring.  Please welcome her to our professional community.  She provided the information below so that you can get to know her.  (Amy Jarmon)

Although our hyperlink function is not working, ou can read more about her on the University of Baltimore faculty page:

Ms. Diamond’s responsibilities include supporting the teaching and learning goals of the school by specifically designing and implementing strategies to assist student learning, including assisting students with preparation for the bar examination.  She participates in individual and group academic advising and monitoring of at risk students’ progress, teaches academic workshops and supports both full time and adjunct faculty.  She is responsible for hiring, training and supervising over 40 student mentors who provide structured academic support. She will occasionally teach classes and engage in research and publication. 

A 1995 magna cum laude graduate of the law school and winner of the Law Faculty Award, Ms. Diamond clerked for the Honorable John Eldridge of the Court of Appeals of Maryland and Chief Magistrate Judges Daniel Klein and Paul Grimm of the United States District Court for the District of Maryland.   Her professional experience includes time as a litigation associate at Gordon, Feinblatt, Hoffman, & Hoffberger in Baltimore and as a prosecutor for a professional licensing board with the Attorney General’s Office of Maryland.   For a number of years, she has taught legal writing as an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland School of Law. She’s an avid long distance runner and is forming a running group at the law school; she is active in a number of local community groups and is on the board of her synagogue.  She’s the mom to one daughter, age 12. 


October 19, 2010 in Academic Support Spotlight | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, October 18, 2010

Welcome to Hillary Wandler at University of Montana

We would like to welcome Hillary Wandler to the academic support community!  Hillary kindly provided us with the information below.  Please say hello when you see her at a conference or workshop.  (Amy Jarmon)

Hillary Wadler has joined The University of Montana School of Law faculty as an Assistant Professor teaching legal writing and academic support.  She earned her law degree from The University of Montana in 2004, then clerked for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and U.S. District Court, District of Montana before entering private practice in Missoula, Montana.  She has been the Legal Writing Fellow at The University of Montana School of Law since fall semester 2008.  She also represents veterans before the VA and U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.

October 18, 2010 in Academic Support Spotlight | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)