Friday, August 3, 2012

The Art of Reading Carefully

A persistent problem with some of my law students is that they do not read carefully.  It troubles me that this problem seems to cut across class years and class ranks and appears to be getting more wide-spread. 

So much of our lives as attorneys revolves around tasks that call for precision.  If our students do not learn to be more precise during law school, how are they going to excell in their work?

I am not talking about common first-year mistakes in understanding cases.  I am talking about students who simply never learned to read with care.  Here are some examples:

  • Students regularly ask professors questions that were covered in detail in class syllabi.
  • Students do not follow instructions on an assignment or exam even when clearly provided.
  • Students are asked to read a document carefully, but come to class with only a gist of that document.
  • Students do not read a complete e-mail or the attachments provided - even when they know that deadlines and task completions are required.
  • Students fail to read law school announcements, Orientation packets, registration instructions, Student Handbooks, and other items that they told are important.

When I have talked to colleagues about this problem, the following thoughts have been shared:

  • The Internet, e-mail, and text messages have turned students into grazers who never read for depth.
  • The parents of this generation of students kept track of everything for them so they are unaccustomed to being responsible for reading carefully and retaining information.
  • Students these days do not know how to read because they do not read books in their leisure time; they watch video clips on YouTube, watch TV, play video games, but rarely sit down to read books that are not assigned.
  • Undergraduate professors told them exactly what they needed for the exams so they did not have to read carefully - in some cases did not read at all for most classes.
  • They think they can look everything up on the Internet later, so why worry about boring text.
  • They got As and Bs without having to work very hard because of grade inflation in lower education, so they do not know that precision might be important for graduate-level academics (and life). 

So, what can we do to get our students ready for the careful reading, thinking, and writing that they will have to accomplish successfully in law practice?  Below are a few things that I have become more conscious about doing with my students.  I am sure that my colleagues can provide other thoughts and techniques.

  • Discuss professionalism in one's work as a law student and how that becomes professionalism in one's work product as an attorney.
  • Go over a case or fact pattern in great detail so they begin to see the information that they missed with only a cursory reading.
  • Parse a complex statute so that they see why every word and punctuation mark matters.
  • Ask questions that go to the legal nuances of the material they have read so that they begin to see the depth of understanding needed. 
  • Resist telling them the answer.  At times I have to bite my tongue and reply along the lines of "turn to page 3 in your syllabus and read point 8 on the format for your presentation" or "read the facts paragraph again and tell me what the court said about the defendant's acts."   
  • Encourage them to review exams with C+ or lower grades with their professors to see how they could have improved the grade (more careful reading of the fact pattern, more care in the organization, more precise rule statements, more depth in analysis).
  • Give examples of where a lack of careful reading or precision would cause problems for an attorney in practice - real-life examples are best.
  • Allow them to experience consequences for missed assignment deadlines, incorrect format, lack of proof-reading, or misread instructions.  Consequences learned in the law school environment will usually be less dire than than consequences learned later in practice.  (Of course, there are times when a student's circumstances warrant an exception to this suggestion.)

Part of being a professional is being conscious of one's responsibility for a high quality work product.  By mastering care in their everyday reading and class work, our students will learn to turn out work products that are professional.  (Amy Jarmon) 

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