Law School Academic Support Blog

Editor: Amy Jarmon
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Friday, February 22, 2013

Leave Your Point of View at the Fact Pattern Door: Part 1 of 2 (Guest Post by Seth Aiken, UMass Law)

For some law students, life experience and a strongly held point of view can be immense stumbling blocks to law school success.

I began to think about this last semester working with several students in my 1L class. Relative to the majority of law students, these students were older, which is to say they had lives after undergrad – careers, families, mortgages and other “grown-up” milestones. Each came to law school with a clear point of view, seeing his or her world through a lens of experiences, beliefs and ideals accumulated over years. One student had been a nurse and another was a university librarian. One had struggled with substance abuse and one student, already a working mother of four young children had recently earned her undergraduate degree.  When I met these students it was clear that each was rightfully proud of where they had been, or at least what they had overcome to get here. They remained very mindful of and connected to the lessons learned in former lives and seemed hesitant to loosen their grip on those memories for fear of losing themselves in the disorienting new world of law school.

As I worked with these students on ways to approach hypothetical fact patterns, I noticed that many had great difficulty issue-spotting. They focused rather on the implausibility of the fact pattern and how unlikely or unfair a scenario seemed in the context of their own experience or personal values. Most often, talking with a student about why he or she didn’t raise a certain important issue in his or her practice answer, I would find out that the student saw the issue, but chose not to raise it, deciding that in “real life” nobody would seriously go to court over those facts, or that it didn’t make sense to spend time discussing an action that would be obviously unsuccessful. Years of engaging in moral reasoning and practical life decision-making seemed to have handicapped these students’ ability to engage in effective legal analysis.

This challenge posed a difficult conundrum.  In order to support my students, I needed to connect with them, earn their trust and demonstrate that I sincerely understood and valued who they were and where they had come from to get here. On the other hand, I had to ask them to look past those valuable former-life lessons and experiences in order to develop the analytical flexibility required to succeed in the law.

So my compromise solution has been to adapt an essay exam strategy that capitalizes on the likelihood my students would focus on the story and the actions of the parties in a fact pattern before recognizing the legally significant issues.

I start with one general instruction:  Always, always always add a single phrase to the beginning of the first sentence of every essay question, “On an island that you’ve never been to and where no visitors ever go…(essay question begins).  I remind them that fact patterns exist in isolation, as if on an island. No facts can be added and no additional facts are needed. They must also be mindful of the island’s inherent hostility and distrust toward visitors, outside opinions or new perspectives. A student’s point of view and common-sense life lessons, while personally valuable and hard-won, will prove confusing and unwelcome if brought to the island and applied to the facts.  With this simple, starting prompt, I hope to remind students, whether they are prone to mix life experience with legal reasoning or not, to keep an objective mind about the fact pattern so that they, in turn, don’t  lose the objective of the exam.  The additional tools I give students to avoid this pitfall and others will follow in a later post.


Seth-Thomas Aitken, UMass School of Law - Dartmouth

February 22, 2013 in Guest Column, Learning Styles, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Does A Spoonful of Sugar Help the Medicine Go Down?

With apologies to Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, I want to talk about using food to increase student engagement.  Although I originally would think of candy, donuts, and cookies, I have expanded my horizons after having students with special dietary needs who needed alternatives. 

Some days my students in class or workshops seem to have the ho-hums.  Our Tutors have noticed the same thing when trying to encourage discussion.  In a more general manner, I want to encourage students to come use the resources of the office.

Here are some of the ways food can help to engage students in learning:

  • For an early morning class, I sometimes bring breakfast for my students.  As they munch and sip, they are more willing to participate in discussion.  They are more alert and brain-nourished than other days.
  • For the mid-afternoon doldrums, I keep a large snack box filled with individual packs of cookies, crackers, granola bars, trail mix, dried fruit, nuts, and other items.  I arrive in class with the box and let students pick an item for a snack.  The results are similar to my morning breakfast offerings.    
  • Several Tutors take bite-size candies to their weekly group sessions and reward students who ask questions or participate in hypothetical discussions with the treats.
  • When reviewing material for my final exams, I often have competitions with teams in my classes.  The rules are a cross of Jeopardy and Who Wants To Be a Millionaire.  Since I teach international law courses, the prizes are a variety of products from the countries involved in the subject matter.  For example, for EU Law, I find as many items as I can from the 27 (soon to be 28) Member States.  Students get more involved because they know everyone will get a prize, but there are bigger prizes for highest individual points as well as for highest team points.  
  • Whenever I hold make-up classes, I provide food.  I do so partially because the make-ups often have to be in the early evening and partially because it just makes it nicer for all of us - no growling stomachs and famished brain cells.  We get those ABA minutes with nourishment.
  • In the past, I had a candy bucket in the study aids library of my suite to lure students in with hard candies, chocolate, and gummy treats.  Many a student was willing to discuss a study issue with me informally while sorting through the bucket for a favorite treat - often leading to a later formal appointment.  Other students would ask if I would help them determine the study aid that matched their learning styles while they munched.  The stress reduction potential was always a plus, especially near mid-terms and exams.
  • Several faculty colleagues are known for providing homemade baking, snacks, pizza, or other food items for their classes.  Several seminar classes are known for regular dinner meals. 

How often I provide treats and what sorts of treats, depends on how flush I am at the time.  Most of these types of perks are out of my own pocket because of university accounting rules.  Some of my faculty colleagues with chaired professorships have hefty budgets with fewer restrictions. (Amy Jarmon)  

February 19, 2013 in Miscellany, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, February 18, 2013

Register Now for the 2013 Association of Academic Support Educators Conference

If you are planning to attend the inaugural AASE conference in Las Vegas this May, the registration page is now available.  The conference is being held May 28-30, 2013 at UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law.  The link to the registration page is .

February 18, 2013 in Meetings | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)