Tuesday, September 19, 2017
As I explained in part one and part two of this multi-part series, earlier this year I decided to undertake a new and difficult task (specifically, to grow a giant pumpkin) in hopes of gaining more insight and perhaps empathy for what it is like to be a first year law student. Here’s my third takeaway:
Daily maintenance is essential for success in giant pumpkin growing and law school studying. The key is getting the novice learner to appreciate that If she steps away in either situation for too long, she will find herself unable to catch up.
Once the temperamental seedling is planted outside, you must care for it – daily. The plant will grow from a few inches to a few hundred square feet in less than two months. Here’s my plant on July 22, 2017, just seven weeks after I planted it outside.
A pumpkin’s rapid growth invites a plethora of problems unique to giant vegetable growers. Unsurprisingly, a small problem early in the process can quickly blossom into a huge issue. Consequently, my expert-coach was insistent that I check on my plant every day. This novice was convinced that he was being overly attentive, hyperbolic, or just plain crazy. So, I ignored his advice and traveled to the Institute for Law Teaching and Learning’s summer conference in mid-July, leaving my plant to fend for itself for a few days. When I returned, I found that the stem had begun to rot due to a moisture issue. Ugh, turns out he might have been right!
I took my foot off the gas for one week and the plant began to get the better of me. Thankfully, I noticed the soft spot early enough to salvage the stem. But, my neglect left my plant struggling for several anxiety-ridden weeks. Seeing the rot, I quickly came to realize that my coach was correct. Unfortunately, it took me seven weeks and almost losing my pumpkin to finally accept that daily maintenance is essential.
Just like daily patch inspections are imperative for pumpkin success, regular and frequent outlining is essential for law school success because we cover a lot of ground, very quickly. In light of my own laissez faire attitude in July, I began to suspect that my law students likely viewed my repeated reminders to regularly convert class notes to studyable outlining material the same way I viewed my coach’s recommendation to check on my pumpkin daily. Over the last few years, I've discussed the importance of outlining as early as orientation and as late midterms exams. Regardless of the timing, students remained suspicious of the virtues of a daily outlining regiment. Much like the saying "you can lead a horse to water..." I struggled to make the students "drink in" my advice. Then it hit me: I needed to manufacture a "stem rot awakening" for my students.
This semester I scheduled a full-fledged practice exam, closed book and given under exam like conditions, during week five of a sixteen week criminal law course. Even though the exam was only graded pass/fail based on a good faith effort, students took the exercise seriously. I mentioned the practice exam on the first day of class, but only spent about 15 minutes suggesting how to assemble their class notes to study. Instead of lecturing on outlining, I simply recommended that the students implement whatever studying approach they thought would be beneficial. In other words, I left the students to their own devices. As soon as the students completed the practice exam, they received a sample answer and then were asked to reflect on their study habits. Many of the students saw "rot" in their Bluebooks, and were immediately interested in whatever study strategies I could recommend.
Post-exam I gave a more lengthy lecture about how best to study for law school exams, and invited students to make individual appointments with myself or a Dean's Fellow for additional feedback on their current note taking and outlining strategies. It's been less than two weeks since the mock exam, and more than half of the class has voluntarily come to see me or a Dean's Fellow. Lastly, hoping to capitalize on their newfound willingness to engage, I also launched a study group matchmaking service a few days after the mock exam. (More about that soon!) Although the students were a bit shocked by the mock exam experience, they are also happy to have the opportunity to remedy any soft spots before the midterm exam.
Caveat: I teach one section of our first-semester criminal law course. If you don't teach a substantive course, you could partner with another professor for this exercise. (Kirsha Trychta)