Wednesday, October 18, 2017
Occasionally, prospective law students ask me what it takes to be a successful law student. I am always happy to respond to this question because most of the time, these students find information from current students more valuable. One basic answer I provide is that students who are risk-takers and do not fear multiple bouts of failure tend to be some of my most successful law students. Although a somewhat perplexing response, I always proceed with an example, knowing from experience that most prospective students do not believe me initially. It is not until the end of the fall semester when exams are over and students have had a moment to step back and reflect on experiences that they understand what I meant.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “risk-taker” as “a person who is willing to do things that involve danger or risk (possibility of loss or injury) in order to achieve a goal.” The danger or risk referred to in law school academic performance is exposure of academic weaknesses and short comings. The perception that everyone knows that you do not know something; you are not yet good at something; you failed at something; or more importantly, your professor is aware of it all is quite terrifying to many first year law students. Some of them prefer to stay in the dark about everything for fear of possibly being relentlessly judged by one misstep. They do not realize that other students are preoccupied with their own fears and may forget about classroom exchanges or that due to the number of other students in the classroom; the professor may inadvertently forget the exchange. The worst aspect of this is likely when students avoid resources and/or interactions such as engaging with vital academic support programs and services that could eventually be beneficial to them.
Encouraging students to utilize resources that are available to them through the academic support program is probably the most difficult obstacle in the first year of law school. As a result, I try to use a number of modes of information delivery with the hope that students will use or tap into one or more of them. These include large and small group interactions, one-on-one interaction, and access to digital resources that allow students to work at their own pace. But sometimes, this is not enough. The hope is that at the very least, classmates, teaching assistants, and other administrators will help remind and direct students to resources that a conducive to learning.
My risk-taking students are often my high achieving students because they have redefined failure for themselves and created opportunities to excel. All of them were not the students one would expect to perform well from the beginning. Redefining failure is crucial to overall law student success. One simply cannot rely on past measures of achievement, otherwise one might become disappointed. Students need to focus on innovative ways of assessing improvement, understanding, knowledge, and time management just to list a few. They also need to determine how to obtain the feedback necessary for the positive adjustments necessary for academic success. Taking ownership of one’s own learning and managing one’s emotional reactions to feedback requires some skill and tenacity. My students who attempt all of this are self-empowered and build their arsenal of knowledge and skills throughout the academic year which typically yields positive results around exam time.
Risk-taking students are the students who attend regular professor office hours but also get answers wrong and spend time understanding where they went wrong. They may suggest and lead study groups, ask the questions every student wants to ask but does not dare ask the professor, are in my office regularly showing me how they have diagrammed and organized concepts, or are simply doing the things they should be doing. (Goldie Pritchard)