Tuesday, October 16, 2018
Final exams. Olympic competition. Oral argument. Job interviews. The bar examination. These are all high-stakes experiences, often competitive, in which successful outcomes depend on strong performance. As discussed last week, in such situations the human brain can adopt different chemical and behavioral states, depending on whether the situation is perceived as a threat or as a challenge. In a threat situation, the brain becomes hyper-alert to danger and error, processes information more deliberately, and shies away from risk. In a challenge situation, the brain pays less attention to detail, processes information in a more relaxed and automatic way, and is open to taking risks that have sufficient promise of reward. How can we use our knowledge of these two mental states, not just to understand our students better, but also to help them do better?
Let's start by noting that the brain can enter these different states at different times even if it is undertaking the exact same activity. A baseball player might step up to the plate in the third inning and see his task -- to try to get a hit -- as a challenge, and the same player could step to the same plate, even holding the same baseball bat, in the ninth inning and see it as a threat. So it's not the task itself that determines our mental state. It's the surrounding circumstances. Early in the game, when the outcome is still up in the air, a player may be "gain-oriented", focusing on accruing advantages (in this case, runs), and his brain will be in challenge mode. In the last inning, though, if his team has a slim lead, that same player could shift his focus and become "prevention-oriented", focusing on maintaining his team's lead by not making mistakes of which the other team might take advantage. In that case, his brain will be in threat mode.
In the same way, our students can undertake the same activity -- issue spotting, say, or answering multiple-choice questions -- at different times, and might find themselves in either challenge mode or threat mode. This is a good thing, a useful thing. After all, human brains evolved to be capable of these two modes, so each mode ought to have some beneficial qualities.
As Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman point out in Top Dog, in an academic setting there can be an optimal sequencing to these modes. Students perform best if they start their semester working in challenge mode and end it working in threat mode.
This makes sense in a general way. At the beginning of a course, students don't know much about the subject, and their goal should be to try to gain knowledge and skill as quickly as possible. A gain orientation is associated with challenge mode -- the brain plays hunches and takes educated guesses, because the risk (primarily, to grades) is low but the potential reward (flashes of insight) is high. Towards the end of the course, though, risk increases, as the student faces more heavily weighted final exams. At the same time, rewards are lessened, since (ideally) the student has already internalized most of the material and is not likely to learn a great deal more. On a final exam, a student is more likely to be in threat mode -- pondering the answer more slowly and cautiously, less inclined to make risky arguments, perhaps even debating word choice as he tries to recall the exact wording of a rule.
If a student is well-prepared for the final exam, proceeding cautiously with their mind in threat mode may be quite favorable. It can encourage methodical analysis, and help the student avoid unnecessary errors. However, there are two potential issues to consider.
First, as alluded to above, there are two sources of risk and reward in law school. One is the knowledge and understanding of the subject matter, and the other is the final grade in the class. A student who downplays either source is at a disadvantage. Reminding students to pay attention to learning the rules and how to use them, and to developing their test-taking skills at the same time, is part of what Academic Success is about. Being able to describe these abilities as complementary sources of risk and reward may provide us with another way of doing that.
Second, while being in threat mode may help a student avoid errors, they still may not perform well if they only enter threat mode for the first time in the final exam. Since threat mode slows analysis and limits the options the brain is willing to consider, it can change the way people behave during exams. We have doubtless all had students who felt confident in a subject all semester and then did poorly on their final, later explaining that they thought of some of the correct responses but abandoned them because they were afraid they might be wrong, and that they spent so much time working on the first half of the exam that they didn't have time to complete the second half. While there are several plausible explanations for such mistakes, one possibility for them to consider is that they had never practiced answering questions in that course in threat mode. If all of their practice was under the speedier, more relaxed challenge mode, then they had never really practiced under exam conditions.
Ideally, humans would have a switch we could activate to shift from challenge mode to threat mode and back. But, while we don't, it is nevertheless possible for professors to influence students and help shift them into threat mode. As Bronson and Merryman explain, teachers can affect their students' brains just by changing the way they present their examinations. If students are given a test and told that they will receive a certain number of points for every correct answer, then they focus more on the idea of gaining points, which encourages a gain orientation and thus a challenge mode. If, on the other hand, students are given a test and told that their scores start at 100 and that they will lose a certain number of points for every correct answer, then they focus more on not losing points, which encourages a prevention orientation and a threat mode. Even though mathematically the two scoring systems were identical, the differences in presentation caused measurable differences in performance.
Thus, one way to encourage our students to practice for final exams (and oral arguments, bar exams, etc.) in threat mode is to explain, in advance, that you will be scoring their practice work by subtracting points from a pre-determined maximum score. Conversely, students who fall into threat mode too early in the semester, perhaps because they are disproportionately worried about grade risk, might be coaxed towards challenge mode by being given exercises for which they will receive a certain number of points for every plausible point or argument. Even though the tasks the students are undertaking remain the same, we can help their brains approach them differently.
Thursday, October 11, 2018
It's that time of year. In the midst of many celebrations over bar passage, let's be frank.
There are many that are not celebrating. Their names were not on the list of bar exam passers. And, for some, it's not the first time that they've found themselves in this situation; it's a repeat of the last time around.
For aspiring attorneys that did not pass the bar exam, most don't know where to turn. Often embarrassed, many with significant debt loads, most feel abandoned by their schools, their friends, and their colleagues. All alone.
I'm not expert in helping with turnarounds. But, I'd like to offer a few tips that have proven quite helpful in helping repeaters change history to become "fresh start" bar passers:
First, as academic support professionals, reach out to each one. Make yourself available on their terms. Let them know that you care. Let them know that you are mighty proud of them, success or not. Support them, one and all.
Second, give them breathing room, lot's of time and space to grieve. Don't push them into diving back into the books. Don't lecture them. Rather, assure them that they don't need to get cranking on their studies. Help them to be kind to themselves. It's not a matter of just hitting the books again, and this time, doubly-hard. Instead, they need to take time out to just be themselves.
Third, when they are ready, set up a "one-with-one." Notice: I did not call it a "one-to-one". Rather, set up an appointment or meeting in a place of their choosing at a time that works for them in which you sit side by side, on the same side of the table or desk or cafe. They are not bar exam failures; they are real law school graduates. They earned their parchments. So, listen to them as colleagues on the same side of doing battle on the bar exam. Let them talk and express themselves as they'd like. Hear them out. How are they feeling? What went right? What's their passion? What saddens their hearts?
Finally, whey they are ready, make a copy of one of the essay problems that didn't go so well. Better yet, make two copies, one for each of you! That's because you are on the same team. Set aside 15 or 20 minutes and just ask them to mark up the question, brainstorm what they are thinking, and jot down the issues that they see. But...and this is important...tell them that you don't expect them to remember any law at all. Period. And, you do the same. Exactly the same. Don't peek at an answer key or even their answer. Instead, try your hand too; wrestle with the same question that they are wrestling with. Then, come back together to listen, ponder, and share what you both see as the plot of the essay question, the issues raised by the storylines, and the potential rules that might be in play. Once you've done all this prep work together, now, look at their answer. This is important, just look. Ask them what do they see? What do they observe? What went great for them? Where might they improve? In short, let them see that they have "inside information" about themselves based on their own personal bar exam experience and answers that they can capitalize to their advantage. Most often in the midst of working together, graduates tell me that they realize that they knew plenty of law to pass the bar exam. In fact, most are amazed at how well they memorized the law. And, that's great news because it means that they don't need to redo the bar review lectures at all. They know plenty of law. That frees up lots of time during the bar prep season to instead concentrate on just two (2) active learning tasks.
So, here are the two activities that bar re-takers should be prioritizing to successful pass the bar exam:
1. First, they should work daily throughout the bar study period through lots and lots of practice problems (essays and MBE questions). Every one that they can get their hands on. Open book is fine. It's even better than fine; it's perfect because they should be practicing problems to learn because we don't get better at problem-solving by guessing.
2. Second, they should keep a daily "journal" of the issues and rules that they missed when working over problems (to include tips about the analysis of those rules).
Just two steps. That's it. There's no magic. But, in not redoing the lectures, graduates will find that they have plenty of time to concentrate on what is really important - learning by doing through active reflective daily practice. Countless times, it's through this process of a "one-with-one" meeting that we have seen repeaters turn themselves into "fresh start" bar passers.
Finally, I want to write directly to those of you who find yourself in the situation of having to re-take the bar exam. You really aren't alone. Need proof? Here's a short video clip put together by the Colorado Supreme Court about re-taking the bar exam to include a few tips from some jurists and practitioners that have been in your shoes. (Scott Johns)
Tuesday, October 9, 2018
In the 1994 Winter Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway, the Japanese ski jumping team was having a very good day. After seven jumps, it had racked up a score so high that no one believed they could lose. The team’s final jumper, Masahiko Harada, who had already landed a jump of 122 meters on his first jump, only needed to jump 105 meters on his second to clinch the gold medal. But Harada faltered. His jump was not well executed, and he only managed to get to 97.5 meters before his skis touched the ground. The Japanese team ended up with the silver medal, finishing behind the German team.
Four years later, the Winter Olympics were being held in Nagano, Japan, and, once again, Masahiko Harada was on the team. He and the team were hoping to redeem themselves, and, of course, all eyes were on them as the home team. Harada was no longer the team anchor, so it was hoped that, without the pressure of having to be the final jumper for the team, he would perform at the Games as well as the team knew he could in practice. The first two jumpers did extremely well, putting the Japanese team in first place. But then Harada . . . did even worse than he had at Lillehammer, achieving a distance of only 79.5 meters on his first jump. The team fell to fourth place.
Things looked bad until Takanobu Okabe landed an Olympic record-setting 137-meter jump on his second attempt, bringing the Japanese team back into contention. They weren’t back in the lead, but at least they had a chance for a medal. And now it was Harada’s turn again. In his last two Olympic jumps, when he just needed to not screw up to keep the team in position, he screwed up. Now, if he wanted to help the team get a medal, he had to do more than not screw up. He had to excel.
And he did. He tied Okabe’s record, making his own 137-meter jump, and sending the Japanese team into first place. They would go on to win the gold medal in the event.
How did all of that happen? Why did Harada jump poorly in his last jump in Lillehammer, and his first jump in Nagano, but then manage to jump exceptionally well in his second Nagano jump? The stakes were high – Olympic gold – all three times, so surely there was always enormous pressure on him. What made the difference?
It might be easier to explain the difference if we consider, not the stakes, but the positions in which Harada found himself. In his second 1994 jump and his first 1998 jump, his team was in first place. He knew he had to perform to a certain level to maintain his team’s position. Expectations were high, but he didn’t have to do unusually well. He was just focusing on not making a mistake, because this situation was a threat to his (and his team’s) position.
In contrast, by the time he’d reached his second 1998, his team was no longer in first place. They weren’t expecting to win, but, thanks to Okabe’s big jump, at least they had a chance. Harada had less to lose, and good reason to allow himself to take risks, because there was more upside than downside to doing so. This situation was not a threat to his position; it was a challenge.
In their book Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman explain that there are physical differences between the way our brains react when we view a situation as a threat and the way they react when we view a situation as a challenge. In a threat situation, there is an increase in activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is associated with more deliberate and less automatic decision making. At the same time, the parts of the brain that watch out for external dangers (the left temporoparietal junction) and for internal errors in judgment (the anterior cingulate cortex) also become more engaged. Also, as activity in the amygdala increases, the brain becomes more sensitized to avoiding risk than to seeking reward.
In a sense, your brain starts paying closer attention to everything you see and do, and it clamps down on behaviors it perceives as potentially risky. In playing it safe, though, your brain limits the scope of the choices you feel comfortable making, which in turn shrinks the range of performance of which you are capable. When Harada was going for the 105-meter jump for gold in Lillehammer, his brain was subconsciously refusing to allow him to take actions – picking up more speed, jumping off closer to the end of the ramp – that would have given him great distance, but also would have carried an increased risk of falling. The cumulative effect of all those refusals made him, in a very real sense, incapable of performing anywhere near his best. In other circumstances, this would have been of little consequence -- 97.5 meters was by no means the worst jump in the Olympics that year, and it was probably several dozen meters longer than you or I could have managed. But in high-level competition, seeing the jump as a threat robbed Harada of the ability to show the world what he was capable of, and left him and his team wanting in comparison to the Germans.
In contrast, when you see something as a challenge, your brain takes on an entirely different set of characteristics. Hormones are released in the brain that dampen the activity in the left tempororparietal junction, the anterior cingulate cortex, and the amygdala, so you expend less energy and attention watching out for dangers, errors, and risks. Instead, your decision making starts to flow more easily and automatically; you rely on expertise and habit rather than stopping to deliberate over every choice. And when risks are perceived, they are not automatically shunned; instead, your brain attends to both the potential losses and the potential gains, and is open to taking the risks when the gains are great enough. When Harada was preparing to take his second jump in Nagano, he was no longer trying to protect his team's first-place position, so he didn't see the jump as a threat. He was able to look at it as a challenge -- Let me see how much I can obtain from this -- and, subconsciously, that freed up his range of behaviors to choose from. Only when his brain allowed him access to all the skills and knowledge he had acquired was he able to achieve the exceptional result he hoped for.
* * * * *
No doubt you smart people have already noticed the resemblances between Harada's performances and those of some of our law students, especially the ones who sometimes seem not to perform to the level of which they are capable. Whether students view tests, oral presentations, and other ordeals as "threats" or as "challenges" can have powerful effects on their performance. As we will see next week, though, threat stances and challenge stances both have a place in legal study, and there are ways that we, as teachers, can help students take the right stances at the right times.
Thursday, October 4, 2018
As reported in a Wall Street Journal essay by author Nicholas Carr, if you have a smart phone, you'll likely be "consulting the glossy little rectangle nearly 30,000 times over the coming year." Most of us seem to think that is not a problem at all, at least based on our actions.
That’s certainty true of me. I depend on my smart phone, nearly all of the time. It’s with me everywhere. To be honest, it’s not just a telephone to me. It’s my mailbox, my knowledge bank, my social facilitator and companion, my navigator, my weather channel, my bookshelf, my news outlet, my alarm clock, and my entertainer, just to name a few of the wonderful conveniences of this remarkable handheld technology.
But, here’s the rub. As outlined by Mr. Carr, there are numerous research studies indicating that smart phones, while often times beneficial to us, can also at times be harmful to our intellectual life, our communication and interpersonal skills, and perhaps even our own emotional and bodily health.
First, Mr. Carr cites to a California study that suggests that the mere physical presence of smart phones hampers our intellectual problem-solving abilities. In the study of 520 undergraduate students, researchers analyzed student problem-solving abilities based on smart phone proximity. The researchers divided students into three classroom settings based on phone proximity while watching a lecture and then taking an exam. In one classroom, students placed their phones in front of them during the lecture and the subsequent exam. In another classroom, students stowed their phones in purses and backpacks, etc., so that students were prevented from having immediate phone access during both the lecture and the subsequent exam (i.e., sort of an "out-of-sight-out-of-mind" approach). In the last classroom, students were required to leave their phones in a different room from the lecture classroom. Interestingly, nearly all students reported that the proximity of their phones did not compromise their attention, learning, or exam performance. But, test results indicated otherwise. The researchers found that exam performance was inversely correlated with smart phone proximity. Students with phones on their desks performed the worst while students with phones in another room performance the best. Surprisingly, however, just having a smart phone stowed nearby detracted from exam performance too. Apparently, just the knowledge that our smart phones are readily available negatively impacts our problem-solving abilities. In other words, to perform our intellectual best as lawyers and law students, smart phones need to be - not just out of sight - but well beyond our grasps whenever we are engaged in intellectual tasks on behalf of our clients because problem-solving appears to be compromised just by the presence of our smart phones.
Second, Mr. Carr cites to a study where researchers found that smart phone proximity is harmful to face-to-face communication and interpersonal skills. In this United Kingdom study, researches divided people into pairs and asked them to have a 10-minute conversation. Some pairs of conversationalists were placed into a room in which there was a phone present. The other pairs were placed in rooms in which there were no phones present. The participants were then given tests to measure the depth of the conversation experienced based on measures of affinity, trust, and empathy. Researchers found that the mere presence of cellphones in the conversational setting harmed human relationships and interpersonal skills such as empathy, closeness, and trust, and the results were most harmful when the topics discussed were personally meaningful. In sum, smart phone proximity can negatively impact our interpersonal social communication skills, important skills for law students and attorneys to attend to and strengthen in order to better serve our clients and the public.
Third, Mr. Carr references a study substanting that smart phones can negatively impact our emotional and physical well-being. In this study out of large US university, researchers evaluated the impact of the presence of smart phones in self-identity, cognitive abilities, emotional anxiety, and physiology by having participants work on word puzzles while measuring blood pressure and pulse correlated with self-reported survey results on anxiety levels and emotional well-being based on a state of pleasantness. While solving word puzzles, researchers at times would remove phones from the presence of the subjects while on other occasions researchers would ring the phones of the subjects. The results are startling. Blood pressure rises, pulse quickens, anxiety increases, sense of unpleasantness increases while cognitive abilities decline both when participants are removed from their phones and when they receive phone calls. In other words, we identify ourselves with our phones. They have become extensions of ourselves, to such a large degree, that to be deprived of access to our phones or the use of our phones negatively impacts our well-being as human beings. In short, we have allowed our phones to become part of us, to share in our feelings, such that we feel detached from ourselves when we are detached from our phones. In my own words, we feel alone (and indeed unalive) without our smart phones by oursides and in control of our lives. Or, to put it more simply, we can’t seem to live without our smart phones, and we can’t live with them too.
Plainly, that's a lot to think about. And, with all of the conversations swirling around with respect to the beneficial and detrimental impacts of technology on our cognitive, emotional, and physiological beings, there is still much that is yet to be known. But, I leave you with this thought.
Recently, I had one of my best weekend ever. But, it didn’t start out grand at all. In fact, the weekend begain like most of my weekends, busy, so busy that I neglected to check my pockets before washing my jeans. In my haste, I washed my smart phone too. Now horribly drenched, my phone was lifeless. Comletely dead. Stlll. At first, I was speechless. But, oh what I weekend I then experienced. Freed from my smart phone, I slowly began to relax. I started to connect to real people in real relationships and with real things. No phone calls and no buzzing emails or texts to interpret life’s relationships. I have to admit; it was one of the most best days of my life. Because of that experience, I now try to take one day per week free from my smart phone. Life can indeed be sweet to our souls, bodies, and minds without the constant intervention of our phones. And, better yet, life can be even sweeter for those around us too. So, feel free to join me in taking meaningful smart phone respites. The more the better. (Scott Johns)
Nicholas Carr, How Smart Phones Hijack Our Brains, Wall Street Journal, Oct 7, 2017.
Mr. Carr references numerous research articles, several of which are discussed in this article.
Adrian F. Ward, Kristen Duke, Ayelet Gneezy, and Maarten W. Bos, Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity, Journal of the Association for Consumer Research 2, no. 2 (April 2017): 140-154, https://doi.org/10.1086/691462.
Andrew K. Przybylski, and Netta Weinstein, Can you connect with me now? How the presence of mobile communication technology influences face-to-face conversation quality, Journal of Social and Personal Relationships (2012), https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407512453827.
Russell B. Clayton, Glenn Leshner, Anthony Almond; The Extended iSelf: The Impact of iPhone Separation on Cognition, Emotion, and Physiology, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, Volume 20, Issue 2 (2015), 119-135, https://doi.org/10.1111/jcc4.12109.
Wednesday, October 3, 2018
We all get "stuck" sometimes. Whether you call it writer's block, perfection paralysis, or another name, you're in the grip of it when you've spent hours or days on a project with precious little to show for it --except, perhaps, some record-setting times in online games. 1Ls get bogged down with legal writing assignments and outlines; upper-division students get stuck on moot court briefs or law review articles; lawyers and faculty can grind to a halt on briefs, memos, papers, or any of the myriad of projects we tackle.
How do you get unstuck? Everyone must find their own approach, but these ideas can help:
- Recognize that you are stuck. Be honest, but gentle, with yourself. "Hmm, I don't seem to be getting anywhere; I must be stuck again" acknowledges your paralysis as a fact without any negative judgment. On the other hand, "What's wrong with me? I always sabotage myself. I'm a failure" can slow you down even further as your writer's block becomes an occasion for beating yourself up over anything you've ever done less than perfectly. Practice being as nice to yourself as you are to others.
- Stop digging. The saying "If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging" is attributed to everyone from Will Rogers to Warren Buffett, but whatever the source it contains a lot of wisdom. Once you recognize you're stuck, change what you're doing. Whether it's checking Instagram or playing FreeCell or merely staring blankly at a screen, stop! Close the tab or the app; shut down your computer/tablet/phone if that's what it takes. Don't succumb to "just a minute more" thinking.
- Break the cycle by doing something physical for a few minutes. Walk upstairs or around the block. Do some crunches, jumps, power poses -- whatever makes you feel good and gets some oxygenated blood flowing back into your system.
- Try tackling your project in a more physical way. Drafting your writing in longhand can help.
- Try freewriting. Set your timer for five to ten minutes and write without stopping, even if at first all you can put on the page is "I have absolutely no idea what to say." Don't edit, correct, or ponder -- just write. The actual physical act of writing without stopping somehow breaks the cycle of self-criticism that gets in the way of generating ideas and flow. Although 95% of what you produce during this period will be end up on the cutting room floor, freewriting not only unblocks barriers but often results in choice insights that you can use in your finished product.
- When you are back in the flow, write first and revise only afterwards. The curse of computers and their progeny is they encourage us to proof, edit, and revise from the start, which gets in the way of creating a coherent draft incorporating all our ideas. Try writing out your entire piece in rough form first to get your ideas out on paper, then revise for spelling, grammar, flow, and sense.
- Create something and let it go. Learn when you need perfection (rarely) and when you are best served by producing something that is merely good.
- Did I mention being gentle with yourself? Getting stuck is part of the human condition. Resolving the problem calmly is part of the lawyer's toolbox. (Nancy Luebbert)
Tuesday, October 2, 2018
One thing that distinguishes law school culture from that of many other professional schools is the high percentage of people in student services who already possess the degree most of their students are trying to obtain. I have never done an exhaustive analysis (but woo hoo! Research opportunity!), but in my personal experience the majority of people working in law schools in the areas of Academic Support or Career Services are law school graduates, and so are a fair number of people working in areas like Admissions and Libraries. A quick dive into the Internet suggests that medical schools and business schools do not hire their own graduates for student services at nearly the same frequency. In fact, when I checked out the staff of five med school Academic Support units and five law school Academic Support units, no one in the med school units possessed an M.D., but each member of the law school units possessed a J.D.
There are no doubt many forces pushing towards this odd result for law schools. One that is practically taken for granted is the idea that someone who already possesses a J.D. is far better positioned than anyone else to really understand what new J.D. students are actually going through. Part of this assumption is perfectly practical: people who already have their law degree have presumably already learned all the elements unique to the practice of law. We can “think like a lawyer”; we can wield IRAC without effort; we understand federalism and common law and stare decisis and all the idiosyncrasies that our students have to contend with while navigating the rigors of study, time management, and exams. This is not to say that non-lawyers couldn’t provide wonderful support to law students. There is just a general belief that lawyers have a head start on understanding the context into which everything fits.
At the same time, law school alumni are apt to think that they can understand what law students are going through because the alumni were students once, too. We remember the dread of our first cold call in class; we remember plodding through civil procedure and constitutional law; we remember trying to juggle classes and law review and OCI all at the same time. Like military veterans of different eras, maybe we didn’t fight on the same battlefield, but our students don’t have to tell us what it’s like, man. We know.
Except . . . we don’t always know. We know a lot of things, to be sure; for me, not a day goes by that I don’t relate some student’s challenge to one of my experiences in law school. Education is always a boon. But the longer I do this work, the more I find that I have to work to find out what my students’ present experience is really like. This is in part because law school is always changing and evolving. Each class’s relationship to electronic research, for example, is just a little bit different from that of the previous class. Economics change, student populations change, hot button issues change. But these big changes, I think we do a fairly good job of staying on top of. In fact, sometimes it seems Academic Support is ahead of the curve, and can help bring other members of the law school community – for example, those whose specialties do not change much from year to year – up to speed on them.
What I really find myself having to pay more attention to each semester is my students’ day-to-day realities. Some of the mistakes I made when I first started providing academic support came about because I was taking a “one-size-fits-all” approach, and only with experience did I realize that it was really more like “one-size-fits-me”. I was teaching to my experience in law school.
Now, I am no longer satisfied knowing what classes my 1L students are taking each semester – I need to ask their individual professors for their syllabi, so I can know what topics they are hearing about each week, so I don’t assume that their Torts professor started off, like mine, with intentional torts, and therefore so I don’t pose a hypothetical that half my class can’t answer. I try to participate in student club events, like fundraisers or dinners, so I can hear about mundane practical issues – things like parking and child care and the timing of holidays – that I never thought about in school, but some of my students have to. I talk to other faculty and staff to find out the schedule of moot court and mediation competitions, visits from employers, and off-campus learning opportunities – stuff I was not particularly interested in myself when I was in law school – so I can better understand why a particular student might be coming to talk to me about a certain writing or time management issue. I seek opportunities to listen to students who come from different locations, cultures, and economic circumstances, so I can be aware of what going to law school now is like for them.
Being a lawyer means having been a law student, and having been a law student can be a tremendous advantage when your job is to help other law students. But having been a law student does not mean you have been all law students.
Thursday, September 27, 2018
While recently hiking through a wildlife sanctuary, I came across this wooden facade of a building, and it got me stopped right in my tracks.
You see, I was hiking so fast that I wasn't really seeing the beauty of nature all around me.
I sometimes wonder if that's true of law school life too. We tend to spend so much time reading cases and regurgitating notes that we don't often see the big picture purpose behind it all. But, the goal of legal education is not to be an expert in all of the finer details of the cases but rather to build a legal "window" of experiences from which we can solve legal problems on midterm and final exams (and provide our future clients with wise counsel too).
So, with many law students facing upcoming midterms, now's the time for our students to grab hold of past exams and get out of the "books" to experience and try their own hands at working through hypothetical legal problems. In short, as students walk through the materials students also need to stop and take in the view. In my view, that's because learning requires both the so-called "book learning" along with heavy doses of experiential learning, particularly in working through hypotheticals. As a helpful reminder - that the windows we look through influence what we learn - here's the photo of the facade that I found so encouraging in helping me focus on the big picture learning. (Scott Johns).
Wednesday, September 26, 2018
With National Mental Health Day for Law Schools just around the corner on October 10, it's a good time to think of how to help those struggling with anxiety, depression, substance abuse, or other mental health issues. Just like every law school should have faculty or staff trained in first aid to help those who are physically injured, every law school should have faculty and staff certified in mental health first aid to provide early intervention and to help persons developing mental health problems or experiencing mental health crises.
Originally developed in Australia in 2000, Mental Health First Aid programs now operate in over twenty nations. The U.S. program, developed by the National Council for Behavioral Health and cooperating agencies, is explicitly patterned on the model for providing physical health first aid. After an eight-hour in-person training, participants receive a certificate good for three years; participants can be re-certified by doing online or additional in-person training. Programs are offered throughout the country, sponsored by universities, medical providers, government agencies, and non-profits. The Mental Health First Aid web page offers access to training schedules and more information.
In mental health first aid training, participants learn risk factors and warning signs for mental health and addiction concerns, strategies for helping persons in both crisis and non-crisis situations, and resources for professional and peer help. Using role plays and other active learning techniques, participants practice an action plan which consists of assessing for risk of suicide or harm, listening nonjudgmentally, giving reassurance and information, encouraging the affected person to seek appropriate professional help, and encouraging self-help and other support strategies.
Mental Health First Aid is a great addition to the ASP toolbox. While we have all practiced risk assessment, active listening, and appropriate referral, this training program formalizes and structures our efforts, as well as giving us measurable credentials. Because courses are offered locally, they also help strengthen our awareness of local resources available to help colleagues, students, and members of the community.
Finally, don't forget the great law-specific resources available, including the Law School Academic Success Project Wellness page, the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs, National Mental Health Day for Law Schools materials, and Professor Larry Krieger's invaluable booklet (newly revised and expanded), The Hidden Stresses of Law School and Law Practice. (Nancy Luebbert)
Tuesday, September 25, 2018
I used to be so jealous of the Financial Aid Office. Nobody on campus seems to have any trouble understanding what they do for students. If you have financial issues, they are there to aid you. That's some spot-on branding right there.
In contrast, and for various historical, linguistic, and cultural reasons, those of us working in Academic Support often have to make more effort to get students, colleagues, and alumni to understand the full range of what we do. Our roles in the law school community are relatively new, and have been for the most part continually evolving over the past forty years or so; neither circumstance breeds familiarity. The names chosen for our departments vary from institution to institution -- Academic Support, Academic Success, Academic and Bar Support, etc. -- which I think both reflects and compounds the inherent inability of trying to convey all we do in only two to four words. And in some cases people jump to conclusions about what we provide because of defensive or dismissive stereotypes -- like "Oh, you are here just to help the weaker students" or "All you care about is bar passage rates".
This year, I started using a new model to help my law school community understand and talk about what Academic Success has to offer. I introduced this during Orientation, when I asked our incoming 1L students: When do you go to your doctor? It did not take much coaxing to get them to agree that sensible people go to the doctor for lots of different reasons -- some dire, and some propitious:
- When you are in a lot of distress, maybe even an emergency situation, your doctor can help keep you from suffering or dying.
- When you have a cold or, say, a sprained ankle -- something you might live with, sure, but why suffer needlessly? -- your doctor can help you feel and perform better.
- When you feel a little “off” but you're not sure why, your doctor can test for things like anemia or allergies, and diagnose and treat such afflictions before they snowball into major problems.
- When are feeling fine, and you want to keep from getting sick, your doctor can give you a checkup to confirm that all is well, can advise you about what preventative medicines might be wise, like a flu shot, and can make sure that you have access to them.
- When you are thinking about undertaking something new (like a new exercise or diet regimen), your doctor can help make sure you do it right and maybe even give you some advice on how to do it better.
In the same way, there are many situations in which it would make perfectly good sense for a law school student to seek help from Academic Success:
- When you are in crisis, you might be recommended or even required to meet with me, so I can try to help you avoid academic catastrophe.
- When you feel you are struggling with a particular task or subject, Academic Success can help you get a better handle on things and help you perform better.
- When you are worried about your progress or preparedness, but you can't put your finger on why, Academic Success can review your work and then provide some diagnosis, feedback, and assistance.
- When things seem to be going well, but you know that new challenges (like your first set of 1L final exams or the Bar exam) are on the horizon, Academic Success can help confirm that you have developed a firm foundation and can help you map out what steps you should take to prepare.
- When you are thinking about undertaking something new (like moot court or a part-time job), Academic Success can help you make sure you have a plan in place to make sure your studies continue to go well, and may even have some suggestions to help improve your performance.
In other words, one way of thinking about Academic Success is as a kind of Academic HMO. Sure, we are here to help students in distress, and there is no more shame is seeking our help than there would be in going to the emergency room if you were having trouble breathing. But that doesn't mean you have to wait until you're gasping and blue to come see us! Just as with physical health, academic health is often best maintained, and at the least cost, when symptoms are addressed early, before they turn into crises. And with our knowledge and experience, we can even advise students who are in good condition about how to continue to improve while avoiding potential dangers to their academic well-being.
I like this metaphor, not only because it provides an easily-understood conception of Academic Support to incoming students, but also because it conveys an appropriately broad image of the services we provide (and the clientele to whom we provide them) to upper class students, faculty, and alumni who might otherwise have a more narrow view of us. It is too soon to tell if this explanation will lead to a change in the use of Academic Success here, but at least now, with a vivid, coherent way of explaining what I do, I feel a little bit less envious of my Financial Aid colleagues. (Bill MacDonald)
Wednesday, September 19, 2018
Starting outlines can be an intimidating process, especially for those who are not "born organized." Using flashcards to construct outlines is a useful technique for those having trouble getting started, for kinesthetic and visual learners, and for anyone who has trouble organizing masses of complex material within the confines of a laptop computer screen. This is also a useful technique when small study groups want to work together to construct an outline.
Although outlining with flashcards can be time intensive and certainly doesn't work for all students, it has advantages for many students. Like using a whiteboard to construct flowcharts and mind maps, using cards is highly visual and kinesthetic, so it involves the whole person in learning. The learner doesn't have to start off being organized or understanding the material -- rather, understanding and organization come from engaging in the process. Unlike a whiteboard, cards allow for more detailed information and more permanence even while they allow for easily moving, manipulating, and deleting information. And the same cards used for constructing the outline can also be used as flashcards for memory work and issue spotting.
Here's my recipe for starting to outline using the flashcard method. Like any recipe, alter it to your own taste.
- 3 X 5 cards, store-bought or homemade (Check your local dollar store for good deals. It may be cheaper to buy cardstock paper and cut to size.)
- Pens, pencils, and highlighters in desired colors
- Glue dots
- Rubber bands
- Source material -- case briefs, class notes, casebook
- Room with a big table or tables (an empty classroom is ideal) or with big blank walls
- "Brain-dump." On each card, handwrite one, and only one, piece of information. That could be a concept, definition, major rule, subrule, element, policy, case holding, case facts, example, or hypothetical. Handwriting is important here, because creating cards on a computer may bog you down in perfection paralysis -- and perfectionism is the enemy of starting outlines in the first place.
- Once you have brain-dumped, review each individual piece of information to make sure it is accurate. Did you use the proper terminology? Does a rule include all the elements in the proper order?
- Spread your cards out so you can see each individual card. You can do this on any flat surface like a table, but many people find it easier to see and grasp the information if the cards are on a wall (glue dots are incredibly useful for this).
- Now start sorting your cards into rough groupings. For example, which rules and cases come under duty and which under breach?
- As you engage in working your way through the material, you will almost certainly think of more concepts, rules, definitions, and examples you didn't think of when you were starting out. Great! Create a new card for each of these and plug into the appropriate place.
- Work your way from rough groupings into more formal relationships shown by outline format. For instance, does this case illustrate a major rule or a subrule?
- Use this process to think your way systematically through the material and deeply engage with it. Remember, relationships are not always obvious and might be logically placed in different places, but you want to find the best place. For example, if you were analyzing some torts or crimes, would you treat lack of consent as an element, or would consent be an affirmative defense?
- Color code, number, or otherwise mark your cards to show the order between them. It's handy to periodically take pictures of your cards as arranged on the wall to record your outline as a visual construct. If you are working at home and have lots of room, you might keep the cards on the wall; if not, take down your cards in order and secure them with a rubber band.
- Revisit your outline often with the new understanding gained by working your way through hypotheticals and taking practice tests. Are the concepts in the best order? Are your rules accurate? Are your examples helpful for understanding the concept?
- The more you use the cards, the better you can understand the material on both a micro and macro level. It's critical to periodically spread the cards out to get a visual sense of the whole organization of your subject. In addition, you can use the cards as flashcards for memory or issue-spotting work.
Tuesday, September 18, 2018
There is nothing like undertaking a new exploit to help you establish an affinity with the 1L law students with whom you are working. Enlisting as a contributing editor to the Law School Academic Support Blog, for example, has for me provoked the mix of hopeful excitement and mystified apprehension that used to be just a fuzzy memory from my own first year of law school. Will I impress people favorably? Will I put my foot in my mouth? Suddenly I feel a fresh sense of empathy with the incoming class.
And this makes sense! How else would anybody feel upon realizing that they have voluntarily taken on a future of writing dozens or hundreds of essays in which they are expected to take a stance and justify it with a combination of facts, logic, judgment, history, inference, speculation, and the occasional appeal to emotion, and then presenting these essays to readers who are knowledgeable attorneys with high standards? Whether you are a law student or a law blog author, this can be an intimidating position.
Okay, I’m exaggerating. I am excited to have joined the Law School Academic Success Blog team, notwithstanding any qualms about performing on a new stage. But I have been reminded of my first few weeks in law school, and even a brief flash of empathy with our new law students has some value. It can build rapport. It can also help us find ways to exploit our own experiences for our students’ benefit.
In this case, as I considered writing for this blog, I realized that the greatest source of uncertainty, and thus anxiety, was not knowing the expectations of my readers. What topics do you want to read about? What kind of tone do you prefer? There is not much I can do to answer those questions, other than to write and wait for reaction. But it does not have to be that way for our students.
An issue I see commonly in 1L writing, particularly in the first semester, is a misapprehension of the expectations of the person grading the writing. Some students rely mistakenly on crafting the kind of intricate prose for which they received high grades in the past. Others, in lieu of legal analysis, reflexively regurgitate the rules, case names, and historical details they have memorized. Sometimes students overemphasize something they have learned in law school -- IRAC format, for example -- and apply it indiscriminately, without prioritizing the most relevant issues. These errors are not always the result of not grasping their professors’ expectations, but sometimes they are, and when they are, it can be frustrating for a student not to realize their lapse until after they receive a disappointing grade that might have been avoided.
For this reason, when I am working with 1L students, I try to convey a blend of messages about what they should be striving for. While I aim to be clear with students about the importance of developing skills such as clear analysis and precision, I also insert explicit messages about how law professors, in general, often have expectations of student performance that differ from those of students’ previous teachers. Yes, professors expect their students to know the rules discussed in class, but they also expect students to use those rules as tools, and to exercise judgment in choosing which tools to use, and how to use them. They expect students to make choices about what they discuss, and at how much depth. Moreover, different professors may have different expectations with respect to these choices, and students can learn to glean these individual preferences by paying attention to what each professor emphasizes in class and by talking with the professors and their teaching assistants.
Of course, many law students figure out the importance of their audience’s expectations naturally. But there is a subset of students who seem most comfortable approaching academic performance as an objective, quantitative measure of how much they know. Helping them to see early on that, in most cases, their academic performance in law school will be judged by qualitative standards that are shaped to some degree by their teachers’ subjective expectations can hasten those students’ movement out of their comfort zone and into a realm in which they make prudent decisions about what issues to address, which facts and rules to use, and which outcomes are most likely. Encouraging students to consider their readers’ expectations can help them to see that their job as law students, both in class and beyond, is not merely to memorize and recite, but to learn how to engage in discourse as part of a larger legal community. (Bill MacDonald)
Thursday, September 6, 2018
Radical. Bold. Ambitious. And shocking too. Until I read the research. But first, the country-wide experiment in learning...
As reported by CNN, starting earlier this month with the new school year, France has banned, I mean completely banned, student cell phone use in all primary, middle, and high school campuses throughout France (and throughout the entire school day (lunch included)): https://www.cnn.com/france-smartphones-school-ban-intl/index.html
As detailed by CNN, there's research to back up the educational benefits. As described by CNN, the research evaluated the relationship between cell phone use and academic achievement for 130,000 UK students. The researchers "found that following a ban on phone use, the schools' test scores improved by 6.4%. [And,] [t]he impact on underachieving students was much more significant -- their average test scores rose by 14% (emphasis added)." https://money.cnn.com/smartphones-schools-ban/index.html. Citing research authors Dr. Richard Murphy and Dr. Louis-Philippe Beland, CNN reported that just by prohibiting cell phone use in schools, "[s]chools could significantly reduce the education achievement gap...."
That's big news - that ought to make a big splash in legal education - because the research suggests that a low tech solution might help law schools too narrow the achievement gap for those most at-risk of not doing well in law school. So, as you meet with students who are struggling this semester, you might ask your learners about their cell phone habits. No need to be pushy. Instead, just show them the research and then let them make a decision. https://cep.lse.ac.uk/publishedresearch
Based on my own review of the research, here's my recommendation to my students: "For one week, just leave the mobile phone at home...or in one's school locker...or tucked away with the power off in one's backpack. Even if it doesn't lead to better learning, you'll find that you'll quickly put a quash to those never-ending furtive glances at one's phone to see if someone has tried to connect with you. And, more importantly, you might find that you are actually making better connections with the materials (and others) by not connecting to the digital world while at law school. In short, you might reap the same educational benefits as those documented in the UK." That's a great educational goal for all of us. (Scott Johns).
Wednesday, September 5, 2018
I choose to spend much of my precious free time in the company of friends old and new. Just in the past few weeks, I've bantered with pilots in a cockpit jumpseat at 30,000 feet, sweltered with desperadoes holed up in a moldering hotel in the East Indies, paced the deck of a British frigate with a tone-deaf captain, suffered the pounding echoes of a sacred Indian cave with an elderly English lady, fumed at the stupidity of Muggles in Little Whinging, sailed with self-styled Amazons in the English Lake District, groomed fellow primates in East Africa, confronted cynical gangsters in LA, and wandered happily through the Hundred Acre Wood with my great friend Christopher Robin.
In law school and my first few years of law practice, I neglected these friends. I foolishly thought I didn't have time for pleasure reading, and that reading fun books was a distraction from the analytical reading demanded by the study and practice of law. How wrong I was! Indeed, working in academic support has made me realize that time spent reading for pleasure enhances the study and practice of law in at least four ways:
1. Better readers are better writers, and writing is at the heart of what lawyers and law students do. Good writers read widely. As William Faulkner famously said, "Read, read, read. Read everything -- trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it. Then write."
2. Reading for pleasure helps you understand human nature. Much as struggling law students would sometimes like to treat law as a mechanical matter of applying rules to fixed facts, law is complicated precisely because it tries to make sense out of the messiness of human lives. The better you understand human nature, whether the hard-bitten cynicism of Philip Marlowe (The Big Sleep), the introspective self-doubt of Horatio Hornblower (Ship of the Line), or the adventurous independence of Nancy Blackett (Swallows and Amazons), the better you can understand the actions, arguments, and decisions of clients, lawyers, and judges.
3. Reading for pleasure helps make you a faster, more nimble reader. Since trying to understand each word, sentence, and paragraph of a complicated legal case can be difficult, law students have a tendency to bog down, reading more and more slowly even when the passage does not demand it. While slow methodical reading has its place, good readers vary their pace according to the demands of the text. Reading strictly for pleasure, often at a rapid clip, is one of the easiest ways to retrain your brain to modify reading speed according to the difficulty of the material. I'm convinced that even fifteen minutes of pleasure reading a day pays huge dividends in increasing overall reading speed.
4. Reading just for pleasure is fun. And as Professor Steven Foster reminded us in his Labor Day post, making time for fun helps you thrive in law school -- and, I'd add, in law practice. (Nancy Luebbert)
Thursday, August 30, 2018
I recently heard a pastor say something to the effect:
"We listen in lines.
We learn in circles.
We grow in circles.
We change in circles."
As I take it, here's the point.
Whether at a place of worship or at a school (or at any other place of learning), most of us think that we are learning when we are sitting passively, and yet attentively, in an orderly line with others, listening, watching, and taking notes from an expert teacher...as the teacher presents the materials to us.
In contrast, according to the speaker, if you (or me) think that we are learning by just being present in class, by sitting in lines, we are sorely mistaken. Let me be frank. We are in fact self-deceived. We are merely listening but not learning; not growing; not changing. Listening ≠ Learning.
I realize these are strong words (strong medicine). But, as Dr. John Dunlosky, professor of psychology, suggests, we are all easily tricked into imaging and believing that we are learning when we are merely studying. https://www.aft.org/periodicals/dunlosky.pdf There is in fact a big difference between studying and learning.
Let me be direct.
In my own view, learning requires us to live and move in circles. It requires us to move beyond the lines of our classroom environment, to no longer just sit still and silent, but rather to share with others what we are thinking, to loop back through our notes to distill and reshape them using our own words, and to make what we have heard into something personally meaningful to us individually. In short, it means to act...to act upon what we have heard.
If that sounds difficult, it is. But, it's not impossible...for any of us.
However, it does mean, as Dr. Dunlosky observes, that we will often feel uncomfortable and uncertain about our learning (indeed, whether we are even learning at all). That's because learning means that we understand that - as presently situated - we have things to learn, things that we don't yet know, and indeed that we don't really know anything until what we learn becomes part of who we are as human beings. And, that happens in circles not lines. It happens with us daily interacting and acting with and upon the materials. It happens when we pause and reflect. It happens when we share and debate with others what we are thinking. It happens because learning is really in reality a social activity, a social enterprise that helps shape us into who we are as people.
So, as you celebrate this upcoming Labor Day holiday, feel free to step back and think about your past learning. In particular, take time to reflect on how you personally learned something in the past that now sticks with you forever. Perhaps it was learning to play guitar. Perhaps learning arithmetic. Perhaps learning to meditate and be mindful. Whatever it was, the things that you have learned - really learned - all occurred because you moved beyond the line into creating meaningful circles of relationships with what you heard and watched. So, take the next step in being a learner by taking charge of your learning journey, and, in the process, you will grow and change. In short, you'll learn. (Scott Johns).
Wednesday, August 29, 2018
While many students are mildly uncomfortable with some of the speaking and social interaction involved in law school, for some students the discomfort can be almost paralyzing. Extreme shyness can make law school seem a Herculean task. Gripping, gut-wrenching social anxiety can result in students missing class, losing focus because of the fear of being called on, passing on opportunities to engage with professors after class or during office hours, or shutting themselves off from peer learning and networking.
It's not uncommon for a law student to confess to me that s/he is shy. "Confess" is, indeed, the operative term, because the shy student invariably feels that the shyness is something shameful that should be hidden from others. But having the courage to disclose something which feels like a defect can be in itself a monumental step towards overcoming the obstacles posed by the shyness.
While students with debilitating social anxiety may benefit from professional help from a licensed counselor, most students can mitigate the effects of shyness by self-help, following these principles:
- Believe in yourself, in your own abilities and your own worth.
- Recognize that overcoming shyness is a skill.
- Reward yourself for your efforts rather than dwelling on how others react.
Believe in yourself. We all have different gifts and natural abilities. Others may be more fluent or quicker to understand in the classroom. Rejoice for them. But you have your own gifts that will make you a great lawyer. Perhaps is is a gift for listening, or for simplifying, or for seeing patterns in a morass of details. In addition to celebrating the gifts you already have, trust that you can develop new skills, even if they don't reach the level of perfection. Invoke self-efficacy by believing that you can succeed in meeting the challenges posed by your shyness. Corny as it may seem, write supportive notes on your mirror or state your aspirations every time you walk through a doorway. Practice mindfulness or meditation to quiet your inner critic and strengthen your trust in the person you are.
Recognize that overcoming shyness is a skill. All the skills you are developing in law school take practice to master, and overcoming shyness is no exception. Recognize that performance is the measure of your success, not how you feel inside. At the end of the semester, if you can ask a coherent question in class --maybe even with follow-up comments! -- you are succeeding, even if you still get butterflies in your stomach.
Experiment! Experiment to find techniques that help you feel comfortable in speaking and social interaction. Just like you may experiment with flow charts, flashcards, and mnemonics to discover how you best understand and remember legal rules, experiment with different techniques to combat your fear of speaking in front of others. Here are some ideas:
- Visualize yourself speaking clearly and confidently.
- Adopt a confident physical posture like the "Wonder Woman pose." See https://jamesclear.com/body-language-how-to-be-confident for a discussion of the science behind this and to watch Professor Amy Cuddy's influential TED talk on how confident body language can boost confidence and success.
- Take a deep, calming breath before you start speaking.
- Before class, prepare your briefs to answer the question you anticipate the professor asking.
- Write down questions as they come to you and then read them out, rather than trying to formulate a question and speak at the same time.
- Enlist a supportive friend to help you practice in mock classroom settings.
- At presentations or receptions, realize there are probably people who are even more uncomfortable than you. Seek these people out, strive to put them at their ease, and ask questions to draw them out.
- When others talk with you, believe that they are interested in you and in what you have to say.
Reward yourself for your efforts. Set goals for steps you can take, and reward yourself based on what you do, not on whether others reacted as you hoped. For example, "I will raise my hand at least once in every class this week to ask or answer a question." If you raised your hand, count it as success even if the professor called on another student instead of you. Likewise, "At this reception I will talk with one person I don't know." If you introduce yourself and the other person grunts two works and moves over to the refreshment table, you were a success despite the other person's bad manners. And celebrate your successes! They merit a gold star on your mirror, some time with a mystery novel, a walk with the dog, or whatever you do to give yourself an "attaboy" or "attagirl." (Nancy Luebbert)
Tuesday, August 28, 2018
This week is what the undergraduate community at my university affectionately calls “syllabus week"--that is, five glorious days where each professor reviews his/her expectations for the course, and does not address any substantive (read, "testable") material. In law school, however, we all know that classwork actually begins on (or, more likely, even before) the first day of school. But, in honor of “syllabus week,” I thought it would be helpful to revisit what makes a great syllabus.
First, include all of the mandatory information, per university or law school policy. This might include your contact information, statements on diversity and inclusion, weather cancellation policies, and accessibility services.
Next, address frequently asked questions in a FAQs section, including responses to:
What should I do if I’m going to be late or absent?
Do I really need the newest edition of the textbook?
I am petrified about being called on in class. Any suggestions?
What’s your grading policy on late assignments?
Is this subject tested on the bar exam?
What supplemental study resource(s) do you recommend for this course?
Where do I go if I’m having difficulty understanding the course material?
When are your office hours? Do I need an appointment?
How do I enroll in TWEN or register for CALI Lessons (if used in the course)?
Then, set reasonable expectations for reading assignments. (This is usually the hardest step!) According to the advice I received at the “AALS Workshops for New Law School Teachers” event (a.k.a baby teacher school), law professors should assign no more than 25 pages of reading per class hour. Most professors, however, can only cover about 15 pages of material per hour when working with first-year students or dense material. If you’re having trouble figuring out how much material you should cover in a course, consider contacting the textbook’s author or publisher. Most authors and publishers have several different sample syllabi, depending on credit allocation and number of class meeting times.
Also, take Professor James McGrath's suggestion and incorporate formative assessment activities directly into the syllabus to hold yourself and the students accountable. For example, perhaps every third class you set aside a few minutes for some multiple-choice questions. Or, alternatively, you may want to reserve the last two minutes of each class for students to write down their big takeaway from day’s lecture.
After the substance is on paper, consider revamping the format to include an infographic, like this one:
If you're looking for even more suggestions, check out these links:
Finally, if you don’t teach a course of your own, consider offering to help your colleagues improve their syllabi. While a syllabus can be a very personal thing, you still might be able to offer some “best practices” tips from the academic support community. (Kirsha Trychta)
Thursday, August 23, 2018
Last week, I received some of the best advice ever about how to run an academic support program from one of my law school colleagues (as I ran around the campus in obvious haste - from office to office...and....email to email....and....meeting to meeting).
Short and sweet, it went something like this:
"Remember, there are no emergencies in academics."
At first, I wasn't quite sure what I heard. No emergencies? Really? Of course, with every rule comes an exception. But, the principle holds true.
There really are no (or at least very few and far between) emergencies in academics.
With her words freshly choreographed in my mind (and now fortunately taking grip of my frantic heart), I took the first pause of a very long day thus far to take in and reflect on the truth of what she said.
There are no emergencies in academics. None. Zilch. Nada.
That led me to an uplifting and engaging conversation with her, a conversation that broke through the feverish pace of my day to restore in my spirit a much needed sense of peace and perspective.
As we talked further, I realized that I had been living an emergency life. It was only the beginning of a new academic year but I already felt like I was way behind on everything that I needed to do. Then, it came to me.
Living an emergency life is not really living at all.
Indeed, it is no life at all. That's because as human beings living is about breathing and listening and pondering and reflecting and interacting with others. It means stepping back from the push of the daily grind and seemingly every-pressing minutiae of tasks to comprehend the big picture perspective. That we only truly live in community with others. That life is social. That being human means realizing that none of us - particularly me - can do it all.
A few years back, I recall listening to a NASA engineer talking about the engineer's work back in the 1960's when assigned to the Apollo moon missions. It was the space age. As the engineer related, he was commuting from Orlando to Cape Kennedy Spaceport for the big launch of a moon rocket. But, he was running late. So, he did what most of us do when we are running late, whether walking or biking or driving. He sped. To his astonishment, a state trooper pulled him over for speeding. In response to the question as to why all the haste, the engineer said simply that he was needed for the space launch later that very day. The officer thought a moment and then just asked him one question: "Sir, if you crash in a fiery crash on your way to the space launch, will NASA still launch the moon rocket? If so, I'll let you on your way." The engineer couldn't lie. His answer was brief: "NASA will launch." You see, the engineer wasn't really needed after all. So, the officer handed him a speeding ticket.
Perhaps you are like me, moving from one emergency to another emergency, with my vocabulary littered with sayings such as "I need to do this today" or "I've got to do this now" or "The program won't work unless I get this done now." Let me be frank, to myself and to you, the words "necessary" and "needed" are overplayed. Few things are necessary or needed. Indeed, as Professor Nancy Luebbert from the University of Idaho suggested in her blog yesterday, the really only needful thing is not to do a thing...but to rather be a person. Now, that's something to treasure; a life well-lived with others - person to person and people to people. More to the point with respect to the nature of this blog, that's the better way to live academic support. So, make a great day of it by taking "5" to pause and reflect upon this truism: There really are no emergencies in academics. (Scott Johns).
Thursday, August 9, 2018
It's the start of a brand new academic year, and that means that first-year law students all across the nation are hearing for the first time about "IRAC" (the deductive formula for reminding us as law students to analyze legal problems by stating the issue, defining the rule, applying the facts at hand to the rule of law, and reaching a logical conclusion).
But, is IRAC really new to us as entering law students?
Well, the answer is plainly and firmly no.
You see, as Professor José Roberto (Beto) Juárez Jr. explained during orientation at the University of Denver this past week, all of us have been doing IRAC since our toddler years. I mean all of us! That includes you and me!
As Professor Juárez elaborated, children know all about rules, how to interpret rules (usually narrowly), and how to apply them (also usually narrowly).
That's because kids are faced - early on - with lots of rules imposed by adults, whether the adult is a teacher, a parent, or a youth leader. Adulthood is filled with rules (and with adults trying to get children to obey their adulthood rules). But, let's face facts. As a child, rules have only one purpose in life; rules are meant to curb fun, to rob us of joy, to bar us from truly living.
Consequently, as a kid, we all learned - staring as early as toddlers - how to analyze rules for lots of factual and legal loopholes. In short, we have been analyzing like "lawyers" from our earliest years using IRAC.
So, as you being to play, learn, and work with IRAC as a first-year law student, please don't forget this truth, namely, that you have been an IRAC-genuis for most of your life! (Scott Johns).
Wednesday, August 8, 2018
I asked a few rising 2L and 3L students what they wish they knew as first year, first semester, law students and I received a slew of answers. Not every answer is listed here and certainly, there is a lot more one could consider outside of the categories listed here. The responses I received fall into some of the categories listed below and I limited categories to the six below.
The Library Can Distract You. The library is typically thought of as a place where one goes to focus and study. In law school, the library can be a very distracting and social place. Some classmates want to talk to each other or you and you might want to have conversations to avoid reading or completing your tasks. Students who previously frequented the library and considered their visits productive might now find it to be the most distracting location to study. Give the library a try and see what happens, closely monitor your time and productivity. Simply clocking hours in the library does not equate with quality and fruitful study time. “I spent several hours, all semester long, in the library but when I consider the time I spent studying, it was minimal. I accomplished a lot more at home.” Student A
Attend Office Hours. Meeting with professors one-on-one can humanize the professors and cultivate the student-professor dynamics. Professors are human beings, really. This is a good time to ask pertinent questions and sort through difficult concepts early. Also, this interaction allows professors to get to know you which might become helpful in the future when they seek a teaching assistant or research assistant. This interaction can also be helpful if you need a letter of recommendation in the future but you must engage with professors to cultivate that relationship. “When I needed a reference, my professor was willing to write me one and remembered me because I was in office hours with at least one course related question every week.” Student B
You Can Sleep Before Midnight. Law students spend hours preparing for class and completing legal writing assignments, particularly in the beginning. Students often pull all-nighters to balance class preparation and completion of assignments. However, if you plan out your time and maximize the time you spend on various assignments and tasks, you can accomplish a lot. “I worked (which I was advised against), commuted to school from about an hour away, am married, and have three children but still managed to complete all of the requirements of my 1L curriculum. It is doable. It is all about time management, prioritizing, and temporary sacrifice.” Student C
Be Humble. Some students can be more confident than they should be particularly if they were high achieving students in a previous academic environment. It can also be difficult when your path in life was to make it to law school so you took the necessary classes, participated in pre-law programs, worked with lawyers and other members of the legal profession, and have family members with experience in the legal profession. All of the above and more are confidence building and present knowledge that other students might not have. You must keep in mind that everyone will have their own journey, path, and experience which might be different from yours. Just because another person’s experience does not fit the cookie cutter law school experience does not mean it is of any less value. “I had a lot of exposure to the legal profession, legal terminology, law school environment, etc. and I understood things quicker than it seemed others did but that was not enough when I saw my law school first semester grades. I should have approached things the way some of my classmates did and I could have learned from them but refused to. I wish that I was more open to the Academic Support Program and what other individuals in the law school environment had to say about preparing for exams. My attitude also isolated me from some of my classmates.” Student D
There Are Endless Opportunities. Some students often feel limited by their academic performance or perceived ability compared to other students. Students have the impression that there is only one trajectory to achieving a goal or developing a skill or to be a part of particular programs, co-curricular activities, and/or extracurricular activities. Everyone is not going to have the same opportunity to do the same things. There might be an alternative route to whatever you would like to do and/or accomplish but you may need to chat with someone, reach out to others, and be okay with alternatives. It is never the end of the world; therefore, you might just have to take a different path.
Invest In Your Well-being. Always ensure that you keep the friends you made outside of law school as they can keep you grounded and remind you of who you are and your values. They also provide a means of escaping law school. Schedule some fun on a weekly basis whether it is a movie, dinner, a walk, a run, or anything that makes you happy. This will keep you motivated and centered. Consider investing in a locker or a roller bag which will help with carrying your books around and save your back. Overall, simply pay attention to your body and your mental, physical, and emotional health. This will serve you well in the future.
This is a very exciting time for new students! Welcome to your new journey but remember to stay as true as you can to your authentic self. (Goldie Pritchard)
Wednesday, August 1, 2018
For Academic Support Professionals who oversee offices that operate year long, it can be very difficult to identify an ideal time to take a break or vacation. This is primarily due to the fact that we are constantly looking ahead to what comes next. We are planning the next program and preparing for the next event of the cycle. To somewhat illustrate this point, when bar preparation is over in July we intensify our preparation for orientation and fall programming (because we were simultaneously working on this during bar review) and in the fall we commence spring program planning which includes planning for students preparing for the February bar exam. At the height of spring semester, we start coaching students to ensure they graduate, work with those studying for the bar exam, and plan summer bar programming. This is just the tip of the iceberg and does not adequately capture the full picture. You have to live it to better understand, particularly when unpredictable incidents and issues surface. In the midst of it all, we have to be human beings and engage with family, friends, and community commitments.
Each year, as I assess my experience, I realize that I have never really had a break. The most consecutive days off I get is seven days at some point approximately a week after the July bar exam and prior to August Orientation. During that week, I continue to keep very busy. I respond to email messages about orientation, messages from recent bar takers, and communicate with teaching assistants. I have discovered that a plan to escape my environment tends to make the possibility of getting true rest more likely. Though it was a very sad situation, the elimination of the summer conditional admission program made my summer slightly more manageable and allowed me to direct most of my energy to one primary task. In retrospect, I cannot comprehend how I managed to accomplish all that I did during previous summers.
As a one-woman office providing academic support and bar preparation support services, I have to be present virtually or physically for most things. Over the years, in collaboration with my supervisors, I have made adjustments to cater to my health and well-being so I can provide optimal service to our students. I have also found it imperative to reset things and be comfortable making adjustments as need be. Here are some of the things I have found helpful:
(1) Take a day or a few hours off if necessary when extremely overwhelmed or exhausted. Leaving the building and unplugging for a short period of time can be rejuvenating and provide better perspective. You might not need it but understanding that this is an option and being okay with it is great.
(2) Take an occasional three-day weekend. This should be strategically planned maybe every 2 months particularly if you are uncomfortable with (1 above). This gives you something to look forward to as well as consumes some of your vacation days that you will lose anyway because you may never use them all. Furthermore, if you work odd hours (earlier and/or later than the workday schedule) and have quite a bit of weekend or evening programming, you can justify not coming in for a day.
(3) Recognize that the students will survive. Students are adults and even though they might “guilt trip” you because you were not present at a particular time of crisis, you know there are a number of resources available for them to use to solve their problems. Also, most things can be taken care of when you return to the office. By this approach, you are modeling good self-care which hopefully students can emulate. Also, the more rested you are, the better your performance.
Let’s all reset and gear-up for a wonderful 2018-1019 academic year. (Goldie Pritchard)