February 24, 2013
Leave Your Point of View at the Fact Pattern Door: Part 2 of 2 (Guest post by Seth Aiken, UMass Law)
In the first installment of this post, I suggested that for some law students, life experience and a strongly held point of view can get in the way of law school success. “Older” students, having lived and worked and experienced a little more than most of their peers can tend to let their own point of view and perceptions about the world interfere with legal reasoning. Rather than seeing the legally significant issues in a fact pattern, they focus on the implausibility of the facts and how unlikely or unfair a scenario seems in the context of their own experience or personal values.
With these students, my strategy is to have them start by adding a phrase to the beginning of the first sentence of every essay question, “On an island that you’ve never been to and where no visitors ever go…(essay question begins). I want them to remember that a fact pattern is a closed universe and that adding facts or injecting personal insights into it will only derail their best efforts.
Then I give my students five steps for looking at a fact pattern and drawing out the legally important issues:
- Call of the Question – Start at the end of the exam and read the call of the question so you understand what you are being asked to do.
- Acts – Rather than trying to spot and analyze whole issues, start instead by reading the fact pattern sentence-by-sentence and highlighting any act or failure to act by a party – anything someone in your fact pattern says, does, or chooses not to do.
- Resist Judgment – You do not have enough information yet to know whether any of these acts give rise to a legally significant issue. Resist making any judgment about whether the act is relevant, worthwhile, good, bad or otherwise because all you know right now, is that somebody said or did something.
- Elements – Assuming you studied and know all the elements of every issue you might be tested on, go to each act and consider if it could be one element of an issue. Remember, don’t skip or overlook an act just because it seems like a little thing. The seriousness or severity of the action doesn’t matter. Whether you think the action would lead to a legal action in real life doesn’t matter. What matters is whether that act in the fact pattern, taken at face value could satisfy one element of something you are being tested on. On the other hand, you don’t want to force an issue that simply isn’t relevant. Some facts ARE there to tempt you into a time-wasting, grade-crushing wild goose chase. In order to stay on target, ask:
a) Is the issue you’re thinking about within the testable universe? (i.e. DO NOT analyze a Criminal Law issue in a Torts exam.)
b) Is this issue relevant to the call of the question? (i.e. DO NOT discuss the rights of B vs. C when the question is asking only about the rights of A vs. B.)
c) Are there other facts that satisfy each of the other necessary elements to make out this issue? DO NOT speculate about other elements based on your common sense or some past experience.
Success vs. Relevance – This is the fifth and final step I ask my students to think about because I want the word “success” to trigger a few different cautionary flags.
The success of the issue: Just because a complaining party has a weak case (weak elements) and is likely to lose doesn’t mean the issue isn’t worth raising. If you can make a good faith, “straight-faced” argument that each of your elements is supported by some fact or facts, it is probably a relevant issue, win or lose. In fact if you can make a good faith argument that MOST of your elements are supported by facts, you should raise the issue. Weak facts or a missing element bear on the success of an issue, but are never a reason to not raise it. Being able to explain to your professor why an issue fails is just as important as being able to show why an issue succeeds.
The successes a student brings into the exam: You are walking into the exam with a point of view based in your life experience. Your successes and accomplishments have equipped you to identify and solve many challenging problems, to relate to people and empathize with their circumstances. HOWEVER – here in this exam, you must leave those successes and accomplishments behind. Relating to the people in your fact pattern and empathizing with their circumstances will distract you from seeing what is relevant and keep you from engaging in effective legal analysis.
Seth-Thomas Aitken, UMass School of Law - Dartmouth
February 22, 2013
Leave Your Point of View at the Fact Pattern Door: Part 1 of 2 (Guest Post by Seth Aiken, UMass Law)
For some law students, life experience and a strongly held point of view can be immense stumbling blocks to law school success.
I began to think about this last semester working with several students in my 1L class. Relative to the majority of law students, these students were older, which is to say they had lives after undergrad – careers, families, mortgages and other “grown-up” milestones. Each came to law school with a clear point of view, seeing his or her world through a lens of experiences, beliefs and ideals accumulated over years. One student had been a nurse and another was a university librarian. One had struggled with substance abuse and one student, already a working mother of four young children had recently earned her undergraduate degree. When I met these students it was clear that each was rightfully proud of where they had been, or at least what they had overcome to get here. They remained very mindful of and connected to the lessons learned in former lives and seemed hesitant to loosen their grip on those memories for fear of losing themselves in the disorienting new world of law school.
As I worked with these students on ways to approach hypothetical fact patterns, I noticed that many had great difficulty issue-spotting. They focused rather on the implausibility of the fact pattern and how unlikely or unfair a scenario seemed in the context of their own experience or personal values. Most often, talking with a student about why he or she didn’t raise a certain important issue in his or her practice answer, I would find out that the student saw the issue, but chose not to raise it, deciding that in “real life” nobody would seriously go to court over those facts, or that it didn’t make sense to spend time discussing an action that would be obviously unsuccessful. Years of engaging in moral reasoning and practical life decision-making seemed to have handicapped these students’ ability to engage in effective legal analysis.
This challenge posed a difficult conundrum. In order to support my students, I needed to connect with them, earn their trust and demonstrate that I sincerely understood and valued who they were and where they had come from to get here. On the other hand, I had to ask them to look past those valuable former-life lessons and experiences in order to develop the analytical flexibility required to succeed in the law.
So my compromise solution has been to adapt an essay exam strategy that capitalizes on the likelihood my students would focus on the story and the actions of the parties in a fact pattern before recognizing the legally significant issues.
I start with one general instruction: Always, always always add a single phrase to the beginning of the first sentence of every essay question, “On an island that you’ve never been to and where no visitors ever go…(essay question begins). I remind them that fact patterns exist in isolation, as if on an island. No facts can be added and no additional facts are needed. They must also be mindful of the island’s inherent hostility and distrust toward visitors, outside opinions or new perspectives. A student’s point of view and common-sense life lessons, while personally valuable and hard-won, will prove confusing and unwelcome if brought to the island and applied to the facts. With this simple, starting prompt, I hope to remind students, whether they are prone to mix life experience with legal reasoning or not, to keep an objective mind about the fact pattern so that they, in turn, don’t lose the objective of the exam. The additional tools I give students to avoid this pitfall and others will follow in a later post.
Seth-Thomas Aitken, UMass School of Law - Dartmouth
May 14, 2012
Two Most Common Bar Exam “Confidence Traps” by Ronald Dees
The Two Most Common Bar Exam “Confidence Traps” and How You Can Avoid Them
By Ronald D. Dees
Building and maintaining a healthy confidence level is an important component to overall bar exam preparation. There are typically two “Confidence Traps” that cause examinees to be at risk of performing poorly on the bar exam. Students can either be so paranoid about failing that they lose confidence and literally allow their fears to overwhelm them, or on the other end of the spectrum a student can be too confident and thereby underestimate the level of preparation necessary to be successful. By knowing the traits of students who typically fall victim to these “Confidence Traps,” you can evaluate your bar exam confidence level in order to avoid falling into the traps.
The most common confidence trap is the “paranoia trap.” This student is the one who allows his lack of confidence to overwhelm him. The causes of the lack of confidence can be many things. Perhaps the student performed somewhat poorly in law school, or for some reason just does not feel like he can handle the stress and difficulty of preparing for the bar exam.
The key to success for students who lack confidence for any reason is to develop a study plan designed to build confidence through self-assessment and feedback.
If you find yourself in this category, know that you are not alone and the best way to overcome these feelings is to construct a study plan that will help you build a healthy confidence level over time. Doing so will cause you to reach a point where you will know in your heart and mind that you are ready to perform well on exam day.
Many bar takers lack confidence and almost everyone feels overwhelmed by the volume of material they are presented with during bar preparation. Don’t allow such feelings to defeat you. First of all, you must remind yourself that no one gets every question correct or writes perfectly edited script on the bar exam. Secondly, everyone who has ever taken the bar exam felt like they could have used a few more days or weeks to prepare. No student can possibly know “all” of the law. However, if you prepare diligently, on exam day you should feel that you are as well prepared as anyone else in the room and are probably prepared better than most. That feeling itself is a great confidence booster.
Self-assessment and feedback are the keys to building a healthy level of confidence. Throughout your bar preparation, track your progress as you improve on your MBE test questions and take note as you succeed in memorizing more and more law. Write essays and turn them in to someone in your school’s Bar Services or Academic Support Program for review and feedback. If your school does not have such a program, find a professor who is willing to look at your essays and give you feedback.
Another facet of avoiding the paranoia trap is to make a study plan that you feel confident about. It should be one that you know will work for you based on your past success. Stick to your plan, work hard, and work smart. Identify the things you have done in the past that were not helpful or were detrimental to your studying or study habits, and eliminate those things. Constantly assess your plan and be willing to get rid of things that are not working and do more of the things that are working well for you. Keep in mind that you don’t have to have the best score on the bar exam, you just have to pass. However, you want to prepare like you are trying to earn an A, so that even if you have a bad day, you can still be confident that you are capable of scoring a C and passing the exam.
Not as common, but still worth discussing are those bar takers who fall into the “overconfidence trap.”
The student who may fall into this trap underestimates the difficulty, complexity, and demands of proper bar exam preparation. This student typically self identifies as very intelligent and falls into one of two personality types. She may have been either a top-of-the-class “Law Journal Type,” or she was what I refer to as the “Voluntary Under-Achiever.”
The key to success for both of the above types of students is to develop a healthy respect for the difficulty of the bar exam.
The Law Journal Type thinks to herself, “I am one of the top law students in my class, so passing the bar exam is not going to be a problem for me. I will study for it a little, but I am smart enough to pass the bar exam without much real effort. I mean, after all, it is just a test of minimal competency. No problem for a smart girl like me.”
The Voluntary Under-Achiever has trouble staying devoted to studying and typically does just enough to get by. She is smart and knows it. After all she was smart enough to make it through law school with average or above average grades while putting forth only moderate effort. She thinks to herself, “I am a smart girl and I pretty much skated through law school with no problem, so I can do the same on the bar exam. I’ll put in a few hours of study time here and there and maybe cram a little just before the exam, but I don’t need to study for hours and hours, day after day, week after week. I never had to study that way in college or law school and I still passed, so the bar exam should be no different.”
Both of the above types of students need to develop a healthy respect for the difficulty of the bar exam. If you fit into either of these personality types, you need to realize early on that the bar exam is a lot like law school finals, except that it is about five to ten times as difficult. You see, final exams in law school are usually tested over a two week period and you may even have some time to prepare between tests. Furthermore, you typically take four or five classes per semester, so you only have to prepare for four or five legal subjects. Also, many times one or two classes might be a “paper class” where turning in a paper is the final, and one or two classes might also have an open book exam. So, you actually only have to memorize the law for one to three subjects to prepare for finals.
On the bar exam, you will need to memorize the rules of law for 15 to 20 subject areas depending on what is tested in your state. Thus, it will take five to ten times as much work to prepare for the exam as it did to prepare for finals. If you spent three to four weeks preparing for finals, you would need thirty to forty weeks to prepare for the bar if preparing at the same pace that you used in law school. Now, obviously you don’t have that many weeks between graduation and the bar exam, so you are going to have to devote more time per day and per week to studying for the bar than you did in law school, even though you are really smart. Otherwise, you risk being poorly prepared and having an unsuccessful result on the exam.
Developing a healthy respect for the difficulty of the bar exam will help you avoid falling into the overconfidence trap and will motivate you to develop and stick to a study schedule that reflects the time commitment necessary to properly prepare.
In conclusion, the key to this success for all students is to balance a healthy respect for the difficulty of the bar exam with the confidence that comes from being well prepared on exam day. You can allow that healthy respect to motivate you to prepare properly, and in turn, knowing that you are well prepared will help you maintain your level of confidence, reduce stress, and improve your performance on exam day.
June 20, 2011
Guest column with another tip for 1L students
Our Guest Column for today is a posting by Barbara McFarland, Director for the Office of Student Success Initiatives at Chase College of Law, Northern Kentucky University. Barbara has suggested an excellent tip for first-year law students and included an exercise to help them apply it. Thank you for sharing your insight and expertise with all of us, Barbara! (Amy Jarmon)
One More Tip: Remedy Writing Problems
Dr. Amy Jarmon’s May 19th blog post provided ten excellent pieces of advice for incoming students. She is kindly allowing me to add an eleventh: Remedy writing problems before you begin law school.
Even students who have always been good writers struggle to master the intricacies of legal writing. Students who are not good writers do not have time during first semester to learn the basic rules of writing good English prose, punctuating properly, and editing for clarity and concision. While we can say that our students should have mastered the mechanics during undergrad, or even earlier, the sad truth is that many of them have not. They have studiously avoided any class that required them to write anything more than a name on a scantron. Or, if they have done any writing, it was assessed by teachers and professors more interested in commenting on the substance than the form.
When my law school offered a voluntary writing course in the week before classes began last August, almost half of the incoming full-time class attended. The improvements achieved during that one-week class, as measured by pre- and post-tests, were impressive. A second post-test given at the end of the first year of law study indicates that some, but not all, of the gains made during that week were retained nine months later. More number crunching is needed to confirm this initial impression, but the good news is that it’s not too late for our incoming students to learn the rules needed to improve their writing.
How they go about that task is up to them, of course. They could take a business or technical writing class at a local college or university this summer, beg help from the high school English teacher who tried to teach them those rules back in the ninth grade, or just buy a book. Grammar and writing books abound; any used bookstore will have inexpensive texts that will serve the purpose. Online grammar guides are also plentiful.
For a simple technique that students may find helpful, suggest this exercise.
Often, mechanical errors are much easier to find in our own writing after the passage of time. Pull up a document you wrote some time ago, read it critically, and use it to diagnose areas of weakness in your writing.
First, double space after each period and review each sentence in isolation:
- Is each group of words between the capitalized first letter and the end punctuation a complete sentence?
- Do the subject and verb match in number and make sense together?
- Does every verb that requires an object have one?
- Are modifiers close to the words they modify?
- Does every pronoun have an antecedent, and do they match in number?
- Are the sentences typically very long, containing two or three thoughts that could be separated?
- Are the sentences typically very short, dividing ideas that could more effectively be communicated in compound or complex sentences?
- Does the sentence structure vary sufficiently?
- Does every word of each sentence convey the precise meaning intended?
- If you read the sentence aloud with great inflection and pregnant pauses, does the punctuation seem appropriate, necessary, and correct?
If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” chart the errors to identify patterns and problem areas. Once you have identified your errors, learn how to fix them by reading in a grammar book or online service. Rewrite each sentence to fix the sentence-level problems.
Then reunite all the sentences for a particular paragraph and review each paragraph in turn:
- Is the first sentence a topic sentence that accurately portrays the remainder of the paragraph?
- Is every sentence in the paragraph related to the stated topic?
- Do the remaining sentences present ideas or information in a logical order for the purpose of the paragraph?
- Are relationships between sentences clearly made by references and other transitional devices?
- Do the remaining sentences develop the stated topic as completely as needed?
If not, identify, chart, and remedy errors. Rewrite each paragraph into a coherent and correct whole.
When you finish reviewing all of the paragraphs in a particular section of the document, look at the entire section:
- Do transitional devices between the paragraphs develop the overall topic or theme of the section?
- Are the paragraphs in a logical order, facilitating the development and exposition of that topic or theme?
- Are the paragraphs typically overly long, too short, or a good mix of lengths?
- Are one- or two-sentence paragraphs used only sparingly and for emphasis?
Again, identify, chart, and remedy errors. Follow the same procedure with as many written documents as possible until you can identify and eliminate errors accurately and efficiently. If you can write and punctuate good sentences and paragraphs, you are more likely to successfully adapt to the forms and structures of legal writing.
Enjoy the rest of your summer, and I will look forward to meeting you in August. ___________________________________________________________________
Although this exercise was created specifically for students who have not yet started law school, it can be easily modified for use with current law students. Unfortunately, many law students are taken by surprise when we expect them to write perfect English prose. Even those with good mechanics are astonished that their writing style, honed by years of trying to write enough to meet the minimum page requirements of undergraduate papers, must be simplified, clarified, and slashed to meet the expectations of their legal writing professor.
We do our students a service by preparing them for legal writing, in addition to warning them about other rigors and oddities of law study. Recommending that they take time now to remedy writing problems is another step toward the goal of informing and educating our incoming students even before they reach our classrooms.
September 03, 2009
When Professors Say Dude: Millennial Aren’t the Only New Kid on the Block
When Professors Say Dude: Millennial Aren’t the Only New Kid on the Block by Hillary Burgess Experts like Tracy McGaugh and James Dimitri have provided us with great information about how the Millennial generation is quite different from past generations of students and how we can adjust our teaching to allow them to better serve them as they enter our discourse community and professional community. I have so much respect for Tracy, James, and others who are thinking critically about how to best reach and teach our students. I have to wonder, though, if the struggles we are facing are not just that the students are different, but that we, the professors, are different, too. This thought first occurred to me when I walked out of class and saw a very old Volvo in the faculty parking lot. I remarked out loud to myself, “Dude, check it out!” I then became quite self-conscious. Had anyone heard my remark? What would the Boomer profs think of me saying, “Dude?” Would they forever banish me to the status of Sean Penn’s girlfriend at Ridgemont High? (Which would be anything other than "totally rad.") What would my Millennial students think of me saying “Dude?” Am I that old lady who thinks she’s so cool, but really is the antithesis of cool? (Actually, I really am the antithesis of cool.) Then, I realized that GenX is in that awkward ‘tween phase. After running through a number of “like totally bogus” off-limits expressions that I would “like totally like” never “like ever” use again and musical references that I would have to banish (Hey Mickey, the Bangles, and anything New Kids on the Block) no matter "what a pity," I began thinking about how the culture shock that the legal academy is experiencing might not just be about the students. It might be about the professors, too. In the past decade, the generation Xers have come of age enough that we are now teaching in law schools in significant numbers. In a culture where the Boomers started teaching over forty years ago and even the youngest Boomers have been teaching for twenty years, Xers have become the new kids on the block, at least in the professor world. Could the changes we perceive in our students result, at least in part, from the way Xers and Boomers teach differently (generationally generically speaking, of course)? Are our cultural expectations about how students “should” behave so different that our students are trying to navigate a rather schizophrenic system of rules where what is good in Professor Xer’s class is not tolerated in Professor Boomer’s class (and vice verse)? While this type of experience is good training for succeeding in the practice of law, when we talk about the culture shock that is hitting the legal academy, should we also include ourselves? I leave it to the experts in generational studies to theorize about and answer the questions I raise here. Moving forward, I’d love to see our discussions about how we can best serve our current generation of students expand from the perspective of how different the students are to the perspective of how different we all are now that Xers have left the role of students to join Boomers as professors. Especially as a 'tweener, I'm hoping that we all avoid the us v. them mentality as we explore these groundbreaking pedagogical ideas about how to better serve this generation of students.
When Professors Say Dude: Millennial Aren’t the Only New Kid on the Block
by Hillary Burgess
Experts like Tracy McGaugh and James Dimitri have provided us with great information about how the Millennial generation is quite different from past generations of students and how we can adjust our teaching to allow them to better serve them as they enter our discourse community and professional community. I have so much respect for Tracy, James, and others who are thinking critically about how to best reach and teach our students. I have to wonder, though, if the struggles we are facing are not just that the students are different, but that we, the professors, are different, too.
This thought first occurred to me when I walked out of class and saw a very old Volvo in the faculty parking lot. I remarked out loud to myself, “Dude, check it out!” I then became quite self-conscious.
Had anyone heard my remark? What would the Boomer profs think of me saying, “Dude?” Would they forever banish me to the status of Sean Penn’s girlfriend at Ridgemont High? (Which would be anything other than "totally rad.") What would my Millennial students think of me saying “Dude?” Am I that old lady who thinks she’s so cool, but really is the antithesis of cool? (Actually, I really am the antithesis of cool.) Then, I realized that GenX is in that awkward ‘tween phase.
After running through a number of “like totally bogus” off-limits expressions that I would “like totally like” never “like ever”
use again and musical references that I would have to banish (Hey Mickey, the Bangles, and anything New Kids on the Block) no matter "what a pity," I began thinking about how the culture shock that the legal academy is experiencing might not just be about the students. It might be about the professors, too.
In the past decade, the generation Xers have come of age enough that we are now teaching in law schools in significant numbers. In a culture where the Boomers started teaching over forty years ago and even the youngest Boomers have been teaching for twenty years, Xers have become the new kids on the block, at least in the professor world. Could the changes we perceive in our students result, at least in part, from the way Xers and Boomers teach differently (generationally generically speaking, of course)? Are our cultural expectations about how students “should” behave so different that our students are trying to navigate a rather schizophrenic system of rules where what is good in Professor Xer’s class is not tolerated in Professor Boomer’s class (and vice verse)? While this type of experience is good training for succeeding in the practice of law, when we talk about the culture shock that is hitting the legal academy, should we also include ourselves?
I leave it to the experts in generational studies to theorize about and answer the questions I raise here. Moving forward, I’d love to see our discussions about how we can best serve our current generation of students expand from the perspective of how different the students are to the perspective of how different we all are now that Xers have left the role of students to join Boomers as professors. Especially as a 'tweener, I'm hoping that we all avoid the us v. them mentality as we explore these groundbreaking pedagogical ideas about how to better serve this generation of students.
April 06, 2009
Beginners Brief Best By Briefing Backward
When preparing my briefing workshop this semester, it occurred to me how hard it was to create a well formatted issue statement. Think about it: one of the most common formats for an issue is: whether [most crucial fact of case] constitutes [crucial element of rule] where [most relevant facts of case]. So the issue statement might be easier to formulate after students understood the facts. But understanding which facts are relevant and which are distracters is hard before students understand the rule and the reasoning. Even the rule is hard to put together in a cohesive, well-articulated format as a first step.
So then it occurred to me that it might be easier for students to brief backward: conclusion (who won), reasons (where they can piece together discreet information), rule, issue, and then facts.
When I proposed this idea to my students, they all looked at me like I had two heads. (Don’t I wish!) But, a few days later, many of these same students popped by my office with light bulbs flashing above their heads, indicating they understood the cases better and faster using this technique.
I more fully explain the logic behind this technique and why it could be easier for novice law students in the Teaching Methods Newsletter, Winter 2008, on page 7.
By Hillary Burgess
January 16, 2009
An Oft-Forgotten Concern--Guest Column by Russell C. Smith
As we talk to students after first semester grades come out, I find that often I neglect to address one concern that I believe they all have, yet one that is not often expressed in our conversations with students. We have no trouble focusing on grades, exam writing, study habits, briefing skills, etc. Yet I find at the bottom of many of my students concerns, maybe subconsciously for some, lurk a couple of nagging questions. If I am struggling academically, will I be a good lawyer? Will I be able to make a living practicing law? Embedded in these questions are perhaps the concern about repaying loans and living up to the expectations of others.
Students usually find some comfort when they realize that the correlation between academic performance and the potential for a successful practice career is not as strong as they might imagine. I try to get students to think of the whole process of becoming a lawyer as hurdles to be jumped only once. Once you’ve cleared the hurdles (LSAT, school, bar) then you’re at the finish line ready to practice and nobody really cares, particularly your clients, how difficult you found the hurdles.
I usually tell students some true stories to help them with this concern. We all know of students who struggled academically and then went on to fame and fortune or at least successful practices. I share the stories of some people I know like this. Also, we all know of superior academicians who, because of a lack of other skills, could never make a living as a practicing attorney. In fact, some of these people would have trouble giving away legal service, let alone getting someone to pay them for it. (If you are now thinking of some of the people you know in academia, shame on you!) I practiced for ten years and never once did a client ask me what I made in evidence when deciding whether to hire me for a trial. As an aside, I did hear a story of an assistant district attorney once who cited his performance in evidence class as authority for his argument regarding a piece of evidence. The court was not persuaded.
Students that struggle find some comfort in knowing many stellar legal careers have sprung from less than stellar law school performances. Even if this is not verbalized by the student, I think most of the time they have concerns about their ability to practice and make a living. It is a worry that we can help to alleviate. And after all, every thing that we can help students become comfortable with is likely to take them to a better place, both emotionally and academically.
Russell C. Smith
Assistant Dean for Student Services
Campbell Law School
Buies Creek, NC
October 10, 2008
Notes from the Bar Pass Conference
Bar Passage Training Lesson: More Experiential Learning
By Hillary Burgess
Hillary.burgess [at] hofstra [dot] edu
I am on my way back from the LSAC Academic Support Bar Passage Programs Topical Workshop. I cannot believe how much I learned, especially about questions that I didnt know to ask. However, the biggest lesson Ive taken away from the workshop had nothing to do with bar support or bar passage.
The biggest lesson for me was that no matter what percentage of experiential learning exercises I incorporate into my Academic Success workshops, I can always include more and talk less. My new teaching mantra is going to be, Stop talking to start teaching. I can apply the same lessons to my skills-building workshops that I apply in my casebook courses: no content is so important that it cant be cut in favor of an exercise that teaches students how to learn the content on their own. This principle is true, even when my content is how to learn. Exercises simply do the job better.
I cant thank this community enough for creating the open, caring, and supportive environment we have, from the incredibly supportive wise (surprisingly young) elders to the people who have been around just long enough to not feel new (at least to the new people like me). Both groups don't seem to be afraid to put it all out there if doing so will better serve our community and especially our students.
September 24, 2008
My Faculty, My Students, Myself: Thoughts on Being New to Academic Support
Director of Academic Support, Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University
The recent loss of novelist and professor David Foster Wallace was both tragic and eye opening. Wallace was not only a renowned thinker and writer; he was also a fellow educator, albeit in a different area. Wallace famously expressed his feeling that lifelong learning was the only way to pursue a full understanding of the world around us, something he called the “big T-truth.” I had already begun to evaluate my work as a new Academic Support Professor, but his passing pushed me to think more deeply, about the nature of higher learning and the challenges that we face as teachers and about the ways in which our roles as teachers, counselors, and mentors, best serve our students as they strive to find the “big T-truth” with respect to their legal educations.
As a new Academic Support Professor, the challenges I faced were myriad, but the sense of accomplishment and delight inherent in facing and conquering them was unparalleled. In looking back on the past year, I found that the challenges I faced broke out into three major groups, which I will term my faculty, my students, and myself.
But before I faced any of those three, I had to first address a threshold question. I needed to define my purpose, to get at what that “big T-truth” was going to be in the universe of my classroom. To clarify my purpose in my own mind, I asked myself probing questions: What role does my course play in the education of students? What specific ideas do I want them to take home? What universal values will I seek to bolster through the course as a whole? What do I want my students to think and feel about the law? About the process of legal learning?
In tackling these first questions, many possibilities occurred to me. Perhaps Academic Support was intended merely to give students a place to go to ask questions, to feel that someone in their school environment was approachable and could formulate clear solutions. That seemed a noble goal, but it fell short of what I thought Academic Support ought to be, and short of everything that I had read Academic Support was intended to be. Was it then a forum where struggling students could obtain the instruction they needed to keep pace with their classmates? That, too, seemed worthy, surely a large part of the overall goal, but somehow not the entirety of what I wanted to accomplish.
In the end, after much thought, I came to a decision. Academic Support, at least for me, would be a program, a set of classes and individual meetings, in which students would feel supported, would obtain necessary instruction, and would benefit from a peer supported learning environment. My Academic Support classroom would also be a forum where students could try on new, difficult, or otherwise missed ideas without fear of embarrassment, where students could tackle legal thinking and learning from a new angle, where students would make understanding their own learning process part of addressing the larger questions that would ensure them improved classroom performance, and where students could rediscover the joy of learning that, more often than not, had carried them through their academic careers before the law school phase, but had fallen off due to the forced curve, difficulty level, or other concerns.
If I could, I decided, my class would provide all of the practical nuts and bolts learning that ASP-ers needed. In addition, I would try to impart a passion for thinking critically about real world legal issues, and, I hoped, some support for the idea that lawyers and legal thinkers must be, above all, lifelong learners. In my mind, the importance of lifelong learning is what Wallace was addressing when he talked about the deep thinking and continual probing of ideas that help us to get at the “big T-truth.” If there was any big picture idea I wanted my students to have, a relentless passion for new knowledge was it. This passion, I thought, would propel them through the remainder of their law school careers and do much to ensure that they became happy, healthy lawyers beyond the university halls.
My goals after answering the threshold question were then two fold: to help students with practical and immediate learning-related issues, and to ensure that the process of addressing those issues resulted in students who were able to carry those skills beyond the ASP classroom. At first blush, these seemed reasonable goals for a new educator, freshly scrubbed and brimming with enthusiasm. And, as I tackled these and other ideas throughout the course of my first year, I found that, these were indeed workable goals, and, I still believe, the right aspirations for my teaching experience.
However, after addressing these threshold issues, I still needed to contend with the other, less theoretical challenges that would face me as a new Academic Support Instructor. I broke these challenges into three categories: dealing with the academy environment as an Academic Support instructor, reaching difficult students, and managing my expectations with respect to both myself and my charges. In other words, they broke into three clear categories, my faculty, my students, and myself.
Dealing with the academy was the first, and most apparent challenge that I faced outside of the classroom. At my home institution, Academic Support was still extremely new and many of our doctrinal faculty seemed unsure as to what it was I would do with all the class time I had been allotted. I caught sidelong glances from time to time when, at a lunch or before a meeting, I would mention something about my classroom or a conference I was slated to attend. I found that it was my duty to dispel what I call the Magic Wand Theory of ASP that many of our faculty held – the idea that, with the help of a few key texts and exercises, absolutely anyone could turn a struggling student into a strong one, and that ASP was not entitled to a legitimate, important status within the legal academy.
Fortunately for me, I work with a fairly open minded faculty, many of whom have recently come from other institutions where ASP was a priority, all of whom love to talk, listen, and debate. They dialogued with me as I explained teaching methods I had just learned about or described conference presentations by which I had been enlightened. They listened when I told them success stories, about brilliant students who had struggled initially and, with the help of ASP, had demonstrated their capability beyond all doubt. And slowly, conversation by conversation, what at first had seemed daunting, began to be pleasant. Over lunch and through faculty colloquia, I formed relationships and dispelled misconceptions. I found that what I had thought was a complex problem could be solved by the simplest of actions; just talking with our faculty has proven the most effective and straightforward means of clarifying the importance and efficacy of ASP. Today there are few, if any, adherents of the Magic Wand Theory remaining and the result of all this talking is that I enjoy wonderful working relationship with many of the people who I once worried would never embrace ASP.
The challenge that has proved far greater, and the one that, after years of preparation for the job, I had anticipated I was most prepared to face, has been dealing with difficult students. This is true in part because the troubles of these students vary tremendously and each student is a unique, individual, each with his or her own strengths and weaknesses, backgrounds and behaviors. I have been at this for less than three semesters and already I have seen issues that run the gamut.
Ranging from extreme PTSD to deep seated family troubles, from a troublesome lack of boundaries to simple anger at not having performed as expected, these individualized problems have presented my greatest challenges. Dealing with each has been very much an exercise in handling students’ personal and learning-related needs in a case-by-case fashion, often working hard to divorce that student’s idea of him or herself as unfixable, from the problem at hand. It was a revelation when I discovered that a student I had thought was blowing off my class was in fact troubled by serious trouble at home. In tackling these problems, I have found that identification is often half the battle. And in the identification game, I have found nothing more valuable than the students’ trust. The rapport building needed to establish this trust takes time, and I have learned to allow the students to open up to me on their own schedules, to allow them the space to confront their problems individually before we take them on together.
Building rapport with students, convincing faculty that ASP is something to be embraced, and facilitating a classroom environment that stands in line with my specific, daily and long-term, global teaching goals has proven daunting in some ways, but exhilarating in most. And, in addressing these goals, my third greatest challenge emerged. This challenge has been pacing myself and allowing things to take time, instead of trying to do everything for everyone all at once. When I began at ASU, I wanted to do so many things. I wanted to maintain the spectacular program my predecessor had put into place. I wanted to both emulate her and develop my own style both in and out of the classroom. I wanted to expand our program and add an upper level ASP class. I wanted to give a presentation to the faculty. I wanted to meet everyone in our wonderful national ASP community. And I wanted to solve every student problem, whether academic or personal, with precision, perfection, and compassion. Needless to say, I learned very quickly that all of these things, together with preparing for a new slate of classes and establishing roots in a new city, were impossible to do all at once and, after months of sixteen and eighteen hour days, the law of diminishing returns found me at last, rendering me too tired to be of much use to anyone and forcing me acknowledge that I had become one of my own professional challenges.
Today, I use a new and far more effective tactic. I allow things to evolve more naturally. Like building rapport with my students and my faculty, developing my program and my professional self takes time. No matter how I try, these things cannot be rushed if they are to be effective. Today, I am delighted to look back on the past year and recognize how far I’ve come. I spent my first two semesters doing the essential, getting to know the material in my classes, the seminal literature in the field, the culture of my institution, and the needs and personalities of the individual students. This semester I have inaugurated a program for upper level students and I will be attending two exciting conferences, where I will deepen my knowledge and expand my network. Next semester, I hope to begin work on an article. The semester after that, well, who knows? I have learned to trust that, with continued hard work and commitment to helping my students succeed, new goals, and the means with which to meet them, will arise in their own time. For now, I am happy to face the challenges inherent in ASP with the knowledge and foresight I have developed over the past year. I am delighted to work everyday toward helping my students through the law school learning experience, guiding and supporting them as they seek out their own, educational, big T-truths, becoming stronger people, more effective law students and, I hope, in the end, lifelong legal learners.
August 25, 2008
“How is a Professor Like a Chameleon?”
Assistant Professor of Academic Support
Hofstra Law School
hillary.burgess [at] hofstra [dot] edu
June 25, 2008
From Guest Blogger Russell Smith: Student Engagement
November 28, 2007
Sharing time & spotllight time again!
First things second.
Spotlight time. Presenting ... ALEX RUSKELL. Alex took over leadership of the Academic Success effort at Roger Williams University School of law this academic year. From all reports, he's doing a super job!
Before this year, Alex served as the Director of the Academic Support Program at Southern New England School of Law, and before that, Associate Director of the Legal Writing Center at the University of Iowa College of Law. In his earlier life, he litigated in Boston, focusing on securities and corporate non-competition agreements. He has also served as General Counsel for a mid-size publishing company, Associate for a large oil and gas firm, and as an Assistant in the Texas Attorney General’s Office of Environmental Crimes.
His academic background is varied — and thus well-suited to academic support! He holds an M.F.A. in Fiction from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, an A.L.M. in English from Harvard University, a J.D. from the University of Texas at Austin, and a B.A. in English from Washington and Lee University.
Before practicing law, he taught in a Russian orphanage and counted otters for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. Both of these resulted in several articles, printed in The Tampa Tribune and many other publications.
Alex frequently presents at writing conferences and symposiums across the country, most recently at the 2006 AWP Conference in Austin, Texas, where he sat on a panel questioning the continuing vitality of the American novel.
Now, how does this tie in with "sharing"? Alex gave me permission to post his latest exam-answering advice to the RWU SOL students. It's terrific. Here goes . . .
September 17, 2007
Using Minute Papers to Assess Student Understanding Mid-Semester
By Hillary Burgess, Adjunct Professor, Rutgers School of Law
Law students often complain that the only way they know whether or not they understand the material is by their final grade. Similarly, as faculty, we face frustration that “we know we discussed this topic ad nauseam,” so why didn’t the students get it right on the exam?
When I first started teaching, I used “minute papers” to get feedback from students throughout the semester. In class, I distribute a handout that has 3-5 questions on it. The questions were sometimes topical (explain such and such a concept that we learned last time), meta-topical (explain what you still don’t understand about such and such a topic), or administrative (what about the lectures is/is not working for you). I give the students 3-5 minutes to write the papers. I’ve found this method allows me to evaluate how well I’ve taught the ideas we’ve discussed as well as what the students like and don’t like about the means to get there and the means of evaluation.
While minute papers don’t provide direct feedback to the class, I do summarize the results for the students, which gives students feedback relative to the rest of the class. Summarizing the results lets students who are not getting key concepts become aware that they are one of a few. I always welcome these students to my office hours (or since I’m currently an adjunct, to email or call me) for additional guidance. I’ve found those students tend to feel supported whether or not they take me up on the invitation. I’ve also found that summarizing the results can reduce the impact that one disgruntled student can have by letting him or her know indirectly (provided its true) that most of the students are excited about whatever that student is disgruntled about. If many students are disgruntled about a particular aspect of the course, I can address the issue directly and explain its pedagogical soundness or, more likely, come up with an alternate pedagogically sound solution.
I used these papers more when I was starting out as an adjunct because I wanted to make sure that what I thought was good teaching was actually reaching the students. In my undergraduate courses, I have to admit, I give so many tests and papers (usually one or the other every other week) and have so much one-on-one contact with students, that students give and receive all the feedback they want.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have small enough classes that I’ve been able to continue my undergraduate school’s philosophy that “every class is a writing class, regardless of the topic” in both my undergraduate and law school classes. However, in my law class, I’ve found that students become used to the “no work until finals week,” and despite that they complain that they don’t get feedback mid-semester, some of them will complain about mid-semester assignments! Minute papers might be the best solution to this dichotomous problem – it allows me to communicate with each student while taking very little of their time (and gives me less to grade).
In any case, I wanted to share (and remind) you about this idea as I recently reminded myself about it. I welcome comments and feedback. Prof@hillaryburgess.com.
February 13, 2005
Feed us some articles. The next time you stumble upon the perfect skill-teaching strategy, when your Dean doubles your budget and you figure out what to do with all the extra cash, whenever anything strikes you as relevant to the rest of us -- write it up. Send it along. We know you're out there!