Thursday, June 28, 2018
It's sweltering in much of the USA. And, the heat is only getting hotter for the many recent law school grads preparing for next month's bar exam.
So, I thought I'd offer a few "hot" tips on how to enhance one's learning this summer based on a recently published study entitled: "Smarter Law School Habits: An Empirical Analysis of Law Learning Strategies and Relationship with LGPA," by Jennifer Cooper, adjunct professor at Tulane University, https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3004988
As detailed in the article statistically analyzing study tactics and learning, Professor Cooper found that two particular study strategies are positively correlated with law school grades.
The first is elaboration, i.e, explaining confusing concepts to others. So, be a talker this summer as you prepare for your bar exam. In short, be a teacher...be your teacher!
The second is the use of practice questions to learn. So, grab hold of every opportunity you have this summer to learn by doing. Take every mock bar exam you can. Work through every bar exam practice problem available. Be tenacious in your practice. Learn by doing!
Finally, as documented by Professor Cooper, beware of reading and re-reading. It might make you feel like you are learning, but there is little learning going on...until you put down the book and start working on problems for yourself. And, that particularly makes sense with the bar exam...because...the bar exam is testing the "practice of law" not the "theory behind the law."
So, throughout this summer, focus less on reading and more on active learning - through lots and lots of practice problems and self-taught elaboration to explain the legal principles and concepts - as you prepare for success on your bar exam next month. (Scott Johns).
Thursday, June 14, 2018
It's the time of the year when one group of graduates are taking their oaths of office while another group of graduates are preparing for the bar exam this summer. That brings me to an interesting conversation with a recent bar passer and his spouse about studying versus learning.
You see, with an introduction in hand, I asked the bar passer's spouse if she noticed anything different between her spouse's law school experience preparing for final exams and her spouse's bar prep experiencing in preparing for the bar exam.
Without hesitation, the report came back: "No. It was much the same, same hours, same long days, the same through and through."
In rapid response and without the slightest hesitation, the recent graduate - who just passed the bar exam - exclaimed that it was "totally different. No comparison between preparing for law school exams and the bar exam."
You see, according to his spouse's perspective, preparing for law school exams and bar exams outwardly seemed identical, but, according to the recent graduate, in law school he spent most of his time reading...and reading...and reading...and then learning as much as he could just a few days before final exams. In other words, he spent his law school years studying. In contrast, even though outwardly he put in similar hours for bar prep as for law school studies, his focus was on practicing...and practicing...and practicing. In other words, for law school he was studying; for the bar exam he was learning.
So, for those of you preparing for the bar exam this summer, focus on learning - not studying. What does that mean? Well, a great day is completing two tasks: working through lots of actual bar exam problems and then journaling about what you learned that very day. Yep...that very day. That's key. Learn today. Spend less time studying (reading commercial outlines, watching lectures, and reading lecture notes) and more time learning (doing lots and lots of practice problems). That's because on bar exam day you aren't going to be asked about what you read but rather asked to show what you can do. So, be a doer this summer! (Scott Johns).
Thursday, April 26, 2018
Having just returned from a bar exam conference, I am struck by how little we know about what actually correlates to success on the bar exam. Nevertheless, for our students, it is common to jump to the conclusion that bar exam results are "preordained" based on a complex mathematical formula consisting of primarily (or indeed solely) LGPA and LSAT scores. In other words, those that pass have high numbers; those that don't, don't.
Interestingly, in our attempt to reduce the complexity of life experiences to numbers, there are always what we refer to as "outliers." People that pass (or fail) regardless of LGPA and LSAT scores. I sometimes wonder whether we are all outliers because even the best of statistical models fails to accurately predict bar passage results for our students. And, that brings me to the field of human performance.
You see, according to writer Alex Hutchinson, early on in the field of sports-based human performance, "[p]hysiologists pieced together an impressively detailed picture of the factors that - in theory - dictate our ultimate capacity [in terms of predicting athletic success]....There was one problem with this approach: It couldn't predict who would win an athletic contest....Clearly, something was missing from the 'human machine' picture of athletic limits." Alex Hutchison, The Mental Tricks of Athletic Endurance, Wall Street Journal (February 2, 2018), available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-mental-tricks-of-athletic-endurance. That something tends to be not easily reducible to biological measurement; it tends to be what some refer to colloquially as "head games."
In other words, in an athletic competition, your body is sending signals to your brain about the current physiological state of your body, i.e., whether you are running of out of energy, or dehydrated, or overheated, etc. As interpreted by your brain, those signals then become self-fulfilling; they can serve to limit our endurance and our perseverance such that they become a barrier to improving our athletic performance. However, psychologists have begun to explore the power of motivational self-talk to reinterpret those signals so that they do not in fact have such determinative power over athletic performance. According to Dr. Hutchinson, it seems that positive self-talk can boost performance beyond what we think is possible based merely on the internal signaling of our biological markers.
That raises an interesting question with respect to bar passage. We often hear people analogize that passing the bar requires preparation akin to preparing for a marathon. As such, there's a case to be made that it might not be true that LGPA and LSAT are the major determinant signals as to who passes the bar exam. Indeed, it is much more nuanced and complex; otherwise, why have a bar exam at all if results are preordained by past testing results in the form of LGPA and LSAT scores?
Well, to be frank, we have a bar exam precisely because we know that LGPA and LSAT scores do not determine bar pass results. And, as in athletic competitions, I have a hunch that one's self-talk has much to do with one's success in overcoming the nagging self-doubts that are common to most of us ("I don't fit in the law; I can't pass the bar exam; there's way too much to learn to pass the bar; I just don't have the time needed to pass the bar; I wasn't much of a success in law school so I'm not going to be successful on the bar exam; etc."). Although there is no "magic cure-all," and of course LGPA and LSAT scores indicate something, it is important to recall that "something" doesn't mean "everything."
And, that's where we come in. Our bar exam destiny is not predetermined. It is something that we can positively and concretely influence and improve by acting upon positive self-talk as we work - problem by problem and question by question - to train ourselves for success on the bar exam. Those two things go hand-in-hand - "practice and talk" and "talk and practice." So, whether you are preparing yourself for final exams or getting ready to study for the bar exam, pay attention to your self-talk. Indeed, ask yourself today "What am I telling myself and is it really true or not?" (Scott Johns).
Wednesday, April 4, 2018
This year, I became a teaching assistant (TA) once again. This was not planned and what started as just another responsibility on my list of responsibilities resulted in an amazing experience. For our TA program, we try to select students who have performed well in a particular course with a particular professor and students who have performed well across the board academically. However, this fall I was faced with a dilemma. I tried to recruit TAs for a professor who did not teach the previous academic year so my pool was smaller and furthermore, the class time conflicted with an elective course that almost every 3L was enrolled in. I presented the professor with three options, one of which was to have me as the TA, just for this year. She chose the latter.
I was well aware of the challenges I would face so I approached this new task with some trepidation but saw all the amazing rewards and value I would reap from this experience. The primary challenges I anticipated included student discomfort because I am the Director of the academic support program and not their peer. I also anticipated discomfort with my presence in the classroom as students might perceive me as a person who was monitoring their every move. I anticipated low attendance at the bi-weekly TA sessions because I did not have the professor as a student, I did not attend this law school and thus students believed that I did not have much to offer them. This particular situation intrigued me the most as TAs who have worked with new professors in the past, have had similar experiences. However, these TAs have been successful and usually work closely with the professor to provide even more helpful material to the students. Moreover, students are more independent spring semester and take less advantage of various resources. Finally, I found it interesting that students could feel uncomfortable with me particularly because I train the TAs and work with students studying this topic for the bar exam.
The positives I looked forward to were opportunities to evaluate the structure of the current teaching assistant program, to get to know or become familiar with about one- third of our 1L class, to work collaboratively with one of our professors and to expand the offerings of my office. Sometimes as ASP’ers, we are so removed from the law school experience that we forget certain aspects of what it means to be a student even when we try to remind ourselves every year. I looked forward to coming away from this experience with new ideas and avenues to be effective with students and maximize how to effectively utilize my TAs in the future.
Within the TA responsibilities, TAs attend each scheduled meeting of the doctrinal course they are assigned to. They prepare lesson plans and materials for every teaching assistant lab session. They are generally available for questions during office hours. They also work closely with the professor and complete additional tasks the professor might request such as tracking class participation, passing out papers, etc…. The materials produced for the lab sessions are either reviewed by me or the senior TA. I submitted to all of these expectations and requirements. My senior TA reviews my materials; I try to put everyone at ease so I tried to create a safe environment for my senior TA to enjoy reviewing my materials. I mentioned this to the students at the first lab session and they laughed.
What was most informative about student behavior within the classroom was sitting through the course lectures and observing students. Initially, students were uncomfortable, particularly, the ones who decided to sit near me but that discomfort subsided over time. In my opinion, students became too relaxed. I ensured that I came to class prepared with casebook, laptop, pen, and paper. I sat next to a talkative student who was by no means uncomfortable with my presence. I was conscientious about being mentally present, free from distraction, and focused. It is amazing how many clues professors provide and how much advice about preparing for exams this professor dispensed. It appeared that students were not always paying attention though. I saw students on Facebook, instant messenger (apparently speaking with students in the class and others outside of the class), shopping, buying concert tickets, working on legal writing assignments, scrolling through pictures, texting, stepping out the room to take phone calls, drawing, researching topics (associated and unassociated with the class), laughing at and with one another, engaging in side conversations, asking me what was just said (trying to read my notes), falling asleep, passing physical notes, playing video games, watching movies, and watching sports. It is amazing what happens in a law school classroom in the span of one hour and forty minutes. Students got more and more comfortable as the weeks progressed so I saw more and more on computer screens. Some privacy screens work very well, I could see nothing while seated in the back of the class.
When I am in front of a class, presenting, I notice that some students are distracted but I never imagined the extent. I understand that some students need to be accessible for work, children, and emergencies. I also understand that some students doodle to focus and listen. I had no idea of the volume of distractions available in class. I can certainly understand why some professors ban computers in the classroom.
I wonder if this is the new student norm, all these stimuli competing for their attention. When I was in law school, the early years of laptops, I do not recall all this going on but maybe I was focused because I was fearful of appearing unprepared when called on. (Goldie Pritchard)
Thursday, March 29, 2018
Last weekend, I had the great pleasure of attending the Rocky Mountain Legal Writing Conference. Being exhausted from grading numerous writing assignments into the wee hours of the morning, Prof. Katherine Lyons and Prof. Aimee Dudovitz (Loyola Law School - Los Angeles) caught my attention with the title of their talk: "Integrating Quick Classroom Exercises that Connect Doctrine and Skills and Still Allow You (and Your Students) to Sleep at Night."
Frankly, this was a presentation that spoke directly to me. It was medicine for my tired heart and my hurried mind. I needed sleep (and lots of it)!
My favorite tip was what I'll paraphrase as the "one-moment question."
Just pop on the screen a one-moment research question and ask your students to get to work researching, drafting, and writing a quick 5-10 minute email answer. That's right. Start with researching. As the professors made clear, don't let them blurt out an answer. Instead, make them work. Tell them to start looking on the internet, digging into the legal research engines for their answers. Then, based on their own research discoveries, direct your students to write out short emails to provide you with precise answers to that particular question. Once submitted, now you can open up the classroom for a well-researched and informed conversation about the answer to the one-moment question. And, because the answers are super-short, it shouldn't take much time to at least make a mark or two on each answer as follow-up feedback.
As an example, Professors Lyons and Dudovitz suggested that one might ask - in the midst of a civil procedure class discussing the propriety of "tag" jurisdiction for instance - whether a plaintiff could properly serve a corporate defendant by serving the summons and complaint on an out-of-state corporate officer just passing through the local airport of the plaintiff's forum state. As a tip, the professors suggested that you pick out a question that has a bright-line answer based on jurisdictional precedent (and one that can be easily researched). And, as they suggested, as a bonus have the students keep track of their research trails in arriving at their answers.
That got me thinking. In my own teaching this semester, perhaps I should ask my students - in the midst of our studies of constitutional law - whether a state such as Colorado could hypothetically prohibit out-of-state residents from being licensed as Colorado attorneys and, if not, why not. To confess, I'm pretty sure about the answer but not exactly certain of the reason. But, I think it has to do with the Article IV Privileges and Immunities Clause. So, I better take heed of the professors' advice and start researching for myself. In the process, I think that I might just become a better learner (and teacher too)! (Scott Johns).
Thursday, March 22, 2018
It's not too late, at all.
With most law students facing final exams in a month or so, this is the perfect time for your law students to reflect on their learning...with the goal of making concrete beneficial improvements right now, i.e., with plenty of time to prepare for their final exams.
There are many such self-evaluation learning techniques, but I especially like the questions that adjunct professor Lori Reynolds (Asst. Dean of Graduate Legal Studies at the Univ. of Denver) asks each of her students because the questions are open-ended, allowing students to reflect, interact, and communicate about their own learning with their teacher.
In fact, just prior to spring break, I asked these questions of my own law students, and I am taking stock of their responses by making changes where needed in my own content and instructional methods too. You see, learning is a team effort, so it is important to get concrete information from all of your team members (your students) to identify what is helping your students learning, what might be hindering their learning, and what goals have yet to be achieved for the course thus far.
In my own course this semester, there were two questions that tended to be most valuable. First, with respect to what might be most hindering learning, I received a number of responses questioning the value of the "think-pair-share" method as a tool to help activate meaningful classroom engagement. Based on those responses, I am hard at work doing research and re-evaluating my own use of "think-pair-share" to confirm whether in fact the method is an effective learning tool for my classrooms this term.
The final question also seemed to provide valuable information about my students' learning, namely, in asking them what they might do differently to improve their overall course grade. To paraphrase their general responses, most students acknowledged that: "It's time to put some more elbow grease into my learning because learning takes curious, engaging, and enterprising hard work on my part." I was glad to see so many take ownership over their learning.
But, as a word of caution, I was quite afraid to ask these questions. You see, I have 123 students; that means that I was bound to receive news that I just didn't want to hear because, frankly, I like to be liked. But, my job as a teacher is not to be liked but to be good at what I have been hired to do. That's my responsibility to my students. It's my obligation to them. So, rather than fretting and worrying about what my students might say, I found out. Yes, some of the comments were a bit painful for me to read. But, read them I did. And, more importantly, I stepped back to take them to heart to see whether there might be things that I ought to change to improve my students' learning for the remainder of the semester.
Looking back, I'm mighty glad I asked because it's already helping me to become a better teacher to my students this semester, while I still have time to make a positive difference in the learning. So, feel free to use these questions with your students this semester. (Scott Johns).
Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Some (or perhaps, most) law students get tired of reading judicial opinions every single day. I have found that giving students the option to listen to audio files or watch movies in lieu of reading a case helps to create some variety and spices up the learning process. For example, last week my Criminal Procedure students had the option to watch the 1980 movie “Gideon’s Trumpet” or read Gideon v. Wainwright and the corresponding notes in the textbook. I included both the audio and textbook options expressly on the syllabus. About half the class opted to watch the movie while the other half read the case; importantly, the whole class was able to engage in the discussion. Similarly, next week students will have the option to read the portion of the textbook discussing jury selection or to listen to More Perfect’s “Object Anyway” podcast.
Even if you don’t teach a substantive law course, the audio files can be helpful to aid any student who is struggling to connect with the written material. Earlier this semester a high-performing first-year student stopped by my office concerned that she had lost her fall semester spark. In the fall semester, she was excited about law school and thus enthused to work hard. Her hard work paid off, earning her very high grades in December. But, when she returned in January, she just couldn’t connect with the cases and material like she had done before. The spring semester courses of Constitutional Law and Property weren’t peaking her curiosity the way the fall semester courses of Criminal Law and Torts had. After chatting with her for a few minutes, I could tell that she needed a new way to engage with the material. I suggested some legal podcasts, especially ones that would give her the story behind the litigation. She needed to be able to relate to the parties on a more personal level, and I thought a well told story about the litigants could help. After just a few podcasts, she has already reported that Con Law has become more interesting to her now that she’s “getting to know” the justices’ personalities and she enjoys learning what happened to the litigants before and after the lawsuit.
If you’re interested in introducing an audio option to one of your courses or academic support arsenal, consider:
Oyez “is a multimedia archive devoted to making the Supreme Court of the United States accessible to everyone. It is a complete and authoritative source for all of the Court’s audio since the installation of a recording system in October 1955. Oyez offers transcript-synchronized and searchable audio, plain-English case summaries, illustrated decision information, and full text Supreme Court opinions. Oyez also provides detailed information on every justice throughout the Court’s history and offers a panoramic tour of the Supreme Court building, including the chambers of several justices.”
According to More Perfect’s creators “Supreme Court decisions shape everything from marriage and money to public safety and sex. We know these are very important decisions we should all pay attention to – but they often feel untouchable and even unknowable. Radiolab's first ever spin-off series, More Perfect, connects you to the decisions made inside the court's hallowed halls, and explains what those rulings mean for "we the people" who exist far from the bench. More Perfect bypasses the wonkiness and tells stories behind some of the court’s biggest rulings.”
Legal Talk Network is a podcast network for legal professionals with hosts from well-known organizations and brands in the legal community. Over 20 different active podcasts cover important legal news and developments, including access to justice, law school, industry events, legal technology, and the future of law. The most relevant podcast within the network is the ABA Law Student Podcast, which covers issues that affect law students and recent grads.
In addition, Learn Out Loud offers numerous legal podcasts and audio files for free download. (Kirsha Trychta)
Thursday, February 15, 2018
Are your students struggling with reading comprehension difficulties?
Well, it might be just related to something quite surprising...the ever-increasing emphasis in on-line reading over paper-based reading.
You see, according to educational researchers in Norway, even controlling for learning differences in student populations, on-line readers statistically underperform in comparison to paper-based readers (as ascertained by test results concerning reading comprehension). Anne Mangen, et al, "Reading Linear Texts on Paper Versus Computer Screen: Effects on Reading Comprehension," International Journal of Educational Research, 58:61-68 (2013), available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com
According the article, at least based on my own reading of the article, there are several possible reasons for the disparate tests results between on-line readers versus paper-based readers such as:
First, on-line reading often requires scrolling, which seems to negatively impact spatial orientation of the text because it disrupts our abilities to mentally represent and recall the material.
Second (and closely related), on-line reading lacks the visual certainty of knowing where to re-locate material that one is struggling with because on-line text is fluid (with different parts of the text never occurring preciously on the same page of the screen) in comparison to paper-based texts (in which we often visually recall a certain passage from its spatial position, for example, in the upper-left hand-side of the page in the text book). In other words, paper-based readers might perform better in comparison to on-line readers because paper-based readers can more easily reconstruct a mental image, leading to more efficient recall during assessment of the material previously read. Those same clues are often lacking in on-line text presentations.
Third, on-line reading seems to impair our overall metacognition abilities (our abilities to monitor and assess our own learning) because on-line reading tends to be perceived by us -- at the outset -- as a familiar way to glean information quickly (and almost effortlessly). In contrast, paper-based reading tends to be perceived by us -- from the get-go -- as requiring much more effort on our part in order to make sense of the text, which by implication suggests that paper-based reading pushes us to better monitor whether and to what extent we are learning through our reading as we move back and forth through the text. In other words, in on-line reading, we tend to overestimate our reading abilities.
If the article's conclusions are true, then that leads us to wonder whether, the next time we see one of our students struggling with reading cases, dissecting statutes, or analyzing multiple-choice or essay problems, perhaps we should first ask about their reading. Are they primarily reading using on-line text or paper-based text? The answer to the question might just lead to a memorable breakthrough in one's success in law school.
That leads me to one final thought.
I wrote this blog trying, as best I could, to read the Norwegian article online. So, please take what I've written as a grain of salt...because...I might have well have overestimated my own metacognition of the research findings.
In fact, writing this blog has been mighty hard work on my end because it's required near-endless multi-tasking as I switched screen shots between the article and the blog. In short, I very well might have demonstrated the merit of this research based on my own, perhaps mistaken, paraphrases of the research findings. I'll let you be the judge. Just make sure you print out the article before you read it! Oh, and if you're not sure if you can recall how to read old-fashioned paper text, here's a funny video clip that'll serve as reminder: https://www.youtube.com/medevialreadinghelpdesk (Scott Johns).
Thursday, January 25, 2018
Sunday, January 21, 2018
We are finishing our second week of classes. As part of the start up, I have been meeting one-one-one with probation students. We will have weekly appointments during the semester to assess strengths and problems, implement strategies, and monitor progress. The first appointments with students always give me a great deal of insight into their mindsets on success.
Here are some of the characteristics of the students on probation who are ready to succeed this semester:
- They arrive on time or ahead of time for their appointments.
- They take out a pen and paper or laptop to take notes during the meeting without prompting from me.
- When asked to fill out an information sheet, they can list fall courses/professors/grades and their spring courses/professors without having to look them up.
- They have reflected on last semester's grades and study strategies and can articulate some ideas for improvement.
- They ask questions throughout our discussion to clarify points or inquire about areas we will cover this semester.
- They have started the exam review process with emails to some of their fall professors before seeing me.
- They use a daily planner or electronic calendar to record assignments and the date/time of our next meeting.
And then there are students on probation who do not seem ready to succeed yet (fortunately a small group). Hopefully that will change after grade shock/anger/angst has passed.
- They have not scheduled an appointment with me before the end of the second week of classes as required by the law school
- They "no show" the first appointment or arrive late to the appointment.
- They come to the appointment without anything - no pen and paper, no laptop, no knapsack, nothing.
- When asked to fill out an information sheet, they do not follow clear instructions or cannot remember the information to complete a section.
- They have not given any thought to the last semester's grades beyond "if I had been in the easy section" or "Professor X's exam was too hard" or "I wouldn't have been on probation if I just got a D+ in Y course instead of a D" or other answers that are basically non-reflection.
- They scowl, slouch in their chairs, sigh deeply in boredom, or exhibit other signs of frustration and animosity for having to meet.
- They make no notes on assigned tasks or the date/time for the next meeting.
Past semesters reassure me that the second group of students will come around. It may be several weeks before they are ready to take advantage of new strategies, but they come around at least 95% of the time. Unfortunately, if it takes too long to do so, they will have lost valuable time.
But I live in hope. (Amy Jarmon)
Thursday, January 18, 2018
With hat tips to Prof. Herb Ramy (Suffock University Law School) & Prof. Ira Shafiroff (Southwestern Law School), the classroom has moved well-past the laptop age into the smart phone age, with perhaps some deleterious impacts on learning.
That leads to two important questions given the increasingly common use of laptops and smartphones as note-taking devices.
First, with respect to computers in the classroom, might digital note-taking actually be harmful to one's learning (and even the learning of one's neighbors still taking notes the old-fashioned way by hand)?
Second, with respect to smart phones, is it really a good idea to snap-up a few photos of the lecture slides or whiteboard markings as tools to meticulously capture what was presented in class?
Well, there are two important links to help you be the judge...of your own use of technology...in answering these questions, whether you are a classroom learner or a teacher.
First, with respect to computers, the New York Times provides a helpful overview of the big picture research about the benefits and the limitations with respect to taking notes by computer (to include the potential detrimental effects upon your neighbors). Susan Dynarski, "Laptops Are Great. But Not During a Lecture or a Meeting," New York Times (Nov. 22, 2017), available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/22/business/laptops-not-during-lecture-or-meeting.html
Second, with respect to smart phone "snapping," the Law Teacher newsletter provides valuable suggestions for promoting boundaries that might be helpful in maximizing the learning effectiveness (and limiting the distractions that might result from too much classroom photo-taking). Dyane O’Leary, "Picture This: Tackling the Latest Trend in Digital Note Taking," The Law Teacher (Fall 2017), available at: http://lawteaching.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Fall-2017-Law-Teacher-final.pdf
The jury is in for me. I take notes by hand (but I have been known to snap a few whiteboard photos!). But, regardless of your method of capturing class content and discussions, perhaps the most important question is what do you do with that information. Does it become a part of you, as a learner, or does it merely remain mostly-empty words, diagrams, and images that don't really lead to change? That's an important question because, to be learner rather than just a studier, it's not the information that leads to learning but what we do with that information that makes all the difference. So, next time you're tempted to bring out your camera, you might just ask yourself what's your next step in using that digital information to help you actually learn. Without an answer to that question, it's perhaps really not a "Kodak" moment. (Scott Johns).
Thursday, January 4, 2018
I've already fallen. Chocolate got me. I tried, super-hard; but try as I might, chocolate just has a magical grip on me.
That raises an interesting question.
Are there any New Year's resolutions that I actually might keep so that they become part of my life?
Well, I've got a resolution that both you and me (whether you are a teacher or a student) can bank on for making a meaningful difference in your law school experience.
In short, do less studying..and more learning.
That's right, less studying. You see, studiers study. They read and re-read, they highlight and re-highlight, they underline and re-underline their class readings, notes, and outlines. But, unfortunately, the data shows that these common study techniques are poor ways to learn. Don't believe me? Check this article out by Dr. John Dunlosky, entitled: "Strengthening the Student Toolbox: Study Strategies to Boost Learning," in which Dr. Dunlosly surveys the learning science behind what works best for learning: https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/dunlosky.pdf
Now, before we throw away our highlighters, please note that Dr. Dunlosky acknowledges that highlighting is "fine"...provided that we recognize that highlighting is just "the beginning of the learning journey." In other words, to go from a studier to a learner involves moving beyond re-reading, highlighting, and underlining to become one that actually experiences, reflects, and acts upon the content. That sounds hard. And, it might be. But, it is not impossible, at all. Indeed, Dr. Dunlosky focuses on a handful of low-cost, readily-available learning strategies that can meaningfully improve your learning. Here's just a few of them:
First, engage in retrieval practice. Rather than re-reading a case, for example, close the casebook and ask yourself what was the case all about, why did I read it, what did it hold, what did I learn from it, etc.
Second, engage in lots of exercise with practice tests and problems. It's never too early to start.
Third, as you engage in learning through practice tests, aim to distribute the practice experiences rather than massing them in condensed, concentrated cramming sessions. You see, what we learn through distributed practice sticks. What we learn through cramming, well, we just don't really learn because it quickly disappears from our grasp.
Fourth, as you engage in learning through practice exercises, try to interleave your practice with a mix of problem types and even subjects. In other words, rather than just focusing on negligence problems in mass, for example, work a negligence hypothetical followed by an intentional tort problem and then a strict liability problem and finally back to a negligence problem. Far better yet, interleave torts problems with contracts hypotheticals, etc.
Fifth, as you engage in learning, try to elaborate why the rule applies...or...explain to yourself what steps were needed to solve the problems that you were analyzing...or...figure out what facts served as clues that you should have discussed certain issues.
That's just a few learning strategies that you can implement right away, as sort of a New Year's resolution to you, to help you do less studying this new year...but far more learning. So, here's to a new academic term of learning! (Scott Johns).
Thursday, December 21, 2017
|"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—|
|I took the one less traveled by,|
|And that has made all the difference."|
"The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost
We are all travelers in this journey of life. It seems to me that I've been traveling some pretty busy and clogged highways as of late. You see, I'm constantly on the internet - from email to the web and on every road in between. Perhaps you too.
But, I noticed something extraordinary wonderful this week. The emails have slowed, nearly to a stand still. It's provided me with a very special gift at this holiday time. A chance to reflect, to ponder, to observe, to relate to others, and even an opportunity to settle back and read a real book (one with pages that you turn by hand, almost like those old, very old cars, with cranks to open and close car windows rather than electronic switches that zip windows up and down in a flash).
Interestingly, it seems like too much of a good thing can, well, be too much. And, the internet with its numerous electronic enticements and inducements might just be that good thing that can easily take over our lives.
Obviously, I'm not against the internet. I'm on it right now as I write this blog. But, according to researcher Dr. Steven Illardi at the University of Kansas, too much reliance on technological wizardly can be hazardous to one's well-being:
"Labor-saving inventions, from the Roomba to Netflix spare us the arduous tasks of our grandparents’ generation. But small actions like vacuuming and returning videotapes can have a positive impact on our well-being. Even modest physical activity can mitigate stress and stimulate the brain’s release of dopamine and serotonin—powerful neurotransmitters that help spark motivation and regulate emotions. Remove physical exertion, and our brain’s pleasure centers can go dormant." https://www.wsj.com/articles/why-personal-tech-is-depressing
In the midst of this holiday season, why not take the "road less traveled" by giving yourself a wonderful gift by unplugging from the internet, even if just for one day. But first, let me be frank. Unplugging is not for the faint of heart; it takes purposefully choosing to travel down a different road, which perhaps at first blush, seems like a very lonely and difficult road.
You see, as Dr. Illardi relates, there's a research "study from 2010, in which about 1,000 students at 19 universities around the world pledged to give up all screens for 24 hours. Most students dropped out of the study in a matter of hours, and many reported symptoms of withdrawal associated with substance addiction." In other words, in choosing to take this road less traveled, even for just 24 hours, be ready to be ambushed by your own mind.
But, there's great news for those who kept moving on the "road less traveled" by staying unplugged for 24 hours. As Dr. Illardi states, "[T]hose who pushed through the initial discomfort and completed the experiment discovered a surprising array of benefits: greater calm, less fragmented attention, more meaningful conversations, deeper connections with friends and a greater sense of mindfulness."
So, as I wrap up my final blog of 2017, I'm about to go dark...I'll be shortly turning of the power switches to my computer and my so-called smart phone. At least based on the research, that's a very smart road to travel on. I'd love for you to travel with me and let me know how it goes! (Scott Johns).
Thursday, December 14, 2017
As they say, first impressions matter.
That got me thinking about the sorts of first impressions I am making with my students when the first contact that I have with most of my students is, unfortunately, often through my course syllabus. So, with finals nearly over for the fall term, I am taking a fresh look at my course syllabus to try to look at my syllabus from the viewpoint of my students.
What tone does my syllabus set?
What does it say about our upcoming term together?
Does my syllabus present the course as a "painstakingly dull walk through a dimly lit path" or does it "shine with adventures in learning?"
Well, truth be told, my syllabus is rather drab, littered with dates and topics and reading assignments but really without much of a heart of excitement. And yet, I really am excited about working with my students next semester with the goal of embarking on a richly-awarding journey together in learning. So, why not make that excitement shine in my syllabus? But how?
Well, here are a just a few free resources that I came across to help me evaluate, reflect, and re-write my syllabus so that I can better set the stage for an exciting adventure of learning with my students next term.
First, I love Cornell University's "Course Decision Guide" because it walks through step-by-step reflective questions to help me "size up" my course before I re-draft my syllabus in terms of learning objectives, learning activities, formative assessment activities, resource issues, student motivation, summative assessment, etc. https://www.cte.cornell.edu/CourseDecisionGuide
Second, I appreciate the insights shared by Mary Bart in her article entitled "A Learner-Centered Syllabus Helps Set the Tone for Learning," reminding me in a "big picture sort-of-way" of concrete tips to set a positive learning environment right from the get-go just by how I frame my course description, for instance, in my syllabus. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-classroom-management/a-learner-centered-syllabus-helps-set-the-tone-for-learning/
With these resources as a initial start, I'm off to re-envision my syllabus so that the first impression that I make with my students next semester is hopefully a positive one that gets us started off strong on a cooperative learning experience together. Let the adventure begin...with me rethinking and remaking me (or at least my syllabus)! (Scott Johns).
Thursday, December 7, 2017
'Tis the season, they say.
But, for many law school graduates, the month of December seems like a herculean challenge because a number of graduates are preparing to retake the bar exam next February...after receiving devastating news that they did not pass.
So, let me write directly to you...to those of you who did not pass the bar exam this past summer.
First, you do not have to be a repeater. Repeaters repeat, with the same outcome likely to result. Instead, it's time to take advantage of the information and the experience that you had and turn it into a "fresh start." You see, you have "inside information," so to speak, that first-time takers lack. You know what it's like to sit for the exam, and, in most states, you have concrete information about what you did that was great along with inside scoop about where you can improve.
But, where is this inside info?
It's in the scores that you received along with your answers. The first step on your "fresh start" journey takes incredible courage but is key...grab hold of your exam questions and answers and work through them, one by one, reading the questions, outlining answers, writing solutions, and reflecting on what you learned through re-writing the exam. In the process, you'll be able to see firsthand where you can improve. That's important information that is not available to first-time takers. So, take advantage of it.
Second, don't focus on studying but on learning. You see, success this time around on the bar exam is not a matter of working harder but rather working differently. [That's why I’m always reluctant to call it studying because the focus should be on learning.]. From a big picture viewpoint, as Dr. Maryellen Weimer, Professor Emerita of Teaching and Learning at Penn State University describes, learning involves three overlapping activities focused on (1) content; (2) experiences; and, (3) reflection.
Let me be frank about the content phase of learning. We often feel so overwhelmed by the content, particularly because it comes to us from bar review companies in the form of massive detailed lectures and equally massive detailed outlines, that we never move beyond the content. In short, we don't feel like we know enough to practice. Consequently, we tend to be immobilized (i.e., stuck in) in the content stage. Instead of experiencing problem-solving first hand, we tend to re-read outlines, re-watch lectures, and in general create gigantic study tools before we have had sufficient experiences with the content to know what is really important in the big scheme of things.
And, in my experience, most often when people don’t pass the bar exam on the first time around, it is almost always NOT because they didn’t know enough law but rather because they wrote answers that didn’t match up with the questions asked. They were stuck in the content stage, spending too much time learning answers rather than experiencing questions. As mentioned above, that's because we are so naturally focused on trying to learn and memorize the law. But, I can’t EVER recall someone not passing because they didn’t know sufficient law. It’s almost as though we know too much law that the law becomes a barrier...because we write all of the law that we know in our answers...even if it is not relevant.
That’s why the second stage is so important – experiencing the content through active open book practice.
And, the third stage is critical too – reflection – because that is where we dig in to see patterns in the bar exam questions over time.
With that background in mind, let me offer a few suggestions so that you are not a repeater but a "fresh start" taker on your bar exam next February.
1. Avoid the Lectures! I would not redo the bar review commercial lectures. At the most, if you feel like you must, feel free to listen via podcasts while exercising, etc. In other words, just get them over and done with so that you can move quickly into the experiencing stage using the content of actual practice problems to solve problems for yourself. In other words, the least important thing in successfully passing the bar exam on the second go is listening to the lectures or reading outlines. Rather, as you work through practice problems, take the time to dig in and understand whether you really understood what was going one...that's the sort of experience in practicing along with the sort of reflection that makes a huge difference.
2. Daily Exercise! Establish a schedule so that you exercise consistent learning every day. The key is to be on a daily regimented schedule because it’s in your daily actions of experiencing and reflecting through actual bar exam problems that leads to big rises in bar exam scores.
3. Practice Makes Passing Possible! Right from the "get go," take advantage of every practice exam you can. Most of your days, from the very beginning of your studies, should be engaged in practicing actual bar exam problems and reflecting on what you learned. Don't try to learn the material through reading the outlines. Dig in and use the outlines to solve practice problems.
4. Reach Out To Your Law School! Meet once per week, on a schedule, with someone at your law school to talk out your work. Bring one of your written answers or a set of MBE question that you have done or a performance test problem that you just solved. You see, according to the learning scientists, when we explain to someone the steps that we took to solve a problem, it sticks with us. So, take advantage of your local ASP professionals on your law school campus.
5. Make Your Learning Work Count! Skip the commercial bar review online homework and drills. If the problems presented by your commercial course are not formatted like actual bar exam problems (essays, MBE questions, or performance test problems), don't do them. Period. That's because the bar examiners don't test whether you did the drills or the online homework; rather, they test whether you can communicate and solve hypothetical bar exam fact pattern problems. So, focus your work on the prize. Only do bar exam questions.
6. Two-Thousand! Okay...here's a number to remember. According to a recent successful "fresh start" taker, the number is 2000. That's right. A recent taker said that she/he did just about 2000 MBE questions. That's really experiencing the content. You see, it’s important to work through lots and lots of bar exam problems because that helps you to see fact patterns that trigger similar issues over and over. And, if you do that many questions, you don’t really have time for commercial bar review online homework or making gigantic study tools or re-watching the lectures over and over. Instead, you’ll be using your time...wisely...for what is really important, learning by doing. In particular, focus your learning (not studying!) on probing, pondering, and reflecting through every available essay and MBE question that you can. Unfortunately, we often hear of people slowing down in the practice arena during the last two weeks to make big study tools and to work on memorization. But, memorization doesn’t work without content...and content doesn't work with out experiencing lots and lots and lots of practice problems. In other words, by practicing every possible problem that you can get your hands on you are actually memorizing without even knowing it.
7. The Final Two Weeks! In the last two weeks, while you are still spending the bulk of your time practicing problems, for an hour or two a day, start to run through flashcards, or your old study tools, or posters, or your subject matter outlines. But, do so in a flash. It doesn’t matter whether you use commercial flash cards, your own note cards, or your own short subject matter outlines, etc., just pick something and use it to reflect on your learning. Here’s a suggestion: The learning science experts say that it is important to “elaborate,” i.e., to explain and talk through what you are learning and ask why it is important, etc. In other words, as you run through your study tools, put them into your own words, e.g., vocalize them, sing them out if you’d like, or even dance with them or put some “jazz” into them. In short, make your study tools live! However, always remember that the best way to make your study tools come to life is to use them to work through lots of bar exam problems throughout the last two weeks of bar prep.
8. Be Kind-Hearted To Yourself! Realize its okay to have melt-downs. Note, I said meltdowns not just a meltdown. Everyone has them, and they happen more than once. That's being human. So, be kind to yourself. Feel free to take time off for short adventures. The important thing is to take some time to rest and to rejuvenate, in whatever form works for you. My favorite is ice cream followed by a close second with hiking and even watching Andy Griffith shows (you’re too young to know what that is!).
Well, with that learning background as a foundation and these steps in mind, I wish you well as you prepare for success on your upcoming bar exam! (Scott Johns).
Thursday, November 30, 2017
There's a new documentary film out, telling the story of the co-authors of the Curious George adventure stories as they fled Paris for their lives with bicycles the couple hand-built from spare parts just 48 hours prior to the invasion of Hitler's troops. http://curiousgeorgedocumentary.com.
You see, the authors Margaret and Hans Reys were German Jews. Traveling south to neutral Portugal and "sleeping in barns and eating on the kindness of strangers" along the way, the couple eventually made their way to New York City. According to columnist Sarah Hess, who writes an article about the famous authors and the young filmmaker responsible for bringing to documentary life the incredible story of the Reys, the authors were, in part, imbuing Curious George with their own life experiences in learning to overcoming adversity by constantly maintaining a sense of curiosity and optimism despite the tremendous odds against them. Sarah Hass, "This is George," The Boulder Weekly, pp. 26-29 (Nov. 2017).
In Sarah Hass's article about the new documentary file, we read about how the film came to fruition through the efforts of an aspiring young filmmaker Ema Ryan Yamazki. Yamazaki grew up in Japan reading the Adventures of Curious George. She loved the stories. Because of the international fame and relevance to children across the world, Yamazaki couldn't believe that no one had yet to tell the "story-behind-the-story" of the Rey's. Id. at 28-29. But, that almost stopped her from telling the story.
You see, Curious George was famously successful; Yamazaki - in her own words - was just a 24-year old filmmaker and director. In particular, as related to us by Sarah Hass, Hass explains that "deep down Yamazaki wondered if she was really the right one to tell the Rey's story. Shouldn't a more experienced director take on such an iconic tale? 'But, you know what I realized?' she ask[ed] rhetorically. 'If I had waited to start until I knew what I was doing, or until I knew I was the right person to do it, I still wouldn't have started." Id. at 29. (emphasis added).
So, Yamazaki went forward despite her lack of confidence in herself, "rely[ing] on borrowed equipment" and lots of IOU's to "pull it off," producing a documentary movie that would not have come to fruition without Yamazki overcoming her own lack of confidence in being a great story teller. Id. at 29.
With final exams just having started (or starting soon), many of us feel so inadequate, so inexperienced, so unfit to even begin to prepare for exams. Yes, we'll try our best to create often-times massive outlines, which turnout to be nothing more than our notes re-typed and re-formatted. But, it's not massive outlines or commercial flashcards that lead to success on our final exams. Rather, it's following in the footsteps of filmmaker Yamazaki and getting straight to the heart of the issue by step-by-step producing the final product - a film that captures what Yamazki learned and experienced in her curious explorations of the life stories of the Rey's in their own true adventures in overcoming adversity to achieve success.
As law students, most often we do not feel that we know enough to start actually tackling practicing exams. But, we are not tested on the quality of our study tools or how much law we memorized from flashcards. Rather, we are evaluated based on our abilities to communicate, probe, and plumb problem-solving scenarios, mostly often in hypothetical fact patterns based on what we have studied and pondered throughout the academic term. That means that - like Yamazaki - we need to overcome our lack of confidence and just start struggling forward with tackling lots of practice final exams.
Be adventures. Be curious. Be bold. Yes, that means that, like Curious George, you will find yourself making lots of mistakes, but it's in the making and learning from our mistakes in practice problems that we learn to solve the problems that we will face on our final exams. So, tell your own story of adventures this fall as you prepare for your final exams. And, best of luck! (Scott Johns).
P.S. The best sources for practice exams are your professors' previous exams. But, if not available, feel free to use some handy, albeit relatively short, past bar exams problems, available at the following link and sorted by subject matter: http://www.law.du.edu/oldcoloradoexams
Thursday, November 23, 2017
As highlighted in a recent article by Jerry Cianciolo, taking on an appreciative disposition reaps great benefits in terms of our health, our emotional state, and our mind too. https://www.wsj.com/articles/a-substitute-for-complaint-free-wednesday-1511216941.
Citing to a Harvard article from 2015, Mr. Cianciolo relates that complimenting others leads to "positive changes in [our own] physiology, creative problem solving, performance under pressure, and social relationships.” Let’s be real. That’s something we could all use in law school.
And yet (and not surprisingly), the opposite brings downsides. According to Stanford neurologist Robert Sapolosky, complaining and worrying leads to such negative health implications as adult onset diabetes and high blood pressure.
But I have to be honest. I’m a big-time worrier. To be frank, it seems like the stresses of law school life only serve to accentuate my worries. Perhaps you’re like me. If so, I have great news.
Our viewpoint is a matter of our choice. We can decide whether to worry or wonder, to complain or compliment, to lament or thank.
So, in the midst of this thanksgiving season, please join with me in choosing to spread some sunshine towards others, perhaps with a gentle smile of warmth to someone in law school that seems all alone, or a kind word to a friend that is having a difficult time of it preparing for final exams, or a generous spirit to someone who is down and out as we commute to campus. And, in the process of choosing to live out a thankful attitude in our words and deeds, our own hearts will radiate with warmth and gratitude. That’s something to be mighty thankful for throughout this season of law school as we turn the corner from our law school classrooms to preparing for final exams. And, it just might help with our problem-solving too! (Scott Johns).
Thursday, November 2, 2017
With many law students facing final exams in just over a month, this is a great time for students to reflect on their learning with the goal of making beneficial improvements before it is too late, i.e., before final exams are over.
There are many such evaluation techniques but I especially like the questions that adjunct professor Lori Reynolds (Asst. Dean of Graduate Legal Studies at the Univ. of Denver) asks each of her students because the questions are open-ended, allowing students to reflect, interact, and communicate about their own learning with their teacher.
And, if you are a law student, there's no need to wait on your teachers to ask these questions. Rather, make them part and parcel of your learning today.
So, whether you are currently serving as a teacher or taking courses as a student, you'll find these questions to be rich empowering opportunities to make a real difference in your learning! (Scott Johns).
Tuesday, October 31, 2017
Last Thursday (October 26) was National Pumpkin Day and today is Halloween; it seems like a fitting day to conclude my “Giant Pumpkin Growing Lesson” series.
For the first four installments (read #1, #2, #3 and #4 here), I not only detailed my experience growing a giant pumpkin, but also tried to empathize with first-year law students. For this final post, I’d like to focus on “passion,” which I believe is an essential element to successfully transition from novice to expert.
You have to be truly passionate about the work in order to perform at a competitive level over a sustained period of time.
During the early morning hours on October 14, I officially entered my pumpkin in the Ohio Valley Giant Pumpkin Grower’s annual weigh off. At 516 pounds, my pumpkin took 35th place out of 38 eligible entries.
Many of the more experienced growers were impressed with her* shape and color, but commented that she was simply “too small” to be a real contender—even in the rookie category. These other growers would then immediately follow-up their statement with a question about my plans for next year. Although each of their questions varied slightly (e.g. “What seed will you grow next year?” “Will you be performing a new soil test?” “Do you think you can outgrow your husband?”), implicit in every question was the notion that I would undoubtedly be growing a pumpkin again next year. I responded to each of their questions with a straightforward answer: “I’m not going to grow another pumpkin. This was a one-time-thing for me.” Then, almost universally, a sense of disbelief would appear on the questioner’s face for a brief moment before a Cheshire Cat grin would settle in across their lips. The grinning grower would respond with something like “Oh, give it a few months. You’ll be itching to plant a seed in the spring.”
After the third or fourth time, it dawned on me that the other growers simply did not (or perhaps more accurately, could not) believe me. Because these vegetable enthusiasts love growing pumpkins so much, they are unapologetically eager to get back in the patch and try something new. The fact that I was not as equally eager seemed too confusing for them to accept. But for me, most days in the patch were a chore that I could manage, not a task I wanted to master.
I suspect that both the “can do” folks and “want to do” crowd exists in the law student population as well. The question then becomes what do we, as academic support professors, do to assist the “can do” students; that is, those students who are able to achieve the minimum benchmarks of success, but are likely disinclined to challenge themselves during their three years of school. Can we motivate someone to evolve from “can do” to “want to do”? And, is the evolution really necessary?
With regard to the latter question first: I submit that the evolution is imperative to long term success in the legal field. Extrapolating from my own experience trying something new and challenging, I feel comfortable asserting that in order to be content and fulfilled while working long hours, you have to be truly passionate about the project. Therefore, if a law student possesses a can-do attitude, but doesn’t actually enjoy the work, he will eventually lose interest and the quality of the work will suffer. In law school that translates to mediocre grades, but in legal practice poor quality work may result in the loss of a client or even malpractice. In addition to producing lesser quality work, the student will be fundamentally discontent and unfulfilled. Perhaps this helps explain the extraordinarily high rates of depression among law students. The difference between me—the novice pumpkin grower—and the law student is that I have the luxury of walking away after one season. Giant pumpkin growing is just a hobby, not a career path. On the other hand, most law students—because of financial commitments, family pressure, or a lack of personal insight—are not in a position to just walk away from law school after one year. Even if the student finds the entire first year a laborious chore, his can-do attitude will likely convince him to return for another year.
So, if we conclude that the can-do student is likely to persist through all three years of law school, even if he finds the entire process somewhat miserable, then what can we do to help transition his mindset from can-do into one of want-to-do? How can we make him passionate about his project? I suspect that identifying the student’s long-term career plan and then tying law school tasks directly to his individual goal(s) may prove useful in reframing his motivation. A more defined end goal may motivate the student to engage beyond the basics and eventually spark a real passion. Numerous ASP articles outline the benefits of curiosity, self-directed learning, and internal motivation in achieving academic success. My own experience echoes these scholars' findings.
Looking forward: next time I encounter a can-do student, I plan to spend a few extra minutes trying to identify his real passion, and (hopefully) tie that passion directly to his legal studies. In short, I hope to spark a passion for the law which should better equip and inspire the novice to transition into an expert who is excited about facing new challenges and his own potential for exponential growth.
*Like most sailing vessels, giant pumpkins are referred to using female pronouns.
Happy Halloween! (Kirsha Trychta)
Novice grower at 516 pounds on the left; expert grower at 1,337 pounds on the right.
Monday, October 30, 2017
I mentioned last week that 1Ls are likely starting to think hard about outlining for their podium courses. With the end of October approaching, students need to focus some of their precious time on preparing for their final exams. It takes a while for some students to shift their focus. But, those students who take time to prepare for final exams may often feel more confident and less stressed come the end of the semester. And a more confident and less stressed student may be better able to focus and demonstrate to the professor what he/she knows about the doctrinal subject come December.
One way students can to start feeling more confident and less stressed is by organizing their class notes around big picture rules in an outline. Students can insert into the outline various hypotheticals that test these big picture rules. The professor in the Socratic class could have generated these hypotheticals. They could also be pulled from other sources, like law school study aids or from the casebooks’ Notes and Decisions. Or, better yet, students can try to generate the hypotheticals on their own.
An outline can take many shapes or forms. What’s important is that each student focuses on what helps him/her best understand the material. What’s also important is that students try to create their outlines on their own. It’s cliché—but, a huge part of the learning process is synthesizing all the materials that each student has available to him/her and putting it down in the outline. Working with the materials and thinking about how and why the materials fit into the doctrinal course can help solidify or create a better understanding of the material. And who doesn’t want a better understanding of the material before finals? (OJ Salinas)