Law School Academic Support Blog

Editor: Amy Jarmon
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Part II: Learning & Justice: An Academic Achievement Necessity!

In a previous blog, I wrote about the question of justice, namely, that learning the law without learning to think about what is the right thing to do is, in short, to be learning aimlessly, to be learning without sprit, to be selling our students short.  It is an empty vain experience.  What Does Justice Have to Do with Learning the Law? Everything!

And, as a consequence of our (my) failure to so often talk about principles of justice throughout our (my) classes, we are often creating a toxically-damaging learning environment because our students came to law school not to just memorize cases but to learn to do justice.   Thus, without actively incorporating discussions of justice within our courses, our students JUSTIFIABLY feel like justice has very little to do with why they came to law school in the first place.  No wonder they struggle so often to feel like they fit in.  They don't.  

But, it's not because they don't fit in law school.  Rather, its because we don't fit in law school because we are so often not getting at the real root of the purpose of our legal education, namely, righting and healing and restoring relationships in a broken fragile world.  As a consequence, we should not be surprised when our students are not jazzed about our intricate discussions and hyperactive hypotheticals that are so often devoid of heartfelt life yearings.  

So, that brings me to a suggestion on how to incorporate principles of justice within the study of law.

First, be bold.  Name it.  Let your students know that justice is difficult, its edgy, its often amiss.

Second, provide a framework.

As a tool, it might be helpful to explore possible ways to think about what the right thing to do might be.  As set out by Dr. Michael J. Sandel in his wonderful book entitled "Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?," there are three major principles that we might look towards for guidance as to justice: (1) the welfare principle; (2) the freedom principle; and, (3) the virtue principle.  http://justiceharvard.org/justice-whats-the-right-thing-to-do/  Please note:  If you happen upon Amazon, you can browse the first chapter of his book to brilliantly capture the scope of the three approaches.  If not, here's my own simplistic version:

Justice

1.  The Welfare Principle might also be called the "Mostest-for-the-Greatest" principle (or, as philosophers call it, the utilitarian principle).  In brief, the right thing to do according to this principle is what would bring the greatest benefit to the greatest number in society.  We often see this play out in constitutional litigation concerning something like the "undue burden" test in dormant commerce clause cases.  It's a balancing test.  We balance the burden on interstate commerce against the benefit to local state interests in order to see which might maximize the greatest good or utility or benefit.  In another context, we see this principle called to duty - so to speak -  in tort law concerning what a reasonably prudent person might due under similar circumstances.  Finally, this principle is often discussed in the course of environmental litigation as to the benefits of environment regulation versus the societal costs.

2.  The Freedom Principle seems to be widely adored but rarely advocated, at least in my survey of government litigation concerning constitutional rights issues.  We might label this as the "Absolutist" principle, namely, that certain rights are absolutely off-limits from government coercion or usurpation or abolition.  Think of freedom speech or freedom of religion.  But, as we quickly learn in constitutional law, the First Amendment freedom of speech can be heavily regulated by the government provided the government provides a sufficiently "good" reason.  For example, when the government silences a particular subject, it generally must meet strict scrutiny analysis by demonstrating that the restriction is necessary to achieve a compelling government interest.  So much for absolute protection!  Thus, we most often see the freedom principle give way to other perhaps competing arguments as to justice, often based on the welfare principle or the virtue principle.

3.  So, that brings us to the Virtue Principle.  We might call this the "Honor" principle.  Think of the marriage cases.  The issue in the marriage cases, at its roots, centered upon what sorts of marital relationships ought to be honored, with the court holding that the purpose of marriage is fundamentally about society honoring committed loving relationships among consenting people.  In contrast to the arguments of many states, marriage is not fundamentally about children.  Thus, the court, seeing that states honored opposite sex marriages but not same sex marriages, reasoned that all marriages regardless of gender must be honored the same because gender is irrelevant to the issue of loving relationships.  In other words, the right thing to do is to honor consistently all marital relationships that share the same fundamental marital characteristics.  In short, the court found that it was unfair to honor only opposite sex marriage but not other marriages because the failure to do so is dishonorable and not virtuous.  Justice requires giving honor to what is deserving honor.

Now, as we see from many of the cases covered throughout law school, the courts are often bouncing haphazardly among these various conceptions of justice (and more) without saying what they are doing.  Shame on them!  That's where these principles of justice can come in mighty handily in law school classes.  Let's get them out in the open!  It's not that these principles will necessarily determine what is the right outcome in a particular case.  But, arguments about these principles are what is at root in most cases.  And, as complex people with many attachments and predispositions, we will start to see that we often favor one principle of justice at the expense of another (which is to say at the expense of others).  So, just reflecting on these principles with our students can help our students better understand and appreciate how they can participate - as future attorneys - in helping to make society a little bit more just for the next generation.  And, that's a great thing to learn in law school!  (Scott Johns).

 

May 11, 2017 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Learning Styles, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Learning Does Not Necessarily = Understanding (That Can't Be True, Could It?)

"What I am going to tell you about is what we teach our physics students...It is my task to convince you to not turn away because you don't understand it.  You see my physics students don't understand it...That's because I don't understand it.  Nobody does."  

- Dr. Richard P. Feynman, QED:  The Strange Theory of Light and Matter (Princeton :  1985)

 Recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics - 1965

Students and teachers, let me ask a question:  

Is it hard to learn, I mean really difficult, so much so that you aren't sure that you are getting it?  

I went through law school thinking that I didn't learn anything because I didn't understand anything.  And, it's true!  I didn't understand anything!  But, I did learn.  

So, here's the truth.  We don't have to understand it all to learn the law.  Rather, true learning comes through realizing that we don't understand it all; that we have lots of unanswered questions; that we are puzzled and perplexed beyond belief.  That's downright uncomfortable but that's learning for you!

However, that makes me worried, as a teacher, because I've started to think that I understand the law, that I understand legal analysis, that I understand how to carefully craft a persuasive legal argument.  

But no one really understands the law.  How could one?  

When I start to think that I understand the law, I end up making it all so simple that what I am teaching or studying or reviewing no longer has any correspondence at all to reality.  So, let's face the music.  That's a grave error because life is not simple (and the law is all about disputes among real actual complicated live people).

So, as you prepare for your finals (and teachers as you reflect on your teaching), do yourself a big favor and be comfortable with uncertainty.  Don't feel like you need to understand it all.  Rather, jump into the materials; they are full of suspense and conflicts with puzzles abounding in all directions.  And, that's a good thing because that's the life of the law.  So, feel free to be honest with yourself and say that you don't understand it all.  And, in the process, you'll have taken one mighty big step on the path to true learning!  (Scott Johns).

 

 

April 27, 2017 in Exams - Studying, Learning Styles, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Teaching Law: What's Justice Have to Do With Law (and Learning)?

Recently while teaching asylum law, we took some time in class to talk about justice.  How do we know what is the right thing to do?  What standard(s) should we use to decide whether a case result is just or not?  I was just about to recap our discussion when a student asked, poignantly, "What does Justice have to do with the Law?"

In brief, the student commented that very few classes ever even talk about justice, and, the student also asked me directly if I have ever even talked about justice as a litigator before the court.  Those were great questions.  And, the student got me thinking...deeply...because if what we are doing is not just, then we should be doing something else.  And, if we are not talking about justice, then, let's be frank, we are not engaging with our students in heart-felt learning because they came to law school - not to be mechanics robotically applying the law - but to make the world better, to make the world more just, in short, to restore and right and mend relationships.

As I reflected on my student's questions, I started to realize that implicit in much discourse concerning the outcome of cases are principles that manifest themselves in real impact on real people.  So, my first step was to refocus on teaching about the people (and not just the mechanical facts, issues, holdings, and rationales).  I try to find out what happened to the litigants.  I sometimes call the attorneys that litigated the case.  In short, I try to bring life to the cases that we read.  Second, I try to keep my eye out for opportunities to talk about whether the decisions in the cases that we study are just (and why or why not).  I try to make it explicit.  Third, as we talk about representing people, I bring up opportunities to appeal to courts by using principles of justice.  

So, that brings me back to learning.  It seems like many law students are just plain tired, primarily it seems to me, because we have taught them that the law is lifeless.  We've stripped the cases of all humanity.  We talk about cases as if they are just impersonal scripts, and, in the process, our students begin to feel like the lawyer's job is just to keep the machine going.  That they are a cog in a process that lacks life.  That law school is not a place to learn about how to make the world better but rather just a place that keeps the world going, faltering along, without improvement, growth, or hope.  Our students start to think that justice has very little to do with the law.  

Perhaps that is true.  But, it need not be so.  That's because in a common law system the law grows out of relationships and arguments presented by real people to real people to resolve real disputes based on real appeals to the heart.  So, as we teach our students, I need to help them empower themselves to speak boldly and think deeply about what the right thing to do is (and why).   And, when I do that, my students start to sit up straight, they take notice, they start pondering, thinking, and, of course, learning...because they realize that they do have something to say, something that is important, something that might actually someday make a powerful impact in the lives of others when incorporated into the common law.  In fact, our world needs their voices - all of their voices in order to realize justice for all.  

If you're looking for a place to learn how to incorporate justice into your teaching, here's a great source.  Professor Michael Sandel has a free web platform that focus on teaching justice with much of the discussion based on the law and litigation. And, in the process, you'll see a masterful teacher helping his students develop into learners.  http://justiceharvard.org/justicecourse/   (Scott Johns).

March 30, 2017 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Learning Styles, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Lost In Space: Try Case Charting to See Cases Fit Together to Form a Beautiful Constellation of Stars!

I grew up with a now-ancient children's TV show called "Lost in Space," in which a family of rocketeers meandered across the universe trying to find their way back home to Earth.  What's interesting to me is that they never seemed to look at the big picture, i.e., to consider a map of the stars in the universe, to try to navigate their way home.

Well, at this time of the semester, I often feel lost in space too (or rather..."lost in cases" without any sense of where I am headed or even where I have been!).  But, there's a cure and it is really quite a snap.  In brief, the key to no longer being "lost in cases" is to create a chart - a visually portrait - of the cases for each class.  And, it's not too late at all because you can start with your case reading for your very next class.  And, there's more great news.  It's a breeze to create!

So, here are the nuts and bolts for a "Case Chart" to help you (and me) make sense of the big picture of the cases:

First, I make a chart with columns for each of the cases that I am reading in preparation for a particular class (say Torts).  If I have just two cases, it will have columns as illustrated below.  But, if I have three or four cases, I'll just add more columns for each of the additional cases.

Second, I peek at the casebook table of contents or my class syllabus to identify the major concept that the cases illustrate.  In the lefthand column, I annotate that concept to help me see the big picture as to why I've been assigned to read these particular cases for this particular class.

Third, after reading each case, I just jot down a few "sound bites" or phrases for each of the identified items (material factoids, issue, rule, analysis, conclusion, and my insights).  I try to keep the facts super-short (to just a few "red hot" key facts that will help me remember the cases).  And, I use the word "because" in the analysis section to help me explain the court's application of the rules to the facts.  But, the most important items are the comments that you and I make in the bottom row of the case chart.  That helps me see how the cases fit together to explain or create a legal principle.

Major Casebook Concept Case No. 1 (Court and Date)  Case No. 2 (Court and Date)
Material Factoids    
Issue    
Rule    
Analysis    
Conclusion    
My Insights    

 

In sum, using a "Case Chart," I've created a nice tidy "map" that helps me navigate the celestial space of my own universe of case preparation and reading for cases.  Each case is like a "star" that I personally experienced.  Now, it's got a home in my chart.  And, because I can see that case's relationship with the other cases that I am reading for that particular class concept, I can start to see how the cases fit together to form a constellation that takes on the shape of a particular legal principle.  In short, I'm no longer just a meandering rocketeer.  I'm now on a mindful journey of learning...within the stellar universe of the law.  (Scott Johns)

 

March 23, 2017 in Learning Styles, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Doing IS Learning!

In a commentary entitled "Doing is the Key to Learning," physicist Frank Wilczek reflects on learning, writing that "[t]he fear of making mistakes is a great barrier to creativity.  But if you're ready to learn from them, mistakes can be your friends.  As I have often advised students, 'If you don't make mistakes, you're not working on hard enough problems--and that's a big mistake.'"  "Wilczek's Universe," Wall Street Journal, January 21, 2017, p. C4.

You see, sometimes we are too afraid to learn...because...we are too afraid to make mistakes.

But, there is NO learning without mistakes.  That's particularly true at this stage of the semester when final exams still seem so far away.   So, rather than trying practice problems or meeting with others to discuss hypotheticals, we avoid practicing exam hypotheticals because we often don't feel like we are ready to practice...because we don't feel like we know enough yet to take a try at problem-solving.

That's the BIGGEST mistake of all because learning is hard.  Practice is hard.  It involves trial and error (and even lots of trials and lots of errors!).  In the process, we find out what we know (and what we don't really know). It involves making lots of mistakes before we start seeing any great successes at all in our problem-solving abilities.  And, let's be frank:  That is just downright humbling.  It's frustrating.  It's embarrassing.  So, we avoid practicing because we want to avoid making mistakes.

So, here's the key:

To REALLY learn, embrace mistakes as golden opportunities for growth.  Grab hold of them.  Relish in them.  Bask in your mistakes because without mistakes you really aren't learning...for it is in the process of making mistakes that you are teaching yourself things that you could have never learned through reading, or taking copious notes, or watching others solve legal problems.  In short, the key to learning in law school "is all in the doing" of law school. So, be bold, take a risk, hang it all out by being a law school problem-solver "doer!"  Oh, and don't forget, your professors became experts at problem-solving...because THEY MADE THE SAME MISTAKES THAT YOU WILL MAKE TOO.  (Scott Johns)

March 16, 2017 in Exams - Studying, Learning Styles, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, March 6, 2017

Gen Z: Our Future Law Students

Hat tip to Vickie Sutton, the Associate Dean for Research and Faculty Development at Texas Tech School of Law, for forwarding a report released by Barnes & Noble and an article about the report. Gen Z students are currently 13-18 years old. The two items can be found here:  Download Gen-Z-Research-Report-Final and Download ECampus News Gen Z is about to take ove... (Amy Jarmon)

March 6, 2017 in Learning Styles, Miscellany, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Should I Be My Students' Teacher or Their Coach?

I just came out of a great conference.  However, it wasn't a great conference because it made me feeling better.  In fact, I left the event realizing how far I often fall short of the mark as a teacher.  But, it was great...in the sense that I learned (or perhaps re-learned) some key principles...that I can bank on in trying to BECOME a better teacher.  

So, let me cut to the chase.  Based on the principles shared by conference leader Dr. Maryellen Weimer, Professor Emeritus at Penn State University, I started to think that I might be trying too hard to teach my students.  That's right.  I might be trying so much to help my students learn that I leave very little for them to do, which is to say, that I leave them no room for learning.

You see, according to Dr. Weimer, I can't actually "learn anything for my students."  Rather it's my students that are the learners.  And, to be frank, learning is just plain hard work.  It's messy.  Its discomforting.  It's even downright excruciating sometimes.  But, I often don't want my students to feel that sort of uncomfortable frustration that is required to generate real learning.  Or, as Dr. Weimer put it, "we are often doing a lot of the hard messy work of our students" by making decisions for them, which, if true, means that our students are not truly learning.  In short, we are just teaching them to be dependent on us rather than coaching them to succeed as independent learners, to put it in my own words.

So, my sense is that my students need less of me as a teacher and more of me as a coach.  They need me to step out of the limelight, to give them fresh air to try, to let them work hard and ponder mightily as they grapple with the course materials.  That's because learning is personal.  It therefore requires lots of practice.  It requires deep engagement in the materials.  It requires sometimes (or even often) failing.

But, as Dr. Weimer pointed out, my students often do not see me fail.  Instead, they often see me demonstrating how to succeed (i.e. teaching!).  But, I didn't learn the materials through success.  Rather, I learned the materials through lots of rough 'n tumble practice (and that means through lots of trials, errors, and downright embarrassing mistakes).

So, Dr. Weimer encouraged me (us) to open up with our students, to admit our mistakes, to let our students have empowered agency to personally engage with the materials.  In short, it's time for me to teach from the sidelines, and, that means that I am not "making the big plays for my students." Instead, I am their coach on the sidelines and they are the players moving the ball downfield as learners.  That's a game that I am excited about watching.  Oh, and by the way, taking Dr. Weimer's words to heart, I admitted to my students just today that I have made lots and lots of mistakes on the path to learning how to become a lawyer, and it was through walking through those experiences that I truly learned.  (Scott Johns).

February 9, 2017 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Learning Styles, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Possible Empirical Value of the Computer-Disconnected Classroom Experience

Hat tip to Dr. Nancy Johnson!

In a recently published article entitled "How Laptop Internet Use Relates to Classroom Learning," researchers Susan Ravizza, Mitchell Uitvlugt, and Kimberly Fenn report two interesting findings with respect to the empirical relationship between classroom internet use and final exam scores.  

First (and perhaps not surprisingly), according to the article classroom non-academic use (such as surfing the web, watching videos, or using social media) has a negative impact on final exam scores.

Second (and perhaps surprisingly), according to the article classroom academic use of a computer (such as to look up a term that is being discussed in class on Wikipedia) has no measurable impact on final exam scores.

Taken together, the research suggests some caution with respect to student use of computers in classroom settings because, based on their findings, even academic use of computers by students during the classroom is not producing beneficial learning outcomes as measured by final exam scores.

In light of the lively debate concerning student use of computers in classrooms and potential benefits or detriments, here's the article in full:  http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0956797616677314

(Scott Johns)

January 12, 2017 in Advice, Exams - Studying, Learning Styles, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The College Experience: Why Students Lack Critical Thinking Skills

Comments are often made among faculty and academic support professionals that students enter law school without solid critical thinking skills. An Inside Higher Ed post by Ben Paris considers why colleges fail at teaching students critical thinking skills: Failing to Improve Critical Thinking.

December 11, 2016 in Learning Styles, Program Evaluation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Four Posts on Using Cognitive Psychology by Louis Schulze

Louis-Schulze-Thumbnail

If you have not seen the four posts on The Faculty Lounge by Louis N. Schulze, Jr.,  Assistant Dean and Professor of Academic Support at Florida International University College of Law, regarding using cognitive psychology with our students, here are the links: Part 1: Retrieval Practice, Part 2: Metacognition and Self-Regulated Learning, Part 3: Spaced Repetition, and Part 4: Cognitive Schema Theory.

October 25, 2016 in Learning Styles, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Stress Mindset: Friend or Foe?

Have you ever locked yourself out of an office, a car, an apartment or home?  I sure have, and plenty of times.  The worst was a Friday night at a carwash - after having just finished washing a car - with a bunch of cars lined up behind me to get into the carwash.  Very stressful!  But, that's not the point.

Rather, there are two ways to view the situation.  

First, I might feel like I'm just plain out-of-luck, unless I get an expert - like one who has the master key to cars  - to let me in.  

Or...

Second, I'm not going to let this stop me, at least not without a good-hearted try.  

Our responses are different in the two cases based on our approaches or mindsets to the stressful situation.  

In the first case, I just give up and wait for help.  And, while I wait, I start to simmer over negative thoughts, such as: "I can't believe I did this again" or "How could I be so careless?"  Despite my stewing over my situation, my situation doesn't change.  I'm still waiting for others to bring the master key.  I'm not growing and I'm not learning.

In contrast, in the second case (or at least while waiting for help), I decide to take a try at getting into my car.  So, perhaps I grab hold of a paperclip, stretch it out, flex it a bit, poke it around the lock, and hope (or imagine) that I will trip the locking mechanism to open the car door, even without my key.  It might not work…or…it might work!  But, regardless of the outcome, I still try, and, in the process, I feel bits of excitement, some positive vibes, that at least for the moment take my mind away from blaming myself for the situation or telling myself that I'm plum out of luck, and, instead, I re-direct my energies to finding a solution, a pro-active way out of my predicament.

Interestingly, research scientists are starting to discover some very exciting things about stress and mindset.  

First, stress is common to all of us.  It's part and parcel with the human experience. Indeed, according to the scientists, to try to avoid stress is not just impossible but downright harmful to us.  So, we shouldn't run from it…at all.

That brings us to the second point.  Stress is critically important in helping us grow as a person and even as a learner.  In fact, it's not really true that stress kills; rather, it's our mindset to stress that determines whether it harms the body or rather it builds up the body and mind.  Indeed, biologically speaking, the right mindset to stress produces the chemical and biological reactions necessary for learning.

Third, our current mindset about stress is not fixed in stone at all. Rather, our approach to stress can be changed - through even very short video clip interventions - where we learn to reframe our approaches to stress so that we see "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth" about the impact of our mindset approach in determining whether stress is beneficial or not.

You see, according to the scientists, it is our mindset to stress (and not the stress itself) that determines whether stress produces good outcomes or harmful outcomes.  According to the experts, our bodies are hardwired not to avoid stress but rather to grow through stress.  For example, let's take exam stress.  The student that learns the research about mindset and stress prior to an exam (i.e., that stress can actually be a good experience because stress can be mind-enhancing, mind-activating, and mind-growing, thus leading to positive growth in learning) performs much better than the person who believes that stress harms one's abilities to tackle an exam.  

Let's make this concrete.  If you are like me, when I take exams, my heart starts pounding and my lungs start breathing in gulps.  I could view that as a bad sign.  If I do, I'm in trouble.  Or, I could recognize that my body is reacting to a stressful situation in precisely that way that it was made to react.  In fact, my increased heart and respiration rates are actually working together for good - my good - to bring me to a more alert state, with much more oxygen than normal, to help my brain perform better than ever, and just in the knick-of-time for me to tackle that exam that is before me.

Want to know more?  Try these resources.  For a quick overview, take a look at psychologist Kelly McGonigal's article "How to be Good at Stress." Ted Ideas: Good At Stress   

For a short 3-step approach to turning stress into a positive, see the article by psychologist Alia Crum and performance coach Thomas Crum entitled "Stress Can Be a Good Thing if You Know How to Use it" in the Harvard Business Review.   Stress as a Good Thing   

Finally, for the scientific details, please see psychologists Alia Crum and Peter Salovey's research article "Rethinking Stress: The Role of Mindsets in Determining the Stress Response."   Rethinking Stress 

It's something to think about…stress and our mindset.  (Scott Johns)

 

October 13, 2016 in Encouragement & Inspiration, Learning Styles, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Some Thoughts on Teaching Outlining, etc.

As mentioned in a previous blog, most of my law school outlines were - simply put - not outlines…and not useful at all in law school.  Rather, my outlines were just my regurgitated notes with my case briefs and class notes filling out the details.  

And, there was a good reason that I didn't know how to outline or create another organization tool (such as a flowchart, a map, an audio file, a poster, etc.).  That's because I didn't have a framework in mind to organize my notes, briefs, and casebook materials.  And, I suspect that many of our students find themselves in similar straits.

So, here's a thought…just a thought.  Perhaps Academic Support Professionals might lend a hand in providing the organizational template for outlining.  

Here's why.  First, the casebook and the class syllabus already provide our students with a rough guide as to methods to organize a law school subject.  So, we don't mind giving our students some sort of start in the process.  But, the rough guide from a casebook and syllabus are not enough.  

That's because the rough outlines in those materials do not provide students with sufficient details to organize the subject.  The tables of contents, for example, usually just provide legal terms of art.  That's it.  No so-called "black letter" law at all.  

So, here's the rub. We expect our students to craft the rules for themselves. But, in the practice of law, we don't do that at all.  Rather, at least speaking for myself, when I work on a novel legal problem, I don't ever start with a casebook.  Instead, I start with a mini-hornbook to provide me an overview of the black letter law, including the big picture "umbrella" rules, such as:  A refugee is "one who is unable or unwilling to return to, and is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of, that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion…"  Immigration and Nationality Act, Section 101(a)(42)(A).  

Then, I start digging into the cases to figure out, assuming that the law does not define the various terms, what persecution means or membership in a particular social group, etc.  In short, as an attorney, I have never had to create an umbrella rule from scratch based on reading a bunch of cases.  Instead, I use the cases to determine how to apply (or distinguish) the rule to (or from) the situations that my clients are facing.

If that is how most of us practice law, then maybe that is how we should study law too.  If so (and this is just a hunch of mine), maybe we should be giving our students a template of the black letter law. Then, our students can proactively use that template to flesh out the meanings of the rules, the limits of the rules, and the particular applications of the rules…by inserting within that template their case blurbs, class notes, class hypotheticals, policy rationales, etc.  

One of my best professors in law school (and also one of my most difficult in terms of grading) was not afraid at all to set out the black letter law for us, both as a preview of the coming class and as a review of the previous class.  With the law set out, we were much better able to dig into the heart of the law…what do the words mean, what are the policy implications behind the rules, should the rules be changed, etc.  

In short, we learned to think like a lawyer…even without having to craft our own umbrella rules.  And, amazingly, that's one of the few law school classes that I can still recall many of the things that I learned.  The others - just like most of my law school outlines - are just faded memories.  (Scott Johns).

 

September 29, 2016 in Advice, Exams - Studying, Learning Styles, Study Tips - General, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Creating Study Tools: It's Not Too Early to Organize (or Outline) Your Thoughts!

First Year Law Students: 

It's not too early (or too late) to start creating your own personal handy-dandy study tools.  But, you ask, how?  

Well, here's a suggestion for creating your study tools from scratch in just 6 easy steps!

But first, let's lay the groundwork.  

Why should I create a study tool especially with so many other tasks at hand that demand my attention in law school?  

There are at least two reasons.

First, the process of creating your own study tool creates a sort of "mental harness" for your thoughts.  It serves to bring you back to the big picture of what you have been studying the past few weeks or so.  And, that's important because your final exams are going to ask you to ponder through and problem-solve hypothetical legal problems based on the readings, conversations, and your own post-class thoughts that you can bring to bear on the subject.

Second, the process of creating your own study tool develops your abilities to synthesize, analogize, and solve problems….skills that YOU will be demonstrating on your final exams (and in your future practice of law too).  In essence, your study tools are an organized collection of pre-written, organized answers in preparation for tackling the hypothetical problems that your professor might ask on your final exam.

So, let's set out the 6 steps:

1.  Grab Your Personal Study Tool Kit Support Team!  

That means surrounding yourself with your casebook, your class syllabus, and your class notes.  They are your "team members" to work with you to help you create your own personal study tool.  Here's a tip:  Pay particular attention to the topics in the table of contents and your syllabus.  The casebook authors and your professors are giving you an organizational tool that you can use to build your own study tool.  And, in a pinch, which I have often found myself in, I make a copy of the table of contents, blow it up a bit, and then annotate it with the steps below.  Voila!

2.  Create the Big Picture Skeleton for Your Study Tool!  

That's right.  It might look like a skeleton.  Not pretty at all.  That's okay.  Remember, it's in the process of creating your study tool that leads to learning.  So, relax and enjoy the mess.  My outlines were always, well, miserable, at least from the point of view of others.  But, because I created them, they were just perfect for my own personal use.  Here's a tip:  Use the table of contents and class syllabus to insert the big picture topics and sub-topics into your study tool.

3.  Insert the Rules!  

Be bold.  Be daring. Be adventuresome.  If you see something that looks like a rule, whether from a statute or from a common law principle, for example, such as "all contracts require an offer, acceptance, and consideration," just put it into your study tool.  Bravo!

4.  Break-up the Rules into Elements (i.e., Sections).  

Most rules have multiple-parts.  So, for example, using the rule stated above for the three requirements to create a contract, there are three (3) requirements!  (1) Offer; (2) Acceptance; and, (3) Consideration.  Over the course of the term, you will have read plenty of cases about each of those three requirements, so give the requirements "breathing room" by giving each requirement its own "holding" place in your study tool or outlines.

5.  Insert Case Blurbs, Hypos, and Public Policy Reasons!  

Within each section for a legal element or requirement, make a brief insertion of the cases, then next the hypothetical problems that were posed in your classes, and finally, any public policy reasons that might support (or defeat) the purpose of the legal element or requirement.  Here's a tip:  A "case blurb" is just that…a quick blurb containing a brief phrase about the material facts (to help you recall the case) and a short sentence or two that summarizes that holding (decision) of the court and it's rationale or motive in reaching that decision.  Try to use the word "because" in your case blurb…because….that forces you to get to the heart of the principle behind that particular case that you are inserting into your study tool.

6.  Take Your Study Tool for a Test Flight!  

Yes, you might crash.  Yes, it might be ugly.  In fact, if you are like me, you will crash and it will be ugly!  But, just grab hold of some old hypothetical problems or final exam questions and - this is important - see if you can outline and write out a sample answer using your study tool.  Then, just refine your study tool based on what your learned by using your study tool to test fly another old practice exam question or two.  Not sure where to find practice problems.  Well, first check with your professor and library for copies of old final exams.  Second, check out this site containing old bar exam questions organized by subject matter:  http://www.law.du.edu/index.php/barprep/resources/colorado-exam-essays

Finally, let me make set the record straight.  You don't have to make an outline.  Your study tool can be an outline…or a flowchart…or a set of flashcards.  What's important is that it is YOUR study tool that YOU built from YOUR own handiwork and thoughts!  It's got to be personal to you because it's going to be you that sits for your final exams.  In short, people don't do well on exams because of what they did on exam day.  Rather, people do well on exams because of what they did in preparation for exams!  Still unsure of yourself?  I sure was in law school.  So, have at it with my own personal example of a study tool (using a visual mind map) that I created on a family law topic concerning when a court can permit a parent to move to another state with a child.

(Scott Johns)

 

   Family Law Outline


 

 

September 8, 2016 in Advice, Learning Styles, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, August 28, 2016

What About The GOLD MEDAL STUDENT?

As an ASP educator, it is very important for me to work with other entities in the law school building and across campus to fully address student needs. For students to operate at an optimal level, many of their non-academic concerns need to be addressed as well. I often collaborate with our Diversity Services Office and our Office of Student Engagement on these matters. Recently, I had a very rich conversation with my colleague Mary Ferguson, Esq., Director of our Diversity Services Office. She asked me:  “What about the gold medal student, what do we do for them?” I was not quite sure what to say and wondered if this was a specific reference to the Olympics that I completely missed or simply an analogy. 

Given the puzzled look on my face, she explained that the “gold medal student” is the student of color who has excelled academically, the star student in every sense of the word whose academic achievement provided easy access to law school. This individual likely participated in every pipeline and support program since they were a child. This student excelled academically with the support services made available to them as a first generation, low income, and/or member of an underrepresented group. Many of these programs identify students early and include tutoring, structured programming, academic advising, activities, and access to employment and experiential learning opportunities. The “gold medal student” was sought out by the various programs but once they get to law school, they encounter new challenges.

Because “gold medal students” were so academically successful, they are grouped with other successful students based on GPA and LSAT. They are not at academic risk so they are not a part of programs tailored to support students characterized as such.  They may also miss out on services and resources available to students of underrepresented groups or simply not avail themselves of these services. “Gold medal students” might only access services available to the student body as a whole, if at all.  These students might need the same guidance, support, and structure the academically at risk students benefit from but don’t receive it because they are not a part of that group. This distinction might impact the students’ ability to excel academically because had they participated in those programs, it may have propelled them to success.  These students might also have difficulty acclimating because they are often one of very few persons of color at their institution.  We often wonder why a “gold medal student” might underperform academically when compared to their peers with similar entry credentials and when all statistical indicators show that they should perform comparably.  The “gold medal student” becomes nothing more than an honorable mention.

This conversation really got me thinking. How do we identify or seek out this student? How do we provide them with the support they need which is different from what the general population needs?  As I thought more, I realized that I have worked with “gold medal students” but it was typically after they had a rough first semester or first year.  They were typically the students who would do what worked for them at their undergraduate institution and not make the adjustments for law school.  They were the students who needed more structure and needed more purposeful interactions which were readily available at their undergraduate institution but they now had to seek out in law school.  Once a good system is in place for these students, they are students who excel academically.  (Goldie Pritchard)

August 28, 2016 in Advice, Diversity Issues, Learning Styles | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Alone…or Perhaps…Not Quite So Alone as 1L Students?

Wow...For those of you as 1L students, perhaps you feel like I did when I started law school…alone.

But, here's some great news!  

We are not alone; rather, we are "ALL"-alone!  

You see, at least according to posters made by recent entering law school students,  most of us feel out-of-place, a bit perplexed, unsure of ourselves, wondering how we will perhaps "fit" in, and, most of all, hoping that we can survive law school.

In my case, as a person that turned forty years old in my first year of law school, I was so scared.  Downright frightened…and...intimated.  But, as it turns out (and I didn't realize at the time), most of my entering colleagues (if not all) were feeling just like I did!  

Don't believe me?  

Well, here's a few posters with comments that some of recent entering law students - in the very first week - produced to depict what they were excited about in entering law school…and what they were concerned about in entering law school.  Perhaps you'll find that you share some of the same excitements and concerns.  

And, here's the key…Don't just focus on the negatives but also take time to reflect on the positives that you share with so many (if not all) of your law students.  You see,most of us feel just like you do.  

So, take time to encourage one another and share your own personal excitements and concerns.  It's a bit scary at first, but, in the end, you'll be mighty happy that you did.  And, good luck new 1L students.  We wish you the best!

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(Scott Johns)

August 25, 2016 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Learning Styles, Professionalism, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, August 18, 2016

One Thing Can Improve Students' Grades in All Their Courses!

Simply amazing!

As reported in "Above the Law," there is one thing that we can do to improve our students' grades in all their courses this academic term.  

In her post about the article "The Impact of Individualized Feedback on Law Student Performance,"  Kathryn Rubio summarizes the research of Daniel Schwarcz and Dion Farganis that demonstrates that law students that have just one teacher...in just one course...who provide individualized feedback within that course...improve grades for their students...across all courses, even controlling for LSAT and UGPA:  http://abovethelaw.com/2016/05/one-thing-can-improve-all-your-law-school-grades/ 

Here's the proof (or, for those of you that are trial attorneys, the empirical evidence):  The Impact of Individualized Feedback on Law Student Performance

For us, this is incredible news…because…we can make that difference for our students - across all their courses - by integrating individualized feedback through our own courses and programs.

Wow…that's the power of one!  (Scott Johns).

 

August 18, 2016 in Advice, Exams - Studying, Learning Styles, Study Tips - General, Teaching Tips, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Law School Stress & Pro-Active Anti-Stress Measures for All of Us (i.e., Be A Brain Cell Creator!

Stress.  Oh my!  

Just the thought of it hits me in the stomach.  But, there's more than just stomach aches at stake.

According to law professor Debra Austin, Ph.D., excessive law school stress also harms the mind too.  That's the bad news. But, here's the great news!  In fact, it is really terrific news!  And, it is news that we can all use…today! 

But first, some background.  

As the American Bar Association (ABA) reports with respect to Prof. Austin's research, in general stress weakens brain cognition.  But, exercise (along with other pro-active measures) actually creates more brain cells…brain cells that we can all use (whether students or ASP'ers) to perform better and without debilitating stress:  http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/stress_may_be_killing_law_students_brain_cells_law_prof_says 

So, as many of us begin a new year of legal studies as students and ASP'ers, it's time to take charge over stress rather than having stress take charge over us.  But how, you might ask?

Here's a list of three (3) possible "anti-stress"countermeasures straight out of the research from Prof. Austin:

  1. Be an exerciser…because neuroscience shows that exercise provides us with "cognitive restoration."
  2. Get slumber time…because sleep plays "the key role...in consolidating memories."  So, sleep on your studies rather than staying up all night to study!
  3. Engage in contemplative practices…such as mindfulness, meditation, relaxation, and focusing on the positive in gratitude…because such practices increase "the gray matter in the thinking brain," improve "psychological functions such as attention, compassion, and empathy," and "decrease stress-related cortisol," among other positives.

     

For all the details, please see Prof. Austin's research article Killing Them Softly: Neuroscience Reveals How Brain Cells Die From Law School Stress and How Neural Self-Hacking Can Optimize Cognitive Performance, 59 Loyola L. Rev. 791 (2013), available at:  http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2227155

To sum up, learning - real learning - means that we all must take time…counter-intuitively...away from learning…so that we can really experience learning.  So, be kind to yourself today...by resting and relaxing and exercising.  You'll be mighty happy that you did!  (Scott Johns).

 

August 11, 2016 in Advice, Learning Styles, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, August 4, 2016

ASP-ers as Coaches? Perhaps!

"A great sports instructor or coach builds us up, but also teaches us important lessons of emotional management, such as confidence, perseverance, resilience and how to conquer fear and anxiety. Many times, these lessons have a permanent impact on our mind-set and attitude well beyond the playing field."  So says columnist Elizabeth Bernstein in her article: "A Coach's Influence Off the Field." http://www.wsj.com/articles/a-coachs-influence-off-the-field-1470073923?tesla=y

That got me thinking about life…my life as an Academic Support Professional.  With the start of a new academic year upon us, perhaps this is an opportunity - as Goldie Pritchard puts it - to try something new.  So, I've been thinking and reflecting about my life as an ASP-er, and, in particular, that I might focus on something new--serving as a coach to our law students.

You see, and this is where the rub is, the most significant teachers in my life have, well, not just been teachers.  Rather, they've been more than teachers; they've been coaches.  And, not just sport coaches.  More like life coaches.  Whether they were teaching political science or trying to help me throw a ball, they all left indelible imprints, imprints that made me a better person and that went well beyond the classroom (or the baseball field)...because they taught me lessons that were much bigger than just about political science or baseball.  

Let me give you an example from political science.  I once had a professor by the name of Sandel.  No offense, but I can't recall the principles of Kant's categorical imperative or Hannah Arndt's political theories. But, I can vividly remember something much more important that I learned, in particular, to call people by their name…to invite students to comment and participate…to let people speak…by truly listening to them.  Those were lessons well given.

Or, in another context regarding life's many daily struggles, as Bernstein sums up in her column, coaches teach us lessons that help us when the going gets tough, for example, in Bernstein's words, "...when I’m on deadline or giving a speech to an intimidating crowd:  You need to arrest a negative thought immediately, in midair. Remind yourself that you are competent and know what you’re doing. Slow your breath."  Let me be frank. Those are the lessons that got me through law school.  And, I learned them through teachers that were, really, coaches. 

Thus, as we begin to embark on a new academic season, perhaps I should focus more on coaching.  After all, our work brings us in contact with people that are really struggling over learning to be learners in a new learning environment…an environment that we call law school...with people that need us to coach.  So, what does a coach do?  According to Bernstein, a coach says things that change our lives for the better…and for ever, such as:

“You rock!”

“Great job in difficult circumstances.”

“You should be really proud of yourself.”

But, in my own words, a coach, first and foremost, listens and observes others.  That I can do, if only, I'd stop talking so much!  (Scott Johns)

August 4, 2016 in Academic Support Spotlight, Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Learning Styles, Orientation, Professionalism, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Learn Something New

For many academic support educators, we move from bar support to preparing to welcome the incoming class. The law school cycle never quite stops but simply slows down or picks up. Returning students are preparing for their new journey as a 2L or a 3L and incoming students are excited about a new academic adventure. There is something we can all do, students and those who work with students, to prepare for the new academic year. This is a brilliant idea that as an educator, I kick myself for not thinking about: consider how you reconnect with the learning process.

I definitely cannot take credit for this one but when I heard it, I thought that this was the best thing I heard about preparing for law school. A student, a 3L at the time, told me that in anticipation of starting law school, she spent the summer learning how to use a planner. She never used a planner in the past but she recognized that she would have to plan her life a little bit more in law school even though she had juggled school, activities, religious observances, and a business prior to law school. Using a planner over the summer allowed her to get in the habit of writing things down, crossing things off, sticking to a schedule, being flexible in making adjustments, accounting for buffer times, determining whether paper and pen or electronic planners worked best, and the like. She worked on her time management skills before law school so she had a plan while in law school. Isn’t that awesome?!

This is yet another suggestion I cannot take credit for and that was shared with me in a conversation with a colleague at a conference in 2015. Because the beginning of the academic year is upon us, I encourage you to learn a new skill or start a new activity in the days and weeks to come. I would encourage you to try something you are fearful of or would find particularly challenging. The process of facing your fear or challenge is what you should focus on. What steps did you take? Where did you start? How did you start? What was the best process for you? Were you able to follow written instructions or did you need to see a picture or demonstration? Did you revisit the task to ensure you had mastered it? When did you feel comfortable? When did you feel frustrated? First year law students, you should consider your process and your steps because you might find some aspects of law school just as challenging. For the rest of us, it is a reminder of the process. In law school, we typically learn how to learn all over again so it is helpful to be reminded of the slow, methodical, and sometimes frustrating process.  

We often forget about the struggle experienced when mastering a skill that is now second nature. Regardless of how in tune we feel, we occasionally need to revisit that process.  This can only make us better educators and “meet students where they are” but also move them along to where they should or need to be.  I love this idea because it is applicable to all, teaching assistants/teaching fellows, upper level law students, ASP professionals, and professors. 

For me, this blog is a new experience that is both exciting and somewhat intimidating but I look forward to the mistakes I will make and the things I will learn along the way. (Goldie Pritchard)

August 3, 2016 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Learning Styles, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Print Versus On-Screen Reading

An interesting article in The Chronicle of Higher Education explores the research and anecdotes regarding on-line reading and learning: Does Reading on Computer Screens Affect Student Learning?

July 14, 2016 in Learning Styles, Reading | Permalink | Comments (0)