Thursday, September 7, 2017
Last term I went for the lunch and came away hungry...hungry to learn more about learning!
That's right, our campus "Office for Teaching & Learning" brought in a special speaker to share with us her tips on best practices for teaching our students to learn. Her name - Dr. Maryellen Weimer.
Wow; she was an amazing speaker because, for the most part, she spoke very little but got us thinking and working collaboratively with others on how it is that we learn, how our students are doing in their learning, and what sorts of things we are seeing within our classrooms that might best encourage learning.
In short, we were working harder than Dr. Weimer in thinking about learning. It was no "free lunch," at all. But, it was one of the few lunch presentations that I can still recall, and better yet, find invaluable to my teaching.
That brings me to the issue of what might be the so-called "best practices" for engaging ourselves in learning-centered teaching with our students. Fortunately, Dr. Weimer has written a brief article entitled "The Five Characteristics of Lerning-Centered Teaching," which summarizes her work in helping faculty become better teachers.
As academic support professionals, this is an excellent link to share with your faculty.
In the interim, let me briefly summarize the list of five characteristics by asking a series of short questions that you might ask of your faculty:
First, are you working harder at learning than your students? If so, then you might be working too hard at teaching your students, so much so, that you are doing the learning for them. That is to say, they might not be learning because they aren't really challenged to learn and don't really have to learn since you are doing most of the learning for them.
Second, are you teaching your students the content by embedding skills within your instruction? If not, then, you are - again - doing the learning for your students because learning requires active engagement in critical thinking, evaluation of the evidence, analysis of the arguments, and the generation of hypotheses, hypotheticals, and examples.
Third, are you asking your students what they are learning and how they are learning? If not, take time both in casual conversations with your students and in more formalized classroom exercises for reflection on how it is that we (ourselves and our students) learn.
Fourth, are you sharing the learning responsibilities with your students by giving them some measure of control over how they learn? If not, try working collaboratively with your students, for example, to create assessment criteria for assignments or even establish due dates for some assignments within a window of available dates.
Fifth, are you promoting collaborative learning in engagement with other students within rich learning communities? If not, look back at that word "rich." Too often, our students are not learning deeply and well because they treat learning as a "solo" experience - an experience not to be shared with others. But, as any teacher will tell you, the best way to know something is to teach it to others. That means that we should devote part of our classroom learning exercises to teaching our students how to learn collaboratively with others, i.e., how to learn from and with others.
Perhaps by the best way to summarize the article might be in quoting Confucius:
"By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest."
I take the first - reflection - to be the at the heart and soul of great experiences in learning. I take the second - imitation - to be going to classes, taking notes, and receptively re-reading them in the hope that some of what the professor said might rub off on me. I take the third - experience - as the "trial by fire" method of learning in which students spend most of the term reading cases, creating case briefs, observing lectures, and developing massive course outlines without ever tackling actual final exam problems until it is too late (i.e., on the actual final exam).
With this list in mind, feel free to join me as I try to step back from the podium and the front of the classroom to better engage with students in the actual process of learning-centered teaching. (Scott Johns).
Monday, September 4, 2017
In our current world of formative assessment, readers may be interested in a July article by Jennifer Cooper and Regan Gurung on SSRN regarding their empirical analysis of law student study habits. The article can be found on SSRN at Smarter Law Study Habits.
Jennifer sent me the following short description of the article:
"The article features findings from the first learning strategies survey designed specifically for law students, the Law Student Study Habits Survey, developed in collaboration with a Ph.D./ learning strategy expert. In a nutshell, early and frequent use of practice “testing” (multiple choice, short answer, hypos, professor’s past exams, etc..) and elaboration were positively correlated with law GPA, while more passive learning strategies typically relied on by law students – reading and briefing cases, outlining, and cramming, without practice applying the law – were negatively correlated with law GPA."
Tuesday, August 29, 2017
You may recall from part one of this multi-part series that this year I decided to undertake a new and difficult task (specifically, to grow a giant pumpkin) in hopes of gaining more insight and perhaps empathy for what it's like to be a first year law student. Here’s my second lesson:
The novice and the expert should work together at the start of the endeavor to articulate reasonable expectations for a first project, second project, third project, and so on, which will enable the novice to continually assess herself in light of both current expectations and future expectations.
After you’ve identified the seed that you’ll be planting, you have to establish a planting schedule. Most expert growers begin their season in April with the help of greenhouses, heated soil cables, and indoor grow lights. By planting a seed in April (as opposed to waiting for the last frost in late May), the expert squeezes in several more weeks of growth before the October harvest. Ideally those extra weeks of growing will translate into additional pounds on weigh-off day. This novice, however, was not enamored with the idea of caring for a seedling indoors, while still teaching spring semester courses. So, I had a choice to make. My expert-coach and I then discussed a reasonable goal for a Level One grower. We settled on getting a pumpkin to grow and survive until October, regardless of its size, shape, or color. Next time (I’m making a big assumption here), I could focus on all the Level One details plus shape or size. Then, in a future year, I could hone shape and size.
With the Level One goal firmly established and no longer focused on the potential bonus pounds, I agreed to start the seed indoors in early-May. (I was pretty confident I could simultaneously watch a pot of dirt and grade final exams.) I kept the tiny plant inside until Mother Nature gave the all clear that it was safe to move outdoors. My “late” start in May put me behind the expert growers from the very beginning, but right on target for my Level One goal. Throughout the summer, I was able to measure my progress against other rookies while also taking note of what I would need to do next time if I wanted to compete with the experts.
Below you can see my pumpkin plant making its debut outside on June 3. 2017.
This multi-level plan, where each level becomes increasingly more complex than the last, aligns nicely with ABA Standard 314 regarding formative assessment. For example, in the legal writing context, a multi-level plan might look like this:
Too frequently, students learn the basics of legal writing in their first-year and then inaccurately conclude that the same quality of work will be acceptable on a future project. Arguably, the novice will be in a better position to appreciate the long-term game plan if presented with the entire strategy at the outset. Sharing each level with the learner at the outset should aid a student in understanding that what might earn them an “A” on a Level One project will not earn them an “A” on a Level Two project, such as a law review note or seminar paper. Rather, the benchmark for minimal competence will continue to evolve as the student become more familiar with the foundational skills.
Having firmly established and identifiable benchmarks for each level also enables the student and professor to have a meaningful conversation about expectations. For example, a moot court coach is better positioned to explain that although a particular appellate brief would be “passing” in any Appellate Advocacy course, the work product is insufficient for success at a Moot Court Competition. In addition, establishing the big picture at the outset allows the professor to focus on level-appropriate feedback. As I discussed in the first post, less is more with regard to feedback. Therefore, if a professor and student both know that the student is working on a Level Two project, then the professor can focus her feedback on the skills unique to Level Two success. Meanwhile, the professor can refrain from offering detailed feedback about the skills that will be learned in Level Three.
In short, I suspect that a majority of legal writing programs have firmly established benchmarks for each writing course or year of matriculation. This novice’s advice is to share the big picture with the students at the very beginning, so that both the professor and student can readily and accurately articulate where the students falls on the scale from novice to expert. (Kirsha Trychta)
Friday, August 25, 2017
We always know it is the beginning of another academic year when Beloit College publishes its annual list of things we need to know about college freshmen. For those of us at law schools, it gives us a reprieve for a few years before these changing mindsets arrive at our doorsteps. But it keeps us current on the ever-changing status quo of American culture.
Here is the list for this year's college freshmen: Mindset List for Class of 2021 Freshmen. And here is the list reflective of the mindsets of many of our first-year law students during their freshman year: Mindset List for Class of 2017 Freshmen - Our 1L Class.
Robert Scherrer, a faculty member at Vanderbilt, has published a professor mindset list in response to help students understand their 50-something faculty members. His list was posted on the Inside Higher Education update and is included here: A 50-Something Faculty Mindset List. (Amy Jarmon)
Thursday, August 24, 2017
There's a place amidst the mighty Sangre de Cristo Range of New Mexico where college students lead high school teens across the rugged mountains on 10-day backpacking trips.
As the backpacking guides race from their office to the meet their new crews hailing from around the nation (and the world too), the guides reach high to tap a sign as they exit the office door that reads simply:
I love that phrase.
It's not that the camp is about "changing" lives...but that individual guides reach up to signify their commitment to "change" lives today. The first is about others (i.e., the camp) having an impact on the backpackers. The second, in contrast, is about me individually making an impact on people that I am charged with serving.
As I thought about our work in ASP, I wonder if that might be a great motto for me. Why not install that sign above my office door? I could then tap it when I go to classes as a reminder of my purpose...in the present...to teach for the betterment of my students. And, I could reach out and touch it when I go to meetings. That might really make a big impact on my motivation. I could tag it when I meet with other faculty and staff as a reminder of my purpose to work among my colleagues as an ASP professional to change lives.
You see, it's often the little things that can make a mighty difference, like committing ourselves daily to be on the lookout for any and all opportunities to change the lives of our students for the better. So, today, feel free to reach high in a symbolic tap of the sign! (Scott Johns).
Monday, August 21, 2017
I mentioned in last week’s blog about my inability to remain focused on our law school's voluntary pre-orientation program for incoming 1Ls due to events related Charlottesville. As I continue my efforts to remain focused, I’ll try to spend a few minutes talking about a topic that many of you likely discuss with your students, either during a similar orientation or pre-orientation program or in workshops or individual conferences: whether students should handwrite their notes or take them on a laptop.
The use of laptops in class rightfully generates much discussion on faculty and ASP mailing lists, particularly at the start of the semester. The discussion has even entered the Twitter realm (for example, here and here; H/T Prof. Ellie Margolis and Prof. Katherine Kelly).
I know there is a lot research and concerns out there relating to laptop use and taking notes. For instance: (1) students may often find it difficult to follow classroom dialogue while trying to type everything down that is discussed in class; and (2) there are potential distractions related to laptop use in class—both for the student doing something that he/she should not be doing on the laptop and for those students sitting near this student.
I don’t necessarily disagree with the research and concerns. I understand that laptops can create tempting distractions for our students. And I agree that we don’t want students “zoned out” from using laptops in our classes. But, we should also not want to “zone out” students who may need to use a laptop in class as a critical learning tool for them.
So, I want to caution folks before they decide to ban laptops entirely in the classroom. I want folks to remember that banning laptops may create a situation where students with an accommodation for a learning disability are forced to disclose that they have a learning disability. This forced disclosure may not be an issue for some students—they may not complain or make much of the ban, or they might not care that they are the only student in a 70+ class who has his/her laptop out in a no-laptop use classroom. So, a complete laptop ban may not be that much of an issue for some students. But, it could still be an issue.
If you are a strong proponent for absolutely no laptop use in class, perhaps your student affairs office might be able to not place students who have laptop use as an accommodation in your class. Of course, this recommendation may only work if you happen to teach a course that is also offered during the same semester by a faculty member who does not have a laptop ban.
Perhaps, someone like a student affairs or ASP professional may have a chat with those students who are disengaged in the classroom to see what may be contributing to the disengagement. Is it solely the laptop? Or, as those of us in the law school ASP world know, are there other academic or non-academic factors that may be impacting the student’s ability to “follow along in class”? Are the students distracted by a laptop disengaged because the laptop is in front of them? Or, is something happening outside of the classroom that may be motivating the student to disengage on the laptop? Could it be easier for a student who is having a challenging time in law school to disengage, rather than continuing to try and fail?
One more recommendation if you are a strong proponent for absolutely no laptop use in class: maybe, reconsider why you have the no laptop policy in the first place.
Do we assume that students who handwrite their notes never disengage? Or, can a student on a social media account be just as "zoned out" as someone daydreaming or drawing an elaborate doodle on his/her notebook paper?
Do we assume that someone who has a laptop will automatically be programmed to type everything down verbatim in class and, thus, not follow along in the classroom dialogue? Do we assume that someone who is handwriting his/her notes will not automatically try to write everything (or as much) down in class and, thus, will follow along in the classroom dialogue? I suspect we have had many students in our classrooms who prove and disprove both assumptions.
Do we assume that those students who are using a laptop are naturally worse note-takers—that they have not developed or cannot develop with guidance (from great ASP folks, like us!) effective methods for taking notes in a law school class? Do we assume that those students who handwrite their notes all have developed the proper method for effective and efficient ways to take notes in a law school class? Again, I suspect we have had many students in our classrooms who prove and disprove both assumptions.
And, finally, are we even aware of, or do we automatically discount, the various computer applications out there that might be geared for diverse learning styles or that might help keep our students’ notes better organized?
We often try to train our law students on flexible thinking—that there may often not just be a black or white answer to things in the law; that there, frustratingly, is often a large shade of gray in the law; that the answer to many questions in the law may often be “It depends.”
Perhaps, we can practice a little of what we preach. Just because we may not be able to take effective notes using a laptop in a law school classroom doesn’t mean our students are unable to take effective notes on a laptop in class. And just because we may not have needed a laptop to succeed in law school doesn’t necessarily mean that someone else could not succeed in law school by using one. Some students may actually need the laptop to help them succeed. And a “black" or "white" law might actually say that they are entitled to use a laptop in class. (OJ Salinas)
August 21, 2017 in Advice, Current Affairs, Disability Matters, Diversity Issues, Exams - Studying, Exams - Theory, Learning Styles, Miscellany, Orientation, Study Tips - General, Teaching Tips, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0)
Thursday, August 17, 2017
Saturday, August 12, 2017
In my post yesterday on this topic, I covered three aspects important to 1Ls understanding the law school environment and succeeding in their studies: professional education, long-term memory, and active learning. This post considers two more aspects: comprehensive final exams in doctrinal courses and time management.
Comprehensive final exams in doctrinal courses. Most incoming students are used to courses that have multiple tests and assignments that make up the final grade. Each test or assignment covered a segment of the course. No course or assignment covered the entire material for the 15-week course. The non-cumulative nature of the tests and assignments encouraged students to learn the material in a compartmentalized fashion with no incentive to remember or understand the material in a more comprehensive manner.
Students have told me that professors often let them drop the lowest grade among the tests or assignments. If you didn't understand the content (or didn't bother studying enough), you would get rid of that low grade as if it never happened. Other students have told me that they could opt out of the final test for the semester if they exceeded a certain score for prior work or were happy with the grade they already had. And a few students told me that a good cry or tale of woe for the professor would always get them a grade change so that the preparation for a test or assignment wasn't crucial.
In legal education, many doctrinal courses (doctrinal examples: contracts, torts, constitutional law, criminal procedure) end with a comprehensive exam covering all 15 weeks of material - even if there have been practice exams or some writing assignments. Active learning and long-term memory (see Part 1 of this blog topic) are essential to the best grades on these exams. By actively learning the material during class preparation, class attendance, and note review, there is less effort required later. By striving for understanding and not just memorization through outlining and reviewing outlines, the depth of knowledge improves, awareness of nuances develops, and long-term memory is built. By applying the concepts in practice questions throughout the semester, law students can self-monitor their understanding and improve their test-taking skills.
Think of it in practical terms: we forget 80% of what we learn within 2 weeks if we do not review the material. If you wait too long to revisit material, you have massive amounts to relearn because it has become vague or completely forgotten. Students who wait until late in the semester to outline confide that they can no longer decipher their class notes or remember the context of sentences that meant something many weeks ago. The myth at my law school is that you begin to study for exams 6 weeks out. But that means a law student is trying to relearn 9 weeks of mostly forgotten material while trying to learn 6 weeks of new material at the same time. Exhausting and stressful to say the least!
The best plan: spread review and practice throughout the semester. By scheduling their outlining, reviewing of outlines, and practice questions throughout the semester, law students can have memory work for them rather than against them. Regular review means that 12 or 13 of the 15 weeks of the course can be ready for the exam before the end of classes! Only the newer material will have to be pulled together; the other already mastered material can be more generally reviewed and refreshed through additional practice questions. Being able to accomplish exam studying throughout the semester, leads us to the next aspect of law school.
Time management. We know from national data that diligent undergraduate students study a maximum of 19-20 hours per week; and most undergraduate students report studying far less - some less than 10 hours per week. Students filled all their free time with student organizations, sports, part-time work, social activities, social media, and other leisure aspects. Most students tell me that they wrote papers a day or two before the due date and studied for tests only a few days (or hours) unless it was a really hard course. Many students tell me that they had a weekly routine for student organization activities/meetings, exercise or intramurals, part-time work, and some social activities. Rarely did they have a routine study schedule; at most they had a calendar of due dates. They studied when they felt like it.
Law school requires students to master time management if they want to get the grades they have the potential to earn. A full-time law student needs to study 50-55 hours per week if the active learning, long-term memory, and regular review are to occur as well as thorough class preparation and completion of assignments. A part-time law student needs 35-40 hours per week for the same results usually. We know statistically that most new law students have probably never studied that much in their lives! If new students have worked full-time before law school, then they are used to 40 or more hours of employment each week.
New law students will need 2-3 weeks of settling in to law school before they can set up a regular routine for all tasks. They need to learn how to read and brief cases, develop an understanding of what their professors teaching styles and emphases are, learn the legal vocabulary, and begin to experience legal writing. But by the end of 2-3 weeks, it is time to set out a routine time management schedule to provide for class preparation, outlining, review, practice questions, and legal writing assignments. That schedule should also include sleep, meals, exercise, and down time.
The idea is to know when you will get things done rather than wondering what you should do next. We tend to fritter away time when we don't have structure. And today it is easier to fritter away massive amounts of time with electronic distractions! You can flip tasks up and down during the day as tasks take less or more time. But you try each day to complete your daily tasks. You can build in several blocks of undesignated study time during the week for unexpected study tasks or especially lengthy tasks that occur - this allows you to easily see where to move or add tasks to your schedule rather than panic. Realize that you will become more efficient and effective at all of your study tasks with practice and will likely be able to decrease time blocks in your schedule for some tasks or for a particular course.
Schedules will need tweaking; but with realistic time blocks and better organization of life tasks (errands, laundry, meal prep, etc.), it is possible to have a routine that works most weeks. So Tuesday during 3-5 p.m. you read for Civil Procedure; you go to bed at 11 p.m. and get up at 6 p.m.; you outline the week's contracts material on Friday 10-11 a.m.; you work on your legal writing assignment on Wednesday 1-3 p.m.; you go for a run Monday, Wednesday, Thursday 3-4 p.m. and then eat dinner 4-5 p.m.; you review part of your contracts outline 2-3:30 p.m. on Saturday; you complete practice questions for Torts on Sunday 3-4 p.m.; and so forth.
By structuring your weeks, you will feel less overwhelmed because you can literally see when you will get things done. By including appropriate times for sleep, meals, exercise, and down time, you gain school-work balance. By gaining expertise in time management while you are in law school, you will be able to carry that skill over to practice. Many new attorneys are stressed by the demands of practice if they are not skilled at time management already.
Once again I encourage you to use the academic support resources at your law school. If comprehensive final exams and time management are not part of your educational experiences already, ASP staff can assist you in learning strategies to prepare for final exams and assist in setting up a routine time management schedule. You can learn these new skills and strategies with the assistance available to you. (Amy Jarmon)
Friday, August 11, 2017
New law students can improve their adjustment to law school if they consider several aspects of their educational background, study habits, learning styles, and lifestyles before they enter law school. By being more intentional in considering these aspects, law students can be more aware of their strengths and preferences. They will be less shocked by some of the differences between legal education and prior education. They can be aware of changes they will need in their approach for a successful legal education.
Three aspects to consider are included in this post; a follow-up post will consider two more aspects.
A professional school education. Many undergraduates take a variety of courses which they perceive as merely fulfilling requirements and not useful in real life. Courses are frequently one-off content rather than building a foundation of concepts for future courses or life tasks. One may take the history of fine arts, calculus, or physics to fulfill general education requirements without any thought of needing the knowledge again - and often with the hope of never using the information again.
Some undergraduates choose majors based on whim, reputation for easy grades, or popular trends as a means to get the degree without any expectation of having a job in those fields. Education seems less important if it has no relevance to one's future. For example, a survey several years ago showed that engineering students preparing for a career path studied nearly twice as many more hours per week as their liberal arts counterparts.
Law school curricula contain courses that are designed to improve skills that lawyers need every day (critical reading, critical thinking, critical writing). Many 1Ls consider their legal research and writing courses the bane of their existence. Those skills are essential to success in the legal profession where research and writing are daily tasks. Also, law students who regularly skimp on reading and briefing for doctrinal classes, find they are ill-prepared for efficiently and effectively analysing hundreds of cases in practice. For some students, the first summer clerking position can be a nightmare and hopefully a wake-up call for more diligence.
In addition, many courses contain legal content that is foundational to the bar exam and basic legal knowledge for practice. Most law school curricula require a number of the courses that appear on the bar exam. For example, even though a 1L vehemently declares he will never practice criminal law, that content is going to show up on the bar exam. (I also know from experience that some corporate litigation CEO client will walk in and want you to talk intelligently about what to expect after his son's drug arrest even though you obviously will refer him to a criminal defense colleague.)
The importance of long-term memory. Working memory (previously called short-term memory) is premised on the fact that the information is only needed for a short period: until the presentation is over, until the test ends, until the paper is handed in, until the course ends. After the deadline, concepts and information are immediately forgotten. The educational trash can is filled to the brim. Cramming promotes this short memory span because the brain is expected to retain the information for a use-by-date close at hand. There is no intention to retain the knowledge for reuse. The grade, and not the future, matters.
Long-term memory builds a foundation of concepts and information that are reinforced and applied over a period of time. Law school, the bar exam, and legal practice all go more smoothly with a focus on long-term memory. Briefing cases, note-taking, reviewing class notes, outlining, reviewing outlines, and applying the information to new scenarios throughout the semester build long-term memory. Long-term memory is like a filing cabinet of organized and readily accessible information in your brain.
When a third-year course refers to concepts from first-year contracts, law-term memory allows the concepts to come back with little or no review. When one's summer clerkship assignment focuses on a search-and-seizure issue, the concepts from criminal procedure are there as a base of knowledge on which to begin. When the bar exam course rapidly covers dozens of courses in six-eight weeks, long-term memory promotes review of those courses rather than the total re-learning of massive amounts of material that was lost if only working memory was used.
In practice a lawyer depends on long-term memory for building expertise in specialty areas of law. Lawyers want to recall similar client facts, prior cases read, statutory language, and more. Although they will constantly update their knowledge and research new twists on prior issues, they depend on a depth of knowledge and understanding of the law to gain competence and confidence. Even remembering the basics from law school courses can save time in interviewing a client or researching.
Active learning as a way of life. Active learning requires engagement on the part of the learner and self-monitoring. An active learner in law school does more than read the large number of cases to say that the assignment is done. The active learner asks questions while reading the cases, considers how the cases are similar and different, relates the legal concepts to the subtopic and topic, and considers how those legal concepts would be used in different scenarios. The active learner has thought about the material and tried to synthesize the different cases before going to class.
Although law professors will go over the cases at least somewhat in class, they will not tell the students everything they need to know. They will expect law students to prepare well and understand the basics from the cases and consider inter-relationships among cases. The class discussion will often focus on more nuanced concepts, policy arguments, and application of concepts to new scenarios. Professors may use the Socratic Method of questioning to get students to think about these aspects that springboard off of the cases. Professors may throw out hypothetical facts to get students to consider twists on facts and how the law will (or won't) apply. Students are asked to argue both sides of the scenario for plaintiff and defendant.
Memorization of the black letter law is important; however, it is only a beginning. Law students need to continue to review the legal concepts and inter-relate them to better understand how the law applies to the topics and subtopics through outlining. They need to actively engage in applying the concepts to new fact scenarios through practice questions so they know how to use the law to solve legal problems.
Passive learning promotes little engagement with the material and an attitude of just doing the assignment rather than critically thinking about the material. It is this type of learning that many students tell me they have most often experienced in prior educational experiences. The textbooks laid out the concepts without any need to think about them or ferret them out of the text. One just needed to read and memorize what the texts said. The professors often lectured to tell them exactly what they needed to know for the tests. Knowledge was clearly laid out to be learned in a rote way in many courses. The A grades went to those who could spout the most dates, facts, definitions, etc.
Some students relate that even in courses where they had to discuss themes or apply concepts across works of various authors, they were often expected to espouse the professor's stated views rather than apply the themes or concepts more critically or innovatively. If creativity was allowed, then some tell me that everything written was accepted as good ideas without having to carefully support arguments or consider counter-arguments.
These law school aspects of professional education, long-term memory, and active learning may be alien to some law students. As a result students might initially make learning choices that will cause them to falter. They will approach legal learning with strategies that worked in prior education but do not work in law school. They will not see each course as building skills and knowledge needed to pass the bar and become a competent professional. They will approach class preparation as a passive task to be completed rather than an active learning exercise. They will become frustrated by the law school classroom because professors do not tell them what they need to know for an A grade and instead expect them to make leaps in thinking through questions and hypotheticals they do not understand. They will mistakenly believe that a good grade will be produced by cramming and mere memorization of the law because that worked in the past.
If you are a new 1L student, consider what your background has been like in past education. If any of these aspects of legal education are different from your prior education, the good news is that there are academic support professionals who can show you new strategies tailored to learning in law school. You can succeed and not just survive in the different learning environment. Seek out the ASP resources available at your law school. (Amy Jarmon)
Thursday, August 10, 2017
All across law school campuses, newly-entering law school students are beginning to embark on their first steps in legal education. Often times, the initial week is filled with orientation lectures. Unfortunately, in some cases, the first educational experiences that new law students receive are spent mostly on the "recipient end" as passive classroom listeners. There's nothing wrong with listening but listening for hours on end is just not that productive because we learn best through active participatory engagement. So, here's a thought that might help inspire a bit of redirection in the orientation week.
Rather than focus on "orientation," why not turn the goal into "orienteering" our new learners to law school learning. In short, that means turning the noun "orientation" into the verb "orienteering"...by doing very little talking to students...and much more working with students in the midst of law school learning experiences. For those of you that like to hike with map and compass, the process of orienteering means that we take out our map, we use our compass to get our bearings, and we look around us at the landscape of our surroundings to figure out where we might be located on the map, and then we find a path to hike to our intended awe-inspiring destination. Law school is similar. That first week experience with newly-arrived law students should be spent on activities that get them "hitting the legal trail," so to speak, as soon as possible, and from the get-go. In general, they don't need lectures about library services, or how to navigate the law school website, or how to locate their mailboxes. Instead, they came to learn to be lawyers. So, get them started on learning to be lawyers.
Practically speaking and as many law schools do, it's a grand week to have them engaged in reading and briefing cases, participating in mock classroom discussions, practicing taking class notes, reviewing class notes and materials, creating mini-study tools, practicing mini-final exam scenarios, and assess what one learned throughout the week. Simply put, that means that our new law school students are actually taking responsibility for starting to learn how to learn in the very first week of their legal education. And, with so much to learn, there's no time to waste. Most importantly, people remember very little about what we say. They remember much about what they do. So, keep the focus on the law students orienteering themselves to law school learning. (Scott Johns).
Tuesday, August 1, 2017
I have read multiple articles (including Goldie Pritchard’s 2016 blog post) that the best way to remind yourself what it is like to be a first-year law student it to try something totally new. That sounded like a good suggestion, so earlier this year I intentionally set out to be a novice at a difficult task and mindfully soak in the experience. I decided to grow a giant pumpkin. I have never grown anything myself, let alone something “giant.” My husband, however, has been growing everything and anything—including big pumpkins—competitively for several years. He is an expert. Over the last few months, I’ve learned a lot about what it is like to be a novice. Here is lesson number one.
Novices are blissfully unaware of the extensive criteria an expert takes into consideration when making an important decision in their field, and if confronted with all of the available options the novice may become overwhelmed.
Step one in giant pumpkin growing is seed selection. As a newbie, my plan was to simply use something from my husband’s seed collection. He has hundreds in a large bin, after all. I looked at a couple of packages, spotted an attractive looking specimen, and made my decision. The whole process took less than 5 minutes. My husband sat there stunned, horrified. “You’re done already?” he wondered aloud. You see, there are dozens of factors an expert grower takes into consideration in seed selection: parent plants, color versus size, history of known genetic defects, and the prestige associated with the original grower, just to name a few. As my husband began to explain all of my options, I quickly did not care for the seed selection process anymore. It was too much information and too many decisions at a time when I still was not convinced that there was any real difference between a 1912 Carter and a 2106 Schmit. I went from happy and confident in my ability to quickly select a seed to second-guessing everything about my choice. I changed my mind several times and shut down emotionally. I wanted to quit. I eventually took the easy choice: I would grow a seed from my husband’s own pumpkin. There was absolutely no sophistication to my analysis, but that was the best I could do under the weight of the endless choices.
This got me thinking about hierarchy of authority in legal writing. Students must look at the vast array of cases and statutes on Westlaw (or, dare I say, Google) the same way I looked at my husband’s bin of seeds—as a collection of seemingly equal options from which to choose, with little regard for the finer distinctions. Our students are likely overwhelmed by basic case information that to us experts seems straightforward. First semester students likely see little difference between the judicial opinion of a court of last resort in a neighboring jurisdiction and the intermediate appellate court decision of the controlling jurisdiction. In fact, the former might prove to be a more attractive option to the student than the latter.
This novice’s recommendation: Provide less information initially, and then dole out additional information in small strategic chunks over a period of time, even if it means the novice might risk making a poor initial choice. Let the novice make a small, perhaps less sophisticated choice confidently and then learn from their mistakes. The novice would appreciate less information, not more. Rather than being overwhelmed with all the options, let the novice decide a few basic decisions. Once they understand the fundamental decision making process, layer on the additional choices. Repeat the process until all the expert factors are imported into the decision making process.
Thursday, July 27, 2017
For those of you that just tackled the bar exam this week, here's a few words of congratulations and a couple of tips as you wait for results from this summer's bar exam.
First, let me speak to you straight from the heart!
Bravo! Magnificent! Herculean!
Those are just some of the words that come to mind…words that you should be rightly speaking to yourself…because…they are true of you to the core!
But, for most of us right now, we just don’t quite feel super-human about the bar exam. Such accolades of self-talk are, frankly, just difficult to do. Rather, most of us just feel relief – plain and simple relief – that the bar exam is finally over and we have somehow survived.
That’s because very few of us, upon completion of the bar exam, feel like we have passed the bar exam. Most of us just don’t know. So now, the long “waiting” period begins with results not due out for most of us for a number of months.
So, here’s the conundrum about the “waiting” period:
Lot’s of well-meaning people will tell you that you have nothing to worry about; that they are sure that you passed the bar exam; and that the bar exam wasn’t that hard…really.
Not that hard?
You know that I passed?
There’s nothing for me to worry about?
Let me give you a concrete real life example. Like you, I took the bar exam. And, like most of you, I had no idea at all whether I passed the bar exam. I was just so glad that it was finally over.
But all of my friends, my legal employer (a judge), my former law professors, and my family kept telling me that I had absolutely nothing to be worried about; that I passed the bar exam; that I worked hard; that they knew that I could do it.
But, they didn’t know something secret about my bar exam. They didn’t know about my lunch on the first day of the bar exam.
At the risk of revealing a closely held secret, my first day of the bar exam actually started out on the right foot, so to speak. I was on time for the exam. In fact, I got to the convention center early enough that I got a prime parking spot. Moreover, in preparation for my next big break (lunch), I had already cased out the nearest handy-dandy fast food restaurants for grabbing a quick bite to eat before the afternoon portion of the bar exam so that I would not miss the start of the afternoon session of the bar exam.
So, when lunch came, I was so excited to eat that I went straight to Burger King. I really wanted that “crown,” perhaps because I really didn’t understand many of the essay problems from the morning exam. But as I approached Burger King, the line was far out of the door. Impossibly out of the door. And, it didn’t get any better at McDonalds next door. I then faced the same conundrum at Wendy’s and then at Taco Bell.
Finally, I had to face up to cold hard facts. I could either eat lunch or I could take the afternoon portion of the bar exam. But, I couldn’t do both. The lines were just too long. So, I was about to give up - as I had exhausted all of the local fast food outlets surrounding the convention center - when I luckily caught a glimpse of a possible solution to both lunch and making it back to the bar exam in time for the afternoon session – a liquor store. There was no line. Not a soul. I had the place to myself. So, I ran into the liquor store to grab my bar exam lunch: two Snicker’s bars. With plenty of time to now spare, I then leisurely made my way back to the bar exam on time for the start of the afternoon session.
But, here’s the rub:
All of my friends and family members (and even the judge that I was clerking for throughout the waiting period) were adamant that I had passed the bar exam. They just knew it!
But, they didn’t know that I ate lunch at the liquor store.
So when several months later the bar results were publicly available on the Internet, I went to work for my judge wondering what the judge might do when the truth came out – that I didn’t pass the bar exam because I didn’t pack a lunch to eat at the bar exam.
To be honest, I was completely stick to my stomach. But, I was stuck; I was at work and everyone believed in me. Then, later that morning while still at my work computer, the results came out. My heart raced, but my name just didn’t seem to be listed at all. No Scott Johns. And then, I realized that my official attorney name begins with William. I was looking at the wrong section of the Johns and Johnsons. My name was there! I had passed! I never told the judge my secret about my “snicker bar” lunch. I was just plain relieved that the bar exam “wait” was finally over.
That’s the problem with all of the helpful advice from our friends, employers, law professors, and family members during this waiting period. For all of us (or at least most of us), there was something unusual that happened during our bar exam. It didn’t seem to go perfectly. Quite frankly, we just don’t know if we indeed passed the bar exam.
So, here’s a few suggestions for your time right now with your friends, employers, law professors, and family members.
1. First, just let them know how you are feeling. Be open and frank. Share your thoughts with them along with your hopes and fears.
2. Second, give them a hearty thank you for all of their enriching support, encouragement, and steadfast faithfulness that they have shared with you as walked your way through law school and through this week’s bar exam. Perhaps send them a personal notecard. Or, make a quick phone call of thanks. Or send a snap chat of thankful appreciation. Regardless of your particular method of communication, reach out to let them know out of the bottom of your heart that their support has been invaluable to you. That’s a great way to spend your time as you wait - over the course of the next several months - for the bar exam results.
3. Finally, celebrate yourself, your achievement, and your true grit....by taking time out - right now - to appreciate the momentous accomplishment of undertaking a legal education, graduating from law school, and tackling your bar exam. You've done something great, and, more importantly, something mightily significant. (Scott Johns).
Thursday, July 13, 2017
With a big hat tip to one of our bar takers this summer, here's a website -- The Visual Law Library -- that has some cool colorful cartoons to help brighten up your daily memorization studies.
On the website, cartoonist and attorney Margaret Hagan has created cartoons for the following subjects that are tested on most bar exams: Civil Procedure, Con Law, Contracts, Corporations, Criminal Law, Evidence, Family Law, Property Law, and Torts.
It's a rich resource to allow you to "see" some of the major rules in a colorful way. So, feel free to take a break by scoping out a few cartoons that might help you better remember some of the major rules for upcoming bar exam. (Scott Johns).
Thursday, June 29, 2017
With just under a month to go for many bar takers (and after numerous weeks of intensive studying), let's face the facts:
We are plain downright exhausted. And, we should be. But, given what seems like the insurmountable pressures to learn so much material for the bar exam, it just seems like we can't let up with our daily grinding regiment of bar studies. There's no time for a day off. There's too much to learn.
However, let me offer you a way to "let up" so that you can feel mighty good about taking a real day off. A whole day. A day of rest and relaxation to boot. In fact, please feel free to live it up. And, there's no better time to take a day off from your studies than on a national day of celebration - this upcoming July 4th holiday.
I find that Independence Day is one of the best days of the year to see bar exam problems in living color.
That box of fireworks bought at a big top tent stand. That was procured through negotiation by you (or one of your friends) of a UCC contract for the sale of goods (and the seller most certainly had a secured transaction agreement in order to bring the goods to sale to your area).
That box of fireworks that didn't work as advertised. Well, that might just blossom into a breach of contracts claim or even a tort claim for misrepresentation.
That box of fireworks that were lit off in the city limits. In most cities, that's a strict liability crime, plain and simple.
You see, even when we take a day off from studies, we live in a world of bar exam problems. In fact, we are surrounded by bar exam problems because the bar exam tests legal situations that are constantly arising among us. So, it's a good thing to get our heads of the books occasionally to see what's happening around.
That means that you can completely feel free to relax and celebrate on this upcoming national holiday. Take the day off - the whole day off! Go have some fun! Celebrate...because even while taking a day off you will still be learning lots about the law from just living in the world. You can't help yourself but to see legal problems everywhere...because...you have be trained as a professional problem-solving attorney.
So, rest assured that in the midsts of your celebrations you'll be learning helpful legal principles that you can bank on preparation for success on your upcoming bar exam. And, as a bonus, you'll get some mighty needed rest to recharge your heart and mind too! So, enjoy your day off; you've earned it! (Scott Johns).
Sunday, June 18, 2017
BBC News has posted an article that suggests that deep work and deep scheduling which create more focus through downtime are key to productivity. We are used to helping students schedule their serious study time with short breaks, longer meal breaks, exercise time, etc. In fact, we often see students who cram studying into every minute without breaks have worse grades than students who use their time more productively with breaks. The BBC article is here.
Friday, June 16, 2017
A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education lauded the importance of trying things we are bad at, practicing, and becoming better. Carol Dweck's growth mindset concept, a concept known to many ASPish readers, is mentioned in the article. The article is found here: The Importance of Being Bad at Something.
Thursday, June 15, 2017
Just the title of this blog might seem sacrilegious. But, in the midst of the daily work in bar exam preparations this summer, I've come across an interesting trend. It seems like no one preparing for the bar is convinced that they can write a passing essay answer, particularly when comparing practice answers to the multi-page point sheet or the line-by-line perfect answers often provided by commercial bar review companies.
In short, bar exam studiers often feel like they missed the mark (and aren't even close to earning a passing score). That can lead to a frustrating cycle of trying the next time to write an answer that resembles the massive point sheet, only to learn once again that one didn't quite get all of the points (or even half of the points). Unfortunately, over time, essay answers start to look like point sheets rather than the written work of professional attorneys, and, no wonder.
But, in most states in which graders assess answers based on holistic relative grading, point sheets miss the mark, too. That's because in holistic grading the Supreme Court graders are not looking for points but rather are reading answers for the substantive quality of your writing and legal problem-solving. So, here's a tip.
Instead of practicing to write for points on your bar exam this summer, try to write to substantively impress your reader with the qualities of your professional writing and the substance of your well-thought out argument. In other words, write to impress...because...in holistic grading, that's exactly what the graders are looking for. Of course, the impressions must have substance, i.e., demonstrating the work of an attorney. So, with that in mind, here's a technique to assess and perfect your essay writing. Instead of calculating whether your practice answer got all of the points, take a look at the much-shorter outline rubric provided by many bar review companies. Then, glance through your answer to see if you hit the major issues and if your writing professionally flows. In holistic grading jurisdictions, that's really meeting the mark, and meeting it well. (Scott Johns).
Thursday, June 1, 2017
In contrast to the promotional tourism slogan of a famous gambling city in Nevada, what happens in bar review lectures...ought never stay in lectures.
Here's what I mean. Too often what we learn during bar review lectures is never really put to the immediate test. Rather than diving into practice essay and MBE multiple-choice problems that very day of a bar review lecture, we often tend to whittle away precious time by reviewing our lecture notes, re-reading bar review outlines, or, worst yet, re-watching lecture videos (because we are worried that we didn't catch every fine point made during the course of a four-hour bar review lecture). In short, we continue to stay in the lectures by staying in a passive "lecture-like" mindset.
However, that's not the way to learn to prepare for the bar exam because the bar examiners don't ask us to recite bar review lectures or demonstrate that we memorized our lecture notes. Rather, the bar examiners demand that we show that that we can engage in active problem-solving. So, if you are preparing for the bar exam this summer, get activated; get moving; get going by tackling lots of bar exam problems right after you complete each bar review lecture. You become the master rather than watching others demonstrate mastery in solving bar exam problems. It will be challenging. That's because learning is incredibly difficult. It takes all of our heart and mind. It means making lots of messy mistakes. It requires being comfortable with ourselves in realizing that it is not natural to know how to do things. In short, it takes lots of work and perspiration in straining and stretching ourselves to tackle things that we couldn't previously do. That's why we call it learning.
So, instead of spending most of bar prep watching others solve legal problems, get into the action, the real action of learning, by breathing life into the bar review lectures as you work step-by-step through lots of bar exam essay and MBE multiple-choice problems. Although it will feel mightily uncomfortable, you'll be mighty glad you did when you take your bar exam because you'll be ready to demonstrate to the bar examiners that you are an expert legal problem-solver, "bar none." (Scott Johns).
Thursday, May 11, 2017
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:
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).
Thursday, April 27, 2017
"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).