Law School Academic Support Blog

Editor: Amy Jarmon
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Threats and Challenges in Law School

Final exams.  Olympic competition.  Oral argument.  Job interviews.  The bar examination.  These are all high-stakes experiences, often competitive, in which successful outcomes depend on strong performance.  As discussed last week, in such situations the human brain can adopt different chemical and behavioral states, depending on whether the situation is perceived as a threat or as a challenge.  In a threat situation, the brain becomes hyper-alert to danger and error, processes information more deliberately, and shies away from risk.  In a challenge situation, the brain pays less attention to detail, processes information in a more relaxed and automatic way, and is open to taking risks that have sufficient promise of reward.  How can we use our knowledge of these two mental states, not just to understand our students better, but also to help them do better?

Let's start by noting that the brain can enter these different states at different times even if it is undertaking the exact same activity.  A baseball player might step up to the plate in the third inning and see his task -- to try to get a hit -- as a challenge, and the same player could step to the same plate, even holding the same baseball bat, in the ninth inning and see it as a threat.  So it's not the task itself that determines our mental state.  It's the surrounding circumstances.  Early in the game, when the outcome is still up in the air, a player may be "gain-oriented", focusing on accruing advantages (in this case, runs), and his brain will be in challenge mode.  In the last inning, though, if his team has a slim lead, that same player could shift his focus and become "prevention-oriented", focusing on maintaining his team's lead by not making mistakes of which the other team might take advantage.  In that case, his brain will be in threat mode.

In the same way, our students can undertake the same activity -- issue spotting, say, or answering multiple-choice questions -- at different times, and might find themselves in either challenge mode or threat mode.  This is a good thing, a useful thing.  After all, human brains evolved to be capable of these two modes, so each mode ought to have some beneficial qualities.

As Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman point out in Top Dog, in an academic setting there can be an optimal sequencing to these modes.  Students perform best if they start their semester working in challenge mode and end it working in threat mode. 

This makes sense in a general way.  At the beginning of a course, students don't know much about the subject, and their goal should be to try to gain knowledge and skill as quickly as possible.  A gain orientation is associated with challenge mode -- the brain plays hunches and takes educated guesses, because the risk (primarily, to grades) is low but the potential reward (flashes of insight) is high.  Towards the end of the course, though, risk increases, as the student faces more heavily weighted final exams.  At the same time, rewards are lessened, since (ideally) the student has already internalized most of the material and is not likely to learn a great deal more.  On a final exam, a student is more likely to be in threat mode -- pondering the answer more slowly and cautiously, less inclined to make risky arguments, perhaps even debating word choice as he tries to recall the exact wording of a rule.

If a student is well-prepared for the final exam, proceeding cautiously with their mind in threat mode may be quite favorable.  It can encourage methodical analysis, and help the student avoid unnecessary errors.  However, there are two potential issues to consider.

First, as alluded to above, there are two sources of risk and reward in law school.  One is the knowledge and understanding of the subject matter, and the other is the final grade in the class.  A student who downplays either source is at a disadvantage.  Reminding students to pay attention to learning the rules and how to use them, and to developing their test-taking skills at the same time, is part of what Academic Success is about.  Being able to describe these abilities as complementary sources of risk and reward may provide us with another way of doing that.

Second, while being in threat mode may help a student avoid errors, they still may not perform well if they only enter threat mode for the first time in the final exam.  Since threat mode slows analysis and limits the options the brain is willing to consider, it can change the way people behave during exams.  We have doubtless all had students who felt confident in a subject all semester and then did poorly on their final, later explaining that they thought of some of the correct responses but abandoned them because they were afraid they might be wrong, and that they spent so much time working on the first half of the exam that they didn't have time to complete the second half.  While there are several plausible explanations for such mistakes, one possibility for them to consider is that they had never practiced answering questions in that course in threat mode.  If all of their practice was under the speedier, more relaxed challenge mode, then they had never really practiced under exam conditions.

Ideally, humans would have a switch we could activate to shift from challenge mode to threat mode and back.  But, while we don't, it is nevertheless possible for professors to influence students and help shift them into threat mode.  As Bronson and Merryman explain, teachers can affect their students' brains just by changing the way they present their examinations.  If students are given a test and told that they will receive a certain number of points for every correct answer, then they focus more on the idea of gaining points, which encourages a gain orientation and thus a challenge mode.  If, on the other hand, students are given a test and told that their scores start at 100 and that they will lose a certain number of points for every correct answer, then they focus more on not losing points, which encourages a prevention orientation and a threat mode.  Even though mathematically the two scoring systems were identical, the differences in presentation caused measurable differences in performance.

Thus, one way to encourage our students to practice for final exams (and oral arguments, bar exams, etc.) in threat mode is to explain, in advance, that you will be scoring their practice work by subtracting points from a pre-determined maximum score.  Conversely, students who fall into threat mode too early in the semester, perhaps because they are disproportionately worried about grade risk, might be coaxed towards challenge mode by being given exercises for which they will receive a certain number of points for every plausible point or argument.  Even though the tasks the students are undertaking remain the same, we can help their brains approach them differently.

October 16, 2018 in Advice, Bar Exam Preparation, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Science, Study Tips - General, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Threats and Challenges in the Brain

In the 1994 Winter Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway, the Japanese ski jumping team was having a very good day. After seven jumps, it had racked up a score so high that no one believed they could lose. The team’s final jumper, Masahiko Harada, who had already landed a jump of 122 meters on his first jump, only needed to jump 105 meters on his second to clinch the gold medal. But Harada faltered. His jump was not well executed, and he only managed to get to 97.5 meters before his skis touched the ground. The Japanese team ended up with the silver medal, finishing behind the German team.

Four years later, the Winter Olympics were being held in Nagano, Japan, and, once again, Masahiko Harada was on the team. He and the team were hoping to redeem themselves, and, of course, all eyes were on them as the home team. Harada was no longer the team anchor, so it was hoped that, without the pressure of having to be the final jumper for the team, he would perform at the Games as well as the team knew he could in practice. The first two jumpers did extremely well, putting the Japanese team in first place. But then Harada . . . did even worse than he had at Lillehammer, achieving a distance of only 79.5 meters on his first jump. The team fell to fourth place.

Things looked bad until Takanobu Okabe landed an Olympic record-setting 137-meter jump on his second attempt, bringing the Japanese team back into contention. They weren’t back in the lead, but at least they had a chance for a medal. And now it was Harada’s turn again. In his last two Olympic jumps, when he just needed to not screw up to keep the team in position, he screwed up. Now, if he wanted to help the team get a medal, he had to do more than not screw up. He had to excel.

And he did. He tied Okabe’s record, making his own 137-meter jump, and sending the Japanese team into first place. They would go on to win the gold medal in the event.

How did all of that happen? Why did Harada jump poorly in his last jump in Lillehammer, and his first jump in Nagano, but then manage to jump exceptionally well in his second Nagano jump? The stakes were high – Olympic gold – all three times, so surely there was always enormous pressure on him. What made the difference?

It might be easier to explain the difference if we consider, not the stakes, but the positions in which Harada found himself. In his second 1994 jump and his first 1998 jump, his team was in first place. He knew he had to perform to a certain level to maintain his team’s position. Expectations were high, but he didn’t have to do unusually well. He was just focusing on not making a mistake, because this situation was a threat to his (and his team’s) position.

In contrast, by the time he’d reached his second 1998, his team was no longer in first place. They weren’t expecting to win, but, thanks to Okabe’s big jump, at least they had a chance. Harada had less to lose, and good reason to allow himself to take risks, because there was more upside than downside to doing so. This situation was not a threat to his position; it was a challenge.

In their book Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman explain that there are physical differences between the way our brains react when we view a situation as a threat and the way they react when we view a situation as a challenge. In a threat situation, there is an increase in activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is associated with more deliberate and less automatic decision making. At the same time, the parts of the brain that watch out for external dangers (the left temporoparietal junction) and for internal errors in judgment (the anterior cingulate cortex) also become more engaged. Also, as activity in the amygdala increases, the brain becomes more sensitized to avoiding risk than to seeking reward.

In a sense, your brain starts paying closer attention to everything you see and do, and it clamps down on behaviors it perceives as potentially risky. In playing it safe, though, your brain limits the scope of the choices you feel comfortable making, which in turn shrinks the range of performance of which you are capable. When Harada was going for the 105-meter jump for gold in Lillehammer, his brain was subconsciously refusing to allow him to take actions – picking up more speed, jumping off closer to the end of the ramp – that would have given him great distance, but also would have carried an increased risk of falling.  The cumulative effect of all those refusals made him, in a very real sense, incapable of performing anywhere near his best.  In other circumstances, this would have been of little consequence -- 97.5 meters was by no means the worst jump in the Olympics that year, and it was probably several dozen meters longer than you or I could have managed.  But in high-level competition, seeing the jump as a threat robbed Harada of the ability to show the world what he was capable of, and left him and his team wanting in comparison to the Germans.

In contrast, when you see something as a challenge, your brain takes on an entirely different set of characteristics.  Hormones are released in the brain that dampen the activity in the left tempororparietal junction, the anterior cingulate cortex, and the amygdala, so you expend less energy and attention watching out for dangers, errors, and risks.  Instead, your decision making starts to flow more easily and automatically; you rely on expertise and habit rather than stopping to deliberate over every choice.  And when risks are perceived, they are not automatically shunned; instead, your brain attends to both the potential losses and the potential gains, and is open to taking the risks when the gains are great enough.  When Harada was preparing to take his second jump in Nagano, he was no longer trying to protect his team's first-place position, so he didn't see the jump as a threat.  He was able to look at it as a challenge -- Let me see how much I can obtain from this -- and, subconsciously, that freed up his range of behaviors to choose from.  Only when his brain allowed him access to all the skills and knowledge he had acquired was he able to achieve the exceptional result he hoped for.

* * * * *

No doubt you smart people have already noticed the resemblances between Harada's performances and those of some of our law students, especially the ones who sometimes seem not to perform to the level of which they are capable.  Whether students view tests, oral presentations, and other ordeals as "threats" or as "challenges" can have powerful effects on their performance.  As we will see next week, though, threat stances and challenge stances both have a place in legal study, and there are ways that we, as teachers, can help students take the right stances at the right times.


October 9, 2018 in Advice, Bar Exam Preparation, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Science | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Takeaways from AccessLex's Bar Exam Research Forum

I, along with about 40 other bar-exam professionals, attended the inaugural AccessLex Bar Exam Research Forum in Washington, D.C. on April 26, 2018.

The morning began with a keynote address entitled "The Bar Exam and the Future of Legal Education" presented by Patricia D. White, Dean and Professor of Law at the University of Miami School of Law.  Dean White outlined her role as the chair of a new 10-person Commission on the Future of Legal Education, an initiative of American Bar President Hilarie Bass.  She explained that she and her fellow committee members intend to investigate: (1) the skill set needed to practice law, (2) access to justice issues, and (3) bar exam licensure requirements.  Dean White then spoke about the potential causes for the "downturn" in nationwide MBE scores in 2014 and what it really means to be "minimally competent" to practice law.  I found Dean White's presentation to be insightful, innovative, and inspiring.  If you ever have the chance to hear her speak, I highly recommend it!

Rodney Fong, Associate Dean at The John Marshall Law School, spoke briefly about "Breaking Bar Pass Barriers Today" before we broke into our first of two working group sessions.  Our task for the first working group session was to identify what research needs to be conducted to ensure that today's law students pass today's bar exams.  The working groups suggested developing a database that includes detailed background information on each test taker, similar to the LSAC's handling of the LSAT; increasing collaboration between the ABA, NCBE, and the numerous state boards; and drawing upon other higher education disciplines and professional schools for guidance.  

After lunch, Judith Welch Wegner, Professor Emerita and Dean Emerita of the University of North Carolina School of Law, discussed "The Future of the Bar Exam," focusing on what tomorrow's bar exam should look like and why.  We then broken into our second working group session, with the goal of identifying what research needs to be conducted to produce the best new bar exam format by 2025.  The working groups didn't hold back, offering suggestions ranging from administering sections of the bar exam after each year of law school to eliminating the exam entirely.  

In short, AccessLex put together an extremely innovative and collaborative forum.  With 40 key stakeholders in the same room (including representatives from the ABA and NCBE, law school deans, academic support professionals, statisticians, and higher education specialists), everyone was able to really dive deep into thoughtful discussions about how best to improve legal education generally, and the bar exam specifically.  The program concluded with AccessLex inviting participants to apply for its inaugural Bar Success Research Grant.  Initial letters of inquiry for the grant will be accepted during the month of May.

(Kirsha Trychta)

May 1, 2018 in Bar Exams, Meetings, Science, Teaching Tips, Travel | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 29, 2018

Professional Development on the Go

Academic Support is a great community with how we all share ideas and try to pick each other up.  The outpouring of support is invaluable, but I have to admit it sometimes makes me feel like I lack enough knowledge to help students.  I hear about all the great new ideas at AASE that others are trying based on research and books read about cutting edge neuroscience research.  I listen amazed at great new ideas, and I wonder where everyone finds time to both read the research and formulate ideas.  My typical day races through my head with teaching, student appointments, committee meetings, and class preparation followed by images of evenings and weekends filled with coaching youth sports, which is much more fun than reading learning science.  Extra time didn't seem to exist in my schedule.

Professional development is critical to progress for both me and my students.  I recently discovered a way to continually develop daily without missing my other obligations. Since I don’t listen to much music, I decided to listen to new literature while commuting to work.  I live in a suburb of OKC, so my drive is about 20-30 minutes each way.  Many of you have much longer commutes, which is an even bigger opportunity to grow.  Audiobook apps are abundant, s0 I spent a few days looking through the options like audible and  This was a new commitment for me, so free apps were the most appealing.  I decided to try the free OverDrive app.  OverDrive is connected to library systems across the country.  It allows users with a library card to check out audiobooks from local libraries.  They may not have every audiobook, but depending on the library, the selection is pretty good.

Downloading the app was the first step.  The next step was to create a habit of listening.  My library checks out books for 2 weeks before deleting them from the app.  Committing to 20-30 minutes would be necessary to make it through the book.  I constantly tell students getting better requires little decisions and discipline each day.  Practice exam writing for 30 minutes a day or adding in small substantive reviews throughout the week make a difference.  I needed to take my own advice.  Turning off ESPN radio and committing to professional development would be difficult, but I decided to listen to at least 1 book.

OverDrive made a huge impact on my development.  I started last October, and I am still listening to new books.   While reading an entire book during a busy day may seem daunting, listening to a book for 20-30 minutes while driving home isn’t difficult.  Since October, I listened to Grit, How We Learn, Make It Stick, Eureka Factor, Learned Optimism, and some of Chazown.  For general business leadership tips, I listen to Craig Groeschel’s Leadership podcast.  It is specific to leading a business (he leads one of the largest church organizations in the nation), but many of the tips are helpful in leading students.  I am on the waitlist for Power of Habit.  I hope to listen to it this semester.

Professional development is hard to fit into our schedule, especially since many times, immediate benefits don’t flow from reading new research.  However, students are engaging new technology at a rapid pace. We have to stay ahead on new information to help our students succeed, which is worth the 20-30 minutes driving home.  Not only that, you may be the presenter with great ideas at future conferences from the small amount of time spent each day.

(Steven Foster)

January 29, 2018 in Advice, Books, Science, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, December 5, 2014

One Marshmallow or Two?

I recently attended a lecture by Dr. Walter Mischel, who is known for administering “The Marshmallow Test” to young children as a researcher at Stanford. As many of you are aware, the test consisted of children sitting in a room with a single marshmallow (or another sweet treat) while being asked to delay eating it. If they delayed their gratification, the child would get a greater reward at a later time (typically two marshmallows). The experiment produced interesting and, at times, comical responses from the children being observed. You can check out some Marshmallow Test videos on YouTube to watch the eye rolling, seat squirming, and general agitation exhibited by the children.

While the underlying experiments were amusing to watch, the conclusions drawn from the initial experiments and the long term studies were quite insightful.  Essentially, by understanding our impulses and how we can retrain ourselves in order to have greater willpower, we can make better choices and be more productive. Many of us believe that human nature rules whether the child would take the marshmallow instead of waiting (or whether the student would study for another 2 hours before watching an episode of their favorite show or checking their Facebook page). While some are more inclined to eat the marshmallow right away, many are able to resist for a limited amount of time.

As Dr. Mischel pointed out, we can all learn how to control our impulses (kids with marshmallows or adults with other enticements). For example, if you know that when you go to holiday parties, you rush the dessert table and do not leave that table until you have sampled two of each type of dessert, you can put a plan in place in order to limit your dessert intake. If you have no plan in place or if you arrive to the party hungry, you are more likely to fall into the dessert vortex. If plan ahead, to first spend some time at the crudité and also allow yourself a bite from three different sweets over the course of the event, you are more likely to be successful in limiting your impulses. Alternatively, if you instead plan to abstain completely from eating dessert at the party, you will likely fail. Thus, deliberate and premeditated change in small increments helps create a new practice that is easier to successfully adopt and sustain.

How does this apply to law students? Law students often succumb to and/or are ambushed by procrastination. It is difficult to delay gratification no matter what age. I learned from the marshmallow studies and from Dr. Michel’s presentation that we can all learn how to control our impulses if we understand what drives our impulses and if we are committed to making one small change at a time. In my example above, an individual knows that they struggle with overindulging in dessert. The willpower is harder to maintain without a clear and doable strategy in place. However, recognizing the temptation, adopting a realistic alternative, and planning ahead create a method for success. If law students try to more fully understand their impulsive triggers, they are better positioned to generate a plan to resist or avoid them.

Thus, law students can follow this strategy to use their time more effectively and more efficiently. Here are a few ideas:

  • They can begin by writing out typical time stealers and creating targeted goals to reduce them. (Examples: When I study in groups, I am easily drawn off topic. When I turn on the television, I end up watching it for longer than I expected. If I turn my phone on while I am studying, my social media becomes a huge distraction.)
  • They can purchase or create calendars in order to plan and track their time. Hard copy calendars visualize their priorities much better than a computer version.
  • They can turn off their electronic devices while they study for a continuous block of time. (Example: I will study Torts for 3 hours in the library and leave my computer and phone in my locker.)
  • They can disable their Wi-Fi while in class or while reviewing notes on their computer.
  • They can establish a reward system that motivates this continued behavior. (Example: If I complete my stated study goal, I will get a night off or an extra hour of sleep, or more time for a special activity.)

Once an effective time management plan is established and the inherent benefits are apparent, students are more apt to fully adopt these new strategies by continuing to buck their impulses. After all, two marshmallows later are better than one marshmallow now.

(Lisa Bove Young)


December 5, 2014 in Bar Exam Preparation, Exams - Studying, Miscellany, Science, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Unusual fonts may aid in learning

More new science on learning and metacognition:

Helpful tips for students:

1) We learn better from re-working the material.

This piece of gold is hidden on the second page of the article. It's saying what we have said in ASP for ages; reading a canned outline, or memorizing the outline of a 2L who booked the course, will not increase learning. Re-working your own notes into an outline will help you learn the material.

2) Try one of the unusual font types for your outline.

"Think of it this way, you can’t skim material in a hard to read font, so putting text in a hard-to-read font will force you to read more carefully"

3) We overestimate our own ability.

One of the great lessons from law school exams: if you feel like you nailed it, you probably didn't. The material you are being asked to learn and apply on a law school exam is difficult and complicated. The majority of exams you will encounter as a law student have more complications and nuanced issues than you have time to answer. You should feel as if you didn't hit everything. If you feel like you knew everything on the exam, you probably oversimplified the issues.

4) We all take shortcuts. We all forget we take shortcuts.

Students should always take practice exams before finals. Actually taking the exam is important. Many students will read the fact pattern, "answer it in their head" or take a couple of notes, and then read the model answer. This is more harmful than helpful. Students will unconsciously overestimate what they understood if they have not taken the test and written a complete answer. This gives them a false sense of confidence. Students need to take a cold, hard look at what they understood and what they missed. the best strategy is to take the practice test under timed conditions with a study group, and correct answers as a group. This gives students a chance to discuss what they did not understand. It's easy to lie to ourselves, it's harder to lie to a group.

Summary of the article:

"Concentrating harder. Making outlines from scratch. Working through problem sets without glancing at the answers. And studying with classmates who test one another." These are the keys to learning more efficiently and effectively. (RCF)

New York Times-Health
Come On, I Thought I Knew That!
Published: April 18, 2011
Most of us think bigger is better in terms of font size and memory, but new research shows we are wrong.

April 20, 2011 in Advice, Bar Exam Preparation, Exams - Studying, Miscellany, News, Science, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)