Thursday, May 18, 2017
It's that time of year. In the midst of many celebrations over bar passage, let's be frank. There are many that are not celebrating. Their names were not on the list of bar exam passers. It's especially rough this time of year because it's also graduation season. And, for some, it's not the first time that they've found themselves in this situation; it's a repeat of the last time around.
For aspiring attorneys that did not pass the bar exam, most don't know where to turn. Often embarrassed, many with significant debt loads, most feel abandoned by their schools, their friends, and their colleagues. All alone.
I'm not expert in helping with turnarounds. But, I'd like to offer a few tips that have seemed to be quite helpful in helping repeaters change history to become "fresh start" bar passers.
First, as academic support professionals, reach out to each one. Make yourself available on their terms. Let them know that you care. Let them know that you are mighty proud of them, success or not. Support them, one and all.
Second, give them breathing room, lot's of time and space to grieve. Don't push them into diving back into the books. Don't lecture them. Rather, assure them that they don't need to get cranking on their studies. Help them to be kind to themselves. It's not a matter of just hitting the books again, and this time, doubly-hard. Instead, they need to take time out to just be themselves.
Third, when they are ready, set up a "one-with-one." Notice: I did not call it a "one-to-one". Rather, set up an appointment or meeting in a place of their choosing at a time that works for them in which you sit side by side, on the same side of the table or desk or cafe. They are not bar exam failures; they are real law school graduates. They earned their parchments. So, listen to them as colleagues on the same side of doing battle on the bar exam. Let them talk and express themselves as they'd like. Hear them out. How are they feeling? What went right? What's their passion? What saddens their hearts?
Finally, whey they are ready, make a copy of one of the essay problems that didn't go so well. Better yet, make two copies, one for each of you! That's because you are on the same team. Set aside 15 or 20 minutes and just ask them to mark up the question, brainstorm what they are thinking, and jot down the issues that they see. But...and this is important...tell them that you don't expect them to remember any law at all. Period. And, you do the same. Exactly the same. Don't peek at an answer key or even their answer. Instead, try your hand too; wrestle with the same question that they are wrestling with.
Then, come back together to listen, ponder, and share what you both see as the plot of the essay question, the issues raised by the storylines, and the potential rules that might be in play. Once you've done all this prep work together, now, look at their answer. This is important, just look. Ask them what do they see? What do they observe? What went great for them? Where might they improve? In short, let them see that they have "inside information" about themselves based on their own personal bar exam experience and answers that they can capitalize to their advantage. Most often in the midst of working together, graduates tell me that they realize that they knew plenty of law to pass the bar exam. In fact, most are amazed at how well they memorized the law. And, that's great news because it means that they don't need to redo the bar review lectures at all. They know plenty of law. That frees up lots of time during the bar prep season to instead concentrate on just two active learning tasks.
First, they should daily work through loads of practice problems (essays and MBE questions). Every one that they can get their hands on.
Second, they should keep a daily "journal" of the issues and rules that they missed when working over problems (to include tips about the analysis of those rules).
Just two steps. That's it. There's no magic. But, in not redoing the lectures, they will find that they have plenty of time to concentrate on what is really important - learning by doing through active reflective daily practice. Countless times, it's through this process of a "one-with-one" meeting that we have seen repeaters turn themselves into "fresh start" bar passers. Now, that's something to celebrate! (Scott Johns).
Sunday, May 14, 2017
Saturday, May 6, 2017
As exams unfold and the bar exam looms, I find that I have to remind students that they may hit a wall in their studying at some point. By that I mean, getting to a point when your brain cannot absorb one more rule, comprehend one more practice question, or focus on one more sentence. No amount of switching tasks, switching courses, or mental pep talks will budge that mental wall. It cannot be climbed over, gone around, or blasted through no matter what is tried.
So many students keep studying any way because they fear taking a break and walking away. Time is of the essence! But, the only result they will get is hitting their heads against that same wall. Frustration, stress, and anxiety all build as they soldier on.
Hitting a wall is a major stopping point - a 10-minute break or 10 jumping jacks will not budge it. Hitting a wall is our brain's way of saying, "STOP!!! There is no door in this wall for you to walk through. Go away and come back later after a big break."
The problem with this kind of major mental block is that a complete break is needed for the student to come back refreshed. One needs to find an environment or pastime that allows no thoughts about law school or law courses or law exams.
When I was in exam period or in bar studying and hit a wall, it did not help for me to sit in my apartment and read or watch a TV show. Those books and outlines were still over in the corner, worrying me. I was surprised that as a runner and swimmer that those pursuits also did not allow me a total break. I could still worry about law while I ran or swam.
So I chose two activities that meant I would completely relax, get away from the law, and let my brain recover for a couple of hours:
- Going to a movie theater. Once the lights went down, I would become absorbed in the movie and forget all about law school. Comedies were especially good for those laugh endorphins. Besides, I adore popcorn.
- Playing racquetball. That hard little blue ball really hurts if you do not stay focused on the game. Whacking that little ball also got rid of lots of frustration and stress.
Students need to consider what would absorb them to the point of total relaxation. One student told me recently that she would choose playing a difficult piece of music on the piano. Another student chose playing tennis. Another prior student was a woodworker and had to concentrate totally around circular saws.
Listen to your brain. When it is telling you that it cannot do any more, take that longer break. Let your brain recuperate from all the heavy lifting for a couple of hours. Then go back refreshed and begin again. The wall will have come tumbling down by then. (Amy Jarmon)
Sunday, April 30, 2017
Periodically I have discussions with law students about their struggles to cut back on or cut off entirely from the hold that social media has on their lives. They realize that they are spending inordinate amounts of time and damaging their productivity in law school. A post on Inside Higher Ed by a graduate student addresses this same issue and offers some insights on the difficulties and successes: Breaking Up With Social Media. (Amy Jarmon)
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).
Sunday, April 23, 2017
Multiple students this past week have told me about their symptoms of stress. We are nearing the end of classes and entry into exams at our law school. Here are some tips that may help students manage stress better:
- Put all exam dates/times, paper due dates, and other assignment due dates into a monthly planner so that you will not forget anything. If you are visual, use one of the whiteboard wall calendars at home. All those deadlines may look scary; but once you have nailed them down, you are ready to plan your priorities. You are gaining control!
- Decide what environment is most stress-free and productive for your study. If the law library makes you crazy because of others' stress or interruptions, do not study there. If you fall asleep on your bed or spend hours playing video games at home, do not study there. Consider new options: other academic buildings on campus, a coffeehouse or fast-food restaurant at non-busy hours, the business center at your apartment, a friend's house while the friend is at work.
- Avoid law students who want to moan and groan, complain about the work, make you feel insecure, etc. Their negative energy will drain you fast. Wish them good luck and walk away.
- Surround yourself with law students who are focused, productive, positive, and calm. Their can-do attitude and positive energy will help you stay focused, productive, and calm.
- Keep a running list for each course of any questions you have or areas of confusion. If a study aid or classmates cannot resolve the problem areas, take time each day to visit those professors to ask questions. You will be less anxious if you ask questions a few at a time, instead of storing them up for ten days.
- Mix up study activities to help you stay engaged. If you zone out and become passive, you are more likely to stress about what you just read but do not remember. You may want to switch courses every couple hours so you do not overdose on one subject. Or you may prefer to mix up tasks for the same course: outline review, discussion with a classmate, flashcards, more review, some practice questions, etc.
- Take planned breaks of 5-15 minutes every couple of hours. Your brain will keep filing information in the background while you take a walk outside, get a drink of water, etc.
- Listen to your body for clues: hungry, thirsty, cold, backache, etc. Take the 10 minutes to get a snack, walk to the water fountain, get your sweater out of the car, or complete a few stretches. If you ignore the signals, you will not be as focused because of the niggling distraction.
- Get enough sleep. Eat nutritious meals and exercise at least 150 minutes per week. Sounds counter-intuitive because you have too much to do in too little time? Your body and brain need rest and fuel to be productive in studying. Exercise is a great stress buster. You will need to have energy and focus when you walk into each exam.
- Ask someone to be your cheerleader until exams are over. It may be a spouse, friend, or parent. Each day spend 5 minutes on the phone or in person with that cheerleader giving you a pep talk.
- At the end of each day, write down 3 things you accomplished. Give yourself credit for those accomplishments.
- Think of two or three activities that you will do for fun after exams are over. Having some things to look forward to will help you stay motivated and positive.
You can do this! Just take it one minute, one hour, one day at a time. (Amy Jarmon)
Tuesday, April 18, 2017
What could this old nursery rhyme have to do with law school?
It reminds us to take one step at a time to accomplish a task.
Huh? Well, think about it this way . . . .
Most law students right now are madly juggling a long list of tasks for multiple projects. They are preparing for class each day. They are finishing assignments or papers. They are keeping up with outlines. They are reviewing for exams. They are completing practice questions. And, they are doing all of these things for multiple courses at the same time.
Many of them are feeling scattered and a bit frantic. They dart from task to task and feel exhausted at the end of the day. They are losing sleep, eating junk food, and feeling overwhelmed.
And, they lament that there is no time to get everything done.
So, just as in the nursery rhyme, it is time to get organized, have a plan, and take one step at a time. Here is an approach that helps many students get control of exam review:
- For each exam course, list all topics with their subtopics that will be on the final exam. (Warning: The list will be long because it is subtopics, but they can be completed more quickly than whole topics.)
- Focus on learning and understanding the subtopics. (You will want some later time for practice questions, but understanding has to come first.)
- If you already understand any subtopics well enough that you could walk into the exam on those, highlight them on the list to show completion.
- For the remaining subtopics that you have already covered in class, estimate how much time you need to understand that subtopic well enough to walk into the exam. (Estimates may be minutes or hours depending on the subtopic's difficulty.)
- Total your subtopic estimates for the material already covered in class for each course. (You will complete estimates for additional subtopics as they are covered later in class.)
- Now compare your estimate totals for each course. You might have 12 hours for one, 15 hours for another, 20 hours for a third, etc.
- Your totals help you see proportionately how much time you should devote to each course to learn what you have already covered in the course.
- Schedule blocks of time each week to complete exam review to make progress on your estimated totals.
- There will be some subtopics that need little time and can be slipped in between classes, while you wait for dinner to cook, etc.
- As you complete each subtopic, remember to highlight it as completed.
- All progress is forward progress. Whatever you can get completed before the end of classes means less to learn during exam period.
What if you have a paper to write? You can make a similar list for specific tasks within larger categories: tasks for research, writing, editing, citations, grammar and punctuation, format OR by tasks for paper sections if you prefer.
Step back from the jumble that you feel your life represents right now. Organize small steps within the larger units. Then take it step by step: one, two . . . . (Amy Jarmon)
Monday, April 17, 2017
Eleanor Roosevelt stated, "Remember, no one can make you feel inferior without your consent."
Now is the time in the semester when many law students compare themselves to others in their classes and become discouraged.
- Mary got the highest grade on the midterm, and I was below the median.
- Bill aced the trial brief assignment, and mine was covered in comments.
- Annie gave a brilliant answer in class, and I could not even formulate a basic answer.
- Phil was amazing at the oral argument, and I fumbled every question.
And so it goes.
Why do law students make themselves miserable by comparisons?
- They may still be stuck mentally in undergraduate grading where 100% was always the achievable grading standard.
- They may be for the first time in a group of students who are as intelligent as they are - awesome, but scary.
- They may be struggling with how much work is required in law school after years of higher grades for less effort.
- They may base their self-worth on what others think of them instead of doing the best they can do.
Here's the thing to remember. You are you. You can only control yourself. You can only do the best work possible today under today's circumstances.
If today did not produce the results you wanted after doing your best, then let it go. Get up tomorrow and start again. Tomorrow you can implement strategies to improve your academics. You may not yet be where you want to be, but you can improve each day. You can reach your personal best.
Are you unsure how to improve on what you are doing? Visit the academic support professional at your law school and ask for assistance. Talk with your faculty member for help with a confusing topic. Ask a trusted classmate to discuss a case or a practice question with you.
Let's face it: law school is a fish bowl. You spend all day swimming in the same confined space with the same school of fish. It is too easy to focus on how well others are swimming. And, if the fish bowl has a couple of fish doing high dives off the lip of the bowl, it can be intimidating.
But rather than compare yourself to the other fish, practice your own strokes. Find a swim coach. There is still time to see improvement. (Amy Jarmon)
Thursday, April 6, 2017
It's gone "viral." Apparently it's the most watched graduation speech...ever. That's great news for our world because the subject was about changing the world for the better. So, here's the kicker, according to graduation speaker Admiral William McRaven (now chancellor at the University of Texas), it starts in the morning.
That' right. Start in the morning...with making your bed. You see, according to McRaven, it's the little things that matter because the little things add up to bigger things, and the bigger things add up to big things, and the big things, well, add up to great things (at least that's my paraphrase of his speech). So, when you make your bed in the morning, you've already taken one mighty little step to taking charge over the issues that you are about to confront that day. In short, even before you've reached school, you've demonstrated a success. And, success begets success.
That's particularly important in the study (and in the practice) of law. I heard a speaker today say that the issue with lawyers is that lawyers overthink. That made me think, of course, because I am a lawyer. I overthink everything. And, in my overthinking, I tend not to get moving because I don't know where to start. So, instead of concrete positive action in trying to change the world, I'm often stalled in my thoughts, which leads to worry. In short, I'm stymied, perplexed, and overstressed. But, it doesn't have to be that way, according to Adm. McRaven. If I just start each day with tackling a simple problem, I'll see progress. And, as I start to make progress, I start to feel more confident, to believe in myself, in tackling even more problems on the way to changing the world.
Let's bring this back to the classroom. In the study of law, we are so often afraid to "make our bed." What do I mean by that? Well, we spend way too much time overthinking the cases in our reading for classes that we never start using the cases to practice solving legal problems. We stay in bed. We hide under the covers. We don't move into the morning by working through hypotheticals, testing ourselves, seeing if we can figure out how to solve legal problems.
So, here's my suggestion:
Just start working on the little problems, the short hypotheticals. It doesn't have to be big gnarly essay questions. In fact, start small. But, start. Grab pen and paper along with your notes and take a stab at solving a practice problem. That will lead to solving bigger practice problems, which will increase your confidence to solve even more difficult problems. And then, before you know it, you'll be witnessing your own graduation...as a brand new problem-solving lawyer...and well-prepared to change the world for the better too! (Scott Johns)
P.S. Here's a video clip from part of the University of Texas speech: Step 1: If You Want to Change the World...
Tuesday, March 14, 2017
The Inside Higher Ed daily news update last week had a post that I thought might interest our readers: Trigger Warning: Academic Standards Apply. The author looks at the therapeutic and consumer models of higher education in response to a student's comment that academic standards cause stress and anxiety for students. The post resonated with me not only because of my observations about student perspectives on work, but also because of the observations made by Alex Ruskell, one of our Contributing Editors, in his post on March 3rd: Work Is a Four-Letter Word. (Amy Jarmon)
Thursday, March 9, 2017
It's the middle of the academic semester for most of us.
That often means midterm exams or filling out bar exam applications or working on that summer job hunt. In the midst of so much to do with so much competition for achieving success, it's easy to feel out of place. To be overwhelmed. To sense that I don't really belong in law school or that I can't succeed.
When that sort of self-doubt starts in, it's time to step back and gain perspective about who you are, your strengths, your character, and your purpose. You see, too often I am comparing myself against the wrong benchmark (others!), and, in doing so, I'm trying to be someone who I am not. And, that's mighty stressful because it is awful hard (i.e., impossible) to be someone else! So, instead of trying to measure success based on what others are doing, step back and get some perspective about who you are.
Not quite sure about how to get some perspective?
Well, there's a great video clip that illustrates the point quite well. It involves a boy struggling to hit a baseball. When it seems that all is lost, that he just can't manage to connect the baseball bat to the ball, he takes a pause...and...in that moment of pause...he realizes something brilliantly radiant about what he is good at. So, if you happen to feel like you are not quite hitting the mark in law school, take a moment to enjoy this short video clip. I promise, it will warm your heart and bring a smile to your face. And, in the process of taking a pause, you'll be reminded of a great truth -- that success is a matter of perspective (and not at all a matter of competition). http://www.values.com/optimism
Tuesday, March 7, 2017
We have passed the midpoint in classes now at my law school. This coming week is our Spring Break. A number of students have told me that they have paper drafts, midterms, presentations, or other projects due the week after Spring Break. Now that we are on the downward slope of the semester, more and more students are looking stressed.
I live in West Texas. It is a semi-arid, agricultural area - noticeable once you get beyond the city limits with all the non-indigenous trees and green lawns. When the cotton is not planted and covering the fields, the South Plains can look pretty stark. Flying over this region now will confront you with almost a lunar landscape effect: irrigation circles in the unplanted fields, a land-grant grid, canyons, and scrawny mesquite trees and brush.
And March winds. Lots and lots of winds. And dust blown up by those winds on some days. And enormous tumbleweeds blocking my driveway (my garage off a paved alley skirts a mesquite pasture).
And today, smoke from the wildfires approximately two hours to our north. I live on the southwest edge of town. When I left for work, the smell of smoke was slight in my house, but hit me as soon as I opened the garage door. The sky was an odd gray; the sun was orange behind the smoke. As I drove into campus (a 15-minute drive northeast), the smell of smoke became much stronger. The sun was now a strange yellow with blurred edges.
My thoughts turned to the folks farther north. To the first responders fighting the wildfires. To the farmers and cattlemen concerned about their land and herds. To the small towns that are potentially in the way if the winds kick up more and shift the wrong way.
In short, the stress and anxiety of law school are manageable in light of what could be happening in our lives. It is often hard in the fish-bowl environment of law school to remember the cares of the world outside our doors - our very insular academic world.
I hope my students regained their perspectives today. There are stress situations that are unpredictable and life-threatening. Law school stress may be self-imposed and can often be successfully managed with scheduling, curbing procrastination, and seeking help from many resources. Law school is tough. But life can be tougher. (Amy Jarmon)
Thursday, February 23, 2017
It’s a great time for you - as this week’s bar takers - to reflect, appreciate, and take pride in your herculean work in accomplishing law school and tackling the bar exam.
Let's be direct! Bravo! Magnificent! Heroic! 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.
Really? Not that hard?
Really? You know that I passed?
Really? 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 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 suggestion 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, February 16, 2017
As you make your final tune-ups in preparation for your bar exam next week, remember, anxiety is normal. So, please don't fret the "butterflies."
But, as I can attest due to my own exam stress, that is "easier said that done." So, let me offer a technique or two that I use when dealing with a question that I can't seem to figure out how to even begin to answer.
First, I don't try to get a perfect answer. Rather, I treat each exam question as an opportunity to demonstrate my ability to solve legal problems. In other words, I remind myself that I don't have to be right or correct to pass the bar exam; rather, I just have to demonstrate legal problem-solving abilities, something that we have all worked for several months to cultivate in our bar preparation work.
Second, no matter how difficult the exam, I focus on maintaining a winning positive attitude...by realizing that all of the test-takers are facing the same challenges (and therefore the same stresses). That's right. If the problem seems difficult for you (and me), it is difficult for all of us!
Third, I use a simple "3-step plan" to give me a friendly "push-start" to get my mind around how to solve a problem. So, here are the steps, steps that you might try yourself when you find yourself a bit perplexed on how to begin answering a problem:
1. Grab hold of the call of the question and re-write it as an issue statement (e.g., The issue is whether the contract between Pratt and Delta is valid.).
2. Add material facts to your issue statement (e.g., The issue is whether the contract between Pratt and Delta is valid when the defendant failed to sign the contract.).
3. Now, you are ready to organize an answer...because you see (identified the trigger facts) that constitute the big issue (i.e., a statute of frauds problem here).
Let me offer one more "stress-busting" exam tip that you might incorporate in the midst of your bar exam.
That's right. Don't spend all of your time - for hours on end - hunched over your bar exam questions.
INSTEAD, GET SOME FRESH AIR!
LEAN BACK IN YOUR CHAIR...AND BREATHE!
It's amazing but just leaning back in your chair, as the commander of your own "bar-ship" as you read and navigate your way through exam questions, can make a whale of a difference because the action of leaning back brings valuable oxygen to your body...to empower your mind...to do the work that is before you. And, if you really want to take it to the next level, while you are "leaning back," why not just put your hands behind your head to form a "soft pillow" of comfort and confidence. You can picture the move. Just visualizing the move might bring a smile to your face. And, that smile is a bit of relaxation in the midst of taking your bar exam. So, nicely done! (Scott Johns).
Thursday, February 9, 2017
I just came out of a great conference. However, it wasn't a great conference because it made me feeling better. In fact, I left the event realizing how far I often fall short of the mark as a teacher. But, it was great...in the sense that I learned (or perhaps re-learned) some key principles...that I can bank on in trying to BECOME a better teacher.
So, let me cut to the chase. Based on the principles shared by conference leader Dr. Maryellen Weimer, Professor Emeritus at Penn State University, I started to think that I might be trying too hard to teach my students. That's right. I might be trying so much to help my students learn that I leave very little for them to do, which is to say, that I leave them no room for learning.
You see, according to Dr. Weimer, I can't actually "learn anything for my students." Rather it's my students that are the learners. And, to be frank, learning is just plain hard work. It's messy. Its discomforting. It's even downright excruciating sometimes. But, I often don't want my students to feel that sort of uncomfortable frustration that is required to generate real learning. Or, as Dr. Weimer put it, "we are often doing a lot of the hard messy work of our students" by making decisions for them, which, if true, means that our students are not truly learning. In short, we are just teaching them to be dependent on us rather than coaching them to succeed as independent learners, to put it in my own words.
So, my sense is that my students need less of me as a teacher and more of me as a coach. They need me to step out of the limelight, to give them fresh air to try, to let them work hard and ponder mightily as they grapple with the course materials. That's because learning is personal. It therefore requires lots of practice. It requires deep engagement in the materials. It requires sometimes (or even often) failing.
But, as Dr. Weimer pointed out, my students often do not see me fail. Instead, they often see me demonstrating how to succeed (i.e. teaching!). But, I didn't learn the materials through success. Rather, I learned the materials through lots of rough 'n tumble practice (and that means through lots of trials, errors, and downright embarrassing mistakes).
So, Dr. Weimer encouraged me (us) to open up with our students, to admit our mistakes, to let our students have empowered agency to personally engage with the materials. In short, it's time for me to teach from the sidelines, and, that means that I am not "making the big plays for my students." Instead, I am their coach on the sidelines and they are the players moving the ball downfield as learners. That's a game that I am excited about watching. Oh, and by the way, taking Dr. Weimer's words to heart, I admitted to my students just today that I have made lots and lots of mistakes on the path to learning how to become a lawyer, and it was through walking through those experiences that I truly learned. (Scott Johns).
Wednesday, January 18, 2017
At various points in a given semester, students find themselves unmotivated for a number of reasons. Some of those reasons include managing financial pressures, dealing with academic challenges, feeling lonely, suffering from stress, and experiencing racism, sexism or some other “ism.” There are several articles and other sources that address intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and how to engage students. However, I am always seeking innovative ways to encourage and support students.
Monday marked the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2017, an American federal holiday marking the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. Most institutions of higher education commemorate this day with a variety of activities. Institutions have a variety of programs which include breakfasts, lunches, dinners, artistic expressions, marches, community service, and speeches. Students attend the various programs but for others this is simply a day off and an opportunity to either rest or get ahead academically.
This year, I am an advisor to a student group and based on my interactions with this group of students, it was imperative for me to find different ways to re-motivate these students. Martin Luther King Jr. Day was a great opportunity to encourage them by drawing examples from his life and encouraging students to partake in at least one activity. For students, there are a number of qualities and values they can draw from his life as a leader in the Civil Rights Movement, an activist, a well-educated and accomplished man of color, his commitment to society, his ability to stay true to his convictions, and the ease with which he communicated, encouraged, and rallied those around him. Reflecting on all that he was able to accomplish with the challenges of his time, we should all be courageous in the face of adversity and preserve our hopes, dreams and aspirations. (Goldie Pritchard)
Thursday, December 22, 2016
Wow. At long last, final exams are over...sort of.
For most of us, we have a very difficult time with uncertainty in general, which is particularly exasperating as we wait - sometimes for weeks - for our grades to arrive.
So, despite the festive times of this month, we often find ourselves unable to relax, to enjoy the season, and to simply wind down and rest.
Nevertheless, there's a simple way - in just a flash of a moment - to help break free from the many stresses and strains of the past few weeks of final exams. Why not try out, today, the "smile loop?" It sounds, sort of, fun, doesn't it? So, here's the scoop (and the science too):
You see, according to an excellent article in the Wall Street Journal by Elizabeth Bernstein:
"Smiling produces neural messaging in your brain that makes you happier. Some studies have shown that when we smile our facial muscles contract, which slightly distorts the shape of the thin facial bones. This leads to an increase in blood flow into the frontal lobes of the brain and the release of the feel-good chemical dopamine. And, when we smile at someone, that person tends to smile back. So, we've created a feel-good loop." http://www.wsj.com/articles/how-to-fall-back-in-love
For those of you that are not scientists (that's me!), the short scoop is that smiling brightens not just our days but the days of those around us. And, it sure seems to me that smiling at another person gets us on the right track to thinking about others rather than worrying about the past few weeks of final exams (with its lingering wait for grades).
I had the chance to put smiling to the test in very unforgiving circumstances over the course of the past few weeks as a volunteer attorney. There's a little Greek island just a few short miles off the Turkish coast. Because of its locale so close to Turkey, thousands of people have been fleeing on small inflatable boats across the Aegean Sea to escape persecution, calamity, and in some cases war in their native countries - from Syria to Iran to Iraq to Afghanistan to South Sudan - with the hope of receiving refugee in the European Union. I talked with a man, his wife and his adorable small children that risked it all traveling by land from Afghanistan through Iran and Turkey only to be finally living for months in a small UNHCR tent in a refugee camp on the island of Chios.
Despite the lack of resources and the uncertainty of still waiting - for months on end - to receive as of yet an asylum hearing, he smiled. And, then his children smiled. Why, his whole family smiled. In the cold of the wind swept coast of this little island refugee camp, we all smiled...together. He and his family may not have had much to give but they gave something immeasurably priceless...they shared smiles with me.
Let me say, this was not unique. As I walked through the refugee camp with a number of refugee-seekers, even though we often didn't speak the same language, we were able to communicate in ways that are often richer than words. Over and over, refugees would just come up to me with big generous smiles and warm handshakes of greetings. Memorably, a small Syrian boy grabbed my hand one day by the lunch tent as a group of young people were dancing, asking me to join in the footsteps and singing.
You see, smiles are not just a trick to make your life better or happier. No, no at all! Rather, smiles are the sweetness of life itself in helping us to make the world a little better for others. So, as you wait for final exam grades to come in, be of good courage and share smiles with those around you. Who knows? That brief smile might get you up and dancing!
Wednesday, December 21, 2016
As my students wrap up the semester and head home, they are filled with excitement. Students recognize that they survived the semester although at various points and particularly during the exam period they viewed this feat as impossible. Smiles on their faces and relief felt from completing exams provide glimmers into their true selves which were previously masked by stress and the rigors of law school. Some students are not quite excited because they are filled with concern about the results of their efforts, grades, and the desire to go through a complete postmortem of their preparation and exams. My job is to calm concern, remind students that they have no control over the results that are now in the hands of their professors and stressing about the results changes nothing about how quickly they will receive the results and what the result will be. I say to them with enthusiasm: “All you can do now is enjoy your break!”
Here are my two recommendations to students for the holiday season:
(1) Take a break
Catch up on sleep and enjoy family and friends, if possible. Catching up on sleep is imperative. You probably abused your body and sacrificed sleep as you prepared for exams. Please give yourself a few days to catch up on sleep and to simply be lazy. This is the best time for that. Here is a good resource for an 8 hour deep sleep music or peaceful music for relaxation and meditation: Sleep, Meditation, and Relaxation Music
(2) Plan for next semester
Plan for when you will start the gradual transition to reading and preparing for next semester’s classes so you are not overwhelmed. Set a date and time when you will complete specific tasks. If you are a 3L, this may be the ideal time to plan for your bar application and bar review process. This may also be the time, while at home, to assemble all of the necessary documentation you might need as you prepare to apply for the bar exam, if you have not already. (Goldie Pritchard)
Tuesday, November 29, 2016
As exams and paper deadlines approach, it is easy to procrastinate. Here are some clues that you are not using your time wisely and missing out on oomph in your studies:
- You have alphabetized your casebooks and study aids on your bookshelf, sharpened three dozen pencils, hole-punched two hundred documents for pretty color-coded binders, made 1000 tabs for your code book, and straightened the drawers of your desk - but you have not actually studied yet.
- Your apartment is spotless after you have done spring cleaning (after all you did not do it in April): scrubbed all baseboards, dusted every nook and cranny, washed all drapes and throws, polished the wood floors, shampooed the carpets, cleaned out closets, and polished the porcelain surfaces to a gleaming finish.
- You have focused on Christmas shopping (Black Friday and Cyber Monday were just a start) and scoured every store for presents for family, friends, family pets, friends' pets, neighbors, neighbors' pets, distant relatives, the mailman, the cute barista at Starbucks, etc.
- You have decided to decorate and ready your apartment for the holidays: put up your tree, hung the wreaths, strung the outdoor lights, made popcorn or construction paper chains to festoon your evergreen, baked cookies, hung stockings with care by the chimney, and wrapped endless packages in perfectly coordinated ribbons and paper.
- You paint the living room, dining room, bedrooms, and kitchen, then redo the kitchen backsplash with an intricate mosaic that takes hours to finish, replace all countertops and the sink (you always wanted one of those farmhouse models), and decide to go shopping for new stainless steel appliances for the perfect look.
- You write actual letters to every high school and college friend you every had (after all what says happy holidays like a handwritten missive), talk for hours on the telephone with every relative, review the 2000 emails in your inbox to see what might need deleting, and read every piece of junk mail that lands in your real-world mailbox.
- You set a goal to study right after you watch every episode for all seasons of Downton Abbey or become world champion on your favorite gaming indulgence whether that is Pokémon Go, solitaire, or the latest really cool video game.
Do you think I am kidding? All of these scenarios reflect procrastinating law students I have known with very little exaggeration in the details. (Amy Jarmon)
Thursday, November 10, 2016
According to research referenced by columnist Elizabeth Bernstein, vulnerability can be a great thing. Although being vulnerable is often seen as a sign of weakness, something to be avoided at all costs, it can actually operate to produce wonderful things in our lives. As case in point, Ms. Bernstein paraphrases Dr. Hal Shorey, a psychologist, as stating:"Vulnerability can also humanize you, facilitate learning, and enable optimal problem solving." In short, real learning requires us to be vulnerable. But, what is vulnerability? "Psychologists and social scientists define vulnerability as the courage to show up and be seen and heard when you can’t control the outcome." http://www.wsj.com/articles/you-took-an-emotional-risk-now-what-1478536377
Ouch! That's how I felt throughout most of law school…out of control...but not at all courageous. And, as I'll explain below, that's because I spent most of my time preparing for exams by creating giant study tools rather than practicing exam scenarios. But, I'm getting ahead of myself here...
Stepping back, how does the courage to be vulnerable relate to law school learning?
Let me give a suggestion. The "safe" thing to do to prepare for law school exams is to do what everyone else is doing: grab your lecture notes, get hold of your case briefs, and create massive gargantuan outlines of all of your subjects…and...if you still have any time left before exams, read through a few old final exams to get a sense of the subject. But, if you are like me, when I read through exams (or even just outline a few old exams), I sort of convince myself that I understand it, that I could write it, that I actually know what I am doing. And, here's the rub. That's not learning but rather just presuming that I know how to answer final exam questions. So, here's the key.
Rather than spending the bulk of your time over the course of the next several weeks or so creating massive outlines, reorient your time so that most of your final exam preparation efforts are focused on what you are actually going to be tested on in your final exams, namely, solving legal problems. That means that you should be reading, conversing, debating, outlining, writing, re-thinking, and re-writing old practice exams. It will be hard. It will not feel good. It will not feel safe. In fact, you'll probably feel like you don't know enough to start practicing exam problems. But, if you wait until you think that you know enough to start practicing for your final exams, you will run out of time to practice final exams. And, because you are not tested on creating great study tools but rather solving final exam problems, it will be both too little and too late to do much good if you just create study tools. So, be brave by being vulnerability. Grab hold of some old final exams from your professor. Take a stab at them. Try writing out answers. Input what you learn into a study tool. Then go see your professor for feedback. It will be hard to ask for help, to show your work to your professor. That's because it requires you to accept that learning requires vulnerability. But, you'll be might glad that you did.
Finally, in case your professor or your law school doesn't have old final exams readily available, do not give up…at all. Instead, there are lots of free resources through your Academic Support Professionals, your Dean of Students, and even on the internet. As a suggestion, here's a website that consolidates old bar exam essays, point sheets, and answer guides for a whole host of subjects to include Criminal Law, Torts, Contracts & Sales, Property Law, Constitutional Law, Evidence, Criminal Procedure, all arranged by date of the exam and…here's some great news…by subject matter too! Old Bar Exam Essays By Subject Matter So have at it by opening yourself up to focusing your final exam preparations on practicing lots of exam problems intermixed with creating your study tools. (Scott Johns).