Wednesday, November 5, 2014
Address the Stress with Mindfulness
Lawyers have a higher rate of depression, anxiety, substance-abuse, and suicide than the rest of the population. The practice of law can be stressful but aren’t most jobs? Why are lawyers having so much trouble dealing with stress? Stress is a mental (and sometimes physical) reaction to a perceived threat or change. In law school, stress manifests early in the 1L year: our past perfection drives our desire to do well and it joins forces with the realization that everyone else is striving for the same level of success. It then crashes into the curved grade system which means that no matter how hard you work, your grade ultimately depends on how well others do. Regardless of the grade, the uncertainty and lack of control lingers throughout your law school career. Then you enter the practice of law and these feelings collide with the emotional intensity of dealing with clients’ problems day after day and working with other lawyers who are often adversarial. It’s a recipe for anxiety, depression, and substance-abuse.
The reality is, life itself is a constant flow of change so we will always have stress. However, stress is not so much the event itself but our perception and reaction to that event. There will always be deadlines and performance expectations. We can’t change that but we can change the way we perceive stress.
Oftentimes, we react to negative situations without thinking. Instead of intentionally focusing on the present moment, we immediately judge it as good/bad, right/wrong, fair/unfair. This habit is not necessarily a positive one because it is reacting without thinking. It leads to stress, anxiety, depression. Instead, we need to develop a new habit: mindfulness. Mindfulness is a powerful tool for addressing emotional challenges because it helps develop meta-cognition, focuses attention, and strengthens the ability to make deliberate choices. Mindfulness addresses the stress. It allows us to be in control of our own mind instead of our mind controlling us. In practicing mindfulness we learn to become aware of our thoughts, emotions, feelings, and behavior so we can interrupt stress cycles before they take over.
Janice Marturano, author of Finding the Space to Lead, and Executive Director of the Institute for Mindful Leadership recommends something called the Purposeful Pause. The Purposeful Pause is more than just stopping. It is about redirecting and focusing attention so you can make conscious choices. Try incorporating one of these Purposeful Pauses into your day:
- Choose to start your day rather than letting the day start you. Start the day by just breathing and before getting out of bed, take a few seconds to notice the sensations of your breathing.
- Use transitions wisely. Pick a day to drive to (or from) work/school without the radio or phone. When you arrive, allow yourself a few moments to sit in the car, noticing the breath.
- Just walk between meetings/classes. No emails, texts, or social media. Think about each step you take and the possibility of greeting colleagues you pass rather than bumping into them while you text!
Mindfulness is an opportunity to create new, healthy habits. Let’s make the intentional choice to be mindful and let’s change those statistics.
Wednesday, September 10, 2014
It’s still early in the semester so you might be wondering why I’m writing about motivation. The reason is simple: it’s easier to maintain something than to lose it and get it back.
A few years ago I was in the best shape of my life. I worked out regularly, ate a healthy balanced diet, and even ran a half marathon. I felt great. Then I moved to a new job in a new city and I used that as an excuse to push exercise and healthy eating to the side. Fast forward several months: my clothes were tight and walking from my car to the office was the most exercise I got. I did not feel great. I came up with a plan to get back in shape and went to the gym for the first time in a long time. It was awful. I was out of breath within minutes, moved slower than molasses, and the next day could barely move. It was ugly but I kept going until I got myself to a healthier place. I liked how I felt and decided it was a lot better to maintain than to have to start all over again. When I catch myself being lazy, I just think of that first day back at the gym and get moving. Even if it’s just something small like taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or eating only half a bag of chips, I feel better because I know I’m still moving forward.
I share this story because we’ve all been there and it’s something we can all relate to. The same holds true for motivation in law school. You start the semester off excited and ready to go but somewhere along the way you realize you’ve lost some of that drive. Instead of waiting until that happens, here are some tips on how to maintain your motivation throughout the semester:
Know there will be setbacks- you know you’ll have a bad day (or week) but don’t let it sidetrack you. Being prepared for a setback makes it easier to overcome.
Believe in yourself- if you don’t think you can succeed, then why would anyone else? Make a list of your strengths and focus on what you can do instead of what you can’t.
Be realistic- Setting a standard that is impossible to meet guarantees failure. Instead, set small goals that allow you see your achievements along the way.
Challenge yourself- be realistic but not complacent. Don’t be afraid to make a mistake or step out of your comfort zone. It is easy to fall into old habits unless you challenge yourself in new and different ways.
Have a support system- Whether its friends, family, professors, classmates, there are people who sincerely want you to succeed and you will need them when your motivation falters. They will give you that little boost and keep you going.
Take advantage of the opportunities this new semester presents. Maintain your motivation so you have to work extra hard to get it back.
Thursday, August 28, 2014
The summer was a whirlwind. Prepping students for the bar exam means that you are constantly on call and required to be positive and upbeat even when you are not necessarily feeling that way. It is truly exhausting. I learned that while I am generally a positive and energetic person, I too need down time. After the bar was wrapped up and I organized the tornado of papers that took over my office, I took a break and unplugged.
We often read about how media is overtaking our lives and that we should encourage our students and children to unplug and go outside. I am often the one preaching such advice. It was not until I made a conscious choice to unplug and schedule my out of office email reply message that I realized I too have been swallowed by the digital age.
Thus, for most of one week, I did not check email, social media, or my cell phone. It was so liberating…once I got used to it. I learned that I spend a lot of time plugged in, which can be distracting and time consuming. This semester, I encourage everyone to carve out time weekly, or even daily, where you schedule time to unplug. We need to practice what we preach and we need to be more mindful of how we use our time. So, as you are gearing up for the semester and planning your calendar, think about including a block of time where you move away from technology, unplug, and learn something new about yourself.
Lisa Bove Young
Saturday, August 16, 2014
As the beginning of another school year approaches, I have been thinking about how a law student's success is so closely tied to the attitudes of the student. Here are some of my thoughts after observing law students through working in ASP and teaching elective courses.
Attitudes for success:
- Confidence in one's ability to adapt and learn is positive. It is a new educational frontier when 1Ls arrive. With flexibility and willingness to learn, most 1Ls will gain the new strategies for legal education success.
- Openness to constructive criticism coupled with hard work will turn around many of the typical 1L errors in critical analysis and writing (whether exam answer or memorandum).
- Willingness to seek help in a proactive way will overcome many obstacles. Students who use resources in a timely manner can ameliorate problems before they become intractable - whether the help is from professors, librarians, academic success professionals, deans, or other resources.
- Respect for others at all levels within the law school community will engender respectful treatment in return. Much of the tension and competitiveness of law school can be lessened when everyone in the environment remains respectful. Faculty, administrators, staff, and students are all integral to that environment being present.
- Kindness improves one's outlook about law school and engenders helpfulness rather than hostility. A student who values collegiality will lend notes to an ill classmate, explain a concept to a struggling student, and share a kind word with a classmate faced with a crisis.
- Passion for a desired professional goal will often provide motivation when the going gets tough. Examples are: I volunteered with abused children and want to represent children in need of protection. I want to be part of helping families immigrating to the U.S. As a former park ranger, I want to practice environmental law.
Attitudes detrimental to success:
- Arrogance about one's superiority in comparison to others skews reality. 1Ls who arrive resting on their laurels and smug about how special they are often figure out the differences in law school too late in the semester to achieve their academic potential.
- Refusal to take responsibility for one's learning and understanding will lead to lower grades. Students who earn grades below their academic potential are often focused on what the professor, writing specialist, academic success professional, or [fill in the blank] should have done for them. They avoid recognizing and correcting the things they chose not to do to help themselves.
- Perfectionism creates unrealistic expectations that lead to exhaustion. Students who desire to be perfect will be overwhelmed by the amount of work. They often have trouble starting or finishing tasks in a timely manner because of their standards.
- Expected mediocrity can result from self-defeating comparisons to other law students. Students who begin to view themselves as not as good as others will often settle for lower grades. Examples are: I guess I am just a C student. Everyone else is so much smarter than I am. I'll never get an A grade.
- Immaturity leads to lack of effort and frivolous time management that result in bad grades. These students overlook that law school is a professional school and stay stuck in undergraduate behaviors. Playing every evening and weekend, drinking oneself into a stupor, and focusing on socializing lead to poor academic decisions.
- Apathy can result when law school has no personal meaning to the student. Examples are: I came to law school because I did not know what else to do. All males in my family have been attorneys for the last five generations - it was expected that I be a lawyer.
Attitudes color students' ability to adapt to law school, to handle the stress, to seek help, and to reach their full academic potential. Positive attitudes need to be nurtured. Negative attitudes need to be addressed to minimize harmful results. Attitudes will affect whether students just survive or thrive. (Amy Jarmon)
Tuesday, July 29, 2014
The first week of August hangs at the very top of the summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning. The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn, but the first week of August is motionless, and hot. It is curiously silent, too, with blank white dawns and glaring noons, and sunsets smeared with too much color. Often at night there is lightning, but it quivers all alone. There is no thunder, no relieving rain. These are strange and breathless days, the dog days, when people are led to do things they are sure to be sorry for after.” ― Natalie Babbitt
To those that have just finished taking the bar exam, I hope you enjoy your first week of summer- the first week of August. I hope that you find your version of a Ferris wheel and pause to enjoy the great summer days. Whether it’s catching up with friends, reading non-law related books, fishing, swimming, lounging by the pool or on the beach. Whatever it may be, I hope you enjoy because you have earned it. You have earned the right to lazy around, sleep endlessly, drink a great bottle of wine, or just play with your dog or cat. Again, whatever it may be, enjoy!. Summer awaits you. It may be the last time where you will have endless time to do whatever you want, which may entail nothing at all. So, enjoy.
For those of you starting law school in the fall, you are at the beginning of this journey. However, the same applies to you. Enjoy all the fun, beauty and richness that is August. (LMV)
Tuesday, May 13, 2014
I find that a lot of students have motivation and tiredness problems during the second week of exams. They are almost done, but their energy is flagging. Here are some tips for making the last week of exams less stressful:
It is not unusual to feel your motivation slipping if you have already had several exams or turned in several papers. Try some of the following if you are feeling unmotivated:
- Break large tasks down into smaller pieces that can be focused on one step at a time. Getting started is the hard part usually. Examples would be:
- It is easier to get motivated to study one sub-topic in your outline than to study the entire topic.
- It is easier to agree to do 5 multiple-choice questions than to complete 15 of them.
- It is easier to spend 10 minutes on flashcards than 30 minutes.
- It is easier to decide to write 1 page of a paper than to complete it in one go.
- Give yourself rewards for staying on task. Each person has different rewards that appeal; find the ones that work for you.
- For a small task, take a 10-minute break or get a cup of tea or walk around the law school a few times.
- For a medium-sized task, take a 30-minute break or make a phone call to a friend or get a snack.
- For a large task, take 1-2 hours off or read several chapters in a fluff novel or watch a movie.
It is not unusual to be getting tired if you have already had several exams. Try some of the following if that is how you feel:
- Take short breaks every 60 - 90 minutes if you are having trouble staying focused.
- Eat breakfast to give your body fuel in the morning; even a piece of fruit, yoghurt, or toast can make a difference.
- Take time for a healthy lunch so that you can refuel; try to avoid junk food if you can.
- Carry some healthy energy snacks in your backpack to boost your energy when it drops in the afternoon: apples, nuts, small boxes of raisins, granola bars.
- If you nap, make it for ½ hour or less; long naps tend to make you groggy and disrupt your sleep cycle when you go to bed at night.
- Get 8 hours of sleep per night to recharge your batteries for this week.
Feeling stressed or sluggish? Add exercise back into your week if you have let your usual routine slip. Exercise is one of the best ways to defuse stress, raise your sagging spirits, and sleep better at night. Even 30 minutes will help you feel more energized and calm.
Lift your spirits by looking ahead. Plan two or three fun things for after exams are over. If you have some things to look forward to, it is easier to grit your teeth and get on with what you have to do right now.
Get a pep talk to keep yourself going. Phone your friends or family for encouragement. Talk to someone who believes in you. Shamelessly ask for affirmation! (Amy Jarmon)
Tuesday, April 22, 2014
Right before exams, I usually try to have a Academic Success Workshop devoted to stress reduction. The most useful and popular thing that we have done is to lead the students in a stress reduction meditation from The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook by Martha Davis. We fed them pizza, gave them goodie bags of tissues and toys, and then took about 40 minutes to go through it.
When putting together Workshops, my usual tendency is to worry about providing enough content and good advice, but I think 40 minutes of forced calming down was probably the best thing we could do.
Sunday, April 20, 2014
Some law students have ill-conceived notions about their priorities for studying and how those priorities interface with basic life needs. They decide that the way to get better grades is to either skimp on/skip or go overboard on meals, exercise, and sleep. Unfortunately, any of these choices is a sure way to jeopardize their grades.
I had a law school friend who survived mainly on Dr. Pepper and Snickers. He lost lots of weight since that diet was his staple one. He also spent little food prep time (the vending machines just wanted a few minutes for their coins to be dropped in). However, he also had little sustained energy because of sugar high and crash cycles; he was sick every time a bug circulated; he was lethargic most of the time.
Several law students I know have decided over the last few years to imbibe energy drinks at high levels to stay awake and have ended up in the emergency room with heart palpitations or panic attacks. They lost more time (not to mention the stress and anxiety they had) than they gained.
My first semester in law school I foolishly stayed up until the wee hours of the morning studying and then overslept an exam. My law school allowed me to take the exam and have the full time, but my grade was automatically dropped two levels as the penalty.
I know a bar studier who spent hours each day exercising only to fail the bar - but his abs were in great shape. One law student spent so much time each day training for marathons that he flunked out of law school his third year. I know lots of law students who spend 2-3 hours in the gym per day because "exercise is important to me."
Both the skimpers/skippers and the overdoers have the wrong idea. Nutritious meals, 7-8 hours of sleep, and 150 minutes of exercise per week are all essential to a balanced and healthy life - and to better grades. Your brain and body need fuel: meals and sleep. They also need stress release and proper sleep inducement: exercise does both.
Meals with a healthy balance of the food groups are essential to your body and brain. Eat lean meat (or other protein foods) and lots of fruit and vegetables. Add whole grains and dairy (or substitutes if you are gluten or lactose intolerant). Drink lots of water to stay hydrated. Have regular meal times so that you do not starve your body and then overeat. Avoid excessive amounts of sugar and caffeine.
Sleep allows your brain and body to work at optimal levels. Your brain absorbs more information quickly and retains it better. You get more done in less time because you are focused. You are alert in the exams rather than foggy.
The medical research shows you need 7 - 8 hours every night to avoid becoming chronically sleep depraved. A regular bedtime and wake up time mean even more benefits for you. And do not vary your sleep schedule more than 2 hours on the weekend; you will lose the benefits of your weekly routine if you do so.
Get some exercise. You will feel more energized. Your stress level will be lower. You will sleep better. Thirty minutes five times a week works! It can be a walk - you don't have to be a super athlete to get the benefits.
Here are some tips to work these healthy habits into your life even during this crunch time of the semester:
- Adjust your sleep schedule in increments if it is totally off schedule. For example, you decide that 11 p.m. bedtime and 7 a.m. wake up are your goals. Adjust your bedtime over several nights by 15 minutes to get closer to your goal. Then spend several nights getting to bed 15 minutes earlier than that. Continue the adjustments until you get to 11 p.m. Stay on your bedtime goal for 2-3 weeks consistently - your eyes will pop open 5 minutes before the alarm goes off once your body has its new routine.
- Make time for healthy meals in your schedule. You will relax more and help your digestion if you sit down for your meal and eat slowly - no standing at the kitchen counter and gulping it down please. To shorten your food preparation each day, make large quantities of food on the weekend that can be portioned out over the week. Buy healthy prepared foods at the grocery store to use all week rather than depend on fast food or the vending machines.
- Combine an exercise and meal break for perhaps 2 hours at dinner time. First get your exercise and then take time for your meal. A longer break at this time of day generally helps to re-energize students for evening study.
- Be on the alert for when you are using sleep, meals, or exercise as avoidance behavior rather than healthy behavior. If you get a regular sleep schedule, naps should become unnecessary. Watch out for sleeping until noon on the weekends. Remind yourself that gym time 7 days a week for 2 hours is not supported by the research. Encourage yourself to complete meal planning for the week ahead of time to avoid having to cook for an hour every night.
Use your sleep, meals, and exercise to promote your study. You can still get lots of studying in while taking care of yourself. (Amy Jarmon)
Monday, April 14, 2014
The drama! The tears! The gnashing of teeth! Just another day at law school where students are reacting to the latest round of mid-term grades, a last-minute change in a course syllabus, newly scheduled make-up classes, or switched sides for the legal practice appellate brief. Some law students are beside themselves at the very audacity of it all.
Add to those dramas: gossip about the latest student fashion faux pas, catty remarks about a student's in-class response to a professor's question, whispered speculation about professors' lives, and wild rumors about the job market. Mix it all together and what do you get? Law school's version of Reality TV.
Yes, law school has a fishbowl aspect to it - too many people in one building without any relief. Yes, it is stressful with exams roughly four weeks away. Yes, some law students are easy targets for gossip and snide remarks. Yes, professors have lives outside the classroom. Yes, there are lots of rumors out there.
However, law students need to step away from the remote and get some perspective. Life happens. It happens everywhere. In and out of law school. And many of the things that get blown out of proportion as tragedies in law school are extremely minor compared to the real tragedies in life.
Being diagnosed with cancer, finding out your relative is seriously ill, having your spouse unexpectedly file for divorce, having your house burn down - those are tragedies. The little things in life are irritations, inconveniences, disappointments, or annoyances in comparison. They are not tragedies.
So take ten deep breaths. Have a reality check. And turn off the TV until after exams. (Amy Jarmon)
Saturday, April 12, 2014
Law students tell me repeatedly that they have two huge fears when they start an exam. First, they fear drawing a total blank during the exam and not being able to remember even the basics. Second, they fear messing up their time managment and not being able to finish the exam or rushing at the end.
To combat these fears, you can complete two steps as soon as the exam proctor tells you to begin. First, write down a checklist of the material on a piece of scrap paper (our law school provides scrap paper in every exam room) or on the back of the exam paper. Second, make a time chart to manage your time during the exam.
The checklist is typically a skeleton outline of the topic and subtopic headings for the course. By writing this information down before you begin the exam, you provide yourself with a security blanket. Putting it down before you start answering any questions, lets you memorialize the information before you start stressing out. You can refer to it for each essay answer to see if you forgot to discuss anything. You can use it to jog your memory if you draw a blank during the exam.
Your checklist may look somewhat different depending on the course. It may include rules with elements, steps of analysis for problem-based topics, policy arguments for another course, etc. You can tailor the information to memorize for your checklist to match the course content.
You can also vary the structure of your checklist. A visual learner may use a series of spider maps for the course. A verbal learner may use an acronym or silly sentences to remember the topics and subtopics in the list. An aural/oral learner may recite a sing-song of the checklist silently in her head as she writes it down.
For a closed-book exam, you memorize the checklist so you can quickly write it down. For an open-book exam, the checklist is the first page of the outline that is allowed in the exam.
The second step is formulating a time chart for the exam. You will want to look quickly at the instructions for the exam to check whether you complete all questions or have options (for example, complete 3 of the 5 questions). For most exams you will be required to complete all questions.
The time chart will vary in format for essay exams and multiple-choice exams. If an exam is mixed, there will be a time chart for each part of the exam. The time chart will help you to work through all of the questions at a steady pace so that you complete the entire exam.
For essay questions, your chart will have 3 columns (question number and its allotted time; time for reading, analysis, and organization; time for writing). You should spend 1/3 of your time on a question for reading, analysis, and organization. You should spend 2/3 of your time on writing the answer. Each exam question will have a row in the time chart with 3 columns in that row.
As an example, assume the exam begins at 1:00 p.m. and has multiple questions:
- Question 1 is a 1-hour question (spend 20 minutes for reading, analysis, and organization; spend 40 minutes for writing).
- Column 1 will show "Question 1: 1 hour."
- Your second column for Question 1 would show "1:00 - 1:20 p.m."
- Your third column for Question 1 would show "1:20 - 2:00 p.m."
- Question 2 is a 45-minute question (spend 15 minutes for reading, analysis, and organization; spend 30 minutes for writing).
- Column 1 for Question 2 will show "Question 2: 45 minutes."
- Column 2 for Question 2 will show "2:00 - 2:15 p.m."
- Column 3 for Question 2 will show "2:15 - 2:45 p.m."
- And so forth through the questions for the full exam time.
If you wish to reserve time to review your written answers before the exam ends, then you will reserve review time and decrease the time you allow for each question. Many students would rather use the full time for each question rather than allot review time.
If your professor indicates points rather than time for each question, then determine the time to spend proportionately for the number of points. Practicing this method ahead of time will make it more natural when converting from points to time.
For multiple-choice questions, your chart will have 2 columns (a time checkpoint; the number of questions to be completed by that time). Each checkpoint time will be in a row with the number of questions completed column for that row. It is usually a good idea to include 4-6 checkpoints.
As an example, assume the exam begins at 1:00 and lasts 3 hours with 90 questions:
- 1:30 p.m. 15 questions completed
- 2:00 p.m. 30 questions completed
- 2:30 p.m. 45 questions completed
- 3:00 p.m. 60 questions completed
- 3:30 p.m. 75 questions completed
- 4:00 p.m. 90 questions completed
If you wish to reserve time to review question answers before the exam ends, then you will reserve review time and decrease the time you allow for the checkpoints accordingly. Again, many students would rather use the full time for the questions rather than allot review time.
You want to make sure that you devise your checklist early enough in the class or exam period to allow you time to commit it to long-term memory so that you will know it by heart. You also want to practice making time charts so that the method is on auto-pilot. Both of these strategies should help lessen your anxiety during the actual exam. (Amy Jarmon)
Friday, April 4, 2014
Hat tip to Stephanie West Allen for an article regarding changes made at SLU's School of Medicine to lower depression among medical students. Some of the techniques could be beneficial also for law schools. The link is here: http://www.slu.edu/rel-news-slavin-med-ed-325. (Amy Jarmon)
Friday, February 14, 2014
It is not unusual for law students to have life interfere at times with their law school studies. A student gets a cold that turns into bronchitis and then pneumonia and drags on for a month. A parent has a medical emergency and needs the student home for every weekend. A car accident causes the student to miss two weeks of class. Divorce papers are served two-thirds of the way into the semester on a surprised law student who thought that the marriage was surviving okay.
If the students were on top of all their study tasks before the life interruption occurred, they tend to bounce back more easily from difficult circumstances. However, if they were barely preparing for class already and behind in every other study task, the unexpected life event can seriously jeopardize their regaining their academic momentum for the semester.
Every law school has some procedures that can help students with their academics when the unexpected happens to disrupt their studies. But, the options vary greatly among law schools. And the timing of the event may preclude some options. Financial aid and loan repayment rules may be perceived by students as blocking any real choices. Parental pressure for certain options over others may also be a factor.
Those of us in ASP are often in the thick of these situations working with the student and colleagues at the law school to help the student sort out the options and the pros and cons of each. Assisting a student with a plan to catch up on missed work and keep up with current work is part of the process. Fortunately, some options have long open windows so that everyone can monitor the student's progress and delay a stay-or-leave decision for some weeks. Other options may be on a now-or-never decision line.
Many students will work diligently with ASP, professors, and other university services to try to catch up and turn around the situation. In some cases extensions on work, rescheduled exams, underloads, or other measures will make it possible for them to succeed. Some of the students who have worked so hard will decide to withdraw from the semester at the last minute.
There are always some students who decide to stay in school no matter what. They keep attending classes knowing that they will not be able to retrieve their academics. In many cases, they are delaying the inevitable because they are locked in to leases, will be faced with earlier loan repayments, or have other family problems that make going home impossible. They see those other factors as more daunting than F grades on their transcripts.
Whatever choices the students make, those choices are inevitably theirs to make. We can advise and inform, but they have to make the final decisions. All we can do is be supportive throughout the process. (Amy Jarmon)
Wednesday, January 29, 2014
Hat tip to Jan M. Levine for reminding us about a Spring 2013 article in The Law Teacher. The article that Professor Levine wrote is based on a letter from a former student who had left law school years before and wanted to share his thoughts with the perspective he had gained. The issue of The Law Teacher can be found here with the article near the end of the issue: It's OK to Leave Law School.
Friday, January 24, 2014
Whenever I meet with students who have done poorly in the first semester, I tell them about the first English paper I turned in in college. I had never gotten less than an A in anything in my life, I was the “English” guy for big state contests, I’d won several creative writing awards, and I really thought I wanted to major in English. On my first paper, I got a C. When I went to talk to the professor, a man who wore seersucker suits and looked like a cross between Mark Twain and Colonel Sanders, he said in his genteel Virginia-tidewater accent, “Is English your first language? Your name is Russian. Are you translating as you write?”
The unfortunate thing was that he was genuinely curious and English is my first, and only, language.
And the thing was, he was right. The paper was too clever by half, full of elevated verbiage and ideas that got started but then petered out. Split-infinitives were everywhere, the Oxford Comma had apparently decided to hop a bus to Cambridge, and the whole thing rested on a very faulty argument I'd cribbed from an R.E.M. song. But, I took his advice and comments seriously, readjusted my writing process, and, in the words of my seventh grade science teacher, "Got back on the A-train."
I go on to tell my students that I bet most of their professors have a similar story somewhere back in their academic careers, so they should realize that 1) they’re not alone, 2) they can bounce back, and 3) this is an integral part of the learning experience that is often overlooked (as in, “Hell, I’m never taking Crim Law again! Let’s toss that exam and never look at it!”).
I honestly believe hitting a roadbump can sometimes be the best thing that can happen to a student. It forces the student to reflect on their learning and forces them to get better. If I had continued on my merry way without hitting that first bump I might still be scribing in bloviated sentences constructed entirely in the aether and intertwined with the thoughts and errs of beknighted folly -- or something.
So, I try to present a first semester failure as opportunity. I ask them to go over their exams with their professors to see where they fell short, then I meet with them and we make a plan to fix those holes.
And, happily, this year many, many second year students have been coming in to tell me about how they have been able to turn around their grades. While their egos may have been bruised, they have gained necessary insights into themselves and their education. And I know these insights will make them better lawyers. (Alex Ruskell)
Monday, January 13, 2014
Alex and Rebecca have made very valid points in their posts regarding grades and reactions to grades last week. I would like to add some additional observations.
Our law students with few exceptions have always beeen at the top of the heap. A and B grades have come easily to them during their educational lives. In addition they have been campus leaders, successful athletes, officers in community youth groups - and for the non-traditional students, community leaders and exemplary employees. Whether their grades are good for law school (but just not good enough for them) or in the great middle of the class (those ever present C grades) or at the bottom of the heap for law school (probation or dismissal), the shock is there when their expectations are not met.
To be very honest, I find that many law students have not learned good study habits in prior educational settings even though they got excellent grades. A variety of factors play into that situation:
- grade inflation (one study showed that 75% of college grades are As and Bs),
- multiple-choice "just recognize the right answer" exams,
- no papers or only short papers written,
- papers that focus on just ideas and not writing style/grammar/punctuation,
- spoon feeding of what will need to be regurgitated on the exam,
- multiple exams that allow for cramming pieces of a course rather than comprehensive understanding of material,
- grading that allows for the lowest grade on exams/assignments to be dropped,
- group work that allows slackers to coast for the same grade as the others who did the work,
- and many more aspects.
When students are suddenly confronted with the amount of material in law school courses and the one-grade phenomenon of many courses, their old study habits no longer work. This reality is especially true if they came from educational backgrounds that were not competitive for grades and handed out accolades for basically showing up and doing the minimum.
The good news for all law students is that solid study strategies can be learned and make a difference in one's grades. More efficient and effective reading, briefing, note-taking, outlining, and exam-taking can all boost grades. Time management and organization are key skills that can also be learned.
Attitude is critical as well. Realizing that one can change and improve is important to future success. Willingness to work hard and change one's habits are major steps. Some law students get discouraged and settle for being average or below average as though their destiny is fixed after grades come out.
Do not give in to that mindset! Students can change their academic study strategies and reach their academic potential. Students can improve their grades wherever they currently fall in their classes. All students can change their strategies and gain greater learning with less stress.
Why do I believe this? I work weekly with a number of probation students each semester to help them find more efficient and effective ways to study. Look at some statistics for grades this past semester from probation students who met with me regularly, changed their study strategies, and worked smarter. Some made greater strides than others, but improvement resulted. (I have not included information for 3 probation students whose grades for one course are still unreported.)
GRADE POINT PRIOR SEMESTER'S COURSES GRADE POINT FALL SEMESTER COURSES
(last enrolled regular semester GPA; not cum GPA) (fall semester GPA; not cum GPA)
- 1.321 2.666
- 1.428 2.750
- 1.571 3.045
- 1.607 2.678
- 1.642 2.607
- 1.642 2.678
- 1.714 3.000
- 1.733 2.250
- 1.750 2.650
- 1.857 2.500
- 1.892 2.785
- 2.107 3.384
- 2.250 2.333
And here are the statistics for 2 other probation students:
- 1.642 1.857 (cancelled many ASP appointments; up for dismissal)
- 1.866 3.600 (did not meet with ASP)
Intervention by the Office of Academic Success Programs is not the only variable that determines improvement as can be seen by the last example. The number of strategies implemented, the number of hours studied, motivation, individual appointments with professors for help, personal circumstances, sleep/nutrition/exercise, and other variables also have impacts.
The point is that for all of the students who implemented more efficient and effective study strategies, improvement happened. Once all the grades are in for the remaining 3 students, will all of the students I met with meet academic standards? Maybe not, but 13 probation students have already exceeded the standards they needed and are on the road to future success. By honing their new study strategies, they should be able to continue at their new academic levels and beyond.
The take away from this post: Put last semester's GPA behind you and move forward by seeking assistance from ASP and your professors so that you can implement new study strategies to help you improve your grades and live up to your academic potential. There is no magic bullet or guarantee, but there is hope. (Amy Jarmon)
Wednesday, October 30, 2013
Most of our law schools have only 5 or 6 weeks of class left in the semester. Students are starting to get overwhelmed at how much they have left to study before they will be ready for finals. They are also horrified at how many steps need to be completed before their paper deadlines.
I find that some students are so overwhelmed that they make very poor decisions about managing their studies. Because much of what I advise students is based on common sense and tried and true techniques, they are often surprised at fairly simple solutions and ask "Why didn't I think of that?"
They did not think of the solutions because they are in the midst of the situation and cannot view things objectively! If you are panicky over the quicksand all around you that is sucking you under, you may indeed overlook the jungle vine immediately above your head.
You cannot control how much more material your professor will cover. You cannot control the questions on the exam. You cannot control usually when your exams are scheduled.
But there is a great deal that you can control. You can control how you distribute your study time among courses. You can control the study strategies that you use. You can control your daily use of time.
Have a plan for the remaining weeks.
- Make a list for each course of all of the topics and subtopics that must be learned for the final exam. This list gives you the skeleton outline for the review needed for the exam.
- The lists will be long because they focus on subtopics. It takes far less time, however, to learn a subtopic than an entire topic. Progress can be made more quickly by focusing on subtopics in the list than trying to complete an entire topic at one time.
- Draw a line below the subtopic most recently completed in the class. Above this line is the material that has already been covered; below this line is the material that will be presented in the coming days.
- Estimate the amount of time that each subtopic will take to learn intensely so that you will be ready to walk into the exam (the learning time only and not the practice question time that one might also do on the subtopic later - you have to learn it first).
- Total the subtopic estimates for each separate course. This total gives you an approximate idea of the time needed to learn the material thus far for the course.
- Compare totals among the courses to understand how you should proportion study time. Perhaps Course A and Course C need equal time while Course B needs twice as much time and Course D needs three times as much time.
- Decide when in the class week you can find time for exam study each week for the remainder of the semester. Label the found times by course in proportion to the totals.
- Number the subtopics on each list. Distribute the subtopics over the next three or four weeks to finish your review of the material that has already been covered.
- Save the remaining two or three weeks before the end of classes to distribute the new material as you estimate the time for intense study that is needed for each subtopic.
- If possible, leave only two weeks of new material to learn during the reading/exam period.
Make sensible decisions so you stay in control of your time and focus:
- Prioritize what you need to get done each day. Start with the most important tasks and move down the list to end with the least important tasks.
- Within these prioritized categories, consider doing disliked or harder tasks earlier in the day when you are fresh and alert. Then complete the liked or easier tasks in a category.
- Break every large task or project into small pieces. You will not get as overwhelmed when you focus on a small task (reading one case, writing one paragraph, studying one subtopic) instead of the enormous task (a 30-page paper, an entire course).
- Take small breaks throughout the day - 10 minutes every 90 minutes of studying. Get up and walk around or stretch to get some movement into your routine. Then refocus for the next task.
- Use self-discipline. Do not turn a 10-minute break into an hour break. Do not waste time on Facebook, Twitter, television sitcoms, and other distractions.
- Decline invitations to spend time on things that will mean you do not finish your daily task list. Be diplomatic, but say no. Avoid excessive meal breaks, shopping excursions, socializing instead of scheduled studying, and more distractions.
- After you have learned a particular topic well, move on to the next topic. Do not just keep reviewing what you already know to avoid getting to the hard stuff.
- Get questions that you have about course subtopics answered as you do your review. Do not store up hundreds of questions for the last week of the professor's office hours.
Law school is to a great extent about organization and time management. So is legal practice. Take control of what you can. Move forward - any progress is still progress. (Amy Jarmon)
Thursday, October 24, 2013
We are in the ninth week of class here at our law school. It is dawning on mamy students that exams are getting much closer and that they are not where they want to be in their studying. I am beginning to see more negative ways of handling stress emerge. In the midst of their stress, students often seem unable to see more positive fixes for their problems.
Some of the negative responses to stress that I see (or hear students talking about) are:
- Staying up until the wee hours of the morning to get everything done.
- Skipping classes to have more study or paper time.
- Skipping meals and exercise to have more study or paper time.
- Procrastinating on tasks because you do not feel like doing them.
- Losing your temper with others who are in the fallout zone (classmates, spouses, children, friends, pets).
- Blaming others for your study predicament (the professor assigns too much reading, the casebook is awful, the Tutor/teaching assistant is not any help, my study group is clueless).
- Assuming that everyone else is getting the material and you must be stupid.
- Wasting time on bemoaning what you should have done earlier in the semester.
- Giving up and allowing yourself to accept failure.
- Avoiding going to professors, academic support professionals, and deans for assistance.
- Using drugs or alcohol to mask the stress and gain a temporary high.
Here are some positive responses to stress that work for students:
- Start immediately to get 7 - 8 hours of sleep each night and go to bed and get up at the same time. Brain cells need energy to absorb, understand, and retain information. Sleep allows you to get more done with greater focus in less time. It often takes a week for your body to recharge, but after that period you will start to get much more done.
- Attend classes regularly unless you are sick. By skipping class you become even more confused about the material. It is the point in the semester when professors begin to talk about the exam and pull information together across the course. You do not want to depend on a classmate's notes for these important aspects.
- Meals and exercise like sleep are essential to how your brain works. Eat nutritious meals rather than depend on junk food, caffeine, and sugar. Exercise at least 150 minutes per week - walking is fine. Exercise is a great stress buster and will also help you to sleep better.
- How you feel is not important quite honestly. Sure, it is more fun doing other things than reading and briefing or outlining or reviewing for exams; but no one told you to come to law school to have fun. Break down tasks into smaller pieces to help you get motivated: a 40-page reading into 8 chunks of 5 pages; a paper assignment into small sections; practice questions into fewer questions at a time. If you are really unmotivated, tell yourself you will just read 1 page, write 1 sentence, or do 1 problem. Getting started is the trick.
- Being irritated and grumpy with others will not make you feel better. You will just have guilt for being a jerk. If you cannot say something nice, do not say anything at all - grandmother was right when she told you that. Tell people that you need some alone time. Or do random acts of kindness for others to help you feel better about yourself. Go for a run or walk to burn off the stress.
- Blaming others means you are giving up control over what you can do. Break down the reading assignment into smaller chunks so it seems more manageable. Read a study aid to clarify the casebook material. See the professor or teaching assistant on office hours to ask questions one-on-one if a larger group setting is unhelpful. Restructure your study group to make it more effective (an agenda for meetings so everyone comes prepared) or take responsibility to explain material to the others (you can learn by teaching).
- You are not dumb - you would not have been admitted if the law school did not think you could succeed. Stop comparing yourself to others and instead start doing the best you can do each day. Persistence means a lot in law school. There is a lot of bluff among law students - you cannot know whether others are really spending more hours studying or wasting time while in the library, whether those speaking in class can talk a good game but not get it on paper, whether someone else really understands the material or just says she does.
- Forget about what you should have done. Focus on what you can do today and tomorrow and the next day. Decide on your priorities and then get started. Use a to do list each day and each week to stay on track. Get help from the academic success professional at your school if you have trouble deciding what to do and how to get it done.
- If you give up and allow yourself to fail, it does not get you any place you want to be. Make a plan as to how to get the most results from the time you have remaining in the semester. Get help if you need it.
- Every law school has people who can help you. Use their assistance. Swallow your pride if that is what is getting in the way of asking for help. Decide what help you need and go to the source that is appropriate. Find out who at your law school can help with a particular problem. Do not overlook sources at the wider university: counseling center, health services, etc.
- Do not get caught up in a cycle of drugs or alcohol to deal with your stress. You may feel as though you get temporary relief, but you are not dealing with the problems that cause the stress. If you can step back from this cycle on your own, use exercise and other techniques to deal with the stress. If you need help in getting back to healthy ways of stress reduction, see the counseling center or health services for assistance.
Stress in law school is something that everyone has to learn to cope with effectively. If stress is getting out of hand, seek assistance. (Amy Jarmon)
Sunday, October 6, 2013
Law students, as well as recent graduates studying for the bar exam, often lament that family and friends do not understand why they are studying all the time and feel unable to participate in social events on a regular basis or spontaneously any more.
Law students find that others expect them to act the same way they did before law school. Whether they were in college, employed, or in another graduate program previously, the law student is expected to be ready, willing, and able to go out to dinner and the movies, to spend a weekend out of town, to attend every family event, and so forth.
Bar studiers have the difficulty of others thinking that now after three years of law school the bar exam should be a breeze. Their family and friends have waited three long years to have them back to normal! They did not expect the new graduates to turn around almost immediately and become hermits (in their minds) yet again.
The only people who readily understand the life of law school and bar study are those who have been in the midst of those commitments as law students and bar studiers. There are two resources for families and friends that may be useful to pass on to help these important people in life to understand:
- For law students: The Companion Text to Law School: Understanding and Surviving Life with a Law Student by Andrew J. McClurg (Thomson Reuters 2012).
- For bar studiers: "Chapter 4: Preparing Your Significant Others for the Bar Exam" in Pass the Bar! by Denise Riebe and Michael Hunter Schwartz (Carolina Academic Press 2006).
Each law student or bar studier has to determine realistic boundaries on their time - what can I do and what can I not do and still succeed on my goals. Then a heart-to-heart discussion with family and friends will hopefully help lead to understanding. Some law students or bar studiers have to rehearse their side of the discussions.
Ultimately, the law students or bar studiers have to honor their own goals and boundaries. Giving in or being consumed by guilt will not help. The best you can do is try to explain diplomatically and use one of the resources listed to provide an outside perspective if you think it will help. (Amy Jarmon)
Friday, October 4, 2013
It is the point in the semester that students (especially 1Ls) remark that they are missing family, friends, pets, and other aspects of the environment that they had over the summer. Their sense of loss seems worse than earlier in the semester because the newness of the semester has worn off and the approach of exams is a reality.
Some students talk about missing younger siblings, nieces, and nephews. Some students talk about missing parents, grandparents, and aunts or uncles. Some students miss their dogs and cats - or horses since this is Texas after all. For others, it is members of the familiar community that are missed (pastors, staff at a place they volunteered, mentors, colleagues at a summer job). It may also be certain routines from home: the local basketball league, the local karate studio, the regulars at the coffe shop near home.
It helps if students feel at home in the new community that surrounds their law school. The temptation is to believe that law school allows no time for life. Here are some ways for students to feel more connected to the people that matter and were left behind and to build a new sense of community in the new location:
- Build time into your schedule to connect with friends and family back home by telephone. Perhaps the telephone call will be at the end of the evening as a reward for staying on track throughout the day. Or schedule a longer phone call for the weekend as something to look forward to when your time is more flexible.
- Schedule a time each week when you will write a letter or postcard (yes, receiving snail mail is special to folks!) to your younger sibling or grandmother or another person you are missing. You can also send e-mail, but it does not have the same special quality for the receiver.
- If you are missing being around children, hang out for an afternoon with a law student who has children and enjoy that family's little ones.
- If you are missing your pet, ask fellow law students if you can play fetch with the family dogs or love up on their cats.
- Volunteer once a week in your law school community to make a connection in your new town. You will meet new people and feel that you are contributing to your new environment.
- Join a church, synagogue, or other religious group in your new community to fill the void you feel because you no longer are near your home group.
- Set up a routine that mimics your home routine: go to the recreation center at your university, look for a karate studio in your new city, play a pick up basketball game with fellow law students.
You do not want to overextend yourself with too many activities. However, you also do not want to isolate yourself. Find ways to have reasonable outlets in your law school environment.
Setting up a routine time management schedule to use your time efficiently and effectively can help you see where you can become involved without feeling guilty. If you need help with time management, contact the academic success professional at your law school for assistance. (Amy Jarmon)
Thursday, September 26, 2013
Every year, I have a handful of first-year students who do not utilize ASP because they believe that it is only intended for students for whom "something is wrong." They think (or, more precisely, fear that others think) that ASP is for students who don't understand the law, or haven't slept in a week, or have a recurring dream where they are naked in class and the professor is beaning them with copies of the Restatement.
They are not wrong to think that ASP is primarily targeted at struggling students. ASP is usually built around specific programs targeted at students who have already "failed" at one indicator or another (low LSAT, low GPA, failed exams).
The problem is that the perception of ASP as a program for students who can't quite make it means that some students who could greatly benefit from ASP services are not taking advantage of them. They believe either that they "get it well enough" (a common feeling for weak first-year students in the fall) or they are embarrassed to come. In the past, some struggling students have told me that they feel there's something shameful about using ASP. One of the ways I've tried to fight against this problem is to work on "de-pathologizing" struggle in the first year.
The first year of law school should be a struggle. It should stretch students' minds. Law school asks them to think deeply and critically, forces them to analyze all that they think they know, and requires them to participate in class in an utterly new pedagogical style. The question that law school thrusts upon first year students is: How do you know what you think you know? This is not just a matter of learning to think like a lawyer. For some students, it can call into crisis their entire worldview. Of course they struggle. They must struggle, because it's in the struggle itself that thoughtful, critical thinking is born.
We tell them that law school is difficult and that they will think in new ways, study more hours, and do more work than they might have done before in their educational careers. Despite this, some students still seem to get the message that there is something wrong in needing help in that struggle. Perhaps it comes from their peers, or perhaps it's a result of the ease and success they had in undergraduate school. Perhaps it's a message from the larger culture and the image of what a "smart and successful" lawyer should look like. But wherever they are getting it from, the belief that struggling with law school is a sign of weakness is compounding their difficulty.
This year, I have made a great effort to not say things along the lines of "If you're not getting this for some reason..." or "If you need my help..." I have also tried to present coming to workshops, going to tutoring, and seeing me individually simply as something that successful law students do as part of their routine. I think it's worked -- I've had over 100 students at every workshop, and I've had to switch rooms for tutoring because of overflow issues. I've also been emailing as many students as I can to ask them to meet me individually to look over outlines or do sample questions. I've let them know in that email that they aren't being targeted for any other reason than that they were the next name on my list. Finally, I employ 18 tutors, all of whom are in the very top of the class. In hiring the tutors this year, I made sure that as first-year students each of them came to every ASP workshop and went to all of the tutoring sessions available. That way, I can simply point at the very successful tutors and say, "They came to everything -- they utilized services -- nothing was 'wrong' with how they were doing in law school -- they just realized ASP was a good idea -- and look how things turned out."
Luckily, I don't think this perception affects a majority of students. However, year after year, a majority of first-year students who get in serious trouble didn't use ASP when it could have helped them. Consequently, whatever small things I can do to reach students who might not have used ASP are worthwhile. [Alex Ruskell]