Wednesday, April 16, 2014
As we get closer to finals, a lot of poor-performing students are struggling with outline and exam structure. At South Carolina, the second semester for First Years is made up of Con Law, Civ Pro, and Property, and all three of these classes seem to cause certain students to "over-write." For example, even more so than in their First Semester outlines, many students want to include all the minutiae of every case, so I have had at least a dozen students show up in my office saying something to the effect of "I have 120 pages on my outline done -- but I have a little more work to do."
A 120-page plus outline isn't going to help anyone, unless they are planning on clubbing someone with it. One thing I have found really helpful for these students is to go over practice questions geared to the bar exam (BarBri, Kaplan, Finz, etc.). These tend to be shorter than questions designed for doctrinal exams, and the idea that you can explain something like the rule for intermediate scrutiny or the Commerce Clause in three sentences is really helpful and mind-blowing. I've seen a real improvement in students' answers, especially since many of these students' exam issues were running out of time, missing issues, or spending time talking about things that were not going to translate into points.
I've also been using the longer essay questions from Emanuel's Questions and Answers for First Year. I don't know if this exactly counts as a self-serving plug since I wrote them, but I put them together specifically with this issue in mind. They are nowhere near the most detailed questions in the world, but they are good if you have a student who just needs to get IRAC together. I have a lot of these types of students -- who are bright, but write 16-page dissertations for a 20-minute question. Most of our meetings tend to revolve around focus and getting to the point.
I've also been working with these students using "Shortish Questions from the Realm of Stuff You Will Be Asked" -- so, for example, I have a question about an ordinance limiting firefighters to male citizens between the ages of 20-45 and a question about the state putting the kibosh on an individual's contract with an out-of-state company. This way, I can talk about breaking up the different levels of scrutiny and the four things that they will probably need to think about when the state messes with a private individual (commerce, contracts, privileges and immunities, due process). The weakest students have all of this in a jumble of premises and exhortations of fairness, which will clearly sink them on exams if they don't get it cleared up. (Alex Ruskell)
Monday, April 7, 2014
Remember Goldilocks in the home of the Three Bears? She did not want porridge that was too hot or too cold; she did not want a chair too hard or too soft; she did not want a bed that was too hard or too soft. She wanted everything to be just right.
I often remind my law students about Goldilocks. They do not want briefs that are too long or too short. They do not want outlines that contain too many case details or too few rules. They do not want exam answers too conclusory or too verbose. They do not want to do too little research or too much research. They want each step to be just right.
First-year students especially have trouble finding that "just right point" in their work. Second- and third-year students are not immune from the problem, however, in at least some of their tasks.
Students may obsess about the line to draw - how much is too little and how much is too much? Some become paralyzed in their work because they are looking for perfection in knowing the just right point from the get-go. They need to understand that they will learn to draw that line only by continuously repeating the tasks. The practice in doing the tasks leads in time to the ability of finding the just right point with ease.
Learning is a process and not a "given" from the start for most law students. Students can use self-monitoring to find the "just right point" over time as they repeat the various tasks. Here are some examples of what I mean:
- Reviewing one's briefs after class against what the professor indicated/discussed in class. Why was the student's issue statement too broad or too narrow? What facts were included that were not needed or were left out? What policy arguments were missed or inaccurately stated?
- Comparing one's class notes after class with another student. What important points were missed from the class discussion? Did the hypotheticals mentioned by the professor get written down? Were the professor's steps of analysis delineated in the notes? Were notes taken down verbatim in a mechanical way or thoughtfully included for the salient points?
- Critiquing one's outlines after each topic is completed. Does the outline contain the law and policy needed to solve new legal problems? Does the outline flip one's thinking to the bigger picture and synthesis of the law or stay stuck in a series of case briefs? Is the outline skimpy without the steps of analysis and depth of understanding or is it filled with trivia that is not helpful?
- Comparing one's written practice question answers with the model answers or discussing them with study group members after everyone has done them separately. Were all of the issues spotted? Were there any rules left out or mis-stated? Were the facts used correctly when applying the law? Were all of the steps in the analysis delineated? Were both parties' arguments included?
- Reviewing low-grade exams at the beginning of the next semester to analyze what one did well or poorly. Most professors will allow students to compare their exams to anonymous A papers or rubrics or model answers. Many professors will go over the exams with students as well.
- Evaluating at the end of each semester one's progress on each study task for finding the just right point. Formulating strategies for further improvement on the tasks one is still struggling with.
If the student cannot determine strategies for further improvement after self-monitoring, then help from academic success professionals, professors, and teaching assistants should be sought out. (Amy Jarmon)
Wednesday, February 26, 2014
If you have not discovered it yet, I recommend taking a look at the Listen Like a Lawyer Blog. Jennifer Murphy Romig from Emory University School of Law has some postings that deal with law students specifically. Here are several to look at that deal with listening in the law school classroom:
- September 30, 2013: Listening check-up for first-semester law students
- October 11, 2013: The listening technique that worked for me in law school
- February 11, 2014: Listening in law school: second-semester update.
There are other law school related postings that deal with externships, interviews, and other topics. (Amy Jarmon)
Friday, February 7, 2014
Although there have been several signs of the Apocalypse lately, including a snowball fight in my South Carolina front yard and the appearance of Prince in a sitcom with Zooey Deschanel, I have been operating under the assumption that the world will continue to turn. Consequently, I have spent most of the past few weeks meeting with students who did poorly in their first semester.
There are many, many studies showing the importance of self-evaluation. The first thing I have students in trouble do is fill out a 5-page form asking them to relive the past semester. How many classes did they go to? How much time each week do they spend reading? When did they start outlines? What were there grades in each class? Better or worse than they thought? Did they go to tutoring? Did they come to my workshops? Ever meet with me? Ever meet with their professors?
Once they take a hard look at what they did, we start making a plan of improvement. Most of the time, the biggest self-reported issues are: 1. Started outline too late, 2. Spent too much time preparing for class (and no time preparing for exam), 3. Let Legal Writing get away from them, and 4. Never sought help.
When we've worked this out, I start helping them with outlines, scheduling, and we start with simple practice problems to get IRAC under control. I also make sure they meet with their profs.
While meeting with all of these students may be disheartening (and involve a large investment in Kleenex products), this semester I've had the great pleasure of having many returning, Second, or Third year students swing by my office and tell me how much they've improved (several CALI awards, many at least one entire letter grade jumps). So, I know this approach helps the vast majority of them.
Although, as always, there are the students I am extremely worried about. As I write this, the car keys of one of my in-trouble first years continue to hang on a hook outside my office. It has been three days since he left them here and I emailed him -- I haven't heard anything. How is he getting home? Is he looking for them? Did he forget he owns a car? Is he now living the movie "Badlands"? Did he steal someone else's car with his best girl by his side fleeing from one safe house to another with Boss Hogg on his tail as he tries to swing back to Columbia in time for Civil Procedure at 8 am?
At any rate, the fact his keys are still sitting here does not inspire confidence.
Saturday, February 1, 2014
It has been a hard month for some law students. The reasons vary, but the effect is the same. The weather has been bitter cold and cloudy many days. Their grades were not what they expected after all their hard work last semester. They are worrying about whether there will be a summer clerking position or employment upon graduation for them. The excitement of a new academic year last fall has faded into same old, same old. Third-year students see the bar exam looming ahead.
Motivation is dropping right now for many students. What they dislike about law school seems magnified. Students need to refocus their thoughts away from the negative in order to jumpstart their motivation. Here are some suggestions to turn around one's focus and get back the motivation:
- Remind yourself of why you came to law school. What is your ultimate goal? To serve a specific client population? To provide services to underserved populations? To impact the policy behind the law through government employment? To become a judge, firm partner, attorney general, in-house counsel? To hang out your own shingle? By reminding yourself of the end goal, you are better able to get through the process to get there.
- Remind yourself what you like about the study of law. Do you find certain courses especially interesting? Do you like the critical thinking needed to see both sides of an issue? Do you enjoy the pro bono or clinic opportunities to take what you learn and apply it? Do you like the research and writing aspects? By remembering that not everything about law study is negative, you can refocus your energies.
- Get yourself organized with a structured study schedule. Take the guess work out of what you should be doing. If you use only a "to do" list for the day, it drains your motivation. Human nature is to waste time because we say, "I have all day to get these things done." If your day is structured in a routine schedule, you do not decide what to do but instead know it is Tuesday at 3 p.m. and this is where you do class prep for Tax or it is Friday at 11 a.m. and this is where you outline PR. Supplement your structured schedule with your "to do" list to decide what specific tasks to complete for that designated time block.
- For paper or assignment deadlines, set an artificial deadline two days earlier and work toward that deadline. On a monthly calendar, put down the deadlines (real and artificial) and then lay out the tasks to complete each day to meet the deadline. The artificial deadline allows you some cushion for final edits, a printing disaster, or other problems. Consistently working on a larger project over more days, allows the tasks to be less daunting.
- Break down tasks into small pieces to provide motivation. Your 40-page reading assignment in Criminal Law becomes eight 5-page blocks. It is easier to get motivated to read 5 pages than 40 pages. You get that small task crossed off quickly which motivates you to go on to the next 5 pages. And, if your motivation is really low, tell yourself you will just read 1 page. It is hard to convince yourself that you cannot read 1 page! The getting started is the problem - you will likely continue beyond the 1 page.
- Realize that, if you get your work done rather than procrastinate, you will feel so much better. Instead of feeling guilty about what you should be doing or feeling stressed that you should have started something sooner, you will be able to enjoy down time after completing tasks and will be less stressed because you distributed your work rather than waiting until the last minute.
- Avoid people who suck you into low motivation and procrastination. If you hang out with other law students who are moaning and groaning and avoiding their work, it will be contagious. Instead seek out students who exhibit positive mindsets and get their work done in a timely fashion.
We all get down in the dumps and falter on motivation at times. The secret is to stop the cycle quickly rather than letting it become a downward spiral. Talk to someone if you are unable to get yourself motivated again. Do not just let it continue until you are overwhelmed. (Amy Jarmon)
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)
Thursday, November 21, 2013
Sometimes, timing is everything. Law students need to learn to use their time wisely to effectively manage the demands of law school while balancing jobs, families, and self-care. Being at the right place at the right time makes a significant difference for law students who are networking for job opportunities and seeking support systems. Also, timing and pacing during a final exam (or the bar exam) can mean the difference between a passing grade and a failing one. In this post, I have referenced song lyrics that incorporate the theme of time while relating them to the law school experience.
“If I could save time in a bottle…” I know I may be dating myself with this one, but I had to begin with this classic line from Jim Croce’s hit love song “Time in a Bottle”. Ask your students what they would do if they could save time in a bottle. Are they making the most of each moment? Are they being intentional with how they plan their schedules, spend their time, and balance their commitments? We all want more time (especially law students), but instead of focusing on the lack of time we have, highlight ways to use time more efficiently and encourage your students to be present when free moments avail themselves.
“I’ve got too much time on my hands…” This classic rock song by Styx was written as a reflection on the unemployment crisis in the 70’s. The underlying theme in the lyrics rings true in many respects for today’s law students. They are worried about their careers, finding a job, and performing well on exams. They may not be able to tighten their focus when they actually do find that they have “time on their hands." Time management does not always come naturally. Providing students with tools and resources to help them manage their time will help them prioritize, use their free time wisely, and establish effective routines.
Similar to the melancholy quality of Styx’s lyrics, Otis Redding hits a few low notes when he croons about… “sitting on the dock of the bay…wasting time….” Students sometimes sit and feel like they cannot catch a break. Redding’s hit resonates with students who are feeling like they have left the life they knew only to find that law school is challenging, competitive, and sometimes disappointing. When they feel like “nothing's gonna change”, we step in to give them hope. Providing the tools for success to law students empowers them to make necessary changes to ensure their success. Especially at the close of the semester, we need to recognize that law students are exhausted, overloaded, and feeling lost. As Cyndi Lauper so aptly sings in “Time After Time”, when law students "are lost, they turn and they will find [us]", Academic Support Professionals. We catch them and lift them back up.
After exams or a when facing a rough patch during the semester, students may need to turn to ASP for this lift or for help with creating a new plan for their upcoming semester. If their study strategies or exam performance are subpar, they begin humming, “If I could turn back time” (with Cher’s iconic diva-ness echoing in their minds). Reflecting on study habits, legal analysis skills, and exam performance are key components to succeeding in law school. Everyone has moments in their past that they wish they could replay (or delete). Using these moments as opportunities for growth instead of moments of failure, helps students see beyond their initial shock, shame, or disappointment.
Like the Stones, we want our students to sing (and feel) that "time is on my side, yes it is...." While this may not always be realistic, there are many ways to get closer to that dream. Here are a few ideas:
- Create sample study schedules for your students
- Give them calendars and checklists to help them plan their time
- Ask them to keep a journal that tracks how they use their time during a typical day or week and then ask them to reflect on their time management
- Provide a time management workshop or webinar
- Have them draft a to do list at the start of each day and evaluate their progress at the end of each day
- Pair 1L students up with a 2L or 3L mentor to discuss how to effectively schedule their time
- Challenge students to unplug for a block of time each day (This is a good one for all of us!)
- Teach students the art of delegation
- Encourage students to take time each day to recharge.
By establishing routine time management practices, students will feel more balanced and be more productive. Because as Pete Seeger so aptly wrote, there is "a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance." We should all spend more time dancing.
Friday, November 8, 2013
For the past several years, every student that found themselves in academic jeopardy told me that they hadn't done any practice questions. Consequently, this year I have been hammering them with constant exhortations to "Do practice questions! Do them early, do them often!" Of course, questions from their profs are the best, but if those are not available, they should look at commercial outlines, other profs, or bar materials.
But what to do with the questions? Besides valuable practice and insight into how a question may be asked (because, in the grand scheme of things, there are only so many scenario variations an exam can have -- for example, a Contracts exam would have to have someone offer someone something, a Torts exam would have to have someone behave negligently in some way), perhaps one of the most helpful things practice questions can do is to help create a "Monster List."
When I was in law school and taking the bar exam, I used to do practice questions for a course and then go over my answers, both right and wrong, and write out on a legal pad all the points of law I didn't know -- something like, "1. Person called 'Evil person' -- circumstantial evidence, does not assert person committed crime, 2. Reputation can be hearsay, 3. Dying declaration applies in civil case or homicide prosecution and statement must concern the cause or circumstances of impending death." I would continue to add to and study this list as I went along, and it would be the last thing I looked at before I sat for the exam.
I had a lot of success with this, and I have seen many students do so as well. In fact, for some students, it becomes the "Attack Outline" that they go into exams with. (Alex Ruskell)
Sunday, November 3, 2013
Here are a few more study tips from students and others:
- Consider putting your outlines on your Kindle for ease in carrying them with you - especially if you are leaving for the Thanksgiving Break.
- For first-year courses, you might want to consider purchasing the maps at picjur.com: Torts, Contracts, Civil Procedure, and Criminal Law are all available in visual versions.
- If you rather listen to text rather than read it, you might want to consider two options: Dictation and Speech for Macs reads text that can be converted with iTunes for your iPhone; Outlines Outloud is an app that syncs your computer outlines with your iPhone for listening.
- Check out the website for the Board of Law Examiners in your state to see if they post old exam questions for your state-specific courses; practice questions are sometimes hard to find for state-specific topics, and old bar questions can be a plus.
- Remember to check your own law school's exam database for past exams in a course; even if they are for a different professor, the exams may provide good practice questions.
- Use a table to help you easily see the variations of the same rule (common law, restatement, uniform code, majority jurisdiction, minority jurisdiction, etc.) that you have to learn for an exam.
Exploring solutions that others have already found successful saves you time at a critical point in the semester. (Amy Jarmon)
Thursday, October 31, 2013
Along with decorative gourds and tiny sociopaths demanding candy, the end of October brings an uptick in study group formation as we get closer to finals (I saw what looked like three new ones in the lobby on my way into work).
Several years ago, this annual rite resulted in some major kerfluffles, ados, and foofaraws -- so-and-so is cheating on one group with another, so-and-so doesn't do any work, s0-and-so always brings an enormous bag of potato chips, so-and-so's non-lawyer biker boyfriend enjoys attending -- and everyone ended up in my office for advice on how to work things out.
In response, I found an earlier posting from Amy Jarmon about the things study groups need to keep in mind, and I turned it into an actual contract, which I printed out and passed around to the First Year class.
A few days later, I saw several completed and signed contracts sticking out of bookbags, books, and binders, and all the complaining stopped. Since that time, I have mentioned the contract (repeatedly) and the concerns and complaints disappeared.
Many, many thanks to Amy, and below is the contract (Alex Ruskell) --
non in legendo sed in intelligendo legis consistent
STUDY GROUP CONTRACT
1. New members will be added only if _____ members agree.
2. New members will not be added after _________ (a certain point in the semester).
3. A member may/may not belong to more than one study group as long as all members are informed of the decision to do so.
4. A member will not be “fired” unless:
A. The group has talked with the person about problem behaviors (eg. argumentativeness, slacking on commitments, lateness, dominating the group discussions, etc.).
B. The person has had ____ chances to improve on the problem behavior after discussion.
C. The group unanimously agrees that the member will be told to leave and as group discusses the decision with the member.
5. A member who decides to leave the study group must tell the other members that he or she intends to do so and not just “disappear.”
6. The study group will have a rotating facilitator who is responsible for setting the agenda and keeping the group on track each week. The order will be: _________________, ___________________________, ______________________.
7. The study group will meet ________ times per week at _______________________.
8. Study group members may/may not bring food -- certain types of food are banned: ________________________.
9. Each member is to show respect for other members and their opinions.
10. All materials developed by the study group together are not to be shared outside the group unless __________________of the members agree.
11. All matters discussed in the study group are to be confidential and are not to be used for “gossip.” (The exception would be if the group is concerned about the physical or mental well-being of a member so that the appropriate action would be to talk to a dean, counselor, etc.)
12. Study aids purchased jointly should be equally available for use as a matter of courtesy. If the group agrees to share study aids purchased by individuals, then rules may be needed.
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)
Sunday, October 27, 2013
It is a common misconception among law students that studying cannot be accomplished in small time blocks. Yet students feel that lots of other things can be accomplished in smaller amounts of time: e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, cell phone calls, surfing the Web, watching TV sitcoms, exercising.
Here are some study tasks that can fit into less than sixty minutes and less than thirty minutes:
- Read and brief one mid-sized case.
- Read and brief two short cases.
- Draft the statement of facts for a legal memo.
- Draft the short answer for a legal memo.
- Complete ten multiple-choice questions without reviewing the explanations for the answer options.
- Complete five multiple-choice questions with reviewing the explanations for the answer options.
- Complete a one-issue fact-pattern essay and review the model answer.
- Review part of a paper draft for punctuation and grammar.
- Review part of a paper draft for citation.
- Review several pages of an outline for intense learning.
- Create a graphic organizer to summarize a course topic.
- Compare an outline or class notes with a classmate.
- Outline the material from several class periods.
- Read a study aid to clarify a topic.
- Complete memory drills with flashcards.
- Make some flashcards for later memory drills.
- Read and brief one short case.
- Stop by a professor's office to ask some questions about the material.
- Discuss the cases with a classmate before the next class.
- Review your brief, margin notes, and prior class notes to re-visit your class preparation for the next class.
- Review your class notes from a class earlier in the day to fill in gaps, reorganize the notes, and gain deeper understanding.
- Read a study aid to clarify a subtopic.
- Outline a couple of short subtopics.
On the downward slope of the semester, it is important to use time well. Major blocks of time are not needed to make progress. (Amy Jarmon)
Tuesday, October 22, 2013
Task lists for what one needs to accomplish (commonly called to do lists) are effective ways to track items and not forget anything. However, there are a number of strategies to improve on this old standby in time management and work organization.
- Consider having multiple levels of the lists: a daily list, a weekly list, a monthly list, a master list. The master list is for items that need to be done some time during this semester but which have no definite timeline or deadline attached to them. The monthly list captures all the items that truly need to be distributed through the current month. The weekly list brings into focus the items that must be completed in this limited 7-day period. The daily list delimits what can realistically occur today to bring one closer to finishing the week's tasks.
- Include a realistic number of items on a task list. It is very easy to include two or three times as many tasks on the daily list or weekly list as can be completed by even superhuman efforts within that time period. Depending on the complexity of the tasks, limit a daily list to 7 - 10 items maximum.
- Prioritize within the task list. Most people will designate items into three categories: most important, important, and least important. I know some people who designate Categories A, B, and C or 1, 2, and 3. Prioritizing focuses attention on the most essential tasks so one does not fritter the day on barely essential tasks.
- When considering the priority category for a task, focus on an honest appraisal rather than whether you like or dislike the task. Ask the following questions to help you determine priority: Is this task really necessary? Does this task have a major payoff for the time involved? What will happen if I do not complete this task? What is the deadline (if any) for this task? Can this task be broken down into smaller, more manageable steps?
- Decide whether personal and school/work items go on the same list. Some people prefer to have separate lists for each category.
- Save your lists for an entire week and analyze how you did. If each day shows a multitude of unfinished tasks, then you may need to be more realistic about how many items you can accomplish. You may also need to consider what interruptions or obstacles occur for completing the list if the number of items was realistic: phone calls, walk-ins, too much time on e-mails/texts/Internet. Make adjustments to how you formulate your lists and how you manage your interruptions or obstacles.
- If you wake up in the middle of the night afraid you will forget something the next day, keep a pen and pad on your bedside table. Capture the task for inclusion the next day on a task list. Then go back to sleep without the worry of forgetting.
Task lists are just one way to keep on track with work. The lists can be handwritten or completed with electronic software. Use whatever method helps you be more productive. (Amy Jarmon)
Thursday, October 3, 2013
Some of my law students avoid study groups because of prior problems they had with group work during undergraduate study. You know the problems:
- a slacker who let everyone else do the work on the group project but got the same good grade
- the student recounting the story did all the work for the group so it was done right
- a dominating person who demanded things be done the way s/he said
- an unpleasant person who sneered at or put down the others in the group
- a disorganized group that took longer than necessary on every task
- a totally confused person who slowed down the group's progress
- a group meeting that degenerated into a social occasion every time
Some of my law students avoid study groups because of prior problems with law school study groups. The problems were usually law variations of the above problems.
Here are some tips for making study groups positive experiences with good results:
- Realize that study group is somewhat of a misnomer. The purpose is not to study together every day (as in read and brief every case together). The groups are typically tied to review and application tasks.
- The size of the group often correlates to the number of problems that a study group will have. The highest number range that generally works well is three or four students. Group dynamics and logistics become more difficult as the number of people increases beyondthat number.
- The group needs to have agreement on the purposes for the group. Examples: Will the group make outlines together? Will the group members instead share their own outlines? Will the group review topics/subtopics in depth each week? Will the group do practice questions together?
- The group needs to have agreement on how often it wants to meet and whether it wants a set day and time to meet each week.
- The group needs to have agreement on the etiquette for the group. Examples: Does everyone have to agree for someone to be added to the group? How will the group handle someone who is a slacker? How will the group curtail rudeness, arrogance, or other negative dynamics? Will the group share group-generated materials with non-group members?
- The group needs to recognize different learning styles and structure itself in a way that facilitates learning for everyone. All learning styles have merit: global processing, intuitive processing, sequential processing, sensing processing, reflective thinking, active thinking, visual, verbal, aural/oral, kinesthetic/tactile, etc. Some examples of how differences can be acommodated and honored are:
- Globals and intutivies focus on breadth; sequentials and sensors focus on depth. All four processing styles are legitimate. Each student prefers two of the four styles. All four styles used together will allow students to look at material from 360 degrees for better learning.
- Reflective thinkers will learn more from the experience if each meeting has an agenda for most of the time so they can prepare and reflect ahead of time (we will cover depreciation and do problems 1-3 in the practice question book at the next meeting). Active thinkers can usually tolerate an agenda as long as a portion of the group time is open-ended (we can bring up any question or topic after the structured part of the session).
- Aural (listening) learners may listen quietly rather than participate in the discussion or may summarize at the end of the discussion. Oral (talking) learners may ask lots of questions or learn by explaining material to the others.
- Visual learners may want the group to work on flowcharts, spider maps, or other visual organizers. Verbal learners may want the group to use acronyms to condense rules or concepts.
- Kinesthetic learners will need some breaks within a long study group session. Tactile learners will stay more focused during active learning such as practice problems.
- If a study group is having difficulties with group dynamics, decisions about purposes or etiquette, or using its time well, the academic success professional at the law school may be able to make suggestions on how to correct or minimize the problems.
- Some students will prefer to choose one study partner rather than have a study group. This option is fine. The important thing is getting at least one other perspective on the material outside one's own head.
If used well, study groups or study partners can be a positive boost to learning. (Amy Jarmon)
Sunday, September 15, 2013
The Socratic Method is probably the most feared and most maligned aspect of law school. Fortunately, most professors sincerely use the Socratic Method to improve learning. Unfortunately, a very few professors purposely misuse Socratic Method to humiliate or terrorize students and to make themselves feel superior.
A professor can make the questioning more effective as a learning tool by keeping the following points in mind:
- Students have different reactions to Socratic Method dependent on their learning styles. Students who are talking learners or active thinkers may feel less intimidated because they learn by discussion and asking questions. Students who are listening learners or reflective thinkers may be more nervous because they prefer to not speak in class and think about material without interaction with others. Also the students who process with the opposite styles from the professor will at times get flustered because they may not understand the professor's approach to questions; they are well-prepared but organize their thoughts differently.
- Building a series of questions that a particular student answers by beginning with relatively easy questions before proceeding to harder questions will allow the student to gain confidence with some on-target answers before the challenging steps.
- Rephrasing a question if a student seems stumped rather than merely repeating the question again will allow a student who found the phrasing of the question to be confusing to realize what the professor is asking. Merely repeating the same words is often unhelpful in moving the conversation forward.
- Realizing that your multiple questions to a student who is having trouble may be misperceived by the student can suggest another approach. You may be trying to help that student sort out the material and to guide the student to understanding. However, the student may feel that the experience is akin to being turned on a spit over an open fire. By using positive prompts, you can make the experience less stressful. "Good first step, but let's look again at the next step." "Good argument, but let's back up and see how you got there." "You are on the right track, but broaden your issue statement beyond the very specific facts in this case." "That is a paraphrase of the rule, give me a more precise in the rule statement."
- Introduce your series of questions to give more context to the students before you start calling on people. They will understand better how the questions fit into the discussion and the level of analysis you are looking for in the series. "We have talked about each of the separate cases for today, but now let's try to synthesize the cases and see how they relate to one another and to today's topic."
Part of the problem with Socratic Method is that students do not know how to prepare effectively for the experience. Here are some hints for students to get ready for the Socratic Method:
- Recognize what questions the professor almost always asks about each case during class. Think about the answers to those standard questions during your class preparation.
- When reading for a continuing topic, think about the topic-specific questions that the professor has been asking and be prepared to answer those topic-specific questions.
- Before the class, consider the case from 360 degrees. In addition to understanding the case deeply (its separate case brief parts and details), consider the case more broadly (how does it fit with the other cases read for that day and into the larger topic).
- Practice explaining the case and answering your professor's standard and topic-specific questions aloud. Talk to an empty chair, your dog, or a very understanding friend. You will have more confidence when called on if you have rehearsed your answers. If you cannot explain the case to an empty chair, then you do not understand it well enough to explain it to your professor in front of others. Re-read the case sections that you did not understand or reflect more deeply on the case and try your explanation and question answers again.
- When the professor calls on other students, answer the question silently in your head. Compare your answer to what the other student says and what the professor indicates. As you realize you are usually right, it will give you greater confidence for when the professor calls on you.
- When called on, think about the question asked and take a deep breath before answering. Many mistakes are made because students blurt out something they immediately realize is wrong or answer a different question than actually asked.
- If you do not understand the question, ask the professor to rephrase it. If you do not hear the question, ask the professor to repeat it.
- Remember that many questions in law school do not have right answers. There are many questions that seasoned attorneys disagree on about the answers. You need to approach the questions with the realization that "it depends" may be the reality and make the best arguments possible.
- View Socratic Method as a learning opportunity: how to think on your feet; how to improve your analysis; how to find out what you overlooked and need to notice in the next case; how to get over your fear of speaking in front of others.
- Remember that most people in class are not judging you when you are the student called on for Socratic Method. About a third are relieved it was not them. About a third are looking ahead frantically because they realize their turns are coming up. About a third are busy taking notes and looking for the answers.
- Every lawyer I know has at least one or more stories to tell about their own experiences with Socratic Method. You are highly unlikely to get every question right. You will likely blank out once or twice even when prepared. You will misunderstand the question at times. It is all part of the learning experience. Do not dwell on your mistakes. Instead learn from them and move on.
- If your professor uses expert panels on assigned days or only calls on you once per semester, do not stop reading and preparing for class because you will not be called on that day. Always read and prepare for class because your deeper understanding of the material depends on it. Slacking off will only get you lower grades.
- Be courteous regarding your professor's and classmates' time. If you are unprepared because your child went to the emergency room or you became ill, let the professor know before class so time is not wasted calling on you. If you pass, realize that you are probably going to be called on the next class and be prepared.
Accept the challenge of Socratic Method and do your best. Law school will be far less stressful if you can get into the spirit of learning from the technique rather than seeing the experience as an illustration of your success or failure. Intelligence is not a fixed commodity - a mistake leads to improvement and later success. (Amy Jarmon)
Thursday, September 12, 2013
I have been collecting tips from my students and others to pass on to our readers. Here are a few items you might find interesting:
- Check out the Flash Card Machine app for Android and iPhone http://www.flashcardmachine.com: there are free and paid versions; the website allows you to create flashcards on your computer that you then can sync with your phone; the app can sort the flashcards by categories or randomly and can modify how often you see certain flashcards.
- For international students who are trying to assimilate differences between United States law and the law in their own nations: draw a bracket to encompass the class notes that show the U.S. difference and then note in the margin what the law would be under your own country's legal system.
- Add to your outline pages for a topic a checklist that helps you remember the steps of analysis: what questions do you need to always ask to complete the proper analysis?
- If you are tired of highlighters that have dried out because the cap was not on tightly enough, try the new retractable highlighter that clicks open and close like an ink pen.
- Students who have trouble staying on task because they waste time on the Internet may want to check out two technology helpers: Stay Focused is available for Google Chrome and Self-Control is available for Mac users.
- The Blotter application allows Mac users to set up a routine weekly schedule that will then appear each day on the desktop with space for a "to do" list and a "right now" window.
- If gentle movement helps you focus and learn, try studying in a rocking chair.
- Ask your teenagers to quiz you on your flashcards: they become part of your law school success, and you provide a role model for serious studying and for persevering when you make mistakes.
- For parents who study at home behind a closed office/den door and have younger children: put a construction paper traffic light on the hallway side of your door; hang out the red circle for do not disturb, the yellow circle for come in if important need, and the green circle for okay to interrupt for any purpose.
- Take a walk around your neighborhood with another law student to get some exercise and discuss your classes while you walk: you get exercise and review at the same time.
Do you have some good tips to share with other law students? Send your study tips to me for inclusion in a future posting. My e-mail is listed under the "About" tab; put Blog Study Tips in the subject heading. (Amy Jarmon)
Thursday, August 22, 2013
Students often ask how to determine which concepts in a case should end up as part of the case brief’s reasoning section. Because judges do not simply ramble in their opinions, every sentence is an important part of the reasoning that drives the opinion. Therefore, what should students capture in their case briefs?
The answer lies in one of the key purposes of briefing cases: identifying the legal principles and the logical steps that will be necessary for resolving similar issues on an exam. In other words, students should learn to brief cases the way lawyers brief them – to draw out the analytical templates courts use when addressing particular issues. In doing so, students will not only begin preparing themselves for their exams, they will accomplish the most important purpose of briefing cases: training themselves to think like lawyers and judges.
They should focus the reasoning portion of their briefs on the future. They should ask themselves which concepts will be useful to them when they are answering an exam question; those are the ones they want to capture and later put into an outline that will guide their analyses on the exams.
Below is a list of the types of concepts students should watch for, not only in the cases but also in class discussions. In fact, if they print off this list and keep it next to them when they are in class and when they are reading and briefing for class, they may find it easier to separate the important concepts from the background and case-specific concepts that will not likely drive a future analysis.
WHAT SHOULD YOU BE GETTING FROM READINGS AND CLASS DISCUSSIONS?
Key themes running through the course
Accurately stated rules
Precise understanding of the logic underlying the rules, tests, definitions, and their
corollaries and exceptions
Key policy aims underlying each rule, etc.
Essential steps in the logic of applying each rule, etc.
Critical similarities and differences among rules, among tests, etc.
Critical attributes of facts that satisfy or do not satisfy the rules, definitions, etc.
Archetypal fact patterns that implicate each rule
i.e., what dynamics are always present when a particular rule is implicated?
E.g., transferred intent in battery: one person always propels something toward another and hits a third person instead. The means could be throwing, driving, mailing, pushing, or any of a thousand other means. The dynamics always boil down to the same thing.
Tuesday, July 23, 2013
During the final week of bar prep, memorization is paramount. Overlearning the law is the best way to conquer the bar exam. MBE success requires quick recollection and MEE success requires depth of knowledge- both of which rely on memorization.
When studying this week, above all, try to understand your learning preference(s). Listening to your inner voice and sticking with what works best for you is the best way to be successful with your memorization. However, if you are still looking for other ways to memorize, here are a few ideas:
- Find creative ways to interact with the material and keep it fresh.
- Use a study partner or significant other to test you on your knowledge with flashcards or just talk out a subject together.
- Create tables, flowcharts, or diagrams to illustrate difficult rules or concepts. Even drawing pictures can help you create a memorable visual.
- Use other memory devices such as: flash cards, sticky notes, white boards, or a tape recorder.
- Create mnemonics that have meaning to you or use ones that have been created by your bar prep.
- Explain the main points of a subject or essay to someone else (a family member, friend, or roommate). Or, talk to yourself- it's ok, you are studying for the bar!
- Color code, use different fonts, or hand-write rules over and over in order to individualize the material and make it more memorable.
- Read your lecture notes or outline/study-aid aloud, record it, play it back and listen to it.
- Study while you move- walk, ride a bike, bounce on an exercise ball, or use an elliptical.
Good luck on your memorization this week!
Sunday, July 21, 2013
It rained steadily in West Texas for three different days last week! Hooray - a dent in the drought for our gardeners and cotton growers. Lubbock even made the national Weather Channel coverage - usually only happens when we deal with sky-reddening massive dust storms. Lots of folks had forgotten the routines to deal with rain and left their umbrellas, rain hats, or raincoats home on the first day.
Why this title and mention of rain? I am talking to a fair number of bar studiers and summer school students who are feeling as though it is stormy weather for them under a deluge of material. Here are some of the reasons:
- The bar exam dates are drawing perilously close.
- Bar studiers are concerned about their scores on practice questions.
- For many bar studiers, there is still too much to learn in what seems too little time.
- Summer school students are beginning to realize how fast a 5-week summer session goes by.
- Many summer school students are juggling part-time jobs with studies and feeling stretched too thin.
- Students with spouses, children, significant others, elderly parents, or other responsibilities beyond school are pulled in multiple directions.
When summer school students and bar studiers get focused on the negative deluge instead of grabbing their umbrellas, they can stress themselves out and become overwhelmed. Here are some tips to remember that the apparent deluge is really just a bunch of individual raindrops:
- Prioritize the tasks that need to be done instead of considering everything as equal.
- Decide how each task can be completed for the wisest use of time and the most results.
- Focus on one small task at a time and then move on to the next rather than getting caught up in the overview of everything.
- Remember that the goal is to learn from one's mistakes on practice questions - the learning avoids a mindless repetition of mistakes.
- Give credit for what has been learned well, is going right, and has pulled together to balance out one's negativity.
- Stop obsessing over the "should haves" or "could haves" - what is done (or not done) cannot be changed; focus on what can still be controlled now.
- Ask family and friends for patience, encouragement, and help with non-study tasks that would usually be shared (cooking, cleaning, child care).
- Get on a regular sleep schedule of at least 7-8 hours of sleep per night - life looks a lot less stormy when one is well-rested.
- If work is also being juggled, consider whether hours can be reduced for the rest of the summer session.
Whether the bar exam is the stressor or summer school, realize that perfection is not needed. One needs to do the best one can under one's circumstances. Persevere and do not get psyched out and defeated. (Amy Jarmon)
Wednesday, April 24, 2013
Remember the awkwardness of middle-school and high school dances if you weren't attending as half of a couple? Males stood on one side while the females hung out on the opposite side of the gym. To walk across the divide to ask for a dance was intimidating. And mortifying if you got turned down flat under the watchful eyes of everyone else.
Some students had the herd instinct and stuck with a group of other unattached attendees. At best they would get out on the dance floor en masse. At worst they would chat with friends while being among the non-selected.
I was thinking today about how so many things in law school echo back to those days of social uncertainty. (For some, college was no better; however, most felt a bit more daring and socially adept by then.)
For example, you are herded into an auditorium during Orientation with hundreds of other new 1Ls and expected to get acquainted or at least fit in somehow. There may have been a major welcome luncheon on the first day. If seats were not assigned by section, then the undergraduate friends who are now attending law school together clumped into little groups at the tables, secure in having "dance partners." Everyone else felt as though a flashing, neon sign with an arrow exclaimed "unpaired." If seating was by sections, then at least the unfamiliar 1Ls at the table knew they had something vague in common and could swap rumors about their professors and courses.
Socratic Method is a bit like a dance invitation - except you really shouldn't take the option of turning down the professor (pass is not any more exceptable than no thanks). And at times students feel they are trying to follow their professor dance partner without any idea of the dance, let alone the actual steps. Some professors are strong leaders - question by question as they show students the steps and lead them through the analysis. Others seem to whip you around the dance floor until you are dizzy. A few others even step on your toes so to speak as they point your errors out to the class. Only a few students are brave enough to venture out on the dance floor by volunteering.
Then there is the legal research and writing dance. One is supposed to learn the steps to an alien type of analysis and writing by doing it. For those with two left feet in legal analysis and legal writing style, learning by doing seems totally unhelpful. Research paths are supposed to be dance lessons for research, but some students are improvising too much to end up with the correct moves. Arguing both sides of the issue seems a lot like not being able to decide who should lead. And then second semester appellate briefs feel a lot like doing choreography before one knows all of the dance steps and appropriate rhythms.
Sections help with the herd instinct because you are all in it together. Then with 2L and 3L years, everyone scatters to different courses, certificate programs, dual degrees, and student organizations. Many law students find themselves in new courses with new professors and law students from other sectioins or upper-division students that they don't know except as vague faces in the halls. They have to decide whether to stay alone in the experience or turn to other students and ask "Do you wanna dance?" (Amy Jarmon)