Law School Academic Support Blog

Editor: Amy Jarmon
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Friday, June 16, 2017

Why Being Bad at Something Is Good for You

A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education lauded the importance of trying things we are bad at, practicing, and becoming better. Carol Dweck's growth mindset concept, a concept known to many ASPish readers, is mentioned in the article. The article is found here: The Importance of Being Bad at Something.

June 16, 2017 in Learning Styles, Miscellany, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Winning Bar Exam Answers: Writing for Points or Writing to Impress?

Just the title of this blog might seem sacrilegious.  But, in the midst of the daily work in bar exam preparations this summer, I've come across an interesting trend.  It seems like no one preparing for the bar is convinced that they can write a passing essay answer, particularly when comparing practice answers to the multi-page point sheet or the line-by-line perfect answers often provided by commercial bar review companies.  

In short, bar exam studiers often feel like they missed the mark (and aren't even close to earning a passing score).  That can lead to a frustrating cycle of trying the next time to write an answer that resembles the massive point sheet, only to learn once again that one didn't quite get all of the points (or even half of the points).  Unfortunately, over time, essay answers start to look like point sheets rather than the written work of professional attorneys, and, no wonder.

But, in most states in which graders assess answers based on holistic relative grading, point sheets miss the mark, too. That's because in holistic grading the Supreme Court graders are not looking for points but rather are reading answers for the substantive quality of your writing and legal problem-solving.  So, here's a tip.  

Instead of practicing to write for points on your bar exam this summer, try to write to substantively impress your reader with the qualities of your professional writing and the substance of your well-thought out argument. In other words, write to impress...because...in holistic grading, that's exactly what the graders are looking for.  Of course, the impressions must have substance, i.e., demonstrating the work of an attorney.  So, with that in mind, here's a technique to assess and perfect your essay writing.   Instead of calculating whether your practice answer got all of the points, take a look at the much-shorter outline rubric provided by many bar review companies.  Then, glance through your answer to see if you hit the major issues and if your writing professionally flows.  In holistic grading jurisdictions, that's really meeting the mark, and meeting it well.  (Scott Johns).

 

June 15, 2017 in Bar Exam Issues, Bar Exam Preparation, Bar Exams, Learning Styles, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Bar Review Learning: What Happens in Lectures--Ought Never To Stay in Lectures!

In contrast to the promotional tourism slogan of a famous gambling city in Nevada, what happens in bar review lectures...ought never stay in lectures.  

Here's what I mean.  Too often what we learn during bar review lectures is never really put to the immediate test.  Rather than diving into practice essay and MBE multiple-choice problems that very day of a bar review lecture, we often tend to whittle away precious time by reviewing our lecture notes, re-reading bar review outlines, or, worst yet, re-watching lecture videos (because we are worried that we didn't catch every fine point made during the course of a four-hour bar review lecture).  In short, we continue to stay in the lectures by staying in a passive "lecture-like" mindset.  

However, that's not the way to learn to prepare for the bar exam because the bar examiners don't ask us to recite bar review lectures or demonstrate that we memorized our lecture notes.  Rather, the bar examiners demand that we show that that we can engage in active problem-solving.  So, if you are preparing for the bar exam this summer, get activated; get moving; get going by tackling lots of bar exam problems right after you complete each bar review lecture.  You become the master rather than watching others demonstrate mastery in solving bar exam problems.  It will be challenging.  That's because learning is incredibly difficult.  It takes all of our heart and mind.  It means making lots of messy mistakes.  It requires being comfortable with ourselves in realizing that it is not natural to know how to do things.  In short, it takes lots of work and perspiration in straining and stretching ourselves to tackle things that we couldn't previously do.  That's why we call it learning.  

So, instead of spending most of bar prep watching others solve legal problems, get into the action, the real action of learning, by breathing life into the bar review lectures as you work step-by-step through lots of bar exam essay and MBE multiple-choice problems.  Although it will feel mightily uncomfortable, you'll be mighty glad you did when you take your bar exam because you'll be ready to demonstrate to the bar examiners that you are an expert legal problem-solver, "bar none."  (Scott Johns).

June 1, 2017 in Advice, Bar Exam Issues, Bar Exam Preparation, Bar Exams, Learning Styles, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Expressive Writing

Hat tip to Barbara McFarland, Assistant Professor of Law and Director of Student Success Initiatives at Chase College of Law - Northern Kentucky University, for sharing a link to a New York Times article on this topic and supporting research. The link to the article can be found here.

May 28, 2017 in Miscellany, Study Tips - General, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Turning Bad News Into Great Opportunites: Helping Repeaters Become "Fresh Start" Bar Passers

It's that time of year.  In the midst of many celebrations over bar passage, let's be frank.  There are many that are not celebrating.  Their names were not on the list of bar exam passers.  It's especially rough this time of year because it's also graduation season.  And, for some, it's not the first time that they've found themselves in this situation; it's a repeat of the last time around.

For aspiring attorneys that did not pass the bar exam, most don't know where to turn.  Often embarrassed, many with significant debt loads, most feel abandoned by their schools, their friends, and their colleagues.  All alone.  

I'm not expert in helping with turnarounds. But, I'd like to offer a few tips that have seemed to be quite helpful in helping repeaters change history to become "fresh start" bar passers.  

First, as academic support professionals, reach out to each one.  Make yourself available on their terms.  Let them know that you care.  Let them know that you are mighty proud of them, success or not.  Support them, one and all.

Second, give them breathing room, lot's of time and space to grieve.  Don't push them into diving back into the books.  Don't lecture them.  Rather, assure them that they don't need to get cranking on their studies.  Help them to be kind to themselves.  It's not a matter of just hitting the books again, and this time, doubly-hard.  Instead, they need to take time out to just be themselves.

Third, when they are ready, set up a "one-with-one."  Notice: I did not call it a "one-to-one".  Rather, set up an appointment or meeting in a place of their choosing at a time that works for them in which you sit side by side, on the same side of the table or desk or cafe.  They are not bar exam failures; they are real law school graduates.  They earned their parchments. So, listen to them as colleagues on the same side of doing battle on the bar exam.  Let them talk and express themselves as they'd like. Hear them out.  How are they feeling?  What went right?  What's their passion?  What saddens their hearts?  

Finally, whey they are ready, make a copy of one of the essay problems that didn't go so well.  Better yet, make two copies, one for each of you!  That's because you are on the same team.  Set aside 15 or 20 minutes and just ask them to mark up the question, brainstorm what they are thinking, and jot down the issues that they see.  But...and this is important...tell them that you don't expect them to remember any law at all. Period.  And, you do the same.  Exactly the same.  Don't peek at an answer key or even their answer. Instead, try your hand too; wrestle with the same question that they are wrestling with.  

Then, come back together to listen, ponder, and share what you both see as the plot of the essay question, the issues raised by the storylines, and the potential rules that might be in play.  Once you've done all this prep work together, now, look at their answer.  This is important, just look.  Ask them what do they see? What do they observe? What went great for them? Where might they improve?  In short, let them see that they have "inside information" about themselves based on their own personal bar exam experience and answers that they can capitalize to their advantage.  Most often in the midst of working together, graduates tell me that they realize that they knew plenty of law to pass the bar exam.  In fact, most are amazed at how well they memorized the law.  And, that's great news because it means that they don't need to redo the bar review lectures at all.  They know plenty of law.  That frees up lots of time during the bar prep season to instead concentrate on just two active learning tasks.  

First, they should daily work through loads of practice problems (essays and MBE questions).  Every one that they can get their hands on.  

Second, they should keep a daily "journal" of the issues and rules that they missed when working over problems (to include tips about the analysis of those rules).  

Just two steps.  That's it.  There's no magic.  But, in not redoing the lectures, they will find that they have plenty of time to concentrate on what is really important - learning by doing through active reflective daily practice.  Countless times, it's through this process of a "one-with-one" meeting that we have seen repeaters turn themselves into "fresh start" bar passers.  Now, that's something to celebrate!  (Scott Johns).

 

May 18, 2017 in Bar Exam Issues, Bar Exam Preparation, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Part II: Learning & Justice: An Academic Achievement Necessity!

In a previous blog, I wrote about the question of justice, namely, that learning the law without learning to think about what is the right thing to do is, in short, to be learning aimlessly, to be learning without sprit, to be selling our students short.  It is an empty vain experience.  What Does Justice Have to Do with Learning the Law? Everything!

And, as a consequence of our (my) failure to so often talk about principles of justice throughout our (my) classes, we are often creating a toxically-damaging learning environment because our students came to law school not to just memorize cases but to learn to do justice.   Thus, without actively incorporating discussions of justice within our courses, our students JUSTIFIABLY feel like justice has very little to do with why they came to law school in the first place.  No wonder they struggle so often to feel like they fit in.  They don't.  

But, it's not because they don't fit in law school.  Rather, its because we don't fit in law school because we are so often not getting at the real root of the purpose of our legal education, namely, righting and healing and restoring relationships in a broken fragile world.  As a consequence, we should not be surprised when our students are not jazzed about our intricate discussions and hyperactive hypotheticals that are so often devoid of heartfelt life yearings.  

So, that brings me to a suggestion on how to incorporate principles of justice within the study of law.

First, be bold.  Name it.  Let your students know that justice is difficult, its edgy, its often amiss.

Second, provide a framework.

As a tool, it might be helpful to explore possible ways to think about what the right thing to do might be.  As set out by Dr. Michael J. Sandel in his wonderful book entitled "Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?," there are three major principles that we might look towards for guidance as to justice: (1) the welfare principle; (2) the freedom principle; and, (3) the virtue principle.  http://justiceharvard.org/justice-whats-the-right-thing-to-do/  Please note:  If you happen upon Amazon, you can browse the first chapter of his book to brilliantly capture the scope of the three approaches.  If not, here's my own simplistic version:

Justice

1.  The Welfare Principle might also be called the "Mostest-for-the-Greatest" principle (or, as philosophers call it, the utilitarian principle).  In brief, the right thing to do according to this principle is what would bring the greatest benefit to the greatest number in society.  We often see this play out in constitutional litigation concerning something like the "undue burden" test in dormant commerce clause cases.  It's a balancing test.  We balance the burden on interstate commerce against the benefit to local state interests in order to see which might maximize the greatest good or utility or benefit.  In another context, we see this principle called to duty - so to speak -  in tort law concerning what a reasonably prudent person might due under similar circumstances.  Finally, this principle is often discussed in the course of environmental litigation as to the benefits of environment regulation versus the societal costs.

2.  The Freedom Principle seems to be widely adored but rarely advocated, at least in my survey of government litigation concerning constitutional rights issues.  We might label this as the "Absolutist" principle, namely, that certain rights are absolutely off-limits from government coercion or usurpation or abolition.  Think of freedom speech or freedom of religion.  But, as we quickly learn in constitutional law, the First Amendment freedom of speech can be heavily regulated by the government provided the government provides a sufficiently "good" reason.  For example, when the government silences a particular subject, it generally must meet strict scrutiny analysis by demonstrating that the restriction is necessary to achieve a compelling government interest.  So much for absolute protection!  Thus, we most often see the freedom principle give way to other perhaps competing arguments as to justice, often based on the welfare principle or the virtue principle.

3.  So, that brings us to the Virtue Principle.  We might call this the "Honor" principle.  Think of the marriage cases.  The issue in the marriage cases, at its roots, centered upon what sorts of marital relationships ought to be honored, with the court holding that the purpose of marriage is fundamentally about society honoring committed loving relationships among consenting people.  In contrast to the arguments of many states, marriage is not fundamentally about children.  Thus, the court, seeing that states honored opposite sex marriages but not same sex marriages, reasoned that all marriages regardless of gender must be honored the same because gender is irrelevant to the issue of loving relationships.  In other words, the right thing to do is to honor consistently all marital relationships that share the same fundamental marital characteristics.  In short, the court found that it was unfair to honor only opposite sex marriage but not other marriages because the failure to do so is dishonorable and not virtuous.  Justice requires giving honor to what is deserving honor.

Now, as we see from many of the cases covered throughout law school, the courts are often bouncing haphazardly among these various conceptions of justice (and more) without saying what they are doing.  Shame on them!  That's where these principles of justice can come in mighty handily in law school classes.  Let's get them out in the open!  It's not that these principles will necessarily determine what is the right outcome in a particular case.  But, arguments about these principles are what is at root in most cases.  And, as complex people with many attachments and predispositions, we will start to see that we often favor one principle of justice at the expense of another (which is to say at the expense of others).  So, just reflecting on these principles with our students can help our students better understand and appreciate how they can participate - as future attorneys - in helping to make society a little bit more just for the next generation.  And, that's a great thing to learn in law school!  (Scott Johns).

 

May 11, 2017 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Learning Styles, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Does Social Media Take Over Your Day?

Periodically I have discussions with law students about their struggles to cut back on or cut off entirely from the hold that social media has on their lives. They realize that they are spending inordinate amounts of time and damaging their productivity in law school. A post on Inside Higher Ed by a graduate student addresses this same issue and offers some insights on the difficulties and successes: Breaking Up With Social Media.  (Amy Jarmon)

April 30, 2017 in Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Learning Does Not Necessarily = Understanding (That Can't Be True, Could It?)

"What I am going to tell you about is what we teach our physics students...It is my task to convince you to not turn away because you don't understand it.  You see my physics students don't understand it...That's because I don't understand it.  Nobody does."  

- Dr. Richard P. Feynman, QED:  The Strange Theory of Light and Matter (Princeton :  1985)

 Recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics - 1965

Students and teachers, let me ask a question:  

Is it hard to learn, I mean really difficult, so much so that you aren't sure that you are getting it?  

I went through law school thinking that I didn't learn anything because I didn't understand anything.  And, it's true!  I didn't understand anything!  But, I did learn.  

So, here's the truth.  We don't have to understand it all to learn the law.  Rather, true learning comes through realizing that we don't understand it all; that we have lots of unanswered questions; that we are puzzled and perplexed beyond belief.  That's downright uncomfortable but that's learning for you!

However, that makes me worried, as a teacher, because I've started to think that I understand the law, that I understand legal analysis, that I understand how to carefully craft a persuasive legal argument.  

But no one really understands the law.  How could one?  

When I start to think that I understand the law, I end up making it all so simple that what I am teaching or studying or reviewing no longer has any correspondence at all to reality.  So, let's face the music.  That's a grave error because life is not simple (and the law is all about disputes among real actual complicated live people).

So, as you prepare for your finals (and teachers as you reflect on your teaching), do yourself a big favor and be comfortable with uncertainty.  Don't feel like you need to understand it all.  Rather, jump into the materials; they are full of suspense and conflicts with puzzles abounding in all directions.  And, that's a good thing because that's the life of the law.  So, feel free to be honest with yourself and say that you don't understand it all.  And, in the process, you'll have taken one mighty big step on the path to true learning!  (Scott Johns).

 

 

April 27, 2017 in Exams - Studying, Learning Styles, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Final Exam Prep: Lessons from the Hudson River Crash – Pilot or Passenger?

Over the years, I’ve seen many students struggle in preparing for final exams, particularly with uncertainty about how best to prepare.

Without exception, that leads to a question.  In the past, how have you learned to solve problems?  And, without exception, students say that they learn to solve problems…by practicing problems (usually with lots of ups and downs, turbulence, and bumps and bruises).  That’s because we don’t learn how to solve problems by watching others solve problems.

And, that’s the rub about law school learning. 

Simply put, much of our law school experience has been us watching others solve problems (whether observing a professor run through a hypothetical problem, listening to a student in Socratic dialogue, reading and briefing cases, or even in the midst of preparing massive outlines as study tools).  Unfortunately, you are not tested on your case briefs, outlines or study tools.  Rather, you are tested on your abilities to solve legal problems. 

So, here’s the key.  Change your focus from passive learning into active learning by grabbing hold of lots of practice problems, sweating over them, stretching yourself through them, and exercising your “brain muscles” in tackling complex legal issues.  In short, take charge of your own learning by practicing lots of final exam problems. 

To help you visualize what active learning for final exams might look like, here’s a short video animation of the Hudson River airplane crash, spliced with the pilot and aircraft controller communications.  

First, as you watch the video, you’ll can see that all is calm.  It’s a great smooth takeoff.  The flight is well on its way to a far-away destination, and, then, suddenly, there’s flock of geese in the way.  That’s how I always feel when I practice exams. All is relatively peaceful and then I turn to the first question and it looks like I’ve just flown into a flock of geese with my engines flaming out as a result.  So, here’s lesson one – prepare for geese.  You will have problems that are difficult on your final exams.  But, you won’t learn how to tackle them until you start working through them first, well, right now, before you take your final exams.

Second, notice the pilot’s voice.  Is it calm or ruffled?  Yes, the engines have quit.  Yes, the plane is not flying to a far-away place anymore.  But, it is still an airplane. It still has wings and radios. It is still flying.  It’s just not going to Chicago or Phoenix or Los Angeles today. So, here’s lesson two – don’t ever give up, even in the midst of your exam prep and final exams.  Keep flying your airplane.  Keep working on learning by doing.

Third, as you continue to watch the video, you’ll start hearing lots of air traffic controllers trying their best to help the pilot make a successful return, first to New York City’s LaGuardia Airport and then to Teterboro Airport across the Hudson River in New Jersey.  The controllers are busily clearing runways and directing the pilot to turn to this heading and that course.  But, the pilot stays in control.  Finally, the controllers ask which runway the pilot would like to land on, and, instead, the pilot says – frankly and calmly – the Hudson River.  So, here’s lesson three – fly your own airplane.  Don’t let others control your destiny.  You’re the one that is taking the exam (not those that are giving you lots of advice).  And, only you know yourself.  So, make your own decisions.  Just like pilots do, practice solving legal problems through lots of "simulator flight" time.

Here's the secret about learning. You see, that wasn’t the first time that the pilot lost his engines in flight.  The pilot had experienced dual engine failure lots of times…in the simulator.  Yes, the pilot had read the horn books on how to land on a river, the cases of previous airplanes successfully ditching in the water, and the manuals on how to stay calm and collected in the midst of a flock of geese.  But, reading is not sufficient to learn how to fly an airplane.  That’s because no one learns to fly by reading about flying.  You learn to fly…by flying.  Similarly, you learn to solve legal problems…by solving legal problems.  So, get flying today as you prepare for your final exams tomorrow.  And, good luck on them all!   (Scott Johns).

 

 

 

April 20, 2017 in Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

One, Two, Buckle My Shoe

What could this old nursery rhyme have to do with law school?

It reminds us to take one step at a time to accomplish a task.

Huh? Well, think about it this way . . . .

Most law students right now are madly juggling a long list of tasks for multiple projects. They are preparing for class each day. They are finishing assignments or papers. They are keeping up with outlines. They are reviewing for exams. They are completing practice questions. And, they are doing all of these things for multiple courses at the same time.

Many of them are feeling scattered and a bit frantic. They dart from task to task and feel exhausted at the end of the day. They are losing sleep, eating junk food, and feeling overwhelmed.

And, they lament that there is no time to get everything done.

So, just as in the nursery rhyme, it is time to get organized, have a plan, and take one step at a time. Here is an approach that helps many students get control of exam review:

  • For each exam course, list all topics with their subtopics that will be on the final exam. (Warning: The list will be long because it is subtopics, but they can be completed more quickly than whole topics.)
  • Focus on learning and understanding the subtopics. (You will want some later time for practice questions, but understanding has to come first.)
  • If you already understand any subtopics well enough that you could walk into the exam on those, highlight them on the list to show completion.
  • For the remaining subtopics that you have already covered in class, estimate how much time you need to understand that subtopic well enough to walk into the exam. (Estimates may be minutes or hours depending on the subtopic's difficulty.)
  • Total your subtopic estimates for the material already covered in class for each course. (You will complete estimates for additional subtopics as they are covered later in class.)
  • Now compare your estimate totals for each course. You might have 12 hours for one, 15 hours for another, 20 hours for a third, etc.
  • Your totals help you see proportionately how much time you should devote to each course to learn what you have already covered in the course.
  • Schedule blocks of time each week to complete exam review to make progress on your estimated totals.
  • There will be some subtopics that need little time and can be slipped in between classes, while you wait for dinner to cook, etc.
  • As you complete each subtopic, remember to highlight it as completed.
  • All progress is forward progress. Whatever you can get completed before the end of classes means less to learn during exam period.

What if you have a paper to write? You can make a similar list for specific tasks within larger categories: tasks for research, writing, editing, citations, grammar and punctuation, format OR by tasks for paper sections if you prefer.

Step back from the jumble that you feel your life represents right now. Organize small steps within the larger units. Then take it step by step: one, two . . . . (Amy Jarmon)

April 18, 2017 in Encouragement & Inspiration, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The "TOC" Outline: It's All About Catching Up With Old Friends!

Feeling crunched for time to make a course outline.  Well, here's a tip to give you a jump-start if you've happened to wait until now to start making your outlines in preparation for final exams.

  1. Make a copy of the casebook table of contents (TOC) (and super-size it on 11 x 14 paper if you like to make hand-written outlines).
  2. If you are a hand-writer, then grab a pen and get ready to roll.
  3. If you are a typist or you like to make flashcards or flowcharts, then grab your preferred tool and list out the chapter subjects and the sections, giving your work lots of "breathing room" to input the cases and materials from the chapters.
  4. Brainstorm a short "sound-bite" for each case, one by one, and input that "blurb" into your outline.  Note:  Trust yourself!  Your blurb can just be a phrase or one sentence (two at the max).  That's because there's a learning concept called "useful forgetfulness."  The process of deciding what to put down (i.e., boiling the case or article down to its essence without re-writing verbatim your class notes or case briefs) leads to much deeper memory because, by volitionally choosing NOT to put everything down on paper, you are using your own brainpower to personally analyze what is really important about the case or article to you.  In other words, this is where learning happens...because...you've taken the time to distill it in your own words!
  5. Keep on adding in the short blurbs and, before you know, you've built a TOC outline.

One final note.  As I go back to review my class notes and cases to write my case blurbs, I try to skim for just the big concepts, i.e., as though I'm just trying to "catch up with old friends."  In other words, I'm just trying to get reacquainted, so to speak.  

Not sure what a case blur looks like?  Well, here's a sample:

Fisher v. Carousel (lunch buffet plate snatched from NASA mathematician's hand by restaurant work):  tortious battery includes contact either through direct physical touching or through touching an object intimately connected to a person because the purpose of battery is to protect human dignity from forceful violations that impact our minds and invade our wills.

In sum, as you can see from the example, I list the case name, I identify a few material facts, and then I re-write the holding of the case in my own words...with a slight twist...because I add the word "because" to explain the court's rationale.  And, there you have it:  a hand-dandy TOC outline!  (Scott Johns).

 

 

 

 

April 13, 2017 in Advice, Exams - Studying, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, April 6, 2017

"The Little Things Matter...If You Want to Change the World:" So Says Admiral McRaven

It's gone "viral."  Apparently it's the most watched graduation speech...ever.  That's great news for our world because the subject was about changing the world for the better.  So, here's the kicker, according to graduation speaker Admiral William McRaven (now chancellor at the University of Texas), it starts in the morning.  

That' right.  Start in the morning...with making your bed.  You see, according to McRaven, it's the little things that matter because the little things add up to bigger things, and the bigger things add up to big things, and the big things, well, add up to great things (at least that's my paraphrase of his speech). So, when you make your bed in the morning, you've already taken one mighty little step to taking charge over the issues that you are about to confront that day.  In short, even before you've reached school, you've demonstrated a success.  And, success begets success.  

That's particularly important in the study (and in the practice) of law.  I heard a speaker today say that the issue with lawyers is that lawyers overthink.  That made me think, of course, because I am a lawyer.  I overthink everything.  And, in my overthinking, I tend not to get moving because I don't know where to start.  So, instead of concrete positive action in trying to change the world, I'm often stalled in my thoughts, which leads to worry.  In short, I'm stymied, perplexed, and overstressed.  But, it doesn't have to be that way, according to Adm. McRaven.  If I just start each day with tackling a simple problem, I'll see progress.  And, as I start to make progress, I start to feel more confident, to believe in myself, in tackling even more problems on the way to changing the world.

Let's bring this back to the classroom.  In the study of law, we are so often afraid to "make our bed."  What do I mean by that?  Well, we spend way too much time overthinking the cases in our reading for classes that we never start using the cases to practice solving legal problems.  We stay in bed.  We hide under the covers.  We don't move into the morning by working through hypotheticals, testing ourselves, seeing if we can figure out how to solve legal problems.

So, here's my suggestion:  

Just start working on the little problems, the short hypotheticals. It doesn't have to be big gnarly essay questions.  In fact, start small.  But, start.  Grab pen and paper along with your notes and take a stab at solving a practice problem.  That will lead to solving bigger practice problems, which will increase your confidence to solve even more difficult problems.  And then, before you know it, you'll be witnessing your own graduation...as a brand new problem-solving lawyer...and well-prepared to change the world for the better too!  (Scott Johns)

P.S. Here's a video clip from part of the University of Texas speech: Step 1: If You Want to Change the World...

April 6, 2017 in Advice, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Some Foolish Study Decisions

Law students may be making some foolish study decisions as they realize their exams are only 4-6 weeks away. Now is the time when the rumor mill generates some study tips that on the surface may sound time-saving, but in reality are very foolish.

Here are some of the rumors that are passed around and the explanation why the study tip is harmful:

  • The rumor: Stop preparing for class and just focus on exam study. The harm if followed: Minimal class preparation is a sure way to miss the nuances in class discussion. You will not know what is or is not important without context from preparation. You will not know what the professor is skipping because you were expected to have learned and understood those points during your preparation. The new material will also be on the exam. Why act like it is not a priority? Be efficient and effective in your class preparation, but do not jettison it.
  • The rumor: Take all of your remaining class absences so that you have more study time. The harm if followed: Professors will make comments about the exam content and format during the last weeks. Do you want to depend on another law student passing on that inside scoop? For some courses, the last weeks of material pull the entire course together. Some professors test the last part of the semester more heavily because of the very important topics covered at the end.
  • The rumor: Have your study group divide up topics for the course so that each person focuses on one or two topics and then teaches the others what they need to know. The harm if followed: All this accomplishes is your being personally ready only for the exam questions on the topics you were assigned. You will know the gist of the other topics, but not have deep understanding of the material others have covered for you. Would you want a emergency room doctor who thoroughly understood broken bones, but only listened to others explain the gist of cardiac arrest?
  • The rumor: Spend your time doing practice questions in a study group with everyone chipping in on the possible issues and answers. The harm if followed: Study groups can be helpful for discussing practice questions after you have done them on your own: reading, analyzing, organizing an answer, and writing an answer. Group think without individual work does not tell you whether you would have spotted all issues, you would have thoroughly understood the analysis, and you would have written a solid exam answer. The group will not be with you in the exam to help you think through the questions.
  • The rumor: Spend as little time as possible on your 1L writing assignments because your doctrinal courses count for more credit hours. The harm if followed: A high grade in your lower-credit 1L research and writing course is still a high grade! It helps your GPA. Employers pay a great deal of attention to the legal research and writing grades. Employers realize you may have to gain some background on bankruptcy or environmental law; they expect you to know how to research and write already. You will depend on good research and writing skills every day as a lawyer.

If what the rumor mill is suggesting seems too easy, it probably is not good advice. Unsure about what you are hearing? Talk with the academic support professional at your law school to get good advice that will be based on efficient and effective study strategies that will get you more results. (Amy Jarmon)

April 1, 2017 in Exams - Studying, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Teaching Law: What's Justice Have to Do With Law (and Learning)?

Recently while teaching asylum law, we took some time in class to talk about justice.  How do we know what is the right thing to do?  What standard(s) should we use to decide whether a case result is just or not?  I was just about to recap our discussion when a student asked, poignantly, "What does Justice have to do with the Law?"

In brief, the student commented that very few classes ever even talk about justice, and, the student also asked me directly if I have ever even talked about justice as a litigator before the court.  Those were great questions.  And, the student got me thinking...deeply...because if what we are doing is not just, then we should be doing something else.  And, if we are not talking about justice, then, let's be frank, we are not engaging with our students in heart-felt learning because they came to law school - not to be mechanics robotically applying the law - but to make the world better, to make the world more just, in short, to restore and right and mend relationships.

As I reflected on my student's questions, I started to realize that implicit in much discourse concerning the outcome of cases are principles that manifest themselves in real impact on real people.  So, my first step was to refocus on teaching about the people (and not just the mechanical facts, issues, holdings, and rationales).  I try to find out what happened to the litigants.  I sometimes call the attorneys that litigated the case.  In short, I try to bring life to the cases that we read.  Second, I try to keep my eye out for opportunities to talk about whether the decisions in the cases that we study are just (and why or why not).  I try to make it explicit.  Third, as we talk about representing people, I bring up opportunities to appeal to courts by using principles of justice.  

So, that brings me back to learning.  It seems like many law students are just plain tired, primarily it seems to me, because we have taught them that the law is lifeless.  We've stripped the cases of all humanity.  We talk about cases as if they are just impersonal scripts, and, in the process, our students begin to feel like the lawyer's job is just to keep the machine going.  That they are a cog in a process that lacks life.  That law school is not a place to learn about how to make the world better but rather just a place that keeps the world going, faltering along, without improvement, growth, or hope.  Our students start to think that justice has very little to do with the law.  

Perhaps that is true.  But, it need not be so.  That's because in a common law system the law grows out of relationships and arguments presented by real people to real people to resolve real disputes based on real appeals to the heart.  So, as we teach our students, I need to help them empower themselves to speak boldly and think deeply about what the right thing to do is (and why).   And, when I do that, my students start to sit up straight, they take notice, they start pondering, thinking, and, of course, learning...because they realize that they do have something to say, something that is important, something that might actually someday make a powerful impact in the lives of others when incorporated into the common law.  In fact, our world needs their voices - all of their voices in order to realize justice for all.  

If you're looking for a place to learn how to incorporate justice into your teaching, here's a great source.  Professor Michael Sandel has a free web platform that focus on teaching justice with much of the discussion based on the law and litigation. And, in the process, you'll see a masterful teacher helping his students develop into learners.  http://justiceharvard.org/justicecourse/   (Scott Johns).

March 30, 2017 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Learning Styles, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Lost In Space: Try Case Charting to See Cases Fit Together to Form a Beautiful Constellation of Stars!

I grew up with a now-ancient children's TV show called "Lost in Space," in which a family of rocketeers meandered across the universe trying to find their way back home to Earth.  What's interesting to me is that they never seemed to look at the big picture, i.e., to consider a map of the stars in the universe, to try to navigate their way home.

Well, at this time of the semester, I often feel lost in space too (or rather..."lost in cases" without any sense of where I am headed or even where I have been!).  But, there's a cure and it is really quite a snap.  In brief, the key to no longer being "lost in cases" is to create a chart - a visually portrait - of the cases for each class.  And, it's not too late at all because you can start with your case reading for your very next class.  And, there's more great news.  It's a breeze to create!

So, here are the nuts and bolts for a "Case Chart" to help you (and me) make sense of the big picture of the cases:

First, I make a chart with columns for each of the cases that I am reading in preparation for a particular class (say Torts).  If I have just two cases, it will have columns as illustrated below.  But, if I have three or four cases, I'll just add more columns for each of the additional cases.

Second, I peek at the casebook table of contents or my class syllabus to identify the major concept that the cases illustrate.  In the lefthand column, I annotate that concept to help me see the big picture as to why I've been assigned to read these particular cases for this particular class.

Third, after reading each case, I just jot down a few "sound bites" or phrases for each of the identified items (material factoids, issue, rule, analysis, conclusion, and my insights).  I try to keep the facts super-short (to just a few "red hot" key facts that will help me remember the cases).  And, I use the word "because" in the analysis section to help me explain the court's application of the rules to the facts.  But, the most important items are the comments that you and I make in the bottom row of the case chart.  That helps me see how the cases fit together to explain or create a legal principle.

Major Casebook Concept Case No. 1 (Court and Date)  Case No. 2 (Court and Date)
Material Factoids    
Issue    
Rule    
Analysis    
Conclusion    
My Insights    

 

In sum, using a "Case Chart," I've created a nice tidy "map" that helps me navigate the celestial space of my own universe of case preparation and reading for cases.  Each case is like a "star" that I personally experienced.  Now, it's got a home in my chart.  And, because I can see that case's relationship with the other cases that I am reading for that particular class concept, I can start to see how the cases fit together to form a constellation that takes on the shape of a particular legal principle.  In short, I'm no longer just a meandering rocketeer.  I'm now on a mindful journey of learning...within the stellar universe of the law.  (Scott Johns)

 

March 23, 2017 in Learning Styles, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Doing IS Learning!

In a commentary entitled "Doing is the Key to Learning," physicist Frank Wilczek reflects on learning, writing that "[t]he fear of making mistakes is a great barrier to creativity.  But if you're ready to learn from them, mistakes can be your friends.  As I have often advised students, 'If you don't make mistakes, you're not working on hard enough problems--and that's a big mistake.'"  "Wilczek's Universe," Wall Street Journal, January 21, 2017, p. C4.

You see, sometimes we are too afraid to learn...because...we are too afraid to make mistakes.

But, there is NO learning without mistakes.  That's particularly true at this stage of the semester when final exams still seem so far away.   So, rather than trying practice problems or meeting with others to discuss hypotheticals, we avoid practicing exam hypotheticals because we often don't feel like we are ready to practice...because we don't feel like we know enough yet to take a try at problem-solving.

That's the BIGGEST mistake of all because learning is hard.  Practice is hard.  It involves trial and error (and even lots of trials and lots of errors!).  In the process, we find out what we know (and what we don't really know). It involves making lots of mistakes before we start seeing any great successes at all in our problem-solving abilities.  And, let's be frank:  That is just downright humbling.  It's frustrating.  It's embarrassing.  So, we avoid practicing because we want to avoid making mistakes.

So, here's the key:

To REALLY learn, embrace mistakes as golden opportunities for growth.  Grab hold of them.  Relish in them.  Bask in your mistakes because without mistakes you really aren't learning...for it is in the process of making mistakes that you are teaching yourself things that you could have never learned through reading, or taking copious notes, or watching others solve legal problems.  In short, the key to learning in law school "is all in the doing" of law school. So, be bold, take a risk, hang it all out by being a law school problem-solver "doer!"  Oh, and don't forget, your professors became experts at problem-solving...because THEY MADE THE SAME MISTAKES THAT YOU WILL MAKE TOO.  (Scott Johns)

March 16, 2017 in Exams - Studying, Learning Styles, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Spring Break Shenanigans

It is spring break at my law school and it is very quiet. Most of the students have left for the break but a few remain. Some students are anticipating getting ahead in their academic work, working on legal writing assignments, or hoping to improve overall academic performance by starting to prepare for exams early. Other students continue to maintain their individual meetings with my office so I continue to interact with students. Although it is spring break, I find myself with much to do such as: (1) planning for the remainder of the semester, (2) planning for a part of the summer, (3) checking-in with students who recently sat for the bar exam, and also (4) getting some rest.  Additionally, I try to take a day or two off from work to laze around or simply take care of household responsibilities because I know that I will have to wait until July for the next lull.

Spring break is typically a time when I am able to make “small talk” with my colleagues when I take breaks away from my desk. It is also a time when I can leave the building for lunch because attempting to leave the building when school is in session is a challenge due to back to back meetings throughout the day. Even when I am able to leave the building for lunch, I encounter difficulties finding a parking space upon my return because parking is also a challenge. Today, in recognition of International Women’s Day, I had lunch with a female colleague I have been trying to meet-up with for several months. Happy International Women’s Day to all Academic Support Professionals who self-identify as female! (Goldie Pritchard)

March 8, 2017 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, February 20, 2017

Why is using another person's outline or a commercial outline ineffective?

Law students are always looking for shortcuts. The problem is that a shortcut by definition is not efficient or effective: it is cutting corners. Yet year after year, students listen to the upper-division student myth that you just need to get another outline and not make your own.

So let's get it out in the open before it is too late in the semester to still create a good outline of your own: learning occurs when you grapple with material and process it yourself.

  • Using a secondhand outline means that someone else learned and processed, you did not.
  • A borrowed outline means that you become a parrot who can recite the information without understanding that information.
  • You need to understand the law at a deeper level that you reach by outlining if you want to apply it adeptly to new legal scenarios on an exam.
  • Each person learns differently; another person's outline or a commercial outline may not match how you need to process material to learn.
  • A professor's change in perspective on a course, legal reforms, or a different casebook can all make a prior outline inaccurate - or even obsolete.
  • A commercial outline is for a national audience and rarely matches your professor's structure, emphasis, or state jurisdictional focus.
  • The quality of the borrowed outline may be suspect if you do not know the grade that was received for the course.

Looking at another outline for format ideas and to check for missing concepts or nuances if legitimate. But depending on it instead of doing your own hard work is asking for deficient learning. (Amy Jarmon)

February 20, 2017 in Exams - Studying, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Should I Be My Students' Teacher or Their Coach?

I just came out of a great conference.  However, it wasn't a great conference because it made me feeling better.  In fact, I left the event realizing how far I often fall short of the mark as a teacher.  But, it was great...in the sense that I learned (or perhaps re-learned) some key principles...that I can bank on in trying to BECOME a better teacher.  

So, let me cut to the chase.  Based on the principles shared by conference leader Dr. Maryellen Weimer, Professor Emeritus at Penn State University, I started to think that I might be trying too hard to teach my students.  That's right.  I might be trying so much to help my students learn that I leave very little for them to do, which is to say, that I leave them no room for learning.

You see, according to Dr. Weimer, I can't actually "learn anything for my students."  Rather it's my students that are the learners.  And, to be frank, learning is just plain hard work.  It's messy.  Its discomforting.  It's even downright excruciating sometimes.  But, I often don't want my students to feel that sort of uncomfortable frustration that is required to generate real learning.  Or, as Dr. Weimer put it, "we are often doing a lot of the hard messy work of our students" by making decisions for them, which, if true, means that our students are not truly learning.  In short, we are just teaching them to be dependent on us rather than coaching them to succeed as independent learners, to put it in my own words.

So, my sense is that my students need less of me as a teacher and more of me as a coach.  They need me to step out of the limelight, to give them fresh air to try, to let them work hard and ponder mightily as they grapple with the course materials.  That's because learning is personal.  It therefore requires lots of practice.  It requires deep engagement in the materials.  It requires sometimes (or even often) failing.

But, as Dr. Weimer pointed out, my students often do not see me fail.  Instead, they often see me demonstrating how to succeed (i.e. teaching!).  But, I didn't learn the materials through success.  Rather, I learned the materials through lots of rough 'n tumble practice (and that means through lots of trials, errors, and downright embarrassing mistakes).

So, Dr. Weimer encouraged me (us) to open up with our students, to admit our mistakes, to let our students have empowered agency to personally engage with the materials.  In short, it's time for me to teach from the sidelines, and, that means that I am not "making the big plays for my students." Instead, I am their coach on the sidelines and they are the players moving the ball downfield as learners.  That's a game that I am excited about watching.  Oh, and by the way, taking Dr. Weimer's words to heart, I admitted to my students just today that I have made lots and lots of mistakes on the path to learning how to become a lawyer, and it was through walking through those experiences that I truly learned.  (Scott Johns).

February 9, 2017 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Learning Styles, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Dr. Martin Luther King, "The Letter from the Birmingham Jail," and IRAC?

Continuing from Professor Goldie Pritchard's excellent post yesterday regarding "Student Motivation and MLK Celebration Day," on April 13, 1963, Dr. King penned one of the most famous letters of all time: "The Letter from the Birmingham Jail."

In writing to fellow religious letters, Dr. King explained, in his words, that "I am in Birmingham because injustice is here."  Then, turning to the question about whether it was proper to engage in direct action in the form of sit-ins and marches, Dr. King defends civil disobedience, arguing that the root question was whether the segregation laws were just or unjust.  If unjust, then disobedience was justified.  

That led Dr. King to explain why the law was unjust in a very famous paragraph:  "Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an "I it" relationship for an "I thou" relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man's tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong."

Wow!  Impactful!  Poignant!  Straight to the heart of the issue!  Take a close look at the paragraph above.  Did Dr. King start with the issue?  After stating the issue, did he next state a rule and then explain the rule to his fellow religious leaders?  Moving on, didn't he next transition to an analysis of that principle by concretely applying the rule to the segregation laws?  Finally, look closely as Dr. King finishes with a succinct conclusion.  That's right...Dr. King's argument is structured in IRAC and yet Dr. King was not an attorney (rather, he earned a Ph.D. from Boston University).

When I first saw Dr. King's use of IRAC, I was shocked because I thought that IRAC was just a tool that lawyers used to analyze legal problems.  In short, I was convinced that my legal writing professor invented IRAC.  And, it felt SO unnatural to me...so mechanical...so impersonal...that I tried my utmost to avoid writing in IRAC.  

Looking back, I see my folly.  IRAC was not invented by attorneys. Rather, IRAC is the structural foundation for some of the most monumental moral arguments of all time.  In short, IRAC (what the rest of the world calls deductive reasoning) is powerful because it is a common form of analysis to all of us, long before we ever came to law school.  Simply put, we have been using IRAC for all of our lives, and yet, we just didn't know it.  So, take time out to reflect on the power of IRAC as a tool for persuasive analysis.  As demonstrated by Dr. King, IRAC can be the structural foundation for making moving moral arguments, arguments that in Dr. King's day led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  So, don't shy away from IRAC.  Rather, embrace it, refine it, polish it, and always, with an eye on what's the right thing to do.  In that way, paragraph by paragraph, you as a future attorney can make the world a better place for others.  (Scott Johns).

January 19, 2017 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Professionalism, Study Tips - General, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)