Wednesday, November 2, 2011
Thanksgiving approaches. Time for students to commit their study plans to writing! Here are my recommendations for students who want to prepare for exams AND enjoy their families and friends during a (partially) relaxed Thanksgiving break.
For each course, set target dates for completion of your outline (course summary), early completion of your briefing for class, and the number of practice exam questions you intend to answer. Thanksgiving Day is Thursday, November 24, 2011. Usually, law schools have no classes on the day before, Wednesday, November 23. Reading week and exams follow shortly after the semester resumes.
For many students, time with family and friends is too important to neglect at this time of year. Plan to relax! Writing out your detailed study schedule before November (then sticking to it) will allow you to relax, because you will see the relaxation as PART of the study plan instead of interference with it.
Example for Contracts class:
A. Outline completed by November 14.
B. All cases briefed for class by November 16.
C. 50 MBE questions answered by November 22.
D. 50 single-issue essay questions answered in writing by November 24.
E. 20 one-hour essay questions answered in outline form before reading week.
F. 15 one-hour essay questions answered under exam conditions by 3 days before exam date.
The next step is to break each of those (A through F) down into components. How many hours per week/day do you realistically estimate it will take you to complete your outline, and to brief the cases ahead of the class schedule? Spread those hours out on your daily calendar.
Do the same for the questions you intend to answer, including notes as to the source of the questions. You can start gathering questions today. Here's an idea: exchange questions with your study group, to share the burden of finding questions that address the issues you need to focus on.
Do this for each class, and you'll see that you have enough time between now and the date of each exam to prepare fully, so that you can enter the exam room with well-deserved confidence!
Look in your law library for an old issue of Student Lawyer Magazine, an American Bar Association publication ... Volume 33, Number 7, dated March 2005, includes an article I wrote entitled, "A Plan for Your Exams." The article provides a more detailed explanation of this exam study plan! (djt)
Monday, October 10, 2011
Many students never read the syllabi for their courses. I have discovered both in teaching my three elective law classes and in talking with law students about academic success. Not only do they not read syllabi as a natural tendency, but they often don't even read them after prompted to do so by the professors.
My syllabus always includes course objectives for the course, the learning outcomes for the course, details on attendance and participation, details on the graded assignments, details on the final, tips for success in the course, reading assignments, and the usual university/law school policies: accommodations, attendance, religious holidays, cell phones. In short, I try to include everything that my students need to know about what they will be learning, how to succeed in that learning, and how they will be assessed.
Like many of my colleagues, I give my students a "tour" of the syllabus the first day of class. I point out the highlights and ask them to read the syllabus in detail before the next class. I tell them that I will take questions on the syllabus at the beginning of the class. There are rarely any questions.
Yet over the semester, I will repeatedly get questions from my students on things that were in the syllabus. The questioner will often start with "I was wondering if you could tell me" or "a group of us were wondering about" or "when will you tell us about."
In my academic success work, I regularly ask students questions about their final exam formats or project details or weighting of grades. Sometimes they will not know the information because the professor has not supplied any information. However, most often it is because they never read the syllabus.
When we look at the syllabus (often carefully filed in the front of their class folder or binder), we discover lots of useful information. They often looked surprised (and a bit sheepish) when we find each informational point that we need to strategize how to do well in the course.
Here are some things in many syllabi that can help students plan their studying and exam strategies:
- What is the range of pages for reading assignments during the semester? This information allows the student to build a routine time management schedule for reading and briefing for a course with a more realistic estimate for the amount of time.
- What are the deadlines or other dates important to the course? Any dates for paper outlines or drafts, assignments, midterms, or other items should immediately go into a daily planner or monthly calendar. Now the student is ready to "work backwards" to include the steps or study topics that must be completed to meet that deadline.
- What details are given about the papers, projects, or other assignments? The information in the syllabus will alert students to page-lengths of papers, group or individual participation on projects, possible re-write opportunities, Honor Code warnings, or other information that helps the student accurately gauge the assignment difficulty and logistics.
- What weighting is given to each graded portion of the class? If participation is 20% of a seminar grade, then the student better start participating! If the mid-term is 50% of the grade, then the student should take studying for it equally serious as the 50% final exam. If the advanced writing requirement paper must be of "B or higher" quality, then the student needs to distribute enough time throughout the semester to guarantee reaching that standard.
- Does the professor recommend any study aids or other supplements for the course? Any recommendation is likely to be a study aid that matches the course content and is considered reliable. Although the student may use other study aids as well, the professor's recommendation should be "a first stop."
- What will the exam formats be? Whether essay, multiple-choice, true-false, short answer, or some combination, the format tells the students the type of practice questions to do throughout the semester in preparation for the exam.
- Does the professor give any additional study tips for the course? Professors often know the pitfalls for students and make suggestions to assist them.
A careful read of the syllabus at the beginning of the semester can garner valuable information for the student. Misunderstandings of the expectations and requirements can be easily avoided. (Amy Jarmon)
Saturday, October 8, 2011
I just received a review copy of Barry Friedman and John CP Goldberg's Open Book, Succeeding on Exams from the First Day of Law School. While I have not had the chance to read the book closely, my first impression is that this is a book we will be seeing a lot in ASP. It is relatively short (180 pages) and uses cartoons and humor throughout. The structure of the book is clear; I can flip to the table of contents to find chapters on specific topics (IRACing, outlining, etc) without having to search. It starts with an introduction on how to use the book, which is especially useful, since most students do not know how to use exam skills books.
There are many good ASP books out there, but I think this one will get added to the pile I use and recommend to students. (RCF)
Saturday, August 6, 2011
Warning: this post is too long. Can we blame it on Amy? Thanks. Writing about stress a few days ago, Amy Jarmon suggested that our law students need to learn how to manage stress early in their careers. Hoorah, Amy! Yes, “…early in their careers…” is now.
If there is one universal and outstanding surprise to the new academic support professional it is this: it’s not all about showing students how to brief cases, read like lawyers, or handle study groups. There’s SO much more to academic support than that. I have had colleagues who (sort of) complained that they didn’t have enough time to get to the core skills (reading, briefing, note-taking, etc.) because they were inundated with requests – overt or subtle – to help cope with the meta-skills of handling time and stress.
Even more surprising (and here, I certainly include me as a surprisee in the first few years of academic supporting) is the fact that so many students honestly believe the road to success in law school is paved with formats for briefing, IRAC structures for exam writing, speed-reading techniques, quick and efficient course outline production methods, and fail-safe study strategies. Yup, those are important topics to cover. But they’re worthless if one does not (borrowing from Amy’s list) . . .
- Manage time carefully. Every student in this incoming first-year class has exactly one thing in common: 168 hours to use to his or her best advantage each week. If a student spends 8 hours each night sleeping – almost essential for most, and the first time rule to be broken by nearly every first-year student – that leaves 112 for studying law and handling the “other parts” of life. If one were to work a 65-hour week at law (not unlike many lawyers), that would leave 47 hours for exercise, church, shopping, cooking, eating, entertainment, _____, _____, and friends & family time. (Two blanks is enough, don’t you think?) Not bad. When you break the individual tasks associated with being a great law student down into their chunks, you can usually show students how 65 (okay, 70?) hours ought to be more than enough time to get the job done very well. More than forty hours completely away from the law is essential each week to maintain recognizable sanity. If students can learn to work within a framework similar to that, many of the time management issues will resolve.
- Recognize and minimize procrastination. I advise students to put off thinking about procrastination.
- Follow optimal sleep, exercise, and nutrition routines. Can you imagine hiring a lawyer who never slept a full night’s sleep, seldom left the office chair, and (remember: you are what you eat) lived on a diet of beer and junk food? Good luck I hope your lawyer isn’t representing you for anything important.
- Keep in touch with friends and family. Duh. Those who have loved you and supported you much or all of your life … uh, let’s see … could contact with them possibly help keep your head screwed on straight? But there’s more to it than that. The non-law-oriented spouse or significant other of a law student is in for some tough times. And the last one to notice the “change” in the law student’s behavior is (guess who) the law student. So all law students who have many hours of contact per week with someone who loves them but does not necessarily love the law need to receive some pretty strong advice about how to relate … and the non-student half of that equation needs a support group of some type as well (“No,” I have told some unfortunate adults in that position, “it’s not just you, and it’s not just her … it’s … it’s … well, it’s bigger than both of you – but you can handle it. You just need to know what to expect and how to get the job done. Love works.” (Sorry, I sometimes get carried away.)
- Talk to someone about the stress. Too many students find that most qualified people to talk to about stress is (either or both) their bartender or their equally stressed law student friends. Too few visit their Dean of Students, Academic Support professionals, law-school savvy psychologists, or other professionals who can support them and/or refer them. They need the way to these offices highlighted … like those little lights that the flight attendant promises will come on in case of an emergency to show you the way to the emergency exists. (Unfortunately, taping those yellow paper footprints to the corridor carpets is frowned upon by the Dean, and seldom works anyway.)
Help students realize that the “practice” of law begins near Orientation day. Help them (perhaps through a guest speaker or two at Orientation or soon after) realize that the pressures and stresses of law school (generally) pale when compared with those of the professional practice. “What you are practicing, students,” they need to know, “is less about how to revise a contract, and more about how to balance/juggle thirty things that need to be done during a day – with no possibility of ‘forgiveness’ if they are not all completed, and completed at your highest level of capability.” Would you hire a lawyer who settled for less?
Does this suggest that a trip to the gym for a 30-minute swim or a one-hour yoga class is more important than an hour in the library briefing a couple of torts cases? Not really … but it sure is meant to suggest that either one without the other will not lead to a student’s performance at his or her highest level of competence.
Teaching time and stress management ought to be a high priority in every academic support program. If the professionals in the department can’t teach it … by talk, by counseling, and most of all, by example … they ought to bring in those who can as guests. But … as you well know … he/she who is most stressed has no time to attend that guest presentation. And if you don’t believe that, stop by the cafeteria or the local pub later in the day and he or she will tell you.
We are not obliged to make every law student the best law student that person can be. But I think we are obliged to try as hard as we can to do just that. Your thoughts? (djt)
Tuesday, June 28, 2011
We have all heard it announced during law school orientation programs that law school is not like any other educational experience. We have all heard someone (or multiple people) tell the new students that it will be harder than anything they have done in prior education, that they will need to work harder than ever before, and much more.
There seem to be several reactions to these types of statements. Some students over-react by becoming very anxious, doubting their ability to succeed, and working themselves to the point of exhaustion. Some students under-react by assuming that the warnings only apply to everyone else in the room. Some students take the warnings to heart, react appropriately by learning the differences, and seek ways to study effectively for law school.
I think warning statements during orientation programs are ineffective with many students because the warnings do not include information on why law school is so different and why they will need to work harder. Without more information students are considering the statements in a vacuum.
Most new first-year students do not realize some of the items in the following list. They might be more likely to heed warnings about their upcoming experience with this information available.
Active learning is required instead of passive learning. Many incoming law students have come from educational environments that did not encourage them to be engaged learners. They attended lectures delineating everything that would be on the exam, and they were merely expected to regurgitate it for an A grade. Textbooks included all of the material for the course with little need for critical thinking or synthesis. Few writing assignments were long enough to require students to go beyond the obvious.
One grade is the norm rather than multiple grades in a course. Most college courses provided for multiple test or assignment grades. Grades addressed smaller chunks of material within the course rather than being comprehensive. With grades addressing manageable chunks, it was possible to cram for a few days before an exam or start an assignment right before the due date and still get a high grade. However, when one final exam grade covers 15 weeks of material, cramming no longer works. A paper that is expected to meet a legal standard of excellence cannot be written right before it is due. In addition, the anxiety level of the student increases because so much rides on the exam or paper.
"It depends" is the response rather than finding the right answer to a question. Many undergraduates study disciplines that have a correct answer as the goal. The easy cases in law never get to court. Law students are often surprised by the "it depends" nature of the law. They become frustrated with arguing both sides, looking for nuances in the law, and being uncertain of a final right outcome. In the very different world of legal analysis, they become disoriented and discouraged without the security of the "right answer" to comfort them.
Professors expect them to learn the basics before class and continue to analyze material after class. Many professors give guidance the first couple of weeks so that students learn how to read and brief cases for their particular courses. After that initial period, however, students are expected to analyze the cases and understand the basics before class. Professsors then begin to focus class time on more advanced discussion of the cases, the nuances in the law, and increasingly difficult hypotheticals. It is not uncommon for them to walk out of class without the answers to the hypotheticals discussed. Students may not be accustomed to having responsibility for learning material on their own. Many of them have only had to learn what was directly taught to them during all-encompassing lectures.
Learning the law is only the beginning and not the end of the process. Many first-year students misunderstand the place of black letter law in legal analysis. They think that memorizing the law will by itself give them an A grade. They do not understand that they must know the law, but then will need to be able to apply it to new facts on the exam. They must be able to issue spot, state the law, apply it to the facts through arguing for both parties, appropriately use policy, and draw conclusions. The application or analysis will give them the bulk of the points that they need.
Law school requires many more hours of studying outside of class. Many new law students only studied 10 - 20 hours per week outside of class during their undergraduate studies. They do not understand that law school will take far more hours if they want to get their best grades. 50 to 55 hours per week outside of class is typically required for A and B grades at most law schools. Many new students think reading and briefing are all they have to do regularly in addition to any legal writing assignments. They do not understand the necessity for regular outlining and review for exams. They think a few practice questions near the end will suffice.
If new law students can absorb these differences and truly understand them early in their studies, they will have greater incentive to take the warnings to heart. By learning how to study efficiently and effectively from the start, they can excel in law school with less stress. Unfortunately, many students will not take advantage of the services through their academic support offices and instead depend on past study habits or bad advice from upper-division students. The differences between law school and undergraduate education can be overcome most easily if new 1L students seek advice from the academic support professionals either individually or through workshops, podcasts, and other methods of dissemination of information at their law schools. (Amy Jarmon)
Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Helpful tips for students:
1) We learn better from re-working the material.
This piece of gold is hidden on the second page of the article. It's saying what we have said in ASP for ages; reading a canned outline, or memorizing the outline of a 2L who booked the course, will not increase learning. Re-working your own notes into an outline will help you learn the material.
2) Try one of the unusual font types for your outline.
"Think of it this way, you can’t skim material in a hard to read font, so putting text in a hard-to-read font will force you to read more carefully"
3) We overestimate our own ability.
One of the great lessons from law school exams: if you feel like you nailed it, you probably didn't. The material you are being asked to learn and apply on a law school exam is difficult and complicated. The majority of exams you will encounter as a law student have more complications and nuanced issues than you have time to answer. You should feel as if you didn't hit everything. If you feel like you knew everything on the exam, you probably oversimplified the issues.
4) We all take shortcuts. We all forget we take shortcuts.
Students should always take practice exams before finals. Actually taking the exam is important. Many students will read the fact pattern, "answer it in their head" or take a couple of notes, and then read the model answer. This is more harmful than helpful. Students will unconsciously overestimate what they understood if they have not taken the test and written a complete answer. This gives them a false sense of confidence. Students need to take a cold, hard look at what they understood and what they missed. the best strategy is to take the practice test under timed conditions with a study group, and correct answers as a group. This gives students a chance to discuss what they did not understand. It's easy to lie to ourselves, it's harder to lie to a group.
Summary of the article:
"Concentrating harder. Making outlines from scratch. Working through problem sets without glancing at the answers. And studying with classmates who test one another." These are the keys to learning more efficiently and effectively. (RCF)
Thursday, April 7, 2011
A common theme in my discussion with students this week is that there are not enough hours in the day. Many of them are starting to get stressed over the amount of work to fit into the amount of time left in the semester.
Part of the problem is that they are trying to juggled end-of-the-semester assignments and papers with ongoing daily tasks and review for final exams. It can seem overwhelming if one does not use good time management skills.
Here are some tips:
- Realize that you control your time. With intentional behavior, a student can take control of the remainder of the semester rather than feeling as though it is a roller coaster ride. Make time for what really matters.
- Work for progress in every course. If one focuses on one course to the detriment of the other courses, it creates a cycle of catch-up and stress. A brief might be due in legal writing, but that should not mean dropping everything else for one or two weeks. Space out work on a major assignment over the days available and continue with daily work in all other courses.
- Use small pockets of time for small tasks. Even 15 minutes can be used effectively! Small amounts of time are useful for memory drills with flashcards or through rule recitation out loud. 20 minutes can be used to review class notes and begin to condense the material for an outline. 30 minutes can be used for a few multiple-choice practice questions or to review a sub-topic for a course.
- Capture wasted time and consolidate it. Students often waste up to an hour at a time chatting with friends, playing computer games, watching You Tube, answering unimportant e-mails, and more. Look for time that can be used more productively. If several wasted blocks of time during a day can be re-captured and consolidated into a longer block, a great deal can be accomplished! For example, reading for class can often be shifted in the day to capture several separate, wasted 30-minute slots and consolidate them into another block of perhaps 1 1/2 hours.
- Use windfall time well. It is not unusual in a day to benefit from unexpected blocks of time that could be used. A ride is late. A professor lets the class out early. A study group meets for less time than expected. An appointment with a professor is shorter than scheduled. Rather than consider the time as free time, use it for a study task.
- Realize the power of salvaged blocks of time. If a student captures 1/2 hour of study time a day, that is 3 1/2 extra hours per week. An hour per day adds up to 7 hours per week. Time suddenly is there that seemed to be unavailable.
- Break down exam review into sub-topics. You may not be able to find time to review the entire topic of adverse possession intensely, but you can likely find time to review its first element intensely. By avoiding the "all or nothing mentality" in exam review, progress is made in smaller increments. It still gets the job done!
- Evaluate your priorities and use of time three times a day. Every morning look at your tasks for the day and evaluate the most effective and efficient ways to accomplish everything. Schedule when you will get things done during the day. Do the same thing at lunch time and make any necessary changes. Repeat the exercise at dinner time.
- Cut out the non-essentials in life. Save shopping for shoes for that August wedding (unless perhaps you are the bride) until after exams. Stock up on non-perishable food staples now rather than shop for them every week. Run errands in a group now and get it over with to allow concentrating on studies for the rest of the semester.
- Exercise in appropriate amounts. If you are an exercise fanatic spending more than 7 hours a week on workouts, it is time to re-prioritize. You may have the best abs among law students at your school, but you need to workout your brain cells at this point in the semester.
- Boost your brain power in the time you have. Sleep at least 7 hours a night. Eat nutritional meals. Your brain cells will be able to do the academic heavy lifting in less time if you do these simple things.
So, take a deep breath. Take control of your time. And good luck with the remainder of the semester. (Amy Jarmon)
Friday, January 7, 2011
Do you make resolutions each year for changed behaviors that you wish to implement during the coming year? Most of us do. And statistically, most of us are not successful at those resolutions. Why is that?
Well, we may set too many goals. We include a long list of behaviors that we want to change that would overwhelm any one human being. Suddenly we expect ourselves to improve in ten or twelve areas at once - usually areas that we have always struggled with during our lives. We resolve to lose 75 pounds, get rid of all debt, stop smoking, never procrastinate, eat more fruits and vegetables, do a major cleaning every week, be nice to everyone in the world who isn't nice to us, go to church every Sunday and Wednesday, save the whales, and .... You get the picture.
Our students often set too many goals at once as well. They tell themselves that they will get all A's, turn in every paper 3 weeks early, be President of six clubs, volunteer ten hours per week, work at the most prestigious law firm twenty hours a week, and do it all with full scholarships.
When we set too many goals that are all major changes or accomplishments at once, we become overwhelmed quickly. First, we feel pulled in a thousand directions and do not know where to focus. Second, we quickly realize our progress is minuscule or at least slow. Third, the moment we fail at one of the goals we are tempted to give up on that goal. Fourth, when we fail on one goal, we may assume we will inevitably fail at them all and become discouraged.
We also often set unrealistic goals. We want to make huge leaps in our lives instead of taking manageable steps that eventually will lead to that huge leap. We want to lose that 75 pounds NOW, instead of losing 1-2 pounds per week for however long it will take. We want to get rid of all debt NOW, instead of paying off one credit card balance at a time after we have cut up the cards.
Again our students set unrealistic goals. It is inevitable that my students on probation will announce that they will get only A's the next semester. Instead, they should focus on doing the best they can each day because it is consistent, hard work that produces good grades. Instead of declaring that every paper will be turned in three weeks early, they should focus on meeting each deadline for each stage of the paper on time or perhaps several days early. They should resolve to be a committee member or officer in one club and do an excellent job for that club.
We often fail to ask for help with our goals. We are more likely to succeed if we have help. Think about going to the gym - if you have to meet a friend there for a spinning class, you are more likely to attend. If a friend helps us stay accountable by pulling us out of the store when we get tempted by the $300 pair of shoes, we are more likely to avoid extra debt.
Some students feel ashamed of their weaknesses and avoid asking for help. But going it alone can be - well, lonely. If students align themselves with friends and family who will help them meet their goals, they will be more likely to succeed. A friend who encourages the student to read for class is far better than the friend who encourages one not to read or to go out for a drink. A sister who calls and asks for a list of what the student got done that day is trying to help the student stay accountable. Academic success professionals often help students with accountability by setting up regular appointments and asking the hard questions about the student's progress on academic tasks. Professors are happy to work individually with students who are sincerely working to improve.
Here are some tips for those New Year's resolutions that law students are contemplating:
- Limit the list to no more than 3-5 items that are truly achievable. Pick goals that one has a good probability of meeting rather than "pie in the sky" goals. For example, outlining every week in a course is achievable while making the world's best Commercial Law outline is not.
- For each goal, break it down into the small steps or tasks within the larger goal. As each small step gets crossed off, progress is made which serves as encouragement for more progress. For example, a paper can be broken down into all of the research, writing, and editing tasks.
- When back-sliding occurs, do not give up. Accept that everyone is human and get up and start again. For example, when one oversleeps and misses class, get the notes from a friend and move on - go to bed earlier, set two alarms, and get up when the first alarm goes off.
- Set up a support system that will help you achieve your goals. Ask family and friends to telephone regularly to discuss your progress, encourage you when you are having trouble, and praise you when you make progress. Find a mentor (professor, administrator, staff member, local attorney, or upper-division law student) who will actively support you in your goals. Ask fellow law students who are equally serious about changes in their grades/lives to team up as accountability and study partners.
Change can be daunting. Behaviors are learned. As a result, they can be unlearned. The longer a bad habit has existed, the longer it will take to replace it with a good habit. But, it can be conquered. (Amy Jarmon)
Saturday, December 18, 2010
Our law school upper-division students have apparently been telling the 1L's to spend the semester break reading study aid supplements for their spring courses. Now I have a great deal of respect for go-getters who want to receive good grades. But, I am not so sure that this advice to the 1L's is very good.
Here is why I am concerned about their reading up on their doctrinal 1L courses:
- The syllabi for 1L courses have not been posted yet. Consequently, they will be reading in the dark without knowing what topics and subtopics will be included in the course. Study aids typically include material for a national audience with all topics that might be taught by some professor. Rarely does a professor have time to cover all of that material.
- Each professor has his or her own slant on course material. Some professors have specific analysis frameworks that they want students to learn. Some professors are more policy oriented to the material. Some professors cover both state-specific codes as well as model codes. Without more information on the professor (by attending class and tutoring sessions), 1L students will read out of context and absorb the study aid's point of view which may not be the professor's slant.
- 1L students still have additional analysis skills and foundational areas of law to learn. They will be encountering concepts, terms, and new ways of thinking in their spring courses that are foreign to them. They may be working extensively with statutes for the first time. Trying to learn these new areas without class discussion and case readings may leave them more confused than grounded in a new subject area.
- Most 1L students are exhausted. They have been through a grueling first semester with constantly demanding concepts, formats of testing, legal jargon, and new study techniques. Many have not only lost sleep, but also eaten junk food and not exercised. For some, they have been stressed from day one of fall semester. Now they should relax, catch up on sleep, eat right, get on an exercise regime, and spend time with family and friends. For most, learning more law will not be a therapeutic endeavor.
It would be more helpful for them to read one or two books on academic success, legal reasoning, or exam-taking strategies if they are determined to do something law related. Books of these types will help them evaluate their study techniques and fill in gaps in their foundation of how to think about the law. Here are some books that they may want to consider:
- Charles R. Calleros, Law School Exams: Preparing and Writing to Win.
- John Delaney, How to Do Your Best on Law School Exams.
- John Delaney, Learning Legal Reasoning.
- Richard Michael Fischl and Jeremy Paul. Getting to Maybe.
- Wilson Huhn, The Five Types of Legal Argument.
- Michael Hunter Schwartz, Expert Learning for Law Students (with workbook).
- Andrew J. McClurg, 1L of a Ride: A Well-Traveled Professor's Roadmap to Success in the First Year of Law School.
- Ruth Ann McKinney, Reading Like a Lawyer.
- Herbert N. Ramy, Succeeding in Law School.
- Dennis J. Tonsing, 1000 Days to the Bar: But the Practice of Law Begins Now!.
I think it is very important for law students (whether 1L or upper-division) to return in January well-rested, happy, healthy, and energized. Spring semester will be just as long as fall - though hopefully a bit less overwhelming for the 1L's. (Amy Jarmon)
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
Recently I spent several days in the middle of the North Carolina mountains. I was on a farm far from any city. One night, we walked out into an open area away from the farmhouse lights and looked up into the evening sky.
There stretched above us in the sky were wide expanses of the Milky Way. Millions of stars twinkled in the heavens. Mixed in were bright stars and planets that beckoned with a brillance greater than their other shining companions. They intertwined in patterns above our heads.
Now I once upon a time as a child learned the basic constellations. However, I have forgotten most of my former star-gazing knowledge - and at its best, it was meagre. So, as I looked up, I felt disoriented.
Several scientists in the group began rattling off the constellations, planets, and stars. They quickly pointed out the patterns in the sky. They explained why certain bright points could or could not be planets. They talked about different quadrants of the sky and why we could not see this or that constellation. They conferred about how the array would shift by the next evening. They excitedly discussed the finer points of a comet that coursed through a constellation right on schedule.
Perhaps if I could have stretched out on my back in the grass and stared at the same segment for a good while, I could have absorbed all they were telling us. But, it went by too quickly for me. There was too much to take in at once. It was organized in a way that made sense to them, but which I couldn't fully follow because I didn't grasp all the basics that were second nature to them. I felt like I was getting a bit lost in the discussion because everyone in the group was interrupting with questions at different levels of understanding from where I was. I wished for a one-on-one tutorial so I could get up to speed. And suddenly it was over, not to be repeated another night.
Some of our students must feel in their courses that they are viewing the Milky Way far too quickly with too little understanding in the midst of too many rapid-fire comments and questions. I now remember how that feels. (Amy Jarmon)
Saturday, October 23, 2010
A number of my students have expressed concern about their inability to focus by late afternoon because their brain cells are, to put it simply, exhausted. They find they cannot learn one more rule, absorb one more concept, or read one more word.
At the same time, they feel pressured by the amount of daily work and the need to focus seriously on exam review. As a result, their stress and anxiety levels are soaring because their flagging focus is contrasted with an increased need to use every minute well. They feel guilty for taking a break in the afternoon instead of chugging on through their work.
Let's face it, law students expect the impossible from their brains. They want maximum performance at every moment without considering the realities of mental "heavy lifting." And, they want that maximum performance even if they are not taking care of themselves so that their brain cells are rested and nourished.
I suggest that my law students first evaluate whether their "care and feeding" regimens are sound.
- Are they getting a minimum of seven hours sleep a night with a regular sleep pattern (going to bed and getting up at the same time during the school week)? If not, their brain cells are fatigued and will not learn or retain as much. Tasks will also take longer when brain cells are tired.
- Are they getting three nutritious meals a day? If not, their brain cells do not have the nourishment for the mental tasks they are being asked to undertake. Junk food and sugar- or caffiene-rich foods do not count as nutritious brain food.
- Are they getting some physical exercise each week? If not, they are not expending stress that can impede focus. They are also not allowing physical exercise to increase their restful sleep to restore brain cells.
- Are they interrupting their concentration with electronic distractions? Today's students often constantly disrupt their concentration with cell phone calls, texting, IMing, and e-mailing. Even a few minutes disruption can alter study results. Self-discipline is needed to avoid being an electronic junkie. Inbox storage capacities and voicemail were invented for a reason - dealing with the inflow of items when it is convenient after dealing with important tasks first.
Once we have checked out the basics, I move on to some other possible suggestions to help them get over the afternoon slump in brain power.
- Lack of focus may be the result of low blood sugar levels in the body. A healthy snack (raisins, an apple, nuts, a granola bar) may give the boost needed to re-focus and get through the next class or assignment. Snacking on candy bars or drinking colas or energy drinks will temporarily give a boost, but result in a later crash.
- It is okay to take a break at the end of a long or difficult class day. It is not uncommon to have a brain slump in the late afternoon. This may be the perfect time to take a break for one or two hours to rejuvenate oneself before further study. However, students need to make sound decisions about their breaks.
- A workout break may be ideal because the student's exercise will defuse stress and promote better sleep later in the evening. Even a brisk walk outside for 15-20 minutes may have a positive effect.
- Running errands may be a useful break so that necessary tasks can be completed while getting a change from studying.
- Combining an hour dinner with an hour of workout or errands may be a smart move. Getting ones nutrition along with an entirely different task set can be reinvigorating.
- Sitting down at the computer to answer e-mails, surf the Web, or check out Facebook may not be the ideal break. These tasks tend to morph into expanded breaks - one hour becomes two hours. Also, sitting in front of a computer screen can be innervating rather than rejuvenating. If ones next study task is sitting in front of a computer screen working on an outline, the break period may actually increase the monotony of the follow-on study task.
- Watching TV or playing computer games may have the same downsides as a computer break.
- A power nap of twenty minutes might be useful. However, a two-hour nap is likely to disrupt that evening's sleep schedule and make one more groggy. (If a student needs long naps every day, then it usually means that a regular sleep schedule is lacking. If one gets seven or more hours per night during the same time period each night, the need for naps should disappear within two weeks.)
Students need to realize that the in-depth and critical thinking required when studying law willbe mentally exhausting at times. An appropriate period of down time before going back to the next demanding task is not unreasonable. Forcing oneself to continue studying when brain cells cannot absorb any more is counter-productive, frustrating, and stressful.
Many students can improve focus with greater self-awareness and common sense solutions. For students with severe, long-standing focus problems that do not respond to moderate changes in routine, there may other factors such as illness, anxiety disorders, learning disabilities, or ADHD interfering. Obviously, these types of problems would need to be diagnosed and treated by appropraitely trained professionals. (Amy Jarmon)
Monday, September 20, 2010
I have been doing a brisk business in appointments with 1L students who are overwhelmed by how long it is taking them to read/brief cases for class. In talking with them, it is apparent that some of their difficulties are linked to not understanding why we read cases and how they fit into overall learning and skills development.
They make better decisions about their reading strategies once they realize the significance of reading cases. Here are some tips that we discuss:
All cases are not equal in importance. Some cases are read for historical background only - the law will change by the last case on a sub-topic. Some cases are packed full of important essentials such as rules, policies, jurisdictional differences, important points of reasoning. Some cases are included for just one smaller essential: a definition or an exception.
Cases need to be read at two levels. What are the important aspects to understand about the individual case itself? This level of reading focuses on the parts within a case and the specifics one needs to understand the case. How does the case fit into a series of cases, into the sub-topic, and into the topic? This level of reading focuses on the synthesis of the case into the larger body of law that one is learning.
Cases are a starting point in the study of law rather than an ending point. Cases show us how judges think about the law. Cases teach us how to extrapolate the most important aspects from the full opinion. Cases provide us with "tools" for our toolkit so we can solve new legal problems. Cases become illustrations in outlines rather than the basis of outlines. Professors will not ask one to "recite everything you know about Case X" on their exams.
Cases are essential to the practice of law. Lawyers read and analyze cases every day. They are constantly searching for precedents that relate to their clients' cases. Thus, the time spent in law school on reading and briefing is not merely an "ivory tower" exercise. Students who become skilled at these tasks are making an investment in their future expertise. Students who use canned briefs or headnotes as substitutes for these tasks ultimately shortchange their professional growth.
Case reading and case briefing are important legal skills that take time to learn. The process becomes faster as the law student becomes more expert at analysis. It also becomes faster once the law student understands why we read cases. (Amy Jarmon)
Sunday, August 22, 2010
Monday, April 19, 2010
When I discuss exam writing with students, I have noticed that mentioning the possibility of "policy points" usually elicits some concern. I often get a glazed stare, a deer-in-the-headlights look, or a furrowed brow in response. Over the years, I have decided that these responses come from several sources.
What does "policy" mean? For some students, the responses are based on the peculiar fact that faculty members talk about policy readily without ever actually explaining the term. As lawyers, we all know what it means, but do not connect with the fact that students (especially 1L's) do not. Once students realize that "policy" is the purpose behind a law, a light bulb goes on for them.
They relax once they understand that courts may use policy discussion to reason through (some would say justify) law in new areas or changes to the existing common law. It will make sense to them that attorneys may argue policy to convince a court to alter the existing law to a small degree. It suddenly becomes obvious that legislatures may use policy reasons for enacting a law that impacts society in a new way.
Why should I care about it? Professors often enjoy the discussions of policy that accompany their courses. If they are "idea" people, they may even get a "buzz" from discoursing on policy implications. Some courses (or at least topics within courses) are traditionally taught with lots of policy discussion.
Students who are intuitive learners tend to understand innately policy's important place in legal thinking. They like dealing with concepts, abstractions, and theories. They see the inter-relationships among various policies and how to use those policies to further their arguments.
However, students who are sensing learners do not always understand why policy should be important. These learners are very practical people who hone in on facts and details and direct applications to problems. They may only pay attention to policy if they see how policy impacts the law. If a professor merely discusses policy on a very theoretical basis without actual examples of its use, these students may miss the point entirely. They need more information: How can the plaintiff's or defendant's attorney argue this policy? Would the parties choose different arguments based on competing policy choices? How have policy changes actually altered the law over time?
Will my professor care about policy? It depends. Some courses are so codified that policy has become relatively unimportant; there may be little or no policy discussed by the professor. Some professors will relate the historical policy discussions as background, but see them as unimportant for exams. Some professors will ask pure policy questions on their exams.
I can think of two professors who taught the same topics from the same case book, but had totally different expectations for final exam answers. One professor expected policy discussion on every question while the other was uninterested in policy discussion unless it was the only argument a party could make. "Know thy professor" is the best tack to take for determining the potential for policy points on exam answers.
When I get one of the looks of concern, I explore the student's reaction to see if one of these aspects is the reason. We then discuss further whether or not policy points are an appropriate strategy. (Amy Jarmon)
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
All of us who practiced before entering ASP work remember colleagues who were disasters at organization. If they were fortunate, they had a paralegal, secretary, or junior associate who "kept track" of them and their work. If not, they misplaced files, had near misses on filing deadlines, forgot to log billable time, and rushed everywhere because they were late.
Our law students will benefit from learning solid organizational skills while in law school. By learning how to organize their studies, their class materials, and their appointments/meetings, they will be better prepared for a legal work environment. On-the-job-training as summer law clerks or on their first jobs could prove disastrous to their careers.
Here are some tips for law students who need to improve their organizational skills:
- Have a study area in your apartment where you keep all of your casebooks, study aids, binders, highlighters, and pens. If everything is kept in one area, you can minimize having to search your apartment for items that you need before you can study.
- As a corollary, always return an item to its place in your study area after using it. Have a designated spot for books and binders for each course, office supplies, and your laptop.
- Have a binder/folder for each course that will include all papers for that course: handouts, articles assigned, practice questions distributed, and other "extras" from your professor. The same binder may include your syllabus/assignment sheet for the course. Alternatively, some students prefer a separate binder just for syllabi and assignment sheets for all courses.
- Consider using computer software to organize your own class notes, outlines, graphic organizers, and other course materials. Choose a product that has capabilities that match your study preferences, is easy to learn, and has flexibility within its categories. However, make sure that you have sufficient backup of these materials so that you do not lose everything if your computer crashes.
- If you respond to color, consider having hard copy materials for each course in a different color. If you know that PR has a green binder and folders while Evidence is blue for each, you can quickly pick out the necessary materials for the day.
- Determine the best "vehicle" for your materials for school. Get organized whether you prefer wheeled luggage, a backpack, separate computer and book bags, or some other method. Make sure that your method includes pockets and compartments for everything that you need.
- If your law school provides carrel space or locker space, determine how to use it effectively in conjunction with your "vehicle" of choice. Some students prefer to store everything at home and take things to school as needed. Other students prefer to store everything at school and take things home as needed. The main thing is making sure you have what you need at any time at each location.
- If the trunk of your car is your storage space, then get it organized. Consider collapsible crates or partitioned trunk dividers that can be used to sort items by course or by items (example, binders versus casebooks). Avoid leaving items exposed on the back seat that might tempt someone to break into your car.
- Have a designated spot in your apartment where you always place daily items that you need/use. Put your keys, wallet, cell phone, eyeglasses, and other essentials in the same place every time you walk in your apartment door. Stack bills to be paid in one place where they will not get mixed up with junk mail or other unimportant papers.
- Calendar all appointments and meetings. Whether you use Outlook, a hard copy appointment book, or your iPhone for calendaring, it will do you no good if you do not look at it! Regularly check your calendar and update it with new appointments as soon as possible.
- Use "alert" systems on your computer or phone to remind you of meetings and appointments. Alternatively at home, set your oven timer or alarm clock to alert you when to end a task or leave the house.
- Set an artificial deadline two days before a real deadline for a paper, exam, project, or other task. By working to the artificial deadline, you will have spare time if needed for a final edit, review of the one exam topic still confusing you, or finding another printer if your own printer jams.
- Whenever you have a "glitch" in your organization, determine what went wrong. Then correct the problem or choose a new strategy that will work better to keep you organized. Avoid excusing your error as "just one of those things." Take action to make sure it does not happen again.
Some folks are naturally organized. Other folks need to practice organization. All of us can become better organized if we continue to work at it. (Amy Jarmon)
Friday, March 5, 2010
I often pick up study tips from my students. They mention software that helps them or a technique that has worked. Periodically, I gather their ideas and share them here on the Blog.
Using One Note: More and more students are mentioning to me that they like the One Note software for organizing their work. They find the folders easy to use. They like the "tag" feature that allows them to tag rules, policy, code sections or other items and print a special list of those particular items. The only negative that I have heard repeatedly is that the features for making graphics are not very helpful.
Graphic organizers: There are lots of web sites that give examples of graphic organizers that students can use for converting law concepts into visuals. One website that has templates that students can print off is Education Place.
True/false questions: Students often confuse themselves on true/false questions by ignoring the "little bit false" part of a statement - almost like arguing you can be just "a little bit pregnant." One student suggests that you ask yourself "Is it TOTALLY true that..." as you read the statement. If there is anything that is false, then the statement is false.
IPhone and IPodTouch applications: A number of students have mentioned to me that the aps for bar study are useful - some free and some costly. One student especially liked the free ap from BarMax for MPRE studying.
Cutting up practice essay question answers: A student mentioned that she was having trouble 1) organizing her practice question analysis and 2) avoiding flowery language. She discovered that after she typed an initial answer she needed to print out a copy and cut it up into the separate sentences. She then could reorganize the sentences into a more logical format. And flowery sentences could get removed entirely or rewritten on the sentence slips. She would then type the new answer and compare it to the original. The exercise helped her to improve on both of her problem areas.
Yahoo Messenger to conference: One of our 1L sections regularly uses this capability to discuss questions that the students have in all three of their doctrinal classes. Most of the section participates in the discussions about the material.
Our students have creative ideas for studying that use their different learning styles and computer literacy to advantage. I always enjoy learning something new from my students! (Amy Jarmon)
Thursday, March 4, 2010
Several law students were chatting with me this week and noted that most law students are divided into three categories: those who are satisfied to get just C's; those who are striving to do better than last semester's grades; and those who have done well in the past and believe that they will continue to do so.
With the recent Winter Olympics, I automatically started thinking about these categories in relation to the three levels of medals at the ceremonies. However, I would add a fourth category for those students who are "in training" for the qualifying rounds before the medal categories.
Training for the qualifying rounds: These students are those whose fall performance was far under the minimal academic standard but who were allowed to continue on probation (example, at schools where no one is dismissed after the first semester and given the full year to meet the standards). Many of these students will be able to turn around their academics with assistance from academic support. However, some will be enormously challenged by their very weak fall grades and mathematically will still be below standard.
For some of them, they came to law school with minimal study habits because A's and B's came easily in undergraduate school with little studying. They are learning how to study now for the first time.
For some of them, they just did not apply themselves during fall semester until too late and found that they could not learn it all in time for the exams. They are taking it all more seriously this time around.
For a few, they just took longer learning how to "think and write like lawyers." Now that it has clicked for them, it will get easier.
Settling for bronze: These students are content to stay with their current achievement of C's. They have consciously decided that they will not seek A's and B's. They see themselves as excelling beyond their classmates on probation, staying "safe" above the academic standards, and accepting their status as the "third quartile" of the class. Why do these students settle for bronze?
For some students, it is discouragement after fall semester (for 1L's) or consecutive semesters (for upper-division students). They have decided that they will never be more than C students in law school. Their performance did not live up to all their hard work last semester so improvement is seen as unattainable. They often talk about the "curve" being against them. Most of these students could in fact get B's and probably A's if they became more efficient and effective in their studying and incorporated new study techniques.
For some students, it is a lifestyle decision. Family commitments, part-time work, devotion to a particular student organization, or devotion to an outside passion may support the decision. Even these students may improve their grades without sacrificing life balance if they became more efficient and effective and adopted new strategies.
For a few, it may be a lack of willingness to work any harder than they did in their undergraduate experience. They simply do not want to study the number of hours necessary to increase their grade point average in law school. These students may respond to discussions of strategies with "I don't really want to work that hard; what is the shortcut that I can take."
Striving for silver: These students are motivated to move forward in their academics. They believe that they can make positive improvements in time management, study skills, and exam writing to do better than the past semester. They want to "go into training" to hone their skills. They are focused on a new goal. They evaluate their strengths and weaknesses, ask for coaching, and get to work. Why do these students strive for silver?
For some students, it is a matter of pride. They know they have greater academic potential than they have shown. They want to master law school studying and improve so that they succeed in their own eyes. The competition is often internal rather than focused on how others have done.
For some of these students, it relates to a goal of being the best lawyer that they can be. They know that striving for improvement will have payoff for the bar exam and in practice. They believe in themselves and in their ultimate role in society.
Some of the students in this group will actually be those currently on probation whose grade points are damaged but not irretrievable. They will not only get off probation; they will achieve a major jump in grade point that will put distance between them and the minimal academic standard. Some of them will then set their sights on going for gold in future semesters.
Going for gold: These students did well in the fall semester and have the afterglow of academic success. Many will continue their hard work because they want to replicate the achievement. They will use their confidence to push themselves to hone their skills and again come out on top. These students are the gold medalists who achieve their best semester after semester.
However, a few in this group of initial "gold medalists" will be overtaken by other classmates because they will become too smug at their standing and assume that they cannot be bumped from the top spots. As in the Olympics, the "best" are not automatically secure and should avoid resting on their laurels. Hard work and focus are still needed if one is to improve and stay at the very top.
The important thing to remember about law students is that whether they are training for the qualifying rounds or among the bronze, silver, or gold medalists, they were still the cream of the crop of our applicants. They are highly intelligent and have a history of success prior to law school. Some may not continue in law school next semester by their own choice or for academic standard reasons. Those who leave will still have successful and productive lives, just not in law.
For those who continue and graduate, many will pass the bar on the first attempt. Most will have competent and respectable careers. And, they may replicate their status while in law school or they may excel far beyond it. Academics do not always predict success in the "real world" of practice. New criteria in the work world may reconfigure where they are in the ranks of attorneys. (Amy Jarmon)
Monday, February 15, 2010
This is a question that comes up every year. It is not raised by every student. It tends to be an issue for the outliers, the super-high achievers afraid of losing their edge by taking any time away from studying and the bottom quintile, afraid that they will flunk out of law school. There is no one answer that fits all students. But it is a great way to open up a conversation with students on what they should be doing during the entire semester, and how to accomplish their goals without making themselves crazy. Issues I raise with students:
1) What does your studying look like right now? What have you been doing up to now? Where are your outlines? If you have not started them, why not? Do you tend to put off studying or outlining until you "have the time"? When that "time" comes, do you really start studying, or do you procrastinate? Were your outlines done before reading week in the fall? Are you planning on cramming all your outlines into spring break? Do you think you will be exhausted if you try to complete everything in such a short period of time? (Explain how they should be ready to take exams when they come back from spring break, and this means mental readiness as well as academic readiness).
2) How do you feel right now? About yourself? About law school? About family?
3) How are you handling the pressure/stress? Do you feel exhilarated, or are you drained? If you feel drained, do you think more studying will help you feel better by exam time? Do you feel drained because studying/outlining has been hanging over your head? Or do you feel drained because you have given so much of yourself to law school that you don't feel like you have anything left? If you feel exhilarated, are you thriving by devoting yourself to law school?
4) What is your study style? Do you like to get things done in the nick of time, or do you like a steady pace? If you like a steady pace but are behind right now, did events cause you to fall behind? Or are you too exhausted to get everything done? If you are a nick-of-time person, did this serve you well in the fall? (Explain the differences between studying/cramming for undergrad exams and studying for law school exams.)
5) If you have a significant other, what are their plans for spring break? Your friends? Do you feel pressure to go somewhere when you would prefer to do something else (like study)? How did you handle peer pressure in the past? Why does this peer pressure feel different from peer pressure in the past?
Again, this is a student-by-student conversation and the advice differs every time I have the conversation. I don't necessarily tell all procrastinators to get studying, or tell all turtles (steady studiers) to take a break. What matters more is they why; why do they feel this way? Asking questions often leads students to their own answer, and puts them back in control of their life. (RCF)
Friday, January 29, 2010
Let's face it, part of success in law school is all about strategies and techniques. How one studies can be the difference between a C grade and a B or A grade. It pays big dividends to evaluate one's study habits at the beginning of each semester. Ask yourself how you can get more "oomph" from your efforts. Ask yourself what worked and what did not work last time around in your studies.
Here are some of the study skills that you should reflect upon during your evaluation. The questions suggested are not exhaustive. Make notes as you consider each study skill to indicate what you want to continue because it worked and what changes you want to make to improve your learning.
Reading cases. Did you allow enough time to read the case for understanding rather than mere highlighting to learn later? Did you focus throughout your reading or "zone out" at times? Did you preview the case before reading it? Were you an active reader, asking questions while you read? Did you think about the questions your professor usually asked in class so that you could look for those answers? Did you make margin notes to condense your reading to the important points? Did you answer the editor's questions on the case?
Briefing cases. Did you read every case whether or not you expected to be called upon by the professor? Did you brief or merely book brief? Did your briefs contain the essential points rather than everything? Did your briefs go beyond details and consider the "big picture" of the cases and how they fit within the topic and related to cases on the same topic? Did your briefs use bullet points, abbreviations, headings, and other methods to save you time? Did you critique your briefs later to see what you missed according to class discussion so that you could prevent future mistakes in your briefs?
Note-taking in class. Did you review your briefs, cases, and prior class notes (on continuing topics) before class so that you had seen the material twice? Did you focus on taking notes on the essential points rather than taking verbatim notes? Did you answer silently in your head the questions asked of other students so that you stayed engaged in the class discussion? Did you "zone out" in class? Did you focus on class rather than surf the net, play solitaire, or IM during class? Did you review your class notes within 24 hours to fill in gaps, re-organize them, and begin to condense them towards an outline?
Outlining course material. Did you make your own outlines so that you processed the information yourself rather than use someone else's outlines? Did you outline every week or at least at the end of every topic so that the material was fresh in your mind? Did you focus your outlines on topics and subtopics with the cases as illustrations rather than focus on the cases? Did you supplement your outlines with charts, tables or other visuals if they are helpful to you? Did you supplement your outlines with your own homemade flashcards if they are helpful to you?
Reviewing for exams. Did you review for exams all semester so that you could benefit from the way learning and memory work? Did you regularly review your entire outline for each class to keep everything fresh? Did you intensely review subtopics and topics to gain deep understanding of them? Did you spend enough time on memory drills to learn the rules, exceptions, methodologies, and terms of art precisely? Did you complete lots of practice questions so that you checked both your ability to apply the law and your ability to IRAC (or choose the "best" multiple-choice answer)?
Test taking of fact pattern essay exams. Did you spend 1/3 of your time reading, analyzing, and organizing an answer and 2/3 of your time writing the answer? Did you adhere to the format requirements from your professor (word or page limits, IRAC or some other style, client letter or motion format)? Did you adhere to the time parameters for the exam (spent the time indicated for each question, used all of the time allotted for the exam)? Did you "show your work" in your analysis so that the reader could follow all of the steps of your argument? Did you write everything you knew about a topic rather than answer the question asked? Did you apply the law to the facts and argue both sides? Did you use policy arguments appropriately? Did you refer to cases appropriately?
Test taking of multiple choice exams. Did you study the material in enough depth so that you could see the nuances in answer choices? When you completed practice questions did you look for patterns in your wrong answers (misread the question, forgot an element of a rule, etc.)? Did you budget your time well throughout the exam? Did you analyze each answer option rather than pick by gut? Did you avoid second-guessing right answers? Did you "mis-bubble" any answers if using a scantron answer sheet? Did you waste time looking up answers if the exam was open book/code?
If you feel that your strategies and techniques for studying were deficient, begin immediately to make improvements. Your faculty members may be able to give you tips for studying the specific areas of law that they teach. Visit your academic support office for assistance if those services are available to you at your school. (Amy Jarmon)
Friday, November 6, 2009
I know lots of law students who are perfectionists. In all prior learning experiences, they have been able to cope with this characteristic because the workload was not mammoth and the competition for grades was usually moderate.
If you think about it, American society pushes bright students to be perfect. We get into college by getting A grades. We get into law school by getting A grades. And, we are expected to get those grades while juggling lots of leadership positions and organization/team memberships. In fact, we are encouraged also to get jobs on top.
Having to be perfect, however, is very stressful. Why? Because it is impossible. No matter the prior accolades, there is always the lurking worry that one might not be perfect the next time. One can never relax as a perfectionist. Perfectionists tend to be unforgiving of their non-perfection: 95 is a failure; a missed response in class is an embarrassment of mammoth proportions; wrinkled jeans are shameful.
Some perfectionists have trouble beginning projects because of possible failure. If one will not be able to write the perfect paper within the time period or with the instructions given, then why even begin? And, if one delays, then an explanation for "failure" could be that one could have written the perfect paper if there had been more time.
Some perfectionists have trouble finishing projects. It is hard for them to read and brief efficiently (because every detail must be understood before moving to the next case), finish their research and move on to writing (because there may be one more case out there somewhere), or finalize a paper (because it needs one more rewrite to be perfect). If a perfectionist is also a very high-scoring sensing (detail) learner, the perfectionism may be exacerbated by that learning preference.
The stress of being perfect is often accompanied by physical or emotional difficulties. Stomach problems, headaches, insomnia, irritability, and depression are just a few examples. The toll on self can be devastating.
Perfectionists may also create tension in their work or family environments because of their expectations. In a sense, the focus is on what is wrong rather than what is right. A perfectionist may make an irritated remark to a group member who turned in the project with one typo. A minor error by a professor becomes a major crisis resulting in unforgiving criticism of that person. The apartment must be spotless at all times, and roommates beware of any transgressions.
Perfectionists can moderate the characteristic. Here are some suggestions:
- reorient expectations from being perfect to doing the best one can do each day
- become aware of what situations trigger perfectionism and decide on strategies to moderate one's behaviors in those situations
- set realistic time limits for projects and work within those time limits
- make realistic daily "to do" lists and keep long-term "to do" items on a monthly list to be transferred when appropriate to the daily list
- avoid being consumed by one task (perhaps a memo) to the exclusion of other necessary tasks
- spread work out over the semester to lower stress and allow longer periods for studying for exams or completing an assignment
- focus on feedback to improve a grade rather than focusing on the "failure" of meeting one's expectation for a better grade
- do not place unrealistic expectations or criticism on others because of your own perfectionism
- practice forgiveness for yourself and others when "perfect" is not achieved.
For those whose perfectionism is deeply entrenched and cannot be conquered with vigilance, consider working with a counselor at your campus counseling center. You will not be the only one who has sought help for the problem! Conquering perfectionism in law school will not only make you a happier law student; it will make you a happier practitioner as well. (Amy Jarmon)