Friday, July 27, 2012
Some of the returning students always ask my advice on what they can do to get ready for their academics and improve their grades for the coming year. Here are my suggestions - some of the items can be done this summer; others can be completed in the first few weeks:
- Sit down and evaluate your study habits from the previous year. Look at each aspect of law school: reading and briefing, note-taking in class, outlining, reviewing for exams, memorizing the law, taking fact-pattern-essay exams, taking multiple-choice exams, completing papers or projects. What were your strengths in studying and why? What were your weaknesses in studying and why?
- Decide which study habits to continue and which study habits to change. Meet with the academic success staff at your school if you need help with this evaluation of your studying or with brainstorming new strategies.
- If you have specific skill weaknesses, read a book about that skill to improve your understanding. Here are a few examples: Reading Like a Lawyer by Ruth Ann McKinney; The Five Types of Legal Argumentby Wilson Huhn; The Eight Secrets of Top Exam Performance in Law Schoolby Charles H. Whitebread. You can find a number of excellent books through Carolina Academic Press and other publishers.
- Start regimens now that are healthy and sensible. Get on a routine sleep schedule of 7-8 hours per night. Exercise at least three times a week for 30 minutes to an hour. Eat healthy meals. Do not let these routines disappear during the semester.
- If at all possible, relax for at least one week prior to the beginning of classes. You want to begin the semester with fully recharged batteries.
- Time yourself in each course for the entire first week to see how long it takes you to prepare for class (read, brief, complete problem sets). Then pick the longest block of time for each course and use that to set up your class preparation schedule.
- Schedule also regular time for other tasks each week: outlines, review of outlines, practice questions, research, writing, study group, and more.
- Read your course syllabi very carefully. Many professors include information that can help you get the best grades in the course: learning objectives, study aid recommendations, websites and other resources, study tips, and more.
- During the first month of school, review all exams from last semester for which you received a C+ or lower grade. By getting feedback from your professors on what you did well and what needs improvement, you can make the appropriate changes as you do practice questions for your next set of exams.
- If you were disappointed in your performance in a paper class last semester, ask the professor for tips on how you could improve your research and writing. Then use the feedback to improve on your papers this year.
Second and third years are somewhat easier because students have learned the basic skills needed for success in law school. However, both years bring new responsibilities with part-time work and student organizations. Time management and organization are going to be two key areas to work on to attain your best grades. (Amy Jarmon)
Thursday, March 8, 2012
It is time for law school spring breaks. This is our pre-break week; it is obvious that most of our students are already mentally away from the law school. The few focused students are the ones with a mid-term exam, paper deadline, or other assignment due date. My "no shows" for appointments and cancellations always increase during this week; they simply forget days and times.
Last week and this week have been consistently filled with appointments to plan the balance between study and play during their nine days away. Most of them cannot afford to take the entire time off because exams are 6 weeks away when they come back. Yet they do need to have some relaxation so that they return refreshed.
Here are some points that we cover in our discussions:
- What are all of the due dates that they have during the week before break and the week after break? We schedule the work required to meet any deadlines before they leave town. We list the other deadlines for consideration as we plan their study tasks while gone.
- What is their status on reading/briefing and outlining for each course? We prioritize any catching up that is needed. If possible, they complete that step before they leave. If not, they schedule it for the first study days during break.
- What is their status on any papers that must be completed for each course by the end of the semester? We look at these long-term research/writing projects to determine what steps remain. We look at any interim deadlines still outstanding for outlines, drafts, or other stages. Many students plan to do major work on these papers over the break.
- How much exam review have they already started for each course? We prioritize where they need the most work, next most work, etc.
- How many practice questions have they been able to complete already for each course? Again, we prioritize.
- What are their travel plans? We look at travel dates, mode of transportation, locations, and possibilities for studying. Listening to audio CD's is popular for students driving. Reviewing outlines or flashcards is popular with students flying. Other tasks on non-travel days will depend on their specific plans for the break.
- What portions of any day do they think they can study? Each day has three parts: morning, afternoon, and evening. Most students try to study at least two of those parts on the days when they can realistically do so. We consider when they can study and when they want to be with family/friends. Non-skiers study while the others are on the slopes. Students at home may study while their parents are at work or before the rest of the family gets up or after others go to bed. We also note any days that will not realistically include studying because of family plans.
- What tasks do they want to assign tentatively to each study block? Some students like to spend the day on one course. Other students like to divide their time among two or three courses. Some students want to mix up the tasks for one course: intense exam review, practice questions, making flashcards, or other tasks. Paper or assignment tasks also fill in slots.
- What tasks do they want to list for any unexpected smaller blocks of study time that emerge? By listing a few tasks that might work for extra time that is found, they will not waste those times. Examples of such tasks are reading through an outline for a course, working with flashcards, or doing practice questions.
- When will they complete their reading for the first class days on their return? Sometimes students forget to schedule when they will read and brief for the Monday after Spring Break. If they can get reading done for Tuesday classes as well, the beginning of classes will be less difficult for them.
We lay out the spring break schedule on a monthly calendar template so that they have a schedule to take with them. By having a plan, they are more likely to accomplish their goals. Within the plan they can move tasks to different days/times as they wish. (Amy Jarmon)
Wednesday, March 7, 2012
It is easy to assume that we can accomplish nothing important in small chunks of time. It is human nature to waste time increments that are under an hour, and especially under 30 minutes. We feel we acquire permission automatically to take breaks, chat with friends, mindlessly surf the web, or complete any other leisurely task in such time blocks.
However, if one seriously follows this line of thought, it is very easy to waste enormous amounts of valuable time within a day. There are many tasks that can be completed in small amounts of time. It does not matter whether the windfall time occurs because a reading assignment was shorter than expected, class let out early, a ride showed up late, or there was merely a break between two scheduled classes. For students, using those chunks of time can be critical as exams approach.
Think about it. If you capture 1/2 hour per day for small study tasks for 7 days, you have found 3 1/2 extra study hours during the week. If you capture 3 slots during the same day of 20 minutes that can be rearranged to end up consolidated together, you have an extra hour to study rather than taking 3 study breaks at separate times.
Here are some study tasks you can do in blocks of time under 30 minutes:
- Review the day's class notes for a course to fill in gaps, re-organize, and condense them as a pre-outlining step.
- Write down a list of questions that you need to ask a professor.
- Make several flashcards for a course.
- Quiz yourself from your flashcard deck.
- Complete 2 or 3 multiple-choice practice questions and read the answer explanations.
- Complete 3 or 4 CALI questions on a topic.
- Write out several rules or element definitions multiple times to help you memorize them.
- Talk with a classmate about a case or concept you did not understand.
- Make up hypothetical fact spin-offs to consider how a case rule would apply in another scenario.
- Stop by a professor's office to ask questions about the material.
- Edit several paragraphs of a paper.
- Add a subtopic to your outline.
- Review a subtopic in your outline.
- Sketch a preliminary flowchart or other visual to finish later.
- Make a "to do" list of tasks for the next day.
Please realize that I am not saying you should never take a break when you have windfall time. (Walking around outside or running a quick errand may be productive use of time rather than a study task.) Instead I am saying that you want to decide carefully how you will use small blocks of time. Do not just assume that you cannot accomplish something productive because you "only have a few minutes." (Amy Jarmon)
Wednesday, February 8, 2012
Now that you have settled into your courses, you want to consider which study aids might be most useful for each of your courses. As you try to decide about your purchases or loans from other students, think about the following items:
- Study aids cannot substitute for your own learning and understanding. You need to wrestle with the material and spend time at your studies. Merely reading a study aid does not automatically transfer to your knowing the material well.
- Look at your syllabus or talk with your professor about any recommended study aids for the course. A professor will often recommend a study aid that s/he feels matches the professor's version of a course and best covers the topics for your course.
- Avoid purchasing every study aid series out there for your course. You will only have time probably for one commentary (what the law is) and one practice question book (preferably to match the type of questions that will be on your professor's exam). Look through different series to decide which is right for you before purchasing.
- Match a study aid to your learning styles whenever possible. Students learn differently from one another. Your ways of learning should assist you in choosing study aids. Some students benefit from hornbook-style aids; some benefit from audio CD's; some benefit from more visual study aids. Processing styles make for other differences. Some students benefit from study aids that preview the material with introductions or from study aids that delve into policies and synthesis. Other students benefit from study aids that sequentially discuss the parts of a topic and include later summaries for the overview and synthesis. (You can modify the way you use the study aid's internal organization to match your own processing style in some circumstances.)
- Learn your professor's version of the course for the exam. Your professor will find the points more quickly if you use the professor's buzzwords, steps of analysis, statement of the rule, and answer format. In addition, your professor may take a different slant on a course; for example, the professor may be looking for policy discussion that a study aid never touched.
- Use a study aid approriately. A study aid will be more useful to clarify a confusing topic after you have initially done all of your own work on the topic (read, briefed, attended class, etc.) and made a good faith effort to sort out what you do and do not understand. A study aid is best used throughout the semester as you need more information rather than read at the very end of the semester.
- Remember that commercial study aids can be wrong, outdated, or not match your course. Study aids are usually written for a national audience and cover topics that may not be covered by your professor. Volumes that are older editions or have not been revised recently may not include important changes in the law. Study aids that are not written by experts in the area of law may contain errors. Your professor's course may have different emphases or topics included.
- Do not forget that your professor is a study aid with legs. Go in to ask questions when your professor has office hours. Ask your professor to assist you if you are confused after making a good faith effort to learn the material. Talk with your professor about study strategies that might help you understand the course better.
Study aids are there to supplement your own work. They are not bound equivalents of magic wands. Use them wisely, and you can gain deeper understanding of topics. Practice questions can be especially useful in monitoring your understanding and application. (Amy Jarmon)
Tuesday, November 29, 2011
Students and ASP professionals are always looking for ways to turn information into visuals. There are several products that provide free trials of their software. With the one exception noted, you will lose your work after the 30-day period unless you purchase the software. So, print out what you make before your trial period ends if you are not going to purchase the software.
SmartDraw: www.smartdraw.com; free download (doesn't say how long the trial lasts)
NovaMind5: www.novamind.com; 30-day free trial
Inspiration: www.inspiration.com; 30-day free trial
The Brain: www.thebrain.com; 30-day free trial; will be able to access Personal Brain software after 30 days, but cannot edit or make new graphic organizers - the features in the purchased product are amazing, but this one is probably not within most student budgets.
Have fun making your graphic organizers for exam study and workshop presentations. (Amy Jarmon)
Saturday, November 12, 2011
Law students try at times to substitute memorization of the black letter law for actual understanding of their course material. They are then surprised that they receive grades in the "C" range in return for their efforts.
The focus on memorization is a leftover from many undergraduate courses where the professor just wanted students to regurgitate information on a page for an "A" grade. The difference in law school is that students have to go beyond mere memorization. Memorizing the rules, exceptions to rules, methodologies, policy arguments, and so forth is essential to a good grade in law school; but memorization is just the beginning of the learning process rather than the end goal.
Lawyers in essence are problem solvers. They are confronted with client problems that they must solve either by prior knowledge or through research. The easy questions are dealt with fairly quickly. The hard questions are the ones that consume their days and our court system. To problem solve, lawyers must understand the law and how to apply it to legal scenarios.
Law students must also be able to problem solve. On their exams, they are faced with new legal scenarios that they must analyze. To do so effectively, they need to understand the law that applies to the situation and explain their analysis in detail. Yes, they need to have memorized the law so that they can state it accurately. But without understanding they will be able to apply it only superficially.
Memorization is the start. Understanding is the key. Application is the reward. (Amy Jarmon)
Thursday, November 10, 2011
As the stress and anxiety of preparing for exams increase, some law students seem to go into overdrive on their procrastinating. Rather than motivating them to knuckle down and study, their stress and anxiety are causing them to turn their habit of procrastinating into mega-procrastination.
Here are the favorite ways of procrastinating that I am seeing among my law students right now:
- Shopping on-line for hours with or without actually purchasing something.
- Talking on the cell phone endlessly about trivial matters.
- Spending hours reading and replying to e-mails - especially the ones with cartoons, You Tube videos, chain e-mails, stories, and jokes.
- Spending hours on Facebook and Twitter.
- Playing endless games of Spider Solitaire to beat their old record.
- Playing endless hours of Internet games so they can play with their on-line gaming friends.
- Watching whatever there is on TV that is mindless and unexceptional.
- Watching multiple re-runs of sitcom episodes they have already seen multiple times.
- Watching endless news coverage (so they can feel righteous about being well-informed).
- Watching whatever sensational trial is currently in the headlines (so they can pretend to be doing something law-related and productive).
- Sitting in the student lounge talking with friends and drinking coffee.
- Sitting in a "study group" talking endlessly about the latest law school gossip.
- Running lots of errands (so they can claim to be doing a lot when they fritter away time).
- Taking three-hour naps each day.
- Sleeping in until noon or 1:00 p.m. each weekend day.
How do you stop procrastinating?
- Remove yourself from the environment where you procrastinate and find another location to study.
- Turn off or leave elsewhere your laptop, cell phone, or other electronic distractions.
- Unplug the TV and put it in the closet until exams are over.
- Do not study on your bed or the recliner/couch where you are tempted to nap.
- Get 7 hours of sleep minimum at night with a regular bedtime and wake-up time so that you do not need naps or late sleep-ins.
- Batch your errands and run them once during the week.
- Use the student lounge for lunch and the occasional break rather than live there.
- Avoid study groups that are merely social events with a pseudo-academic name.
- Allow yourself to answer e-mails, watch TV, make phone calls only at scheduled times once or twice a day - and then only as rewards for having completed your studying.
- Break tasks into very small pieces so that you can convince yourself to get started. Beginning is always the hardest part.
- Make a list of small tasks and subtopics for each course so that you can cross-off tasks as you complete them and see your progress.
- Set up breaks as rewards for getting work done.
As you see progress on your small tasks, you will begin to feel better about yourself. As you cross more and more tasks off your list, you will have less stress and anxiety. (Amy Jarmon)
Thursday, November 3, 2011
This time in the semester is difficult for a lot of students because they are running low on energy. On the one hand, the semester seems like it has been lasting forever; on the other hand, exams are just around the corner. Now is the time when students often depend on caffeine and sugar to get them through the week. However, those two roads often lead to crashes, jitters, and cravings.
Here are some healthier ways to get an energy boost:
- Walk around the building twice - outside if the weather is nice where you are located; inside if not - and breathe deeply and swing your arms.
- Take a power nap of no more than 30 minutes - longer will make you groggy.
- Spend 15 minutes doing relaxation exercises such as gentle neck stretches, ankle rotations, deep breathing.
- Laugh. Tell a story or joke. Remember a funny incident from your childhood. Read the comics.
- Read some inspirational quotes or scriptures.
- Do several random, small acts of kindness for other people.
- Drink water with lots of ice in it.
- Eat a piece of fruit: apple, banana, grapes, raisins.
- Eat a handful of nuts: almonds, walnuts, and pecans.
- Eat a granola bar.
Whenever you hit a slump in your energy level during the day, choose one or two of these quick fixes to get back on top. (Amy Jarmon)
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)