Law School Academic Support Blog

Editor: Amy Jarmon
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Hot Tips for Cool Learning - Based on the Latest Empirical Research

It's sweltering in much of the USA.  And, the heat is only getting hotter for the many recent law school grads preparing for next month's bar exam.  

So, I thought I'd offer a few "hot" tips on how to enhance one's learning this summer based on a recently published study entitled:  "Smarter Law School Habits: An Empirical Analysis of Law Learning Strategies and Relationship with LGPA," by Jennifer Cooper, adjunct professor at Tulane University,

As detailed in the article statistically analyzing study tactics and learning, Professor Cooper found that two particular study strategies are positively correlated with law school grades.  

The first is elaboration, i.e, explaining confusing concepts to others.  So, be a talker this summer as you prepare for your bar exam.  In short, be a your teacher!

The second is the use of practice questions to learn.  So, grab hold of every opportunity you have this summer to learn by doing.  Take every mock bar exam you can.  Work through every bar exam practice problem available.  Be tenacious in your practice.  Learn by doing!

Finally, as documented by Professor Cooper, beware of reading and re-reading.  It might make you feel like you are learning, but there is little learning going on...until you put down the book and start working on problems for yourself.  And, that particularly makes sense with the bar exam...because...the bar exam is testing the "practice of law" not the "theory behind the law."  

So, throughout this summer, focus less on reading and more on active learning - through lots and lots of practice problems and self-taught elaboration to explain the legal principles and concepts - as you prepare for success on your bar exam next month.  (Scott Johns).


June 28, 2018 in Advice, Bar Exam Issues, Bar Exam Preparation, Bar Exams, Exams - Studying, Exams - Theory, Learning Styles, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Maximizing the Financial Aid SAP Contract

Did you know that every student who is (a) receiving federal financial aid and (b) placed on academic probation must have a Satisfactory Academic Progress plan (or SAP) if they wish to continue receiving federal financial aid? 

Students must “meet the basic eligibility criteria, make satisfactory academic progress, and fill out the FAFSA form every year” to qualify for federal financial aid.  In order to make satisfactory academic progress, the student must “make good enough grades, and complete enough classes (credits, hours, etc.), to keep moving toward successfully completing [their] degree or certificate in a time period that’s acceptable to [the] school.”  To see one school’s policy click here.  If a student fails to meet certain academic benchmarks, then the student will likely have to enter into an academic success contract with their institution in order to maintain federal financial aid.

A typical SAP plan will detail the circumstances that caused the student to experience academic difficulty and the steps the students has taken (or will take) to ensure that they have the best chance for academic success moving forward.  Here’s a straightforward example: a student who qualified for testing accommodations all through their undergraduate education does not apply for testing accommodations as a first-year law student, and then the student performs poorly on their first-year exams, and is placed on academic probation.  That student's academic success plan would likely require the student to apply for testing accommodations before midterm examinations in the upcoming term. 

A few weeks ago—following a change in personnel and university policy—our law school had the occasion to revisit our policies and procedures associated with our SAP plans.  We quickly realized that we were not maximizing the opportunity presented before us.  The financial aid contract could be used as a vehicle to, um…, strong-arm the very bottom of the class into participating in several academic success programs.  Let me explain. 

I frequently recommend that probationers enroll in my 2L multistate performance test workshop course to not only get a jumpstart on bar preparation, but also to revisit some fundamental legal analysis and writing skills in a small enrollment class setting.  Under our Course Catalog, however, I cannot require it; students on academic probation are not required to, or prohibited from, enrolling in any particular courses.  But, students on probation are required to get my signature on their SAP contract in order to reinstate their federal financial aid.  With the administration’s blessing, I turned what was previously a “please sign this” interaction into a meaningful academic intervention.  (Incidentally, the literature suggests that the U.S. Department of Education actually intended to create meaningful academic interventions.)  Most recently, I met with several rising 2L students and each one voluntarily agreed, in writing, to my recommendations.  If the student did not like a particular recommendation (e,.g. enrolling in the performance test course), then I worked with the student to find a suitable alternative to build those same legal writing skills, (e.g. attending a set number of Writing Center workshops during the semester).     

Admittedly, a better long-term solution would be to adopt large-scale curriculum change and create permanent academic policies with regard to students who are placed on academic probation.  But, that type of change takes time, resources, and political campaigning.  In the meantime, I can use the financial aid forms as a mechanism to achieve many of my ASP-programmatic goals. 

(Kirsha Trychta)

June 27, 2018 in Advice, Miscellany, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 11, 2018

Opportunities to Experiment

Law schools are overflowing with discussions about how to help our students learn.  The hard part is implementing new exercises or ideas.  Not only do we have to create the exercises, we also have to find time during our classes to try new things.  However, many professors, including ourselves, need to cancel class on occasion, so we may be able to seize opportunities in cancelled classes to try new ideas. 

I am relatively habitual in my classes.  If I think an exercise works or if my goals are being met, then I don’t change much in the class.  I have clear objectives, so I focus mainly on meeting those objectives.  I make changes to my classes, but I usually focus on the areas that I don’t think are working.  I will tweak an exercise, but after teaching a similar bar prep essay class for over 9 years, the class is relatively stable right now.  The stability is good, except I don’t try enough new ideas.  This summer though, I inadvertently found opportunities to experiment I can carry over to my bar prep class.

During the summer, I teach Remedies.  I taught it for a few years, so it is also somewhat stable.  However, the course schedule this year fell during AASE and a family trip we had planned.  I needed to cancel both those classes but also design work to comply with the ABA rule for minutes per credit hour.  I remember a couple previous conference sessions about hybrid learning and flipped classrooms.  I decided for one of the classes to record a lecture covering the reading, have students complete my normal in-class questions to turn in, and record a review of the questions.  I have a mid-term, so I can evaluate the understanding of the reading on the mid-term compared to previous years.  AASE forced me to try a form of hybrid learning.

I will admit, I am not entirely comfortable with the format.  I believe students need to be in seats interacting with the professor guiding learning.  However, I also know bar prep is increasingly online.  Instead of constantly complaining about no one showing up to bar prep lectures, I can help them figure out how to learn in a more online setting with specific exercises throughout law school.  Cancelled classes is a great opportunity to explore online learning formats. 

In the other class I needed to cancel, I tried a modified negotiation based on their Remedies readings.  Students needed to understand the material to be able to negotiate for his/her client.  Students practiced lawyering skills while also applying knowledge to a hypo.  Self-reflection after the exercise indicated students liked seeing the rules in practice, which is the context many of us talk about.  I will probably continue to use this exercise each year, even when I don’t need to cancel class.

Both of these exercises arose out of necessity, but the exercises also provided me an opportunity to try things I learned from the community.  As everyone plans the fall, there will probably be similar opportunities for you.  Think about days you need to miss.  I miss class the day of the Oklahoma swearing in ceremony each fall.  I can sometimes schedule a test on that day, and someone else proctor’s the exam.  Going forward, I plan try some new ideas on hybrid or individual skill building.

The other opportunity is when 1L faculty need to cancel class.  We could all contact our 1L faculty and ask them if they plan to cancel a class during the semester.  If so, we could offer to try a skills class or a video review.  It helps them satisfy the ABA minutes requirement, helps us interact with 1Ls, and could help the students understand the material in a different way.

Opportunities to experiment are more apparent than we think.  Events that seem difficult to navigate may be the events we need to experiment with the great ideas we hear at conferences.  Try something new this fall to see if it works.

(Steven Foster)

June 11, 2018 in Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 28, 2018

My AASE Takeaway Sheet

AASE was awesome again this year.  I want to first say Thank You to Toni and everyone at Saint Louis University School of Law.  They did an excellent job putting on the conference.  AASE’s programming committee put together an exceptional slate of presenters.  Just as previous years, I learned from all of the sessions I attended.  It was a great experience.

I will provide a handful of my small takeaways I want to easily implement next year.  I will need more time to think about the more ambitious projects I learned about.

  1. Shane Dizon provided good illustrations and charts for outlining and legal analysis. I teach all 1Ls and use different exercises to illustrate IRAC.  He presented an inverted pyramid with the broad rule at the top getting more narrow with exceptions at the bottom to help students better organize a linear outline.  His essay boxes for rule and application in his handout makes following IRAC easy.  I always try to introduce different exercises to reach more students, and I think his handout will help.
  1. Goals in Google Calendar. I am always late to new tech features, so forgive me if you already use google goals.  Someone referenced google goals where google will find time in someone’s google calendar to schedule activities to meet the goal you set, ie – exercise, read, etc.  This feature will be great if I switch to google’s calendar.  I can have it fit in research/writing, exercise, and anything other goal I want to set.  I plan to teach more about habits to 1Ls next year, so I will show it to them as well.  Click here for more information.
  1. I believe Alison Nissen and Stephanie Thompson’s presentation about deepening analysis in essay writing is where I picked up the good cooking analogies. Analogies are great tools to help students better understand information.  My problem is the vast majority of my analogies are from sports.  Sports fanatics love how I explain some concepts, but non-sports fans don’t get as much from the discussion.  The PB&J and Cookie explanation from this presentation was great.  The activity forces students to go step-by-step with how to make cookies or a PB&J sandwich.  Students inevitably want to skip numerous steps (ie – go to the pantry, retrieve bread, etc.).  I love the idea of making them give every detail of a task that seems so obvious.  This activity also explains how professors award points very well.
  1. I am a member of my school’s assessment committee, so I enjoyed hearing about SLU’s service based learning outcomes. The way the faculty empowered students to take ownership and serve the community during very difficult situations is outstanding.  I want to look more at their language and figure out how we can empower our students better.
  1. I plan to find the ABC hidden camera show where a bike theft is staged by people of different ethnicities and genders. Bystanders reacted much differently depending on the person stealing the bike.  I think the show can help introduce bias to our students.

I could keep going with all the different ideas I heard about, but I want to focus on only a handful of ideas.  None of those ideas will transform legal education, but every idea I plan to implement has the potential to change an individual student’s legal education.  Every small change to reach one more student is important to that student and all his/her future clients.  Thank you to the presenters for having that impact on my students.

Of course, AASE is outstanding because of all the attendees.  Seeing colleagues from across the country, and interacting with new faces is always fun.  From Russell McClain’s walking shoes and Paula Manning’s precise timing to seeing former Aggie ASP directors now living coast to coast, the people are what make AASE great.  I can’t wait to see everyone again next year.

(Steven Foster)

May 28, 2018 in Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Is Learning Comfortable?

There's a line in the movie "The Greatest Showman" that goes something like this:  "Comfort is the enemy of progress."  

Attributed to PT Barnum, that got me thinking.  

I began to wonder if comfort might also be the enemy of learning, or at least perhaps a barrier to learning.

That's because learning is, frankly, uncomfortable.  And, it's uncomfortable because we learn from our own mistakes.  And, mistakes are, well, hard for us to accept because they show us that we are frail and have much to learn.

In my own case, I got to thinking that I might be trying to create such a "perfect" learning environment, so perfect, that I might be leaving my students with very little room for making mistakes.  In short, if that is the case, then there is very little left for my students to do, and if my students aren't doing, then they aren't making mistakes, and if they aren't making mistakes, then they really aren't learning at all.  My quest for perfect teaching might be crowding out learning.

Of course, it's important to inspire our students, to serve a role models of what it means to be learners, and to create optimal learning environments.  But, an optimal learning environment might just mean a lot less of them watching, listening, and observing me and a lot more of me watching, listening, and observing them.  That's really hard for me to do because, quite simply, I want to help them along, I want to speed the learning process along, and I want to make learning as simple as possible because I don't like to see my students be uncomfortable.

That's especially true in the bar prep world.  Much of bar prep is focused around talking heads featuring hours after hours of watching lectures hosted by prominent academics.  And, those lectures (and especially re-watching those lectures) can lull us into a false sense that we are learning.  In short, we can get mighty comfortable while watching lectures.  But, unfortunately, watching is not learning.  It might be an important and indeed necessary first step on the way to success on the bar exam, but, I daresay, no one passes the bar exam by watching others solve legal problems.  Instead, people pass the bar exam because of what they are doing after the bar review lectures.  And, that is really uncomfortable, especially in bar prep, because the stakes are so high and we make so many mistakes along the way.  In fact, because the questions are so difficult, it's hard to feel like we are learning when we are making so many mistakes.  

That's where we can come in as academic support professionals.  We can dispel the myth that learning comes "naturally." No it doesn't.  As I heard on a recent radio program, no one drifts into losing weight (or gaining strength or developing any new skill at all).  We have to be intentional.  We have to act purposefully.  So too with learning.  We don't become good at solving legal problems by osmosis, by watching lectures, by sitting on the sidelines observing others solve legal problems.  We become good at solving legal problems by solving legal problems (and lots of them).  And, I'm pretty sure that those wonderfully rehearsed bar review lectures didn't come out perfectly on the first cut.  In fact, take a look at any of the back scenes from any movie.  There are lots of outtakes that didn't make the cut.  But, without the outtakes, there wouldn't be a movie because, like learning, making a movie means making a lot of mistakes along the way.  So, as we support our students this summer as they prepare for their bar exams, let's give them room to learn.  Let's help them appreciate that none of us became experts by being experts.  Instead, we became good because we recognized that we weren't very good at all in the beginning but we keep at it, over and over, until we started to make progress, until we started to learn.  Of course, along the way, it didn't feel very comfortable.  But, because we know that learning is hard, humbling work...for all of's okay to be uncomfortable.  So, this summer, let's help our students embrace the uncomfortableness of learning by being myth-busters, and, in the process breaking down the real barriers to learning, namely, believing that learning comes naturally for everyone but us.  (Scott Johns).




May 24, 2018 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Good Litigating is Good Teaching: Closing Arguments

This is the fifth and final post in the "Good Litigating is Good Teaching" series.

Part One: Introduction

Part Two: Getting a Good Start

Part Three: Mastering Your Case-in-Chief

Part Four: Experts & Exhibits

Part Five: Closing Arguments

Provide Guidance in the Closing Argument

Few Americans have ever participated in the deliberations process. Thus it is wise to offer the jurors a proposed course of action. For example, the criminal defense attorney may encourage the jury to start their discussion with element X. The attorney might further explain that if the jury concludes that the prosecution failed to prove element X, then the jury need not deliberate any further; rather the jury would be required to find the defendant not guilty. Or perhaps the attorney recognizes that one plaintiff or defendant is exceedingly easier (or more difficult) to resolve than the others. Pointing this out to the jury may serve to expedite the deliberations process.

Similarly, a professor ought to provide some insight into which study-approaches and resources are best, and which ones should be ignored. Such advice will not only assist the student in being better prepared for the exam, but also lessen the stress associated with having to wade through dozens of different study methods and resources.

Conduct Post-Trial Analysis

After the jury renders its verdict, counsel will usually ask the jury for some feedback about what went well, who the jurors found credible, if the jurors understood the theory of the case, and so on. The trial attorney will also ask other attorneys, who may have been in the room for a portion of the trial, for their impressions about her effectiveness in the courtroom. Trial counsel will then adjusts her strategy in future cases based on what proved successful.

A professor, likewise, has the opportunity to assess his performance through end-of-the-semester student evaluations. Here, students evaluate whether the instructor was prepared, organized, and presented information in a helpful and logical manner.  Scholars have long debated the efficacy of teaching evaluations. Regardless of the weight placed upon them, student evaluations remain a good mirror on the wall.  [1] A professor may invite another colleague to evaluate his teaching effectiveness, or perhaps the professor may opt to self-assess using a video recording system.


And, In Conclusion 

Many researchers have opined that in order for jurors to feel satisfied and successful, jurors want to be told what to expect before the trial begins, then guided through the presentation of evidence in a timely and logical fashion, before finally being offered some assistance with how best to conduct the deliberations process.  Students, arguably, require similar assistance in the classroom setting as they navigate a 3-year long odyssey.  In short, it is the professor’s responsibility in the classroom and the attorney’s responsibility in the courtroom to educate their audience, while providing reassurances and guidance throughout the process. 


[1] For two critiques, see Dennis R. Honabach, Responding to “Educating Lawyers”: An Heretical Essay in Support of Abolishing Teaching Evaluations, 39 U. Tol. L. Rev. 311 (Winter 2008); Deborah J. Merritt, Bias, the Brain, and Student Evaluations of Teaching, 82 St. John’s L. Rev. 235 (Winter 2008).

(Kirsha Tryhcta)

May 15, 2018 in Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Good Litigating is Good Teaching: Experts & Exhibits

This is the fourth and penultimate post in the "Good Litigating is Good Teaching" series.

Part One: Introduction

Part Two: Getting a Good Start

Part Three: Mastering Your Case-in-Chief

Part Four: Experts & Exhibits

Call Expert Witnesses

When a subject is unique or complicated, attorneys call expert witnesses to testify about the concept. Professors should do the same. The professor can capitalize on the law student’s propensity to impart credibility on to statements being offered by practicing attorneys and judges asked to present as guest speakers within the classroom context. Perhaps it is the “war story” format that the student finds intriguing, or the switch from the traditional case method. Regardless, an expert witness can serve as a positive alterative to the more traditional case method presentation.

Use Demonstrative Exhibits 

If a concept involves several different people, places, or things, you can almost guarantee that a trial attorney will produce a demonstrative exhibit to aid the jury in understanding the relationship between the items. Professors should do the same. For example, the professor could prepare a large chart or poster board, with blank spaces to be filled-in during the class, depending on student responses. For example, when discussing a negligence case, the attorney/professor may display a large board with “duty, breach, causation, and damages” down the left side, and blank spaces to the right to be filled-in as the witness testifies or student responds.

Stay tuned for next week's closing arguments.

(Kirsha Trychta)

May 8, 2018 in Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Takeaways from AccessLex's Bar Exam Research Forum

I, along with about 40 other bar-exam professionals, attended the inaugural AccessLex Bar Exam Research Forum in Washington, D.C. on April 26, 2018.

The morning began with a keynote address entitled "The Bar Exam and the Future of Legal Education" presented by Patricia D. White, Dean and Professor of Law at the University of Miami School of Law.  Dean White outlined her role as the chair of a new 10-person Commission on the Future of Legal Education, an initiative of American Bar President Hilarie Bass.  She explained that she and her fellow committee members intend to investigate: (1) the skill set needed to practice law, (2) access to justice issues, and (3) bar exam licensure requirements.  Dean White then spoke about the potential causes for the "downturn" in nationwide MBE scores in 2014 and what it really means to be "minimally competent" to practice law.  I found Dean White's presentation to be insightful, innovative, and inspiring.  If you ever have the chance to hear her speak, I highly recommend it!

Rodney Fong, Associate Dean at The John Marshall Law School, spoke briefly about "Breaking Bar Pass Barriers Today" before we broke into our first of two working group sessions.  Our task for the first working group session was to identify what research needs to be conducted to ensure that today's law students pass today's bar exams.  The working groups suggested developing a database that includes detailed background information on each test taker, similar to the LSAC's handling of the LSAT; increasing collaboration between the ABA, NCBE, and the numerous state boards; and drawing upon other higher education disciplines and professional schools for guidance.  

After lunch, Judith Welch Wegner, Professor Emerita and Dean Emerita of the University of North Carolina School of Law, discussed "The Future of the Bar Exam," focusing on what tomorrow's bar exam should look like and why.  We then broken into our second working group session, with the goal of identifying what research needs to be conducted to produce the best new bar exam format by 2025.  The working groups didn't hold back, offering suggestions ranging from administering sections of the bar exam after each year of law school to eliminating the exam entirely.  

In short, AccessLex put together an extremely innovative and collaborative forum.  With 40 key stakeholders in the same room (including representatives from the ABA and NCBE, law school deans, academic support professionals, statisticians, and higher education specialists), everyone was able to really dive deep into thoughtful discussions about how best to improve legal education generally, and the bar exam specifically.  The program concluded with AccessLex inviting participants to apply for its inaugural Bar Success Research Grant.  Initial letters of inquiry for the grant will be accepted during the month of May.

(Kirsha Trychta)

May 1, 2018 in Bar Exams, Meetings, Science, Teaching Tips, Travel | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, April 30, 2018

Modeling Failure

The best plans don’t always work out as intended.  Trying something new with a course or activity may sound groundbreaking.  However, the reality is sometimes it doesn’t work.  Students may dislike the program and not engage in the work or the message doesn’t click with students.  Our response to those difficulties can help train our students to overcome similar occurrences.    

I had one of those groundbreaking failures this year.  I planned to create super-learners.  I completely agree with Louis Schultz’s arguments in his article and have implemented similar programs throughout my tenure at OCU.  The art of learning can make a huge impact on students, and the earlier students understand how to learn, the better they can perform in school and on the bar.  I took that idea a step further.  I heard presentations and read articles about Millennial students.  One tidbit I latched onto was the notion that Millennial’s won’t do what they are told “because I said so”, but they want more information for why they are told to do something.  I knew I could provide them that information, so I started planning to assign learning articles.

I teach Legal Analysis to every 1L.  I found good articles about spaced repetition, testing effect, reading on a screen, self-regulated learning, mindfulness, and growth mindset.  I thought reading the articles combined with short discussions and activities related to those topics would produce better learners that remembered significantly more than ever before.  I was wrong.

Students despised the new readings.  To be fair, I chose longer articles that took a while to read.  Legal Analysis is 1 credit hour and credit/no credit graded, so they felt the reading was disproportionate to those facts.  My philosophy was the reading benefitted them and provided the why when I told them to start outlining early in the semester or study a certain way.  However, the students were probably correct.  The amount of reading was long, so many of them didn’t do it.

In essence, my new idea and integration failed.  I am sure that happens to everyone.  However, our response to our own failures is the best way to model improvement to our students.  As a former type A law student who did well in law school, I don’t handle being wrong very well (or at all really).  My frustration was that I knew the science, which is clear that certain activities are best for students.  Anecdotally, I have seen our best students use these methods for years.  From a learning science perspective, I did know more than most of the students, as do many of you.  That knowledge doesn’t matter though if the students don’t receive or internalize it.  Being substantively correct doesn’t help students succeed if they ignore the message.  Frustration or complaints about students not showing up to sessions, doing the reading, or putting in the effort are legitimate, cathartic, and unproductive.  If we want students to overcome their failures, creating a new solution can model that behavior.

Constant improvement is critical to success in law school and the practice of law.  We all know that is true in Academic Support as well.  New students, research, and technology make change inevitable.  I will rely on much shorter articles or more excerpts next year to decrease the amount of reading.  I will utilize more of the learning science during the spring after students receive a set of grades and realize they need help.  My hope is to balance the need to convey the information with the willingness of students to acquire the information.

My planned changes will help the new group of 1Ls but also show the 2Ls that their opinion matters.  I ask students every July to analyze their own BARBRI MBE report to find improvement areas before the bar.  They are much more likely to follow that advice if they already saw me make changes based on their experience and suggestions.  Modeling improvement can encourage others to also seek improvement, which can make a huge difference whether some students succeed.

(Steven Foster)

April 30, 2018 in Advice, Program Evaluation, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Good Litigating is Good Teaching: Mastering Your Case-in-Chief

This is the third post in the "Good Litigating is Good Teaching" series.

Part One: Introduction

Part Two: Getting a Good Start

Part Three: Mastering Your Case-in-Chief

After the jury is empaneled and the opening statements have concluded, it's time to present your case-in-chief.  Here are some tips for creating an active, engaging, and positive learning environment.

Customize the Presentation 

A trial attorney knows that the same direct-examination or cross-examination techniques will not be successful in every trial. Rather counsel must adjust her presentation to the particular case, defendant, facts, geographic location, and judge, as well as a host of other variables. Once the attorney is fully versed in both the law and the facts, she will be able to readily adapt her direct or cross-examination during the trial.

A professor should adapt his classroom presentation to the particular topic du jour, the unique strengths (or, possibly, weaknesses) of the student selected for “the hot seat,” and the level of interest exhibited by the class as a whole. There are times when a traditional Socratic method (or precise cross-exam) will work best. At other times, however, a visual aid would better serve to expedite or drive home the point; meanwhile a broad, open-ended question typically reserved for direct examination may generate a wonderfully unscripted class discussion.

Move Around the Room

Classrooms and courtrooms both possess an innate hierarchy in their physical design. Attorneys and professors are given free reign of the room, while jurors and students are relegated to a fixed assigned seat for the duration. Effective trial attorneys tend to use the entire courtroom, moving around the room deliberately for both dramatic effect and to lessen juror boredom. Professors should likewise explore teaching from the back of the classroom, or consciously walking from the left side of the room to the right side of the room as they transition from one topic to the next. Both jurors and students respond to these visual, non-verbal transitional cues.

Address the Inconsistencies Head-on

Researchers have suggested that judges “should consider sequencing the trial testimony so that opposing experts testify back to back.” The same could be said for law professors presenting majority-minority splits. When two cases or policy arguments appear to stand in direct contrast with one another, professors should plan to discuss both during the same class session, or in back-to-back class sessions. Encourage the students to acknowledge the inconsistency, evaluate the pros and cons of each position, and then identify the stronger argument.  

Encourage Active Note Taking

The single area in which the classroom seems to be outperforming the courtroom is note-taking and questioning. Until recently, jurors were not permitted to take notes or ask questions. Conversely, students have historically been expected to take notes. With that said, the professor cannot rely on students to always reduce the most important concepts to writing. If a professor absolutely wants a student to have a particular point in their notes, then the professor should consider providing that information directly to the student. This can be accomplished by providing a fill-in-the-blank lecture handout, writing the information on the whiteboard, or incorporating the information into a demonstrative exhibit.  More on demonstrative exhibits later. 

And, Finally, Prepare for the Unexpected

Attorneys are keenly aware that the client, the judge, the jurors, and opposing counsel will be scrutinizing every word and every action taken during the trial. Consequently, attorneys try to prepare for every reasonable variation or scenario which could occur during the trial. What if Witness A recants or Exhibit B is not admitted? What if the client insists on testifying, despite my advice? Will the jury understand topic C, if presented by Witness D? When should I call Witness E? And so on. An informal study—conducted by students participating in a law school investigations course—further supports the notion that preparedness is the single most important factor contributing to attorney effectiveness.2

The professor should similarly prepare for the unexpected, and, to the extent possible, plan his presentation around the known and anticipated variables. Students (like jurors) are skeptical. The professor should ask himself: how do I best convey my message to this skeptical bunch? Do the students need to learn about topic X before we discuss topic Y? Which student will be called upon to discuss case Z? Is a demonstration or exhibit required to better illustrate the point?


[1]  Julianna C. Chomos, et. al., Increasing Juror Satisfaction: A Call to Action for Judges and Researchers, 59 Drake L. Rev. 701, 721 (2011).

[2] In Spring 2014, a handful of Duquesne University School of Law students who were enrolled in a Fact Investigations course conducted research aimed at uncovering which Pittsburgh-based criminal defense attorneys were the most "effective."  Their research suggested that attorney preparedness was the most important factor contributing to an attorney's perceived effectiveness.  The project was inspired by Ronald F. Wright & Ralph A. Peeples, Criminal Defense Lawyer Moneyball: A Demonstration Project, 70 Wash. & Lee L. Rev. (Spring 2013).

(Kirsha Trychta)

April 24, 2018 in Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Good Litigating is Good Teaching: Getting A Good Start

This is the second post in the "Good Litigating is Good Teaching" series.

Part One: Introduction

Part Two: Getting A Good Start

For an easier and more internally consistent reading experience, I will use female pronouns (“she,” “her”) to refer to trial counsel and male pronouns (“he,” “his”) to refer to professors.

Voir Dire the Jury

A trial attorney spends a fair amount of energy (and sometimes money) contemplating the type of jurors that would be best for her case.  This pre-trial preparation is then followed by a well-choreographed discussion with the prospective juror.Recognizing the potential benefit, trial counsel routinely invests time getting to know her jurors, even though the juror will likely only serve on the case for a few days.  Conversely, a professor knows, at the outset, that he will be with his students for at least one semester, if not the entire academic year. Yet the professor routinely knows less about his students than trial counsel knows about her jurors. The professor should voir dire his students in order to get to know them, and then tailor his classroom presentation to his audience. Are the students primarily visual, aural, read/write, or kinesthetic learners?2   Why have the students enrolled in the course? What do the students hope to learn during the semester? 

Clearly Explain the Day-to-Day Logistics

Once selected to serve, jurors want to know, at the outset, the day-to-day logistics of jury service. For example, jurors routinely stress about where to park, if they will be paid for their service, and whether they are really qualified to serve?3 Students, likewise, stress about the logistics of the course. Students want to know how many pages they will be expected to read each week, the professor’s office hours, and the method(s) of assessment. A comprehensive syllabus and overview of the professor’s expectations—at the very beginning of the course—eliminates most of these common student stressors. A syllabus that merely lists the chapters that will be covered during the semester is woefully insufficient. The student should be apprised of every aspect of the course.4

Give an Opening Statement that Outlines the Basics

“Often, jurors know very little about the law [or facts] relevant to a case prior to the end of the trial….”5  Acknowledging that jury instructions are not typically given until the end of a trial, a trial attorney will frequently use her opening statement to explain not only legal concepts and terms of art, but also factual locations and the relationships of the parties to ensure that the jury has a basic understanding of the case. Moreover, some judges provide jurors with basic information about the facts and relevant legal background at the start of the trial to further educate the jurors.6

A professor, likewise, should not assume that his students understand the basics about legal theory, politics, world geography, or current events. The professor should begin the class discussion by laying the groundwork to ensure that the student has a baseline understanding of the topic, and then providing the student with an easily understood statement of the rule, a.k.a. “the black letter law.” Admittedly, some law professors will scoff at the notion of “spoon-feeding” the students the law, but much of the literature suggests that providing this basic framework allows the student to more quickly and effectively dive deeper into thoughtful analysis.


[1] For a discussion on best practices during voir dire, see Michael J. Ahlen, Voir Dire: What Can I Ask and What Can I Say?, 72 N.D.L.Rev. 631 (1996).

[2] The VARK learning styles questionnaire assists learners by identifying their learning style preferences: Visual, Aural, Read/Write, or Kinesthetic. See  

[3] Julianna C. Chomos, et. al, Increasing Juror Satisfaction: A Call to Action for Judges and Researchers, 59 Drake L. Rev. 707 (2011).

[4] See Nira Hativa, Teaching Large Law Classes Well: An Outsider's View, 50 J. Legal Educ. 95 (2000).

[5] Increasing Juror Satisfaction at 719.

[6] Increasing Juror Satisfaction at 719-720.

(Kirsha Trychta)

April 17, 2018 in Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

A Fly on a Wall: Observations of a T.A.

      This year, I became a teaching assistant (TA) once again. This was not planned and what started as just another responsibility on my list of responsibilities resulted in an amazing experience. For our TA program, we try to select students who have performed well in a particular course with a particular professor and students who have performed well across the board academically. However, this fall I was faced with a dilemma. I tried to recruit TAs for a professor who did not teach the previous academic year so my pool was smaller and furthermore, the class time conflicted with an elective course that almost every 3L was enrolled in. I presented the professor with three options, one of which was to have me as the TA, just for this year. She chose the latter.

      I was well aware of the challenges I would face so I approached this new task with some trepidation but saw all the amazing rewards and value I would reap from this experience. The primary challenges I anticipated included student discomfort because I am the Director of the academic support program and not their peer. I also anticipated discomfort with my presence in the classroom as students might perceive me as a person who was monitoring their every move. I anticipated low attendance at the bi-weekly TA sessions because I did not have the professor as a student, I did not attend this law school and thus students believed that I did not have much to offer them. This particular situation intrigued me the most as TAs who have worked with new professors in the past, have had similar experiences. However, these TAs have been successful and usually work closely with the professor to provide even more helpful material to the students. Moreover, students are more independent spring semester and take less advantage of various resources. Finally, I found it interesting that students could feel uncomfortable with me particularly because I train the TAs and work with students studying this topic for the bar exam.

      The positives I looked forward to were opportunities to evaluate the structure of the current teaching assistant program, to get to know or become familiar with about one- third of our 1L class, to work collaboratively with one of our professors and to expand the offerings of my office. Sometimes as ASP’ers, we are so removed from the law school experience that we forget certain aspects of what it means to be a student even when we try to remind ourselves every year. I looked forward to coming away from this experience with new ideas and avenues to be effective with students and maximize how to effectively utilize my TAs in the future.

      Within the TA responsibilities, TAs attend each scheduled meeting of the doctrinal course they are assigned to. They prepare lesson plans and materials for every teaching assistant lab session. They are generally available for questions during office hours. They also work closely with the professor and complete additional tasks the professor might request such as tracking class participation, passing out papers, etc…. The materials produced for the lab sessions are either reviewed by me or the senior TA. I submitted to all of these expectations and requirements. My senior TA reviews my materials; I try to put everyone at ease so I tried to create a safe environment for my senior TA to enjoy reviewing my materials. I mentioned this to the students at the first lab session and they laughed.

      What was most informative about student behavior within the classroom was sitting through the course lectures and observing students. Initially, students were uncomfortable, particularly, the ones who decided to sit near me but that discomfort subsided over time. In my opinion, students became too relaxed. I ensured that I came to class prepared with casebook, laptop, pen, and paper. I sat next to a talkative student who was by no means uncomfortable with my presence. I was conscientious about being mentally present, free from distraction, and focused. It is amazing how many clues professors provide and how much advice about preparing for exams this professor dispensed. It appeared that students were not always paying attention though. I saw students on Facebook, instant messenger (apparently speaking with students in the class and others outside of the class), shopping, buying concert tickets, working on legal writing assignments, scrolling through pictures, texting, stepping out the room to take phone calls, drawing, researching topics (associated and unassociated with the class), laughing at and with one another, engaging in side conversations, asking me what was just said (trying to read my notes), falling asleep, passing physical notes, playing video games, watching movies, and watching sports. It is amazing what happens in a law school classroom in the span of one hour and forty minutes. Students got more and more comfortable as the weeks progressed so I saw more and more on computer screens. Some privacy screens work very well, I could see nothing while seated in the back of the class.

      When I am in front of a class, presenting, I notice that some students are distracted but I never imagined the extent.  I understand that some students need to be accessible for work, children, and emergencies.  I also understand that some students doodle to focus and listen.  I had no idea of the volume of distractions available in class.  I can certainly understand why some professors ban computers in the classroom. 

      I wonder if this is the new student norm, all these stimuli competing for their attention.  When I was in law school, the early years of laptops, I do not recall all this going on but maybe I was focused because I was fearful of appearing unprepared when called on. (Goldie Pritchard)

April 4, 2018 in Current Affairs, Learning Styles, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, April 2, 2018

False Growth Mindset

Law school and the practice of law require constant progress and improvement.  Carol Dweck’s research on growth mindset infiltrated many law schools, and many in ASP continually promote Dweck’s theories.  I definitely fall into the category of advocates.  Anecdotally, I interact with students who clearly believe improvement can happen with hard work.  Unfortunately, I also see students who don’t believe he/she can get better.  The former group tends to work harder and achieve better results than the latter group.

I work in all my classes to promote the growth mindset to encourage success.  However, a recent article in Education Week recounted more recent research indicating some efforts to promote growth mindset may not actually help.  Read the article here.  The newer research looked at whether only effort praise promoted a growth mindset.  In middle and high school students, effort praise alone didn’t work.  The students were skeptical of the praise and even believed the teacher didn’t possess a growth mindset.  The article called this praise a "False Growth Mindset."

The article does say effort praise combined with self-reflection of what worked in the process promoted growth mindsets.  Academic Support Professionals continually promote feedback and self-reflection in classes.  This further supports our advocacy for more assessment with feedback and self-reflection exercises.  Praise alone doesn’t provide the necessary reflection or feedback to help students grow.  More specific feedback is necessary to promote the growth mindset.

I try to keep my praise focused on what students did correctly as a feedback tool.  However, I am sure I have given solely effort based praise without feedback.  Growth Mindset is my goal, so as the new research comes out, I plan to try to keep modifying my approach to help students. 

(Steven Foster)

April 2, 2018 in Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, March 29, 2018

A Quick Classroom Exercise to Jazz Up Student Learning!

Last weekend, I had the great pleasure of attending the Rocky Mountain Legal Writing Conference. Being exhausted from grading numerous writing assignments into the wee hours of the morning, Prof. Katherine Lyons and Prof. Aimee Dudovitz (Loyola Law School - Los Angeles) caught my attention with the title of their talk: "Integrating Quick Classroom Exercises that Connect Doctrine and Skills and Still Allow You (and Your Students) to Sleep at Night."  

Frankly, this was a presentation that spoke directly to me.  It was medicine for my tired heart and my hurried mind.  I needed sleep (and lots of it)!

My favorite tip was what I'll paraphrase as the "one-moment question."  

Just pop on the screen a one-moment research question and ask your students to get to work researching, drafting, and writing a quick 5-10 minute email answer.  That's right. Start with researching.  As the professors made clear, don't let them blurt out an answer.  Instead, make them work.  Tell them to start looking on the internet, digging into the legal research engines for their answers.  Then, based on their own research discoveries, direct your students to write out short emails to provide you with precise answers to that particular question.  Once submitted, now you can open up the classroom for a well-researched and informed conversation about the answer to the one-moment question. And, because the answers are super-short, it shouldn't take much time to at least make a mark or two on each answer as follow-up feedback.

As an example, Professors Lyons and Dudovitz suggested that one might ask - in the midst of a civil procedure class discussing the propriety of "tag" jurisdiction for instance - whether a plaintiff could properly serve a corporate defendant by serving the summons and complaint on an out-of-state corporate officer just passing through the local airport of the plaintiff's forum state.  As a tip, the professors suggested that you pick out a question that has a bright-line answer based on jurisdictional precedent (and one that can be easily researched).  And, as they suggested, as a bonus have the students keep track of their research trails in arriving at their answers.

That got me thinking.  In my own teaching this semester, perhaps I should ask my students - in the midst of  our studies of constitutional law - whether a state such as Colorado could hypothetically prohibit out-of-state residents from being licensed as Colorado attorneys and, if not, why not.  To confess, I'm pretty sure about the answer but not exactly certain of the reason. But, I think it has to do with the Article IV Privileges and Immunities Clause.  So, I better take heed of the professors' advice and start researching for myself.  In the process, I think that I might just become a better learner (and teacher too)!  (Scott Johns).

March 29, 2018 in Advice, Bar Exam Preparation, Encouragement & Inspiration, Learning Styles, Study Tips - General, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Building a Lightboard

Yesterday Steven Foster mentioned in his blog post entitled SWCASP Takeaways  that I built a lightboard at my law school.  Here are the details, should you wish to do the same.

First, for those who don't know, a lightboard is essentially a glass dry erase board used for creating video recorded lectures and presentations.  You stand behind the glass and lecture, while drawing on the glass board in front of you.  The setup allows you to write on the board without having to turn your back to the audience.  You may be thinking, but isn't the text backwards to the audience?  Yes, it is!  But, through either a specialized camera setup involving a mirror or using post-production software, the images on the glass can be "flipped" so that they appear right-ways to the video viewing audience.

If you'd like to create a lightboard of your own, I recommend buying the frame online and then having the glass cut locally.  We purchased our frame from New Revolution Tools and are happy with the product.  We chose a 4 x 6 frame, on casters, with built-in rope lighting ($1,600).  The frame came with blueprints  and dimensions to help our local glass cutter fit the glass to the frame.  While some lightboards use real glass, we opted for a more cost-effective clear polycarbonate glass, a.k.a. plexiglass.  At just over $500--and one-fifth the price of real glass--the polycarbonate glass allowed this project to stay on budget.

You will also need:

  • a video camera,
  • a mirror or image reversing software,
  • additional stage lighting,
  • a dark colored backdrop curtain or wall paint,
  • lightboard markers ($20),
  • a microfiber cleaning cloth to avoid scratching the glass ($10), and
  • white vinegar/water cleaning solution in a spray bottle ($5).

The entire project cost us about $2,500 because we already owned a video camera and some stage lighting.  Additionally, I secured a $2,000 technology grant from our larger University, which brought the out-of-pocket departmental cost down to about $500. 

The lightboard permanently stores against a wall inside a small classroom in the library.  The classroom tables can be moved out of the way for filming.  (See photo below.)

We plan to use the lightboard in a variety of courses, including enhancing our existing online LLM program, creating a few new online summer courses, and developing an on-demand academic support video library.  For the ASP library, I plan on asking students and professors to record 2-10 minute videos addressing both skills and substantive topics.  In the skills category, my wish list already includes case briefing, outlining strategies, study tips, and accommodations FAQs.  On the substantive front, I hope to have a short video that discusses one particularly difficult case in our criminal law textbook, tips for drafting a question presented, and some flowcharts and mindmaps, to name a few.  All of the videos will be housed on a private WVU Law You Tube channel.

If anyone would like additional information on the project, please feel free to reach out to me.  (Kirsha Trychta)

Lightboard frame

Lightboard 3.7.18

March 13, 2018 in Teaching Tips, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, March 12, 2018

SWCASP Takeaways

Last week's SWCASP workshop at UNT-Dallas was informative once again.  I want to thank everyone who spent time putting the program together and presenting.  I want to personally thank my colleague Jennifer Warren at OCU for taking the lead organizing the event this year.  She worked diligently to put together the slate of speakers and organize the event.  Preyal Shah did an amazing job at UNT Dallas hosting this year’s event.  Lastly, I want to say thank you to all the speakers for preparing such amazing discussions.  Here is my brief synopsis:

Scrapbooking for 1Ls: A Hands-On Approach to Legal Synthesis

Preyal Shah and Jessica Haseltine, UNT Dallas College of Law

Preyal and Jessica demonstrated an excellent exercise to help visual and kinesthetic learners.  They provide students with different sizes of paper that are different colors.  The sizes and color correspond to a hierarchy for outlining diversity jurisdiction.  The exercise is setup like a puzzle.  Students must take their Civ Pro class notes and fill in the rules and then piece together the hierarchy.  After visualizing the structure and context, they transition students to writing essays about diversity.  The exercise was outstanding.  I can’t adequately describe the visual effect of seeing the rule structure.  If you have struggling visual learners, definitely contact Preyal (or anyone attending) for information.

Emerging Adults

Rebecca Flanagan, University of Massachusetts School of Law

Rebecca was amazing, as always.  She explained the characteristics of our new group of students.  The semi-accurate quote that struck me was “Law School is based on students we used to have not the students we have now.”  I definitely agree our students are different now than they were even when I first started in ASP.  Rebecca explained how adulthood is defined by milestones, which can include getting a mortgage or having a full-time career.  Previous generations of students met many of those milestones, but most of our students meet none of the adult milestones.  Her discussion advocated for changing teaching to provide more context, scaffolding, and basic professional skills.  Watch out for Rebecca’s articles as they are published because they will be a great resource for improving our teaching.

Helicopter Professors

Emily Grant, Washburn University School of Law

Emily’s presentation was based on her law review article about Helicopter Professors.  This is an interesting topic.  I felt convicted after listening to her speak because I am probably (most likely) a helicopter professor.  This is also interesting because the research says helicopter parenting is on the rise, and new parents are also our new generation of law professors.  The idea that parenting styles would then enter the classroom makes sense to me.  Helicopter parenting and teaching may not always be bad, but Emily does a great job of demonstrating some of the problems.  I personally always worry that if I am not clearly structuring everything students should be doing on an hourly basis throughout the summer, then students won’t do what is necessary to succeed on the bar.  My strategy may or may not really help students pass the bar, but it is definitely not helping them become an independently motivated attorney.  I need to buy into her quote “Excessive Guidance that hinders learning.”

For Technical Assistance, Please Press 9

Kirsha Trychta, West Virginia University College of Law

Kirsha is definitely more tech savvy than I am.  She provided resources to make ASP work more efficient and fun.  The highlight for me was definitely how to make a lightboard.  If you make videos for students, the lightboard is a fun way to make it more interactive.  Here is the youtube video explaining lightboards.  She was able to make the lightboard for approximately $2,500.  If you want to build one, contact her about her experience.  I plan to setup a meeting with our IT department as soon as I get back to see if this is possible.  She also talked about making her outlook calendar public so students can see whether she is available.  This decreases the number of students emailing or calling asking when she is available.  They can look at her calendar and email for specific appointments.  The aspect I enjoyed was students can’t see the specific appointments, but they can see when she is busy or available. 

Law Success after Year One: Using a Mandatory Skills Curriculum to Tackle Bar Passage Rates

Zoe Niesel and Mike Barry, St. Mary’s University School of Law

Zoe and Mike built a comprehensive ASP program focusing on law school success, bar exam passage, and practice ready skills.  First, I would applaud St. Mary’s for committing the resources to allow Zoe and Mike the ability to build such an extensive program.  They have classes virtually every semester of law school with over 10 faculty and staff in their program.  I loved their 2nd semester 1L course focused on professionalism and practice ready skills.  They teach client interviewing and business communications among other skills.  Students are grouped in law firms and must interview a simulated client played by a drama school student.  Students then meet with a volunteer local attorney to present a strategy for the simulated client.  I think students interacting with senior attorneys helps build professional skills students will need in the summer after first year.  The contextual learning will also deepen student learning.


Great job by all the presenters.  If you are interested in slides, Jennifer Warren from OCU will have all the slides.

(Steven Foster)

March 12, 2018 in Meetings, Publishing, Teaching Tips, Travel | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Podcasts Offer an Alternative to Case Reading

Some (or perhaps, most) law students get tired of reading judicial opinions every single day. I have found that giving students the option to listen to audio files or watch movies in lieu of reading a case helps to create some variety and spices up the learning process. For example, last week my Criminal Procedure students had the option to watch the 1980 movie “Gideon’s Trumpet” or read Gideon v. Wainwright and the corresponding notes in the textbook. I included both the audio and textbook options expressly on the syllabus. About half the class opted to watch the movie while the other half read the case; importantly, the whole class was able to engage in the discussion. Similarly, next week students will have the option to read the portion of the textbook discussing jury selection or to listen to More Perfect’s “Object Anyway” podcast.

Even if you don’t teach a substantive law course, the audio files can be helpful to aid any student who is struggling to connect with the written material. Earlier this semester a high-performing first-year student stopped by my office concerned that she had lost her fall semester spark. In the fall semester, she was excited about law school and thus enthused to work hard. Her hard work paid off, earning her very high grades in December. But, when she returned in January, she just couldn’t connect with the cases and material like she had done before. The spring semester courses of Constitutional Law and Property weren’t peaking her curiosity the way the fall semester courses of Criminal Law and Torts had. After chatting with her for a few minutes, I could tell that she needed a new way to engage with the material. I suggested some legal podcasts, especially ones that would give her the story behind the litigation. She needed to be able to relate to the parties on a more personal level, and I thought a well told story about the litigants could help. After just a few podcasts, she has already reported that Con Law has become more interesting to her now that she’s “getting to know” the justices’ personalities and she enjoys learning what happened to the litigants before and after the lawsuit.

If you’re interested in introducing an audio option to one of your courses or academic support arsenal, consider:

Oyez “is a multimedia archive devoted to making the Supreme Court of the United States accessible to everyone. It is a complete and authoritative source for all of the Court’s audio since the installation of a recording system in October 1955. Oyez offers transcript-synchronized and searchable audio, plain-English case summaries, illustrated decision information, and full text Supreme Court opinions. Oyez also provides detailed information on every justice throughout the Court’s history and offers a panoramic tour of the Supreme Court building, including the chambers of several justices.” 

According to More Perfect’s creators “Supreme Court decisions shape everything from marriage and money to public safety and sex. We know these are very important decisions we should all pay attention to – but they often feel untouchable and even unknowable. Radiolab's first ever spin-off series, More Perfect, connects you to the decisions made inside the court's hallowed halls, and explains what those rulings mean for "we the people" who exist far from the bench. More Perfect bypasses the wonkiness and tells stories behind some of the court’s biggest rulings.”

Legal Talk Network is a podcast network for legal professionals with hosts from well-known organizations and brands in the legal community.  Over 20 different active podcasts cover important legal news and developments, including access to justice, law school, industry events, legal technology, and the future of law. The most relevant podcast within the network is the ABA Law Student Podcast, which covers issues that affect law students and recent grads.

In addition, Learn Out Loud offers numerous legal podcasts and audio files for free download. (Kirsha Trychta)

February 20, 2018 in Film, Learning Styles, Teaching Tips, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, February 5, 2018

Overcomers Needed to Combat Negative Messaging

While I don’t consider myself old, I am starting to tell stories about “the good ole’ days.”  Days where I was taught to ride a bike by being pushed down the street and then my uncle let go.  I crashed, got up, probably cried about not wanting to continue, and then was forced to get back on for the next attempt.  My mom recalls that she was taught to swim by being thrown in a lake and told to swim back to survive.  Those are terrible parenting strategies (and probably exaggerations), but I do find myself telling my kids “we don’t say I can’t in this house” right before a huge meltdown struggle.  A key message was to overcome obstacles.

Now is the time in both bar prep and the semester where I see students psychologically disadvantaging themselves with the wrong perspective.  Bar takers are struggling with recent simulated MBE results.  My last semester 3Ls are struggling through their MBE homework.  The pain of multiple choice is high right now.  Many students will shy away from more work that illustrates they are not doing well.

Despite the current despair, my hope is everyone possesses a get back on the bike attitude, even if they are wailing.  Unfortunately, I am concerned we (including myself) are not teaching perseverance as well at all levels of education.  I fear our students aren't getting back on the bike due to their perspective of their own ability.

Students constantly receive messages from society, law school, and peers about their ability.  If students don’t receive instruction on how to overcome those obstacles before law school, schools should start overtly teaching how to overcome very real obstacles.  Some law schools’ demographics include students who constantly receive messages that they are not good at certain types of questions.  Research is clear that girls at young ages are as capable, if not better, at math than boys.  As kids grow up, societal messages and images tell young women they are not good at math.  This results, along with many other factors, with less women in STEM fields.  Many of our students experience the same phenomenon.  Schools with lower credentials have a student body who were told by the LSAT that they aren’t good at multiple choice tests, and many of those students were subsequently told by some law schools, through rejection letters, that they weren’t good enough on multiple choice tests to attend.  Limited options to unranked law schools sends messages of inferiority before students are even in chairs.

Students of historically marginalized groups attending those schools face even greater challenges.  Stereotype threat, not seeing many peers like themselves, and discovering statistics about group performance sends additional messages of limited chances of success.  The explosion of easily accessible information through social media and the internet only exacerbates this problem.

My anecdotal perspective is that some students receiving these messages are ill-equipped to navigate the negative environment, which in many ways is not students’ fault.  Between helicopter parenting and YMCA sports (only half-joking), some law students haven't faced real challenges or losing before law school.  They haven't been exposed to the need for a Growth Mindset.  I always talk about improvement and the goal is to get better, but anecdotally, I have heard more students say they aren’t good at multiple choice questions over the last few years.  I try to tell students about a growth mindset, but I don’t think it registers to them that saying they are bad at a certain type of question is a form of the fixed mindset.  The confirmation of certain classes from law school make overcoming this idea difficult.

Overcoming failures is critical to success in law school, the bar exam, and the practice of law.  Not only do we need students to acquire persistence for success now, we are doing a disservice to them if we let them practice law without the ability to handle defeat.  I am committing to be more overt about my messaging on improvement and growth mindset.  I specifically tell students the statement “I am bad at multiple choice questions” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and hurts their scores.  I plan to continually talk about the obstacles in practice and how to learn to handle them now.  I will show them how they improve and how improvement is the goal.  I want my students to enter the profession with the ability to continue to advocate for their client in spite of continuously losing motions.  Hopefully those skills will help them be more professional lawyers.

(Steven Foster)

February 5, 2018 in Advice, Bar Exam Preparation, Diversity Issues, Stress & Anxiety, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Picturing Standing in Constitutional Law

Each spring semester, I lead a structured study group primarily focusing on Constitutional Law. For the last few years, I’ve started the semester off with the same “standing” exercise with students, and it’s been a big hit.  I begin by drawing a pictograph on the whiteboard consisting of three big empty rectangles, side-by-side.  I then challenge the students to fill-in the chart with concepts from their standing chapter in a way that makes sense, graphically.  

I encourage them to start by identifying the three main concepts from the standing material. After a few minutes, the students come up with their list: standing (generally), ripeness, and mootness.  If they get stuck, I encourage them to look at their book’s Table of Contents for hints.  I then ask them to place each concept in chronological order.  If I have enough dry erase markers, I’ll write the ripeness material in red, since no case that is deemed unripe will get before the court.  I put the standing material in green indicating that those who have standing are cleared to argue their case before the court, and reserve yellow for the more nuanced category of mootness.

Next, I ask them to identify the test from the casebook that is associated with each principle. This could obviously differ depending on the casebook, but, in my experience, most constitutional law books stick to the same main cases.  I sometimes will write the case name under the principle, but no more.  I don’t write the specific test on the board, but instead give the students time to review and edit the test in their notes or to add the test if it is missing from their notes. 

Finally, I draw an arrow going from “mootness” to “standing,” and ask them what the arrow represents. After a few guesses, I give them a hint if they need it; I tell them to think about the abortion cases that they read.  Eventually someone figures it out, and we have a conversation about the concept that some legal issues are “capable of repetition, yet evading review” which means that although the issue is technically moot, the party may be deemed to have standing anyway. 

I end the exercise by reminding the students that the picture is an overly-simplified version of some very complex constitutional concepts, and that in order to be successful on the exam, they are going to need to continue to build upon what we started in the review session. 

The entire exercise usually takes about 20-30 minutes, leaving enough time in a single review session to also complete a few pre-selected practice multiple-choice questions that focus on the standing principles to help solidify their newly-organized standing rules. (Kirsha Trychta)

Standing pdf jpeg

January 30, 2018 in Games, Study Tips - General, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Setting the Stage: A Learner-Centered Syllabus vs. A Teacher-Centered Syllabus?

As they say, first impressions matter.

That got me thinking about the sorts of first impressions I am making with my students when the first contact that I have with most of my students is, unfortunately, often through my course syllabus.  So, with finals nearly over for the fall term, I am taking a fresh look at my course syllabus to try to look at my syllabus from the viewpoint of my students.  

What tone does my syllabus set?

What does it say about our upcoming term together?  

Does my syllabus present the course as a "painstakingly dull walk through a dimly lit path" or does it "shine with adventures in learning?" 

Well, truth be told, my syllabus is rather drab, littered with dates and topics and reading assignments but really without much of a heart of excitement.  And yet, I really am excited about working with my students next semester with the goal of embarking on a richly-awarding journey together in learning. So, why not make that excitement shine in my syllabus?  But how?

Well, here are a just a few free resources that I came across to help me evaluate, reflect, and re-write my syllabus so that I can better set the stage for an exciting adventure of learning with my students next term.

First, I love Cornell University's "Course Decision Guide" because it walks through step-by-step reflective questions to help me "size up" my course before I re-draft my syllabus in terms of learning objectives, learning activities, formative assessment activities, resource issues, student motivation, summative assessment, etc.

Second, I appreciate the insights shared by Mary Bart in her article entitled "A Learner-Centered Syllabus Helps Set the Tone for Learning," reminding me in a "big picture sort-of-way" of concrete tips to set a positive learning environment right from the get-go just by how I frame my course description, for instance, in my syllabus.

With these resources as a initial start, I'm off to re-envision my syllabus so that the first impression that I make with my students next semester is hopefully a positive one that gets us started off strong on a cooperative learning experience together.  Let the adventure begin...with me rethinking and remaking me (or at least my syllabus)! (Scott Johns).

December 14, 2017 in Encouragement & Inspiration, Learning Styles, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)