Law School Academic Support Blog

Editor: Amy Jarmon
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Great Expectations

There is nothing like undertaking a new exploit to help you establish an affinity with the 1L law students with whom you are working. Enlisting as a contributing editor to the Law School Academic Support Blog, for example, has for me provoked the mix of hopeful excitement and mystified apprehension that used to be just a fuzzy memory from my own first year of law school. Will I impress people favorably? Will I put my foot in my mouth? Suddenly I feel a fresh sense of empathy with the incoming class.

And this makes sense! How else would anybody feel upon realizing that they have voluntarily taken on a future of writing dozens or hundreds of essays in which they are expected to take a stance and justify it with a combination of facts, logic, judgment, history, inference, speculation, and the occasional appeal to emotion, and then presenting these essays to readers who are knowledgeable attorneys with high standards? Whether you are a law student or a law blog author, this can be an intimidating position.

Okay, I’m exaggerating. I am excited to have joined the Law School Academic Success Blog team, notwithstanding any qualms about performing on a new stage. But I have been reminded of my first few weeks in law school, and even a brief flash of empathy with our new law students has some value. It can build rapport. It can also help us find ways to exploit our own experiences for our students’ benefit.

In this case, as I considered writing for this blog, I realized that the greatest source of uncertainty, and thus anxiety, was not knowing the expectations of my readers. What topics do you want to read about? What kind of tone do you prefer? There is not much I can do to answer those questions, other than to write and wait for reaction. But it does not have to be that way for our students.

An issue I see commonly in 1L writing, particularly in the first semester, is a misapprehension of the expectations of the person grading the writing. Some students rely mistakenly on crafting the kind of intricate prose for which they received high grades in the past. Others, in lieu of legal analysis, reflexively regurgitate the rules, case names, and historical details they have memorized. Sometimes students overemphasize something they have learned in law school -- IRAC format, for example -- and apply it indiscriminately, without prioritizing the most relevant issues. These errors are not always the result of not grasping their professors’ expectations, but sometimes they are, and when they are, it can be frustrating for a student not to realize their lapse until after they receive a disappointing grade that might have been avoided.

For this reason, when I am working with 1L students, I try to convey a blend of messages about what they should be striving for. While I aim to be clear with students about the importance of developing skills such as clear analysis and precision, I also insert explicit messages about how law professors, in general, often have expectations of student performance that differ from those of students’ previous teachers. Yes, professors expect their students to know the rules discussed in class, but they also expect students to use those rules as tools, and to exercise judgment in choosing which tools to use, and how to use them. They expect students to make choices about what they discuss, and at how much depth. Moreover, different professors may have different expectations with respect to these choices, and students can learn to glean these individual preferences by paying attention to what each professor emphasizes in class and by talking with the professors and their teaching assistants.

Of course, many law students figure out the importance of their audience’s expectations naturally. But there is a subset of students who seem most comfortable approaching academic performance as an objective, quantitative measure of how much they know. Helping them to see early on that, in most cases, their academic performance in law school will be judged by qualitative standards that are shaped to some degree by their teachers’ subjective expectations can hasten those students’ movement out of their comfort zone and into a realm in which they make prudent decisions about what issues to address, which facts and rules to use, and which outcomes are most likely. Encouraging students to consider their readers’ expectations can help them to see that their job as law students, both in class and beyond, is not merely to memorize and recite, but to learn how to engage in discourse as part of a larger legal community. (Bill MacDonald)

September 18, 2018 in Advice, Study Tips - General, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, September 17, 2018

Do Incentives Work?

“If you build it, he will come,” is a line from great American folklore, or just an 80’s sports movie.  Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams heard one of the classic sports movie lines of all time.  Kevin’s character builds a baseball field, and players from the past (ghosts) come play ball.  He didn’t invite or encourage any of the players.  They just showed up.

Many ASPers, including myself early on, have a Field of Dreams mentality for programs and workshops.  We build the most innovative workshop with great pedagogy.  We advertise a little so students know about it, and then, we expect everyone to show up.  Sometimes that works, but many times, the students who need the workshop the most aren’t in the room.  We then reevaluate to determine the best way to get at-risk students in the room.

As an early ASPer, my next idea was to bribe students to show up.  I thought if I raffle a nice item off to students who attended most of the bar review workshops, students who needed it would show up.  I was right.  Over the next few years, I raffled iPads, full bar review scholarships, apple TVs, and other new tech on the market.  Students who needed help showed up more.  I started reaching more students, but a huge problem arose.  Over 75% of the raffle winners failed the bar exam.  The winner seemed to be cursed with a new gadget and no bar license.  Bribes produced my basic goal, but the bribes did not produce the ultimate goal of helping students succeed.

I stopped incentives a few years after offering them.  Law school budgets grew tighter.  I changed my program with more for-credit offerings, so I wasn’t incentivizing attendance any more.  I always wondered if the incentives really failed or if the low pass rate was a coincidence since my sample size was small.  I didn’t think free items could possibly hurt someone’s chance of passing the bar.

Helping Children Succeed by Paul Tough provided a small glimpse into what may have occurred with my incentives.  Tough cites Roland Friar’s research where he paid kids to do educationally beneficial activities like reading books.  Friar concluded after 4 years that incentives didn’t change long-term student behavior or improve test scores.  Jonathan Guryan paid students to read books over one summer.  After the program, most students’ reading comprehension levels stayed the same.  Students who were high achievers prior to the study saw moderate increases in comprehension, but the most at-risk students didn’t improve.  The incentives failed to produce long-term educational improvement for Friar and Guryan.

The findings sound eerily familiar to my experience.  Students who needed it showed up, but they didn’t end up improving very much.  Most of my award winners failed the bar.  Tough would probably argue that while students are exposed to the material, the lack of motivation to do the tasks originally makes long term improvement unlikely.  Once the incentives cease, students stop working.  In the studies he cites, some students even adopted the mindset that work must be rewarded or the work wasn’t worth completing.  The reward system didn’t work. 

I watched that happen to my students numerous times.  The incentives or drawings stopped, so they stopped attending additional workshops.  They didn’t pay as much attention as they should have during the workshops, and many times, those students didn’t complete the work required for the bar.  Unfortunately, the incentives I tried did not lead to lasting improvement.

Simon Sinek’s marketing perspective may have an additional answer to the incentive puzzle.  He discusses why companies need a “why” to inspire employees and build brand loyalty with customers.  He argues that constant discounts and coupons can get some short term sales, but customers don’t become loyal enough to wait numerous hours for a brand new phone that is full of glitches due to discounts.  Discounts lead to commodification, and customers don’t become brand loyal to basic commodities.  Once the discounts end, customers find a new product. 

Providing incentives for our programs can have the same commodification problem.  I believe the key to success in ASP is not getting students into workshops.  The key to success is getting students to take our workshops home to use on their own time.  What students do when we aren’t looking has the biggest impact on his/her chance of success.  Students won’t be loyal to our program, vision, or idea if they are showing up for a t-shirt.  They won’t follow our lead if the only reason for showing up is winning an iPad.  Incentives run the risk of making our program a commodity, and students won’t do the work outside the classroom that is necessary if our program is a commodity. 

Incentives may not always be bad.  Incentives to fill out surveys or complete simple tasks may not risk the same problems as the studies.  Providing food prior to an event can build relationships among the students.  If the incentive isn’t attempting a long-term behavior change, then the incentive is probably fine. 

The studies were also conducted on school age children, so the applicability to adult learners may be limited.  Comparing these results to incentive studies for employees could help.  Some incentive studies for employees produced better results.

Raffles and drawings with great prizes seems like a great idea.  I thought the same thing and gave away thousands of dollars of items.  In my experience, the incentives didn’t work.  The recent research seems to indicate long-term improvement requires more internal motivation that cannot be achieved by paying someone to study.

(Steven Foster) 

September 17, 2018 in Program Evaluation, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Syllabus Drafting Tips

This week is what the undergraduate community at my university affectionately calls “syllabus week"--that is, five glorious days where each professor reviews his/her expectations for the course, and does not address any substantive (read, "testable") material.  In law school, however, we all know that classwork actually begins on (or, more likely, even before) the first day of school.  But, in honor of “syllabus week,” I thought it would be helpful to revisit what makes a great syllabus. 

First, include all of the mandatory information, per university or law school policy.  This might include your contact information, statements on diversity and inclusion, weather cancellation policies, and accessibility services.

Next, address frequently asked questions in a FAQs section, including responses to:

What should I do if I’m going to be late or absent?

Do I really need the newest edition of the textbook?

I am petrified about being called on in class.  Any suggestions?

What’s your grading policy on late assignments?   

Is this subject tested on the bar exam?

What supplemental study resource(s) do you recommend for this course?

Where do I go if I’m having difficulty understanding the course material?

When are your office hours?  Do I need an appointment?

How do I enroll in TWEN or register for CALI Lessons (if used in the course)?

Then, set reasonable expectations for reading assignments.   (This is usually the hardest step!) According to the advice I received at the “AALS Workshops for New Law School Teachers” event (a.k.a baby teacher school), law professors should assign no more than 25 pages of reading per class hour.  Most professors, however, can only cover about 15 pages of material per hour when working with first-year students or dense material.  If you’re having trouble figuring out how much material you should cover in a course, consider contacting the textbook’s author or publisher.  Most authors and publishers have several different sample syllabi, depending on credit allocation and number of class meeting times.

Also, take Professor James McGrath's suggestion and incorporate formative assessment activities directly into the syllabus to hold yourself and the students accountable.  For example, perhaps every third class you set aside a few minutes for some multiple-choice questions.  Or, alternatively, you may want to reserve the last two minutes of each class for students to write down their big takeaway from day’s lecture. 

After the substance is on paper, consider revamping the format to include an infographic, like this one:

Syllabus infographic


If you're looking for even more suggestions, check out these links:

How To Create an Infographic Syllabus With Piktochart

How to Write a Syllabus Students May Actually Read: Six Quick Tips

Making the Most of the Syllabus

How to Write a Syllabus

Finally, if you don’t teach a course of your own, consider offering to help your colleagues improve their syllabi. While a syllabus can be a very personal thing, you still might be able to offer some “best practices” tips from the academic support community. (Kirsha Trychta) 

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

Monday, August 27, 2018

Loving Every Student

I am currently listening to Bob Goff’s book Everybody Always, and I began to feel somewhat convicted with my own actions towards my students.  His book encourages people to love everyone always, and that love, instead of criticism or correction, is what individuals need.  Sounds like an uplifting message, which it generally is, until the book hit me hard in the first 7 minutes.

The idea sounds simple and great.  I agree that we should love everyone.  What struck me was when he said he wasn’t doing a good job of loving everyone.  He helped out neighbors, co-workers, friends, and anyone he knew.  Loving those people is easy though.  He realized he was avoiding people that were “hard to understand or looked different than [him].”  Hard to understand people sometimes “creeped” him out, so he avoided them.  However, he soon realized loving them first was most important.  Engaging people different from him was not easy, but that difficulty is why showing them love was important.

After hearing the first 10 minutes, I started thinking about my law students.  I am not “creeped” out by any of them, but some of them are difficult to reach.  Many of us talk about the hardest students to get into our office are the ones who need help the most.  I find that statement to be partially true.  I have many students who need help that show up to my office consistently.  They are the ones that are easiest to help.  They are willing to put in the effort to improve.  I constantly send them additional practice questions, set up meetings, and review their outlines.  Talking to them around campus is easy.  They are the ones it is easy to love.

My concern is I don’t reach out enough to the students who need it that aren’t showing up.  Similar to many of you, my schedule is packed.  I have more meetings and classes than hours in the day.  When students don’t respond to my initial few attempts for practice or feedback, I may not seek them out as much.  They are the ones that Bob would define as difficult to love.  His advice would be to continually seek them.  The difficult to reach students are the ones we can have the biggest impact on.

We all have a huge impact in our students’ lives.  We help many struggling students.  The question we may need to ask is are we having an impact on students who are difficult to reach?  Would one more email get the student in our office?  Could a simple hello or wave in the hall make a difference?  Continually seeking out students who aren’t showing up makes a difference.  They may not show up until the summer before the bar exam or may never show up, but reaching out to show support may be all they need to continue on their journey because they feel our love.

(Steven Foster)

August 27, 2018 in Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The ASPer as "Parson"

When I was growing up, the Random House Unabridged Dictionary held the place of honor in our home.  Lying resplendent on a huge dictionary stand, it invited a curious child to spend hours poring over exotic new words and exclaiming over the origin of familiar words.  Even many decades later, it is a treat to cap off a pleasant evening by perusing my dictionary to contemplate words and their etymology.

Thus is was that, several years ago, I learned that "parson" -- that lovely and rather antiquated term for a Protestant minister -- derived from the Middle English persone for "person."  Intrigued, I did a little digging.  Not surprisingly, some explanations for why a minister / priest / vicar / curate / rector (choose your favorite term) would be referred to as a "person" were lengthy, theological, and dull.  But I stumbled across one article that resonated with me.  The parson's calling, this interpretation suggested, was indeed to just be -- a person.  In a society where people were defined by pedigree, social rank, and how they made a living, the parson's role was to be a person to everyone in the parish, high or low, rich or poor.  Performing rites like baptism, weddings, and funerals was really just a way of being a person in relationship with others -- welcoming the birth of a child, celebrating the ties of love and family, and mourning with the bereaved.  The hallmarks of a parson, this article concluded, were listening much, grounding advice in the individual's particular circumstances, and always treating others as individuals worthy of respect.

I long ago lost this article about the parson as a professional "person," but it influenced and still guides the way I approach the profession of academic support.  I believe our highest and best calling as ASPers is to be a "parson" -- that is, to give primary emphasis to being a person in relationship to our students.  As ASPers, we have the training, education, and experience to help our students succeed.  But as Steven Foster pointed out last week, we can share our expertise best if we establish a relationship with our students first.

Moreover, we are often most effective when, by deep listening, we give students leave to follow their own best instincts rather than trudging along doing what they have convinced themselves they "should" do.  I think, for example, of the times struggling students have confided they are having trouble concentrating because a loved one is dying several hundred miles away.  Sometimes the best response is, "Don't you want to go home to be with your family?  I can help arrange things with your professors."  Given permission to honor their responsibilities as human beings, when they return to school they are then ready to concentrate and learn.

Listening much, grounding advice in the individual's particular circumstances, and always treating others as individuals worthy of respect are the hallmarks of an academic support professional -- the "parson" of the law school.  (Nancy Luebbert)

August 22, 2018 in Encouragement & Inspiration, Miscellany, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 20, 2018

Back to School Snapshots for Law School

Scrolling through social media the last 2 weeks has been a blast.  Friends from across the country are taking awesome back to school pictures and posting them.  Some are even comparing previous years’ pictures to show everyone growing up.  Joy, excitement, and nerves can be seen on all the kids’ faces.  The pictures document the beginning of another awesome year. 

Taking a current “snapshot” and looking back is great to gain perspective for students and faculty.  As a student, consider what you thought of law school last year at this time, and if you are a 3L, what you thought about law school before it started.  You may not feel good looking in the future at the bar exam and searching for employment.  However, consider your legal analysis skills now compared to a year ago.  Are you better?  Most likely yes, and that is the goal.  Try to get a little better every day.  The cumulative impact over a year makes a huge difference.

Academic Support Professionals should do the same thing.  The harder bar exam and law school budgets deficits make looking in the future daunting.  However, most of you are performing better and offering more to your students than before.  Consider your program this year compared to last year.  Is it more robust?  Will it attempt to reach more students?  My guess is of course it will.  If you worked in ASP 5 or more years, compare your program now to over 5 years ago.  Is it better?  Of course it is.  Small adjustments and programs over time will help more students.

Pastor Steven Furtick has a great quote about the problems of social media.  He says we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.  We will always lose that comparison.  Law schools have a similar trap.

Students and professors make illogical comparisons.  Students compare grades, study habits, jobs, and extra-curricular activities with what other students say (or post online).  They then worry about not doing enough in each area even though no student is perfect in all the areas.  Class ranks perpetuate this phenomenon, and the rise of social media probably causes even more comparisons.

Academic Support Professors do the same thing.  We go to conferences and see great ideas and programs.  We then think our program isn’t as good because we don’t do everything.  Many of us construct a mythical program in our heads with all the good ideas, and then, we wish we could be that mythical program.  Good news, just because someone has a great idea doesn’t mean everything they do is perfect.  They also may not be doing other programs you are doing.  Everyone and every school is different.  Do what is best for your program and your students.

The mythical student or mythical ASP program doesn’t exist.  We will always lose the comparison with perfection.  The goal is to continue to get better.  Take your back to school snapshot and find the growth from last year.  Ask yourself, “am I better today than yesterday, last month, and last year?”  The answer is most likely yes, so keep up the progress and have a great year!

(Steven Foster)

August 20, 2018 in Encouragement & Inspiration, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Contamination of Student Assessment

An interesting post on Inside Higher Ed by Jay Sterling Silver (St. Thomas Law) arguing that professors who factor class attendance, participation in/preparation for class, and extra credit in their grading are not being fair to students in this age of outcomes assessment. The link to the post is below. (Amy Jarmon)


August 18, 2018 in Miscellany, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 13, 2018

Reconnecting with Students

Visions of beaches and long hours interning are winding down.  Some students have fun stories from study abroad or travel during the summer.  Others experienced an epiphany during a summer clerkship.  Unless your students took summer school, that means we didn’t interact with them on a regular basis the last 3 months.  Summer is fresh on their minds, while our advice from last year is ancient history.  Now is the time to reconnect.

Recent memories tend to be the strongest.  The problem with our students’ most recent experiences may be advice from well-meaning attorneys that may not be the best educational strategy.  Students look up to attorneys since they are practicing, so we should combat that advice as soon as possible.

I believe the best way to overcome the ill-informed advice is start early meeting with students.  However, getting students into the office is always difficult.  Many times, the best way to encourage those meetings will be to reestablish our relationship with students in their domain.

I have not found widespread success just emailing students to have them come in.  Some definitely come in for help, but many tell me they will setup a meeting when they need it, which is always too late in the semester.  I have significantly more success when I walk through the café where they study.  Talk to students about the summer, classes, and anything else going on.  I suggest they come in and then I follow up with the email.  The relationship and connection tends to encourage more students to come in earlier. 

Every school will be different for connecting with students.  We have a café where students study and eat.  It is easy to walk through there to talk to students.  Many of our study rooms have glass fronts, so I can walk through the building talking to students in their study rooms.  I attended student organization meetings in the past to reconnect with students.  My normal goal isn’t to set a meeting on the spot.  The goal is to continue to build a relationship that leads to more interaction.

Summer myths abound.  Now is a good time to start connecting with students to dispel the shortcuts they think they found over the summer.

(Steven Foster)

August 13, 2018 in Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Can Growth Mindset Interventions Help?

Education Week posted this week about a new analysis of 10 studies dealing with growth mindset interventions for those age 7 to adulthood. The analysis suggested that teaching students how their brains change over time may help them understand that intelligence is not static but can be developed. The Canadian research noted increases in motivation, academic achievement, and brain activity. The link to the post is Education Week, and the correct link for the new study is Trends in Neuroscience and Education. The results of this Canadian research are contrary to a previous U.S. study (mentioned in the post) that found growth mindset interventions were not effective and that some earlier studies had not followed best practices: Science Daily. (Amy Jarmon)

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

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Bar Prep Conversation at SEALS

I attended the Southeastern Association of Law Schools (SEALS) Conference earlier this week.  On Monday, August 6, 2018, the conference schedule included two bar preparation strategy sessions.  Here are my takeaways from those two sessions.

The first session was a panel discussion entitled "Bar Preparation Strategies for Law Professors and Academic Support Program."  


Professor James McGrath of Texas A&M University School of Law used an IF-AT quiz to frame his discussion about how spaced repetition and self-efficacy are essential components to bar exam success.  Next, Professor Kirsha Trychta of West Virginia University College of Law introduced ways to mobilize students, faculty, and staff to become soldiers in both academic support and bar preparation efforts.  The session concluded with Professor Patrick Gould of Appalachian School of Law demonstrating how to methodically work through a MBE practice problem and how to spot legal issues.  Professor Melissa Essary of Campbell University's Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law expertly moderated the program.

After the panel presentation, attendees engaged in a lively round-table discussion focused on "Strategies for Bar Preparation and Success." 


Each participant had 10-12 minutes to discuss a bar preparation related issue or topic that was of interest to them.  More than 30 discussants attended the session, including academic support and bar preparation professors, commercial course providers, and deans.  (The session was standing room only!)  Of those in attendance, roughly half of the group raised discussion topics.  While the full agenda—including the presenters’ school affiliation, contact information, and formal presentation title—is available here (Download BAR PASSAGE SPEAKER SCHEDULE Revised 3), I’ve set forth a brief summary below.  If a discussion item sounds interesting to you, I encourage you to reach out to the presenter.  Every presenter warmly invited questions and comments.  

Bob Keuhn is authoring a research paper on the results of a recent large-scale empirical study, where he found little evidence that clinical or experiential coursework helps students pass the bar exam, contrary to popular belief.

James McGrath offered five quick tips for improving classroom teaching, including adding formative assessment activities directly on the course syllabus so that quizzes and reflection exercises become an essential and routine component of the course.  

Michael Barry & Zoe Niesel outlined how they “went big” and dared to “be bold” overhauling and expanding their ASP program.  They proactively asked for input from faculty, the advancement (i.e. fundraising) department, career services, and others before moving forward.

Benjamin Madison focused on self-directed learning, and emphasized the importance of incorporation skills building, especially in the first-year, to help students become better self-directed learners.  He recommended Dean Michael Hunter Schwartz’s book as a jumpstart.  

Ron Rychlak shared his experience with bar passage efforts at two (very) different law schools: Ole’ Miss and Ava Maria.  He tinkered with requiring more bar-tested electives, increasing the probation cut-off GPA, and adding more academic support style-courses in the first two years.

Antonia Miceli redesigned her third-year bar course from an “opt in” (i.e. invitation to enroll) to an “opt out” model.  All students in the bottom third of the class are now automatically enrolled, and the student must proactively petition to opt out of the course—which has positively increased her overall enrollment.

Debra Moss Vollweiler has spent the last few years as a member of a Florida bar passage focus group, and is now advancing the 3-Ms model: master in 1L, manipulate in 2L, and memorize in 3L.  The 3M model aligns with her law school’s newly revised learning outcomes.  

Cassie Christopher debuted her online 3-credit, graded, MBE course, which is open to all graduating students.  Students watch an online video created by in-house doctrinal faculty, read the required textbook, complete practice MBEs, and engage in a discussion board each week.

Kirsha Trychta asked for attendees’ input on ways to mobilize the entire faculty in bar preparation.  Discussants suggested incorporating the MPT into a clinical course, asking faculty to guest lecture, making a practice essay and MBE database on TWEN, inviting outside third-party speakers, and involving the assessment committee in programmatic decision making.  

Rob McFarland highlighted a recent (and controversial) conversation online, directed at law school hopefuls, about whether an LSAT score accurately predicts bar passage success.

Laurie Zimet proposed that law schools should (1) educate the entire law school community about the bar exam and invite each person to contribute where they could, and (2) provide an opportunity for students to diagnosis weaknesses, with sufficient time for remediation.

Melissa Essary designed a new course—in just a few months—which offered academic credit for a graded, in-house faculty taught, one semester, flipped classroom MBE bar preparation course, supplemented by Barbri videos and materials.   

Patrick Gould, the session’s moderator, concluded by thanking Russel Weaver for hosting us, and encouraging everyone to brainstorm about what we can do next year to make the event even better.  

Well done, team!
(Kirsha Trychta)

August 7, 2018 in Bar Exam Issues, Bar Exam Preparation, Meetings, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

IF-AT Orientation Quiz

Now that the bar exam is over, it's time to turn our attention to the incoming first-year students.  Orientation is right around the corner.  I have roughly 50 minutes to speak with the students during orientation about academic support programming.  I used to give a lecture style overview and then distribute some handouts.  The students politely listened, but few left the session enthused about the Academic Excellence Center.  For the last few years, however, I've used the IF-AT lottery scratcher quizzes during orientation, with much success.  Now, after adopting the scratcher quizzes, students routinely queue up to chat with me after the session.  Here are the details.

1. What's an IF-AT Quiz? 

According to the creator's website, the "Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique, also known as the IF-AT, is an exciting and revolutionary new testing system that transforms traditional multiple-choice testing into an interactive learning opportunity for students and a more informative assessment opportunity for teachers."  In more direct terms, it's a small card that looks like a lottery scratcher.  The correct answer has a star (*) underneath, while the wrong answers are blank.  Students can take a guess from the four options.  If they are correct, they'll see a star and get full credit for the question.  If they are wrong, then they'll see a blank space, and have the opportunity to select again from the three remaining responses.  

IFAT Scratcher

You can buy the scratchers online.  The smallest box available for purchase is a 10-question, 4 answer choice batch of 500 scracthers at a cost of $90 plus $15 shipping and handling.  You can also get longer and more complex quiz formats at a slightly higher price.  I only use about 20 scratchers at orientation for an incoming class of 100 students.  So, for just $115, I now have enough scratchers to last me for my entire ASP career (assuming that I'm only using the scratchers at orientation).

2. What kind of questions do you put on the orientation quiz?

I draft a 10-question quiz with both facts that I want the students to know about the Academic Excellence Center and academic support tips that are helpful during the first two weeks of school.  The current version of the quiz includes questions like: 

-- Before joining WVU Law, Professor Trychta worked as: (a) a family law attorney, (b) a judicial law clerk, (c) a federal prosecutor, or (d) a professional writer.

-- Dean’s Fellows are: (a) students on full academic scholarship, (b) select high-performing upper level students who apply to work as paid tutors, (c) the student who earned the highest grade in a particular course, or (d) volunteer upper-level students who serve as “big brothers” and “big sisters.”

-- Professor Trychta is available to meet with students: (a) on a first come, first serve, walk-in basis anytime; (b) on a first come, first serve, walk-in basis during posted office hours; (c) with or without an appointment at any time; or (d) by appointment only.

-- There are 13 subjects on the essay section of the Uniform Bar Exam (or West Virginia bar exam). How many of those subjects are required at WVU Law? (a) 7, (b) 9, (c) 11, or (d) 13.

-- The biggest challenge for most first-year law students is: (a) understanding the reading assignments, (b) balancing time commitments (a.k.a. time management), (c) getting “cold called” in class, or (d) learning the legal vocabulary.

-- Which is a true statement? (a) Professor Trychta once walked 125 miles in 4 days. (b) Law students should practice multitasking while in law school, because it is valuable skill for young lawyers. (c) Because of the volume of material discussed, your computer is a must-have in the classroom to take notes. (d) For the best results when studying, read the material over and over again until you know it cold.

-- How many hours per week should a law student anticipate studying outside of class? (a) 17-34 hours per week, (b) 34-51 hours per week, (c) 51-68 hours per week, or (d) there is no magic number.

-- During the fall semester, the Writing Center will periodically offer writing workshops on which day of the week? (a) Monday, (b) Tuesday, (c) Wednesday, or (d) Thursday.

Each question is designed to invite conversation among the students and between the students and myself.  

3. How do you administer the quiz?

I hand out a copy of the quiz to every student.  I then give each student about 3-5 minutes to look over the quiz individually and to mark their preliminary guesses.  Next, I put the students in small groups and distribute the IF-AT scratcher.  I tell them that they must work together to select the best answer, as a group.  Students are told that the group with the highest score will receive a small prize.  Groups earn 3 points if they select the correct answer on their first try, 2 points for a second choice, 1 point for a third choice, and no points if the correct answer is the only answer remaining from the four original choices.  The maximum scores is 30 points.  

After each group has a chance to complete their card, I review the answers with everyone.  The quiz review component goes quickly because the students already know the right answer (from completing the scratcher) and have already discussed the pros/cons of the other answer choices.  I'm simply reinforcing what they discovered for themselves earlier in the session.  

4. What if you don't have a designated timeslot during orientation?

For this upcoming year, in an effort to better streamline the overloaded orientation agenda, I agreed to move my ASP session to one of the catered lunch breaks.  It's now a working luncheon.  I plan to place copies of the quiz on the round lunch tables prior to the students arrival.  Once everyone is seated with their meals, I'll explain the rules to the game.  The students can then eat and chat about the quiz, in a relaxed setting.  I fully expect that the lunch table layout will actually foster and aid the group project, not hinder it.  I also plan to walk around the room and introduce myself to the lunch tables.  By the time I say hello to each table, it will be time to tally up the points and declare a winner.

So, if you don't currently have a designated time slot, and the students have a catered lunch break, I recommend asking if you can turn the lunch into a working ASP lunch.

(Kirsha Trychta) 

July 31, 2018 in Orientation, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 30, 2018

Compassionate Curiosity

One student leaves and the next student comes in.  The first thing he/she says is an excuse why they don't have the practice problem done or didn't turn in homework.  The professor at the desk proceeds to scold the student for not meeting expectations or doing the necessary work to succeed.  Silently, the professor already thinks the student will not make it to 2L year.  The meeting is over and the next student comes in.  Too many meetings with struggling students follow that pattern with some professors.

Unfortunately, I fall into the trap of not listening to the reason or failing to dig deeper.  Most of us have more meetings than time and have already gone the extra mile (or 2) for the entire law school.  The additional effort to understand students who continuously fail to complete the work is difficult.  However, we may want to look deeper into the reason for some student's actions.

Kyle Redford in an Education Week article encouraged teachers to use Compassionate Curiosity to understand behavior in students.  The article is intended for classroom teachers, but the strategy is applicable to law students as well.  He states "Compassion asks teachers to pause before assuming we know what was behind a student's rude or hurtful remark, disruptive behavior, or poorly executed or missing work.  It shifts us out of the role of judge and into the role of investigator - a caring one."  That line struck a cord with me because too often, I think I judge the reason instead of trying to care about the student in a way to understand the action.  Read the rest of the article here.

We all understand numerous factors play a role in student success from family situations to mental health.  The article is specific to potential problems of a 5th grader who looks after his/her siblings.  We have students every year who still look after siblings as law students, and some of them look after parents.  Starting from a place of compassion can build trust and help students succeed.  Students still need to meet expectations and complete the work, but compassion can help us lead the students to a good plan for success.  I hope to start from compassion more this year.

(Steven Foster)


July 30, 2018 in Encouragement & Inspiration, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 23, 2018

Planning for the Fall

July is almost over.  The hard work over the summer comes to an end, which means, it is time to ramp up for the fall semester!  As one chapter closes, I will usher in a new 1L class and begin bar prep with the rising 3Ls.  I must have ignored the post from a few weeks ago about taking a break.

The last few days have not felt like the end of summer in Oklahoma with a triple digit heat index every day, but I consider the bar exam the end of summer.  I will teach legal analysis to all the entering 1Ls and also a year-long bar prep class to rising 3Ls.  This will be my 4th year teaching legal analysis and my 10th year teaching a version of the 3L bar class.  After that many years, the easy route is to pull last year’s syllabi, change the dates, and post it for students.  However, I encourage everyone to consider adding something new.

Adding new items to a course or program seems daunting.  There are always more pieces than originally considered.  Between meetings, normal preparations, and taking a breath before the semester begins, adding something new seems difficult.  I have a couple suggestions that may help all of us do a little more this year.

  1. Schedule time for new ideas. We implore our students to schedule everything.  I encourage all of us to do the same.  Block out 30 minutes to an hour each day prior to school beginning.  Use that time to implement 1-2 new ideas.
  1. Look back through AASE materials. The great ideas from AASE get lost in the summer shuffle sometimes.  Make a deliberate effort to look at those materials for new ideas.
  1. Check your sticky notes. This may be more for me, but when I think of new ideas, I write them down on sticky notes on my desk.  Looking through those may jog your memory of what to do.  I also write down activities that didn’t work as well or slight modifications needed for class.  Keeping a running list is helpful because remembering the next year is difficult.
  1. Choose something small. You don’t have to transform your class, workshops, or department in 1 semester.  Most of us tell students to get gradually better through practice.  1% better every day makes a huge different in the long run.  The same is true for our courses and workshops.  A little better each time will make a huge impact.

The last few weeks before classes begin is normally a mad dash to get everything ready.  Try to spend a little time adding a few new ideas to make the coming year just a little better.  Enjoy the next few weeks.

(Steven Foster) 

July 23, 2018 in Program Evaluation, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Are you considering an ASP course? There's a book for that.

Periodically the ASP Listserv hosts questions from law schools that are considering having an ASP course. Sometimes the questions focus on courses for first-year students; sometimes upper-division students are the focus. A wonderful resource as you work on your academic success course is Kris Franklin's Strategies and Techniques for Teaching Academic Success Classes (Wolters Kluwer, 2015). Kris Franklin is well-known in the ASP community and serves as Professor of Law, Director of Academic Initiatives, and Co-Director of the Initiative for Excellence in Law Teaching at New York Law School.

This short and readable volume will guide you from "soup to nuts" in the design process for your course. The book clearly recognizes that there is no "one size fits all" and looks at issues to consider and potential topics and skills to incorporate. The volume includes eight main parts: Type of Course, Materials and Texts, Beginning Your Course, Teaching Legal Reasoning, Academic Skills, Developing Teaching and Learning Exercises, Feedback and Grading, and Wrapping up Your Course.

Although the book is designed to be used in tandem with Strategies and Techniques of Law School Teaching by Howard E. Katz and Kevin Francis O'Neill, it is a very useful stand alone volume. A selected bibliography and an appendix of sample course sequences add to its value. (Amy Jarmon)




July 22, 2018 in Books, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, July 21, 2018

White Paper on Distance Learning in Legal Education

Hat tip to Jennifer Cooper (Tulane Law School teacher in the MJ Labor & Employment Law program) for reminding ASP listserv readers about the white paper from the Working Group for Distance Learning in Legal Education. The white paper is hosted by CALI as an ebook at

July 21, 2018 in Books, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

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)