Thursday, July 21, 2011
Academic Success supports many different types of students, but one group we don't hear much about are transfer students. However, transfer students have many of the same struggles as incoming students: where to live, how to make friends, how to navigate a new environment. It's easy to ignore or lose track of transfer students, but their needs are important as well. They don't cross our radar because their 1L grades are superior (or they would not have been admitted) and they are upperclassmen, and many ASP's focus on the first and last year of law school.
Although we always have a full plate in ASP, it is wise to reach out to incoming transfer students. Helping them feel like they have a home and a place to go if they need academic assistance can prevent bar exam issues their 3L year. (RCF)
Friday, July 15, 2011
I had the privilege of teaching at CLEO's Attitude is Essential 3-day workshop in Atlanta this past weekend. I co-taught my small group of 25 students with Joanne Harvest Koren of Miami Law. One of the issues that arose in our session was how much time to devote to student questions when we were trying to cover substantive lessons in a compressed time period. Joanne and I decided to spend a significant amount of time answering questions, at the expense of some substantive coverage. I think we made a smart choice, but I think this is something many ASP professionals struggle with when they teach a class or workshop.
The students in our section were an unusually motivated group, which they demonstrated by spending almost twelve hours a day for two and a half days in hotel conference rooms learning about how to succeed in law school. They came with more smart, important questions than we had time to answer. However, there are some questions asked by new students that need to be answered before they can move on to other work. When trying to decide how much time to allot to questions, it's important to judge the importance of the questions to the student. What might seem like something that can be answered at another time might be pressing to the student. If the question stops the student from thinking about anything else, than cutting some coverage helps students focus on what needs to be covered in class. These types of questions are the type that are shared by many incoming students; only one or two students have the courage to raise their hand and ask the question.
Joanne and I found it best to start each session with a general Q and A. We explicitly limited the time and scope of the answers to what we thought was most pressing for the students. At the end of each session, we tried our best to have a more limited Q and A about the material we just covered, so students could leave the session and move on to new material, instead of remaining confused.
What sort of questions were most pressing for incoming law students?
1) How much time should be devoted to law school each week?
2) Do I need to do law school work and nothing else for the next three years?
3) What are the benefits of typing/handwriting notes?
4) How do I explain to my significant other/parents/children that I can't be there for them the way I used to be when I am in law school?
These are all questions that are great to tackle in pre-orientation or orientation. When students are preoccupied with major questions about law school, it uses parts of their working memory that can be devoted to other, more productive things. By spending some time to answer questions, you have more focused students.
Saturday, March 19, 2011
We write a lot about discovering student's learning and processing styles. But few of us spend a lot of time thinking about our teaching styles. We teach the way we were taught, the way that feels most comfortable to us, or the way we are told to teach by our employer. A handful of people change their teaching style based on what they learn at conferences. As ASPer's, we busy, and few of us have a lot of downtime to think about why we teach the way we teach and reflect on our teaching style.
I am using teaching style in the broadest possible way; all the things you do to prepare to teach and how you teach students. This is unique to every individual. Learning is a complex interplay between teachers, students, and students and peers. We all have preferences. We all need to understand our preferences to do our best to help students learn.
The one-on-one teacher: Whenever I go to a conference, I hear attendees talking that one-on-one is the best method for teaching students. It is assumed, not discussed. I have heard countless times "I could teach them anything, if I just had enough time to teach them one-on-one." No one seems to question the validity of the statement. One-on-one teaching is a teaching style, and one that does not work best for everyone. It is not true that everyone could teach anyone anything if they could just work with them one-on-one. It is a great method if it is your strength, but it is not everyone's strength. I a lot of former practitioners prefer one-on-one's because it is how they worked with clients. My message to new teachers is that they should think before they assume this is the best way to reach all students. It's not the best way, it is a preference. Just as we would not assume there is a best learning or processing style for students, don't assume one-on-one's are the best teaching method because that is what you hear from colleagues.
The student-group leader-teacher: This is a common way of delivering ASP at many law schools. ASP professionals are expected to teach students to lead groups of students. There are some brilliant ASper's who use this method to great success; Joanne Koren at Miami and Mike Schwartz at Washburn immediately come to mind. However, there is no one master method for teaching student leaders to run student study groups. If you are an intuitive teacher, teaching students to teach students is difficult. Intuitive teachers are ones whose teaching reflects the needs and the makeup of the class. It is a more spontaneous, reactive way to teach, although it requires as much, if not more, preparation. Intuitive teachers master the subject material so that they can change the direction of the class on the fly to reflect how the class is moving that day. If this is your teaching style, it is difficult to translate this method to student leaders. You cannot tell student leaders to master the subject material. Most intuitive teachers have significant classroom experience, and it is rare for a student leader to have the teaching experience to be intuitive with the students they are leading. Intuitive teachers can learn how other teachers teach student leaders, but it is not their preference. And there is nothing wrong with finding that is not the best way to reach students.
The classroom teacher: Not everyone is cut out to be a traditional classroom teacher. There are some magnificent, awe-inspiring classroom teachers in ASP and doctrinal teaching, such as Rory Badahur at Washburn or Paula Manning at Western State. If you don't prefer classroom teaching, it doesn't mean you aren't a good teacher. It means your preference may be one-on-one or leading student leaders. I find that there is a spectrum, at one end are pure classroom teachers, and at the other, pure one-on-one teachers. Most people are somewhere along that spectrum. The difference is in how the teachers use peer learning. Classroom teachers need to cede control of learning to the students to be successful. This is not something everyone is comfortable doing. You need to build trust between teacher (you) and the students, and trust between peers. This is a skill. It's much easier for student's to feel safe in a one-on-one than it is for a class to feel safe. Safety is critical to learning because students need to push boundaries in order to learn, to move outside of their comfort zone, and to risk being wrong.
Every teacher needs to do some of every type of teaching. However, everyone has preferences in how they work with students. My message to new teachers--there is not a right or wrong preference, no master method that is most successful with students. When a colleague, even a very respected colleague, tells you that they have found a method that works best with students, realize they have found their method that works best based on their teaching preferences. That method may not work best for you. You need to reflect on your skill set and your preferences. The method that is most likely to reach your students is the method that reflects your preferences and strengths.
I have a non-ASP colleague at the undergrad who is one of the most brilliant one-on-one teachers I have ever observed. However, this teacher dislikes classroom teaching, and finds it ineffectual at reaching students. This educator was reflective during the job search, and found a position that consists primarily of one-on-one instruction, with limited classroom time. I am fascinated by one-on-one methods because I greatly prefer classroom teaching, and find a full day of one-on-ones to be draining, and for many students, counter-productive. I find students understand much more from peer learning in a class than in a one-on-one. I find that students are better at translating their misunderstanding of material to each other than to me. My colleague and I both receive great evaluations reflective of our respective teaching preferences. Our student body overlaps, so we know that the evals are not reflecting student preferences (i.e., students who like one-on-ones going to the colleague, students who like classroom teaching to me), but our strengths.
My message to new teachers: reflect on your preferences and your strengths. Your students will learn best when you play to your strengths as a teacher. There is no one master method of reaching students. Just as we respect student learning and processing differences, respect teaching preferences. (RCF)
Tuesday, March 1, 2011
I sat in on an Business Law class yesterday. I sat in the back of the classroom, so I had a nice view of all the open laptops in front of me. I was impressed with how few students were using their laptops inappropriately during class time; I could see only two in a class of over fifty students. Most law professors can only dream of a class with so few students playing games. I was intrigued with how the students were taking notes on their laptops, and I think this method can be of great use in law school classrooms.
The PowerPoints are digitally distributed ahead of time, so students can load the slides on their computer before the start of class. The slides were also projected at the front of the room. The students with computers almost universally had the PowerPoints open, in the "notes page" format. (For those of you unfamiliar with the notes page: in newest version of MS PP, go to the "view" tab at the top of the screen, and on the far left of the format bar, there is a tab for "Normal", "Slide Sorter" and "Notes page". Click on "notes page".) From the notes page format, students could see thePowerPoint on the screen, and take notes underneath. I had never seen students do this before, but it made sense that this was an excellent technique for organizing notes. The notes correspond with the lecture. If a student misses a word during the lecture, they can figure out the context by looking at where they were in the presentation.
The instructor had an interesting method of using PowerPoint as an instructional tool. The slides were used as place keepers for the lecture. Each slide had text outlining a major point, along with some fun visuals, such as a picture of the schoolhouse from Brown v. Board of Education. The PowerPoints did not outline the lecture, just the main point of the topic. Students could not use the PowerPoints as a substitute for class attendance. Therefore, it did not matter if he distributed them before class. I know law school professors fear distributing their PowerPoints because they fear it will create an incentive for students to miss class or play during class. However, what I observed in the class was that the students were MORE tuned in to class lecture. If they lost their place in the lecture, the students did not feel as if they were lost for the rest of the class. They could figure out the context by looking at the slide.
I know that using scaffolds such as PowerPoint help students learn material. I know all the theoretical reasons why PowerPoint is a great tool. This was the first time I saw how student behavior matched the theoretical reasons for using PowerPoint. Most of the research I have read on using scaffolds, such as PowerPoint, to learn in class were based on student's assessment of their own learning, which does not always correspond with appropriate behavior in class. This was my first experience witnessing the positive change in student classroom behavior when scaffolds are used appropriately. This is definitely a technique I will adopt in my classes in the future. (RCF)
Saturday, February 26, 2011
Two teaching techniques are known as the educational bookends: previews and summaries. The idea is that you present a preview of the material ("Let me preview adverse possession for you. We will be studying the topic for the next 2 weeks."), teach the material, and the summarize the material ("Let's pull together what we have learned about adverse possession over the last 2 weeks.").
Global learners (who need a road map of the topic before they can understand the sub-topics within the topic) will appreciate the preview step. It helps them to understand how to fit the parts into the whole as the material is covered. They will feel that they know what the "road trip" will be about and can enjoy the journey.
Sequential learners (who need to first understand each sub-topic before they can think about the overview) will appreciate the summary step. It helps them to know where they have been and how the parts fit into the whole now that they understand the material in its segments.
In short, each type of learner gets to the same destination in a different way. By providing both a preview and a summary, the teacher starts or ends the journey appropriately for each type of learner.
The trick as a professor is to remember to do both steps and not just the one that matches your own style of learning! (Amy Jarmon)
Monday, February 21, 2011
I have written posts in the past about students as consumers. I have very strong feelings on the topic, because I believethat viewing students as consumers dis-incentivizes students to achieve their personal best. However, it can be difficult to explain to students who see themselves as consumers what they should expect from ASP. I think this metaphor may be helpful.*
Home Depot and Lowe's hardware sell do-it-yourself kits for various small projects, such as bird feeders, picture frames, and shelves. They are designed to be parent-child projects, and the degree of complexity involved in the finished product depends on the skill and effort of the builders.
Education is much like one of these do-it-yourself projects. The boxes advertise a very basic project. The kit includes all the pieces necessary to build the project in it's most basic form. If built as designed, the product should function exactly as it is advertised. Similarly, law schools give students all the basic pieces to complete a law degree. Some students will use the pieces as a starting point, and build something magnificent, far exceeding what is advertised on the box. These students are using their own ingenuity, creativity, and talent to demonstrate their own potential. They write notes for law review, join mock trial and appellate advocacy teams, they take on big projects in clinics, and they work to know their professors and peers. Other students will not take the time to read the directions, fail to follow directions, or rush the project because they don't like it. Their project will not be as advertised on the box, because the box does not promise them a well-built project without their own hard work. They can't bring the product back to the store because they don't like the finished product; it is not the store or the manufacturer's fault they did not do what they needed to do. These are the students who fail to show up for orientation or spend orientation playing on a cell phone, the students who are smarter than ASP, and feel that outlining isn't "their style" of preparing for exams. But the trickiest consumers are those that genuinely give 100% of their effort to building the project, and just can not figure out how to get from disassembled pieces to a finished product. This is why most manufacturers have consumer help lines. Academic Success is the consumer help line of law schools. The help-line specialists are masters at building the product, but it requires the continued effort of the consumer to learn how to build the project. If the consumer gets frustrated and hangs up the phone, the help-line specialist can not be blamed for problems with the finished product. Nor can a consumer expect that a help-line specialist is in charge of magic fairies who can come out and finish the project for them because they are struggling. No where on the box does it say that the manufacturer is responsible for the finishing the project for the consumer.
Education, like a do-it-yourself project, is great because you can build something that fits your individual needs, and you decide the complexity of the finished product. Its flexibility is what makes it great, but it also makes it difficult. Students who believe that they are consumers and ASP is there to fix their problems for them are confused about their role.
This metaphor is incomplete in many ways, because ASP encompasses many more things than just helping struggling students. I still disagree with characterizing students as consumers, but I know that some students will see themselves as consumers, and it is helpful to have a metaphor to help them see what we can and cannot do for them. (RCF)
*I apologize if this is a metaphor that has been used by someone else. I have read hundreds of law review articles in the last few months, and I may have accidently picked it up from an article. However, the idea came to me when I watched my brother-in-law and 3 year old nephew put together a do-it-yourself picture frame. My nephew thought the pieces for the frame should be used to build a construction crane. It was not what the manufacturer promised on the box, but it made my nephew very happy. I saw the help-line number on the box, and thought, wow, I bet no one has called them and asked about how to use a picture frame kit to build a construction crane. Which got me thinking about the role of help lines, and ASP.
Thursday, February 10, 2011
I will probably write a much longer law review/journal piece on this topic, but I think it's something that ASPer's can start thinking about now.
I live in two worlds. I teach an ASP course at UConn Law School, and I am the undergrad pre-law specialist. My experience in the pre-law world has been informed by my time as a full-time ASPer. The first time I attended a large conference of pre-law advisers and faculty, I was surprised by how few had JD's. Many advisers don't just advise pre-law students, but advise all pre-professional programs, or are a part of career services. While far more pre-law faculty have JD's, many of them are PhD's in Political Science or History. This is not a criticism of pre-law advisers or faculty; I have learned tremendous amounts from them, and many of them are excellent at what they do.
As ASPer's, we spend our days working with and thinking about what makes a successful law student. We see the characteristics of students who do not succeed, and we can usually recognize issues before the student knows it will be a problem. However, few of us reach out to undergraduate pre-law advisers to share what we know about what makes a successful law student. There are some ASPer's who are actively involved in undergraduate pre-law studies; my co-editor, Amy Jarmon, works with Tech's program, Corie Rosen works with ASU's undergraduate population, and I know a few ASPer's spoke to a pre-law gathering a year ago.
For many, it seems to be an issue of knowing who to reach out to, and at what school. Pre-law advisers as a rule don't know who to reach out to at the law school level, but it's easier for an ASPer to locate a pre-law adviser or faculty. Any school is a good school to reach out to, although many law schools are connected to or on the campus of a larger undergraduate university.
The message many pre-law advisers hear is that a broad-based liberal arts or business education is the best preparation for law school, and that any major can go to law school. That is correct, but incomplete, information. Students need to know how to write analytically and read critically to succeed in law school. Just because a student majors in English doesn't mean they know how to do read critically, and being an Engineering major doesn't mean that they don't have excellent critical reading skills. It's not the major, it's the skills. Pre-law advisers could provide much more guidance to their students if they understood the skills necessary for success. Students can acquire these skills in any major, in any college, but they have to carefully choose their classes. Many pre-law students avoid the classes that will give them these skills because they are hard classes, and they would prefer to maximize their GPA. I explain to my students that maximizing their GPA won't be as helpful as having the skills to succeed in law school, when the stakes are much higher, and the job you get will depend on how well you do in school.
I deal with this everyday at UConn. Law students need problem-solving skills, with a heavy emphasis on analytical reasoning. One of the best classes for this is in the Math department, in a class called "Problem Solving". My students avoid this class like the plague. They choose the pre-law track because they hate math. However, the problem solving class involves a lot of critical reading, and doesn't involve a lot of numbers or symbols. It is the best class to prepare students for the LSAT, along with the Logic classes in the Philosophy department. All students at UConn need to take a minimum of three math classes (called Q classes), and at least one Philosophy class, regardless of major. Pre-law students try to take what they perceive to be easier Q and philosophy classes, ones that have more of a focus on introductory math skills and philosophy in history. But these classes do not prepare students as well as classes that focus on analytical skills.
It is the same in almost all majors. I strongly advise students to take grammar, poetry, and rhetoric classes in the English department. They are three of the tougher courses in the English department, because they grade writing skill as well as content. They avoid all classes using the case method in the History or Political Science departments, because cases are difficult to understand. They run from econ classes because they fear econ will be too much like math.
I am not criticizing my students. They receive an overwhelming message that grades and LSAT are all that matter, thanks to for-profit websites and commercial LSAT prep programs. They worry about getting into law school, not succeeding once they are in law school. When I sit down and explain why skills are important, how to get them, and the importance of doing well in law school, they listen. For some, it takes more coaxing then others, but the majority will take some if not all of the tougher skills classes I recommend. Like many non-JD pre-law advisers, many students don't have the information to make an informed decision. Armed with the right information, they make smart choices. Which leads to better law students.
As ASP professionals, we know so much, and we have so much to give back. Far fewer students would be struggling academically if they had a pre-law adviser or faculty member who could steer them to the right classes that focus on the type of skills they need to succeed in law school. (RCF)
Friday, October 29, 2010
Sarah Klaper at DePaul University School of Law shared the following link to the "not that kind of doctor blog" with the Legal Research and Writing Professor listserv. As those of us who teach ASP courses, pre-law courses, or law school doctrinal courses move into grading season, I thought this link might be of interest. I found myself saying "Been there, done that." The blog posting can be found at: The five stages of grading. (Amy Jarmon)
Monday, October 4, 2010
As we move past the beginning and approach the middle of the semester, we are trying new things and experimenting with new formats. We are learning what wroks, and what needs some tweaks. Some of us are teaching new classes, others are teaching the same classes in a new way. This is my second year of teaching Remedies as an ASP course, and here are some of the new things I am trying. Some are going well, others need more tweaks in teh coming weeks:
1) My student's don't use a traditional casebook (until Mike Schwartz's comes out) so I send them their reading in chunks. I don't know how this will work. But my rationale for the change is that I can better tailor the reading to the movement of the class if I periodically review where we are and where we want to go throughout the semester rather than give them everything at once. I add questions and comments to the reading, and this way, I can tailor my questions and comments in the text to what the students are struggling with in the material.
2) I am definitely using handouts to go with my PowerPoints. I know, I should have been doing this from the start. I would love to say my rationale was that I researched the science and saw that handouts scaffold the material learned in class, and therefore, make for better learning by students. That is 75% of my rationale. The other 25% has to do with attention in class. I really don't like giving away my PowerPoints because I believe it reduces the motivation to be alert and attentive in class. I teach at night, and I could be Robin Williams and students would still want to zone out. If I create a handout the acts as a roadmap to where we are going, they can fill in the pertinent information. I am hoping this method also helps students start to see what they should be taking notes on in their other classes. If I give them a template, they will (hopefully) extrapolate what are the important headings to their other classes.
3) I am trying a slower movement through the material. I am trying to go one step deeper with the material, making deeper connections between the material and what students should be thinking. This is an ongoing metacognitive process for me. I am not only re-reading the material, but stopping myself to ask why? when I write notes on the case.
Friday, April 30, 2010
I would like to thank Ruthann Robson, Co-Editor of the Constitutional Law Prof Blog, for alerting us to her April 22, 2010 post on that blog. Ruthann is Professor of Law and University Distinguished Professor at CUNY: Ruthann Robson Profile.
Her post lists numerous hints for professors as they draft their exams. Number 12 in the list mentions that faculty may wish to ask ASP staff for support when working on end-of-the-semester exams. The post also gives a nice compliment to David Nadvorney and his ASP colleagues at CUNY. The full post can be read here: Constitutional Law Exam Drafting. (Amy Jarmon)
Wednesday, April 21, 2010
Some interesting science to report...at least one presenter at every ASP conference mentions that students feel that red pen makes it look as if the paper is "bleeding" negative comments. A new spin: teachers actually grade more harshly when using red pen. Another reason why green, pink, purple might be better bets when giving student feedback.
(I realize this link doesn't look like it fits with my post...it does.)
And a link to the full study is here:
The pen is mightier than the word: Object priming of evaluative standards
by Rutchick, Slepian, and Ferris
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
There are a couple of skills that feel more akin to life management or corporate training that academic support. One of them is time management. It is essential to doing well in law school, and it is a skill most students come to law school believing they already have in their repetoire. After teaching this skill many times, I have a few helpful suggestions that make the lesson more effective.
1) Tell them it is a new skill set. They may have academic time management down to a science, but academic time management doesn't require you to measure your work in 6-minute increments. By reinforcing the idea that time management is a professional skill, not remedial training, students are more likely to buy-in to the lesson. Using old billable hour time sheets can help students visualize the change.
2) One of the best books I have found for lessons that support time management as a professional skill is Dennis Tonsings 1000 Days to the Bar (HEIN). There is an excellent chapter on scheduling, with wonderful charts, that help students map how they use their time.
3) There are fewer external checkpoints in law school to help students benchmark their studying. With academic time management, students have formative assessments (quizzes, midterms) that serve as a check throughout the semester. After each checkpoint, students could reassess their study system and make adjustments. Many times, a test or a midterm covers the material up to that point in the semester, and the final only covers material from the midterm to the final. Not the case at most law schools; the entire grade rests on one test. Therefore, students need to create checkpoints early in the semester to benchmark their work. The only way to hold oneself accountable is to plan early; scheduling is critical. Law school won't provide external checkpoints, so students need to learn how to schedule them into studying.
4) Students should try using multiple calendars. A semester calendar can help students map their overall study schedule. A monthly or weekly calendar can help students see smaller, essential engagements. A daily calendar or a to-do list can help students stay on track throughout the day. For many people, checking things off of a to-do list or crossing them off a calendar provides a wonderful sense of accomplishment. Law school doesn't provide many things students can feel good about, but this is one small way students can reward themselves.
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
Okay, so this begins the part of the semester that is a least-favorite among many of us...the grading grind. In ASP, we tend to grade year-round, so it's not quite the flurry that it is for doctrinal law professors. But nonetheless, I am swamped with papers that need to be corrected, and grades due Dec 22 for my undergrads (much later for my law students). Here are some pieces of simple advice if you are new to grading or giving feedback on papers:
1) Give yourself a break at between 3-5 papers. If you try to do more than that, you start to get irritated, and it will show in the grades. And that is not fair to the students.
2) At least scan them all once after you have assigned grades. Since it is not wise to grade everything at once due to fatigue, you need to be sure you are using a consistent standard.
3) Rubrics help. They are smart pedagogically, but they also can help keep you consistent.
4) Plan ahead. Grading takes much, much longer than you think it will when you start in ASP. I can easily spend an hour or more on each paper, even when I am not giving detailed feedback (which I almost always do).
5) If you are giving feedback (and you should), be sure students can understand what you are writing. After 3-5 papers, handwriting tends to become sloppy. And feedback can't help a student if they can't read it!
6) Be gentle. It's easy to become snarky and frustrated when you see the same error for the nth time. But think of it this way...if you think you are frustrated with the mistake, chances are the student is much, much more frustrated with themselves that they can't get a concept, no matter how hard they try.
7) Don't try to eat and correct papers. It's gross when a paper is returned to a student covered in food gunk and icky-ness. Don't be that person. (That being said, I think we have all been that person at least once).
Friday, October 2, 2009
I have been inspired by one of my colleagues here at UConn, who finishes up with week in grand style. As a part of her job, she writes a weekly update for students in her program. The intro to her weekly updates have become one of the highlights of my Friday. Instead of simple run-down of events her program sponsors, she riffs on what students are going through at that moment--exhaustion, break-ups, annoying rommates--all the things that drive students crazy. It helps that she is hysterical, bringing levity to a very long Friday. The most important thing about her riffs is that she lets students know that they are not alone when they feel like they are losing their mind, and exhausted past the brink of tears. New students, be it 1L's or freshman, feel like they are carrying these burdens alone. Many are afraid to admit it's not going well for them, or think they are the only one struggling. By providing a (very funny) weekly reminder that we are all in this together, and it's a struggle for all of us, she is providing some needed support to students who won't reach out on their own. You never know which message will reach a student in crisis.
I have no doubt that the necessary part of her weekly update gets more attention because she starts with light-hearted banter. The purpose of the updates is to remind students of major events; some of them they must attend. For Academic Support programs that are new, are comprehensive (1L through bar), or have an unfortunate location, a weekly update can be a powerful tool for getting the attention of students. Even for students who need not need ASP programming, a weekly newsletter or update reassures them someone is looking out for them, and providing them with a needed break from the heavy-duty studying. The key is make them useful, make them brief, and keep it funny. (RCF)
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
My last couple of posts have been about starting the school year from a more objective perspective. I always add my anecdotes as examples, but I haven't said much about how I feel about the start of the school year.
Excited, and terrified. I will admit it; the start of a new semester scares me. I know it's a "good" scared. I am trying something new. In the past four years, there has been only one semester where I did not do something new, different, and out-of-my-comfort zone. I always come home from the summer conferences with a million ideas, and a precious few make it into a new syllabus, a new course, or a new approach to reaching students.
At the start of every semester, I am sure, in my heart, that whatever I am doing differently is not going to work. I reassure everyone around me, and then get into a blind panic during the two weeks before the semester begins. I am not sure my blind panic is much different than the panic new ASPer's feel right now. Although I prepare all summer, I am certain I did not prepare enough. It doesn't matter that the brilliant Kris Franklin has reassured me that over-preparation is not the best plan for great classroom learning. It doesn't matter that the brilliant Paula Manning has told me that the sharp learning curve when teaching a new class means I will be one class ahead of the students. I am scared, and I get snappish at the people around me.
I would love to say the first class always allays my fears and goes beautifully. Sometimes that happens, but sometimes my fear gets in the way, and the first class is a clunker. But my worst first-day experience (worse than a clunker; it just bombed) teaching a new class also happened to be the best class I ever taught. It was brand-new material, at a new school, teaching a class that was new to the school. Five of the fifteen students assigned to the class showed up on the first day. Someone was checking his cell-phone throughout class. But then it started to jell. By the end of the semester, I had twenty-seven students; twelve had added the class after the second week based on the word-of-mouth of students who came the second week. It was a great mix of personalities. I trusted my class and shared my anxieties about teaching, and I let the class become student-directed. They told me what they needed, and I responded with lessons that met their needs. They trusted that my #1 priority was a class where they learned, where their needs were met, and where they could feel safe to make mistakes. In other words, it just had magic.
So yes, right now I am in a blind panic of preparation and writing, re-writing, and re-working material I have been looking at all summer. It's not the same panic my students feel right now. I do trust that we will be in this together. My classes will be a safe place to make mistakes and to take intellectual risks. I will be taking risks right along with my students, but doing my very best for them, for the next thirteen weeks. I don't have success without them. (RCF)
Tuesday, May 5, 2009
I have been absent from the blog for a bit as I moved to UConn. It's been a very busy time; I am planning for a brand-new 2L ASP course at the law school for the fall, as well as planning an undergraduate course for entering freshman in the Honors Program introducing the fundamentals of law. I have not taught to undergrads in many years, and it took some brainstorming to come up with a "hook" that would get them excited about the course and about law. I decided on "Controversial Issues at the Intersection of Sports and Law." I am not a sports fanatic, by any means, but I am at a sports-crazy school, and I know that is a way that students from across disciplines to see the applicability of the law in their lives. As I was searching for ways teach the course, I settled on a case study approach. Further brainstorming, and significant research, led me to topics that spanned most first-year law courses; home run baseballs and Property, Constitutional Law, double jeopardy, dual sovereignty and Michael Vick, beyond a reasonable doubt as a criminal standard, preponderance of the evidence as a civil standard and OJ Simpson.
What does this have to do with ASP? UConn has given me considerable latitude when planning my ASP course for 2L's, so I have also been brainstorming about different methods to teach that course. Using doctrinal material to teach ASP is the way to go, but it is sometimes hard to find an area that covers enough areas of law to be useful to students. Remedies (thank you, Mike Schwartz), like Sports Law, is a great way to cover multiple areas of law. Case studies are a great way to reach students who may be turned off by their experience in law school. It can remind them that law is about real people and real problems. It can remind some of them why they are in law school.
I also want to say thank you to the ASPer who wrote me last year about the case study method. I would like to give her a personal thank you for the idea, but I have lost the email (it was on the VLS account). It really is a wonderful method of teaching law in a creative way; thank you for the suggestion! (RCF)
Friday, March 20, 2009
For those of us from climates that have suffered through a long winter, spring is finally making an appearance. With the arrival of spring, also comes the arrival of spring fever and the urge to take advantage of the warmth and the sun. This comes at an unfortunate time in the law school calendar; now is the time when students really need to buckle down and complete their outlines, take practice exams every week, and ramp up time with study groups. So how do you motivate students ot stay focused on law school when the outdoors are beckoning? Here are a few tips from someone who suffers from spring fever the same time grades are due:
1) You can study outdoors. Slather on the SPF, grab a blanket, and read while the sun is shining.
2) Use active time as a way to review. Go for a walk with a Sum and Substance CD/MP3 or walk with your study partners and make up hypos as go. Exercise and studying do not need to be mutually exclusive; in fact, the science indicates they go well together.
3) Remember, in most places that suffer brutal winters, it will only get more beautiful as exams approach. If you waste time now, it means you will be holed up and anxiety-ridden during exams, when you need to rest and rejuvenation of nature to perform at your best. You got to law school because you know the benefits of delayed gratification. Exercise some now, benefit later.
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
I just finished a workshop for 1L's on revamping their law school strategy. I always give a start-of-the-spring semester workshop, but I wanted to make this year's different. It's always a challenge to present to students in new and exciting ways; it's easy to get stuck in a rut and use the same strategies. This semester, I am vowing to use more active learning exercises in my workshops. I thought active learning was a particular challenge while preparing the workshop because some of them have been standing room only--more than 100 students. I use what I call "quasi-active" learning in many of my big classes; I ask questions and solicit student suggestions, but the students play a minimal role in the actual lesson. With my background in teaching at the elementary school level, I am most comfortable teaching to a class with less than 30 students. In my discomfort, I revert to the lecture-with-visuals strategy I know is not particularly effective when the workshops grow to 80 or more participants.
But as I prepared, I started to reevaluate why I was so uncomfortable with changing strategies. Maybe it wasn't that I didn't think active learning strategies could be used with large groups of students; Kris Franklin, Alison Nissen, and Mike Schwartz's presentations at AALS used active learning strategies in a room with 100+ people. The ASP and Teaching Methods joint meeting was one of the most fun AALS meetings I have ever attended, because I was allowed to play with the material, and I wanted ot try some of their techniques myself. But my initial discomfort is one that I have heard other professor's lament; active learning requires letting go of (the illusion of) control in the classroom. I feel comfortable sharing the class with my students when I have fewer than 30 students; in fact, I don't feel comfortable playing "sage-on-the-stage" in smaller classes. During the two years I was working on my MA in Education and my thesis, I was taught active learning was the only way to go, and it was modeled by the professors who taught my graduate courses. As a result of the teaching in my graduate program, I know everyone shares "control" in a classroom, and it is an illusion that a teacher can "control" learning or behavior. I never applied active learning to a large class because we did not have, nor did we teach, to large classes in my graduate program. So I reverted to a modified version of the teaching methods used by my (law) professors in large classes because I didn't know how to transfer the lessons from one type of class to another.
It required some self-reflection both during the planning and after the execution of the workshop for me to reach some conclusions about the source of my discomfort. I know the fundamental teaching principles do not change when the number of students in the room goes from 20 to 100 or more. In a room of 30 people or less, I have the ability to engage each student personally, by asking questions and soliciting the opinions of everyone in the room. I can manage chatter by calling on students who seem lost or distracted. I can address confusion without losing the rest of the class. It's very difficult to do that is a large class; you just can't reach everyone personally. Most importantly, I learned in graduate school how to build a sense of camaraderie and trust in small classes, and I don't know how to build those into large workshops. When I trust my students and they trust me, we, as a class, feel comfortable taking risks with our learning. But if I don't trust the class, I replace that need for trust into a need for control. It's an emotional response that undermines critical learning goals.
But I took the leap. I knew I had to try harder to employ active learning to all groups, large and small. I figured that if the lesson flopped, at least I had tried. I felt awkward standing at the front of the class, not talking, during the think and pair portions of think-pair-share. I would have sworn that the students were bored when I asked them to think on their own. But I caught myself learning from my students. I learned two new strategies for approaching case briefing and outlining that I will be sharing with future classes.
Then I looked at the evaluations. Except for one, they were overwhelmingly positive. It struck me that many of the students took the time to fill in the "comment" section on the evaluation (something they rarely do), and note how great it was that they could talk to their classmates about different strategies for reading, case briefing, and outlining. And that one negative evaluation...based on the comments, I don't know if I could have reached the student using any other teaching method.
I learned you can build trust in a large classroom. Using Mike Schwartz's think-pair-share, I could reach each group in the classroom. I could still reach students confused about the material, but I had the additional support of their classmates as I brainstormed how to approach their issue. Students who are uncomfortable speaking in a large class felt comfortable speaking to classmates in their group, and their group members could share their insights with the rest of the class. (RCF)
Friday, January 16, 2009
As we talk to students after first semester grades come out, I find that often I neglect to address one concern that I believe they all have, yet one that is not often expressed in our conversations with students. We have no trouble focusing on grades, exam writing, study habits, briefing skills, etc. Yet I find at the bottom of many of my students concerns, maybe subconsciously for some, lurk a couple of nagging questions. If I am struggling academically, will I be a good lawyer? Will I be able to make a living practicing law? Embedded in these questions are perhaps the concern about repaying loans and living up to the expectations of others.
Students usually find some comfort when they realize that the correlation between academic performance and the potential for a successful practice career is not as strong as they might imagine. I try to get students to think of the whole process of becoming a lawyer as hurdles to be jumped only once. Once you’ve cleared the hurdles (LSAT, school, bar) then you’re at the finish line ready to practice and nobody really cares, particularly your clients, how difficult you found the hurdles.
I usually tell students some true stories to help them with this concern. We all know of students who struggled academically and then went on to fame and fortune or at least successful practices. I share the stories of some people I know like this. Also, we all know of superior academicians who, because of a lack of other skills, could never make a living as a practicing attorney. In fact, some of these people would have trouble giving away legal service, let alone getting someone to pay them for it. (If you are now thinking of some of the people you know in academia, shame on you!) I practiced for ten years and never once did a client ask me what I made in evidence when deciding whether to hire me for a trial. As an aside, I did hear a story of an assistant district attorney once who cited his performance in evidence class as authority for his argument regarding a piece of evidence. The court was not persuaded.
Students that struggle find some comfort in knowing many stellar legal careers have sprung from less than stellar law school performances. Even if this is not verbalized by the student, I think most of the time they have concerns about their ability to practice and make a living. It is a worry that we can help to alleviate. And after all, every thing that we can help students become comfortable with is likely to take them to a better place, both emotionally and academically.
Russell C. Smith
Assistant Dean for Student Services
Campbell Law School
Buies Creek, NC
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
I am a fan of judicious use of pop culture to give context and depth to law. However, this comes with a caveat; one must be careful not to obfuscate the purpose of the teachable moment by overuse of film clips, TV snippits, and news articles. Too many times pop culture becomes a substitute for deep thinking about hard areas of the law, which doesn't help students to learn what they need to know.
The key to using pop culture references is to use them judiciously. Here are two guideposts: use a pop-culture reference as a part of the fabric of your class, or use a pop culture reference to illuminate a concept as students are struggling with it. These guideposts present a paradox; teachable moments tend to be of-the-moment, and often happen spontaneously. However, if the references are not in the context of what the students are learning, the reference becomes opaque and without purpose or focus. Students don't learn from teachable moments if they don't completely understand why it is a teachable moment, as well as why the reference is relevant to what is going on in class. Specifically with pop culture references, it is sometimes best to hold back and weave the reference into the fabric of the course the following semester. This also gives students who may not be "tuned in" to pop culture the opportunity to know what you are talking about. It can alienate students who may not focus on what is on gossip sites and in the movies if the reference is too "of-the-moment."
All this leads up to a suggestion to help illuminate a tough area of Property law. In the movie "There Will Be Blood", Daniel Plainview, the main character, goes to a family ranch with his young son to scout for oil. Daniel lies to the landowners about why he is on the land when he tells them he is hunting for quail. Daniel finds oil on the land, but does not tell the family, and tries to buy the ranch without disclosing his discovery. The next scene follows Daniel to what is presumably the town clerk's office. He goes to the town clerk to look at a plat of the land he would like to buy throughout the area. These scenes screamed to me because so many students struggle with title and recording statutes, and these scenes provide fantastic context for why recording statutes are important in land sales or transfers. Additionally, the set-up gives great material for hypotheticals on trespass and disclosure laws. But without an understanding of the fundamentals of recording and deeds, students could get lost in the emotions and moral ramifications of an oil baron failing to disclose his unique knowledge to poor farmers at the turn of the century, and would miss the importance of his stop at the town clerk's office. While the moral challenges may make for a great, dramatic film, it is not going to help students learn Property law.
This is going to be my only post for the week, as I am off to North Carolina to visit family for the holidays (family without an internet connection.) I wish everyone a very merry Thanksgiving and a restful break.
See you in December,