Sunday, May 6, 2012

Carol Andrews: Four Simple Lessons About the Needs of First-Year Law Students

Carol Andrews has some good advice about dealing with first-year students here.  They are 1) students need specific suggestions and examples of how to study, 2) students need to master the law, not merely understand the law, 3) students need to learn how to self-assess their study skills and progress, and 4) students need more, incremental retroactive study.

Concerning 1, she states, "The amount of work necessary for the first semester of law school is beyond the grasp of many incoming law students. Specific advice better conveys this essential point."  Her point 1 is related to her point 4.  She thinks that law students over-focus on preparing for class and that law teachers promote this bias.  She argues that "Class preparation is only one aspect of law school learning. . . . They must learn to retroactively review and synthesize the law throughout the semester at incremental levels."  This is excellent advice.  I believe that law students should review what they've learned in a class the same day as they had the class.  They should also synthesize what they've learned every week.  They also need to relate the new material they are learning to the material they have already learned.

Concerning 2, she writes, "Most law students need to know the law better than they do. It is not sufficient for them merely to understand the law. The students must know the law well enough to enable them, under time pressure, to read and accurately assess the exam itself, to identify the issues, and to apply the law to new factual settings. They must be nimble manipulators of the law. They must master the law."  She adds, "I have realized that most disappointing grades are due, not to errors made in the four hours of the actual exam, but instead mistakes made in the four days or four weeks or four months before the exam.  . . .  the bigger problem usually is that the students never got to the mastery level of learning the underlying law."  She concludes: "Mastery requires hard, smart work throughout the semester, and students cannot easily identify when and if they reach the mastery level."  Again, I think that Professor Andrews makes an important point.  Too often, I meet with students who only half-way understand a concept.  I think that her advice concerning point 4, would go a long way in solving this problem.

Professor Andrews's point 3 is that students need to be able to self-assess their learning skills and progress.  This point, of course, is one of the foundations of legal education reform.  As I noted last Thursday, law schools need to produce self-regulated learners.  As I mentioned in that post, the best article by a legal scholar on developing self-regulated learners is by Michael Hunter Schwartz.

(Scott Fruehwald)

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The most important aspect of this issue is to break students of the "wait until end of semester and cram during 'reading day'" nonsense that permeates too much K-16 education. For years I've been telling students to "prepare and assimilate" every day. Increasing numbers take my advice, but way too many continue to think that an end-of-semester cram session will get them good grades. It doesn't. In the long run, it ill serves them. How do I try to break them of this bad habit? Testing during the semester that counts toward the grade. When I started to do that, I encountered all sorts of resistance, but, having tenure, I simply pushed ahead. Now, increasing numbers, though insufficient numbers, of law faculty are catching on. It also provides me with feedback on how students are progressing and, not unlike Scott Madison's inventorying, identifies which students still adhere to what I call bad academic habits.

Posted by: James Edward Maule | May 8, 2012 6:40:38 AM

Carol Andrew's piece confirms what I have found through years of teaching first-year law students. I have spent increasing time showing them how to go about mastering the material (civil procedure in my case). Mike Schwartz' work on self-regulatated learning has been a valuable too for me, too.

We have students take a learning styles inventory as entering 1Ls. I insist my students review and report to me what the results show. Although some variation occurs, I see what I expect: a variety of learning styles, including an increasing number of visual learners. That tells me not only that students need to understand how they learn and how to study (tips I provide), but also that I need to include variety in my teaching.

The more I have done so, the more mastery I have sent among my 1Ls.

Posted by: Ben Madison | May 7, 2012 10:48:46 AM

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