Monday, February 9, 2009

When concentration is an issue...there is not a magic solution

About this time of year, I hear a lot of students complain that they can not get through the reading each night. They drift off, they are distracted, they can't follow the arguments. This is not an unusual phenomena; law school reading is difficult, requires intense mental effort, and sometimes, it's just boring. Not every case is going to be personally interesting to all students; literature majors don't expect every book they are assigned to be spellbinding, and law students should not expect every case to be compelling. One of the toughest messages for students to hear is that lack of concentration has no magic solution.  There is no fairy dusk I can sprinkle on their case books to make the cases more exciting, nor do I have a potion that will help them concentrate when they are studying late at night.  I do, however, have a set of behavioral changes that I suggest to increase concentration and retention of the material:
1) Reading: Start with your least favorite subject when you are most alert.  If you find Civ Pro (or Torts, Criminal Law, Constitutional Law, Property, etc etc etc) to be the dullest subject, read it first; otherwise, you will put it off and it will be even more dreadful when you are reading it while you are only 1/2 awake. 
2) Schedule breaks into your reading. Even if you get into a "flow" state, you need to take a break to get the blood pumping and to give your brain a rest. Break does not mean two hours of video games; a break is a trip to the bathroom, a snack, or one game of spider solitaire. 
3) Find your optimal studying environment. Everyone has a different optimal study environment; for some people it is a quiet coral in the library silent study area, but for others, it is in their bedroom at home with classical music playing. 
4) Your parents were right: save the fun and games until after the homework is done, or you will never get to it.  That doesn't mean don't take a break after a day of classes; a break is good for you if you have been thinking all day. Go running, take a short nap.  But if you start watching hours of television, playing video games, or finding other methods of procrastination in the name of "break time" you are going to find it very hard to switch gears and read. 
5) If you absolutely can not read a word on the page, take a break and come back to it after you have napped, eaten, or done whatever you need to do in order to focus. 

None of my suggestions are groundbreaking; all the student have heard them before at different points in their life.  But they are suggestions that are easy to hear and hard to implement; they require the discipline and commitment that many students are lacking now that grades have come out and they are burnt out of the law school experience.  It is only in very rare cases that the lack of concentration signals a bigger problem, like a learning disability or ADHD.  As a mentioned in my post last week, students need to forgive themselves and give themselves extra time.  They are exhausted, and that is to be expected at this time of the year.  But there is a line between exhaustion and lack of effort that is easy to cross and hard to come back from.  But concentration doesn't come in a magic potion.

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