Thursday, August 15, 2019

What I Wished I Had Known When I First Started in Academic Support...

I love to talk, yap, and chat.  The more the better.  And, that's a problem.  A very big problem, at least with respect to my work as an academic support professional (ASP).  I'll explain, but first, a bit of a story to set the stage...

As mentioned in a recent blog entitled Obstacles or Opportunities, I'm on the slow mend after an accident this summer, in which I fractured my back.  Since the accident, I am mostly using a walker to navigate the world upright, step by step, as the fractures heal.

Not long ago, my spouse took me to the public library (in addition to talking, I love to read!).  It started out as a perfect day, with me hobbling straight ahead, walker in action - right up to the newly released books.  I felt like I was in a heavenly garden, with rows and rows of new books.  

Now, before I move on, you've heard of the saying that "you can't judge a book but its cover." Well, as a bit of background, I'm not allowed to "BLT" right now (with my upper-body brace trying to restrain my back from further injury).  That means no bending, lifting, or twisting (not that I could twist at my age even if I wanted to).  

But, the books that were most shiny to me were "bottom shelvers." Nothing was in arm's reach without offending the entire medical bending, lifting, and twisting, too.  Immobilized, I gave up on books that day because, even though the covers looked enticing on those bottom shelves, I couldn't be sure that the titles were indeed profitable since I couldn't poke around the table of contents, the forward, and a few pages in-between.  I left empty handed because I don't get books based solely on the covers.

That brings me back to the world of academic support.  You see, when I first began serving as an academic support person, I set out to read all of the books and the literature, or at least as much as I could, to figure out how to best teach our students the necessary skills to be successful as learners.  Things like reading, note-taking, participating in classroom discussions, time management, creating study tools or outlines, and exam reading, analysis, and writing.  But, to be frank, I didn't learn what I now consider the most important skill at all, until - unfortunately - many years (and students) had past.  In short, I didn't learn to be a listener first and foremost.  In fact, rather than really listening to my students, I was quick to the draw to provide suggestions for them to implement, assuming that I knew the source of the problems or issues that my students were facing.  I wanted to be a source of wisdom rather than what is really wise, listening first before speaking.  How did I realize the errors of my ways?  Well, it happened due to the fortuitous circumstance of getting to know and work a bit with Dr. Martha (Marty) Peters, Ph.D., Emerita Professor of Law from Elon University.  

Dr. Peters would meet - one by one - with students struggling with multiple-choice analysis.  Rather than handing out sage advice (after all, she has a Ph.D. in educational psychology!), Dr. Peters would instead ask students to work through each question that they missed -  slowly - reading and navigating and pondering the problem to see if there might be anything at all, any patterns or words or pauses that might have helped them reach the correct answer.  Then, Dr. Peters would move on to the next question missed.  And, the next question, and then...the next question, etc.  She remained completely silent.  Observing. Hearing. Listening. Watching.  Finally, towards the end of one hour counseling sessions, Dr. Peters simply asked students what suggestions they might have for themselves in order to more successfully analyze multiple-choice questions next time.  In short, she asks students to share what they had learned.  The anecdotal results were simply miraculous.

First, students felt empowered; sorrowful countenances started to be reshaped as possibilities of hope and a future in law.  I know that it sounds a little (okay...a lot) dramatic, but it was unbelievably apparent as students started to actually believe that they could be law school learners, that they could help shape their destinies, that they might actually belong in law school as part of the learning community and future attorneys.  That's because it was they themselves who came up with the answers and the solutions to their learning conundrums (rather than the experts).  In short, students started to become experts in their own learning.  

Second, most students quickly realized that their analytical problems were not with the multiple-choice problems themselves or with the law but rather related to reading.  For the most part, they were missing clues, often because they didn't think that they could actually successfully solve the problems.  Rather than misreading problems and legal materials, students started to develop both their confidence and their competence as critical legal readers.  For helpful critical reading tips, see Jane B. Grisé, Critical Reading for Success in Law School and Beyond (West Academic 2017); see also, Jane B. Grisé, Teaching First-Year Students to Read so Critical that They Discover a "Mistake" in the Judicial Opinion, The Learning Curve (Summer 2014) (available at:

Third, in the next batch of multiple-choice problems later that week, scores skyrocketed.  No exaggeration!  Here's why.  Before, many students were answering problems that were in their heads but those weren't really the problems on the practice sets or the exams.  In other words, students were often solving problems that didn't exist.  Now, they were poking and prodding and probing the fact problems and the issues carefully with confident "critical reading eyes," evaluating words and phrases and debating their meaning and possible legal import.  

After working with Dr. Peters for a few days, I realized the most important lesson of my ASP life.  It sort of leaped out of my heart and into my mind.  Scott: "Talk less; listen more!"  Now, before I start to hand out suggestions and advice, I try to ask my students first what suggestions they might have to improve their own learning.  In short, I try not to judge my students by what I think might be their problems and issues but I rather try to let my students co-create with me a learning atmosphere in which to  empower and liberate be the true experts for their own learning.  So, next time you see me, please stop me from talking so much!  It's really quite a problem for me.  

(Scott Johns)

Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Learning Styles, Teaching Tips | Permalink


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