Tuesday, October 8, 2019

The Calm Before the Storm

One of my favorite seasons of the academic year runs between the last week of September and Halloween.  In terms of academic meteorology, conditions are ideal for the formation of manageable disturbances, especially among first-year students: after a warming period of several weeks, they become a bit unsettled due to some mid-term squalls, but they retain a great deal of stored energy and begin to show signs of increasing organization, giving them plenty of room to develop before being overtaken by the late fall gloom that presages the tempest of finals.  

Most of the students who breeze into my office at this time possess the three things I value most in my advisees: the motivation to try to improve their legal writing and/or analysis, the belief that they actually can improve, and the time to devote to that improvement.  Earlier in the year, they may have more time but, without having received any feedback on their work, less motivation to improve.  Come November, with finals looming, they may have motivation to spare, but a dearth of time, and, in some cases, a stunted belief in their own ability to improve.  But right now, a lot of students have that ideal blend of motivation, belief, and time.

The more I have worked with students, the more I have come to see that the most important characteristic of time is not quantity but distribution.  It is usually more helpful for me to meet with a student for 30 minutes every week than for 60 or even 90 minutes every two weeks.  The quicker, more frequent meetings not only help the student feel more connected.  Shorter meetings also force us to focus our work on one or two main skills each week.  With more time, it might be tempting to try to cover every weakness in a student's repertoire -- active reading, organization of information, grammar, argument structure, analytical content, judgment, persuasive diction, etc. -- but this can be overwhelming.  A student trying to improve in a dozen areas at once may not make progress in any of them.  It is too much to think about, and there may be little sense of prioritization.

But when a student walks away from a discussion of their work with one or two clear messages about how to improve in one or two specific tasks, that makes their job for the week focused and manageable.  And if that's why they focus on in their homework between meetings, then we can start the next meeting by looking for the improvement in those areas, and then follow up by addressing one or two new areas for improvement that can build upon the previous week.  Timely feedback on, and immediate use of, the skills that a student works on is the best way to both hone and retain those skills.  Thus, with appropriate exercises to complete between meetings, a student can make and preserve more progress in two hours of meeting time spread out over four weekly meetings than in two or even three hours of meeting time split between one meeting in week one and a follow-up meeting in week four.

After Halloween, the demands of writing assignments due, the stress of upcoming finals, and the interruptions of the holidays make it a lot more difficult to arrange these kinds of punchy weekly meetings.  Now is the time to encourage your students to take advantage of the calm before the academic storm.

[Bill MacDonald]

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