Thursday, February 21, 2019
Next week, thousands will be headed to convention centers, etc., to show case the handy-work of their bar preparation efforts for the past two months. In preparation, bar takers have watched weeks of bar review lectures, worked hundreds and even thousands of bar exam problems, and created myriads of study tools, checklists, and flashcards.
Nevertheless, with one weekend to go, most of us feel like we aren't quite ready, like we don't really know enough, with all of the rules - to be honest - tangled and knotted up in a giant mess in our minds.
Yet, let me say this up front. Despite how most of us feel, this weekend is not the time to learn more law. Rather, it's time to reflect on what you've learned, to let it live in you, to give it presence within you. But, how do you do that?
Well, as I heard in a recent talk about medical education, I think we've got something important to learn from the medical schools that just might help with bar prep, too. You see, apparently, despite all of the massive amounts of information available from the learning scientists, the philosophy of training doctors boils down to just three very simple steps: "See it--Do it--Teach it."
Here's what that means for the upcoming bar prep weekend: For the past several months, you've been focused on "seeing it" and "doing it." You've been watching lectures, taking copious notes, reading outlines, and working problems. In short, you've been busily learning by seeing it and doing it.
But, for most of us, despite all of that work, we aren't quite sure (at all!) whether we are ready for the real bar exam because we haven't yet taken the last step necessary for cementing and solidifying our learning; namely, we haven't yet "taught it."
So, that's where this weekend comes in.
Throughout this weekend, grab hold of your notes or study tools or checklists or flashcards, pick out a subject, and teach it to someone. That someone can be real or imaginary; it can be even be your dog Fido. But, just like most teachers, get up out of your seat, out from behind your desk, and take 30 minutes per subject to teach it to that someone, from beginning to the end. Then, run through the next subject, and then the next subject, and then the next subject, etc. Even if you are by yourself, talk it out to teach it; be expressive; vocalize or even dance with it. Make motions with your hands. Use your fingers to indicate the number of elements and wave your arms to indicate the next step in the problem-solving process. Speak with expertise and confidence. And, don't worry about covering it all; rather, stick with just the big topics (the so-called "money ball" rules).
What does this look like in action? Well, here's an example:
"Let's see. Today, I am going to teach you a few handy steps on how to solve any contracts problem in a flash. The first thing to consider is what universe you're in. You see, as an initial consideration, there's the UCC that covers sales of goods (movable objects) while the common law covers all other subjects (like land or service contracts). That's step one. The next step is contract formation. That means that you'll have to figure out if there was mutual assent (offer and acceptance) and consideration. Let's walk through how you'll determine whether something is an offer...."
I remember when I first taught. I was hired at Colorado State University as a graduate teaching assistant to teach two classes of calculus. But, I had a problem; I had just graduated myself. So, I didn't really know if I knew the subject because I hadn't yet tried to teach it to someone. As you can imagine, boy was I ever scared! To be honest, I was petrified. Yet, before walking into class, I took time to talk out about my lesson plan for that very first class meeting. In short, I "pre-taught" my first class before I taught my first class. So, when I walked into the classroom, even though I still didn't quite feel ready (at all) to teach calculus students, I found myself walking in to class no longer as a student but as a teacher. In short, I started teaching. And, in that teaching, I learned the most important lesson about learning, namely, that when we can teach something we know something.
So, as you prepare for success on your bar exam next weekend, focus your work this weekend on teaching each subject to another person, whether imaginary or real. And, in the process, you'll start to see how it all comes to together. Best of luck on your bar exam! (Scott Johns).
February 21, 2019 in Advice, Bar Exam Issues, Bar Exam Preparation, Bar Exams, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Learning Styles, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)
Wednesday, February 20, 2019
The second semester of law school can be a roller-coaster of emotions. Pulled this way and that by grades that don't match one's initial expectations; by advice coming from lawyers, upper-division students, and popular culture; by competition, whether real or imagined; and by the expectations of friends, colleagues, family, and professors, it is easy to turn from healthy self-critique to unhealthy self-criticism. Even students who avoid the trap of identifying themselves with their GPA can be pitiless self-critics, mentally inflating minor flaws (in anything from their legal writing to their resumes to their social skills to their professional attire) into gross deficiencies that they fear will torpedo their incipient legal career.
It's exhausting and counter-productive to be our own worst enemies. We can break the cycle by learning the difference between self-criticism and self-critique, and by practicing self-compassion.
The difference between criticism and critique is one of viewpoint. Self-criticism is emotional and negative: it involves finding fault with oneself or one's work. In contrast, self-critique is neutral: it involves objectively evaluating one's performance. In my first semester in college, I was lucky enough to have a professor who demonstrated the difference. When Professor David Lagomarsino handed back my first history paper, every paragraph was covered with red ink. The thesis of the paper had logical deficiencies, word choices were suspect, sentences were verbose, paragraphs were loosely organized, and the research did not necessarily lead to the conclusions drawn. Reviewing the detailed and copious comments on the first page, and the second, and the third, I began to suspect I had chosen a college far beyond my intellectual capacity. Then, on the last page, I saw the grade -- an A -- and overall comments that indicated I had written a quality paper. From Professor Lagomarsino's rigorous critique (followed by many similar critiques over the next four years), I learned that my reasoning and writing were generally good, but they could be immeasurably improved by dissociating my ego from my work product. It was the most valuable lesson I learned in college.
Practicing self-compassion is an excellent way to move from self-criticism to self-critique. In essence, self-compassion turns the Golden Rule inside out: we practice treating ourselves with the same kindness and consideration that we would extend to a friend or a colleague. For example, if a friend handed us a draft of their legal resume where the first job description was opaque, we wouldn't respond by saying, "This resume is terrible. You'll never get a job with this." Instead, we might ask, "Would an average lawyer understand what your responsibilities were in this job? Is there any way of redrafting the description so someone without a botany background would understand it?" This would be a compassionate way of critiquing the work product to help our friend create the best possible resume. Likewise, self-compassion allows us to critique our own performance (whether on exams or oral arguments or legal resumes), knowing that we are building up rather than tearing down. By consciously practicing self-compassion, we can quiet the carping voice that bullies and belittles us (and, research shows, actually impedes our ability to achieve our goals) and replace it with positive self-talk that helps us to achieve our goals and maintain a healthy attitude and balance in school, work, and life.
Tuesday, February 19, 2019
Law school is nutritionally disruptive. This was common knowledge at my law school, where my classmates and I joked about having gained 15 pounds while we were getting our JDs. We all felt we understood what had happened. For three years we had chained ourselves to our desks, abandoned physical exercise in favor of mental anguish calisthenics, and frequently resorted to fast food or prepared meals to minimize time spent in the kitchen. Some of us still managed to blow off some steam in a bar from time to time, but otherwise, culinary matters took a back seat to our studies. The resulting excesses -- weight gain, or manic caffeine intake, or bingey sugar highs -- were seen almost as a badge of honor, like pulling an all-nighter to get a memo in on time.
As far as I can tell, things are still the same today. Law students beset with too many tasks and not enough time have to find ways to make time or to soothe stress, and meals and snacks offer convenient opportunities to do so. Not every student makes unhealthy choices, and many of those who do face few ill effects beyond the need for a new wardrobe. But now, watching from the other side of the lectern, I can better see that food issues can have noticeable or even serious impacts on some students' academic performance:
- While gaining weight often seems to be no more than a nuisance, to some students, such changes can be associated with actual effects on mental state, such as decreased stamina or alertness, or negative moods. The weight gain may not be the cause of these changes -- it can sometimes be an effect of lifestyle changes in diet and exercise that can be the source of changes to mental state.
- Sometimes dietary changes specific to certain substances -- such as increased intake of alcohol, caffeine, or sugar -- can have particular effects on behavior or mental state, such poor judgment, fatigue, agitation, or distractibility, that can have negative impacts on critical reading, time management, attention to detail, and other keys to success in law school.
- Sometimes the problem is not so much too much food or the wrong kind of food, but too little food. Students facing shaky finances may find their food budget the easiest thing to cut. Other students may not eat enough food -- or at least not enough healthy food -- because of loss of appetite due to stress. Food deprivation can lead to distraction, disrupt blood sugar levels, and affect memory and attentiveness.
When we work with students, especially one on one, we have opportunities to observe whether some of them are perhaps inordinately affected by dietary issues. In some cases, we may need to enlist the help of others. For example, if financial insecurity is manifesting in a poor diet, a referral to Financial Aid may be appropriate. Encouraging students to seek help from physicians or mental health professionals may also be wise when food issues are leading to serious primary health concerns. But sometimes our students just need a little grounding, a little reminder that they have to take care of themselves while they take care of their studies. A few helpful tips can include:
- Eating smaller meals (or healthy snacks) over the course of the day, rather than pigging out on one big meal at the end of the day after classes are over, can help moderate calorie intake and lessen variations in blood sugar levels.
- Planning ahead for the day or even the week can help to insure steady, healthy eating while minimizing time spent in preparing or obtaining food.
- Buying and carrying around healthier snack alternatives can help forestall binge purchases of high-sugar and high-fat snacks during breaks between classes or study periods.
- Scheduling meals with classmates (for study purposes) or friends and family (to stay connected) can be a good way to make efficient use of the time that you have to spend eating anyway, so that good food doesn't seem so much like an expendable indulgence.
When they are stressed out about studies and papers and exams, taking care of themselves may be the last thing on students' minds. Helping them see how beneficial and easy healthy eating can be may help some students' academic performance.
Thursday, February 7, 2019
Recently, I heard a discussion suggesting that bar passers do things differently in the final two weeks than those who are not successful on the bar exam. That got me thinking about what I've been seeing, at least anecdotally, in my 10-plus years working with students in preparing for their bar exams.
First, both groups tend to work extraordinarily hard in the last two weeks before their bar exams. So, what's the difference? It must be in the type of work that the two groups are doing. In short, during the final two weeks, it seems to me that bar passers tend to ramp up their practice with lots and lots of MBE questions and essays [while also creating super-short compact homespun study tools (2-3-page outlines, flashcards, or posters)]. In contrast, people who find themselves unsuccessful tend to focus on creating extra-bulky study tools and trying to memorize those study tools with very little continued practice of MBE questions and essays. In brief, one group is continuing to practice for the exam and the other group is focused on memorizing for the exam.
But, here's the rub:
It’s a perfectly natural feeling during the final two weeks of bar prep to want to focus solely (or mostly) on creating perfect study tools and trying to perfectly memorize all the law.
But, according to the educational psychologists, there’s something called “useful forgetfulness.” You see, when we jam packet our study tools with everything, we aren’t learning much of anything because we haven’t had to make any hard decisions about what to let go (what to “forget”). We’re just typing or handwriting or flowcharting like a scribe. But, when we purposefully decide that we are only going to make a super-short “starter” study tools (knowing that we can always add more rules as we work through more questions during the next couple of weeks), our decisions about what to put in our super-short study tools (and what to leave out) means that we actually empower ourselves to know both what we put in our study tools (and what we left out).
As a suggestion, tackle two subjects per day – one subject that is essay-only and one subject tested on both the essay and the MBE exam. Starting with one subject in the morning, using the most compact outline that your commercial course provides (and referencing the table of contents for each subject), create a super-short study tool with the goal of completing your study tool in 2 hours or less.
Here’s a tip:
If you think that you need a rule, don’t put it in because you can always add more later. Instead, only add a rule that you’ve seen countless times over and over. Just get it done. Move quickly. Don’t get stuck with definitions of elements, etc. Stick with the big picture umbrella rules. Think BIG picture. For example, be determined to get through all of contracts in 2 hours (from what law governs to remedies). As a suggestion, have just one rule for each item in the table of contents for your commercial bar review outline. Don't go deep sea diving. Stay on the surface. Then, in the remainder of the morning, work with your study tool through a handful of practice essays. In the afternoon, repeat the same tasks using a different subject (creating a snappy study tool and working through a few essays). Finally, in the evening, work through mixed sets of MBE questions.
In the last week before the bar exam, with most of your starter study tools completed, focus on talking through your study tool (for about one hour or so) and then working through lots and lots essay problems and MBE questions. As you practice in the last week, feel free to add rules that come up in practice essays and MBE questions to your study tool. As I heard one person explain it, your study tool becomes sort of a "bar diary" of your adventurous travels through essays and MBE questions (thanks Prof. Micah Yarbrough!). In short, you've created a study tool that has been time-tested and polished through the hard knock experiences of working and learning through lots of bar exam hypothetical problems.
So, for those of you taking the February 2019 bar exam, focus on practice first and foremost because you aren't going to be tested on your study tool. Rather, you're going to be testing on whether you can use your study tool to solve hypothetical problems. And, good luck on your bar exam! (Scott Johns).
P.S. For those taking the Uniform Bar Exam, there are 12 subjects as grouped by the bar examiners (I think there are 14 subjects in California, depending on how you count subjects):
* Business Associations (Corporations, Agency, Partnership, and LLC)
* Secured Transactions
* Federal Civil Procedure
* Family Law
* Wills & Trusts
* Conflicts of Law
* Constitutional Law
* Criminal Law & Procedure
Tuesday, February 5, 2019
Watching the Super Bowl on Sunday made me think of my students. By no means am I implying any similarity between football and the legal profession. After all, one is a grueling slugfest, featuring breathlessly intense clashes between aggressive competitors on behalf of highly partisan, sometimes even fanatically tribal, stakeholders, with pride and sometimes lots of money at stake. The other is just an athletic contest.
No, the reason I thought of my students was the sudden shift in the game in the fourth quarter. Through the first 50 minutes or so of play, the scores remained unusually low and very close. Neither team could gain a clear advantage, and with less than ten minutes remaining, the score was still only 3 to 3. Across the country, spectators were complaining about how stagnant and boring the game seemed.
Suddenly, within a minute or so of game time, everything changed. The Patriots called a play in which a receiver wound up open in the middle of the field, just beyond the Rams' defensive line, and Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady deftly passed the ball to him and gained several yards. By itself, the play was only mildly exciting, and then only because it provided comparatively more action than most of the preceding gameplay. But the Patriots realized right away that the Rams' defense, which up until that time had been pretty successful at confining the Patriots' forward motion, had not had anything in place to keep that lone receiver from appearing unguarded behind the defensive line. So for the next few plays, the Patriots ran essentially the same play, except for choosing a different receiver to run up the field each time. In the space of four plays, the team moved all the way down the field and set up the winning touchdown run.
From the Rams' point of view, everything was fine, until suddenly it wasn't. They were basically evenly matched with their opponents, in a game that looked like it might go into overtime -- and then, in less than a minute, everything fell apart. One weakness was exposed -- one play that they had no planned defense for -- and before they could adjust to it, the other side had taken advantage of that weakness and taken a significant lead. And the fact that they were in that distressing position left the team vulnerable to more trouble. They rushed and ran riskier plays, hoping to score their own tying touchdown in the short time they had left, and under this pressure the Rams' quarterback Jared Goff accidentally threw the ball into the hands of a Patriots defender, leading the Patriots to score an additional three points. The Rams went from having an even chance of winning to having no chance, all because of one weakness that wasn't addressed quickly enough.
In his fascinating book How We Die, the physician Sherwin B. Nuland explained that human death often follows a similar trajectory. Laypeople often imagine that those suffering from serious injury or illness usually experience a long but steady decline until they pass away. However, Nuland pointed out that at least as often, if not more so, the afflicted person manages the illness (or injury, if it is not so catastrophic that it simply kills them right away) fairly handily, with only slight decline or sometimes even with improvement, for days or even weeks. If nothing bad happens, then they might even make a full recovery. But if one thing goes wrong and isn't corrected quickly enough, it can cause significant damage, which itself leads to additional life-threatening complications, and in a short time the patient may spiral down past the point where any medical intervention will be enough to save him. An infected wound, for example, if not treated quickly enough, can lead to a generalized blood infection, which can cause a patient's kidneys, liver, and other organs to stop working properly, and the patient, who otherwise might have almost completely recovered from his initial injury, will die of multiple organ failure.
We see the same phenomenon in other realms than just sports and medicine, such as business and politics. In any complicated system, there can be long, steady declines, but the sudden drastic reversal, attributable to one or a small number of neglected infirmities, is often more likely.
And the life of a law student is pretty complicated. New information to learn, new ways to think about it, new tasks to perform, all while juggling stress and ambition and self-doubt and mountains of practicalities like housing and relationships and (painfully often) finances. We all know that a few students struggle right from the start, but very often students will be managing -- holding their own, even if not excelling -- and then they run into one tribulation they can't fix, and they can't handle. A course they can't wrap their head around. A romantic breakup. Lack of funds to buy textbooks. A death in the family. An extracurricular activity that takes up too much time.
It almost doesn't matter what the problem is, because it's just the trigger. It starts the landslide that could pull the student down. Struggling in one course, for example, could pull the student's attention away from his other courses, leading to anxiety about not maintaining his GPA . . . and what started as one problem spirals into multiple problems.
The response, from an Academic Success perspective, has to be twofold. First, we need to be able to detect these kinds of issues as early as possible, before they turn into the equivalent of a touchdown by the other team or a raging blood infection. We need to have direct interaction with the students most at risk (incoming students, first-generation students, those in danger of financial difficulty, etc.), so we get to know them and encourage them to be forthcoming. We also need to develop strong networks among those in the faculty and student services who might pass along observations of possible distress.
Second, we need to have systems in place to help these students address these issues quickly, before they do become intractable. We are expected, of course, to handle purely academic issues on a moment's notice. But we should also be familiar with other means of support on campus and in the community, to be able to quickly refer students who need help in financial, psychological, spiritual, and other realms.
Time sometimes really is of the essence. None of us want to end up being Monday-morning quarterbacks, lamenting that if we had just changed our defense one play sooner, we could have saved the game.
Thursday, January 24, 2019
I count myself as an educator. And, as I am also a lawyer too, like many attorneys, I sort of consider myself as a bit of an expert in all things too because the law, at least it seems to me, has its hook in every field of endeavor. As such, that means that I read and think an awlful lot, and therefore, I often see myself as an arm chair scientist, psychologist, and counselor too.
But, could a little bit of dabbling in neuroscience and learning knowledge be a bit misleading? Unfortunately, it seems that I'm not quite the expert in neuroscience and learning that I think I am (and, to be frank, I'm not much of an expert in most things at all).
The good news, if it is good, is that it seems like I'm not all alone, at least among educators. Indeed, research indicates that "neuromyths" are widespread among educators. K. Macdonald, L Germine, A. Anderson, J. Christodoulou, and L. McGrath, "Dispelling the Myth," Frontiers in Psychology (Aug 2017). In particular, according to this research article, educators can often be susceptible to neuroscience myths concerning learning. What's a neuromyth? Well, "[n]euromyths are misconceptions about brain research and its application to education and learning." Based on survey results with participants indicating whether a particular statement was true or false, "[t]he most commonly endorsed neuromyths item was 'individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (e.g., auditory, visual, kinesthetic),'" with 76 percent of educators erroneously believing in the learning style myth. https://www.frontiersin.org/dispellingthemyth
Reading between the lines of the research article, it seems that educators like me are understandably scouring websites and media sources for the latest cure-all, really, anything at all, that might help our students improve their learning. That's because we all understand the immense value that learning brings to individuals and to the worlds in which we inhabit. That hunger for a solution, for a salve, for a cure-all, apparently means that as an educator I am vulnerable to neuroscience myths. Indeed, as explained in the same research article, "[o]ne characteristic that seems to unite...neuromyths together...is an underestimation of the complexity of human behavior, especially cognitive skills like learning, memory, reasoning, and attention. Rather than highlighting these complexities, each neuromyth seems to originate from a tendency to rely on a single explanatory factor, such as the single teaching approach that will be effective for all children...." https://www.frontiersin.org/dispellingthemyth
There's actually some very good news about the neuroscience myth concerning learning styles. It seems that classroom teachers who "weave visual and auditory modalities into a single lesson rather than providing separate modality-specific lessons to different groups of children based on self-identified learning style preferences" actually enhance learning. As such, "[a]n unintended and potentially positive outcome of the perpetuation of the learning styles neuromyth is that teachers present material to students in novel ways through multiple modalities, thereby providing opportunities for repetition which is associated with improved learning and memory in the cognitive and educational literatures." https://www.frontiersin.org/dispellingthemyth. In other words, although the myth itself lacks empirical evidence to justify teaching to a particular student's preferred learning style, the method of implementation ends up producing concrete empirical evidence - according to peer-review research articles - of improvements in learning outcomes. In short, the ends end up justifying the means, so to speak.
What do to about neuroscience myths concerning learning? Well, the article has some suggestions. Most to the point, the article suggests that educators ought to seek out peer-review articles behind the latest media stories and internet crazes. Those stories might not be crazy at all, but often times, there's more lurking behind the story than first appears. So, it's important for us as educators to take time to read the research, maybe just like we teach our students to read cases, with a critical eye. (Scott Johns).
Tuesday, January 22, 2019
O, why must IRAC dominate the page
When brilliant students try to write a bit,
Their eloquence confined, as in a cage,
Restricting scope and rhetoric and wit?
O, why must you capitulate to rote?
Abandon your unique persuasive voices?
Unless -- the logic these formats connote
Provides you with a better set of choices . . . ?
If you surrender to formality
You’ll find the structure helps you to direct
Your argument to only what is key,
And lets the reader know what to expect.
A writer who’s committed to a norm
Ironically is freed up to perform.
Monday, January 21, 2019
Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day! I hope everyone gets time to reflect on the impact of Dr. King today. I will continue my quest to see beyond my privilege today and every day to help others. Unfortunately, helping others at the law school sometimes requires tough conversations.
Throughout law schools the next few weeks, we will all have a similar experience. Grades are released and some students underperformed. He/she will walk into our office near tears with statistically little chance to improve his/her cumulative GPA high enough to stay in school. Some schools provide programs or restart options to help students, but the vast majority of these students will forego the statistical odds. They will incur substantial debt to not raise their GPA high enough to remain in law school. Could we have persuaded them into the programs or restart with a different technique? Chris Voss, former hostage negotiator, would say yes.
Voss gathered his experiences as a negotiator and wrote the book Never Split the Difference. He utilizes multiple studies and anecdotal stories to illustrate how individuals rarely make decisions based on logic. When negotiating, attempting to persuade the other side with logic doesn’t work. I can do the math for students to demonstrate the minimum grades needed for the semester. However, his/her self-belief and previous experience with good grades in undergrad causes them to believe with just a little more work, they can get Bs, which is usually above the class average. For a few close to our good standing line, they are correct, but the students farther away rarely raise their GPA enough. We have a fresh start restart program many of them should take, but most of them reject that option.
Persuasion with logic may not work, but Voss provides clear techniques that could help us talk with students about their situation. The big theme of the book is to place ownership and control of the deal with the opposing party. Individuals who perceive that they have control end up making more concessions if guided to what you want. The guiding process is the difficult part.
The book has numerous helpful tips and strategies, and 3 of the big ones are labeling, mirroring, and calibrated questions. Labeling is when we label negative feelings or roadblocks that occur during negotiations. The other party tends to continue talking and divulge more information, which may be helpful in the conversion. Labeling can provide us more information to either persuade our students or develop a more targeted strategy for them.
Some labels can be pre-planned. Starting a conversation (after the pleasantries) with, “I understand making a lower than expected GPA can make someone feel bad about their abilities” or “I know I will seem like the big bad professor telling you how you didn’t cut it 1st year.” Many times the response will ease the tension or get them to confirm the emotions. In the middle of the conversion, we can say “it seems like you are worried about what your family will say about the situation” or other statements that relate specifically to their situation. It seems, sounds, looks, etc. are good ways to start those sentences.
Mirroring is a great technique to continue a conversion and gather more information for labeling. Mirroring involves both verbal and non-verbal actions. You can repeat the last 3-4 words someone says and they will usually provide more information. Having non-verbal upbeat cues (smiling, etc.) also encourage further discussion. Labeling and mirroring questions generate volumes of information to work with students.
The last big strategy is calibrated questions. Calibrated questions are questions that reject a premise or seek information without the negativity associated with no. The questions should place control in the hands of the other party, but if calibrated correctly, can guide them to your solution. These are usually how and what questions, almost never why questions. When someone makes an offer in a negotiation, asking “How can I do that?” is a rejection without saying no and makes the other side create solutions for you. Thinking about students, we can ask “what is your plan for improvement”, “how can I help you?”, and “how will we know if you are following through with your plan?” We can also ask, “how will you get X GPA this next semester?” The questions are designed to get students coming up with the answers and the subsequent follow up mechanism. They will either see the best option or will take ownership of the plan to improve. Students may even realize when trying to create a plan that the likelihood of success is low.
The next few weeks will be filled with hard conversations. I want to see our students improve and succeed. While I have candid conversations, I will always work with anyone to improve throughout law school. Similar to many of you, I think guided feedback and deliberate practice can help nearly anyone. The struggle is the required level of improvement needed for some students. Looking at other disciplines may help us with these hard conversations.
Thursday, January 17, 2019
As educators, we hold enormous power in our hands; power to change destinations and shape destinies.
Last fall, at the AccessLex Legal Education Research Symposium, Dr. Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio - Chair of the Executive Leadership Research Initiative for Women and Minority Attorneys at Harvard Law School - changed the way that I think when giving "performance reviews" to my students, whether in formal feedback, informally during class discussions, or during individual student meetings.
The best way to express what I learned is to hear directly from Dr. Checchi-Dimeglio as she describes her research on the power of performance reviews to shape career destinies: "Let me give you an example: the annual performance review. We’ve all been through it, either as a reviewer or as a reviewee. It can be dreadful because it's time-consuming and nerve-racking. What I found is women and minorities overall, were more likely to receive different types of feedback–more critical. Their successes were oftentimes attributed to luck. Based off of that, working with an organization, we came out with a new system that required more frequent performance reviews that would take less than fifteen minutes, where four to six people could be reviewed at the same time. The result was amazing." https://mgte.thefemalequotient.com
As I recall from her keynote address (with apologies if I don't remember precisely), Dr. Checchi-Dimeglio explained that she observed the interactions between supervisors (partners) and employees (junior associates) during performance reviews. Overall, Dr. Checchi-Dimeglio observed that performance review comments differed between male and females associates. In general, partners provided women with feedback focused on the past (leaving recipients with the message that this law firm wasn't the place for them); while, in contrast, partners provided men with feedback that was forward-looking (suggesting to recipients that there was work to do to improve performance but that the firm was in it for the long-haul with them, as exemplified by supervisory comments such as "you might try this to better persuade the court next time," etc). Based on these findings, Dr. Checchi-Dimeglio empowered supervisors with ways to retool their comments for all associates by focusing on the future rather than the past, regardless of gender. The results...retention significantly improved for women associates.
That brings me back to my role (our roles) as educators. Our comments can make a difference; our feedback can change paths. I often recall that I had a law professor who told me, point blank, that I would never be a litigator. I just didn't have what it took. That feedback stuck (and still sticks) to the heart. But, I had others who encouraged me, believed in me, and supported me. In short, their constructive feedback - focused on improving my performance with an eye to the future - won the day. I became a litigator. As a result of those experiences and in light of Dr. Checchi-Dimeglio's research as a behavioral scientist, my comments can make a truly positive difference for my students. Do I do it well? Not yet. But, I'm learning, one comment at a time...with an eye on my students' futures. (Scott Johns).
Tuesday, January 15, 2019
This may not be true in every law school, but at my school, things are a little quiet right now. Some students and professors are on campus for the brief winter term, but the entire community will not return until the spring term begins in February. The students are just now getting their fall grades, so the students who are around and have come looking for me have all wanted to talk about them -- whether they were surprised or disappointed or content, and what their grades might mean for the future.
I cannot help but be reminded by this combination of relative quiet and conversationally-motivated students of the importance of listening. Like many teachers -- and many lawyers -- I revel in talking. I like explaining things to people; I enjoy the performative aspects of a well-delivered lecture; I am fond of delivering spontaneous oracular pronouncements to my advisees. And, aiming to communicate complex information in a useful way, I spend a fair amount of time fretting about the content of what I say and the manner in which I say it. This is entirely appropriate: our students' expectations are high, their goals are ambitious, and their needs are great. They deserve to hear wise and engaging words coming out of our mouths.
Still, nobody wants to be nothing but a bunch of talk. If that's all you've got, you might as well just throw books at your students. Listening is the complementary skill that helps to make sure that what we say possesses the value that our students need. It's how we determine precisely which beautiful insights we choose to articulate.
As with many skills, people are not always good at judging how well they listen. Those to whom it comes naturally may underestimate how talented they actually are. Others may mistake mere silence for listening, or may assume that they are listening well because they are quickly assessing and generating responses to what they are hearing. One way to more accurately judge -- and, if necessary, improve upon -- one's listening skills is to consider whether you are achieving any or all of these three outcomes:
- Determining what is troubling the speaker. In many or even most cases, this is ostensibly the reason we are talking with our students in the first place. They come to us with an issue or a concern, and we introduce conversational probes to figure out what the source of the problem is. Ironically, though, the better and more experienced we get at our jobs, the easier it may become to jump to quick conclusions. This speed, borne of experience, can be valuable, but we must take care not to confuse our satisfaction at having identified a likely issue with the student's confidence that they have actually conveyed the concerns they had. Watch their facial expressions and body language. Do they appear relieved, as if they have gotten something off of their chest, or are they still holding on to some tension? Listen to the tone of their voice -- do they sound unsure? Do they seem to want to interject more into the discussion? Try not to judge how well you have listened for their concerns by how you feel about the conversation, but by how they appear to feel. When in doubt, before making any definitive declarations of diagnosis, reflect the conversation back to them. Statements like "It sounds like you feel you do not understand the law correctly" can be non-threatening ways to offer the speaker a chance to clarify what they mean to say, and you may find that there are more or different issues from what you had first suspected.
- Encouraging the speaker to dig deeper. Sometimes students do not come to us entirely of their own free will; they are advised or even required to meet with us, and they just want to get it over with. Other students may come anxiously to us, fearing complicated bad news and hoping instead to hear a quick fix. Students like these might be content to give a brief synopsis of what they assume is the problem, in hopes that we will take over the conversation and get to the end as quickly as possible. Such situations provide great opportunities to use your listening skills as active conversational tools. Simply maintaining eye contact and keeping silent will prompt a speaker to continue to speak, sometimes revealing additional information in their stream-of-consciousness monologue. If silence is not enough, a brief reflective question, based on what you have already heard, may help. Even non-reluctant students can benefit from this kind of prompting. If a student makes an assertion that sounds too pat or incomplete, attentive listening can encourage them to keep pressing on to try to get to the critical facts or to their real emotions. Personally, I think every student conversation of more than just a few minutes should include at least one instance of focused, silent attention on the student, to give them the opportunity to elaborate on a point or to bring up a new one.
- Developing the speaker's trust. Trust is valuable currency in our job, and like Bitcoin, it can take some time to generate. It is great to be trusted for our sound advice, but that is not the only way to build trust. Listening is another great way, and this illustrates why good listening is not mere passive silence but is actually active participation in the conversation. A good listener demonstrates that they are hearing the information being conveyed by reflecting back some of what they've heard and by following up with questions that build off of that information. What is also just as important, and in some cases is even more so, is that we attend to our student's affect as well -- not just the information, but the emotion. Students can bring to Academic Success some intense feelings -- excitement and hope, when things are going well, or anxiety, sadness, and anger when they are not. Acknowledging these sometimes uncomfortable feelings in a non-judgmental way, through our own facial expressions and responses, can help a student feel not only that are you listening to all they are saying, but also that your office is a safe place to experience and express those feelings. This is a sure way to develop the trust that is often needed to get students to buy into your plans for their success.
These outcomes are noteworthy not just because they are the effects of good listening, but because they are specifically effects that are valuable to our work in Academic Success. Even when things get hectic and tiring over the next few months, try to make a point of asking yourself, after every student encounter, if you are seeing any of these outcomes arising from your conversations.
Thursday, January 10, 2019
At my law school, we're in the midst of the first week of classes after the long break. It seems like there's no time to pause. Everyone's busy and bustling; places to go and people to see. In fact, sometimes I wonder if we are moving so fast that we might be missing out in one of the best things in life - the present.
That's when I got a bit of startle while reading the newspaper. It seems that there's value in staring the day-off slowly, without the frantic rush. According to a Norwegian think tank (as referenced in a newspaper article this past week), "staring the day with intentional slowness helps spark creative thinking," and that's something I sorely need, especially as an educator. E. Byron, "Wellness: What's the Rush? The Power of Slow Mornings," The Wall Street Journal, January 9, 2019, A22.
Unfortunately, too often, I start my day with my phone, checking email. And, let me be frank. With apologies to my email senders, I've never yet received any creative impulses or stirring messages from my dash to check my email at the start of each day. Instead, it seems like starting with email has left me chasing circles, getting nowhere fast. It's not that emails are not important; it's that emails should not dictate my priorities. People should.
Nevertheless, I seem to have this overwhelming habit to have to check my phone. And, apparently, I'm not alone. According to the same article, "[M]ore than 60% of [people] say that they look at their phone within 15 minutes of waking and check their phones about 52 times a day." Id. That sure seems like a lot...and a lot of wasteful checking, too.
So, here's some ideas to help you (and me) get our days started out strong. First, don't dare sleep with your phone. Rather, put it far away from you. Indeed, use an old-fashioned alarm clock to wake up in the morning, instead of putting your phone within arm's reach right at the beginning of your day. Second, turn it off. That's right. You be the pilot of your phone; take command. Let your phone work for you. You decide when it's time to turn on your phone to check your email, text messages, or social media accounts. Third, relax. Take deep breathes. Appreciate life. Take the opportunity at the beginning of the day to express gratitude. In short, start the day right by living in the present, fully alive and fully present. In my own case, that means that I'm choosing to turn out much of the noise in my life. And, interestingly, that's leading to more productive days, less fretting, more creative teaching ideas, increased opportunities for spontaneity in learning with my students, more time to listen to and be present with others, and just in general enjoy the moment. So, here's to starting out slower each day as the key to actually getting more done.
P.S. For more information about how smart phones impact our cognitive lives as learners, our emotional well-being, and even our biological and physiological selves, please see an article that I recently wrote based on a previous blog: http://www.dbadocket.org/wellness-corner-smart-phone-dilemma
Tuesday, January 8, 2019
January is the gateway between the old year and the new. The name “January” derives (either directly or indirectly, depending on which source you ascribe to) from the name of the Roman god “Janus”, who was the god of beginnings and endings, of passages and transitions. He’s the god that is usually portrayed with two faces: one looking to the future and one to the past. From “Janus” also came the Latin word “ianua”, or “door”, and thence the Latin word for “gatekeeper” – “ianitor”, or, as we now spell it in English, “janitor”. While today people often associate janitors with menial missions like mopping and maintenance, the original meaning of the word is closer to “guardian” or “caretaker” – a person who helps to ensure safe passage.
I often describe my role in academic and bar support as consisting in large part of helping law students through the two biggest transitions they face: learning to “think like a lawyer” upon entering law school, and preparing to take the bar examination after graduation. But perhaps that is too limited. Any learning process can be seen as a series of transitions, and our job is to help our students pass through them all. We are their janitors – the old-school kind, the caretakers and custodians. True, sometimes we have to help clean up some unforeseen messes. But our best work is really about helping our students to take the lessons they need to from what they have been through, and to prepare for the tasks they lie ahead of them.
January itself is a time of transition for law students, particularly 1L students, as they wrap up one semester and move forward into the next. As Steven pointed out yesterday, the new year is a natural time for looking ahead, setting goals, and developing processes. And it is also a natural time for taking stock, assessing successes and stumbles, and cultivating a clear sense of what has been accomplished and what remains. Some students might wrestle with this in different ways, calling for flexible strategies from us. We might help students who have not yet come to recognize the value of retrospection, or who avoid looking back out of shame or disappointment, by helping them to focus on specific, actionable lessons they can take from their past experiences. We might help other students, perhaps those devastated by disappointing performance or those made complacent by success, by reminding them that the past may not guarantee the future, and that next semester they are starting with a clean slate.
January really is Law School Academic Success Month. After all, we help students get through what might at first seem like a long, cold, dark time, and get them to see that it is really just the start of a brand new chapter of their lives. We are tutelaries of beginning, endings, and transitions, all year round.
Thursday, December 20, 2018
Congratulations December 2018 graduates! What a herculean achievement! Simply put, outstanding!
Nevertheless, I know that for many of you, right now it feels like a bit of a let down because you find yourself right back right back in the classroom as you prepare for your bar exam in February 2019.
That's exactly how I felt. Simply put, graduation felt a bit disingenuous as I had so much work left to be done to earn my law license. However, let me be frank. As you approach your bar studies, you are no longer a law student but a law school graduate. It may not feel like much of a difference, but its important to recognize - throughout these two months of your bar review learning - that you are a new person with a new professional identity, trained and well-seasoned to think through, analyze, and communicate solutions to vast arrays of legal scenarios.
Despite such remarkable progress as demonstrated by your law school graduation, many bar takers stumble in the first few weeks of bar prep, finding themselves increasing at odds with how to best learn and prepare themselves for the bar exam. I sure did. I spent much of the first few weeks trying to learn the law by, well, listening to professors talk about the law and watching professors talk about solving legal problems with the law. Big mistake! Cost me a lot of valuable time! That's why I write to you, dear law school graduate and now bar taker. Instead of focusing on learning the law, focus right from the get-go (i.e, that means right now, today!) on working through lots of practice problems each day. In short, I was, unfortunately, a "linear learner," as Professor Catherine Christopher says in her wonderful book entitled Tackling Texas Essays (Carolina Academic Press 2018): https://cap-press.com/books/
I. Linear Learning
Let me explain a bit about the difference between linear learning and recursive learning. As depicted by Professor Christopher in the diagram below from her book on successfully preparing for the bar exam , linear studying has a defined path. And, as a bonus, it sure looks nice and orderly, leading to the illusion of a direct straight-line path to success. Indeed, right now, many of you are focused (solely?) on watching videos, reviewing your notes, reading your commercial outlines, and making gigantic study tools. But, if you are like me, you aren't yet taking practice exams (or are only doing very few of them at the most).
Linear Learning (Professor Christopher 2018)
However, as explained by Professor Christopher, that's a big problem. Here's why. You'll end up spending most of the 8 - 10 week bar prep period doing very few practice problems, trying instead to master the law so perfectly so that you'll have enough confidence in the last few weeks to do well on practice problems. In short, you are afraid (I sure was!) to tackle practice problems because there's so much to know (and so many ways to make mistakes).
However, that's a big problem because it's in our mistakes that we learn best. We don't really learn by watching others. Who ever learned to play piano, play soccer, dance, or even litigate a case without practicing (which means "rehearing" and "acting out") what you hope to accomplish in the future with polish? No one prepares to become an expert without first being a novice.
But, as Professor Christopher comments, it feels really terrible, really terrible, to practice problems so early on because we make so many mistakes. But, if we delay practicing problems until the last few weeks possible, we make that practice much more of a high stake experience, in the words of Professor Christopher, such that there's no wiggle room for errors in our practicing experiences (so that there is no room for learning, either). In my opinion, linear studying leads to disappointment and frustration.
But, there's good news ahead, for those of you who engage in recursive learning.
II. Recursive Learning
Now here's a bit about recursive learning. As depicted in the diagram below from Professor Christopher's text, successfully preparing for the bar exam involves learning in a circular recursive process rather than a straight-line linear process.
Recursive Learning (Professor Christopher 2018)
As Professor Christopher explains, the first step - "reading and reviewing" - involves watching lectures, taking lectures notes, and reading outlines [about 4 hours or so per day].
But take note of second step in the circular process: "work to understand." That means that we get involved in the learning, we take center stage, so to speak, in our own learning by "work[ing] to understand the material" so that it becomes real to us. Just like learning a language, in which we start to start learning to speak and write a language by...speaking and writing a language! For bar takers, that means in this second stage that we make our own personal condensed notes or flashcards or other study tools to "help...get the information into [our] head[s]." (Here's a snappy suggestion: Just take hold of one (1) blank piece of paper, and, referencing your lecture notes in hand, write down, scribble, flowchart, and doodle the major take-aways from that day's lecture. Note: Don't let yourself get bogged down by trying to re-write your entire lecture notes; rather, focus only on big picture concepts because people pass the bar based on the big picture principles rather than the nitty picky details.). [about 1 hour or so per day].
The last step takes real bravery, discipline, and honesty too. And, it's vital for your learning. Start right away that very day, each day, by digging into actual bar exam questions, working through them one by one, using notes and outlines freely, and then reviewing practice answers afterwards to assess what went well along with concrete ways to improve with future practice problems. Here's a key tip for your practice sessions: Be super-curious when you miss a question; poke back around to the fact pattern - like a detective - to figure out whether you missed the question because you missed a rule or, more likely, you missed an important trigger fact in the fact pattern. So, for example, if you write a picture-perfect IRAC essay but then notice that the problem didn't involve that rule, go back and figure out where in the facts the correct rule was triggered. In short, don't just test yourself through practice problems but rather use the opportunity to learn through practice problems. [about 3 to 4 hours or so per day]. (Then, as illustrated by Professor Christopher's diagram, the next day we begin again with another bar review lecture.).
The great news is that throughout this process, while you might not feel like you are doing much learning, you are really dancing with the materials, making them your own, developing and finessing your critical reading, organizational, and writing skills. In short, you are productively on the path to successfully preparing for your bar exam.
So, in the midst of this bar review season, take courage. Indeed, be of good cheer, as the holiday saying goes, because true learning takes its shape in you - step by step - through the daily process of recursive learning - (1) reviewing, (2) working to understand, and (3) then testing yourself through practices problems. To be personal, I wish I had known this at the outset of my bar prep season. So, feel free to step out of the "line" and learn! Oh, and congratulations again on your graduation from law school! What a wonderfully momentous accomplishment! (Scott Johns).
December 20, 2018 in Advice, Bar Exam Issues, Bar Exam Preparation, Bar Exams, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Learning Styles, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)
Thursday, December 13, 2018
Some say a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, perhaps a chart might be a way to improve classroom teaching...with the help of dozens of other teachers.
Take a quick peek at the photo below. What do you see?
First, you might notice that the chart has a silhouette of a pineapple.
As indicated by teacher extraordinaire Jennifer Gonzalez, the pineapple is a symbol of hospitality. This photo is taken from her wonderful blog posting entitled: "How Pineapple Charts Revolutionize Professional Development." https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/pineapple-charts/ (The photo itself, on the blog "The Cult of Pedagogy," comes from Gator Run Elementary School in sunny Florida.) As used in educational circles, the pineapple serves as a welcoming invitation to host other teachers to visit classroom spaces for informal observations of your teaching.
Second, the pineapple chart invites teachers to share in a community of teaching by learning in connection with each other. The pineapple chart represents one week's worth of classes. Teachers who are interested in opening up their classroom spaces for informal observations simply fill out one of the available spots with name, subject, time, and classroom location (and even sometimes a description of the agenda),
Third, find a common location for the pineapple chart. Even better, make it a heavily trafficked prominent location. You might consider locating the pineapple chart in your mailroom or student affairs office or even on the walls of one of the main corridors of your law school building. In short, make it easy for people to sign up.
Fourth, participate. We are all members of learning communities.
Now, I realize that it takes great courage to open yourself up to others, especially to others to observe your teaching. But, I often find that it's in the courageous things of life in which I grow best. So, let go of being all alone in your teaching and instead invite others to participate with you in improving your classroom teaching. And, for the rest of you yet to sign-up for observations, make yourself available and present to observe your colleagues as they freely open up their workspaces to you. That takes courage too. And, please know that we all have so much to learn from each other.
Let me be frank. I suspect that this simple pineapple chart might radically change your learning community for the better, or, in the words of blogger Jennifer Gonzalez, might "revolutionize" your professional development. That's something worthy of sharing with others. (Scott Johns).
Wednesday, December 12, 2018
It's inevitable. Coming out of any law school exam, someone will know they messed up -- or feel like they've messed up. The list of things that can go wrong in an exam seems endless, from random quirks of fate to "I knew better than this but did it anyway" scenarios. Sometimes folks already have the sinking feeling coming out of the exam; others are filled with confidence over their performance until they start discussing the exam with others.
If the person who messed up was you, what do you do?
Unlike a lot of people, I'm not going to tell you to ignore that sinking feeling. You want a pity party? -- go ahead and throw it. Whether you know you messed up or whether you merely feel bad about your performance, it's disingenuous for those of us on the outside to tell you not to worry. It's like someone sitting in a warm dry house advising you not to panic when you get lost in the woods. So feel free to wallow in your misery, as long as you follow these ground rules:
- Only one person is invited to the pity party. You.
- You have ten minutes to wallow. Period.
Your ten minutes is up. Feel better? I thought so. Your emotions may still be running high, however, going in one of two directions:
- It's not really my fault. The professor / the proctor / the tech person / the ________ (fill in your favorite scapegoat) messed up. I shouldn't have to pay for their mistakes.
- I am such an idiot. I don't belong here. I deserve to be thrown out. I should just disappear and not come back next semester.
Whichever is the case, now is your time to act like a lawyer. Be calm, be analytical, and spend your energy on solving problems, not on brooding about them.
Let's say the problem was caused or exacerbated by another person's actions. Was it a problem that's likely to recur? If by speaking up you can help prevent it from recurring during this exam period, by all means speak up, recognizing as you do that intelligent persons of good will can make mistakes. So focus not on blame -- "S/he did this which messed up my exam!" -- but on identifying a problem which might affect you or other test-takers in the future and on suggesting ways to prevent the problem.
Can you identify something discrete you personally did wrong? ("I skipped Question 5 but I didn't skip the scantron bubble for that question, so all my multiple choice answers are off by one"). After you have finished the exam, there will rarely be a chance of fixing the problem for that particular exam, but don't hesitate to calmly explain your problem to the exam coordinator in case there is a solution you hadn't considered. Communicate only with the exam coordinator -- writing a direct note to the professor, either in the exam itself or by a message after the exam, is never fruitful and may actually constitute an honor code violation by violating anonymity. Knowing that you made mistakes, accept yourself as a human, learn from the mistake and vow to not repeat it, forgive yourself, and move on.
In addition to things you know you messed up, you may feel you messed up based on your emotional reaction coming out of an exam ("I just flailed around and did awfully") or based on hearing others talk about the exam ("I didn't spot the same issue everyone else saw in the second essay"). Especially for 1Ls, neither one of these is an especially reliable way of analyzing your performance. Group post-mortems often get off track and usually freak people out unnecessarily, and your subjective reaction to an exam is rarely reliable. Step back from your own emotions (your pity party is already over, remember?) and view your reaction from the vantage point of a sympathetic outsider. Acknowledge that your very emotion shows that you care deeply about what you're doing. and practice self-compassion.
If you have a tendency to mull over your mistakes, real or imagined, now's the time to learn the lawyerly skill of harnessing those feelings toward improved performance. If you are still in the middle of exams, think about how you can apply what you learned from your mistake towards doing better on the next exam. If your semester's exams are over, practice empathetic self-reflection where you identify the type of mistakes you tend to make during exams and brainstorm ways of preventing those mistakes. Realize that worrying cannot help your grade: it will only distract you from paying attention to those ideas, experiences, and relationships you should be concentrating on now. Know that your both your successes and your mess-ups have the potential to move you along the path of becoming a better lawyer. (Nancy Luebbert)
Tuesday, December 11, 2018
How are you? How is Mrs. Claus? I hear the aurora borealis is quite nice right now. I hope you can snag a few minutes to enjoy it.
I know how busy you are this month, so I will get right to the point: I have been a very good Director of Academic Success this year. Or at least I have not been bad. Fine – the truth is, I have had many students thank me effusively for my help and support, but I have also noticed a few people in the back of my class roll their eyes. I don’t know if the latter have already learned what I am trying to teach, or if they have detached themselves from my class because it’s non-doctrinal, or if maybe some of them have pollen allergies that are causing them eye irritation. Anyway, look me up – I’m pretty sure I’m on the “nice” list.
Because I have been good this year – probably – I feel like I deserve an extra special present. I have given this a great deal of thought. My first idea for a present was a watch like the one on that old episode of The Twilight Zone – you know, the one with the pocket watch that froze time for everyone but the user when her clicked the button on top? That would be an awesome present – more time! Imagine having 150 essays to comment upon, and clicking on that watch to stop time all around me. I could start commenting at 9:01 am, and finish before 9:02! No more deadline stress!
But then I realized that I would have to sit through 50 or 60 hours of commenting, and then, once I got the world started again, I’d *still* have to do another entire day of work. I’d probably age three or four times as fast as all of my colleagues, too. Eventually my driver’s license would say “60” but my real age would be over 100. No thank you. I think I’ll just keep improving my time management skills. After all, I am always suggesting the same thing to my students. They may as well learn now that that quest never ends.
So then I came up with a second idea. One of the toughest parts of my job is learning the names, faces, backgrounds, interests, strengths, and weaknesses of all 450+ students in my law school. Don’t get me wrong – I have some great students with some amazing stories and aspirations – but it is hard to keep everything about everybody straight. I don’t have a photographic memory. But you could give me one! How about one of those fancy electronic computer watches with a built-in camera, microphone, and speakers? If I had that, then I could just take a quick photo every time I interact with a student, and then quickly type in or audio-record what they tell me about themselves.
Still, once I had the photographs, I’d still need to cross-reference them to class lists, and I’d have to study all the facts to remember who is whom. Every class I taught would become like a massive open-book test – I’d be spending half the class looking people up. Plus, I get to know and understand facts better if I learn them and then work with them, rather than always just looking them up. Again, like I say to my students. So, ixnay on the atchway.
This brought me to my last idea, which, honestly, is probably asking a lot. It’s not something I could find in a store here in the States, but, I mean, you are Santa Claus, right? A genuine saint and performer of miracles? So I thought I might as well ask. What I want for Christmas is a mind-reading machine. Nothing too conspicuous – maybe something I can strap to my forehead, or maybe a special kind of hat that connects my brain waves with other people’s brain waves? See, students come into my office all the time to ask for help, but often, when they do, they can’t necessarily explain to me exactly what it is they need. Sometimes they just have trouble putting their concerns into words, but more often it’s because they aren’t really clear themselves on what the issue is. And we might have to meet more than once before we both finally can articulate exactly what help the student needs.
If I had a little mind-reading hat, though, BOOM! Every time someone comes into my office, I could scan them, size them up in an instant, and send them along with whatever homework I think would help. That would be supremely efficient! Although, then I would not get to spend much time with any particular student. I wouldn’t really get to know anybody. And, the students wouldn’t really get to know me . . . and, I guess, in a way, they wouldn’t get to know themselves as well. I mean, I could tell them, “This is what is giving you trouble,” and maybe they’ll take my word for it, but maybe not? Sometimes people trust a discovery more when they feel like they made it, or at least helped to make it, themselves. And, when it comes right down to it, while I want to help my students address individual issues, what I really want is to help them learn the process of figuring these things out themselves, following the example of working with me. And I guess they won’t get that if I’m always just telling them what to do.
Well, where does that leave me? I can’t see myself not continuing to want more time, memory, and understanding any time soon, but you don’t have to worry about that. I’ll just keep gleaning what I can the way I have been. So, for my actual Christmas list, I’ll just wish for peace on earth, goodwill towards all, and a substantial Barnes & Noble gift card. Oh, and to keep getting to do this work for another year.
Thursday, December 6, 2018
Want to power up your learning to improve your final exam performance? Well, counterintuitively, that means that you just might need to take a break - a brief respite for your brain - by working out your heart instead.
You see, research shows that vigorous exercise, even if just for 10 minutes right prior to an exam, improves academic performance. And, there's more great news. The research also shows that exercise boosts your mood and optimism, and that, in turn, leads to more resiliency in learning, which, in turn again, improves academic performance. In short, exercise is in the center of a great big circle of connections between your body, your heart, and your mind.
So, rather than just focusing all of your energies in preparation for exams on your mental work, let your body and heart take up some of that cognitive load as you sweat it up a bit. Feel free to hit the trail, or the bike, or just run up and down the stairs at your law school every hour or so. Indeed, as the research shows, even just a 10 minute exercise brain break right before your next exam can increase your exam performance. Not convinced? We'll, here's a handy article by Marcus Conyers, Ph.D., and Donna Wilson, Ph.D., entitled "Smart Moves: Powering up the Brain with Physical Activity." http://www.kappancommoncore.org
So, why not follow the evidence to help boost your learning by taking frequent exercise brain breaks - breaks that tap into the power of your whole self - your mind, body, and heart - to best optimize your learning. And, rest assured as you take your brain breaks while exercising, the science is behind you. (Scott Johns).
Tuesday, December 4, 2018
At this time of year, I am working mostly with two groups of students: 1L students preparing for their first set of law school final examinations, and recent and soon-to-be graduates who are planning to take the February bar examination. While these two cohorts are about as far apart as students of law can be, there is at least one common element to their experiences: the peril associated with reaching a goal.
Regretfully, some of those preparing for the February bar exam, at my school and elsewhere, are graduates who have already taken the July bar last summer and did not pass. Every year, people who find themselves in this position include some strong law school performers, people with GPAs and other indicators that suggested that they should not have had any problem passing with their classmates. Sometimes, their disappointing performances can be explained by extenuating circumstances, like illness. But other times, it just appears that the new graduate only put in a fraction of the effort needed over the summer to prepare for the bar exam -- e.g., having signed up for a bar preparation course, they completed less than half of the assignments. Few people would stand a chance of passing the bar with so little preparation.
Observers of such misguided lack of effort might attribute it to overconfidence -- good students mistakenly believing their law school performance was preparation enough. Maybe it seems like that even to the disappointed graduates, shrugging their shoulders and otherwise unable to explain just how they had let 10 weeks get away from them without applying themselves to their studies as they had in the past. But perhaps for some there is another, less self-condemnatory element at work. Consider this: in the two or three weeks before bar studies were to begin, these students had just completed probably the most grueling three years of study of their lives, and it had all culminated in proud marches across the graduation stage. They had reached the finish line at the end of a very demanding course. But, as Gretchen Rubin notes in her book Better Than Before, "A finish line marks a stopping point. Once we stop, we must start over, and starting over is harder than continuing. . . . The more dramatic the goal, the more decisive the end -- and the more effort required to start over."
We see examples of this all the time. People who exercise scrupulously to lower their weight to a target goal -- and then stop exercising and gain back the weight. Writers who work diligently every day to complete a long-term project, but then lose the daily habit once the project is complete. Surely at least some portion of those capable law school graduates who did not put in the effort they might have made to prepare for the bar had at some level seen their final final exams and their pompously circumstantial degree conferment as manifestations of a very dramatic conclusion, and then found themselves at a psychological disadvantage in trying to start, in bar preparation, what seemed to them a brand new test of willpower, tenacity, and capacity.
This suggests that one way to help some of our 3L students prepare to jump right into the huge bar preparation undertaking is to message it not as a novel ordeal, but as just one more step toward the ultimate goal of practice. We might also downplay the significance of their spring final exams -- liberally reminding our students that those will not be the last exams they ever take -- and even minimize the ceremony of law school graduation, by pointing out to them that the real endgame is the swearing-in ceremony. The more psychological continuity that students cultivate between law school and the bar examination, the more likely they will be able to carry over their habits of diligence and fortitude into the bar study period.
This kind of messaging might also be helpful to some of our 1L students right now. They are not yet near graduation, but no set of final exams before the last seems more momentous and conclusive than the first set at the end of the fall semester. Students who have the perspective to see this first set of exams as just one of six may be less like to feel that they are psychologically starting over again in the spring. Conversely, those who more explicitly see these exams as a finish line -- students who tell themselves, "If I can just get through these . . .", or those who seem to focus on the weeks off between semesters as a sort of quasi-retirement -- may not have as much momentum going in to classes in 2019, and may struggle to bring themselves back to the same level of diligence they had reached in the fall. Bringing to these students' attention the long-term effort required in law school, and the expectation that what they learned in that first semester will be needed again and again through graduation, the bar exam, and practice, may help them find getting back into reading, briefing, and studying in January is just that much more achievable.
Thursday, November 29, 2018
As indicated in yesterday's wonderful post by Professor Nancy Luebett, one of the key steps for successfully preparing for final exams is to practice final exams. https://lapproaching-your-first-law-school-final.html. And, the best sources for practice exams are your professors' past exams.
But, what if your professor is new to the law school or there simply aren't many old exams available?
Well, there are a number of sources for free practice essay problems.
Here are a few to get you going:
First, you might dig into essays published by the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE). The NCBE maintains links for a number of retired past essay questions that are available free of charge (the more recent are only available by purchase). I recommend sticking to the free materials. Each essay question packet also contains analysis of what the examiners were looking for in good quality answers, so the materials are quite helpful in assessing and improving your own problem-solving abilities. Unfortunately, the essays are not easily identified by subject matter. It requires a bit of trial and error to match up the subjects that you are taking as a first-year law student with the essays asked in the past on that subject. But, below is subject matter table that can help. Just find the subject and the bar exam month and year that it was tested and then find the bar exam question and answer packet for that particular bar exam using the following link: http://www.ncbex.org/exams/mee/preparing/
Second, if you want to work through a number of shorter hypothetical essays, the University of Denver maintains - free of charge - a repository of retired Colorado bar exam essays. But, please be careful as the law might have changed. You'll notice that the essays are arranged by exam date and then again by subject matter. And, there's more great news. The essays contain point sheets with short answer discussions to help you assess your own learning. Here's the link for the old Colorado essays: https://www.law.du.edu/coloradoessays
Finally, I like to look through past California bar exam essays. California provides both past bar exam essay questions (with good passing answers) along with first-year law student exam questions. The first-year law school questions cover contracts, torts, and criminal law. But, please be aware that the answers provided are not model answers. Here's the link for past California first-year exam essays and answers: http://www.calbar.ca.gov/pastfirstyearexams. In addition, here's the link for past California bar exam essays and answers: http://www.calbar.ca.gov/pastbarexamessays
One last thought...
No one learns to fly or play the piano or dance...without practice...lots of practice.
Similarly, to prepare for final exams takes practicing final exams. So, instead of re-reading your notes or memorizing your outlines, focus first and foremost on taking your notes and outlines for practice test flights, using them as your "go-to" tools to work through lots of past exam questions. And, along the way, guess what? You'll actually begin to memorize your notes and outlines because you've been using them as learning tools rather than rote memorization tools. Good luck on your final exams! (Scott Johns).
Wednesday, November 28, 2018
Treat your first law school final exam as an opportunity to show your excellence in thinking and writing like a lawyer. Here are some guidelines for the coming weeks.
Put together the final pieces:
- Learn your professors' individual preferences. Should you use IRAC, IPRAC, CIRAC, or another organizing structure? Does your professor favor headings, abbreviations, or use of case names? Tailor your writing to their predilections.
- Take practice exams. Use the professor's previous exams if available, but any exam with complex fact patterns and multiple issues will be useful. After writing your answer, set it aside for a time, then evaluate it, treating it as if it were written by a stranger. Peers and professors can provide useful feedback.
- Distill your outline down to a one-page issue checklist or "attack outline" you can handwrite in 2-3 minutes. Memorize it.
- Gather the items you want to bring to the exam room, and make sure you understand what is permitted. Common items include power cords, earplugs, watches, cough drops, and water bottles.
- Don't stay up late cramming, because exhaustion hampers your ability to analyze. Do something fun for a few hours before bed and get a solid night's sleep.
- Give yourself plenty of time to get to the exam: you don't need the anxiety of fearing you'll be late. And, remembering Hofstadter's Law, then give yourself more time than you planned.
- The hours before the exam are for you and you only. Talk with classmates if you like, but don't feel you have to be sociable.
Approach the exam with confidence:
- "Brain dump" (3 minutes). As soon as the exam starts, jot down your issue checklist from memory, or read through it carefully if the exam is open-book. Starting the exam with the issue checklist in mind prevents panic and helps you approach the exam from a position of knowledge and confidence.
- Skim the exam and allocate your time (3 minutes). Look over the entire exam, noting the number of questions and the points or suggested time for each. Allocate your time according to the number and weight of questions. Write down the ending time for each section.
Devote quality time to reading and organizing:
- For each question, read the call of the question first to make your reading and issue-spotting more efficient.
- Read multiple times to spot issues and identify relevant facts. On the first read, immediately jot down the issues as you recognize them. Then read the fact pattern line by line, looking for relevant facts in every sentence. Mark every relevant fact and identify the issues, elements, or defenses raised by these facts.
- Consult your issue checklist. It may alert you to issues in the fact pattern you did not previously notice.
- On essay problems, spend 1/3 of your time reading/marking the fact pattern and outlining your answer. Don't rely on cut-and-paste to organize. Your exam outline can be sparse, consisting of just the issues, elements, and facts relevant to each. Don't waste time writing rules in the outline: save that for your written answer. Time dedicated to careful reading and outlining helps you craft a well-organized, thoughtful answer.
Show your excellence in essay answers:
- Follow instructions: they are vital, not surplusage.
- Make your answer easy to follow. Use headings for major issues. Treat issues and elements in logical order. Write simply and clearly.
- Think inside the box. Thoroughly discuss each issue before moving on to the next. For instance, don't let a discussion of the mailbox rule creep into a paragraph about consideration.
- Stick to the facts, and make sure you have them correct. Distorting the facts can make you miss issues entirely.
- Interweave specific facts with the rule. Instead of blanket assertions ("Alonzo's actions show Alaska was his domicile"), interweave parts of the rule with specific facts ("Alonzo's intent to remain in Alaska was shown by him buying a house and voting in local elections.")
- Use IRAC (or the organizing structure your professor prefers) for each issue. When resolving an issue requires detailed discussion of several elements, use mini-IRACS or sub-IRACs to work through each element's requirements.
- Issue -- Ask a question: if you conclude first, you may disregard facts or law that don't support your preconceptions.
- Rule -- Be concise but thorough. State the rule before, not midway through, the analysis.
- Analysis -- Explain how the rule applies to the specific facts. Explore any ambiguity in the law and the facts by going down each "fork in the road."
- Conclusion -- Limit your conclusion to one sentence; don't bring in new arguments or restate your analysis ad nauseam.
- Omit needless paragraphs and issues. Nix any introductory paragraph that merely restates the facts. Discuss only issues that arise from the fact pattern. This is not the time to regurgitate everything you know just because you know it.
- If it's hard, that's where the points are. Rejoice when an issue is difficult or when the facts or law seem ambiguous. Here's where you get to strut your stuff!
- Keep track of your time, and move on. If you find yourself running out of time on a question, concisely treat the most important remaining issues, then move to the next question.
After the exam, let it go. Don't fret or dwell on mistakes. Avoid discussing the exam with your classmates, for someone in the group (maybe you, maybe a friend) will always leave dispirited after such a conversation. Take several hours off, then tackle the next challenge with confidence. You are now one step closer to achieving your goal of being an excellent lawyer. (Nancy Luebbert)