Thursday, April 18, 2019

Useful Forgetfulness and Study Tools/Outlines: Could There Be Too Much of a Good Thing?

Perhaps you've heard the phrase "Too big to fail."  Well, that might be true, at least according to some, with respect to some business enterprises in the midst of the last recession.  

But, at least from my point of view, that saying is not true at all with respect to student study tools and outlines.  In my experience, too big of an outline can lead to less than stellar final exam results.

Here's why...There's a learning concept called "useful forgetfulness."  

As I understand the educational science behind useful forgetfulness, it is in the midst of the filtering process - in which we decide to trim, shorter, collapse, and simplify our notes and outlines - that best promotes efficacious learning because the decision to leave something out of our outline means that we have made a proactive decision about its value.  In short, the process of sorting the important legal principles from the not-so-important leads to active and enriching learning.  

Nevertheless, for most of us, we are sorely afraid about leaving anything out of our outlines because we often lack confidence that we can make such filtering choices about what is important versus what is not important.  Consequently, we often end up with massive 50 plus page outlines in which we know very little because we have not made hard reflective decisions to prioritize the important.  So, here's a tip to help with trimming your outline down to a workable size to best enhance your learning.

First, grab a piece of paper and hand-write or type out, using both sides of the paper, the most important things from your outline.  If you think a rule might be important, don't put it in your outline yet because you can always add to your study tool later.  Instead, only put the rule down in your mini-study tool if the legal principle immediately jumps out to you as critically important.

Second, take your mini-study tool on a test flight.  Here's how.  Grab hold of a few essay problems or multiple-choice questions and see if you have enough on your "one-pager" outline to solve the problems.  If a rule is missing, just add it.  And, as you practice more hypothetical problems in preparation for your final exams, feel free to add more rules as needed.  And, there's more great news.  In the process of seeing a rule that might be missing from your mini-study tool, you'll know that rule down "cold" because you will have seen it applied in context. So, feel free to have less in your outlines because, with respect to study tools, less can indeed be more!  (Scott Johns).

April 18, 2019 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Learning Styles, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Catch Some Z's

In the busy-ness of the end of the term, it's important for all of us -- faculty, staff, and students -- to stick to the basics. And the most basic of all basics is to get sufficient sleep.

Let's just talk about the brain. Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky, of Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers fame (and also author of the lesser-known but magnificent A Primate's Memoir), posits that sleep helps cognition in three major ways.  First, it restores energy.  The brain, it turns out, is an energy hog. While it comprises only about 2% of the body's weight, it uses about 20% of the body's energy, with two-thirds of that energy going to firing neutrons.  Wonder why you feel so tired after intensive thinking? -- you are actually churning through enormous amounts of energy. This energy is restored in slow wave sleep.  Second, the REM sleep in which dreaming occurs consolidates memory. High levels of the class of hormones known as glucocorticoids elevate stress and disrupt cognition. Glucocorticoid levels, however, plummet during sleep, especially REM sleep. So cognition can be enhanced simply allowing the brain to work its way through learned material when these hormone levels are at their lowest, by getting a good night's sleep. Because REM sleep consolidates memory so well, those who study, sleep overnight, and take a test the next afternoon do significantly better than those who study the morning before a test. Finally, REM sleep improves assessment and judgment, especially in complex circumstances, perhaps by exercising lesser-used neural pathways during those wild and crazy dreams. This allows the brain to establish wide networks of connections instead of simple one-lane pathways, leading to deeper, more nuanced thinking. Indeed, Berkeley neuroscientist Matthew Walker suggests that the most significant cognitive benefit of sleep lies not in strengthening the memory of specific items but in assimilating small bits of knowledge into large-scale schema.

More energy for the brain to work, better memory, and better ability to put things into a larger perspective. Sounds like a winning combination for everyone. Let's ditch the late nights and catch some Z's.

(Nancy Luebbert)

 

April 17, 2019 in Advice, Exams - Studying, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Only Thirteen More Meeting Days 'Til Exam Period!

This time of year sneaks up on us like the holidays in December.  It seems like only yesterday we were welcoming students back for spring semester.  We blink, and then poof!  Final exams are less than three weeks away.  And before they start, we have so much to take care of.  Drafting final exams, for one thing.  But, at the same time, staying on top of our current classes -- in particular, at least in my case, pushing feedback on written assignments out to students so they can make use of it as they prepare for finals.  Plus the approaching end of the semester often means a traffic jam of administrative work, as committees and working groups hasten to complete projects before a big chunk of their members leave for sabbaticals, holidays, or other teaching gigs over the summer.

When it gets crazy busy like this, it is important to set aside at least a measure of our thought and energy for that portion of our student population that might otherwise get lost in the background noise.  Sure, part of what makes us so busy are the students we've developed relationships with -- those who regularly seek us out because of anxiety or confusion or a habit of pursuing every advantage -- and part of it may be required meetings with students on academic probation.  We'll see those folks without much extra effort on our parts.  But there are other students who could use our help who might not put themselves on our radar screens.  Maybe they are shy; maybe they are overconfident; maybe they are just underestimating how much they have to do to get ready for the approaching finals.  Maybe they feel so busy that they can't make time for us.  

These are often students, not currently in academic difficulty, for whom a little support, guidance, or intervention will have a far more significant positive effect this week than it would have if it were delivered when the student showed up at the threshold to our office, panicking, a few days before finals.  So, even though we are busy, making the effort to identify and check in with these students now makes good cost/benefit sense.

If you have not already done so, consider taking some time over the next few days to:

  • Go through your calendar or appointment records from the fall and early spring and make note of any students who have sought help in the past, but from whom you have not heard for a while.  Send them quick e-mails, asking them how they are doing and inviting them to drop by or make an appointment if they'd like to talk about preparing for the end of the semester.
  • Check in with faculty (especially those teaching 1L courses) to ask if there are any students they have concerns about whom they haven't already referred to you.  At this point, spring midterms are probably all completely graded, and those professors may have information they didn't have at the start of the semester.
  • Remind the students (again, especially 1L students) in class or via social media or your school's information portal how close they are to the end of the semester, how busy your office gets at this time of year, and how wise it is to come to see you sooner rather than later if they have any concerns.

When we are this busy and things are moving towards a close so quickly, reaching out to students in the grey area can demand a bit of mindfulness.  But even one fruitful meeting with a student now might be more effective than a flurry of desperate conferences the week before finals.  That would be time well spent.

[Bill MacDonald]

April 16, 2019 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Meetings, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, April 13, 2019

What do YOU want to select as courses?

We are getting ready to register for courses for the next academic year's two semesters. Rising 2L advisees are meeting with their academic advisors to plan their course selections (and alternate courses in case they get waitlisted). As always, the rumor mill is generating a lot of static that has this group of newbies to registration somewhat perplexed.

There are some advisees who ignore the rumor mill entirely. There are other advisees who take every word as gospel and stress. Here are some tips to sort the wheat from the chaff during the course registration process:

  • Be cognizant of the actual academic policies and procedures at the law school. What are the graduation requirements that must be met? What are the credit-hour ranges allowed each semester? What are the prerequisites for advanced courses, clinics, externships, etc.?
  • Remember that each student learns differently from other students. You have preferences for subject matter, teaching styles, course formats, test formats, and more. Ask multiple upper-division students about courses/professors to get a variety of perspectives. A professor/course that would be perfect for you may not be another student's choice.
  • Use the resources you have available to learn more about the courses. The professor teaching the course is your best source if you want to know more beyond the catalog description. Ask about topics that will be covered, types of readings/exercises for class, assessments in the course, and more. Talk to concentration and dual-degree advisors if you want more specifics on those options. Attend meetings regarding clinics, externships, journals, internal/national competition teams, and other options. Talk to your career development office about coursework/experiences for career paths you want to consider. 
  • Balance your course schedule wisely for your strengths, weaknesses, and preferences. If you are not good at business/math oriented courses, then income tax and commercial law in the same semester may be a killer. Two major paper courses may be fine if you are a very strong writer. If you are weak in legal research, then you may want to take an extra legal research seminar before you take your capstone/advanced writing course.
  • Balance elective and required courses. Explore legal topics that you are curious about or may be interested in practicing. Take required courses 2L year that are needed as prerequisites for interesting advanced elective courses. If you have specific career goals, also consider concentrations or dual-degrees as you register.
  • If you are registering for 2L year, think about what requirements and electives will be left for 3L year. Will that give you a balanced schedule for those last two semesters? If you are a rising 3L, think about the balance between your final fall and spring semesters.Will you have extra job-hunt or part-time-job commitments to balance in?
  • Consider your commitments outside of class when choosing a balanced schedule. Do you commute a long distance each day? Will you be working? Do you have family commitments? Will you be an organization officer? Will you try out for competition teams or write-on for a journal?
  • Be true to yourself in your selections. Test the "everyone should aspire to" advice against your own values, goals, and gut. If you know you want to be a transactional lawyer and do not want to litigate, then ignore pressure to take elective litigation courses and instead focus on courses that will benefit your goals. If you really do not have any desire to write on to a journal and would turn down the opportunity if offered, then do not force yourself to enter the write-on competition. If working at Big Law is your idea of a total nightmare, then pursue coursework that will be beneficial to a small or mid-sized firm in the geographical area you want. If you are set on solo practice, then take electives in law office management, law practice technology, and other practical areas.
  • Remember that no course you take will be a total waste of time. You hone your legal reasoning skills in every course. If you take a course you think you want to practice in and ultimately decide you despise it, then you have gained insight into what not to practice. If you take a course you are unsure of and fall in love with the content area, then you have discovered an interest that may point to advanced coursework and a career.
  • It is okay if you do not have any idea what you want to do after your J.D. degree. There are areas of law to explore and find out. Many law students discover their passions during 2L and 3L year. So take required and elective courses with an open mind!
  • Do not despair if you do not get your "perfect" schedule. Through waitlists and add/drop period, you may get to tweak your schedule over the summer and into early fall semester.

I went to law school knowing exactly what I wanted to do with my law degree - I changed my mind. By the end of 1L summer I had discovered a new passion in a previously overlooked area of law. During 2L and 3L years, I discovered other potential areas of interest. The law is so expansive that the options are almost endless! (Amy Jarmon)

April 13, 2019 in Advice, Miscellany | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

What I Learned from a Saint with Scabies

There were no two ways about it -- the saint looked like she had scabies. Under my hands, the mixture of red oxide, Mars orange, yellow ochre, and chromium green produced a blotchy face, one that looked scabbed with pustules and rotting skin. I looked around the room. The same traditional colors in the hands of others produced a face that was serene and luminous. Frustration welled up inside me, and it took everything I had to keep back the tears that threatened to spill out. I was following the rules Father Damian had given us, yet what I was producing could hardly be called an icon; it was more like an amateurish cartoon. It wouldn't have bothered me so much if the others at this retreat were accomplished artists, but my peers were amateurs like me -- people from all walks of life and all religious traditions, taking a week off from their busy lives to learn an ancient art form and contemplative practice by "writing" an icon. Some were inspired by faith, some by art, some only by the idea of doing something different for a week.

Making his rounds through the room, the monk reached my table and thoughtfully contemplated my poplar board with its rough strokes, uneven lines, and errant splotches. "You've got the basics," he said. "Don't be afraid." And with a few deft brushstrokes, the scabies disappeared from the saint's face. "It's the practice. We use traditional pigments, and we follow rules so our boards don't warp and the icon has depth that draws the eye through, as though it were a window. A lot of the foundational work seems invisible, but it's important. It seems counterintuitive to use these colors that seem harsh and discordant. But as you build it up, layer by layer, you're adding depth and meaning. You'll make mistakes -- sometimes huge ones. But there's rarely a mistake you can't recover from. Work at it, and you'll be an iconographer."

St Gertrude icon Feb 2014 (3)As I painted, and corrected, and layered, and corrected again, tackling a practice for which I had no natural talent, I jotted down the lessons for life and law which came tumbling out day by day:

                • It seems to start with chaos, but as I work at it, it starts to make sense.
                • Some people are better at this than I am. That's OK. I can rejoice in their successes.
                • Enjoy this community of diverse people who came together for a common purpose.
                • Take time to share. Take time to laugh.
                • If I want to do this, I belong here.
                • If I practice, I will get better.
                • It's OK to ask for help when I need it.
                • Just because it's not perfect doesn't mean it's not good.

Every day when I look at the imperfect icon hanging on my wall, it reminds me of how hard learning can be, both for me and for my students. How critical it is to accept our stumbling and know the struggle is worthwhile! As the poet Wendell Berry said, "It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and that when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings." 

(Nancy Luebbert)

April 10, 2019 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Exam Prep Tips From Learning to Ride A Bike!

I asked my classes this question today: "How did you learn to ride a bike?"

The students then turned to their small groups and the class lit up with stories and smiles and anecdotes as they shared their memories about learning to ride bikes.  Here are some of the things I heard:

• I started out with training wheels.

• No one helped me so I decided to try riding on the grass so that I wouldn't get hurt when I fell.

• I just kept getting back up, one fall after another and one bruise after another.

• Without my knowledge, someone gave me a big push and away I went!

As a class, here's what we realized about learning.  Not one of us learned to ride a bike by reading about riding a bike, or watching You Tube videos about bike riding, or creating a study tool on bike riding.  No.  Instead, to a "T," all my students said that they learned to ride bikes, well, by learning to ride bikes. And, most of us had help along the way.

The same is true with learning the law.  We don't really learn the law by reading about the law.  Instead, we learn the law by problem-solving with the law.  But, far too many students - understandably - don't feel ready to practice final exam problems because they feel like they don't know enough law.  So, here's some tips to get you learning by doing in preparation for your final exams.

Start with training wheels and practice on the grass.  

Here's what I mean.  

Instead of trying to test yourself through past exam problems, open up your notes, outlines, and casebook and work through problems as best you can, untimed, with the goal of learning the law through past exam problems.  

Just like learning to ride a bike, you'll experience a lot of cuts and bruises along the way as you review your answers. But, you'll get better and soon you'll be able to ride without your training wheels (notes).  And, you might start doing some tricks, too, like jumping off the curb, something that a few days or weeks previously was terrifyingly trepidatious. You see, the key to tackling your fears about taking final exams is to take final exams before you take final exams.  So, as you prepare for your exams this spring, make it your aim to practice final exams, slowly and open book.  One pedal at a time.  (Scott Johns).

April 4, 2019 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Learning Styles, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Paper and Fire

A blank piece of paper has so much potential. It can be used to display one's ingenuity. It can be a medium for communication between two people, or among thousands. It can record data and history and memory, to be used by people born long after the recorder is dead. And yet, under certain circumstances, our stationery friend can seem to turn on us. When we are asked to answer an inscrutable question, the oppressive blankness of an empty sheet can be smothering. When we think that our reputation, our livelihood, our entire future depends on scratching the right symbols in the right order, the page can seem like a minefield of hidden threats.

When I was a kid, television seemed to be entering its golden age of public service announcements, and to me it seemed the most common subject was fire. Fire was our friend, we were told, making food safe and houses warm; but we always needed to be aware of what to do if it grew dangerous. And what we needed to know was that our natural inclinations were usually wrong. Foe example, even though we knew that water was the opposite of fire, if something caught fire in the kitchen, then we were not supposed to throw water on it, because it was probably a grease or electrical fire, and water would just make it worse. If our whole house caught fire (say, because we threw water on a kitchen fire), then we weren't supposed to hide in a nice, safe closet, because then we'd be trapped and the firefighters would never find us. If we caught fire, then we weren't supposed to run, trying to find some water to jump into. That, we were told, would just light us up like a Roman candle. Instead, we had to fight every instinct and stop, drop to the ground, and roll around politely.

What I could not understand as a child was that these PSAs really had two purposes. One was simply educational, teaching us that behaviors that made perfectly good sense in one context (dousing fire, hiding from danger, fleeing danger) might actually expose us to additional harm in a different context. They were maladaptive behaviors. Sea turtle hatchings naturally paddle towards a bright light, which helps insure they reach the ocean when the brightest object in the night is the moon reflecting off the water, but which will insure they remain stranded on land when the brightest object is the patio light behind a beach house. Infantry charging a defensive position en masse often led to an advance when the defense was armed with swords, but always led to a slaughter when the defense was armed with entrenched machine guns. The ways to counter maladaptive behaviors are either to return to the original situation (turn of the patio light) or to replace the old behavior with a new one (attack with tanks and aircraft). When Ronald McDonald sang, "Stop, drop, and roll!", he was teaching children a new behavior to replace the old maladaptive behavior.

But even the dimmest of my childhood friends got the gist of Ronald's commands after the third or fourth viewing. Why were we hearing these messages so frequently, from so many different sources? That went to the second purpose of the PSAs. Education is a good start, a necessary start, but the problem is that being on fire, or at least near fire, is an inherently stressful situation. And psychologists know that "Under stress, we regress." That is, under difficulty situations like panic or sensory overload or fear of consequences, humans naturally fall back on older patterned behavior. Most drivers, for instance, know intellectually that if their car loses traction in a skid, they should pump the brakes and steer into the skid to regain control. But the first time they actually hit a skid, most drivers stand on that brake pedal. Only if they live someplace wacky with snow, like Buffalo, do they get enough practice with the skid to develop the new adaptive behavior.

Even television executives were able to recognize that it would be unethical to light kids on fire over and over again until they learned to stop, drop, and roll. So they did the next best thing: they repeated the message over and over again, and encouraged children to try practicing the moves even when they weren't alight, to ingrain the new behavior as much as possible. The more familiar a behavior became, through repetition and feedback, the less likely a person would be to regress away from it under the actual stress of combustion.

At this time of year, I am seeing work from a lot of students who seem to be regressing under stress: 1L students using tactics in their spring semester midterms that appear to be drawn from their most basic legal writing classes, or from college composition classes; 3L students trying to mechanically apply CREAC format to early MEE and MPT practice questions. Even when we know we have shown these students the more advanced strategies they should be using as they progress through their development as attorneys, we have to keep in mind that that blank piece of paper or computer screen can just as easily be a threat as a blessing. Under the stress of self-doubt, or of novelty, or of high ambition, or future consequences -- sometimes of all of these at once -- the amiably clean page can transform into an incandescent hazard. Repetition and feedback are important not just to help our students improve their use of the more advanced strategies they need, but also to make them comfortable and familiar enough to be able to use those strategies at all.

[Bill MacDonald]

April 2, 2019 in Advice, Bar Exam Preparation, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Science, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, March 28, 2019

The Connected Student & Success

Perhaps you are like me (or your students).  As I confessed to my own students in class today, I spent three years in law school never making eye contact with professors.  I was just too scared to be called on.  I didn't feel smart enough (and I certainly never really understand the professors' questions.).  So, I hid...for three years.  

That experience left me feeling lonely and isolated, as not part of the profession. Looking back, I realize now that most of my fellow students felt the same.  Oh how I wish that I had opened up, just been a bit human instead of machine-like, and shared from the heart.  But, to be honest, I wasn't willing to reveal my deep-felt fears.  Consequently, I now try to share with my students about my own experiences as a law student and what I've learned in order to better help them.

That brings me to a thought.  In my early days as an academic support professional (ASP), I spent much of my time focused on teaching skills (reading, case briefing, preparing for class, taking notes, time management skills, synthesizing course materials into outlines or study tools, and exam writing, etc.).  I still teach those skills, but my focus is much broader now because the skills by themselves do not make for learning.  Rather, it seems to me that there is a social/emotional component to learned that is equally important.  And, the research seems to back up my hypothesis.  

In particular, as recently reported by Dr. Denise Pope, a researcher and cofounder of Challenge Success at Stanford University, it seems that student engagement is the most important factor correlated to academic success, future job satisfaction, and overall well-being. Saturday Essay, Wall Street Journal, March 22, 2019.  According to Dr. Pope:  "The students who benefit most from college, including first-generation and traditionally underserved students, are those who are most engaged in academic life and their campus communities, taking full advantage of the college’s opportunities and resources. Numerous studies attest to the benefits of engaged learning, including better course grades and higher levels of subject-matter competence, curiosity and initiative." Id. 

So, what is student engagement? In short, according to studies by Gallup-Purdue as reported by Dr. Pope, there are several key experiences of engagement that can make a lifetime of difference for our students.  Here's the list, as published in Dr. Pope's essay:

"• Taking a course with a professor who makes learning exciting

• Working with professors who care about students personally

• Finding a mentor who encourages students to pursue personal goals

• Working on a project across several semesters

• Participating in an internship that applies classroom learning

• Being active in extracurricular activities". Id.

Nevertheless, as Dr. Pope relates, few students report experiencing that sort of engagement with only 27 percent of students experiencing strong support from professors who cared about them and only 22 percent having a mentor to encourage them.  In other words, most college students, in my own words, feel disconnected and disembodied from school.  That was certainly me throughout much of law school. Nevertheless, there was one professor, later in my law school studies, who took an interest in me.  That professor ended up writing my letter of recommendation for my first job as a lawyer - a law clerk in court.  In other words, looking back, I made it through law school because someone believed in me...even when I didn't believe in myself.  

That gets me thinking about our roles as academic support professionals.  Much of learning can seem mechanical (case briefing, memorization, IRAC, etc.), but the stuff that sticks only sticks when it's socially experienced in an emotionally-positive and engaged academic community.  So, as we build our programs, I try to remember my purpose is not to create an award winning program but rather to help people believe in themselves as learners and experience the wonderful thrill of being part of something that is greater than themselves.  At least, that's my ambition, one student at a time.  (Scott Johns).

March 28, 2019 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Learning Styles, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Overcoming Conversational Blocks & Fear of Public Speaking

I'm a "deer in the headlights" type of person, or, at least that's what I feel like when someone asks me a question.  In fact, at a recent conference, I embarrassingly just stared blankly when someone I've known well said "hello."  

And, as you can imagine, I spent much (well, all) of law school in the "quiet mode," never speaking unless directly called on in class and often times with my eyes cast downward to avoid making what seemed to me "dangerous eye contact."  

You see (and perhaps you are like me), I just never thought I had much of anything to say in law school.  And, I still often feel sort of out-of-place in the midst of so many learned scholars, educators, administrators, and students.

That's when I came across an encouraging article by columnist Sue Shellenbarger entitled: "Overcoming the Terror of an Impromptu Speech"  The column provides handy concrete steps that one can take to help overcome fears in both conversations and in responding to questions, something that I suspect many law students (and faculty, administrators, and community members also fear).  

Here are a few of the tips and observations that I found most helpful.  First, that many of us fear speaking publicly, whether in front of a large group or with a supervisory figure (such as a professor or senior administrator or boss).  In other words, it's human to be afraid of speaking in public.  Second, that being spontaneous in conversations and  in responding to questions actually takes preparation and practice, which is something that we can all develop.  In fact, the article provides helpful steps and guidance for handling questions and conversations. Finally, the tip that has been most helpful to me is to use self-talk, namely, to tell myself that "I'm excited for the opportunity to speak, for the chance to have a conversation with you, for the opportunity to respond to your question, etc."  

In my own case, rather than waiting for people to say "hello" to me, I'm trying to make the most of every encounter, whether by saying "hello" to someone I don't know as they join me in the elevator (and asking them about what they are learning), or whether, as one of my colleagues tonight challenged me, saying "great job" to one of my students or colleagues in recognition of their accomplishments.  You see, for me personally, it's in the midst of just taking these little steps that is helping me to no longer feel like the "deer in the proverbial headlights" but rather joined into and belonging to a vibrant community of learners. And, if you happen to fear conversational encounters and public speaking as I do, I hope this helps you too (and for your students also).  (Scott Johns).

March 21, 2019 in Advice, Learning Styles, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

"Wise Interventions": Improving Performance by Altering Subjective Meanings

One of the most stimulating -- though, at times, overwhelming -- aspects of working in Academic Success is the necessity of performing in all the rings under the law school circus tent. In the same day, we can be teaching substantive law, providing feedback to help improve a student's writing and legal analysis, coaching another student on skills like time management or effective study, and counseling other students who are anxious, unmotivated, discouraged, or overconfident. To me, the counseling portion seems to be the most draining. Even when it is not taking up the greater part of my week -- and that is not always the case -- working with students' emotions, their self-awareness, their conceptions of what they are capable of, and their unrecognized assumptions requires high levels of energy and attentiveness. Anything that might make that part of the job easier without shortchanging my students would be gratefully welcomed.

To that end, I've been reading an interesting article called Wise Interventions: Psychological Remedies for Social and Personal Problems, written by the psychologists Gregory M. Walton and Timothy D. Wilson (Psychological Review (2018), 125(5), pp. 617-655). The authors explain that much of what either restrains or enhances our achievements does so because of how we perceive it, ourselves, and/or our place in the world. For example, a student who perceives her professor's probing Socratic questioning as demonstrating confidence in the student may learn more, and feel more confident about what they have retained, than another student who perceives the professor's intense questioning as disdain or ridicule.  Much depends on the subjective meaning that a person has assigned to himself ("I am clever/I am stupid/I am not good at math"), to his environment ("The professor doesn't like me/This subject is useless in the real world/That law firm only hires students in the top 5%" ), and to the interactions between the two ("I always screw up on multiple-choice questions/There's nobody in this class who would be willing to share notes with me/If I go to office hours the professor will think I can't handle the material.") The article points out that many of the techniques that have been demonstrated to produce lasting behavioral change with comparatively little effort on the part of coaches or intervenors do so because they help to change ineffective subjective meanings that the student had used previously into meanings that are naturally more likely to produce good results. For example, incoming African American college students participated in a one-hour discussion section at the start of the school year, in which stories told by former students were used to convey the idea that it is normal to feel, at first, that you "don't belong" in college, and that after a while that feeling goes away. Participating students had higher grades over the next three years than did similar students who did not join the discussion session. Walton and Wilson call these techniques "wise interventions" because those who used them are aware of ("wise to") the maladaptive meanings that some subjects have adopted, and therefore can more successfully change those meanings.

This is a dense and rich article, one I will have to return to a few times here, but today I wanted to point out three of the five general principles the authors suggest characterize a "wise intervention".  These three principles are all about how to effectively change maladaptive assigned meanings, and I think they can help us in Academic Support as we try to find new ways to help our students make the most of themselves and their environments.

The first principle is that in order to effectively alter ineffective perceptions, the explanations we offer in exchange have to be detailed and specific.  It was not enough, for example, to say to incoming college students, "College is tough on everyone.  You'll get over it." Instead, researchers used the detailed stories of former students to illustrate the specific feelings that incoming students often experience, and the journey that those students went through, so that the incoming students could more clearly relate to and remember those stories when they encountered similar feelings.  Similarly, in law school, it may not be enough just to tell 1L students that law school is going to be harder than any educational experience they've had in the past. Instead, we need to tell our own stories, and the stories of other law students and alumni, to better illustrate some of the specific obstacles that were faced and then overcome. Having those details to recall can help insure that 1L students will interpret their setbacks and difficulties as part of the usual law student experience.

Another principle is that, once we help students to generate more useful interpretations of themselves and their environments, these interpretations can lead to further recursive change in the future. A student introduced to the concept of the "growth mindset", for instance, may at first only accept its existence in a certain context, like the ability to memorize content.  However, as the student experiences success in that context, it becomes more likely that she will start to apply the growth mindset concept in other realms, such as making oral presentations or writing effectively under time pressure.  This is one of the chief benefits of a wise intervention: because of the possibility of recursive change, a comparatively small effort on the part of a counselor or coach can produce a lifetime of benefits.

However, the possibility of such recursion depends in part on a recognition of a third principle: the fact that the meanings that people assign to themselves and to their worlds all operate within complex systems of past experiences, present conditions, and future expectations.  In practical terms, this means that merely changing a student's meaning-making is not likely, by itself, to take root and produce extensive future benefits; there must also be some kind of change to the system in which the student operates.  It is not enough, for example, to get students to see that they have the analytical tools they need to respond properly to multiple-choice questions, and that such questions are not simply an opaque collection of "tricks", unless we also provide those students will access to practice questions upon which to apply their new view of the genre, along with answer explanations so the students will be able to confirm that the analytical approach is indeed the most effective. Changing your students' interpretation of themselves or of the law school environment should always be either in response to, or accompanied by, some kind of practical change to the rest of the system in which they operate, in order to give the students the opportunity to test and cultivate their new understandings.

This last bit is the part I want to incorporate more into my own teaching and advising. Whenever something seems to click for a student and they seem to recognize a possible new way of interpreting the world, that's a spark. Academic success depends not just upon generating such sparks, but also upon providing kindling so that the spark doesn't go out.

[Bill MacDonald]

March 19, 2019 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Program Evaluation, Science, Study Tips - General, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Should I stay or should I go? It's a question that confronts all of us at some point. Should I stay in this relationship / community / organization / job? Given the intensity of a legal education, it's not surprising that students face doubts about whether they should continue their legal education. The academic support we offer students contemplating leaving law school, I'm convinced, is just as important as the support we offer students dedicated to gaining their J.D. If success means anything, it means being invested in one's choices for the right reasons.

I admire the students I've know who have so thoughtfully considered whether continuing in law school was the right course for them. For example, I think of two wonderful students, each diagnosed with a potentially terminal illness. One chose to continue in law school to give herself motivation for getting well since she felt so energized by her law studies. The other, equally as ardent about law school, decided that spending her remaining months or years with her family was more important than becoming a lawyer. Another two dedicated students, both of whom wanted to use their education and training to help disadvantaged children, spent hours with me exploring the pros and cons of staying in law school. One determined it was more important for her to immediately be in the field helping children; the other decided the insights and pure intellectual joy gained from law school were sufficiently important to justify earning the J.D. even though she never planned to sit for the bar. Every academic support professional will have similar stories of students who made good decisions for themselves based on their circumstances and core values.

When meeting with students who are reassessing their decision to attend law school, the practice of active listening is critical: it's vital to listen without judgment and to let the students verbalize their fears, reasons, and emotions. As part of the listening process, we can reflect back to the student what we think we hear and ask clarifying questions, but allowing long, deep silences during the conversation usually helps students gather their thoughts and delve deeper into their motivations.

I only offer advice if students ask for it. If they do, I clarify my presuppositions to help them evaluate the value of my advice in light of their own beliefs. First, I tell them, to me law is a calling. Because of its intellectual and emotional demands, I submit that pursuing a legal education is not worthwhile if one is merely seeking a financially satisfying career: one should have a passion for law either as a helping profession or as an intellectual pursuit.

Second, I consider law students to be people first and students second: if law school is seriously interfering with their responsibilities in other areas, it makes sense to set school aside either temporarily or permanently.

Important decisions, I believe, should always be based on core values, so major decisions should not be hurried by considerations like school refund dates. Likewise, it's important to get input from the people one respects and values, even if one ends up making a decision contrary to their recommendations. Students often fear their supporters -- family, friends, professors -- would disapprove or be disappointed by their doubts about continuing in law school. Because this fear can be so strong, many shy away from asking advice from the very people they most value. When they have the courage to broach the issue, most of the time they are heartened to learn, or remember, that their supporters care about them as whole persons, not just as law students, and are happy to provide a sympathetic, long-range perspective.

Most importantly, while one should bring analytical rigor and intellectual honesty to making decisions, ultimately major decisions are best made paying attention not only to the mind but to the emotions, soul, and body of the whole person. Most students are familiar with using a decision grid or matrix, where they list the positives and negatives of each proposed course of action and assign weights to the importance of each factor. By the time they meet with me, many have created such a grid. The problem with decision grids, however, is that people tend to list only rational or intellectual factors to the exclusion of the emotional, spiritual, family, and other values they hold dear. So while I recommend use of a grid as a tool, I encourage students to list every consideration, however seemingly trivial. And, I submit, one further step is crucial. After they list and weigh all their factors and make a decision, I encourage them to ask themselves how they feel about the decision they have made -- because sometimes what seems rationally right is emotionally wrong. In my experience, students who take this extra step (which sometimes affirms and sometimes reverses their "rational" decision) almost never regret the ultimate decision based on the values of the whole person. We can affirm and support the decisions made by any student who has engaged in such a thoughtful process.

(Nancy Luebbert)

March 6, 2019 in Advice | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Beyond Your Imagination

As the school comes out of the dark and chill of winter -- not that that's happening all that quickly here in Buffalo -- and over the next couple of months, before we reach the crescendo of crunch time going into final exams, our students find themselves presented with a plethora of networking opportunities.  There are dinners and events hosted by student organizations to bring current students and alumni together.  There are panel discussions featuring practitioners in different fields.  There are alumni and alumni groups inviting the students to come meet potential mentors or even employers.

I believe that networking is not just good for career advancement.  It can also enhance one's academic experience.  At any given event, a student might meet someone who inspires them, someone who can help them grasp a particular subject, or someone who helps them envision a path through school and beyond that might otherwise have eluded them.  And I frequently tell my students, "The law is a social profession."  So I encourage all my students -- and especially my 1L students -- to participate in these events, even if they don't see what they might get out of it.  Sometimes what grows out of a new acquaintance is entirely unpredictable.  And if students are still a little dubious or hesitant, I have a story to tell them.

In the 1920s and ’30s, Arthur Murray became the most famous dance instructor in history, first through his mail-order business –- he invented a system of teaching dance by means of footprint diagrams, an idea that was sparked by a conversation he had had with perennial populist presidential candidate and anti-evolutionist Scopes Monkey Trial counsel William Jennings Bryan, of all people –- and then through the “Arthur Murray Dance Studio”, a chain that still exists today. Through the 1950s, Murray and his wife hosted a TV show, The Arthur Murray Party, which consisted in part of dance competitions between celebrity guests.

One such competition pitted the smoldering Latin actor Ricardo Montalban against the well-known ventriloquist Paul Winchell. Montalban was a star in his native Mexico and had had some success in Hollywood, though nothing like the fame he would achieve some two decades later as Captain Kirk's enemy Khan Noonian Singh in the Star Trek franchise and the mysterious Mr. Rourke on the series Fantasy Island.

Winchell, like Edgar Bergen, had inexplicably found national renown as a ventriloquist on a radio show, and later hosted TV series with his dummies Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead Smiff. From the 1960s onward, Winchell would be better known for his voiceover work: he gave life to chronic Smurf-hater Gargamel, to the leader of the Scrubbing Bubbles, and, most memorably, to Winnie-the-Pooh's elastically hyperactive friend Tigger. Perhaps his latent inner Tigger gave him an edge in the dance competition, because he defeated Montalban and took home the Buick (which sounds like a euphemism, but the car really was the grand prize).

Talented as he was as a performer, Winchell’s earliest career ambition was to become a doctor; but, when he was a youth, his family could not afford medical school. He retained a lifelong interest in medicine, though, even earning a degree and working in acupuncture in the 1970s. It was therefore quite natural that Winchell should form a connection with Arthur Murray’s son-in-law, a man named Dr. Henry Heimlich, when they met during the taping of the Winchell/Montalban dance-off. Around the time Winchell was going to acupuncture school, Heimlich would be lauded by some (including himself) as the most well-known physician in America, after his article in Emergency Medicine introduced the life-saving technique he termed “the Heimlich maneuver”. But in the 1950s, he was a more-or-less ordinary practicing surgeon, and Winchell was delighted to make his acquaintance.

Over the next several years, Winchell and Heimlich stayed in touch, and Heimlich even invited Winchell to join him several times in the operating room as an observer. It was during one of these operations that Winchell came up with an idea for a functional, implantable mechanical heart, one that could theoretically be used to replace a diseased human heart. He drew up the plans, consulting with Heimlich on the medical details, and in 1956 applied for a patent on the device he had invented. By 1963 he had been granted the first patent in the United States on a fully implantable artificial heart. Eventually, Winchell would contribute this patent to the University of Utah for use in its artificial organ design program — the same program from which Dr. Robert Jarvik produced the first successfully implanted artificial heart. That device, the Jarvik-7, formed the basis of the Syncardia temporary Total Artificial Heart, which has been used in more than 800 patients.

So. Tigger faced the wrath of Khan on the dance floor and, as a result, met The Most Famous Doctor in America, who helped him invent and patent the world’s first bionic heart, contributing at least in a small way, to saving the lives of 800+ people.

Could Winchell have predicted this when he agreed to participate in The Arthur Murray Party, or when he made the acquaintance of strangers like Heimlich backstage?  Of course not.  Nor can our students predict who they will meet, and what they may take away from those meetings, when they put themselves out there among alumni, practitioners, judges, and clients.  And that's the beauty of being open to such experiences.  You literally cannot imagine all the good things that may come of them.

March 5, 2019 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Meetings, Professionalism | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Bravo! Magnificent! Herculean! Congrats Feb 2019 Bar Takers!

For those of you that just tackled the bar exam this week, here's a few words of congratulations and a couple of tips as you wait for bar exam results.

First, let me speak to you straight from my heart!

Simply put...

Bravo! Magnificent! Herculean!

Those are just some of the words that come to mind…words that you should be rightly speaking to yourself…because…they are true of you to the core!

But, for most of us right now, we just don’t quite feel super-human about the bar exam. Such accolades of self-talk are, frankly, just difficult to do. Rather, most of us just feel relief – plain and simple relief – that the bar exam is finally over and we have somehow survived.  

That’s because very few of us, upon completion of the bar exam,  feel like we have passed the bar exam. Most of us just don’t know.   So now, the long “waiting” period begins with results not due out for a number of months.

So, here’s the conundrum about the “waiting” period:

Lot’s of well-meaning people will tell you that you have nothing to worry about; that they are sure that you passed the bar exam; and that the bar exam wasn’t that hard…really.

Really?

Not that hard?

Really?

You know that I passed?

Really?

There’s nothing for me to worry about?

Let me give you a concrete real life example...

Like you, I took the bar exam. And, like most of you, I had no idea at all whether I passed the bar exam. I was just so glad that it was finally over. But all of my friends, my legal employer (a judge), my former law professors, and my family kept telling me that I had absolutely nothing to be worried about; that I passed the bar exam; that I worked hard; that they knew that I could do it.

But, they didn’t know something secret about my bar exam experience. They didn’t know about my lunch on the first day of the bar exam.

At the risk of revealing a closely held secret, my first day of the bar exam actually started out on the right foot, so to speak. I was on time for the exam. In fact, I got to the convention center early enough to get a prime parking spot. Moreover, in preparation for my next big break (lunch), I had already cased out the nearest handy-dandy fast food restaurants for grabbing a quick bite to eat before the afternoon portion of the bar exam so that I would not miss the start of the afternoon session of the bar exam.

So, when lunch came, I was so excited to eat that I went straight to Burger King. I really wanted that “crown,” perhaps because I really didn’t understand many of the essay problems from the morning exam. But as I approached Burger King, the line was far out of the door. Impossibly out of the door. And, it didn’t get any better at McDonalds next door. I then faced the same conundrum at Wendy’s and then at Taco Bell.

Finally, I had to face up to cold hard facts.  

I could either eat lunch or I could take the afternoon portion of the bar exam. But, I couldn’t do both. The lines were just too long. So, I was about to give up - as I had exhausted all of the local fast food outlets surrounding the convention center - when I luckily caught a glimpse of a possible solution to both lunch and making it back to the bar exam in time for the afternoon session – a liquor store.  There was no line. Not a soul. I had the place to myself. So, I ran into the liquor store to grab my bar exam lunch: two Snicker’s bars. With plenty of time to now spare, I then leisurely made my way back to the bar exam on time for the start of the afternoon session.

But, here’s the rub:

All of my friends and family members (and even the judge that I was clerking for throughout the waiting period) were adamant that I had passed the bar exam. They just knew it!

But, they didn’t know that I ate lunch at the liquor store.

So when several months later the bar results were to become publicly available later that day, I went to work for my judge wondering what the judge might do when the truth came out – that I didn’t pass the bar exam because I didn’t pack a lunch to eat at the bar exam.

To be honest, I was completely stick to my stomach. But, I was stuck; I was at work and everyone believed in me. Then, later that morning while still at my work computer, the results came out. My heart raced, but my name just didn’t seem to be listed at all. No Scott Johns. And then, I realized that my official attorney name begins with William. I was looking at the wrong section of the Johns and Johnsons. My name was there! I had passed!   I never told the judge my secret about my “snicker bar” lunch. I was just plain relieved that the bar exam “wait” was finally over.

That’s the problem with all of the helpful advice from our friends, employers, law professors, and family members during this waiting period. For all of us (or at least most of us), there was something unusual that happened during our bar exam. It didn’t seem to go perfectly. Quite frankly, we just don’t know if we indeed passed the bar exam.

So, here’s a few suggestions for your time right now with your friends, employers, law professors, and family members.

1.  First, just let them know how you are feeling. Be open and frank. Share your thoughts with them along with your hopes and fears.

2.  Second, give them a hearty thank you for all of the enriching support, encouragement, and steadfast faithfulness that they have shared with you as walked your way through law school and through this week’s bar exam. Perhaps send them a personal notecard. Or, make a quick phone call of thanks. Regardless of your particular method of communication, reach out to let them know out of the bottom of your heart that their support has been invaluable to you.

3.  Finally, celebrate yourself, your  achievement, and your true grit....by taking time out - right now - to appreciate the momentous accomplishment of undertaking a legal education, graduating from law school and tackling your bar exam.  

You've done something great; something mightily significant!  Congratulations to each of you!  (Scott Johns).

February 28, 2019 in Advice, Bar Exam Issues, Bar Exam Preparation, Bar Exams, Learning Styles, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Big Picture Perspectives for The Final Weekend of Bar Prep: "See It--Do It--Teach It"

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

Self-Compassion

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.

(Nancy Luebbert)

February 20, 2019 in Advice | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Food for Thought

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

(Bill MacDonald)

 

 

February 19, 2019 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Food and Drink, Science, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Bar Success Tips for the Final Two Weeks Before the Bar Exam

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

* Contracts/Sales

* Constitutional Law

* Criminal Law & Procedure

* Evidence

* Property

* Torts

 

February 7, 2019 in Advice, Bar Exam Issues, Bar Exam Preparation, Bar Exams, Exams - Theory, Learning Styles, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Keeping Our Students in the Game

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.

(Bill MacDonald)

February 5, 2019 in Advice, Books, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Miscellany, Sports, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, January 24, 2019

The Prevalence of Neuroscience Myths in Education

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).

January 24, 2019 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Learning Styles, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

To His Coy 1L Students

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.

 

[Bill MacDonald]

January 22, 2019 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Miscellany, Writing | Permalink | Comments (1)