Monday, October 5, 2020
Trauma is defined as “an event, series of events, or set of circumstances . . . experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening[,] and that has long-lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.” With the pandemic, resulting recession, and ongoing social unrest stemming from racial injustice, if the year 2020 doesn’t fit this definition, I’m not sure what does. I am navigating a lot right now. We are all navigating a lot right now. There is so much uncertainty in the world and many of us have been socially isolated for more than six years months. Though trauma is centered in an individual’s experience, I think it’s safe to say that current circumstances represent trauma for many folks.
Many of my students seem to be faking it until they can make it taking the current situation in stride (at least on the outside). However, I have found myself wondering how well they are really doing with focus, learning, and managing any stress, fear, and anxiety they may be feeling. I also keep thinking about what else I can do to help them. In seeking resources responsive to this moment in history, I stumbled upon several articles about trauma-informed teaching and learning.
Trauma-informed teaching prioritizes helping students feel safe, seen, empowered, and connected. This approach recognizes that, because of the current convergence of crises, students may have more difficulty: completing tasks; finding the motivation to complete reading assignments, “show up” to class, and participate in class discussions; completing writing assignments; effectively managing their time; and, more generally, staying engaged with their legal education. If you’re looking for ways to provide additional support for students during these difficult times, consider the following trauma-informed teaching practices:
- Work to create safety for your students. Think about what makes you feel safe when you feel most vulnerable or are facing uncertainty, and consider sharing your vulnerability. Be honest with students about how you have been affected by current circumstances and tell them how you are doing. By naming your emotions in this way, you are modeling for students that it is healthy to share and process emotions in a community setting. Accordingly, ask your students how they are doing and solicit their thoughts on how you can create a feeling of safety for them in your course. Suggest that they journal as an outlet to express their feelings and create/offer a space for students to share if they feel comfortable doing so.
- Foster relationships and facilitate peer support. Relationships are a key to resilience. Encourage students to check on one another, if they are comfortable doing so, and promote storytelling. The act of sharing their stories with their peers can help students better cope because it creates a feeling of shared experience and fosters a sense of community.
- Create a sense of trustworthiness and transparency. Be clear, transparent, and reliable in interacting with students. Creating and maintaining trust can help lessen stress and anxiety. Adopt and adhere to routines to create some level of predictability for students.
- Empower voice and choice. Validate and normalize student concerns by talking to students about fear, anxiety, stress, and trauma. Empower students who may feel a diminished sense of control to advocate for themselves. Ask their opinions, survey them about how you can help them learn during these difficult times, and brainstorm ways for students to play a role in creating or structuring assignments.
- Understand that students are not a monolith. View student challenges through the lens of intersectionality. We are all trying to navigate the trauma of 2020. However, not all of our students are experiencing this trauma in the same way or to the same degree. Many BIPOC students, for example, may be experiencing trauma much more severely because of intergenerational trauma, ongoing oppression, and structural inequities exacerbated by the pandemic.
- Interrupt microaggressions in the classroom. Microaggressions are a daily source of traumatic stress for students with marginalized identities. Commit to learning more about how to identify and respond to microaggressions in your classroom. Navigating multiple crises and online learning as a law student is traumatic enough.
- Emphasize the importance of maintaining a sense of purpose. Share your passion for teaching, learning, etc. with students and invite them to reconnect with their sense of purpose.
- Re-emphasize concepts and scaffold. Trauma can affect law students’ self-regulation and executive functioning skills, which means they may have a more difficult time planning, remembering, and focusing. Consider providing more reminders about dates and deadlines, what was covered in prior classes, and how it connects to what students are learning next. Build these additional guideposts into your syllabus, learning management system, class meetings, etc.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the need for us to also prioritize care for ourselves. Doing this work, in addition to everything else we’re trying to navigate in 2020, is not for the weary. In addition to adapting and adopting trauma-informed practices to better support students, we must also carve out time to unplug, unwind, and de-stress. We and our students will be better for it.
(Victoria McCoy Dunkley)
Mays Imad, Seven Recommendations for Helping Students Thrive in Times of Trauma, Inside HigherEd, June 3, 2020, https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2020/06/03/seven-recommendations-helping-students-thrive-times-trauma.
Natalie B. Milman, Yes, You Can Do Trauma-Informed Teaching Remotely (and You Really, Really Should), Educ. Week, Apr. 3, 2020, https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2020/04/03/yes-you-can-do-trauma-informed-teaching-remotely.html.
Beth McMurtie, What Does Trauma-Informed Teaching Look Like?, Chron. Higher Educ., June 4, 2020, https://www.chronicle.com/newsletter/teaching/2020-06-04.
Kara Newhouse, Four Core Priorities for Trauma-Informed Distance Learning, KQED, Apr. 6, 2020, https://www.kqed.org/mindshift/55679/four-core-priorities-for-trauma-informed-distance-learning.
 BIPOC means Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.
Tuesday, September 22, 2020
Around this time of year, I usually end up telling my 1L students something about my experience in law school. I inadvertently chose what, in retrospect, seemed like the best way to become an attorney: After working as a paralegal for a couple of years (to get a taste of the world of law), getting married and living in Japan for a couple of years (to get a taste of the world in general), I thought that Georgetown's evening program looked really appealing, because it would allow me to work and earn money during the day and not drag my wife with me into the penurious life of a student. I wasn't wrong about that, but that did not turn out to be the greatest benefit to the evening program, or even in the top three.
What hadn't occurred to me before I arrived in D.C. was what the rest of the evening program class would be like. Georgetown can support a substantial evening program because Washington is full of people who have done well in government, the military, business, or the arts and now want to take the next step in their career. If the informal reckoning of our evening cohort of 125 students was correct, there was only one of us who came directly from college. The day program, four times larger, had a more traditional proportion of recent undergraduates. Going to school with classmates who had essentially all achieved some measure of success already meant that our program felt different in three momentous ways:
1) Less stress and competition. Not that we were stress-free; this was, after all, law school. Most of my evening classmates had full-time jobs, like I did, and some were in demanding positions that took up more than 40 hours per week. Our law school commitments were lessened in the part-time evening program (so it took us all 4 years to graduate), but still, it could be a pretty heavy load. Nevertheless, there was almost no undercurrent of shared anxiety, and the kind of ruthless competition that I had expected in law school never materialized. (In my 2L year, when I became a Fellow in the legal writing program and worked directly with the school librarians, they told me how much they enjoyed working with the evening students because they never pilfered reserve books or sabotaged assigned reading the way that the day students did.) One of my classmates had a theory about this. He suggested that it was easier for us evening students not to stake our whole sense of self-worth on some grade on an exam, because most of us had proven ourselves in other arenas. This made sense to me; it meant it was easier for us to see grades as measures of our personal progress, rather than as a way of sorting us by value.
2) More organization and efficiency. I know that I was roughly one hundred times a better student, practically, in law school than when I was in college. Part of it was simply forced by necessity: If you work from 9 to 5, then attend classes from 5:45 to 9 or 10 each weeknight, you really don't have a lot of room in your schedule for futzing around. But some of it was the shared culture of the evening program, in which not only did we all face the same issue, but also nearly all of us had developed methods of calendaring and prioritizing in the workplace. Some of us had spouses or even children that had to be fit into our schedules. Knowing that it all could be done, because we had had to do much of it before in our jobs, made it more manageable in law school. Furthermore, we all understood how valuable each other's time was, so the time we spent together in study groups, on joint projects, or in student organizations was also spent efficiently (but also quite pleasantly -- see "less competition", above).
3) More collegiality. By which I do not mean "friendliness"; the day students that I met then, like the students I work with now, were at least as amiable and as good company as my evening companions. But time away from school, in many cases working with more seasoned co-workers on a first-name basis or even with equal status, had bestowed upon most evening students the realization that everyone in the law school -- classmates, professors, administrators, employees -- could be seen as colleagues: people with whom you are striving towards a common goal. Thus, evening students were often less reluctant, and more comfortable, than day students in seeking help or offering suggestions.
The reason I bring up my experience with my 1L class is to point out to them that you don't need to be an evening student to enjoy these beneficial distinctions. They might have come more naturally to those in my program -- certainly to the program as a whole -- because of our previous life experiences, but that doesn't mean that these benefits are only available to those of a certain age or background. What matters are attitude, awareness, and mindset. A student who is in touch with her previous accomplishments, and can ground her sense of self-worth on them, will find it easier to see grades as personal touchstones rather than signifiers of inherent worth. A student who accepts both that his available time is limited (which is merely a matter of thoughtful perception) and that he has the capacity to get done what needs to be done in that limited time (which is perhaps a bit more of a leap of faith) will find the ways he needs to be efficient. And by recognizing that they are attending a professional school whose common goals include each student's successful education, students can position themselves to take full advantage of all the human resources around them. Experience is a good teacher, but sometimes learning from other people's experience is even better.
Monday, September 21, 2020
Tomorrow. Tomorrow is the mythical land where the vast majority of your productivity resides. Tomorrow is when you fully unlock and harness all of your motivation and efficiency. Tomorrow you will get everything done. In truth, tomorrow will come but the enhanced productivity, efficiency, and motivation you anticipate may not.
Putting off tasks until tomorrow is a common form of procrastination and procrastination hinders one’s ability to allocate work and manage time effectively. One of the most challenging aspects of law school (and one of the most important skills for law students) is time management. At any given time, law students may be juggling class preparation, writing assignments, extracurricular activities, networking events, interviews, personal commitments, etc. Effective time management is essential to keeping each of those balls in the air.
Here are a few strategies to avoid procrastination and make the hypothetical productivity, motivation, and efficiency of tomorrow a reality today:
- Commit to timeliness. Commit to being on time to class, work, events, etc. Commit to timely completion of assignments. Set deadlines and keep them.
- Start today. Starting is often the hardest part. If you find yourself waiting or searching for the “perfect” time to start, remember that there is no perfect time. Since procrastination involves delaying doing something, the most direct way to stop procrastinating is to start. By starting today, you will put the most difficult part of the task behind you.
- Find your motivation. If you’re searching for motivation to complete a task, try reminding yourself why the task is important and how it connects to your goals.
- Break large projects into smaller pieces. This practice enables you to better allocate your workload and makes those larger projects seem less intimidating. Think of these as mini-goals and create deadlines for completing each smaller task. The feeling you get from accomplishing these smaller tasks can motivate you to keep going.
- Convert items on your to-do list that are likely to induce procrastination into blocks of time on your calendar. Blocking time for these tasks on your calendar transforms them from the indefinite to the definite and represents a commitment to yourself that you will “show up” to work on those tasks. It also serves as a visual cue and a reminder of your priorities as you navigate your daily schedule.
- Make the tasks you need to complete more fun. For instance, if you need to clean and only have 20 minutes, set a timer for 20 minutes and see how much you can get done before the timer sounds. You may not get it all done, but the process becomes more fun and you will probably come away with ideas about how to be more efficient the next time you clean.
- Reward yourself for creating and meeting your deadlines. Reward yourself when you resist the urge to procrastinate, complete one of your mini-goals, complete a task on your calendar, etc. Rewards help reinforce the behavior you want to repeat.
- Find an accountability partner. Choose someone you like and trust (and who likes and trusts you) to fill this role. Share your goals with that person, discuss the specifics of your partnership, and plan accountability check-ins.
(Victoria McCoy Dunkley)
Thursday, September 17, 2020
I spent most of my law school on the back steps of the loading dock, wedged behind a dumpster, in fear.
That seemed to be the only place were I wouldn't bump into people -- fellow law students, faculty, or administrators.
You see, I was afraid of all of them because, in my mind, they were perfect. Perfect students, perfect learners, perfect teachers. And, there was no way that I was any match for them. So, long before the COVID-19 pandemic, I was isolating myself...out of fear of being found out by others to be a fraud.
Looking back, I wish I had reached out to my academic dean, or the academic support department, or student affairs, really anyone at all. But, I was sure that I didn't belong in law school. So instead, I spent most of my time between classes, on the loading dock steps.
Had I read Prof. Victoria McCoy Dunkley's blog about perfectionism, realizing that there is no such thing as perfect, I would have been in much better shape, because I would have realized that "the law is messy" and that "there is often no right or perfect answer." https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/academic_support/2020/09/perfect-hurts.html
But instead, I spent most of my on-campus hours by the loading dock trying to re-read each case, trying to master each assigned reading with perfect answers in preparation for being called upon in class, not realizing that I had done more than enough, that I was as ready as anyone for class, and that it's okay to make mistakes and to not know it all.
So, for those of you in your first year of law school studies, it's okay to be afraid, to worry, to not be sure of yourself, to wonder if you have what it takes, etc. But, let me speak from my heart. You don't have to go it alone like I tried to do. Instead, reach out to someone at your law school and talk it out. Share what you are concerned about. If the truth be told, there are no perfect people in law school (or anywhere else for that matter).
And that's exactly as it should be because life is not a solo sport. It's a team project. It's meant to be lived with others, with all of our blemishes and mistakes and fears, in which we lean on each other and learn from each other.
So, as you practice learning the law ask someone to join you. If you're afraid (as I was) of being called on in class, ask a friend to sit with you and ask you questions about today's reading assignments. Along the way, realize that your practice answers don't need to be perfect (because there are no perfect answers). Rather, the practice in just practicing makes it possible for you to overcome your concerns, your fears, and your worries. (Scott Johns).
P.S. I just noticed all of my typos in this imperfect blog!
Monday, September 14, 2020
Merriam-Webster defines perfectionism as “a disposition to regard anything short of perfect as unacceptable.” Perfectionism and its status as something to which we should aspire is introduced early and often. We think that if we look perfect, act perfect, and are perfect then we can avoid or minimize shame, blame, and judgment.
In reality, perfectionism is an anchor that drags us down and keeps us from reaching our true potential. The quest for perfection is an exercise in futility. Perfection is a matter of opinion. Aspiring to be perfect means we are prioritizing the perceptions of others over our perception of self. Rather than aiming to be the best version of ourselves (OUR best), we are instead focused on making someone else believe we are THE best.
Many law students, as perpetual high achievers, have perfectionist tendencies that existed long before law school. However, the hyper-competitiveness of the law school environment and law students’ propensities to compare themselves to their peers make law students particularly susceptible to intensified perfectionist tendencies. These tendencies can have significant negative consequences that affect academic performance:
- Lower productivity: The quest for perfection makes every task seem more daunting and time intensive. The average law student spends in excess of 50 hours per week completing law-school related tasks. Students who have difficulty transitioning from one task to the next until a task is “perfect” will likely remain stalled. For instance, the desire to complete the “perfect” course outline may occupy so much of a student’s time that the student is left with little, if any, time left to complete a critical mass of practice exam questions.
- Procrastination: Much like Forrest Gump and Jenny, perfectionism and procrastination go together like peas and carrots. Exceptionally high standards can be difficult (perhaps even impossible) to meet which leaves students feeling so overwhelmed that they defer completing tasks.
- Reduced confidence: Perfectionism is a confidence killer. We are imperfect beings who make mistakes. Law students are imperfect human beings who are developing their skills. Mistakes will happen—as will growth. For perfectionist law students, making a mistake or receiving feedback that they need to further develop a skill can crush their self-esteem and confidence. It may keep them from trying new things or speaking up in class for fear that they won’t be perfect. Students may also base their self-worth on their academic achievements and see instances of perceived failure not as opportunities for growth but, instead, as evidence that they are a failure.
- Lethargy & Anxiety: The quest for perfection is exhausting! The vicious cycle of setting impossibly high standards, trying to meet them, feeling overwhelmed and procrastinating, not meeting those standards, and then trying to manage anxiety while dusting oneself off to try all over again is mentally, emotionally, and physically draining.
Fortunately, there are several helpful strategies for managing perfectionist tendencies. Here are some suggestions:
- Be kind to yourself. Rather than being your greatest critic, try being your greatest coach or ally. Record those negative thoughts and then reframe them in a kinder, more compassionate way. Replace negative thoughts and damaging self-talk with words of encouragement.
- Cultivate your authenticity. Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are. We are all made of strength and struggle. You, imperfections and all, are enough. In fact, those imperfections are what make you uniquely and authentically you.
- Adopt a growth mindset. Your strengths and skills are not set in stone. You are a work in progress. Use feedback to improve your skills and identify the lessons to be learned from perceived setbacks. Focus on being YOUR best.
- Note triggers for and manifestations of your perfectionist tendencies and plan for how to manage those situations.
- Break larger projects into more discrete tasks to better manage your workload and stress.
- Set reasonable time limits for completing tasks and do your best to stick to those limits. Once that time is up, move on to the next task.
- Remember that the law is messy. Facts do not always align neatly with case law. Case law is not always clear. There often is no one “right” or “perfect” answer.
Managing perfectionist tendencies requires intentionality and practice. And, as we all know, practice makes progress.
(Victoria McCoy Dunkley)
Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection 49–76 (2010).
Jordana Alter Confino, Reining in Perfectionism, ABA Law Practice Today, Jan. 14, 2019, https://www.lawpracticetoday.org/article/reining-in-perfectionism/.
Keriann Stout, How Perfectionism Hurts Law Students, Above The Law, Feb. 26, 2018, https://abovethelaw.com/2018/02/how-perfectionism-hurts-law-students/.
Thursday, September 10, 2020
First Year Law Students:
It's not too early (or too late) to start creating your own personal handy-dandy study tools.
But, you ask, how?
Well, here's a suggestion for creating your study tools from scratch in just 6 easy steps!
But first, let's lay the groundwork.
Why should you create a study tool especially with so many other tasks at hand that demand your attention in law school?
There are at least two reasons.
First, the process of creating your own study tool creates a sort of "mental harness" for your thoughts. It serves to bring you back to the big picture of what you have been studying the past few weeks or so. And, that's important because your final exams are going to ask you to ponder through and problem-solve hypothetical legal problems based on the readings, conversations, and your own post-class thoughts that you can bring to bear on the subject.
Second, the process of creating your own study tool develops your abilities to synthesize, analogize, and solve problems….skills that YOU will be demonstrating on your final exams (and in your future practice of law too). In essence, your study tools are an organized collection of pre-written, organized answers in preparation for tackling the hypothetical problems that your professor might ask on your final exam.
So, let's set out the 6 steps:
1. Grab Your Personal Study Tool Kit Support Team!
That means surrounding yourself with your casebook, your class syllabus, and your class notes. They are your "team members" to work with you to help you create your own personal study tool. Here's a tip: Pay particular attention to the topics in the table of contents and your syllabus. The casebook authors and your professors are giving you an organizational tool that you can use to build your own study tool. And, in a pinch, which I have often found myself in, I make a copy of the table of contents, blow it up a bit, and then annotate it with the steps below. Voila!
2. Create the Big Picture Skeleton for Your Study Tool!
That's right. It might look like a skeleton. Not pretty at all. That's okay. Remember, it's in the process of creating your study tool that leads to learning. So, relax and enjoy the mess. My outlines were always, well, miserable, at least from the point of view of others. But, because I created them, they were just perfect for my own personal use. Here's a tip: Use the table of contents and class syllabus to insert the big picture topics and sub-topics into your study tool.
3. Insert the Rules!
Be bold. Be daring. Be adventuresome. If you see something that looks like a rule, whether from a statute or from a common law principle, for example, such as "all contracts require an offer, acceptance, and consideration," just put it into your study tool. Bravo!
4. Break-up the Rules into Elements (i.e., Sections).
Most rules have multiple-parts. So, for example, using the rule stated above for the three requirements to create a contract, there are three (3) requirements! (1) Offer; (2) Acceptance; and, (3) Consideration. Over the course of the term, you will have read plenty of cases about each of those three requirements, so give the requirements "breathing room" by giving each requirement its own "holding" place in your study tool or outlines.
5. Insert Case Blurbs, Hypos, and Public Policy Reasons!
Within each section for a legal element or requirement, make a brief insertion of the cases, then next the hypothetical problems that were posed in your classes, and finally, any public policy reasons that might support (or defeat) the purpose of the legal element or requirement. Here's a tip: A "case blurb" is just that…a quick blurb containing a brief phrase about the material facts (to help you recall the case) and a short sentence or two that summarizes that holding (decision) of the court and it's rationale or motive in reaching that decision. Try to use the word "because" in your case blurb…because….that forces you to get to the heart of the principle behind that particular case that you are inserting into your study tool.
6. Take Your Study Tool for a Test Flight!
Yes, you might crash. In fact, if you are like me, you will crash! But, just grab hold of some old hypothetical problems or final exam questions and - this is important - see if you can outline and write out a sample answer using your study tool. Then, just refine your study tool based on what your learned by using your study tool to test fly another old practice exam question or two. Not sure where to find practice problems? Well, first check with your professor and library for copies of old final exams. Second, check out this site containing old bar exam questions organized by subject matter:
Finally, let me make set the record straight. You don't have to make an outline as your study tool. Rather, your study tool can be an outline…or a flowchart…or a set of flashcards. And there's more great news. There are no perfect study tools, so feel free to experiment. Indeed, what's important is that it is YOUR study tool that YOU built from YOUR own handiwork. So feel free to let your artistic creative side flow as you make your study tools.
Tuesday, September 8, 2020
Back in the day (2019 and earlier), the first few weeks of law school was a time of intense bonding among classmates. Shared feelings of excitement, tinged with fear of embarrassment and workload-motivated shock, served to turn strangers into friends in a matter of days. These friendships would last throughout law school and beyond, and to good effect: Students would always have at least a couple friends in each course from whom they could borrow notes if they missed class due to illness. Friends, and, okay, sometimes mere acquaintances, would form study groups to share and test ideas. Soon, 2L and 3L students would introduce themselves, visiting classes or tabling in the hallways for various organizations, broadening the new students' networks of connections to include those with similar interests or backgrounds. After law school, these connected students would be connected lawyers, and would do what lawyers do in the real world: provide referrals, share expertise, give moral support. Part of learning to be a lawyer is learning to be part of a legal community.
This year, to varying degrees across the country, the first few weeks of law school have a different texture. In my school, as in many others, only a portion of classes are being conducted live, in a classroom, and those usually the smaller classes. Larger classes are being conducted online, where commiseration over an awkward cold-call response is much more difficult, and where, with no one sitting next to you, idle introductory chit-chat is almost as hard. Representatives from student organizations will probably still visit Zoom classes to introduce themselves and their groups, but with mostly empty hallways, opportunities for getting to know new students in conversation will be less frequent.
In short: it is going to be harder, and in some ways less natural, to make the kinds and numbers of connections that twelve months ago we all would have taken for granted. If you have lecture classes that are entirely online, or even asynchronous, it would be all to easy to think of those classes as a kind of enhanced television program, something that grabs your attention but does not feature you in the cast. Resist this temptation! Instead, make developing your social network one of your goals this semester:
- Join and participate in GroupMe and Facebook groups when invited, or form them yourself.
- Speak up in class, whether orally or in the chat box, and when possible, respond directly to classmates whose views interest you.
- Ask your professors or student life directors to help connect people interested in forming study groups.
- Seek out and contact the leaders of student organizations that interest you.
- Visit your professor's office hours -- real or virtual -- and chat with the other students who attend.
- When you find other classmates who share something in common with you -- an alma mater, a hometown, a hobby, etc. -- use that as a reason to approach them and perhaps get to know them better.
Although all this will take some additional effort, at a time in which you may already feel you are working harder than you have ever done before, that effort is an excellent investment. Later in the semester, as you start preparing for final exams, you will find the community you have made will make your work easier. Your law school experience will be enriched by the support, perspective, and opportunities provided by your network. And that network, and the skills you will develop in forming relationships within the legal community even under trying circumstances, will benefit you throughout your career.
Tuesday, September 1, 2020
A sharp sense of time has always been a key attribute of successful modern law students and lawyers. Awareness of deadlines, efficient time management, careful accounting of time spent -- all of these contribute to law school performance, and are usually part of a practicing lawyer's quotidian world of minimum billable hours and filing periods.
How unsettling, then, that many of our incoming, current, and recent students find themselves adrift in the time stream. New 1L students in many jurisdictions, starting their legal educations under conditions that have limited orientation activities and warped customary fall semester schedules, are not falling as easily into the clockwork demands of law school as other students have every year before them. Second- and third-year students have already been through six months of time-shifted classes and unwinding employment and internship opportunities, and are beginning a new school year very different from what they had experienced before. And around the country, many recent graduates (such as mine) have grown simultaneously complacent and anxious as their planned bar examinations have been postponed multiple times. Many students and graduates appear to take this all in stride, but it seems a significant number are manifestly affected -- falling behind on long-term projects, working with a diminishing sense of urgency or an inflated sense of panic, or having difficulty juggling responsibilities.
It feels as if the unexpected loss of schedules and signposts that so many took for granted has left some people unmoored, warping their senses of time in the same way that isolation and darkness affects cave explorers. In 1993, for example, sociologist Maurizio Montalbini spent a full year alone in an underground cavern, but because the solitude and lack of natural light had stretched his sense of time, he believed that only a little more than 200 days had passed.
Human beings need cues to help keep our sense of time on track. In a new situation, or one that has changed drastically, we may not perceive sufficient cues to keep us oriented, and we may not even be aware that we are slipping. We can help our students and recent graduates maintain their crucial awareness of the time they have -- and of the time they need to achieve their goals -- by providing supplemental cues. Introducing students to their professors' expectations over the course of the (in some cases altered) new semester, and touching base with reminders of upcoming opportunities and deadlines, may help anchor them when classes are asynchronous and gatherings are infrequent. Weekly emails, frequent online group meetings, and providing and reviewing supplementary materials can help bar examinees feel less disconnected and more engaged in this interminable bar study period. And frequent communication with our colleagues in other departments and schools -- learning their plans for the semester, sharing ideas and insights, and organizing joint efforts -- can help us retain our own sharp senses of time -- especially important if we are going to serve as the touchstones to others.
Monday, August 31, 2020
By now, many first-year law students have experienced the thrill (and, perhaps, terror) of being called on to speak during class. Some professors cold call, while others announce which row or group will be on call next. In either case, remaining calm and alert during class is essential. For those students who are subject to cold calling, randomly being called on in class can cause anxiety. Rather than anticipating the classroom discussion, students worry about hearing their name and not knowing “the answer” to the question(s) posed by their professor.
Here are a few strategies to reduce the anxiety associated with being called on in class:
- Review: Brief your assigned cases and spend 15-20 minutes before class reviewing each case brief to refresh your recollection of the cases assigned that day. The more prepared you are for class, the more confident (and less anxious) you will be if/when you are called on by your professor.
- Practice: If you are in a study group, practice being “on call” with each other. This practice benefits the student who will be called on in class as well as the other group members who must know enough about the topic to ask questions and follow up questions. If you do not yet have a study group, practice with yourself. Try answering questions about key details of each case and think about the questions your professor may ask in class, particularly about the court’s reasoning and the holding. You may find it helpful to wear different advocacy hats during this process. Think about the case from the perspective of an advocate for the plaintiff, an advocate for the defendant, and as the decisionmaker.
- Be Present: Before it is your turn to be “on,” or before you decide to volunteer in class, listen closely to what your professor is asking. Pay attention to your classmates’ comments and the follow-up questions your professor asks in response to those comments. Try to answer your professor’s questions silently in your mind and compare your answer to the answer given by your classmate.
- Enunciate: Even if you do not feel prepared to speak, if you are called on, speak clearly and loudly enough for the class to hear what you are saying.
- Breathe: If you freeze when you are called on, take a deep breath in and out through your nose. What may seem like an eternity to you will actually only be a few seconds. Take those few seconds to gather your thoughts and gain control of your voice and your nerves.
The ability to think on your feet is a professional competency that you will develop over time, in part by the experience of being called on in class. Even if cold calling makes you feel very anxious or scared, take advantage of the opportunity presented by being called on in class. No one, including your professor, expects you to be perfect. You will make mistakes. You will also get better (and more comfortable) with practice.
(Victoria McCoy Dunkley)
Thursday, August 27, 2020
Wednesday, August 26, 2020
For many, this is the first or second week of their first year of law school. The other day, someone on twitter asked for advice for first year law students, so I thought this was a good opportunity to give it!
This year is undoubtedly different for so many reasons. Most of you are entering law school remotely, and even if you are physically entering campus, there are probably things that make this year different. There are many resources out there on how to maximize your ability to learn online, so I want to focus on what you should know upon entering law school, in this environment or any other.
- It’s a new skill, so it will take practice. Learning the law really is a skill. That gets lost on so many students, who get frustrated in the beginning. Everything you are learning is brand new, and it will take time. Embrace growth mindset, this lesson can help. https://www.cali.org/lesson/18485
- It will be difficult and that’s ok. Like learning any new skill, it’s going to be hard. For many of you, academic endeavors have never been this difficult, so it’s easy to think that you don’t belong, or it’s just you. It’s not just you, this is difficult for everyone. Give yourself permission to not get it right, and learn from your failures. Most importantly, remember that every practicing attorney has stories of things they didn't get, or messed up on, their first year. And they are practicing, and they are fine!
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Trust me, you're not the only one with questions. Don't be afraid to ask fellow classmates, professors, or others questions. For example, there was plenty of law related vocabulary that was very new to me. I had no idea what these words meant, and was too nervous to ask. So I made this for you! (but you can still ask if something is not clear) https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/academic_support/2019/08/guest-blog-first-year-glossary.html
- Start to think like a lawyer. The reason law school is a skill is because it's teaching you how to write differently, and think differently. You will often hear "you are learning to think like a lawyer" and that's true. But what does it mean? Here is a resource with a little help. https://www.cali.org/lesson/18027
- Think about what your exams will be like. Law school exams are different. Instead of asking you to recite facts from cases, or memorize holdings, you will need to solve a problem. To this end, work on practice questions, so you get used to it. Also, keep this in mind as you read and study - it's not about mastering and remembering everything from every case, but rather, thinking about how the cases help you solve a problem!
- Don’t be afraid to use resources. It might seem overwhelming and difficult to navigate at first. But there are plenty of resources available to you, that aim to make your life a bit easier. One such resource is CALI.org, and specifically CALI lessons geared towards academic success. https://www.cali.org/lesson/18485
Many of your school’s libraries will also have a great deal of supplements and study aids that are available to you. Make the library’s website one of your favorites, and make your librarians your friends.
In addition, many of you will have an Academic Support department at your law school. Listen to them, and don’t be afraid to use them. I am sure I can speak for all of us when I say we love to see you. In a normal semester, I’d say that we will welcome you into our offices with open arms and chocolate. This semester that’s a bit trickier, but many Academic Support professors and departments have set up online resources for you. Use them! Finally, set up a zoom call with them, I promise they want to help!
On that note, remember you do belong, and this is difficult for everyone.
Thursday, July 23, 2020
Here's a message from the AccessLex Team of gratitude & appreciation to all of the ASPers during this unprecedented time: https://www.accesslex.org/xblog/july-20-2020-salute-to-asp
Wednesday, June 17, 2020
More advice on memory, and how to improve it! Last week I wrote a bit about improving memory for the bar. However, I want to dive a bit deeper into the topic.
I’m going to talk about three aspects of memory, that if used in your studying, can actually help you vastly improve what you are trying to memorize!
The forgetting curve says that we can predict when you will forget information, the spacing effect shows that if we study just before we would forget we can improve memory, and the testing effect tells us that testing ourselves improves memory. Using these three things together can really help! I’m going to particularly focus on the testing effect, as I think that’s something you can easily employ while you study.
The Forgetting Curve
It is almost universally accepted that memories decay over time. Researchers, over time, have discovered that we can predict when the memories will begin to decay. This is the forgetting curve. It was first discovered by psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus in 1885. He found that beginning just after a person learns information, their ability to remember the information, or recall, starts to decay. When he used nonsense syllables to test, it only took 20 minutes for the average test subject to have a less than 60% likelihood of recalling a syllable. An hour, it was less than 50%, and a day later, test subjects had lost nearly 70% of the information. A month later, learners retained only 20% of the material.
Ebbinghaus also discovered that while the initial rate of decline is fairly steep, the rate of decay declines with time. This means that memories that “survive” become less likely to be lost over time. This also means that the longer a student is able to retain a memory in the initial stage, the slower the information will decay over time.
The spacing effect says that if you properly space yours studying, this slows memory loss, or memory decay. Basically spacing out learning and review helps adjust the forgetting curve. If you allow longer periods of time in between review sessions, you’ll improve memory.
Now, the trouble with the spacing effect for things like the bar exam is that you really have too much learn, and not enough time! So, what can you do instead? You can still apply the concept, but use it with something called interleaving.
Interleaving is mixing subjects up as you study. So, normal, or “blocked” practice is the idea that you will study one concept, or topic, until you feel comfortable and then move on. Interleaving is the mixing of those subjects. This works particularly well with the bar exam. Interleaving ha been shown to be more effective than blocked practice for developing the skills of problem solving, and also leads to long term memory retention! Both things useful for the bar exam!
Interleaving forces the brain to continually retrieve information, since each practice prompt, is different from the last. This means your short term memory won’t help you. Interleaving also improves the brain’s ability to differentiate between concepts. Again, something you need for the bar exam! However, because interleaving involves retrieval practice, it feels more difficult than “blocked” practice. So, it’s going to feel worse. It’s going to feel like you aren’t getting concepts. So, it’s important to remember that this studying feels worse, but has better long term results.
So, each day study a variety of topics. Yes, there will be instances where it makes more sense to focus on one topic for a few hours. But if you are looking to increase your ability to recall the information, make sure you are switching in between torts and contracts, and then civ pro, and then property and so forth.
Something else you can do, which isn’t as effective, but still helpful, is to change how or what you are studying. Don’t spend one day on MBE, and another on essays. Or one day completely listening to videos, or reviewing outlines. Do 15 MBE questions, and then 1 essay, and then review some flaschards, and so forth.
Finally, my favorite, the testing effect. I have mentioned before that testing increases memory. I hear students stress over getting questions wrong during practice and review. I understand why they might get frustrated, but they are missing the important fact that by testing yourself, you are actually increasing the odds that you remember a law.
Basically, people achieve higher rates of recall of information already learned when they have tested themselves, versus just passively observing. So, this is why I encourage you to do more questions instead of reviewing your outline. There is a time and space for passive review, but your memory really gets better each time you “test”. In addition, testing without feedback will help with recall, but the effect is stronger when the testing is associated with meaningful feedback. So, what does this mean? Make sure to fully review each and every answer!
Remember, as you practice for the bar, don’t think of doing practice questions as assessment, or an indicator of how much you know. They can be both of those things, but start thinking of practice questions as a way to increase long term memory!
Studies show that self-testing even a single time can be as effective as reviewing information five times. Think about that – do you want to do one multiple choice question, or review your flash card five times? A study used a group of students who were given schedules to learn vocabulary words – the schedules were studying OR testing, and another group that was given a schedule to study AND test. A week later, the students who did the testing remembered 80% of the vocabulary words, versus 35% of non testing students. Now, I should point out that memorizing vocabulary is easier than memorizing legal concepts. In addition, the bar exam is asking you to APPLY those legal concepts, which you can’t do with memory alone. But that’s another reason why the testing effect is so useful!
So, your overall takeaway form all of this should be that practice DOES make perfect, and does help memory. In addition, breaks are still a good idea!
Note: To write this I relied heavily on the following:
n.d. Bjork Learning and Forgetting Lab. Accessed June 15, 2020. https://bjorklab.psych.ucla.edu/.
Teninbaum, Gabriel H. 2017. "Spaced Repetition: A Method for Learning More Law in Less Time." Suffolk University Journal of High Technology Law.
Monday, June 15, 2020
One year ago this month, I wrote my first post for the ASP blog. And while it seems like only yesterday that I began my quest to bombard readers with my weekly musings, I have decided to step aside to make room for other voices to be heard through this forum. Today will be my last post as a regular contributing editor, and I will use this opportunity to reflect on the wonderful learning and growth experience that the year has brought.
I’ve learned that:
Education and advocacy are not parallel paths, but rather an important intersection at which the most effective teachers are found. I left a high stakes commercial litigation practice for a role in academic support. I naively believed that an effective teacher had to be dispassionate and objective and more focused on pedagogy than on legal advocacy or controversial topics. However, I grew to realize that the very skills that made me an effective lawyer still guided me in the classroom to teach my students and to open their minds to new perspectives. My realization was affirmed when ASP whiz, Kirsha Trychta, reminded us that the courtroom and the law school classroom are not that different.
Anger can have a productive place in legal education and scholarship. I don’t have to conceal or suppress my passion to be effective as a scholar. I am angry on behalf of every summer (or fall) 2020 bar taker. I am bothered by states that are so tethered to tradition that they refuse to consider the obstacles and challenges of preparing for a bar exam during a pandemic. It troubles me to see law schools close the doors to their libraries and study spaces, and yet expect 2020 bar takers to perform without the benefit of quiet study space and access to internet and printing. I am flat out disgusted by the notion of forcing law students to assume the risk of death to take the bar exam. And I waive my finger to shame the states that have abandoned exam repeaters and that waited or are still waiting to announce changes to the exam dates and format after the bar study period has begun. These states have essentially moved the finish line mid-race, and our future lawyers deserve better. But thanks to the vocal efforts of others who have channeled their righteous anger into productive advocacy and scholarship, I’ve seen states like Indiana, Michigan, Nevada, Utah, and Washington emerge as progressive bar exam leaders in response to a crisis.
Silence is debilitating. Like so many others, I was taught to make myself smaller, to nod in agreement, and avoid topics that would make others uncomfortable. The untenured should be seen, not heard. I am the person that I am because of my collective experiences. Stifling my stories and my diverse perspective would be a disservice to my calling and to the next generation of lawyers who need to be met with a disheartening dose of racial reality. As soon as I showed the courage to speak up and step out of other people’s comfort zones, I found that I was not alone. My ASP colleagues, like Scott Johns, Louis Schulze, and Beth Kaimowitz and others, were right there speaking out too.
Glass ceilings become sunroofs once you break through them. In the last few years, I have seen more and more of my ASP colleagues earn tenure or assume tenure track roles. And while a job title or classification, will never measure one’s competence or value, our communal pushes for equity are visibly evident. ASP authors continue to make meaningful contributions to scholarship in pedagogy and beyond. Thank you to Renee Allen, Cassie Christopher, DeShun Harris, Raul Ruiz, and the many, many, many others who I can’t name but whose work I’ve read and admired. With varied voices, we are paving the way to enhanced recognition and status in the academy, and with mentorship and writing support we are forming the next wave of formidable ASP bloggers, scholars, textbook authors, and full professors.
June 15, 2020 in About This Blog, Academic Support Spotlight, Advice, Bar Exam Issues, Bar Exams, Current Affairs, Diversity Issues, Encouragement & Inspiration, News, Publishing, Weblogs, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0)
Wednesday, June 10, 2020
I keep getting asked about memorization for the bar exam. Specifically, “How on earth am I supposed to memorize all of this?” and “Do you have any tips on memorization?”
So, here we go!
First of all, memorization is a bad word. I hate it. You want to remember, or recall, but not memorize. Why do I make a big deal about this? Well, for a couple reasons.
First, our brain is awful at memorization. Briefly, we have short term memory, long term memory, and memory retrieval. Short term memory can also be called working memory. It’s like a short picture that only lasts minutes. Next is long term memory, where memories are stored. And finally, memory retrieval, which is what you are concerned with for the bar exam. This is also the most difficult to achieve. So, your aim isn’t really to “memorize”, but to remember and recall.
Also, if you focus on memorization, instead of learning, you will get overwhelmed and stressed. So, reframe the idea in your mind for more success.
So, what CAN you do?
The power of Story and Emotion
Memory is often tied to stories, and strong emotions. This is why our autobiographical information is easy to recall. We might smell a certain food, and fondly remember a lovely family celebration we had as a child. These memories are typically vivid and strong. That’s because we process them as stories, not facts. If you are at a party, you don’t focus on individual details to remember, like the color of the walls, or the music playing, and consciously try to memorize it. You remember it because it’s happening to you, it’s a story. In addition, you are more likely to have a vivid memory of that party if you are feeling a strong emotion, usually intense happiness. (Carey, 2014) or (Tyng, Amin, Saad, & Malik, 2017)
So, how do you make this work for bar review? The act of studying doesn’t make for a good story, and you aren’t likely to feel very strong emotions. Maybe frustration, or stress, but those actual have a counterproductive impact on memory. So, it’s up to you to manufacture stories and happiness. Don’t just stare at outlines, or black letter law. Do more and more practice questions, which are stories. Or, even better, make up new hypotheticals of your own, the more ridiculous the better. If you’ve seen me lecture on any bar topic, you know I love crazy stories. I’m sure my students often roll their eyes, and wonder why I’m being ridiculous. But it’s to help with memory. The more absurd or ridiculous my examples, the more likely you are to remember the law.
Also, manufacture happiness, as much as you can. Studies have shown that test subjects that are placed in a room with simple smiling faces do better on memory. So, surround yourself with happy photos or pictures of your pets. Call one another on zoom and make up ridiculous hypotheticals until you are all laughing.
Speaking of stories, practice! Each MBE fact pattern, and each essay hypothetical, are stories! So, not only will practice make you better at tackling the essays or MBE questions, but practice gives your brain
stories to hold on to. The examples will help your memory! If you are trying to memorize the rule for parol evidence, doing 10 MBE questions, and really learning from each question, will serve you better than reviewing your outline over and over again.
In cognitive psychology, chunking is a process by which individual pieces of an information set are broken down and then grouped together in a meaningful whole. The word chunking comes from a 1956 paper by George A. Miller, "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information". This was because the brain can typically only remember 7-8 items at once.
So, what does chunking information mean for you? Well, let’s think of a grocery list.i
So, you have to buy the following:
You might want to chunk by meal. For example, Bread goes with turkey and cheese, and maybe tomato. Milk goes with Cereal, and maybe those go together with orange juice. As I’ve listed it, the items are random, so there is no way to remember them. Or there is, but it’s very difficult. But grouping by the meals will help your memory.
Alternatively, you can group by where the items are in the store. It is likely that the orange juice and milk are together, and the so are the bread and cereal, and the turkey and cheese.
So, the first step in chunking is to think about how you will need to use the information. This is one reasons I place practice so highly. When you go to memorize the law, you can’t memorize it in a vacuum. You have to think about how you will be using it, and then chunk from there.
Our brain learns more effectively if we space out information. So, this is more support for my theory that breaks are magic! Think of it like this, if you are building a brick wall, you need to let the motor in between the bricks dry before you stack too high. Similarly, you let one coat of paint dry before you put on another. You get the idea.
So, while studying for the bar, space out your studying. While it might feel like you don’t have time, you need the space to solidify your knowledge.
Take breaks! I wrote an entire blog about this last week. But your brain can only process and remember so much at once. Essentially, if you are reading 50 pages of outline, without a break, you are only likely to remember the first and last few pages. That’s a waste of time! Take frequent breaks, and break up what you do. The more active you are, the better.
Write an essay with open notes. Do a set of 5 MBE questions, and then review the applicable law. Mix up subjects. All of that will help with memory.
General Mental Health
Finally, I mentioned before that if you are frustrated or stressed, that doesn’t help with memory. That means you have to take care of yourself mentally while you are studying. This is going to vary for everyone, but make your mental health a priority. And if you feel yourself getting frustrated or overwhelmed, see above and take a break!
Finally, remember that your aim is to learn, not merely memorize! Also, this is just meant to be a primer, and is already too long for a blog post. There is so much more to be said about various memory techniques.
Carey, B. (2014). How We Learn: The Suprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens. New York: Random House.
Tyng, C. M., Amin, H. U., Saad, M. N., & Malik, A. S. (2017). The Influences of Emotion on Learning and Memory. Frong Psychology.
i I completely took this idea from Paula Manning at the 2015 AASE Conference in Chicago, and have been using it ever since!
Thursday, June 4, 2020
I've taken the title to this little blog from a phrase in the recent post of Prof. Marsha Griggs, calling us, all of us, to action and resolve to fight, work, and promote justice. Griggs, M., "Despicable Us," Law School Academic Support Blog (June 2, 2020). As Prof. Griggs reminds, it's our oath, and in that oath, we say that we are committed to safeguard justice for all. But what if there's little to safeguard? What then?
The horrific brutal torture and killing of another innocent person just last week makes one wonder. There have been so many others, not just in the U.S., but around the world. What is it that leads so many to blindly look away, to not care or empathize, to sit on laurels when, frankly, the laurels are all dried up?
I'm tired of calls to come together and talk. And, in light of the ongoing protests, it seems like I am not alone. But as Prof. Griggs points out, most are silent.
So often I'm that one - the silent one. I'm not sure what I can do or say but I know that I hold a position of great responsibility, which obligates me to spring to action to make the world as right as it can possibly be. That takes real work, not trite talk. I'm worried that so few really want to do that work, that so few are really eager to change, that so few are so wedded to the present that there's little promise or hope for a brighter future. I'm worried that I'm one of those, waiting for others to right an upside down world.
I didn't know what else to do. So I wrote letters. First to the mayor of Minneapolis. Then to the police chief. Next to the mayor of Denver and the police chief of Denver. Finally to my U.S. senators and local U.S. representative.
Everyday counts because every person counts. As I tried to explain to my students this summer, there are ways to move forward towards the pursuit of justice, right now.
First, take a look at how many municipal ordinances and state laws provide for incarceration. I think that many of those punishments are out-of-all proportion with the social harms for which criminal laws are supposed to countenance. And, the lack of proportionality is, I think, a violation of constitutional due process because it burdens people for no reason at all.
Second, take a look at the details of what happened in Minneapolis. A telephone call about a possible counterfeit $20 bill. Two police show up to investigate. One draws a gun and orders Mr. Floyd out of the car. $20 dollars. What happened to the investigation? It was like the police wanted to make an arrest. The alleged crime being investigated, I think, was a specific intent crime, requiring proof of both the act of using counterfeit currency to purchase goods or services along with the mental state of intent to use counterfeit currency. Under the due process requirement of the Constitution, that would seem to require a real investigation rather than drawing a weapon. It sure seems like a violation just to walk up to a car and threaten someone's life with lethal force without at least asking any questions. That's why I wrote to the city leaders and politicians admonishing them to reform criminal laws to require the issuance of citations rather than proceeding with arrests, which are by their nature acts of force and the escalation of force. Better to proceed with deescalation, issue a citation after a thorough investigation, and then bring the issue in front of an independent magistrate.
Third, I've read a lot of police reports. They talk a lot about probable cause but in general have little facts to show for it. And, because the Constitution requires both probable cause to issue a citation or to make an arrest, with reasonable trustworthy facts as support, its time to ensure that police reports, etc., list identifiable, particularized, concrete allegations of fact to support both the culpable criminal act of the crime alleged along with the culpable mental state. In my opinion, that's a requirement of not just the Fourth Amendment but also the Due Process Clause to provide meaningful notice of the specific grounds for criminal charges. What if police reports fail to identify such facts? It's defective and the citation, arrest, and/or indictment should be quashed, immediately. And, the police authorities who harmed a person by failing to provide constitutional notice ought to be liable under civil rights laws for acting under the color of law without constitutional authority in explicit derogation of due process protections. And prosecutors that pursue such defective charges ought to be held accountable by regulatory agencies, the public, and the legal system.
Fourth, according to news media, at least one of the police officers arrested and charged for the death of Mr. Floyd had previous disciplinary records, which, as far as I can tell, resulted in little action and were not available to the public at large. When political leaders, as our representatives, appoint police officers, as our agents, and when the political leaders then arm those police officers with lethal force, the HR records of those officers should be available to us all. Nothing should be secret; after all, the police are supposed to work for us. But, I hesitate to add, police unions are mighty powerful. Often times, it seems, more powerful than political leaders. But if a union protects someone who is engaged in unlawful acts, then we should hold unions accountable too.
Perhaps my suggestions to politically powerful leaders won't make any difference. So far I've not received any responses. But I'm not giving up. All of us only have one life to live. It's up to us to choose to live it fully, wisely, and for others. I fall short, so often, and all the time. But with each day, we get a new opportunity. The past need not hold us back, if only we have the courage to act. After all, that's the constitutional duty that we've pledged ourselves to embrace on the behalf of others. To act justly on the behalf of others. (Scott Johns).
P.S. As a starting point, please take a look at Attorney General Ellison's statement and the criminal charges filed against the 4 Minneapolis police officers:
I quote in part the words of Attorney General Ellison from the news release: "
"To the Floyd family, to our beloved community, and everyone that is watching, I say: George Floyd mattered. He was loved. His life was important. His life had value. We will seek justice for him and for you and we will find it. The very fact that we have filed these charges means that we believe in them. But what I do not believe is that one successful prosecution can rectify the hurt and loss that so many people feel. The solution to that pain will be in the slow and difficult work of constructing justice and fairness in our society.
That work is the work of all of us. We don’t need to wait for the resolution of the investigation and prosecution of the George Floyd case. We need citizens, neighbors, leaders in government and faith communities, civil- and human- rights activists to begin rewriting the rules for a just society. We need new policy and legislation and ways of thinking at municipal, state, and federal levels. The world of arts and entertainment can use their cultural influence to help inspire the change we need. There is a role for all who dream of a justice we haven’t had yet.
In the final analysis, a protest can shake the tree and make the fruit fall down. But after that fruit is in reach, collecting it and making the jam must follow. The demonstration is dramatic and necessary. But building just institutions is slower and more of a grind, and just as important. We need your energy there too. We need it now."
Wednesday, June 3, 2020
Dear Bar Takers,
I’d like to talk to you about breaks. I see you. You are overwhelmed, you are stressed. Some of you don’t even know if you have a seat. Let me stress – I see you.
In addition, I’d like to acknowledge that there are a million things making it hard to focus right now. I’ve been struggling to focus, and I’m not studying for an exam. The non bar exam world is causing a great deal of anxiety, anger, sadness, and fear. For some, more than others. It’s understandable to have those emotions, and not feel like you can 100% focus on the exam in front of you, especially if you aren’t even certain when you’ll take it. That’s all valid.
So, I want to talk about breaks, and why they are important. Taking frequent breaks helps improve your memory and focus, and helps reduce stress. Basically, research tells us that your brain can only focus for so long. It doesn’t matter how studious or determined you are, the human brain will not stay focused for 8 hours straight. In fact, if you aren’t taking practice exams to work on your stamina, I suggest taking a short break every hour or so. This is not my advice, this is advice from the neuroscientists.
Specifically, if we don’t take breaks, our brain gets fatigued. Once an hour, if not more, stand up and stretch. Or go for a brief walk. Switch your focus. All of these things help you improve memory and focus.
Also, taking breaks for mental health is ok. In fact, it’s encouraged. If you are getting frustrated with a topic of a question, take a break. Walk away and grab lunch. Take a walk outside. Just take a break from the frustration. If you push through, and continue to attempt to study while frustrated, your brain is not processing the information. It’s also ok to plan for entire mental health days. Your brain might need a longer break, and that’s ok too. If you are struggling to focus, maybe current events or family worries are weighing on your mind, step away. Do something for yourself and come back to studying later.
Finally, taking breaks for your physical health is ok and encouraged as well. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had students get sick, maybe a bad cold for example, and they refuse to take a break. Not only are they not letting their body heal, which is not ideal for the long run, but your brain isn’t as focused as it could be, nor is it properly processing information. It’s far better to take a few days off, fully heal from the cold or other illness, and then dive back in feeling better.
So, in summary, while it is important to get in enough study hours – which are, let’s be honest, many – you owe it to yourself to take care of yourself. This includes breaks, and taking time for yourself. It’s also ok to be human, and give yourself permission to have unfocused days.
In addition, reminding yourself of your motivation is going to help improve your memory and learning. Write a litter to yourself, or a post it to put on your laptop. Why did you go to law school? Why do you want to take the bar exam? Yes, I know, you want to take the bar exam so you’re licensed. But why do you want to be licensed. Keeping your goals and motivation in sight, literally, will help you focus and learn.
I’d also like to stress the importance of a different kind of break. We learn best by doing different things. So, don’t just focus on video lectures. Or do an entire day of MBE questions. (Unless you are taking a practice test.) Mix it up. Spend 30 minutes writing an essay, and then review it. But then, do 15 MBE questions. Then watch parts of a video. The more you jump from one item to another, the better your brain is working, and the less likely you are to suffer from fatigue and lack of focus. The same goes for the subjects. Many students think they should spend a day, or even a week, on only one subject. But you actually stretch your brain, so to speak, by doing a mix of subjects.
Finally, despite my profession as bar professor type person, I can assure you that the bar exam is not the most important thing in the world. It really isn’t. Yes, you need to pass it to be licensed. And I want you to be licensed! But it doesn’t define you as a person, and if you fail, or have to take time off, that won’t even define you as an attorney. So, what I’m saying is that if this is not the right time for you to take the bar exam, that’s ok. There is no shame in that. You need to do what works best for you, and if that means delaying the exam because you are afraid for your health, you are focused on other things, too anxious or unfocused right now, or any number of reasons, the exam will still be there in 2021.
No matter what you choose, good luck! I look forward to seeing you as a colleague soon.
Thursday, May 28, 2020
That might be an overreach. But not by much. I only witnessed - at the most - 3 different flowers along the nearby hiking trail. Another hiker, who I met along the way, exploded with joy that she had spotted 44 different flowers along the same identical path, many of which were rarely seen during the short Colorado spring season. Same path; different eyes.
That experience left me wondering what else I am missing in this journey of life. Much, I suspect. Especially in these times with much of my face hidden behind a bandana. You see, I had a different purpose in mind on the hiking trail. And that resulted in a different pace and a much different outcome.
My fellow hiker's words hit home with respect to bar prep. Much of the colloquial wisdom is to practice testing yourself, constantly, as you prepare for your bar exam. Watch the clock, and my oh my, certainly don't take a timeout to research a bit of law when you are stumped. But, if in your bar prep you are driven by working the clock, you'll miss much. And what you miss is the opportunity to learn to improve critical reading and problem-solving skills because developing those skills takes lots of time and concentration - just like my fellow hiker spotting 44 flowers in beautiful bloom along the trail.
Let me share a secret. Rare is it that people run out of time on the bar exam. Oh it happens. But it's not because they didn't practice with the clock. Rather, it's often because the gambled with proven strategies to tackle their bar exams. They grabbed hold of the essays and then spent precious time looking for their favorites. Or, they hit the multiple-choice bubbling along the way while leaving many answer choices blank, with a long list of questions that they'd like to come back to, in the event that they have more time left at the end. On the bar exam, you don't have time to look at questions twice (or even more). Rather, just solve them one-at-a-time as they appear in the materials.
I know, you're saying, "Well, how am I going to get faster if I don't practice with the clock?" I'm not saying never practice with the clock, but the time to do so is much later, mostly only with mock bar exams, and mostly only in the last two weeks or so. In my experience, if you work on getting faster, you'll be super-fast but also often super-wrong because you haven't worked on seeing the patterns and observing the commas, the phrases, and the many nuances that are the heart of doing well on the bar exams.
Let me make it concrete. I have never seen a person fail the bar exam because they didn't know enough law or weren't really speedy enough. Rather, when people do not pass the bar exam, they tend to write about issues that weren't asked by the problems. That's because they worked mostly for speed through as many problems with goal of constantly testing themselves. "Am I passing yet? Is that good enough? I've got to get up that trail, so to speak, as fast as possible."
Instead, let go of the clock. Spend time in the midst of the problems. Question the questions. Puzzle over them. Ponder and probe the language, the phraseology, the paragraph breaks, and the format of the questions. In short, for the first six weeks of bar prep, practicing problems to learn with just an occasional check-in mock bar exam to see how you are doing. That way you'll be sure to see what's hidden in plain sight. And, that's the key to doing well on the bar exam. To locate and expose, what one of my recent students brilliantly called the "undertones" of the problems...that are really in plain sight...if only we take the time to learn to see.
(Scott Johns - University of Denver).
Tuesday, May 19, 2020
In a normal year, my students would all have begun their bar preparation yesterday, coasting on their post-graduation-ceremony momentum right into a seat in front of the first of many lecturers. But in New York, and more than a third of all U.S. jurisdictions (in which -- again, in a normal year -- more than half of all July examinees would be sitting for the exam), the date of the bar examination has been postponed for six weeks or more, leaving bar students in those jurisdictions with the gift they hate most of all: uncertainty.
What is to be done with all this extra time? Bar preparation companies cannot agree: some are simply administering their typical ten-week program, just starting it six weeks later than usual, while others have reworked their program schedule, starting it earlier and drawing it out over a longer period, but with shorter study days. Employers, many contending with their own virus-induced crises, have added variables to the new graduates' calculations, some allowing their new employees to start early and then take time off, others expecting hirees to adhere to their original early-August start dates, and still others unnervingly withdrawing their employment offers indefinitely. Even we bar support specialists can only make well-educated guesses about how to make use of six extra weeks. We have no data, no direct experience of how a delay like this will affect individual students or the testing cohort as a whole. How much more study can a student put in without burning out? Should the extra time be spread across all aspects of bar study, or should certain skills or subjects receive more attention? Will MBE scores increase overall for those who take the test in September? Decrease? Will the bell curve spread out? Will this hurt or help examinees?
Sensibly, 43 more days of prep time should be seen as a boon. In a normal year for bar study, isn't time the most precious resource of all? In my discussions with students, I have suggested they think of this extra time the way they might think of an unexpected financial windfall. You don't have to spend it all in one place. You might devote a large chunk of it to bar study -- that is, after all, the primary focus of the summer -- but how you specifically budget it depends on your own circumstances. An examinee facing financial pressures might choose to work for a few weeks, then begin studying a few weeks early. Someone eager to get started studying might begin this week, but set aside a week or two, at strategically placed spots on the calendar, to put study aside, connect with family and friends, or do whatever else helps them refill their gas tank. It's important not to let the time slip by unnoticed -- it would be bad to turn off the TV one night near the end of June and realize you had not done any bar study -- and that's why it's important to budget the time and actually create a schedule. And that, for some, is what seems to turn this temporal windfall into a vexation. In order to budget, you have to make choices.
No one wants their bar prep period to feel like playing endless rounds of "The Lady or the Tiger?" At every step: choose the right path, and you will be rewarded with contented knowledge and testing skills; choose the wrong path, and you will be mauled by a ravenous UBE with MPT fangs and MBE claws. In a normal year, examinees only have to be certain that the regimented bar study course they have chosen, which has worked for thousands of examinees before them, will continue to reliably work for them. This summer, though, because so much is unregimented, some examinees are anxious about being uncertain about so much more. Am I studying enough? Am I studying too much? Am I studying too early? Am I studying the right things, in the right way, for the right amount of time?
Two propositions can help people in such a tizzy of uncertainty. First, assure them that they are not feeling this uncertainty because of some character flaw that prevents them from making definitive choices. They are not losing their heads while all about them are keeping theirs. This is an inherently uncertain situation -- we can't even be assured the exam will actually be administered in September! -- and so there is no single "correct" choice. The best they can do is what they've been training to do for the past three years: exercise good judgment based on competent authority and relevant facts. As long as they are not just guessing, as long as they are talking to us and their mentors and their instructors and applying what they learn to what they already know about themselves and the task before them, they can at least make a good choice.
Second, help them subdue the perception that they are overwhelmed by uncertainty by reminding them of what is certain. The content and structure of the bar examination remains the same (well, except in Indiana), as do generally those of the reputable bar courses designed to prepare examinees for the test. They still have their law degrees, and the skill, intelligence, and diligence that helped them earn those degrees. They have a community of classmates, instructors, and mentors who they can rely on to share perspective and feedback on the decisions they do make. They have a certain task, they have certain abilities, and they have certain resources. In the face of uncertainty, those are best certainties to have.
Thursday, May 14, 2020
It's in the moments of fiery crises that heroism is revealed.
I think of our students, heroes everyone of them, finding within the resiliency and creativity to successfully adapt to online learning. I think of the academic support community and law school faculty and staff, springing into action, resolutely empowering novel ways to encourage vibrant learning despite the difficulties. I think of the many workers - across all walks of life - giving of themselves, in the front lines all of them.
It's in these hard spots of life, the difficulties and trials, in which our true beings are revealed, unmasked so to speak.
But there's more unmasking to be done. And quickly too. That's because many of our students have just finished their law school studies and are ready to graduate. Ready to move onto the next step. Ready to serve and contribute to the world.
Yet many states are postponing bar exams with no certainty that latter dates will be any better - health-wise - for holding in-person bar exams.
However that's not the situation that's just been decided by the Indiana Supreme Court. Indiana is moving forward this July 2020 with a one-day online bar exam. And it looks like Nevada might be joining the movement to an online exam too. And one state, Utah, has taken an even bolder approach in implementing an emergency diploma privilege. https://www.law.com/2020/05/08/in-a-first-indiana-will-hold-one-day-online-bar-exam-in-july/?slreturn=20200414232636; https://www.nvbar.org/nevada-supreme-court-seeks-comments-by-may-14-re-modification-to-july-bar-exam/
Nevertheless, back in April in a white paper, the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) brushed aside the possibility of online exams or diploma privilege, arguing that online exams were unworkable and that the diploma privilege was not beneficial to the public good. http://www.ncbex.org/pdfviewer/?file=%2Fdmsdocument%2F239.
When I applied to law school (and for the bar exam), there were no online applications. It just couldn't be done. But oh how times change, if only we are willing, courageous, and creative. Now, I doubt one can apply for law school save through an online application. The same goes, I suspect, for most bar exam applications. It's all online now. Except for the bar exam itself.
The only thing that limits us to the present is us.
It's not too late for New York, or California, or any other jurisdiction to implement a one-day online bar exam this July.
But that takes removing the masks that so often keep us living in the present, forever failing to see the future. And, to be honest, living in the present, when the present of the past no longer exists due to COVID-19, is not really living in the present. It's living behind the mask of the past.
The next step is for you - state supreme courts and jurists. We would like join with you, and local and state bar associations and practitioners, to move forward thus summer, whether that's with an online bar exam or with diploma privilege. The choice is yours. (Scott Johns).