Thursday, August 22, 2019
I hear voices. Not all of the time, mind you. But, definitely at the most inconvenient of times...like when I'm trying to read! [I think this is called sub-vocalization.] You see, I can only read as fast as I speak (and I don't tend to speak very fast unless I'm excited or nervous, which I often am, particularly when I'm trying to digest dense legal materials).
Indeed, when a student asks me to work with them through any reading passage (whether a case, a statute, or a multiple-choice problem or essay prompt), I really want to go in hiding, into a "sound chamber" so to speak, so that I can read slowly and not so-silently, as I work out the meaning of the text through hearing - in my mind - the words as they become alive, the punctuation marks as they spring up from the page into my voice, and the paragraph breaks as they give me time to catch my breath.
In short, if you haven't caught the gist of what I am saying, I feel like I am a poor reader because I am a slow reader.
Now, I suspect that most students don't sub-vocalize when they read, i.e., they don't hear voices when they read. Nevertheless, I gather that most first-year law students (and perhaps most law students in general) feel like they read too slow. If so, then you're exactly like me (and I'm supposed to be an expert at critical reading, particularly in reading legal texts, etc.).
But, before I get too far, in my opinion, rushed reading is not reading. To paraphrase Socrate's famous line that the "unexamined life is not worth living," an "unexamined case" is not worth reading. In other words, in law school, it's not how fast you read but what your learning about the law and legal problem-solving as you read. To cut to the chase, reading is about examining the cases and the statutes and the legal texts assigned in law school. And that takes time, lots of time. Or, to put it more bluntly, reading is really about "cross-examining" those legal materials, evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments and analysis, and then forming your own opinion about the merits of those arguments (and how you might use those arguments in the future to solve hypothetical problems posed on mid-term exams and final exams).
That gets me to the next question. How might I teach reading?
When I first started in academic support, I taught case briefing but not case reading, most likely, because it seemed to me that by briefing a case I had read the case. I'm not so sure now. That's because most case briefs (at least most of my case briefs) are composed of just bits of quotes and paraphrases of what the court said...rather than my evaluation of what the court said (or didn't say). Indeed, as Professor Jane Grisé writes, "critical reading is about 'learning to evaluate, draw inferences, and arrive at conclusions.'" J. Grisé, Critical Reading Instruction: The Road to Successful Legal Writing Skills, 18 W. Mich. Univ. Cooley J. of Prac. & Clinical L. (2017) (quoting L. Christensen, Legal Reading and Success in Law School: An Empirical Study, 30 Seattle U.L. Rev. 603, 603 (2007). Thus, because critical reading is about learning, it is something that can be taught. Id. Consequently, based on Professor Grisé research, let me offer the following suggestions on how one might teach critical reading, particularly reading cases that are jam-packed into the massive casebooks that comprise the bulk of reading in law school.
- First, confess. Set the stage for learning by sharing the worries and frustrations that you had (and perhaps still have) as a legal reader. Let students know that it wasn't a natural skill for you (or for anyone for that matter). Rather, critical legal reading is a skill that is developed, like muscles through exercise, bit by bit, in which we can all learn.
- Second, model pre-reading strategies. Share with students some of the ways that you engage in reading, even before you begin to read, by, for example, figuring out the purpose of the case by placing it in context with the prior and later assignments based on the case's position in table of contents and it's placement in the course syllabus. Then, get to know the players. Learn something about the case from the case caption, figure out the stage or setting for the case by talking through the information gleaned from the citation, etc., picture yourself as another judge or advocate for one of the parties, hypothesize how you might use this case in the future when it comes to exam time, skim through the case to capture the sorts of sections of the case and its organization (either by looking at headings or by skimming the paragraphs), and then poke around at the very end of the case to see what the court decided. Indeed, that's my favorite pre-reading strategy: Peeking at the end before I begin. That gets my focus jumpstarted!
- Third, read with gusto. Reading takes energy and focus, so if the time doesn't feel quite right, wait. But then, when you are reading to go, read the case facts - not as fiction - but recognizing rather that the facts involve real people and entities with real struggles. After all, cases often come to the court because people couldn't resolve hard-felt (and heart-felt) disputes on their own. As you read, look up words that you don't know. Write the meaning of those words, in your own words, in the margins of the text. Rather than highlighting lots of phrases that you think are important, make a notation on the text as to why you think that phrase or sentence might be important. Feel free to draw pictures or make paraphrases to help you capture the meanings of the words. If something seems unclear, it probably is, to you and to most of us. So, go back to those sections, in which the court often times doesn't explain its analysis, and make inferences (guesses) as to what is going on. Realize that the most (and perhaps all) cases are subject to different interpretations. Be creative to scope out connections with previous readings. Look for patterns. Dialogue with the materials. Question them, indeed, interrogate the court. Don't let the court baffle you. Instead, be on the lookout for mistakes that the court might have made in its analysis. In sum, talk back to the court and with the court as you read.
- Fourth, reading doesn't stop after you read. Instead, after reading, be an explorer to construct your own meaning of the case. As a suggestion, compile a list of questions that you would like to have asked the court or the advocates. Summarize in your own words what you think the case stands for (and why it was assigned for your course). Evaluate the case as to whether its reasoning was puzzling, or startling, or settling (and why). Conjure up different facts to test how the decision might have been impacted in different circumstances. Finally, synthesis a one sentence or phrase statement for what you've learned from the case, such as: "Vosburg (involving a schoolhouse kick) stands for the proposition that people are liable for battery even when they don't intend to harm anyone as long as they intended the contact because the purpose of battery is to protect people from - not just harmful contacts - but from all contacts that interfere with another's bodily integrity as a co-human being."
Now, before I let you go, just one more word about speed. You don't get faster at reading cases by trying to read fast. Rather, over time, much like water as it heats slowly on the oven range, using these strategies won't feel like an improvement...at all. Instead, if you're like me, you feel like its taking lots more of your time, energy, and perspiration to learn to be a critical legal reader. And, it is! But, by going slow, conversationally with the text, through practice in pre-reading strategies, then reading the text with robust gusto, and finally polishing off the reading by making sense and connections with the text for future use, you'll end up becoming a faster reader without even trying.
Much like learning to ride a bike, if you are like me, you fall lots and get lots of bruises along the way. That's because learning is hard difficult work. But, just like learning to ride a bike, once you get the hang of it, you'll be well on your way to being a better legal reader (and a better advocate on behalf of your clients in the future). (Scott Johns).
Tuesday, August 20, 2019
It is the start of the school year, and we are welcoming new classes of students to begin their courses of study in law school. Each course of study will comprise a score or more individual courses in particular subjects, and we hope that in due course every student will consume and fully digest a rich multi-course legal banquet. Of course.
Our versatile word "course" is derived from the Latin word "currere", meaning "to run" or "to flow". In all of its varied uses, it alludes to a sense of movement and progress, and this is particularly fitting when we think of the course of a law student's passage from matriculation to graduation. They arrive at school, eager and perhaps a bit awed as they imagine themselves advancing, starting off slowly, developing the knowledge, skill, and judgment of an attorney as they make their ways along, and then racing to the finish line to collect their prizes.
To many incoming 1L students, law school may seem like a watercourse -- like a channel through which they will be carried, sometimes swept through dizzying rapids, other times dragged through muddy waters of confounding breadth, ultimately to squeeze past a perilous bar and then be deposited at the port of Career, where their next adventure begins. In this view, all students need to do is learn to paddle, avoid rocking the boat, and make use of their brains and perseverance, and they will arrive at their destinations.
But there are better courses for comparison. Law school is best considered like a racecourse or a golf course -- not because their structures are more precisely analogous, but because of the way successful performers approach them. Sure, great sports performers make the most of their talents and training. But before they begin a race or a tournament, they get to know the course. A runner will trace out the course route, measuring the flats and the hills, and will plan out her pacing accordingly. A golfer will play or at least walk the course, making note of obstacles, slopes, and doglegs, and getting to know the feel of the greens. A skier will take practice runs down the course, developing a mental map so he can plan when to be cautious, when to be daring, when to push for speed. Knowing the course means they can make the best use of their skills and strategies over the long term.
So it is in law school. Week to week, month to month, semester to semester, knowing what it coming means students can expend their resources (time, attention, energy, etc.) more wisely. It means they can allow sufficient time to prepare for opportunities, or for challenges. It lessens the chances that they will wander out of bounds or run around in circles.
This is one of the reasons I love the start of the new academic year. It gives those of us in Academic Success a wonderful opportunity to provide something of immediate and long-term value to every new student we meet. We can walk them through the course! We can explain to them what a typical week will be like. We can preview all the major tasks of their first semester -- reading, attending class, outlining, midterms, legal writing assignments, practice tests, and final exams -- and help the students develop their own mental maps of the course. We can give them a bird's-eye of the entire tournament: the timing, value, and effort required of the opportunities and expectations they will encounter over the next few years. And we can do all of this for them painlessly -- not in response to an individual's frustration or anxiety or poor performance. It's the best part of the year, because we can give our students something they all can use, whether or not they have come into law school having learned the lesson that so many champions have learned: Successful performers don't see the course as running and carrying them along with it. They see the course as something they themselves run.
Thursday, August 15, 2019
I love to talk, yap, and chat. The more the better. And, that's a problem. A very big problem, at least with respect to my work as an academic support professional (ASP). I'll explain, but first, a bit of a story to set the stage...
As mentioned in a recent blog entitled Obstacles or Opportunities, I'm on the slow mend after an accident this summer, in which I fractured my back. Since the accident, I am mostly using a walker to navigate the world upright, step by step, as the fractures heal.
Not long ago, my spouse took me to the public library (in addition to talking, I love to read!). It started out as a perfect day, with me hobbling straight ahead, walker in action - right up to the newly released books. I felt like I was in a heavenly garden, with rows and rows of new books.
Now, before I move on, you've heard of the saying that "you can't judge a book but its cover." Well, as a bit of background, I'm not allowed to "BLT" right now (with my upper-body brace trying to restrain my back from further injury). That means no bending, lifting, or twisting (not that I could twist at my age even if I wanted to).
But, the books that were most shiny to me were "bottom shelvers." Nothing was in arm's reach without offending the entire medical community...by bending, lifting, and twisting, too. Immobilized, I gave up on books that day because, even though the covers looked enticing on those bottom shelves, I couldn't be sure that the titles were indeed profitable since I couldn't poke around the table of contents, the forward, and a few pages in-between. I left empty handed because I don't get books based solely on the covers.
That brings me back to the world of academic support. You see, when I first began serving as an academic support person, I set out to read all of the books and the literature, or at least as much as I could, to figure out how to best teach our students the necessary skills to be successful as learners. Things like reading, note-taking, participating in classroom discussions, time management, creating study tools or outlines, and exam reading, analysis, and writing. But, to be frank, I didn't learn what I now consider the most important skill at all, until - unfortunately - many years (and students) had past. In short, I didn't learn to be a listener first and foremost. In fact, rather than really listening to my students, I was quick to the draw to provide suggestions for them to implement, assuming that I knew the source of the problems or issues that my students were facing. I wanted to be a source of wisdom rather than what is really wise, listening first before speaking. How did I realize the errors of my ways? Well, it happened due to the fortuitous circumstance of getting to know and work a bit with Dr. Martha (Marty) Peters, Ph.D., Emerita Professor of Law from Elon University.
Dr. Peters would meet - one by one - with students struggling with multiple-choice analysis. Rather than handing out sage advice (after all, she has a Ph.D. in educational psychology!), Dr. Peters would instead ask students to work through each question that they missed - slowly - reading and navigating and pondering the problem to see if there might be anything at all, any patterns or words or pauses that might have helped them reach the correct answer. Then, Dr. Peters would move on to the next question missed. And, the next question, and then...the next question, etc. She remained completely silent. Observing. Hearing. Listening. Watching. Finally, towards the end of one hour counseling sessions, Dr. Peters simply asked students what suggestions they might have for themselves in order to more successfully analyze multiple-choice questions next time. In short, she asks students to share what they had learned. The anecdotal results were simply miraculous.
First, students felt empowered; sorrowful countenances started to be reshaped as possibilities of hope and a future in law. I know that it sounds a little (okay...a lot) dramatic, but it was unbelievably apparent as students started to actually believe that they could be law school learners, that they could help shape their destinies, that they might actually belong in law school as part of the learning community and future attorneys. That's because it was they themselves who came up with the answers and the solutions to their learning conundrums (rather than the experts). In short, students started to become experts in their own learning.
Second, most students quickly realized that their analytical problems were not with the multiple-choice problems themselves or with the law but rather related to reading. For the most part, they were missing clues, often because they didn't think that they could actually successfully solve the problems. Rather than misreading problems and legal materials, students started to develop both their confidence and their competence as critical legal readers. For helpful critical reading tips, see Jane B. Grisé, Critical Reading for Success in Law School and Beyond (West Academic 2017); see also, Jane B. Grisé, Teaching First-Year Students to Read so Critical that They Discover a "Mistake" in the Judicial Opinion, The Learning Curve (Summer 2014) (available at: https://uknowledge.uky.edu).
Third, in the next batch of multiple-choice problems later that week, scores skyrocketed. No exaggeration! Here's why. Before, many students were answering problems that were in their heads but those weren't really the problems on the practice sets or the exams. In other words, students were often solving problems that didn't exist. Now, they were poking and prodding and probing the fact problems and the issues carefully with confident "critical reading eyes," evaluating words and phrases and debating their meaning and possible legal import.
After working with Dr. Peters for a few days, I realized the most important lesson of my ASP life. It sort of leaped out of my heart and into my mind. Scott: "Talk less; listen more!" Now, before I start to hand out suggestions and advice, I try to ask my students first what suggestions they might have to improve their own learning. In short, I try not to judge my students by what I think might be their problems and issues but I rather try to let my students co-create with me a learning atmosphere in which to empower and liberate them...to be the true experts for their own learning. So, next time you see me, please stop me from talking so much! It's really quite a problem for me.
Wednesday, August 14, 2019
I entered the academic support field with the goal of keeping law students from making the mistakes I made in law school. In the yin and yang of my first year, I think I might have made every mistake possible. Here are some of the things I wish I'd known as a 1L.
You can make it as well as anyone else. I don't care if you're 16 or 65, just got out of college or finished college three decades ago, are the first in your family to get past high school or come from five generations of lawyers, went to nationals in debate or fear speaking in public. You belong here just as much as the rest of the class.
You're not better than anyone else. Congratulations if you graduated from an Ivy League school or worked 20 years as a top-level paralegal in a high-powered law firm or rose to prominence in the military or a corporation. Those experiences are enriching and will add depth to your understanding. Your classmates who attended community college or were river guides or worked the floor in a big box store bring equally valuable perspectives. If you have a tendency towards having a swelled head, ditch it now.
You don't have to study 100 hours a week to make it. Honestly, that's what our Dean of Students recommended at my convocation. I hope I was the only person stupid enough to follow his advice. Sufficient exercise, adequate sleep each night, and a day of rest each week, combined with a sustainable study schedule, will help you learn far more than putting in non-stop 15-hour days.
What you did as an undergraduate isn't good enough. Skimming the reading, doing an assignment at the last minute, just doing what's assigned and no more, and cramming at the end of the semester were adequate for many folks as undergraduates. They don't cut it in law school. Even if you keep your head above water doing this in law school, you won't gain the deep understanding that good lawyers need.
If you don't understand a case, don't read it over and over without a strategy. One how-to-go-to-law-school book I read suggested reading cases six or eight times superficially to make the salient points sink in. Baloney. But don't read once and give up, either. Talk with your academic support professional about effective reading strategies. Previewing, talking back to the case, and asking questions might seem artificial and stilted, but they are some methods expert readers use to understand -- and as a lawyer you must be an expert reader.
Ask questions. Even if you're shy. Especially if you think your question is stupid. There's no shame in not understanding. Asking for help is something that good lawyers do, all the time. And chances are that your classmates will heave a sigh of relief when you ask something that they were afraid to ask, or when you expose a problem that they didn't even see.
Learn to seek and welcome criticism. Opposing counsel and judges will point out every weakness in your case and every place your argument doesn't hold water. So use your time in law school not only to develop a thick skin, but also to actively seek out oral and written feedback, positive and negative -- on your case briefs, on your outlines, on practice exams, and on legal writing assignments. Taking critiques seriously will make you a better lawyer.
Be open to learning in new ways. You're lucky to be going to school at a time when the ABA mandates that every law school offer academic support to its students. Taking advantage of your school's academic support (variously known as Academic Success, Skills, Excellence, Achievement, and similar terms) will help your first year's experience be more efficient, effective, and enjoyable.
You're not here to learn the law. You're here to become a lawyer. Sure, you will be learning a lot of rules, just like a beginning medical student has to learn a lot of basic biochemistry and molecular biology. But just like a medical student is training to heal the human body, you are using the raw material of rules to learn how to use facts, words, and ideas to promote an orderly and just resolution of disputes. When you start to get bogged down and think all you're doing is memorizing, step back and think about how real people are affected by what you're learning. Use law school to practice becoming a great lawyer.
Be happy. Law professor Paula Franzese writes, "[L]ife will meet you at your level of expectation for it." If you expect to be miserable in law school, you will be. If you expect to be happy and fulfilled, you will be. Approach everything you do with a positive attitude, and 1L year will be a great stepping-stone not only to your life as a lawyer but to your life as a person living with purpose and joy.
Thursday, August 1, 2019
In an instant, my end-of-summer plans changed. I was supposed to celebrate the end of the bar exam by backpacking with my spouse. Instead, I'm learning to stand, hobble, and walk around a bit with the aid of a wheelchair and a walker by my side. In the aftermath of an accident on the way to visit my mom in the hospital, of all places, I ended up in the hospital with multiple lower back fractures. I'm told that I need to wear a back brace (sort of like a upper-body cast to immobilize my back) for the next three months. It's given me a new appreciation for those with limited mobility or other challenges.
Interestingly, while feeling sorry for myself, I told the physical therapist that I was sad that I couldn't go backpacking because I had worked so hard, throughout the winter, spring, and summer, to train for the grueling trek. In response, the physical therapist stated matter of factly that had I not been exercising for all of those many previous months, I would not yet be standing or walking. In other words, my training was not for naught. Indeed, that training has been a big blessing in retrospect.
It seems like life - with its many unanticipated circumstances - seems to so often derail us. I'm fortunate. I'm at home now resting and recovering. It's not what I hoped for but the accident has given me a new appreciation for others. Like the team of rescue workers. I never saw them. I couldn't open my eyes due to the pain. But, they were there, and that's all that mattered. Present. Helping. Encouraging. And at the hospital, the emergency room staff and the nurses, and the CNA's and the transporters and the doctors. Wow; they worked as a team. As I regained my senses, I noticed that everywhere my stretcher bed was pushed in the hospital, from X-rays to CT scans to MRI's, people asked their coworkers - not if they could help - but rather, how they could help. That's real teamwork.
Now that I am back home, I'm starting to realize that my world has gotten a lot smaller...and yet a lot bigger too. It's become smaller in that I can't just hop a car or take a bus and go where I'd like to travel independently. It takes teamwork to get my moving. But, it's a lot bigger because I'm seeing things that I never noticed before. Like the many obstacles that are so often in the way of those who live and move in wheelchairs. In other words, I'm starting to notice the world, at least a bit, from the vantage point of others. And, I'm starting to appreciate the small things in life, like a beautiful yellow butterfly that seems brush against the morning window greeting me with a hardy hello. You see, obstacles can bring opportunities.
That brings me back to law school. It's orientation week (or soon will be) for new 1L students. As I think about how to relate to them, I wonder if too many years have passed such that I no longer know the excitement of the first day on campus, or the fear of whether I will fit in, or the uncertainty of whether I will even be up for the task of law school. So, as I reflect on my accident, I think that the challenge for me as an academic support professional is to just be present to my students, to hear them out, to encourage them, to help them turn obstacles into opportunities for learning. As I end this post, let me also say one more thing. All of us are holding back something; we all have obstacles in our paths. But most of the time, I don't take the time to get to know the others in my life, which means that I don't really let them become part of my life (nor let them become part of my life). As this new academic year begins, my aim is to be present; simply present. To be listening to them; to hear them out. To encourage them and to help them know that they belong. Step by step. Welcome to the new year! (Scott Johns).
Wednesday, July 31, 2019
For thousands of bar takers, the waiting begins this afternoon; it will be weeks or months until they know the results of the hours and months they have spent preparing for the bar exam. Rebekah Cudé, a gifted trial lawyer and appellate lawyer now serving as Idaho Law's Director of Student Affairs, has shared her practical wisdom with our bar takers for years, and she has kindly given permission to share her post-bar exam advice (lightly edited for this blog) with a wider audience. Director Cudé tells bar takers:
How do I prepare for the possibility that I might not pass the bar exam? I was asked this question a lot last year, and the year before. So, I am going to answer it now, to hopefully help you to stop contemplating this particular possibility as quickly as possible, and maybe recover from the past few weeks a little more quickly as well. I truly hope it helps you navigate the next few weeks in a sane, healthy way.
How should you prepare? Like a lawyer.
A trial lawyer works their heart out getting ready for trial. Researching, writing, thinking. Preparing. Working. Lots of hours of reading. Time spent alone, and with colleagues, trying to come up with the best answers to the challenges posed by the case. And then the trial arrives, and it is hours, days, sometimes weeks of putting all that work to the test, laying it all out there for others to decide. And then the trial lawyer submits it to the jury or the judge. And waits.
An appellate lawyer works their heart out getting ready for argument. Researching, thinking, writing the briefs. Preparing. Working. Lots of hours of reading. Time spent alone, and with colleagues, trying to come up with the best answers to the questions the court might ask. And then the argument arrives, and it is a very intense (though mercifully brief) time of putting all that work to the test, laying it all out there for others to decide. And then the appellate lawyer submits it to the court. And waits.
The way that lawyers learn to survive the waiting is to learn to let it go.
Healthy lawyers realize that it is out of their hands now, and there is nothing more they can do. Once they get a decision, yes, there may be things to be done. But in the in-between, they let it go.
You are that lawyer now. You have done all of the work. You have laid it all out there for others to decide. You have submitted it to the examiners. You are in the in-between. You need to let it go.
You have the rest of a beautiful summer. You have friends and family who have missed you. Some of you have jobs to get to, some of you have jobs to seek out. All of you need to spend some serious time just taking care of yourselves. So, let it go. And maybe enjoy life a bit.
Here's the deal:
If you spend the next 6-7 weeks worried, anxious, and distracted, and you pass, you will have wasted all that time, and you will have missed out on fully enjoying your life. For nothing.
If you spend the next 6-7 weeks worried, anxious, and distracted, and you do not pass, you will have wasted all that time, and you will have missed out on fully enjoying your life. For nothing. AND you will be that much less prepared to rally your energy and resources to do it again.
You don't really know how you did. Trust that it was enough.
Because life is far too short to not enjoy the in-between.
Thursday, July 18, 2019
I recently saw data suggesting that bar passers do things differently in the final weeks of bar prep than those who are not successful on the bar exam. That got me thinking about what I've been seeing, at least anecdotally, in working with students in preparing for their bar exams.
But first, let me be frank. Without hard dedicated work in learning throughout the course of bar prep period, and in particular, during the final week, it's really difficult to pass the bar exam because the bar exam, in the last few years, has become much more challenging, particularly due to cognitive load. See L. Schulze, Dear Practicing Attorneys: Stop Giving Our Bar Students Bad Advice. Thus, it's not just hard work that makes for passing the bar exam. Rather, it's important to make sure to do what is most optimal for learning during the final week of bar prep. See S. Foster, Positive Self-Talk.
So, even with all of the hard work, what might account for the differences in bar passage outcomes for both groups of diligent bar studiers? In short, it must be in the type of work that the two groups are doing rather than the quantity of work. In the last week, bar passers tend to ramp up their practice with lots and lots of MBE questions and essays while also working on memorization while people who are unsuccessful tend to focus on creating perfect study tools trying to memorize every little nuance of law with very little continued practice. In sum, one group is continuing to practice for the exam that they will take and the other group is focused on memorizing for the exam.
But, here's the rub:
It’s a perfectly natural feeling during the last week 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 “desirable difficulties.” You see, when we jam pack our study tools with everything, we aren’t learning much of anything because we aren't making hard decisions about what is most meaningful. And, with everything written down, there's no opportunity for retrieval practice, which is the best form of memorization practice.
So, as a suggestion for the final week, tackle two to three subjects per day. Work through a number of essay questions for each subject. Then, take your study tool and use it for retrieval practice, reading it and then covering it up to see if you can spout out what's in it. Push yourself. You might even take your study tool and, without looking at it, recreate it in a different format, for example, converting it from an outline to a poster, etc. Then, in the evening, work through a batch of MBE questions, pouring and pondering through them. Finally, when you miss something in an essay or MBE question, add that concept to your study tool. As Prof. Micah Yarbrough at the University of Maryland says, your study tool becomes a sort of "bar diary" of your adventurous travels in learning by doing. And, it's in the learning by doing that makes all the difference in passing the bar exam because the bar exam tests - not just memorization - by problem-solving. So, for those of you taking the July 2019 bar exam, focus on practice first and foremost throughout the final week of your bar preparations 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 this summer! (Scott Johns).
Wednesday, July 17, 2019
Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, one of the most distinguished jurists of modern times, died on Tuesday. The author of more than 400 decisions as well as notable dissents in cases including Bush v. Gore and Citizens United, Justice Stevens was considered a "judge's judge," intensely patriotic without being partisan, free of ideological baggage, and devoted to the rule of law. Former President Gerald Ford praised Stevens in 2005, saying "I am prepared to allow history's judgment of my term in office to rest (if necessarily exclusively) on my nomination thirty years ago of Justice John Paul Stevens." Chief Justice John Roberts noted that Stephens, in addition to his "unrelenting commitment to justice," served with "an inimitable blend of kindness, humility, wisdom, and independence."
As I explored more about his life today, I was struck by how Stevens was not content to rest on his laurels, but rather continually pushed himself out of his comfort zone. His graduate study in English was interrupted by World War II, where he put his analytical skills to work as a code-breaker for the U.S. Navy in the Pacific Theater. He originally made his mark as an antitrust lawyer, first in as an associate in private practice, then as associate counsel to a U.S. House committee investigating antitrust activities, then, only three years after admission to the bar, as an antitrust litigator and partner in a firm he co-founded. Widely respected for his expertise, he wrote influential articles and taught at the University of Chicago and Northwestern law schools while remaining active as a litigator.
Stevens could have remained a respected antitrust scholar and practitioner, but in 1969 he took on the thankless task of serving as counsel to a commission formed to investigate corruption allegations against two sitting members of the Illinois Supreme Court. The commission was evidently expected to perform only a perfunctory investigation, for the person bringing the charges was a well-known conspiracy theorist with little credibility. Nevertheless, Stevens conducted a vigorous investigation which verified the allegations and ultimately led to in the resignation of both the current and a former chief justice. His refusal to take half measures led to considerable acclaim, an appointment to the Seventh Circuit by President Nixon, and ultimately to his appointment in 1975 to the U.S. Supreme Court where he served with distinction for 35 years.
It's not unusual for law students or lawyers to form a narrow view of their own abilities. Knowing they are competent in one area of doctrine or in one application, they allow that expertise to bind them into a narrow view of what they can and should do, rather than exploring how their expertise in one arena could translate into competence and even brilliance in another or a wider field. John Paul Stevens could have made his mark only as an English scholar, or only as a Bronze Star code-breaker, or only as a litigator, or only as a law professor. But he continually stretched to do more, developing expertise in constitutional law and new skills on the Court like coalition-building. And even after retirement at age 90, he stretched himself more, writing three books over the next nine years. His belief in constantly stretching himself to do more and better work can be an inspiration to all of us to not content ourselves in one narrow path. (Nancy Luebbert)
Monday, July 15, 2019
You can choose to listen to the skeptics or hit the ignore button. - Michael Peggs
Our students today have become adept at shunning criticism and negative input. When coaches or teachers prejudge students at any age, there is an army of protective advocates who will stand up for the wronged student and demonstrate that with the right accommodation a student may exceed the expectations of a perceived disability. We full-scale reject the haterist mindset that seeks to label learners with arbitrarily imposed limitations. Taylor Swift warned us that “haters gonna hate”. Yet, too often when the stakes are high, and especially during bar study, we stir up our own hater-aid. Over the years I've overheard students say things like: “I’ve never been good at standardized tests,” “I am never going to learn all these essay subjects,” “I’ve got too much going on to study the way I should,” and “I don’t expect to pass on the first time.”
You may need to mute your inner monologue, if it is filling your mind with self-defeating prophecy. Each time a fear-based thought tries to creep in, hit the ignore button and block it like a call from a telemarketer. Follow Taylor’s lead and shake off the self-doubt. Use daily bar study affirmations as an exercise in mindfulness to allow you to meditate on your positive potential. For the next two weeks, the only attitude you can afford is a can-do attitude. Repeat these affirming words until they become your reality: I can and will pass the bar. I am worthy of a bar card, and right now I am making plans for my life as an attorney.
Thursday, July 11, 2019
It's time to create your own personal handy-dandy bar exam study tools. But, you ask, how, with so many other things to do (and with just a few weeks before the bar exam). Well, here's a suggestion for creating your study tools from scratch in just a few easy steps and in less than 2 hours flat.
But first, let's lay the groundwork. Why should I create a study tool, especially with so many other tasks at hand that demand my attention in preparation for the bar exam in a few weeks?
There are at least three reasons.
First, the process of creating your own study tools creates a "mental harness" for your thoughts. It serves to bring you back to the big picture of what you have been studying the past many weeks since graduation.
Second, the process of creating your own study tools cements your abilities to synthesize and distill the rules that you will be tested on this summer. In short, we memorize (remember) what we create rather than what we read that others have created.
Third, your study tools are, in essence, an organized collection of pre-written, bar exam answers for tackling the hypothetical problems that you will face this summer on your bar exam.
So, let's set out the steps:
1. Grab Your Study Tool Support Team!
That means grabbing hold of the shortest bar outline provided by your bar review company. Shorter is better because less is often more! And, you already have too much to remember.
2. Create the Big Picture Skeleton for Your Study Tool!
That means taking hold of the table of contents in your bar outline provided by your bar review company or the subject matter outlines provided by the bar examiners. For example, the NCBE provides super-short two-page outlines for each subject on what issues are testable. http://www.ncbex.org/meeoutlines. Then, using that skeleton structure, create an overview of the testable issues in your own desired format, whether as flashcards, posters, or outlines, etc.
3. Insert Rule Sound Bites!
Using your bar review lecture notes or subject matter outlines, insert rule "sound bites" for each item identified as testable subjects. Move swiftly. Don't dwell. If you think you you need a rule, don't put it in...because...you can always add more rules later if you see that rule popping up in your practice during the course of the next two weeks. Don't try to create perfect rule statements. Instead, just insert the "buzz words." Feel free to be bold, daring, and adventuresome in doodling or using abbreviations to remind you of the rule. For example, for negligence per se (NPS), my study tool just reads: (1) P.C. and (2) P.H. That stands for protected class and protected harm. By writing out just a few tips to help me remember, I am actually enhancing my study tool (and developing my confidence in being able to recall, for example, the requirements for NPS). Get your entire study tool completed in 2 hours or less! How, you ask? By leaving lots of stuff out because you can always add more later. Here's a tip: It's called "desirable difficulties." You see, according to my arm chair understanding of the science behind learning, optimal learning requires us to push ourselves; it requires mental perspiration, it takes sweat. So, the process of deciding what to put into your study tool (and what to leave out, and, indeed, leaving out lots) enhances are learning because we can't solely rely on our study tools for memorization. Rather, our study tool because a prompt for our memory. So, keep your study tools super-short and crisp.
6. Take Your Study Tool for Lots of Test Flights During the Final Several Weeks of Bar Prep!
Yes, you might crash. Yes, it might be ugly. In fact, if you are like me, you will crash and it will be ugly! But, just grab hold of lots and lots of past bar exam essays and see if you can outline and write out sample answers using your study tools
Finally, let me make set the record straight.
You don't have to make an outline as your study tool. Your study tool can be an outline…or a flowchart…or a poster with lots of pictures...or a set of flashcards, etc.
What's important is that it is YOUR study tool that YOU built from YOUR own handiwork and thoughts! It's got to be personal to you because it's going to be you that sits for your bar exam. So, have fun learning by creating super-short snappy study tools that serve as organized pre-written answers for this summer's bar exam. (Scott Johns)
Monday, July 8, 2019
And suddenly you just know it's time to start something new and trust the magic of beginnings. – Meister Eckhart
This is the time of year when many ASPers transition from one position to the next. Career progressions in ASP are as varied as they come. Many who entered as an assistant director are now ready to direct programs at their own schools or another. This fall some will transition from administration to faculty or vice versa. Some are preparing to teach doctrinal courses for the first time, and others just received rank and tenure promotions. Whether your move will take you across the county or across the street to another institution in the same city, boxes must be packed and a world of newness awaits.
The newness can be the most exciting part of a new role in ASP. The newness also can be the most scary. Recent law school graduates newly entering ASP may face the challenge of being perpetually viewed as a student or former student. Those with new roles as faculty or with first-year core teaching responsibilities may have to abide additional layers of oversite not imposed upon other faculty members. A lateral move to a new school can deal the unsettling reminder that, even with years of pedagogical experience under your belt, you are a newbie to this institution, its policies, and its students. Perhaps the greatest hurdle of all is following another great ASP predecessor who left very big shoes to fill.
Whether your newness is a new position, a new course, or just additional responsibility at your current post – embrace the newness. You were recognized for your unique skills and qualifications. You bring amazingness with you. Savor the transition time as you learn your new role and your new students and create a course/program/system that will leave your own indelible footprint.
Congratulations and continued success to all who are making moves from one role to another. The next big shoes to fill will be yours!
Thursday, July 4, 2019
On this July 4th holiday, with just under a month to go for this summer's bar takers, let's face the facts:
Most of us are downright exhausted.
And, we should be because we've been working pretty much non-stop since graduation Moreover, given what seems like the insurmountable pressures to learn so much material for the bar exam, it seems like we can't let up with our daily regiment of bar studies. There's just too much to learn.
However, let me offer you an encouraging way to "let up" so that you can feel mighty good about taking a real day off, whether today or this upcoming weekend.
Here's how and why...
Holidays, such as the Fourth of July, are some of the best days of the year to see bar exam problems in living color.
That box of fireworks someone bought at a big-top fireworks tent stand. That was procured through negotiation of a UCC contract for the sale of goods (and the seller most likely provided a secured transaction agreement in order to bring the goods to sale).
That box of fireworks that didn't work as advertised. Well, that might just blossom into a breach of contracts claim or even a tort claim for misrepresentation.
That box of fireworks that were lit off in the city limits. In most cities, that's a strict liability crime, plain and simple.
You see, even when we take a day off from studies, we are live in the midst of a world of bar exam problems. In fact, we are surrounded by bar exam problems because the bar exam tests legal situations that are constantly arising among us. So, it's a good thing to get our heads out of the books occasionally to see what's happening around.
That means that you can completely feel free to relax and take a whole day-off because even while taking a time-off, you will still be learning lots from just living in the world. And, because you've been trained as a professional problem-solving attorney, you can't help but see legal problems in full color everywhere. That's a sign that you are well underway in preparations for your bar exam this summer.
So, please rest assured - bar takers - that in the midsts of a day-off with family and friends, you'll be learning helpful legal principles that you can bank on preparation for success on your upcoming bar exam. And, as a bonus, you'll get some mighty needed rest to recharge your heart and mind too! (Scott Johns).
Tuesday, June 25, 2019
Now that my law school’s most recent graduates are well into their preparations for the bar examination, I have noticed some of them exhibiting a kind of exasperated relief when they come to talk with me about how their studies are going. They are still feeling a good deal of anxiety about the test, and they are starting to show signs of that deep weariness that comes from focusing intently on a huge task during most of their waking hours. But they are in good spirits, because at long last they are starting to make sense of the Contracts, Property, and Torts classes they took more than two years ago.
“You know,” one of them told me recently, “they are finally just telling me, ‘This is the rule, this is when you use it, this is how you use it.’ All the rules, so I don’t have to extract them or look them up anywhere! I wish that my professor had just done this in my 1L year. That class would have made so much more sense.”
It is a curious system that has evolved in this country: We spend 140-odd weeks getting our students to think creatively, abstractly, and expansively about the practice of law, then push them to spend 10 weeks efficiently and mechanically cramming the specific material required to test into that practice. Imagine if we prepared for other tests in the same way:
Driver’s License Road Test: Students spend three months watching The Road Warrior, Cannonball Run I & II, Smokey and the Bandit I, II, & III, and the entire The Fast and the Furious series. Along the way, they discuss questions like, “Should speed limits always be obeyed, even in a post-apocalyptic world?”, “How is it possible that Burt Reynolds’s license has never been revoked?”, and “Suppose Blackchassis, who is too fast, arrives at an intersection at exactly the same time as Whitechassis, who is too furious. Who has the right of way?” Three days before the scheduled road test, students are permitted for the first time to sit in the driver’s seat, where they discover the existence of turn signals. (Former professors explain that they had not had time to discuss turn signals in class, and in any case, students could look them up in the owner's manual if they ever needed to know about them.)
Test of English as a Foreign Language: Assigned reading includes Infinite Jest, Ulysses, House of Leaves, and Code of Federal Regulations, Title 26. Students are required to write a brief summary of each chapter read; it must be written in iambic pentameter. One week before the TOEFL, the class begins watching “Schoolhouse Rock” and somebody finally explains that a noun is a person, place, or thing.
Presidential Fitness Test: Middle-school students spend the first half of the semester exploring ways to build bulk, stamina, and flexibility in their left gastrocnemius. They learn that the gastrocnemius wasn’t even considered a muscle in early 17th-century England, but had achieved muscular status in both the U.K. and the U.S. by the mid-19th century. There is also extensive discussion about the current treatment of the gastrocnemius as a flexor in most states, but as an extensor in a substantial minority, mostly in the South and New England. In the second half of the semester, the teacher races through the superficial conditioning of most of the major muscle groups of the body, frequently referring back to the gastrocnemius as a model. In the last week before Christmas break, a new gym teacher takes the class outside to run wind sprints in the snow while carrying barbells. She never once mentions the word “gastrocnemius”.
Rorschach Inkblot Test: For ten weeks, the professor requires the students each night to spend three or four hours examining a seemingly random formation of ink on paper. Each day, students come to class asking the professor to explain what they had tried to understand the night before, but the professor only responds with, “Well, what do *you* think it means?” [Wait a minute . . .]
Okay, it's easy to tease our academy for its idiosyncratic way of inculcating an understanding of the law in its students. But most of those students who seem gratified to finally receive concrete and particularized lists of rules to memorize and apply are not wholly frustrated that they had not received them in the first place. They recognize that they would not have known what to do with such a bare-bones framework of legal rules if they had never gone through the mental boot camp of their 1L year, or if they had never explored as much of the range and depth of our jurisprudence as they did in their 2L and 3L years. There are a few students who get hung up on the rote memorization and mechanical application that can, honestly, appear to take up most of the work done in bar preparation. It is always helpful to remind those students that the bar examination is not merely a test of technical ability, like a driver's license test or the TOEFL. It is also a test of judgment, and that, hopefully, is what they have developed, and can tap into, from those three sometimes dizzying years of law school.
Wednesday, June 19, 2019
If you are starting law school in fall semester, you've entered the in-between times. The initial euphoria of being accepted into your school has worn off; Orientation and the first month of classes may feel either maddeningly distant or terrifyingly close. Even as you wrap up one phase of your life, you may be uncertain about how to prepare for the next. Here's some practical advice on bridging the gap.
Do What's Required
- Know what you have to do before classes start, and do it. Do you register for your own classes, or does the law school register you? Is Orientation mandatory or elective? What books must you buy, and when must you complete required readings? Is there any paperwork you must complete and turn in? Don't procrastinate: get these tasks done.
- Read all e-mails from the law school, respond as necessary, and save them in a separate, appropriately-named folder: chances are you will later have to refer back to messages that don't seem critical now. Check your junk folder regularly so you don't overlook mass mailings sent to the entire class.
- If you receive a summer reading list from your law school, make sure you understand which readings are mandatory, which are recommended, and which are merely well-meaning suggestions for incoming students with a lot of time on their hands. If you're not sure which among a list of suggested readings would be helpful to you, contact the law school's academic support office for practical advice.
Learn About Law School
- The world is full of books and websites that purport to prepare you for law school. Several dozens are wonderful. But much of the advice is -- shall I be blunt? -- ineptly well-meaning at best and positively harmful at worst. Be cautious of books, websites, and courses of the "how-to-go-to-law-school" genre, especially those heavily supported by testimonials, promoted by commercial companies, or written by a random "J.D." If your law school doesn't give specific suggestions, seek materials written by law school academic support professionals, who are experts in law school learning and the process of transitioning from novice to expert law learners.
- Don't go overboard on devouring materials about first-year success. One well-chosen book will give you more than enough grist for your mill.
- Don't try to learn the law before you enter law school. This is a waste of your time, and it often backfires because your early superficial learning can cause you to tune out the more nuanced understanding you should acquire in law school.
Make Practical Preparations
- Put your finances in order as far as possible. Retire any debts you can, create a budget, sell unnecessary stuff, and differentiate between your "needs" and "wants." Making these adjustments before law school will reduce your financial stress in law school.
- BUT -- Accept extra expenses if they will result in a significant academic or professional payoff. A more expensive apartment closer to the law school may be a better choice than a cheap house that requires a 90-minute commute. Buying physical casebooks almost always results in deeper learning than borrowing books or settling for e-books.
- Make the physical transition to law school early. If you will be moving across town or across the country, settle into your new digs before Orientation begins. Create a mental map of the grocery, coffee shops, bookstores, bike shops, or other physical spaces that you'll need to feel grounded.
- Learn the way between your apartment and the law school, and find at least one alternate route. Ask about traffic patterns and rush hours so you don't risk coming late to class. If you drive, purchase parking passes in advance and find at least two parking lots you can use.
- Buy your books early. Thousands of law students purchasing casebooks at the same time can create bottlenecks with booksellers; plan for delays.
Prepare Yourself Mentally
- Celebrate your reason for going to law school. Your passion is what makes the work of law school worthwhile.
- Determine what kind of person you will be during the three years of law school, both inside and outside the law building. The happiest law students maintain a positive mental attitude. They consider classmates to be collaborators rather than rivals; they feel comfortable asking for help when necessary; they maintain relationships; they practice gratitude; they "don't sweat the small stuff."
- Prepare the precious people in your life for your transition, and tell them explicitly how much they mean to you. Brainstorm in advance some ways in which you can keep your relationships vital even as you take on the challenge of law school.
- Tune up your brain for difficult learning ahead. One of the best ways of doing this is by hard reading -- that is, by tackling non-law books that are far outside your comfort zone. For example, an English major might plunge into tomes about physics and biology; an engineer might choose a work by a philosopher or economist. Talk back to the book as you read, and write a summary of each chapter or section as you go.
- Open yourself to accept new methods of learning. Even if you were wildly successful in undergraduate and graduate school, chances are that you will have to adopt new ways of learning to reach your potential in law school. Your academic support professionals will work with you to help you learn most effectively in this new environment.
- Consider adding a meditation or mindfulness practice to your life, which can pay off both in reduced stress and in mental acuity.
- Cultivate regular and positive habits of sleep, exercise, healthy eating, and effective stress management, which will provide mental, physical, and academic benefits over your three-year marathon.
Monday, June 17, 2019
Mask: n. a covering for all or part of the face that protects, hides, or decorates the person wearing it. – Cambridge English Dictionary
It is a common practice for high-stakes gamblers, also called “sharks”, to use a trusted acquaintance when placing a bet to keep the identity of the shark gambler unknown and preserve the odds. By concealing one’s identity, an actor may control or influence audience perception. Academic Support professionals influence the perception and actions of the students we serve. ASP behind a mask allows us to fulfill our mission of student service and advancement. Behind a mask our message is not altered or concealed, only the messenger is.
My real-life experience behind the mask looks like this. For weeks, I preached and pushed a certain commercial tool to my bar takers. I negotiated a substantial discount for their purchase. I offered weekly incentives, provided demonstrations, and all but swore a blood oath that this tool would increase their chances of passing the bar. Crickets. I asked a recent bar taker to share her experience with the tool. She made one social media post that echoed verbatim my message. Within minutes of the post, I received multiple inquiries about the tool and sign-up confirmations.
Today’s law student does not respond to the pedagogy of the past. We may tell our students what is best for them academically and make recommendations for learning tools to support their development. And we may be right. But until our students “hear us” and find credible our advice and recommendations, our words fall hallow. We can strategically use the peer learning model and employ student tutors, fellows, and former students to promote our messages by sharing what has worked for them to positively influence the actions of current students.
Thursday, June 13, 2019
If I recall correctly, the line went something like this: "The world is filled with lonely people waiting for others to make the first move." At least, that's my recollection of the saying from the wonderful movie entitled "The Green Book," which I happened to have the opportunity to watch on my flight while traveling to the Association of Academic Support Educators (AASE) Conference a few weeks back. Little did I know at the time the tremendous impact someone would make by reaching out to me at the AASE Conference in Seattle.
You see, it was the final day of the three-day conference. With just a few more presentations available, I thought it best to focus my remaining time on bar prep sessions because that's my primary job. But, while mingling in the hallways of the law school building at Seattle University, I got a friendly tug in another direction. A person - who I had only briefly talked with at the conference - came marching and smiling right up to me and encouraged me to go to her presentation, which was set to start in a matter of moments. The warm-hearted invitation got me. Oh my golly, am I ever glad that I went! Her presentation was earth-shattering. It was the sort of talk from the heart that brought tears and promise.
Here's a brief snapshot.
The presentation was entitled "Academic Skills Invented by Necessity - the Untapped Potential and Creativity of Disabled Learning, and Inclusive Teaching." Professor Karen Wade Cavanagh's story was featured as part of a documentary by Oprah Winfrey in 2015 entitled "Belief:" http://www.bu.edu/law/featured-in-oprah-winfreys.
In short, Karen suffered a traumatic brain injury in a boogie boarding accident. In her talk, Karen showed photos of her rescue. Twice Karen was brought back from the brink. Life for Karen has since necessitated numerous surgeries and rehabilitation. Much was starting over from scratch. But, that hasn't stopped her (or others either).
Here's as an example...
Post-accident, while moving on a sidewalk in a wheelchair on her way to school, Karen was at an impasse. You see, due to crumbling infractures, many of the intersections at city crosswalks were no longer graded to allow rolling back up. Karen went down to cross the street...but couldn't get back up due to curb. Stopped in the roadway in the crosswalk, Karen noticed joggers and walkers run and walk past her, up the curb, and back onto the sidewalk. So, what did Karen do? She stuck her thumb out to the next passer by. That jogger came alongside and pushed her up and over back onto the sidewalk. Success. She was soon at school.
Life has tough spots for all of us. But, as Karen's story reminds us, it's sometimes difficult for us to see the tough spots that others are facing.
The first lesson I learned is that when I am in a tough spot, I need to just go ahead and stick my thumb out.
The second lesson I learned is to keep my eye out for others. Try to look at life from their perspective, not mine. And, be ready to reach out to others.
Life is not meant to be lived alone but rather in community with others. To be frank, as an ASP'er, I often tend to approach the issues that my students are having from my vantage point, usually with the idea that a particular academic study tip might be of help. But, I am often too quick to the draw with suggestions such that I miss seeing what is really going on. That's because I am too quick to talk instead of listen. But, in my experience, most of the time, so-called academic issues are not academic at all. They are life issues instead. And, life issues requires me to open up, to be vulnerable to others, and to live within the perspective of others (and not just myself). In short, being an ASP'er requires me to live life in "being" with others. I think that is what it means to not just be an ASP'er but truly a human being too. (Scott Johns).
P.S. Thanks Karen for making a mark that will live with me forever!
Monday, June 3, 2019
Don't let compliments get to your head and don't let criticism get to your heart. -- Lysa TerKeurst
The other day we held a bar workshop at my school. At the end of the session we collected evaluation forms from the students. I could hardly wait until the students were all out of the room to look at their written comments. A colleague and I sat at the edges of our seats to read what the students wrote about “our” workshop. As we thumbed through the evaluation forms, we read an abundance of smile-generating comments like: Good, Good, Excellent, Learned something new, Would recommend this session to others, and Glad I came. But our smiles askewed when we reached the one comment that read this session was longer than I expected and the presentation was poor.
Of the many laudatory comments, only one offered anything other than praise. And yet that one evaluation form is all that we focused on for the rest of the afternoon. My colleague and I became defensive and responded to the anonymous feedback as if talking to the student who submitted it. I suspect that our reaction was not atypical in the academic support teaching profession. We probably reacted in the same manner that many professors do as we review our course evaluation forms, student emails, or other summative feedback. We focus almost blindly on what someone did not like at the expense of commentary reflecting the effectiveness of our teaching and service.
So many of us in academic support or other teaching professions may put too much weight on the criticism and not enough weight on the compliments. Perhaps it is because we invest so much in the success of our students and the excellency of our programs that we forget the role that criticism can play in our own professional development. As this summer’s bar prep gets rolling full throttle, I’ve made a promise to myself to not let my view of the forest be impeded by one tall tree. While I am providing my students with daily affirmations, I pledge to affirm and nurture myself and my wellbeing. In doing so, I will be better able to service my family and my students who depend on me. As you read your course evaluations and performance reviews this summer, challenge yourselves to take criticism with a grain of salt (or a bottle of wine) and be thankful for the wonderful learning opportunity that the feedback provides.
Thursday, May 30, 2019
Last week at the annual Association of Academic Support Educators (AASE) Conference, Professor Paula Manning shared an analogy about learning that gripped my mind and heart.
You see, as Professor Manning reminded us, working out to get in shape is tough work. Building muscles, well, takes daily pain. It requires us to push ourselves, to lift beyond what we think we can, to walk further than we think we can, and to run harder than we think we can. And, it requires us to work out nearly everyday. Moreover, as Professor Manning related, the next day after a heavy workout can feel just downright aching. "Oh do those muscles hurt." But, we don't say to ourselves: "Wow, that hurt; I'm not going to do that again." No, instead, we say to ourselves: "That was a really great workout; I'm building muscle." In short, we are thankful for the temporary pain because we know that it will benefit us in the future.
But, when it comes to learning, as Professor Manning reflected upon, we often tend to not view the agonizing daily work of learning as beneficial in the long term. Rather, if you are like me, I tend to avoid the hard sort of learning tasks, such as retrieval practice and interleaving practice, for tasks which, to be frank, aren't really learning tasks at all...because they aren't hard at all (such as re-reading outlines or highlighting notes, etc.). But, if you and I aren't engaged in difficult learning tasks, then we aren't really learning, just like we aren't really building muscles if we just walk through the motions of exercise.
So, for those of you just beginning to embark on preparing for your bar exam this summer, just like building muscles, learning requires building your mind to be adept at legal problem-solving by practicing countless multiple-choice and essay problems on a daily basis. In short, the key to passing your bar exam is not what you do on bar exam day; rather, it's in your daily practice today that makes all the difference for your tomorrows.
As such, instead of focusing most of your energies on watching bar review lectures, reading outlines, and taking lecture notes, spend most of your learning in problem-solving because that's what you will be tested on this summer. Big picture wise, for the next six weeks or so, half of your time should be spent in bar review lectures, etc., and the other half should be spent working through practice problems to learn the law. So, good luck in working out this summer! (Scott Johns).
Monday, May 20, 2019
As my career in ASP winds down, I have reflected on what I have learned over the years. Here are a few things that strike me as important lessons learned from discussions with my ASP/bar prep colleagues, observations of our profession over time, and my own experiences:
- ASP and bar prep work have gained more recognition through the years. LSAC supported us early on. AALS recognized our efforts with a section designation. Changes to ABA standards brought more attention to our roles. More law schools now have programs, but there is still work to be done if all law students are to have access to full-time, funded services.
- ASP/bar prep started its work to increase academic and bar success for minority students. With the pressures of stigma and backlash, many ASP programs opened services to all law students. Although programs may still have minority components within the services, the broader law school population has now become the focus. Declining admissions (and the resulting decline in applicant credentials in some cases) and ABA emphasis on bar passage rates have continued the pressure for services to be available to all law students. Let us not forget our original purpose of supporting diversity as our roles expand.
- The work we do is not just about grades or bar passage. We teach skills that impact our graduates throughout their lives. We teach skills resulting in better lawyering and more satisfying living. Among the skills we teach are learning strategies, legal reasoning, problem solving, organizing work, managing time, managing stress, and avoiding procrastination.
- We need to be careful that we do not just jump from the "hot topic or solution of the month" to the next hot topic. It is tempting, but ultimately shallow. There is no magic wand available for ASP or bar prep. Learning, memory, and legal reasoning are complex topics with layers of nuance. To those three, we must add the topics of diversity, motivation, procrastination, learning disabilities, time management, work management, stress management, resilience, grit, mindset, and mental health - also very complex and nuanced. I could easily list another dozen topics that relate to our work. We need to investigate deeply to understand the nuances, remain open to intertwined concepts, and build successful strategies over time.
- The numbers game is not all that matters. It is nice if large numbers enroll in courses or attend workshops, but numbers alone do not tell the story. Our work regularly impacts on an individual level. We need to remember that assisting one student at a time is valuable. Let us not forget the merit of one-on-one assistance during our law schools' demand for numbers to tout.
- We need to provide alternative methods for students to access our services. Some services may involve mandatory appointments, workshops, or courses. However, even mandatory offerings may not reach all students who need help or may fail to reach them at the time when they are most receptive. We need to continue to explore different ways to reach students where they are and when they are receptive to services. The possibilities are endless, but include appointments, workshops, packets, handouts, email tips, podcasts, blog posts, YouTube videos, Facebook, Twitter, intranet pages, pop-up events, and walk-abouts.
- We need to remember that each student is unique. One size does not fit all, no matter what theory suggests. Each student comes with individual strengths, weaknesses, challenges, motivations, educational backgrounds, and experiences. We cannot forget the individual when we consider our repertoire of theories, generalities, and strategies.
- We need to ask questions and listen to the answers. I learn some of the best strategies from students explaining what they have discovered. In the search for the combination of strategies for each student, we need to explore with the student what works, does not work, needs to be modified, or needs to be tossed.
- We want students to succeed and are personally involved in their learning. However, ultimately the student must implement the strategies, eschew bad habits, and work to achieve success. Despite our best efforts, some students will not reach their full academic potential and may even fail academically or fail the bar repeatedly. It exemplifies the old adage of leading a horse to water.
- Working 60-70 hours per week (and often more) is the temptation in ASP/bar prep because we want to implement new programs, stay up with professional development, be available to students, show up at events to support them, and answer emails at all times of the day and night. However, working at such a pace leads to burnout and ultimately does not help us or our students. We need to model the work-life balance that we regularly recommend to our students.
- Have faith in your own expertise and the" best practices" that match your law school's culture. The variety of law schools means that one size does not fit all. Be open to ideas and weigh their value for your law school situation. ASP/bar prep colleagues are willing to share ideas and expertise - usually for free. Read the Law School Academic Support Blog, post queries on the Law School Academic Support listserv, attend AASE and AALS conferences or other regional workshops, and reach out to experienced colleagues. However, be wary of anyone who tells you there is one and only one (that is, the individual's own) path to "best practices" in ASP/bar prep; that viewpoint is just not accurate.
- No matter how dedicated and expert we are in our work, our law schools have to provide the facilities and resources for us to do our work well. Without commitments for space, budget, staffing, support services, and equal status, we will be limited in achieving the greatest results for our students. Talk is cheap. It takes actions from each and every law school in support of our ASP and bar professionals to make a difference.
ASP/bar prep work is challenging, impactful, rewarding, and gratifying. We can be proud of what we do each day. What we accomplish is important. We need all law schools to recognize how important our work is for our students' academic success and for their futures. (Amy Jarmon)
Thursday, May 9, 2019
In light of the rough and tumble bar passage declines over the past half-dozen years of so, numerous blogs and articles have appeared, trying to shed light on what factor or factors might be at play, running the gamut from changes in the bar exam test instrument, changes in law school admissions, changes in law school curriculum, etc. In addition, the academic support world has righty focused attention on how students learn (and how we can better teach, assist, coach, counsel, and educate our students to "learn to learn"). Indeed, I often prowl the internet on the lookout for research articles exploring potential relationships among the social (belonging), the emotional (grit, resiliency, mindset) and the cognitive in relationship to improving student learning.
Nevertheless, with so much riding on what is really happening to our students in their law school learning and bar preparation experiences, I am a little leery about much of the research because, to be frank, I think learning is, well, much more complicated than some statistical experiments might suggest.
Take one popular issue...growth mindset. Studies appear to demonstrate that a growth mindset correlates with improved test scores in comparison to a fixed mindset. But, as statisticians worth their salt will tell you, correlation does not mean causation. Indeed, it maybe that we ought not focus on developing positive mindsets but instead help our students learn to learn to solve legal problem and then, along the way, their mindsets change. It's the "chicken and the egg" problem, which comes first. Indeed, there is still much to learn about the emotional and its relationship with learning.
Take another popular issue...apparent declines, at least with some segments of bar takers - in LSAT scores. Many argue that such declines in LSAT scores are indeed the culprit with respect to declines in bar exam outcomes. But, to the extent LSAT might be a factor, by most accounts, its power is very limited in producing bar exam results because other variables, such as law school GPA are much more robust. In short, LSAT might be part of the story...but it is not the story, which is to say that it is not truly the culprit. Indeed, I tend to run and hide from articles or blogs in which one factor is highlighted to the exclusion of all else. Life just isn't that simple, just as learning is not either.
So, as academic support professionals indebted to researchers on learning, particular cognitive scientists and behaviorists, here are a few thoughts - taking from a recent article in Nature magazine - that might be helpful in evaluating to what extent research findings might in fact be beneficial in improving the law school educational experience for our students.
- First, be on the lookout for publication bias. Check to see who has funded the research project. Who gains from this research?
- Second, watch out for positive statistical results with low statistical power. Power is just a fancy word for effect or impact. If research results indicate that there is a positive statistical relationship between two variables of interest, say LSAT scores and bar exam scores, but the effect or impact is low, then there must be other latent factors at play that are even more powerful. So, be curious about what might be left unsaid when research results suggest little statistical power.
- Third, be on the guard for research results that just seem stranger than the truth. They might be true but take a closer look at the underlying statistical analysis to make sure that the researchers were using sound statistical tests. You see, each statistical test has various assumptions with respect to the data that must be met, and each statistical test has a purpose. But, in hopes of publishing, and having accumulated a massive data set, there's a temptation to keep looking for a statistical analysis that produces a positive statistical result even when the most relevant test for the particular experiment uncovers no statistically meaningful result. Good researchers will stop at that point. However, with nothing left to publish, some will keep at it until they find a statistical test, even if it is not the correct fit, that produces a statistical result. As a funny example, columnist Dorothy Bishop in Nature remarks about a research article in which the scientists deliberately keep at it until they found a statistical analysis that produced a positive statistical result, namely, that listening to the Beatles doesn't just make one feel younger...but makes one actually younger in age.
- Fourth, do some research on the researchers to see if the research hypothesis was formed on the fly or whether it was developed in connection with the dataset. In other words, its tempting to poke around the data looking for possible connections to explore and then trying to connect the dots to form a hypothesis, but the best research uses the data to test hypothesis, not develop post-hoc hypothesis.
Here's a link to the Nature magazine article to provide more background about how to evaluate research articles: https://www.nature.com. (Scott Johns).