Thursday, April 8, 2021
With just a few more weeks of classes for most law students, many of us are afraid. Sorely afraid because we know that we've got a lot to do and a lot to learn.
Facing those fears is key. I recall when I was growing up that parents constantly told me to be "careful." "Watch your step." "Play more gentle."
Sometimes I wish that the advice was instead: "Be courageous!"
You see, without bruises there can be little growth and thus little learning.
Nevertheless, it need not be all hard-knock lessons. After all, you as law students are paying valuable consideration to earn your law degrees. So take advantage of the resources that are available to you.
Let me give you a suggestion based on a column that I saw from a behavioral economist in response to the question "[w]hat's the best way to get useful feedback and make the most of...conversations?" D. Ariely, Dear Can Column, Wall Street Journal (Feb. 4, 2021).
The short answer is don't ask for feedback.
Instead, "...research shows that in general, looking at the past isn't the best way to figure out what we should be doing differently in the future. Instead of asking for feedback, which is backward-looking and usually vague, try asking your [professor] for advice. That will encourage them to look ahead and give you concrete suggestions and actionable items." Id.
So, be courageous. Seek out advice. Ask for concrete action items to improve future performance. Skip the feedback and instead ask for "feed for the future," i.e., advice. (Scott Johns).
Thursday, April 1, 2021
Let me ask a question. What's one thing you learned today? Often times, I move so fast through my day that I learn very little. Maybe you're a bit like me.
Unfortunately, class can be like that too.
I often find that in a rush to teach I sometimes leave little time for my students to learn. It's sort of like I feel as though my students' learning is dependent on me filling them with all that I know. Stuffing them full of legal jargon, techniques, and principles. In short, mush.
But that's not learning. Learning takes time, practice, trial, thoughtfulness, experience, creativity, struggle, rest, pursuit, and failure, just to list a few of the sensations and practices that we go through as we are learning.
In order to help me gauge what my students are learning in our class meetings, I try to end each online zoom class with a one-minute reflective chat. All participate because I use this chat as a chance to take attendance. I ask my students to post one thing that they have learned in class today. Just one thing.
Most of the time the comments are related to what we covered in class, but not always. But all of them are valuable, not just for me, but for the rest of the class too, because the responses are visible to all.
It's one way - in this world of online teaching - for me to learn from my students. Because, truth be told, learning is a two-way street, filled with bustling activity as we learn together with, through, and from each other.
So next time you end class, ask your students what they have learned today.
That's not just a great way to end class; it's also a great way to honor and respect your students as learners. (Scott Johns).
Thursday, March 18, 2021
It might seem a bit late in the learning curve. To welcome our students, again, to class.
But, I suppose I'm in a habit of doing so because each class I start with an enthusiastic "Welcome!"
Nevertheless, do I, do we, really mean that? Do we really "welcome" our students? And, if so, what do we mean and how do we go about "welcoming" our students?
It seems to me that the word "welcome" suggests something like "being present to embrace my students, coming along side them to create a place of graciousness wellness."
So, taking the inspiration from a presentation by Prof. Katie Jones (Lincoln Memorial University) about how to incorporate online corporate drafting exercises in law school spaces, I tried my hand at a very brief mini-exercise with the goal of helping my students welcome each other.
As Prof. Katie Jones explained, the first step was to craft a discussion question requiring group responses. Dividing the class into 12 to 20 small groups of students (and using google docs), the students - working in teams - drafted answers to the following question:
"What are three things that you share in common with your group outside of law school and legal education?"
Hard at work, the groups came up with lists, often times with more than 3 things shared.
Back together as a whole, I asked one group to share what they had learned about their group. The lists were fascinating, welcoming, and embracing, even if some of the things that they shared were things such as "We are all so fully spent and exhausted."
In short, they learned, at least a bit, that they weren't alone.
I next asked the group of students to share how they had learned the things that they shared in common.
That's where it got really interesting because the key to learning about group members was in asking questions, lots of questions, sometimes questions that led to dead ends and then other questions that led to sparks of commonness.
The questions required curiosity and creativity and openness. As they questioned, they learned. In fact, as one of my students at the end of class responded to the question from me about what they had all learned today, the student remarked that she learned that "asking questions is a form of learning."
How true! How well said!
So, rather than having students read research articles about how to learn to learn, you might try this simple exercise, courtesy of Prof. Kate Jones, in exploring in real-time how to learn. After all, sometimes the best lessons - the lasting lessons - come from within. (Scott Johns - University of Denver).
P.S. Asking questions, being curious, and engaging in creativity seem like the same tools that can make law school learning bloom.
Thursday, March 11, 2021
You've most likely heard the expression that "there's a method to our madness." I'm not so sure that's true in much of legal education, at least when it comes to teaching and learning.
I sometimes wonder if there's not much of a method, beyond the Socratic method, which means that there might be a just a lot of plain madness without methods. If so, then I suspect that we are leaving a lot of learners behind. And our world needs each of them, each of their voices, their experiences, and their skills.
Big picture wise, I have a hunch that the method of legal education might be summarized as "outside-in" teaching. By this I mean that our teaching practices seem to suggest that we believe that the best way to teach our students to learn is to have them hear from us, to listen to us, to watch us, and to emulate us. "Outside-in."
But research on legal education suggests that much if not most learning takes place outside of the classroom. It's "inside-out." It's the work that our students undertake within themselves to make memories with the materials, to create new connections to what they've learned before, and to experience and grow as creative thinkers and critical problem-solvers.
Everyday I skim the news and learn nothing.
Why not? Because I don't act on it. By my actions (or rather lack of actions) I seem to think - erroneously - that just by taking the news in that I am in some way learning something new about the world around me. After all the word "news" is derived from the singular "new."
But nothing new happens to me unless I take another step, unless I change something about me and how I view the world, in short, unless I act upon what I read.
That takes resolve, work, time, reflection, passion, commitment, and patience. That's because, if I were to brainstorm possible words that might serve as synonyms to learning, I think that the word I would choose would be "growing." Learning means growing. So as you work with students, you might ask them how they view learning. Better yet, ask them what they are doing to learn...today. In fact, you might ask them to share examples of "inside-out" learning (and how that helped them learn). (Scott Johns).
Thursday, March 4, 2021
I just read an article suggesting that learning to learn is the latest fad in higher education. Something that will pass, sooner or later, much like the buzz a few years back about learning styles. I'm not so sure.
Now I do have my doubts about the efficacy of lectures featuring talking-head presentations about how to learn to learn. That doesn't seem like learning how to learn. Rather, that seems like a good way, especially on zoom, to lull a class into a nice dreamlike state of slumber.
But, I've shown a few of the charts from the research reports to my students. When I show graphs to my students, I don't' talk. I wait. I wait some more. And I ask them what they see. I ask them what they learn from that chart about learning. I ask them how they might apply what they are learning to their academic work as law students. In other words, I have them act and create something personal from what they are witnessing so that what they are learning becomes part of them, becomes true to them.
So is learning to learn the latest craze? I can't say for sure. But it sure seems to be helping my students develop confidence in actively learning and diving into their studies, not as students, but as learners instead. And that's something to say, fad or no fad. (Scott Johns).
You've heard the quip about "the chicken or the egg, which comes first?"
Well, as the joke goes, "I've just ordered one of each from Amazon, so I let you know tomorrow!"
That got me thinking about memorization.
My students are really concerned about memorization, particularly because most of their law school exams, unlike bar exams, are open book/open note exams. But take a look at the word "memorization." That's a word of action, of a process, of recalling something previously learned. In other words, at its root core the word "memorization" derives from creating "memories." So how do you create memories when it comes to learning rules of law?
Or, to ask it another way, which comes first, memorization or memories?
Well, I think that the answer to that question is in the question because it's memories that we memorize. So the key to memorizing is to work through lots of problems, to test yourself with your study tools, in short, to create lots of memories with the rules. You see, memorization is just a fancy word for the process of experiencing memories through distributed and mixed practice over time. So, instead of worrying about memorization, make a memory (and lots of them). (Scott Johns).
Thursday, February 25, 2021
Sometimes I wonder if being a teacher is a bit of an act. If so, or at least if that's how I am playing my role in academic support, I might not be doing it quite right. I might not be really serving my students but myself instead.
You see, I love to be seen. In fact, when working with students, I find myself too often trying to mold them to think like me, to work through problems like me, to learn like me. In short, to watch me. But, that's a big problem because none of them - not one - is like me. We are all remarkably and marvelous and wonderfully different.
That means that my job is really not to be seen but to see, to observe, to listen, and to respond to my students. In short, I'm not the star; they are. And that makes a world of difference in how I approach academic support as a teacher, a coach, a facilitator, a mentor, and an encourager.
To put an emphasis on it, if I am only wanting to be seen, then I'm falling up short in my obligations to my students as an academic support professional. But if I am seeing them, like much in life, that's the beginning of understanding, learning, and growth, for my students and for myself.
Let's make this honest. Too often I do all of the talking, teaching, and coaching that I end up crowding out much of the learning.
To be frank, that's because I have "relationship" issues. I'm not confident enough in my abilities to actually help them, to listen to them, to respond with them.
But, as many have pointed out, the best solutions for overcoming learning difficulties come from within not without. So, as I move forward in my role as an academic support professional, I find myself trying to move a little out of the way so that my students can take center stage.
After all, it's for them that I serve. It's for them that we serve. (Scott Johns).
Thursday, February 18, 2021
Like many of you, this week's been hectic, filled with chats and jam sessions to help graduates finish strong in preparation for next week's bar exam.
Most look tired, really tired. Me too.
So we took a break from consideration and equal protection and secured transactions to talk about steps we might take to provide refreshment to rejuvenate our battle-worn minds.
I don't know what possessed me, but I asked our students if they had time to take a break, a walk, or a little excursion from bar prep. But before they could answer "no", I answered for them. Simply put, I blurted out - like an excited utterance - that "you can't afford NOT to take a break!"
As reporter Betsy Morris explains:
"Spending times in the woods - a practice the Japanese call 'forest bathing' - is strongly linked to lower blood pressure, heart rate, and stress hormones and decreased anxiety, depression and fatigue." Morris, B., "For Better Health, Just Head Outdoors," Wall Street Journal (Feb. 16, 2021). And, with respect to cognition, as Dr. Gretchen Daily observes based on research at Stanford University, "A 45-minute walk in nature can make a world of difference to mood, creativity, [and] the ability to use your working memory." Id.
In short, all work and no play is a recipe for disaster not success. Simply put, it doesn't work.
So, as you meet with bar takers for last moment tune-ups and encouragement, let them know that it's okay to take breaks, to put on a cap and gloves and hit a local park for a wintry walk. Along the way, they'll be not just feeding their spirits but also strengthening their minds. Now that's a great way to prepare for success, whether it's on the bar exam or in life. (Scott Johns).
Wednesday, February 10, 2021
I’ve had multiple students ask me this week “What should I do with the remaining 12 days before the Bar Exam?” so I thought I’d share my advice with anyone else that may be wondering.
First, 12 days is more than you think. I promise.
Second, remember that the goal is NOT to memorize everything. It’s not possible. So, if you don’t feel like you know every last piece of law ever that can possibly be tested on the exam, you are not alone. It’s a normal feeling!
So, what CAN you do?
Practice. Between now and the 19th or so, this is the last big push where you can practice. Make sure you’ve practice MBE sets in 100, and timed. Make sure you’ve written more than one essay at a time. Now might be the time two take 90 minutes and write 3 essays, or take 3 hours and write 2 MPTs! It’s one thing to write one essay in 30 minutes, it’s an entirely different thing to get through 6 at a time! It’s hard, it’s tiring, and it’s easy to lose focus. So, the only want to work on your stamina and timing is to practice. This upcoming weekend and week is the perfect time to get that in, and really make sure you are practicing in test like conditions, or as close as possible.
Start to work on memory and recall. Yes, there are things you just NEED to remember. This week, and until the day of the exam, take 5-10 minute chunks to work on memory. See this post for more on memory: https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/academic_support/2021/02/memorization-v-understanding.html
Finally the days leading up to the exam, the weekend before, take some time to relax. It sounds counterintuitive, but it’s important.
Here is a little timeline to help:
Four Days Before the Bar Exam
This should be your last day of “heavy lifting” activities. Complete a set of 50 timed MBE questions. Complete a set of three MEE questions, timed. Complete a full-length timed MPT. Do not pick and choose between these – do all of them. This is the last day you will do practice that improves your stamina and timing. Remember, you should be doing these things all week, but four days before the exam is your cut off point.
Three Days Before the Bar Exam
In terms of bar exam preparation, today you should complete 15 to 20 MBE questions, complete one timed MEE question, outline three to five additional MEE questions, and complete one full-length timed MPT. You are tapering off. This isn’t an exact science – the point is that you are practicing, so you will feel prepared, but you aren’t tiring yourself out.
This is also the day to do something relaxing for yourself – watch a movie, go on a run. Do something that is going to make you feel less stressed. You should also be sure to go to bed early and eat well. Yes, that sounds like “mothering” but it’s good advice. On the days of the exam you will NEED to be well rested and refreshed.
Two Days Before the Bar Exam
Rinse and repeat yesterday. Today you should complete 15 to 20 MBE questions, complete one timed MEE question, outline three to five additional MEE questions, and complete one full-length timed MPT.
Take some more time to do something relaxing for yourself to help relieve some of that bar exam stress. And again - you should be sure to go to bed early and eat well.
Also, when I say do something relaxing for yourself, that can be almost anything that makes you happy. The point is to get out of your head a bit, and give yourself a break. I realize it might seem like the worst time to take a break, but it’s not. Your brain needs to feel “fresh” on exam days. Think of it like running a marathon – you don’t run 26.2 miles, or even 13 miles, the day before the marathon. You’d be exhausted. The days leading up to the actual marathon you might run 1-5 miles and stretch, and relax, and eat pasta. This is your mental marathon, so treat your brain accordingly.
One Day Before the Bar Exam
Today you should lighten the mental lift even more. Review your flashcards and other memory devices. Outline three to five MEE questions. Do five MBE questions to keep your brain in the practice of thinking through MBE questions without overly taxing it.
You also want to make sure you have everything ready for tomorrow. What types of ID do you need? What are you allowed to bring in with you to the exam? Make sure to have all those items pulled together and ready to go. Make sure your laptop is fully charged. And as silly as it sounds, map out how you will get to the exam location (if you are going to a location). Do you need to worry about parking? Are you taking a train? Do not leave anything to chance. Most of you, but not all, are currently looking at virtual exams. So do you have a good space to take the exam? Do you know how you will log in? What the timing is? Etc?
Finally, relax. You’ve put in so many hours, weeks, months of preparation – you’ve got this. Take some time to relax and unwind before bed. Eat a simple meal that will sit well with your potentially uneasy stomach. Lastly, head to bed a bit earlier than usual to account for nerves keeping you awake.
Day One of the Bar Exam
Today is the day. Make sure you are on time for check in and have everything with you. Today is filled with the MPT and MEE. At the lunch break and after the day of testing ends, do not talk with others about the contents of the exam. Invariably, one of you will think you saw a subject the other did not spot – and you won’t know who was right or wrong until you get your final bar results, so there is no benefit to discussing such matters now. Doing so will only freak you out and add to your anxiety.
After the testing day is complete, eat dinner and mentally decompress. If you must, review a few flashcards – perhaps the ones you still struggle with and want just one more run at. But this is not the time to do any serious review or learning because your brain is tired from today and needs to rest up for tomorrow. What is there is there. Have confidence that your hard work will pay off tomorrow!
Day Two of the Bar Exam
It is almost over! Today you will tackle the MBE and then – be done! After the testing day is over, just like yesterday – do not talk about the exam! Instead, relax, take a nap, celebrate!
Tuesday, February 9, 2021
Here it is, Tuesday evening, and I am finally settling down to write another blogfest – this, like many weeks, despite having specifically placed this high enough up on my to-do list that I genuinely expected to be starting in the early afternoon. The problem – one I am sure we are all familiar with – is not the writing, but all the other things I had planned to finish beforehand, which took far longer than I had originally estimated they would. Fortunately, such difficulties are illustrative of this week’s topic of discussion – the planning fallacy and how to counteract it.
The planning fallacy is a simple psychological phenomenon: human beings’ predictions about the time needed to complete a future task are usually significant underestimations. In some cases, wild underestimations: for example, when construction began on the Sydney Opera House in 1959, it was expected to be completed by 1963, but the site was not actually finished until 1973. Daniel Kahneman and his partner Amos Tversky were the first to describe this phenomenon, more than forty years ago, and Kahneman writes about it in his wonderful book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. He explains it as a kind of optimism bias, a tendency of people to adopt the rosiest scenarios as they imagine how a task will proceed. Later scholars added other nuances to this explanation. One reason for this apparent optimism bias, for example, might be the self-serving human tendency, when considering similar past situations, to take personal credit for all the things that went right (and thus assume they will go right again in the future), but to attribute errors and delays to outside forces that they presume will not occur again.1 Nassem Taleb, in his book Antifragile, suggests it may not only be a psychological phenomenon, but also a consequence of a natural asymmetry: whenever circumstances or events cause a deviation from a well-laid-out plan, chances are far greater that the disruption will lead to delay than to expedition, so that the sum total of all deviations would always be expected to be postponement.
How many times have we seen the planning fallacy in action amongst our students? Just in the past month, I have met with returning students, vowing to perform better in this coming spring semester, who base this determination on unaccountably confident projections of all the steps they will complete to do so. I have worked with February bar examinees, noses to the grindstone, who despite their genuine efforts are finding themselves slipping behind their intended schedules. Not every student suffers from this bias, of course, and many of those who experience the bias don't actually suffer for it, either because they start with ambitious goals that leave plenty of leeway or because they find the extra time and energy to offset their underestimated projections. Still, every year brings a significant crop of students who do not perform as well as they might have, because they seriously underestimate how long it will take them to complete an essay test question, compile a useful outline, learn the rules governing a specific legal topic, research, draft, and edit a significant writing assignment, or attend to the demands of student organizations.
Fortunately, the psychologists and scientists who have studied the planning fallacy have suggested a few strategies that can be used to counteract it, and these strategies are easily adoptable -- or correspond to techniques already used -- by academic support professionals. In his book, Kahneman suggests the use of reference class forecasting -- that is, making predictions of the time needed to complete a task based not on a person's (or an entity's) internal sense of how long it should take them, but on observations of actual outcomes in prior similar situations. In other words, if I were going to build an opera house, I might start off by assuming I could get it done in a few years, but if I considered how long it took to build the one in Sydney (and of course in other locations), I should understand that it is likely to take more than a decade. Many of us do something at least adjacent to this with our students already -- providing them with estimates about how long they should expect to take to complete a case brief, for example, or to study for the MPRE -- but the idea of reference class forecasting suggests that it might be even more powerful to refer specifically to prior performances by other students. Instead of saying, "You should devote at least 24 hours," it might be more effective to say, "Last year, every student who devoted 4 hours a day, every Saturday and Sunday, for three weeks, completed this successfully."
Another suggestion is the use of the segmentation effect. It has been observed that a person's estimate of the total time it will take to complete a task will be longer -- and thus likely more accurate -- if they are asked to segment the task (break the task down into a number of sub-tasks), to estimate the time it will take to complete each sub-task, and then to add all those times together to come up with the total time.2 However, there is a cognitive cost to being mindful and particular enough to break complex tasks down into numerous sub-tasks, and, without help, this kind of approach may be hard to learn and sustain. Fortunately, this is just the kind of help we can give, especially to inexperienced students who may not be able to envision how a long-term task can be broken down, or even what all the steps involved might be. By providing students with a framework of what to expect, and encouraging them to think realistically about what it will take to build each part of that framework, we can help them to stay on track, or at least in the general vicinity of the track, by using the segmentation effect.
Finally, another tool that has been suggested to combat the planning fallacy is the implementation intention, a term coined by Peter Gollwitzer for a particular model of thinking about future actions. Encouraging people to think specifically about when, where, and how they will act towards their goal tends to make them more likely to move forward steadily, and in a timely way, towards them. For example, people who received a telephone call in which someone asked them what time they planned to vote, from where they would be heading to the polling place, and what they would be doing just before they left to vote -- all questions designed to prompt them to think about when, where, and how they would vote -- were more likely to vote than those who did not receive the phone call.3 The mental IF-->THEN statement (as in, "If I am aiming to take a practice exam, then I should get a copy of an old exam from the library on Friday") is the implementation intention that moves people apace towards their goals. This, too, is something that academic support professionals do, or can do. By querying students about the specifics of how they expect to achieve their long-term goals, we can induce them to map out their plans in advance, changing vague ambitions about what they would like to achieve into articulable steps (the implementation intentions) that they can follow methodically to their desired ends within the time they have available.
It is a natural human tendency to overestimate what can be done in a given period of time. By helping our students account for this tendency, even if we cannot help them complete everything, we can at least help them get in a position where they've done enough to succeed.
1(1995) It's About Time: Optimistic Predictions in Work and Love, European Review of Social Psychology, 6:1, 1-32,
Monday, February 1, 2021
Success is a matter of perspective. For some, success means money, power, and prestige. In truth, money, power, and prestige (and the never-ending pursuit of them) often do not bring lasting fulfillment or personal satisfaction because there is always someone who has more—more money, more power, more prestige.
In the law school context, high grades are considered a precursor for these common measures of success, which can lead some law students to define success in law school solely in terms of grades. As a metric, it is true that grades are important . . . and, as a law student, you should work hard (and smart) on what’s important. But what fulfillment or personal satisfaction do you really gain by framing success solely in terms of grades? Each achievement becomes transactional, with a fleeting moment of satisfaction followed by the swift return of a desire for “more.”
I read an interesting article recently that framed the relentless pursuit of success as people choosing being “special” over being happy. The author notes that, in pursuit of success, we may choose to sacrifice our relationships or even our own well-being. Despite such sacrifice, we do not feel sated . . . fated instead to feeling we are not successful “enough” and chasing the next success high.
As I read the article, I felt attacked thought about my time as a law student and how I defined success. Back then, for me, being successful meant having the highest grades and achieving all the things people told me were indicative of a successful law student (top grades, law review, judicial clerkship, etc.). I also wanted those things for myself but, at the time, I was more focused on why other people said I should have them (and what they would think if I did not). With each achievement came a hunger for the next one, and with each setback came devastating self-doubt and internal criticism. It was not until I was a bit older (and wiser) that I began to rethink how I defined success and prioritize what I needed to feel happy and fulfilled.
To the law students who may be reading this, if you see some part of yourselves in this post, I encourage you to think now about how you define success and to develop metrics for success that are meaningful to you. What kind of person do you want to be? What kind of law student do you want to be? What opportunities in law school align with your goals, needs, and interests? Begin the journey now of releasing yourself from the judgment and expectations of others and focus instead on what you need to feel fulfilled.
To the ASPers who may be reading this, if you see some part of yourselves in this post, I encourage you to revisit the metrics you associate with success on a personal and professional level. How do you define success for yourself? How do you define success for students? How might your definition of success affect the way you interact with students? Consider how redefining your definition(s) of success can increase your personal satisfaction and enhance your relationships with students.
(Victoria McCoy Dunkley)
Arthur C. Brooks, ‘Success Addicts’ Choose Being Special Over Being Happy, The Atlantic (July 30, 2020), https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2020/07/why-success-wont-make-you-happy/614731/.
Sarah Lahlou-Amine, Defining Success in Terms of Satisfaction Starts in Law School, ABA Student Lawyer Blog (Oct. 11, 2019), https://abaforlawstudents.com/2019/10/11/defining-success-in-terms-of-satisfaction-starts-in-law-school/.
Sunday, January 31, 2021
Some of you are getting your Fall grades, and for some of you this is the first time in getting law school grades. So let me assure you of something – your grades do not define you. If your grades make you happy, you should be proud. But they don’t define you. If your grades were not what you had hoped for, your grades do not define you. Your actions, the way you treat classmates, the cases you take on, the way you treat future clients and future colleagues – all of these things will define you. But your grades are not on that list.
Now, having said that, I’m well aware that grades are important, they help you get on things like law review, obtain clerkships and obtain your first jobs. So yes, they are important. But no, they do not define you.
So, if your grades are less than stellar, or not what you were hoping, pick yourself up and learn from your mistakes. The key is to not dwell on the mistakes, but learn from them. What can you do in the Spring to bring those grades up? Or, if you are happy with the grades, ensure that Spring grades are just as good? Try the following:
- Meet with your professors and review your exams. Even if you did fairly well, it’s worth looking over your exams with your professors. Talk about what you did well, and where you can improve. Many students focus on the fact that they correctly issue spotted, or came to the “correct” conclusion, when in reality, most professors are also looking at things like organization, and most importantly, how you came to the conclusions that you did!
Don’t be afraid to reach out. I talk to many students who are embarrassed, or a bit nervous. Your professors want you to improve and succeed. It is part of their job to review these exams with you, so please approach them!
A good starting point is this CALI lesson: How to Learn from Exams, by Melissa A Hale
- Take an honest look at this past semester, and self assess. This is incredibly important for your law school career, but also for your legal career. Learning to self assess performance is an invaluable skill that we all need.
- Did you read and brief all cases?
- How much time did you spend studying for each class?
- Did you meet with your professors during the semester, and talk about things you struggled to understand?
- Did you complete practice exams? If so, how many?
- Did you start outlining early or late?
Be honest with yourself in all of these questions. In addition ,think about other things that might have been happening, especially since we are currently in a pandemic:
- How was your mental health?
- Do you have test taking anxiety?
- Did you have a good place to study?
- If you are easily distracted, did you find ways to deal with that anxiety?
- Were there any life events that interfered with studying? Such as a break up, a death in the family, other personal turmoil? A health concern or health issue?
Again, this is a self reflection, so be completely honest. There is a CALI lessons that helps lead you through these issues, written by Renee Nicole Allen - Semester Self Assessment and Reflection - https://www.cali.org/lesson/18326
In addition, try the following:
Grit, Growth, and Why it matters, by Melissa A. Hale
Assessing Your Own Work, by Allie Robbins
Above all else, remember that while grades might open up some opportunities for some, even a few years into the future, they will not matter. And also remember, you can always learn and grow – whether you want to improve on something you did well, or learn from mistakes.
Thursday, January 28, 2021
I sometimes think that those who fall behind were left behind.
That might be particularly true in legal education.
Learning well is also about being well, about finding a place within the community of learners to belong, about developing the confidence that one has what it takes to thrive in law school. And there's research to bear this out, especially with respect to bar exam performance.
According to researchers on successful mindset interventions for bar takers:
"As Mindsets in Legal Education (MILE) researchers, we designed, administered, and evaluated the online productive mindset intervention referred to as the California Bar Exam Strategies and Stories Program (the program). In partnership with the State Bar of California (SBC), we streamlined and simplified the enrollment process while improving participation on the July 2018 and July 2019 California bar exams.
Proven Effectiveness: Working closely with the SBC, we conducted a preliminary analysis of the program in January 2020. The results suggest that the program increases the likelihood of passing the bar exam, after controlling for LSAT and GPA, by between 6.8 to 9.6 percent, depending on the analysis conducted.
Boost for First-Generation and Underrepresented Minority Students: The program particularly helped applicants who were first-gen college students and underrepresented minorities, according to our analyses.
Reductions in Psychological Friction: Our analyses suggest that the productive mindset intervention succeeded by reducing psychological friction. Among applicants studying for the exam, it fostered stress-is-enhancing and growth mindsets that helped them succeed in the face of stress, anxiety, and mistakes."
Too often, I think that the law school experience is filled with needless "psychological friction." That was certainly true of my law school experience.
As one turning forty in law school, I spent most of my time alone, worried about how to keep up, worried about being called on in classes, worried about being shown up to be an imposer, utterly unsuitable for the practice of law. Because of that experience, which still bites into my heart, I find myself often wondering what my students are facing, especially in the midst of this on-going pandemic.
Rather than wondering, perhaps I should ask? Perhaps I should listen more? Perhaps I should...
It's really up to us to help our students not fall behind by being left behind. That's a tremendous challenge...and responsibility...for us as legal educators. (Scott Johns).
Tuesday, January 26, 2021
There is something about this time of year – perhaps the sweeping winter landscape, perhaps the complex and dramatic tale that is law school – something that makes me think of the golden age of Russian literature. Where would jurisprudence be without The Government Inspector or Crime and Punishment? And of course, the most important line in literature for academic success professionals comes at the start of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina:
Happy families are all alike. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
The idea captured in this line has been recognized as a generalizable “Anna Karenina Principle”: In many systems, enterprises, or entities, a significant flaw in one or any combination of factors can lead to failure, while success depends on a certain similarity of strength in each of those factors. There is a satisfying monotony to success. But there are thousands of ways to fall short.
Tolstoy was not the first to think of this, or even to articulate it. Aristotle says, in his unputdownable classic Nicomachean Ethics, put it this way:
It is possible to fail in many ways . . . while to succeed is possible only in one way.
It’s not clear how much credence we should give to this work – no one even knows for sure which Nicomachus the book was dedicated to, since both Aristotle’s father and his son had that name – and we surely can’t take literally the intimation that everyone with a 3.5 GPA or above is exactly alike. But just as surely, each unhappy law student is unhappy in their own way.
Drawing a parallel between struggling law students and Anna Karenina might seem thoughtless or even risky, given Anna’s unhappy ending in the second-to-last part of the book. But there’s a reason the book does not end there. In the final part of the book, Levin, friend of Anna’s brother, comes to realize that, despite his past familial unhappiness, he has the capacity to build a happy family, despite the ways in which he knows he may continue to fall short, because he has the power to continue to keep working at it.
Besides evoking the Russian steppes (well, at least here in Buffalo), this time of year also delivers fall semester grades, and, thus, some unhappy law students. It is one of the privileges and challenges of this job that I get to know students well enough to learn their own ways of being unhappy. There is a kind of shivery tension in the air as students work with me, often for the first time since arriving at law school, to face their unhappy grades, with hope or shame or defiance or resignation. No one wants to remain unhappy, but not everyone wants to hear that their way of being unhappy is unique. To be sure, some students do want to hear that; individuality can be inspiring. But other students are hoping for the magic bullet, the one tool or book or trick or advice that will fix every problem. Still other students are discouraged by the idea that their issue, or combination of issues, makes them unique, as if that is proof of their fear that they alone among their classmates were not really meant for law school. The most important thing to remind all these students is that uncovering how each of them is unique is the first step towards helping them to discover how to be happy law students.
And, after all, as Tolstoy also said in Anna Karenina:
Spring is the time of plans and projects.
Monday, January 18, 2021
It is that time of year again. Many first-year law students are anxiously awaiting grades from their first semester of law school. To all of you, I say: I hope your first semester grades are everything you want them to be.
Regardless, try to maintain perspective. Each grade is but a snapshot of your performance during a “moment” in time and, sometimes, it can feel as if there is no rhyme or reason to how each of those snapshots develop. Students who studied more may not perform as well as expected. Students who studied less may perform better than expected. The exam you thought was your best performance may end up being your worst grade. Similarly, the exam you thought was your worst performance may end up being your best grade.
Whatever your grades are, your feelings about them are valid. It is okay to feel excited about and celebrate your good grades, but do not rest on your laurels (keep doing the work). It is okay to feel frustrated or disappointed about less-than-ideal grades, but do not get stuck in that frustration or disappointment. Process your feelings and then pivot.
Your grades are not the final word on your abilities or the opportunities you will have. They are also in no way indicative of your value as a person or how great of a lawyer you will become. What matters more than a less-than-ideal grade is what you do in response, and that response can make for a great narrative of grit and resilience that you share with, among others, future employers.
If your grades are not everything you want them to be, get to work changing your reality for the spring term. Connect with your ASP faculty and/or staff to discuss your strengths and identify areas for growth, then develop a plan to expand upon the former and work on the latter. Cultivate a growth mindset. Your abilities and skills are not fixed—you can develop and refine them with practice and by leveraging your feedback. One semester of grades does not define you or dictate your story. YOU are the author of your story. Keep writing.
(Victoria McCoy Dunkley)
Eduardo Briceño and Dawn Young, A Growth Mindset for Law School Success, ABA Student Lawyer Blog (Sept. 12, 2017), https://abaforlawstudents.com/2017/09/12/growth-mindset-law-school-success/.
Heidi K. Brown, Law School Grades Are Not Your Story—You Are Your Story, ABA Student Lawyer Blog (Jan. 9, 2020), https://abaforlawstudents.com/2020/01/09/law-school-grades-are-not-your-story-you-are-your-story/.
Tuesday, January 12, 2021
When I was a kid, I saw an episode of the TV series Maude that was broadcast on November 1, 1976 – the day before Election Day. Maude, the assertive main character, was trying to convince everyone to write in Henry Fonda for President. When her featherbrained neighbor Vivian asked Maude why she was in such a rush to get the idea out, Maude looked at her severely and explained that the election was happening tomorrow.
“Tomorrow?!” exclaimed Vivian. “And it seems like only yesterday it was Halloween!”
Well, today, with the results of the October bar exam barely in hand for many examinees, we have leapt right back into preparation for the February exam. Perhaps the final casualty of the Endless Summer is the strict reduction of time to process the relationship between all that happened before the exam and the results that came out of it. Individuals who just found out in late December or early January that they did not pass have had to decide very quickly whether to register for the February exam. A California repeat examinee could still register next week, with as few as 32 days left before the exam is administered. And while many states and law schools have seen an increase in bar pass rates compared to July of 2019, we have entered the February bar study period without some of the data we might ordinarily use to assess the reasons for any changes in passage rates. At least here in New York, some of the granular data about subject-matter performance on the MBE portion has not been provided, and information about statewide trends have only been reported in the most general terms. This makes it harder to determine the effects of the delay, of the changes in format and delivery, and of strategies adopted or resources provided in response.
Tomorrow is February?! It seems like only yesterday it was October!
Thus, even though the February bar exam represents a great stride towards “normalcy” in many jurisdictions – in that it will be delivered on a traditional set date, with typical full UBE content – this will still be an unusual administration, affected by ripples of the pandemic. Some repeat examinees will be facing a compressed study period, although I have observed that a least a portion of them, perhaps spurred to greater-than-normal pessimism under the circumstances, began preparing prophylactically even before scores were announced. In any case, those of us who work with repeating graduates may be asked to provide additional support.
More frustrating to me is having to determine what aspects of the support provided to our examinees over the five months between graduation and the October bar would be most advantageously replicated over the next two months. The extended prep period was, I felt, grueling for all involved, but it provided time and motivation for examinees and teachers alike to try new strategies. Based on our results, some of these strategies appear to have beneficial. But which ones? And are they replicable between now and the end of February, or were they successful because, and not in spite of, the long stretch of time before the October administration? Without all the information I wish I had, this feels in some ways similar to what many of us had to do this summer: reacting to a novel situation without certainty, and ending up (very likely) relying in part on intuition and extraordinary effort.
Hopefully, knock on wood, fingers crossed, things won't feel this way come summer 2021. For now, the one thing I am fairly certain played an important part in my examinees' performance that is likely replicable now was the increased sense of camaraderie and support that they reported as a result of the very high-touch summer and fall. With so many changes so frequently, and with unbelievable levels of anxiety among bar studiers (who on the whole are not typically known for tranquil, detached attitudes), I initiated what would turn out to be bi-weekly (or more frequent) Zoom meetings to pass along news, share strategies, and provide opportunities for feedback. Already feeling isolated by the pandemic, the students reported that these meetings helped them feel connected to each other and to the school, and it appears they took more advantage of the resources we made available (including lots of one-on-one meetings with me). This was kind of a form of intrusive counseling. It seems to have worked, at least under those recent conditions, which in some ways are still ongoing. So, while I am still hoping to develop more clarity about how other specifics contributed to examinees' performance, this is one lesson I took from yesterday that I can apply today to help my examinees prepare for tomorrow.
Thursday, December 17, 2020
Wow. At long last, final exams are over...sort of.
For most of us, we have a very difficult time with uncertainty in general, which is particularly exasperating as we wait - sometimes for weeks - for our grades to arrive (and the more so in light of the current ongoing pandemic).
So, despite the festive times that are supposed to fill this month, we often find ourselves unable to relax, to enjoy others (and ourselves), and to simply wind down and rest.
Nevertheless, there's a simple way - in just a flash of a moment - to help break free from the many stresses and strains of the past few weeks of final exams. Why not try out, today, the "smile loop?" It sounds, sort of, fun, doesn't it? So, here's the scoop (and the science too):
You see, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal by Elizabeth Bernstein:
"Smiling produces neural messaging in your brain that makes you happier. Some studies have shown that when we smile our facial muscles contract, which slightly distorts the shape of the thin facial bones. This leads to an increase in blood flow into the frontal lobes of the brain and the release of the feel-good chemical dopamine. And, when we smile at someone, that person tends to smile back. So, we've created a feel-good loop." http://www.wsj.com/articles/how-to-fall-back-in-love
For those of you that are not scientists (that's me!), the short scoop is that smiling brightens not just our days but the days of those around us. And, it seems to me that smiling at another person helps put us on the right track to thinking about others rather than worrying about the past few weeks of final exams (with its lingering wait for grades). Indeed, despite face masks due to the pandemic, I've noticed that I can tell whether someone is smiling. Even masks can't stop us from appreciating smiles!
A few years back I had the chance to put smiling to the test in very difficult circumstances as a volunteer attorney. There's a little Greek island just a few short miles off the Turkish coast. Because of its locale so close to Turkey, thousands of people had been fleeing on small inflatable boats across the Aegean Sea to escape persecution and in some cases war in their native countries - from Syria to Iran to Iraq to Afghanistan to South Sudan - with the hope of receiving refuge in the European Union. I talked with a man, his wife and his adorable small children that risked it all traveling by land from Afghanistan through Iran and Turkey only to be finally living for months in a small UNHCR tent in a refugee camp on the island of Chios.
Despite the lack of resources and the uncertainty of still waiting - for months on end - to receive as of yet an asylum hearing, he smiled. And, then his children smiled. Why, his whole family smiled. In the December cold of the wind swept coast of this little island refugee camp, we all smiled...together. He and his family may not have had much to give but they gave something immeasurably priceless...they shared smiles with me.
Let me say, this was not a unique experience. As I walked through the refugee camp with a number of refugee-seekers, even though we often didn't speak the same language, we were able to communicate in ways richer than words. Over and over, refugees would just come up to me with big generous smiles and warm handshakes of greetings. Memorably, a small Syrian boy grabbed my hand one day by the lunch tent as a group of young people were dancing, asking me to join in the footsteps and singing.
You see, smiles are not just a trick to make your life better or happier. Rather, smiles are the sweetness of life itself in helping us to make the world a little better for others.
So, as you wait for final exam grades to come in, be of good courage and share smiles with those around you. Who knows? That brief smile might get you up and dancing!
Monday, December 7, 2020
Law students seeking to avoid unnecessary stress and maximize learning opportunities should consider adopting a modified Vegas rule during the exam period. In the law school exam context, this rule is simple: Take the wisdom, Leave the substance (Take the “W” and Leave the “S”).
Each law school exam provides an opportunity to become a better exam taker. Students experience firsthand the challenges of effectively managing their time, ordering issues, outlining responses, and applying rules to a new set of facts. Do not ignore the wisdom to be gained from each exam experience. Instead, identify the lessons to be learned, and commit to practicing and refining your skills and/or exam-taking strategy as needed before the next exam.
Once you have completed an exam, do not discuss the substance of it with anyone during the exam period. If someone tries to engage you in such a discussion, politely decline. Walk away, leave the chat, step away from the video call. Do not talk substance, do not collect anxiety. Nothing good comes from rehashing the substance of your exam with your peers (and it may run afoul of your law school’s honor code). Almost invariably, someone will have “spotted” an issue that you “missed.” As you sit and listen, second-guessing your answer, anxiety levels rise and confidence levels fall. In reality, that issue you “missed” may not have really been an issue at all. The damage that discussion can do to your confidence and focus, however, is very real. Keep your eyes forward and on the prize.
(Victoria McCoy Dunkley)
Tuesday, December 1, 2020
Now that Thanksgiving is past, most law students have started or are about to start preparing for final exams. With an entire semester of material to master, many try to prioritize what to spend their time on. Some concepts and rules, introduced early in the course, may feel tediously familiar through repetition, and students may feel they can afford not to spend time on them now, especially if they tested successfully on those points on the midterm. Experimental evidence suggests, however, that time could still be well spent, even on familiar material, if it is spent the right way.
Jeffrey D. Karpicke and Henry L. Roediger III, psychologists at Washington University, ran a series of tests of memory recall of lists of words, examining the effects of two distinct tasks that contribute to learning: studying and testing.1 Their first set of tests, similar to other experiments that had been done over the previous 40 years, sought to determine what combination of studying (in this case, visually reviewing lists of words to be memorized) and testing (writing down recalled words under time pressure) would produce the best learning. Some subjects were told to study a list of words, then were tested on their recall, then given another opportunity to study, and finally given one last test. These were identified as STST subjects. Other subjects were given disproportionate opportunities to study, or to test: either three study periods and one test (SSST) or one study period followed by three tests (STTT). The scientists then compared recall performance for different groups of subjects after the final test. Hopefully not surprising to either law students or Academic Success professionals, the subjects in the STST group had the best recall in the end. As other psychologists have observed, a mix of studying and testing produces the best learning.
What was new and interesting was the second phase of their testing, in which they variations on the STST pattern on new groups of subjects, and tested recall not just at the end of the four-step pattern, but also on an extra test given one week later. In addition to testing some volunteers using the original STST method (study, test, study, test), and to tweaking the order (but not the ratio) by giving some volunteers two study sessions followed by two test sessions (SSTT), the scientists tested a third set of volunteers by starting with the same size set of words in the first two steps (study, test), but then removing from the word list all the words successfully recalled at that point, and then asking the volunteers to study and then test using only the words not recalled in the first test. Using the reduced list of words was identified with a subscript "N", so this set of examinees was called "STSNTN". [This method is familiar to many who study (or recommend studying) with flash cards by removing from the deck each card you recall correctly, so that every new pass through the deck, you are only studying and testing yourself on the information you failed to recall the last time.] Finally, a fourth set of volunteers similarly started with a complete list of words, which they studied and were tested upon, and then spent a second study period studying only the reduced list (that is, again, they did not have to study any words they had already learned). However, on their second test, all of the words from the initial list were tested, even those that were not studied a second time. Thus, this was the "STSNT" group.
What Karpicke and Roediger discovered this time was that the STSNTN group clearly had the best recall after the second test -- in fact, among the fifteen subjects tested in this group, there was only a single instance of a word not being recalled. In other words, this group had the "fastest initial learning" of all, apparently because they focused both their studying and their testing on material that they had not previously learned. They learned the material more quickly than either group that studied and tested on all the words twice (STST and SSTT) or the group that studied only material that it had not previously learned, but tested on all the words twice (STSNT). And this has an intuitive appeal to those of us who have used flash cards -- if you focus on your gaps, you can overcome them more quickly, right?
However, the scientists also tested all the subjects one week later, asking them to recall all the words from their initial lists. And on this later test of long-term memory, the STSNTN group performed the worst. One might simply attribute this to those subjects having spent less total time and mental energy on the learning task, since they had a reduced word list for the second half of their learning. If that were the case, though, you would expect that the best long-term results would have been seen in the STST group, which studied and tested on full word lists twice. In fact, the long-term performance of the STSNT group was as good as, and in some cases better than, the performance of the STST group. This suggests that it does not matter so much whether you spend time studying material you already know, as long as make sure to continue to test yourself on that material along with the material you are continuing to learn.
So over the next few weeks, as our students work somewhere between diligently and frantically to prepare themselves for their final exams, it seems that the most efficient and effective use of their time will be to focus their study time (reviewing, rote memorization, consulting supplementary material, asking TAs and professors questions) on the things they are unsure of, but to continue to test themselves on everything in the syllabus.
1Jeffrey D. Karpicke & Henry L. Roediger III, Repeated retrieval during learning is the key to long-term retention, Journal of Memory and Language 57 (2007) 151-162.
Wednesday, November 25, 2020
To the Law Students, especially first years:
It's ok to take a break. I promise. I wanted to give you some great advice for exams, and since Victoria has written about so many tips for prepping for and writing the exams, my advice is to relax.
I know, I know, you have so much to do. But your brain really DOES retain information better if you give yourself breaks. I'm not suggesting that you don't do any work between now and Monday, but I am suggesting that you pace yourself, and do a few fun things for yourself as well. Netflix does have some great holiday movies coming out!
If you are a first year, it's also important to put things in perspective. Yes, grades are important, we can't get around that issue. But so is your mental and physical health. It's tempting to put so much pressure on yourself, and you need to realize that as long as you are doing your best, that's all we can ask of you.
Also, don't be afraid to ask for help. From your professors. From your Academic Support people. From a Dean of Students. We all want to see you succeed, and we will do what we can to make that happen. If you don't know how to ask for help, that's ok too. It's a good idea to start with someone like your Academic Support person, or your Dean of Students. Literally go in and say "I'm having a hard time, and I don't know how to ask for help." We will help you! Promise!
And speaking of help, if you are entitled to non standard testing accommodations, and especially if you have used them in other situations, please reach out and ask for them! For some schools, it might be late in the process, but it can't hurt to at least see what's possible.
Finally, practice! Don't go into your exams having never practiced one. The more practice exams you do, the better you will feel, and it WILL be reflected in your grades.
To my Academic Support Colleagues:
We need to take this advice as well! We are so good at advising our students on how to take care of their mental health, how important it is to take time for breaks, and to do things for themselves. But we don't always take our own advice. Hypocrites, the lot of us. The AASE programming board put on a fantastic workshop about how we should be helping ourselves, and each other, so take this as an important reminder. Especially, if you are like me, your list of things that must get done this weekend is a mile long. I'm going to try to take my own advice and do the best I can, while also spending some time with my husband, and maybe watching a Christmas movie or two! I hope all of you do the same.
Finally, I've been doing a month of gratitude. Each day, on facebook, I note one thing I'm grateful for. I started doing this a few years ago, as it is a really good way to boost serotonin and put things in perspective. This year I felt it was especially important, since this year has not been one of the best. So, I want all of you to know that I'm incredibly grateful for this community, and I'm thankful for each of you. Your wisdom and expertise, your friendship and support.
Happy Thanksgiving To All!