Thursday, December 5, 2019

Comfort - An Enemy of Learning?

There's a line from the movie "The Greatest Showman" that goes like this:  "Comfort is the enemy of progress."  

That got me thinking.

I wonder if comfort might also be an enemy of learning. 

Here's why:  

It seems to me, if I boil down the research on learning, that much of what we think is valuable for learning is, frankly, of little to no value at all.  

Take for example re-reading notes and texts and highlighting information. Although I doubt any social scientist would put it this way, as I follow the research, those activities are essentially worthless as they really aren't activities of cognition at all.  Rather, they are motions that we take in which we convince ourselves - falsely - that we are learning.  (They are mere preparations to become a learner, not learning in itself.).  That's why they feel so intuitively comfortable.  

But true learning takes sweat.  It requires workouts using our minds. It pushes us to build cognitive connections that previously didn't exist.  In short, it's a struggle in growing, thinking, and practicing well beyond our comfort zones. 

So, as you prepare for final exams, take heart.  Be of good courage, knowing that while true learning doesn't feel comfortable, the science is behind you as you push into uncomfortable work.

From a practical viewpoint, as you work through your notes and outlines, talk them out, synthesize them, and generate lots of ideas and practice exam scenarios based on them.   Test yourself frequently about what you think you are learning to see if you are truly learning it by turning your materials over and recalling what you think you know from memory.  In short, prepare for your final exams by using interleaving practices (mixing up different topics and practice formats) and spaced repetition (revising topics and practices through intervals of spaced timing) in addition to forced retrieval exercises (deliberately forcing our minds to recall what we think we can't remember).

If you aren't sure about how to use interleaving practice, spaced repetition review, or forced recall learning, please dive into some of the charts and tables in this very helpful overview of the cognitive psychology for optimal learning: J. Dunlosky, "Strengthening The Student Tool Kit."   Or better yet, check out some of the blog posts from Associate Dean Louis Schulze, an expert in legal education learning: L. Schulze, "Four Posts on Cognitive Psychology."   They're sure to get you thinking, and, more importantly, learning...if you put them to practice.  

Best of luck on your final exams!

(Scott Johns).

December 5, 2019 in Advice, Exams - Studying, Learning Styles, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Taking Our Own Advice

Most of us are well trained in how to provide advice to our students. However, we don’t just advise them on the best study habits. Most of us act as counselors, providing support and advice on how to deal with anxiety and stress. We are good at it, if we were not, we wouldn’t be in the academic support profession.

But are we good at taking that advice? This is the time of year when so many of us are stretched to capacity, and in danger of suffering burn out. We also suffer from anxiety and stress, but my instincts tell me that most of us are much better at giving the advice than taking it. While we stress to our students that it is important to take care of themselves, especially around exam time, we neglect ourselves. I think this is because we put ourselves last on our to do list, so to speak.

Last week I was in a colleague’s office, discussing ways to help our students with mental health first aid. I was feeling incredibly stressed and anxious, in a way that I was unwilling to acknowledge. The more we discussed helping our students, the more I realized that I needed help.  Thankfully, she was a colleague that is also a friend, and she listened to how stressed I was. She gave me some great advice on taking my own advice. She asked me what I would tell a student, and encouraged me to really listen and implement the advice I give.

I think that sometimes, despite what we tell our students, we think of self care as “selfish”, or something that we don’t have time to do.

However:

“I have come to believe that caring for myself is not self indulgent. Caring for myself is an act of survival."  — Audre Lorde

“As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands, one for helping yourself, the other for helping others.” - Maya Angelou

I think these are wise words from wise ladies, so I’m here to remind all of us to take care of ourselves. Practice what we preach to students. Take time each day for yourself, whatever self care looks like to you. And most importantly, use the resources we give to our students to reach out if we need help. That reaching out can even be to one another, as we all know what each other is going through. One last note, practice what you preach when it comes to physical health as well. We are no good to our students if we are not taking care of ourselves!

(Melissa Hale)

December 4, 2019 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Mentors, Students, and Student Support

I recently attended a meeting of our law school alumni to talk with them about being mentors.  We have a very energetic alumni community, many of whom participate in our school's formal mentoring programs -- one for our 1L students, to help introduce them to law school and the legal profession, and one for our 3L students, to provide guides for their transition into the working world.  Like most mentors, these alumni are eager to provide guidance and support.  Still, those of us who run the mentoring programs know that there are every year a small number of mentors whose experience in the program turns out to be awkward or even unpleasant.  Sometimes their students fail to demonstrate the zeal or professionalism the mentor had expected, and other times the student and the mentor just do not seem to hit it off.  Because our alumni mentors are such a valuable resource to our students, and therefore I don't want to lose any mentors due to a single unpleasant interaction, I offered the following thoughts:

All of our students possess varied interests, strengths and weaknesses, and past experiences, each across a broad spectrum.  Broadly speaking, though, we can divide the students who participate in our mentoring programs -- our "mentees", as we say -- into four groups, based on the extent to which they possess each of two characteristics key to any sort of networking relationship: enthusiasm and know-how.

The first group are the students who possess both.  They understand what goes into developing a professional relationship, and they are genuinely interested in working with their mentors to develop such relationships.  These are the dream mentees -- they ask lots of thoughtful questions, and they listen to your answers; they participate appropriately, whether invited to a one-on-one lunch or to a busy firm event; they know how to make eye contact, what to wear, and when and how it is appropriate to change or cancel planned meetings.  To mentors who are lucky enough to have one of these mentees, I say: Congratulations!  This is a great opportunity for you to help someone make the most of what you have to offer.  Challenge them a bit, and they will likely rise to the occasion.

The second group of mentees are enthusiastic, but they do not quite know what they are doing in a professional relationship.  In the moment, face to face, they may come across as quite interested, perhaps even charismatic.  But they are also capable of making striking faux pas -- wearing torn jeans to a business-casual luncheon, for example, or failing to show up for a scheduled meeting without calling or email to let the mentor know.  These folks are often achievers in an academic context, but have had little experience in practice.  They may want to reap the benefits of a mentoring relationship, but simply not realize that they are missing opportunities, and perhaps even causing offense, along the way.  But . . . that is one of the main reasons we introduce students to mentors -- to help them learn this kind of professional behavior that they may never have encountered before.  And even if they can be somewhat clueless, at least the members of this group do possess that enthusiastic motivation,  That is something that a mentor can leverage, by inviting participation, in the knowledge that such invitations will usually be accepted, and they by pointing out that the behaviors they are failing to demonstrate are some of the very skills they were hoping to develop.  So this group of mentees may sometimes elicit eyerolls, but by playing off of their enthusiasm, mentors can help them to overcome their deficiencies.

The third group of mentees are those in the opposite position.  They have the know-how -- for whatever reason, perhaps a previous job or perhaps just a supportive upbringing, they have a proper sense of professionalism, and in fact may come across as very worldly.  But they act as if they do not see any value in a mentoring relationship.  They do not display any particular enthusiasm, and may even seem to treat the mentoring relationship as a chore.  They may see a mentoring program as a kind of remedial finishing school for emerging professionals -- one they do not need, because they know which fork to use -- and not recognize the rich possibilities for connection and experience that a mentoring relationship holds.  But, as with the second group, at least this group does possess one asset that can be leveraged -- in this case, their ordered sense of professionalism.  A mentor could take advantage of that by inviting their mentee to participate in gatherings and events, by introducing them to colleagues, by prompting them to talk about their interests and plans.  The mentee's own worldliness will prevent them from totally ignoring all of these opportunities, and each meeting and conversation can be a wedge, opening up their minds to the realization that a mentoring relationship can be much more than a series of ritualistic interactions.

But this brings up to the fourth and final group, the most difficult group for mentors to contend with -- students who are neither enthusiastic nor knowledgeable.  These are the students who don't know how to be a mentee, and don't see why they should.  They might not even participate in a mentor program if it is not required.  These are usually students without any role models in the legal community, or perhaps in any professional community.  They can be tough on mentors, because they are the type who might miss a scheduled meeting, without warning or explanation, and then not see any reason to feel bad about that afterwards.  Sometimes mentors, seeing apparent futility in trying to encourage these mentees to participate, simply give up after a few attempts.  And this is a terrible loss to both the student and the mentor, because these are the students who need this mentorship the most, and theirs are the mentors who would justly feel the greatest satisfaction if they were able to teach these students how to be great mentees.  It can be hard to get these relationships to catch, because there is neither enthusiasm nor know-how there to leverage.  But because these mentoring relationships are, in a sense, the most valuable, these are the ones we, in student services, want to do the most to help nurture and preserve.  So I encourage our mentors to turn to us for support -- to ask us to approach these mentees from our side, so that we can nudge them into at least testing the mentorship waters, and so that, by explaining plainly what is expected of them, and what to expect from their mentors, we can lower the barriers of self-consciousness and dubiousness that might be keeping them from committing to the process.

Mentoring is, after all, only one facet of the larger construct of the legal community, and those who support our students in school can also support those who support our students out of school.

[Bill MacDonald]

December 3, 2019 in Advice, Diversity Issues, Encouragement & Inspiration, Professionalism | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 2, 2019

Following Wisdom

Follow (v): To act according to an instruction or precept; to pay close attention to; to treat as a teacher or guide.

While in law school, I never connected with any of my professors on social media. Let's pretend that's not because social media tools were not yet sufficiently developed to allow me to do so.  Fast forward into the information age where I've seen healthy discussions about whether law professors should encourage students to "follow them" on Twitter and other social mediums. Ultimately every professor has the right to their own individual preferences and likewise, their students have the freedom to decide whether and how to interact with their professors online.

Many professors are kind enough to freely spew out words of wisdom as regards exam preparation, and the beauty of Twitter makes these gems available to all. University of North Carolina School of Law Professor O.J. Salinas tweeted some words of wisdom that I wish I had access to as a first-year (or even second-year) law student. Professor Salinas shared:

"Law students (particularly 1Ls): Finals are here. Remember to support your conclusions w/ analysis. Apply the law to the facts of the hypo for every issue you spot. Conclusory answers (conclusions w/out analysis) don’t get you a lot of points (if any). The facts of the hypo are your friends. The facts are there to help nudge you (sometimes quite directly) to your analysis. If you are stuck on the exam and don't know where to go, first take a couple of deeps breaths. Then re-read the call of the question. Then revisit the facts. As you revisit each line of the facts, ask yourself: Why is this fact here? Have I applied this fact to any laws that we have covered in class? Does this fact or could this fact relate to something that we have covered in class?

Finally, make it easy for your prof. to read your exam. Aim for clear & concise writing. Short sentences. Paragraph breaks. Headings/subheadings. Walk the reader through your prediction by providing effective/complete legal analysis. And don't presume your reader knows anything. You can do this!"

I have a list of professors that I follow. Many of whom I know only through online interactions. I am grateful to be able to follow their wisdom and shared experiences. I benefit regularly from our exchanges. My daily takeaways include teaching tips, common struggles, and concise study and writing advice for my students. Thanks Professor Salinas for your exam writing wisdom. I remain a follower.

(Marsha Griggs)

December 2, 2019 in Advice, Exams - Studying, Exams - Theory, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 28, 2019

What Are You Thankful For?

I've heard it said that's its important to practice what we preach.  But I wonder if my practices aren't preaching, especially because my actions often speak much louder (and clearer) than my words.  

So, on this Thanksgiving Day, I've been reflecting on my practices. What do my actions say?  And, in particular, would students know by my practices that I am thankful for the opportunity to work with them?  Would my colleagues recognize that I am grateful for them?

Well, one law school didn't wait to find out.  Instead, they went public - with a day of gratitude.  You can catch glimpses of that day in action, in which students, faculty, staff, and administrators publicly shared with others thankfulness:   https://our-attitude-gratitude-law-school-gives-thanks

That sure sounds like a great idea for all of our law school communities. But instead of waiting to get started for next year,  I'm convinced that we can practice acts of gratitude each and every day.  As I think about my own law school experience, it's just a few people that believed in me (and continued to believe in me even when I didn't believe in myself).  Those people kept me going.  I sure am thankful for them.

So, as we turn the corner towards final exams in this season that can be particularly stressful and alienating for our students, what a great time to show them that that we care for them, that we are thankful for them, that we live in community with them.  Because, if truth be told, thanksgiving it seems to me is not really just a day...but rather a way of living life throughout our days.  (Scott Johns).

November 28, 2019 in Advice | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 25, 2019

Making Real Connections

We’re more connected through social media than ever before . . . [yet] we’re losing our ability to think and feel. It’s hurting our personal connections and making us more distant and lonely.  – Dallas Morning News Editorial Board

This week I recount the sad story of the late Ronald Wayne White. Who was Ronald Wayne White? His name may not ring a bell. White was not a celebrity or public figure. If Ronald Wayne White is known for anything, it is for being unknown. According to published reports, White was found dead inside his apartment this month. Medical examiner reports confirmed that his death had been undiscovered for three years. There are indeed unanswered questions surrounding this late discovered death, but the sad fact is that a man “apparently went missing for three years and no one noticed he was gone.”1

White’s tragic story is an opportunity for us to examine our connections to others. Those who attend and work inside law schools are subject to a special kind of isolation that is par for the course. Based on the volumes of reading, outlining, researching, writing, editing, and memorizing that is required to succeed in law school, we expect students and faculty to work in isolation for long stretches of time. The top students regale in finding that isolated corner hidden deep in the stacks of the fourth floor of the library where no one comes near to make a sound or disturb the concentration necessary to maintain top student status. I too am guilty of lauding solitude. I have, with giddiness, told my colleagues how much I look forward to holiday breaks alone at home to make some headway on my writing project.

While a certain degree of do-not-disturb-mode is both necessary and beneficial for productivity, I worry that we have become desensitized to isolation. We are all at risk of transcending deep focus into dangerous seclusion. Our law students, especially those who are far from home, or those who have no stable home to claim, are not immune to the risk. Loneliness is not a state of friendlessness, it is a position of lacked connection. People who are married, students in study groups, and faculty who interact well with colleagues can still suffer from debilitating loneliness that can only be cured with meaningful connection.

Connectivity cannot be measured by “likes” and social media followers alone. Please check on your students, your colleagues, and yourselves. If you have students who are far from home or without family, why not invite them to Thanksgiving dinner? Likewise, if there are international students in your program who are removed from our culture, maybe treat them to a meal over break. Perhaps your need to develop a work in progress or meet an article submission deadline can be morphed into an opportunity to interact with your colleagues by planning a “write-in.” Faculty colleagues from all disciplines can find an agreed window of time just to get together to write. Sometimes the camaraderie of shared presence and singleness of purpose can act as a proxy for interaction. Maybe extend your shared driveway morning wave, by baking (or buying) cookies and delivering them to a neighbor or senior citizen on your block that you have not spoken words to in years. Real connections don’t have to be big to be meaningful, they just have to be made.

(Marsha Griggs)

1 A man was found in his apartment three years after his death – and what it can teach us about loneliness (Dallas Morning News Editorial, November 21, 2019).

November 25, 2019 in Advice, Current Affairs, Encouragement & Inspiration, Food and Drink, Miscellany, News, Stress & Anxiety, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 21, 2019

A Queen Counsels: More Ear--Less Talk

I don't usually keep up with the world of royalty.  But a recent article caught my attention.

You see, it seems that the one of the legal duties of Queen Elizabeth II is to meet weekly with the Prime Minister for counseling. Sam Walker, "The World's Top Executive Coach: It's Queen Elizabeth," Wall Street Journal, Nov. 16, 2019. 

That takes time, energy, and commitment.  And, the queen's been meeting with prime ministers weekly since 1952.  Id.  So, it might be worthwhile to see what she says about counseling and why prime ministers, despite vast differences from one another, continue to seek her advice.

First, the queen provides a safe place for leaders to speak out without "fear or reprisal."  In the queen's words: "They unburden themselves.  They tell me what's going on, or if they've got any problems." Id.  Second, the queen by law is not allow to give orders or publicly takes sides on issues.  Id.  Third, the meetings focus on seeking impartial common ground.  In other words, it's not about the queen's desires but about how to determine what's best for the common good of the people. Id.  Fourth, the queen likens her role in meetings to that of a sponge, which I take to mean being a sounding board for  prime ministers rather than offering advice. Id.

In summarizing the queen's coaching, author Sam Walker suggests the following:  

That great coaches, even though they "often have a better grasp on a tricky situation than the person that they're advising, ...resist the urge to be a helicopter coach.  [Instead,] [t]he only way to help leaders [and students] learn and grow is to allow them to make their own mistakes.  [And,] [t]he only responsible method [to do this] is to let them speak openly, guard their secrets, and, once in a while try to incrementally redirect their thinking.  Doing that requires humility--and lots of practice."  Id.

That's not a role all that different from the world of academic support professionals.  

Like the queen, we are granted access to some of the deepest secrets and most difficult struggles that our students face.  

Like the queen, we must studiously guard our students' confidences.  

Like the queen, we are called to listen lots and speak little.  

Like the queen, our students learn and grow the most when we walk alongside them, helping them incrementally adjust their thinking, so that our students develop expertise in assessing their own learning with solutions that come forth out of the wellsprings of their own hearts and minds.  

To sum up, in the course of most of our work, the truly royal moments of learning are the results of what our students come to experience for themselves under the confidential mentorship of us. As the queen suggests, speaking less can indeed mean speaking more (and in the end lead to better results for our students).  So "hears" to better hearing for the betterment of our students!

(Scott Johns).

November 21, 2019 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Learning Styles, Meetings, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Thanksgiving for the Academic Support Community

Of all the holidays, Thanksgiving is probably my favorite. Not for the feast (although I adore cranberries and turkey, and more importantly, turkey leftovers). Not for the football games (I've never even owned a television). Not for the anticipation of seasonal shopping (it took me years to realize "Black Friday" was meant to be a positive appellation rather than a sardonic judgment on American consumerism). Not for the opportunity to gather with family (the time off has always been too short to realistically gather the far-flung branches of my family into one location). Not even for the annual opportunity to wander through the woods with a dog or two or three, light filtering through branches weighted with a dusting of early season snow (although this is a special delight). Rather, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because, at its core, it is a day set aside to consciously practice gratitude. And wherever we are in the cycle of life, gratitude enriches our lives, the lives of those around us, and the lives of all our communities.

As I wind up my time as a contributing editor to the Academic Support blog, I want to express my gratitude to the incomparable Amy Jarmon for inviting me to be a part of this blogging community and to Steven Foster, who succeeded Amy as editor, for continuing to support me in this endeavor. I learn every day from the insights of my fellow contributing editors -- currently Marsha Griggs, Scott Johns, and Bill MacDonald, as well as from Steven -- someday, with lots of practice, I hope to write half as well as they do. My students as well as my law school colleagues can attest that every week I've brought their insights into the classroom, the conference room, and the hallways. Thanks also to those of you who have sent comments and suggestions on my posts. All too often, my replies to you have fallen victim to the press of a student emergency or the amnesia resulting from an overflowing inbox, but I've read and appreciated all you've written.

In September, I participated in the first annual local gathering of Nancys. Really! The one common denominator was our first name, but the demographics of baby name popularity being what they are (and if you've never checked out Social Security's "Popular baby names by decade" site, it's fascinating), almost all the Nancys had left the world of remunerative employment. And with the possible exception of AASE conferences, I've never been surrounded by more vibrant, involved, and caring people. If I had any doubts about retirement, they disappeared as I listened to my fellow Nancys' stories. I'm looking forward to fully joining the ranks of these "retired but not retiring" Nancys, and to a host of new adventures (many of which will involve wandering through the woods with the aforesaid one or two or three dogs, unless I'm wielding my trusty chainsaw) as I enter a new phase of my life.

I am grateful to have been a part of the law school academic support community for the last eighteen years. Through our many fora -- the LSAC  and later AASE conferences, the blog, our several websites, and the listserv -- even those of us who are far-flung could participate in this caring, sharing community dedicated to the bringing out the very best in our students. You, my colleagues, have advised me, inspired me, lifted me up when I was down, and occasionally given me the tough love I needed to get up and do what needed to be done -- the same things you offer our students every day, every week, year after year, with patience, good will, and compassion. It has been a privilege being your colleague, and I thank you with all my heart.

(Nancy Luebbert)

November 20, 2019 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Two Kinds of Work

Sometimes students think they are painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, when they are really inventing the light bulb.

Michelangelo famously worked from 1508 to 1512 to decorate the ceiling of the Chapel with biblical scenes comprising more than 300 figures.  Contrary to popular belief, he did not do the work lying on his back; the scaffolding he designed and put in place left him room to stand.  Try this right now: for one minute, stand up, look up at the ceiling above you, and hold your hand high over your head, grasping a pen, or a paintbrush if you have one handy.  Now imagine doing that for four years, and creating an historical masterpiece.  Amazing.  If I had painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling under those conditions, it would have ended up taped to my parents’ refrigerator for a month, then discreetly recycled.

Still, the process did have one advantage: every evening, while Michelangelo was washing the paint off his brushes, he could look up and see a few more square feet of masterpiece.  If his boss, Pope Julius II, swung by just to see how things were going, he would notice some prophet or angel that hadn’t been there the week before, and say something like, “Good work, Micky.  I like the wrath there – very Old Testament.  Keep it up.”

In contrast we have Thomas Edison and his invention of the light bulb.  To be fair, it wasn't just the light bulb that made his electrical system so successful.  He had a much broader vision, encompassing power generation and transmission facilities as well, so that once he had created a working light bulb, he had also designed an entire system capable of lighting it practically in every citizen’s home.  But still, success did depend on finding that reliable, long-lasting bulb, and to do this, Edison tested thousands of different materials – varieties of animal hair, plant fiber, metal wire, etc. – to find a filament that would work.

But Edison’s work was not incremental the way Michelangelo’s work was.  Over time, his experiments did provide some clues that guided him to the material (carbonized bamboo) that eventually worked, so his progress was not entirely random.  Still, it was unpredictable.  Edison could go through periods in which he’d test 100 filaments and not one of them would work any better than what he’d had at the start. While Michelangelo could work for a month and at least complete 2% of a ceiling -- and 100% of, say, Adam and Eve -- a month of work for Edison would not leave him with 2% of a working light bulb.  He had no light bulb, until the day he found the right material; then he had the light bulb.

A lot of what our students do is Michelangelo work.  They do a chunk of reading, or memorize a set of rules, or practice a certain writing format, and it may take them a while to reach their ultimate goal, but at least they can see measurable progress along the way: this many pages covered, or that many rules learned by heart, or some incrementally improved conformity with a norm.  It can still be a grind, especially with a heavy workload and weighty syllabus, but at least the students can be sure of improvement and can project a likely date of completion.

It’s inevitable, though, that some of our students' work will be Edison work.  They put in the time and the effort, but there’s not necessarily any obvious correlation to results.  They could be working on a legal research project, looking for a needle and ending each day with a notebook full of hay.  Or they might be practicing some skill that, for them, seems to resist improvement, at least until a certain critical mass of practice has been reached.  (Performance on multiple-choice tests, for example, can sometimes plateau for weeks for soem students.)  If the students don't realize that they are not doing Michelangelo work here -- if they are expecting incremental success and not seeing it -- then they can grow discouraged and self-doubtful, and may even abandon the effort, believing it is not doing any good.

It is crucial. before that happens, to explain to students (and to remind them, sometimes frequently) that there are two kinds of progress in work, and to get them to focus not on results but on well-directed effort.  Help them to recognize, as Edison did, that some jobs simply require effort that won’t be directly rewarded, but that “every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.”  As long as students are actually doing the right work -- and for that, too, they may need your guidance -- then, even if they are not seeing daily results, they are doing something useful -- ruling out fruitless lines of inquiry, or gradually building context and understanding to reach the critical mass needed.  In the moment, such progress may not feel as satisfying as a tangible result, but with support, they can keep going, even in the face of doubt.  And once they have completed the task successfully, they can look back and realize not just how the effort they made led to the result, but also that they are capable of making similar efforts -- and hopefully with a little more faith -- in the future.

[Bill MacDonald]

November 19, 2019 in Advice, Bar Exam Preparation, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Lollipop Learning

Picture a "lollipop."  Unfortunately, that was me as a law school student preparing for my first final exams. You see, in preparation for final exams, I spent most of my time re-reading my notes, trying to master my outlines, and cramming as much information as possible into my head...with the hope that I might somehow be able to regurgitate as much as possible back to my professors.  

In short, I looked much like a lollipop - stuffed with head knowledge but without much of a body or a heart to make it work.  

That's because I had learned the law...but...I hadn't let the rest of my body, in particular my heart and my hands, share in the learning process.  As such, I had much to say when it at came time for final exams but, unfortunately, little of anything practical or valuable because I had merely learned to parrot back my notes and outlines.  I was as hard-headed as the candy on top of a lollipop; I couldn't dance with the final exam problems because I hadn't trained to work final exam problems. In retrospect, I should have fed my heart and hands as much as I engaged my mind in order to prepare for my final exams.  

Let me be concrete.  As you prepare for final exams, take it from me.  Work your heart and body too as you learn the law.  Here's what I mean.  Rather than just learning the law, learn to problem-solve the law ... using the law that you are learning.  That's because, in most law school courses, you won't be tested on what you've stuffed into your mind but rather on what you can personally do with what's in your mind by demonstrating how to solve hypothetical legal problems.  

So, as you prepare for final exams, please feel free to re-read your notes (but only briefly because that's one of the weakest ways to learn) and make outlines (because the process of making your outlines is essential to learning the law)...but...then take your outlines and use them to solve batches of simulated final exam problems (and lots of them). And, when you miss an issue or a problem, rejoice...because missing that issue now means that you'll get that issue right in the midst of your final exams.  In short, focus on learning the law by working through problems.  

As a rule of thumb, about one-third of your time should be spent on reviewing your notes and creating outlines, one-third of your time spent on working through simulated exam problems, and one-third of your time spent on assessing what you did well (and why) along with what you can improve for the next time (and how).

In other words, just like a balanced diet with a lifestyle of exercise, let all of you (your mind, your heart, and your body) share in learning by learning the law through legal problem-solving.  And, if you don't have a quick source of simulated exam problems, here's a batch below that can serve you well in a dash.  Good luck on your final exams! (Scott Johns).

Administrative Law

Agency

Civil Procedure

Constitutional Law

Contracts

Corporations

Criminal Law

Criminal Procedure

Evidence

Family Law

Partnership

Property

Torts

UCC Article 2 – Sales

UCC Article 3 – Commercial Paper

UCC Article 9 – Secured Transactions

Wills and Trusts

 

November 14, 2019 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 7, 2019

A Bountiful Harvest of Practice Problems - Just in Time for Final Exam Season

It's quite common for most of us learn to prepare for final exams...by, unfortunately, not actually preparing for final exams.  

Here's why:  

If you're like me, I just never quite feel like I know enough law to start practicing problems.

But if we wait until we feel like we know enough, we'll run smack out of time to practice exams because most of our time will be spent instead on creating and reviewing our study tools (rather than using our study tools to help us navigate through "test flights" of practice final exam problems). 

And that's a problem because professors don't test on the quality of your outlines but rather on whether you can use the law in your study tools to solve legal problems.

But that's great news because...

Solving legal problems is a skill that you can learn through practice!  [Like any skill, it just takes pondering, puzzling, and practicing through lots of simulated exam problems to develop expertise as a legal problem-solver.]  So, this harvest season as you turn towards final exam preparations, focus much of your learning on working through practice final exam problems.  

As such, the best source of practice exam problems is to ask your professor for sample exam problems.  If none (or only a few available), feel free to ask your professor and academic support department if they can suggest additional practice problems.  Finally, if you still can't find practice problems, feel free to work through past bar exam essays.  To get started, here's some links for some nifty old bar exam essays, organized by subject, complete with hypothetical scenarios and analysis:

Administrative Law

Agency

Civil Procedure

Constitutional Law

Contracts

Corporations

Criminal Law

Criminal Procedure

Evidence

Family Law

Partnership

Property

Torts

UCC Article 2 – Sales

UCC Article 3 – Commercial Paper

UCC Article 9 – Secured Transactions

Wills and Trusts

(Scott Johns).

November 7, 2019 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Learning Styles, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Wise Interventions: A Searchable Research Database

Thanks to the work of social psychologists Gregory Walton (Stanford) and Timothy Wilson (Univ. of Virginia), here's a wonderful searchable database of research articles about interventions to concretely improve learning, life, and community.  

https://wise-interventions/research.

And there's more great news...

It's a free!  In fact, it's one of my go-to sources as I look for ways to enhance student learning.  

(Scott Johns).

October 31, 2019 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Learning Styles, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Is There Time to Turn Things Around?

At my law school, it is 40 total days, and 23 class days, until the first final exam. For some students, now is the time of reckoning.

There are always a few students who get a late-semester wake-up call: the 3Ls affecting insouciance who heretofore mouthed "C=J.D." but now want to demonstrate their mettle to a mentor; the 2Ls who did so well during the first year they initially assumed they could cruise through 2L year without effort; the 1Ls so impressed with their above-median LSAT they can't acknowledge their work product falls short of the mark; the students in any year who have spent the first months of the semester struggling with illness or family emergencies or pure bad luck.  Ten weeks into the semester, they wonder if there is time to turn things around. 

If the answer to every legal question is "It depends," the answer to "Is there time to turn things around?  Can I pull this off?" is "Maybe. Are you willing to do what it takes?" Can you accomplish a lot in the last 40 days?  Yes.  Will you be as successful as you would have been if you spent all semester working on it? Probably not. Will it be good enough? That depends on your own hard and strategic work. 

Strategies must necessarily differ for different kinds of courses, but here is an approach that can be helpful for law school courses with a comprehensive final exams:

  • Read the syllabus.  "What? I don't have time for that -- I have to catch up!" I repeat -- read the syllabus. Knowledge is power, and the syllabus lays out the expectations of your professor, including topics covered, the grading scheme, and penalties for missed classes. Pay attention to what you are supposed to know and how you are evaluated.
  • Move forward, never backwards.  You will just fall further behind if you decide to go back to read and brief the cases from day 1.  Instead, do the current work to the best of your ability.
    Does that mean blowing off all you have missed?  By no means. Rather, for material you have missed:
    • Ask for help.  Ask friends if they are willing to share class notes. Buy lunch for a classmate who offers to walk you through how to analyze key issues. Ask to borrow outlines not to copy, but to give you a start on creating your own. Check for any materials your professor has posted on learning platforms or made available through the law library.
    • Work through simple problems. You will learn much more by problem-solving than by reading casebooks or even excellent study supplements. Look for supplements that offer problems or exercises, and go straight to the problems without reading the background text.  Think deeply as you work your way through the problems, and do your best. And whether you get the problems right or wrong (as with true/false or multiple choice questions), read the explanatory answers until you understand why your answer or reasoning was right or wrong.
    • Utilize spaced repetition. You can use spaced repetition with your own flashcards or by using software resources available commercially or through your law library.
  • Work your way through complex practice exams. If you have access to former midterms or finals, work your way through the complex problems. Pay special attention to the analytical steps you must take, and the order of reasoning. Gain an understanding of the big picture as well as the specific rules.
  • Communicate with your professor.  If you are demonstrating your willingness to do the hard work, your professors will usually be happy to help.
  • Decide the hard work is worth it.  When you are seriously behind, the work needed to turn things around will be considerable. Marshall your inner resources to help you stay motivated, work effectively, and devote the time and energy needed to complete the work.

(Nancy Luebbert)

October 30, 2019 in Advice, Exams - Studying, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 28, 2019

Starting from Scratch

Even the greatest was once a beginner. Don’t be afraid to take that first step.  – Muhammad Ali

While academic support programs are commonly recognized today in legal education, such prevalence has not for long existed. What was once a concept for increasing access to the legal profession, is now a construct mandated by the American Bar Association (“ABA”).  ABA Standard 309 (b) requires law schools to provide academic support designed to afford students a reasonable opportunity to complete its program, graduate, and become members of the legal profession. Compliance with this standard is not measured by bar passage alone. Many schools who, for decades, have not had a distinct program or department devoted to academic support now seek to hire ASP professionals to build a specific program of academic support.

While it is wonderful news to incoming and existing law students that more elite schools are subscribing to academic support as we know it today, it can be equally redoubtable for those new to academic support to direct or build programs for which they have no blueprint. A substantial number of faculty and administrators hired to lead academic support programs, do so without ever having experienced an academic support program themselves. This is so largely because academic support programming is a comparatively new phenomenon that was not prevalent in the legal academy when the Boomers and Gen-Xers, who now predominate deanships and search committees studied law.

Goldie Pritchard, Adjunct Professor and Director of Academic Success at Michigan State University College of Law, is the founding director who built from scratch her school’s law school academic support program. She describes the role and duties of ASP work:

Academic support professionals are problem solvers who are willing to put in the time and effort to help guide students as they navigate their law school learning and bar exam preparation process. We are simultaneously juggling interactions with several different students, each with several different needs, and at a variety of points in their individual progression. We help students manage emotions and address non-academic needs. Doing this type of work is what gets us up in the morning and keeps us going.

Those of us who’ve made a career of our calling understand Pritchard’s words all too well. If you are tasked with creating ground level academic support programming, you can take comfort in knowing that there is a myriad of experienced human resources to turn to for guidance and example. There is not one member of the ASP community that I would hesitate to call upon for help or suggestions. To those who are newly minted program directors without the benefit of in-school predecessors, you can afford to be confidently assertive. Your law school has selected you to create programming because of great confidence in your capabilities, professional judgment, and career experience. Don't deny yourselves or your students the benefit of your instincts.

Fears and professional hesitancy associated with being first or building from scratch are understandable. Remember that prototype program design is, by definition, imperfect and subject to enhancement and improvement. The first iteration of your program is already a marked improvement over the nonexistent or prior patchy programming promulgated by a cache of volunteer or voluntold faculty and other departmental administrators. My advice to you: don’t hold back your suggestions, input, and well-vetted requests for financial expenditures to support your creative vision to improve academic outcomes for the students and graduates whom your position was implemented to serve.

(Marsha Griggs)

October 28, 2019 in Academic Support Spotlight, Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Professionalism | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

The Charisma of Numbers

Today's Washington Post has a fascinating and disturbing article about the company HireVue and its signature product, an artificial intelligence hiring system through which employers can set up automated "interviews" with prospective employees.  The system "uses candidates’ computer or cellphone cameras to analyze their facial movements, word choice and speaking voice before ranking them against other applicants based on an automatically generated 'employability' score."  Based on these scores, HireVue's clients -- which include large organizations like Unilever and Goldman Sachs -- can choose which candidates they would like to bring in for actual human interaction.

The growing reliance of employers on HireVue and its competitors suggests several issues of interest to law students.  Can we expect that someday soon, they too will be forced to welcome their new computer overlords by developing another set of skills -- namely, the art of using just the right expressions and intonations to appeal to the interviewing algorithm?  How do we even know what appeals to that algorithm, and whether the appealing features actually bear any relationship to job performance, if HireVue releases no information about what it is measuring, what it assigns value to, or, indeed, even what a candidate did wrong?  (The mystery and validity issues echo some complaints about the UBE, but at least bar examinees are told their scores.)  Like it or not, this Pandora's boxing ring is now open, and it's only a matter of time until young attorneys are sent in to altercate.

To get some perspective on the rigor of the HireVue system, the Post reporter spoke to researchers in applicable fields, including Luke Stark, an AI researcher who was

skeptical of HireVue’s ability to predict a worker’s personality from their intonations and turns of phrase. . . . Systems like HireVue, he said, have become quite skilled at spitting out data points that seem convincing, even when they’re not backed by science. And he finds this “charisma of numbers” really troubling because of the overconfidence employers might lend them while seeking to decide the path of applicants’ careers.

The charisma of numbers is something I feel I run up against over and over again.  And I say this as a person who values data and statistics!  I believe it is difficult to make consistently effective decisions or to take wise action without obtaining and evaluating relevant numerical information.  And, true, in a field in which our success is largely measured numerically (GPAs, retention rates, bar passage rates), numbers can possess either star power or infamy.

But, notwithstanding their dazzle and clout, numbers should only be powerful if they are attached to something meaningful.  If they are being misused or misunderstood, that can mean mistaking the sizzle for the steak.   Figures can be seductive when they seem rounded, or extravagant, or provocative, or revealing.  It's easy to jump on the conspicuously appealing numbers -- the highest GPA, the apparently significant pattern in MBE scores, the increase in median starting salaries -- just as it's easy to be attracted to the confident, well-spoken cutie who walks into the party.  But the GPA might be based on a disproportionate number of generously graded courses; the MBE pattern might be statistically insignificant; the median salary increase might represent slippage, not advancement, if similar schools are seeing an even larger increase.  Causes, reliability, and context all matter.

The danger of the charisma of numbers is that sometimes, even when a person is only looking at the surface, they don't feel like they are being shallow, because numbers are supposed to be scientific and rational.  We need to remember, and teach our students and colleagues, that, even with the most alluring numbers, you should really spend some time with them first, get to know their flaws and idiosyncrasies, before you commit to them.

[Bill MacDonald]

October 22, 2019 in Advice, Bar Exam Preparation, Current Affairs, Diversity Issues, News, Program Evaluation, Science | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 17, 2019

What Can We Learn from the "Best Learners in the Universe"

Ok...here's a thought experiment...

What person or name first comes to mind as the best learner of all time?  

Feel free to blurt it out...

Perhaps Albert Einstein?

Or Marie Curie?  

Or maybe the great scholar, teacher, and mathematician Hypatia?

Well, according to cognitive scientist Alison Gopnik (U.C. Berkeley), it turns out that "...babies are the best learners in the universe." A. Gopnik, The Ultimate Learning Machine, Wall Street Journal (Oct 12, 2019)  

In fact, as a research psychologist, Dr. Gopnik explains that the key to successful development of artificial intelligence requires that computers learn to learn to learn and think like human babies.  Id. And, that's very difficult for machines to do.  Id. Computers are brilliant in processing lots and lots of data but not nearly so good as babies and toddlers in accurately making sense and judgements about the world around them with very little data to boot. Id.  And, most of the time, we have very little data, too.  

Take law school for example.  

We read perhaps a handful of cases on intentional torts.  Perhaps a few on contract formation or consideration.  A few more about equal protection. And, out of just a few experiences we are suppose to generalize, to synthesize, to figure out what intentional torts are all about, or contract law, or equal protection analysis.

So, that begs the question.  

Perhaps we as legal educators might also learn a few things about how to learn by also exploring how babies learn to learn...and learn so expertly and so quickly with so little knowledge at the start [since we too --in our work with law students --often given our law students very little to go on to figure out "the law."].

According to Dr. Gopnik, babies learn through the process of making a mess.  Or, as Dr. Gopnik accentuates, "MESS," which is an acronym that stands for building models about the world that they observe, curiously exploring the world around then, and learning in social experiences with others. Id.  

For example, with respect to models, toddlers and even babies can construct common sense models about such topics as physics and even psychology.  Id. With respect to psychology, even a one-year old baby, when seeing an adult drop a pen, will try to help pick up the pen for the adult out of apparent empathy for the other (but not if the adult was seen by the baby intentionally dropping the pen).  Id. You see, little toddlers have already learned through curious observations about gravity and even about human intentions too.  Id.

With respect to exploring the world, "[babies] are insatiably curious and active experimenters.  Parents call this 'getting into everything.'" Id. Toddlers love to explore, to test out everything, to take things apart and to try to put them together.  Id. It's this sort of "playful experimentation" that is another secret to the ability of children to learn so adeptly.  Id.

The final factor relates to learning in social contexts.  Babies learn by observing people around them, who have the benefit of often times years of experiences, by trying to imitate them.  But there's even more.  Take the situation of toddlers learning to tie sneakers.  Id.  Try as you might, it turns out that it is very difficult to teach computers to learn to tie sneakers [I think it would take lots of mathematical code!].  But children learn to tie shoes by watching others, focusing on the purpose of the task and not just the steps, which leads to learning.  Id. That's something that's just plain difficult for machines to do.

In fact, computers can't generalize very well at all from limited data (i.e., they aren't very good at creating accurate common sense models); they don't really experience the world around them (except to the extent that humans pre-program computers to "act" in particular ways; and they don't have an ability to watch what others are doing (and extract out of those observed activities what purposes might be lurking in one's activities).  

So, that takes us back to law school.  What can we learn about learning the law from babies?

First, as law students read cases (or even before), students can create models or theories about what might lay ahead as they read case after case (or what principle or principles might hold them together).  In short, law students can formulate hypotheses about what they are preparing to read.

Second, as law students work on learning, students should be encouraged to tinker with the cases, to explore them, to be curiously playful.  In particular, law students can imagine different facts, different judges, and whether those sorts of changes might change outcomes.

Third, as law students learn to solve legal problems, faculty should explore with them how they solve legal problems, perhaps walking through reading essay questions and then even writing out answers in real time, with students then having the opportunity to practice themselves by trying to imitate what they watched experts perform.  And, students should be encouraged to think about the purpose behind solving the legal problems and reading the cases.

I know.  There's a lot of deep cognitive science behind learning.  But, perhaps the key to learning is not quite as difficult as we (or at least I) sometimes make it out to be.  Life is complex; perhaps learning is not so complex; perhaps it's one of life's beautiful secrets that we - as legal educators and as law students - can learn from the smallest among us.  

So, next time you see a baby, pay attention; there are important life lessons to be learned!

(Scott Johns)

 

October 17, 2019 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Learning Styles, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

The Calm Before the Storm

One of my favorite seasons of the academic year runs between the last week of September and Halloween.  In terms of academic meteorology, conditions are ideal for the formation of manageable disturbances, especially among first-year students: after a warming period of several weeks, they become a bit unsettled due to some mid-term squalls, but they retain a great deal of stored energy and begin to show signs of increasing organization, giving them plenty of room to develop before being overtaken by the late fall gloom that presages the tempest of finals.  

Most of the students who breeze into my office at this time possess the three things I value most in my advisees: the motivation to try to improve their legal writing and/or analysis, the belief that they actually can improve, and the time to devote to that improvement.  Earlier in the year, they may have more time but, without having received any feedback on their work, less motivation to improve.  Come November, with finals looming, they may have motivation to spare, but a dearth of time, and, in some cases, a stunted belief in their own ability to improve.  But right now, a lot of students have that ideal blend of motivation, belief, and time.

The more I have worked with students, the more I have come to see that the most important characteristic of time is not quantity but distribution.  It is usually more helpful for me to meet with a student for 30 minutes every week than for 60 or even 90 minutes every two weeks.  The quicker, more frequent meetings not only help the student feel more connected.  Shorter meetings also force us to focus our work on one or two main skills each week.  With more time, it might be tempting to try to cover every weakness in a student's repertoire -- active reading, organization of information, grammar, argument structure, analytical content, judgment, persuasive diction, etc. -- but this can be overwhelming.  A student trying to improve in a dozen areas at once may not make progress in any of them.  It is too much to think about, and there may be little sense of prioritization.

But when a student walks away from a discussion of their work with one or two clear messages about how to improve in one or two specific tasks, that makes their job for the week focused and manageable.  And if that's why they focus on in their homework between meetings, then we can start the next meeting by looking for the improvement in those areas, and then follow up by addressing one or two new areas for improvement that can build upon the previous week.  Timely feedback on, and immediate use of, the skills that a student works on is the best way to both hone and retain those skills.  Thus, with appropriate exercises to complete between meetings, a student can make and preserve more progress in two hours of meeting time spread out over four weekly meetings than in two or even three hours of meeting time split between one meeting in week one and a follow-up meeting in week four.

After Halloween, the demands of writing assignments due, the stress of upcoming finals, and the interruptions of the holidays make it a lot more difficult to arrange these kinds of punchy weekly meetings.  Now is the time to encourage your students to take advantage of the calm before the academic storm.

[Bill MacDonald]

October 8, 2019 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Study Tips - General, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Be-Long-Ing! It's Critical to Success!

It's never too late to make a difference…a positively meaningful difference...to improve academic performance for students, and, in particular, for underrepresented students.  

You see, as demonstrated by social science research from psychologists Gregory Walton and Geoffrey Cohen, a sense of belonging - as a valued participant within a cooperative learning community - is critical to academic success.

Indeed, belonging changes lives.  

And, there's more great news.  

According to the research, just a "brief social-belonging intervention" can make all the difference. A Brief Social-Belonging Intervention Improves Academic and Health Outcomes of Minority Students.  And, that brief intervention is especially valuable for African-American students. Id.

So, here are the details, at least as I paraphrase the research findings.

Preliminarily, the researchers hypothesized that a brief intervention in the first week of undergraduate studies - to directly tackle the issue of belonging in college - might make a measurable impact with respect to academic performance and health outcomes.  As background, previous research had suggested that a lack of a sense of belonging was particularly detrimental for academic success in college. 

The research intervention was threefold.

First, the researchers directly shared survey information with students, showing that most college students "had worried about whether they belonged in college during the difficult first year but [they] grew confident in their belonging with time." Id.

Second, the students were encouraged to internalize the survey messages about belonging by writing a brief essay to describe "how their own experiences in college [in the first week] echoed the experiences summarized in the survey." Id. 

Third, the students then created short videos of their essays...for the express purpose of sharing their feelings with future generations of incoming students, so that participating students would not feel like they were stigmatized by the intervention (but rather that they were beneficially involved in making the world better for future generations of incoming students - just like them). Id.

According to the research results, surveys in the week following the intervention indicated that participating students sensed that the intervention buttressed their abilities to overcome adversities and enhanced their achievement of a sense of belonging.  

And, the impact was long-lasting, even when participating students couldn't recall much at all about the intervention.  

The researchers then used the statistical method of multiple regression to control for various other possible influences.  

As documented by their research findings, the intervention was particularly beneficial for African-American students - both in terms of improving GPA and also for improving well-being.  In short, a brief intervention led to demonstrable benefits with students outperforming such traditional academic predicators such as standardized admission test scores.  That's big news.

That brings us back to us ASPers!  

As ASPers, we have a wonderful opportunity to engage in meaningful interventions...by sharing the great news about social belonging.  

But, there's more involved than just sharing the news.  

Based on the research findings, to make a real difference for our students, our students must not just see themselves - in the words of the research psychologists - as just "beneficiaries" of the intervention...but rather as "benefactors" of the intervention. Id.  

In short, the key is to empower our law students with tools to share with future generations of students what they learned about adversity, belonging, and overcoming…and how to thrive in law school.  

Wow!  What a spectacular opportunity…and a challenge too!

(Scott Johns)

P.S. Here's the research abstract to provide a precise overview of the research findings:  

"A brief intervention aimed at buttressing college freshmen’s sense of social belonging in school was tested in a randomized controlled trial (N = 92), and its academic and health-related consequences over 3 years are reported. The intervention aimed to lessen psychological perceptions of threat on campus by framing social adversity as common and transient. It used subtle attitude-change strategies to lead participants to self-generate the intervention message. The intervention was expected to be particularly beneficial to African-American students (N = 49), a stereotyped and socially marginalized group in academics, and less so to European-American students (N = 43). Consistent with these expectations, over the 3-year observation period the intervention raised African Americans’ grade-point average (GPA) relative to multiple control groups and halved the minority achievement gap. This performance boost was mediated by the effect of the intervention on subjective construal: It prevented students from seeing adversity on campus as an indictment of their belonging. Additionally, the intervention improved African Americans’ self-reported health and well-being and reduced their reported number of doctor visits 3 years postintervention. Senior-year surveys indicated no awareness among participants of the intervention’s impact. The results suggest that social belonging is a psychological lever where targeted intervention can have broad consequences that lessen inequalities in achievement and health."

Gregory M. Walton, et al, Science Magazine, 18 Mar 2011: Vol. 331, Issue 6023, pp. 1447-1451.

 

October 3, 2019 in Advice, Diversity Issues, Encouragement & Inspiration, Learning Styles, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Success Beyond the Bar

July 2019 bar exam results are not due to be released in New York for a few more weeks, but already here in Buffalo we have glad tidings, for one of our students took the Florida bar exam and has learned that she has passed.  What a thrill!  One that will soon be experienced by many others across the land.

Is there anything else that prompts the same surreal combination of pride and relief?  In an instant, a person’s very definition changes.  They go from not possessing a certain authority to possessing it (at least after other formalities are met).  Is it any wonder that the storied Jonathan Harker, wandering alone in a foreign land and distracted by the strangeness of it all, forgot for a moment his own momentous achievement?:

What sort of place had I come to, and among what kind of people? What sort of grim adventure was it on which I had embarked? Was this a customary incident in the life of a solicitor’s clerk sent out to explain the purchase of a London estate to a foreigner? Solicitor’s clerk! Mina would not like that. Solicitor—for just before leaving London I got word that my examination was successful; and I am now a full-blown solicitor!

Harker’s momentary pleasure at the memory of his bar passage is soon dampened, however, by the cold foreboding of the great estate he stands before – and no wonder, for only a few minutes later he meets the master of that castle, who greets him with the words, “Welcome to my house! Enter freely and of your own will! . . . I am Dracula. . .”

Whatever horrors Harker had to face next, at least he had made it past the doubt and anxiety that many people feel while waiting for their bar results to be revealed.  Consider the unfortunate Mitch McDeere, the latest Harvard Law graduate to be hired by the high-end Memphis law firm of Bendini, Lambert and Locke.  One autumn afternoon, Mitch is called unexpectedly into an urgent meeting:

Lambert, Avery, and what appeared to be most of the partners sat around the conference table.  All of the associates were present, standing behind the partners. . . . The room was quiet, almost solemn.  There were no smiles. . .

“Sit down, Mitch,” Mr. Lambert said gravely. “We have something to discuss with you.” . . . He frowned sincerely, as if this would be painful. “We’ve just received a call from Nashville, Mitch, and we wanted to talk with you about it.”

Poor Mitch immediately guesses what this is all about:

The bar exam. The bar exam. The bar exam. History had been made. An associate of the great Bendini firm had finally flunked the bar exam. . . . He wanted to speak, to explain that he deserved just one more chance, that the exam would be given again in six months and he would ace it, that he would not embarrass them again. A thick pain hit below the belt.

“Yes, sir,” he said humbly, in defeat.

Lambert moved in for the kill. “We aren’t supposed to know these things, but the folks in Nashville told us that you made the highest score on the bar exam. Congratulations, Counselor.”

The room exploded with laughter and cheers.

Surprise!  Not what Mitch was expecting.  Unfortunately, Mitch’s satisfaction is nearly as short-lived as was Harker’s, for less than two pages later, in John Grisham’s The Firm, Mitch McDeere meets an FBI agent who explains that the Bendini firm is mostly a front for the criminal activities of the Chicago Mob, and that attorneys who try to leave the firm always end up dead.

Dracula and The Firm were both sensationally popular novels, which suggests that there is something highly resonant about the notion of passing the ultimate test of professional ability, only to be led directly into a world of evil and mortal danger.  I suspect some people enjoy the irony – He’s supposed to be so smart, but he wasn’t smart enough to avoid the King of the Undead or the Capo di Tutti Capi – and other people appreciate the moral question – Does mere intellectual knowledge even matter when a person is faced with a threat to his life and soul?

But law graduates might see yet another layer to these tales: After all this hard work to pass the bar, over three crushing years in law school and ten blistering weeks of bar preparation, is my “success” just going to take the form of an indenture to forces that seek only to exhaust my vitality to feed their own appetites?  True, most attorneys do not end up working for vampires or gangsters, but even a wholesome job for a decent employer can feel like purgatory to someone whose interests and aptitudes lie elsewhere.  When our students are no longer our students, when they have taken and passed the bar and are out there gainfully employed, is that the end of their stories?

There might be a brief frisson in thinking so.  Isn’t that why people read suspense stories?  But if there are two last messages we can leave our students with, they are that passing the bar is both an ending and a beginning, and that the skills they’ve learned in meeting that particular challenge will be skills they can use in meeting future challenges as well.  If they can pass the bar exam, they can overcome anything – a misfit job, a toxic employer, even a threat to their lives and souls.

And Jonathan Harker and Mitch McDeere are evidence of this, because they each survive their ordeals.  In both Dracula and The Firm, the heroes triumph by relying on three core competences – the same three competencies we emphasize in preparing our own students to pass the bar and to perform well in practice: knowledge of the law, application of sound personal judgment, and reliance on a network of support.  Harker escapes from Dracula's castle by finding an unconventional route to freedom and judging that the risks of flight are smaller than those of remaining in place.  Once he makes it back to England, he uses his legal skills to locate Dracula's hidden lairs, documented in a tangle of deeds and conveyances, and then he teams up with a band of friends to track down and eliminate the fiend and his minions.  McDeere has the good sense to realize that neither the firm nor the FBI has his safety or best interests at heart, and, turning to a small group of family members of those previously hurt by the mob's activities, devises his own plan to use the legal tools he has learned to escape from the gangsters while passing along the evidence needed to bring down the Bendini firm.  Sure, this is all fiction and fantasy, but fiction is often popular because it provides another way of telling a truth.

To everyone who finds out in the next few weeks that they have passed the bar examination: Congratulations, and may the rest of your life be just as successful.  Know that you have the ability to make it so.

[Bill MacDonald]

October 1, 2019 in Advice, Bar Exam Issues, Bar Exam Preparation, Books, Encouragement & Inspiration, Professionalism, Reading, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 26, 2019

More or Less: What's the Best Bar Exam Approach Based on the Latest Empirical Research?

Common wisdom often suggests more is better...at least when it comes to passing the bar exam.  But, just like more medicine is not always better for one's body (and even poisonous when taking too much), perhaps undertaking more bar-tested subjects as a law student is not associated with increasing bar passage results, at least for those most at-risk of not passing the bar exam.  And, perhaps avoiding experiential learning courses is not necessary for students most at-risk of not passing the bar exam.  Indeed, the latest forthcoming empirical research is all about exploring common conceptions about the relationships among experiential learning, taking bar-tested electives, and bar exam outcomes.

To evaluate these questions, we turn to two empiricist law professors - Robert Kuehn at Washington University and David Moss at Wayne State University - who have just released "must-read" research analyzing often-expressed narratives about the impacts of experiential learning and bar-tested elective courses on bar exam outcomes.  Robert Kuehn and David Moss, A Study of the Relationship Between Law School Coursework and Bar Exam Outcomes, 68 J. Legal Educ. (2019) (forthcoming). 

First, the authors evaluate the hypothesis that law students should refrain from taking too many experiential learning courses (such as clinics, field placements/internships, and simulation courses), most likely based on the belief that experiential learning crowds out doctrinal learning. 

Second, the researchers evaluate the hypothesis that law students should take more bar-tested subjects rather than fewer to boost ones' promise of bar exam success, particularly for those most at-risk of not passing bar exams.

Their research is robust, using regression analysis to evaluate such variables as LSAT scores, UGPA, first-year LGPA, graduating LGPA, experiential learning courses (clinics, field placements/internships, and simulation courses), and bar-tested elective subjects [regression analysis allows researchers to control or take into account the influence of other variables in order to observe whether experiential learning credits and/or bar-tested course work are associated with improved bar exam outcomes].

As indicated in their republished table below, their research spans an impressive 10 year time span, examining  first-time bar exam results, for 3891 law school graduates from Washington University and Wayne State University.

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Given the depth and breadth of the professors' research, their findings provide food-for-thought for these two questions, at least based on their law school populations, as to whether law students most-at risk of bar failure based on LGPA should take fewer experiential learning courses and/or more bar-tested elective subjects.

As an initial observation, with respect to LSAT scores, both law schools observed relatively consistent LSAT means throughout the course of the ten-year period despite a general downward trend in bar passage rates beginning in or around 2013 and 2014. Consequently, at least based on their law school populations, bar exam declines appear to be unrelated to LSAT admission decisions since LSAT scores remained relatively flat throughout the ten-year research period.

With respect to experiential learning courses, the authors observe that both law schools have seen astounding increases in the number of experiential credits hours that their students are taking over the ten year period, which is not surprising given the American Bar Association's 2014 requirement mandating increased experiential learning requirements in order for law schools to satisfy more recent accreditation standards. 

Nevertheless, despite the occasional claim suggesting that law students are taking too many experiential courses, which might compromise bar exam results, the researchers found that there was no statistical association between increases in experiential learning credits hours and bar exam performance (to include those students most at-risk of bar exam failure).  Thus, the authors suggest that law schools should not counsel students to avoid experiential learning opportunities.

With respect to bar-tested elective subjects, the authors observed that both law schools have found that more recent bar takers are taking fewer bar-tested subjects than in the past.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the researchers found a modest correlation between taking bar-tested subjects and bar exam outcomes but only for those students with LGPA's that placed them most at-risk of bar exam failure. 

However, critically, the authors observed that that was an apparent sweet spot in the number of bar-tested subjects taken by at-risk students such that there was no statistical benefit in at-risk students taking more than the approximate average number of bar-tested subjects at each school (just four electives out of fourteen bar-tested subjects for Washington University students and just seven electives out of nineteen bar-tested subjects for Wayne State students). 

In other words, in my reading of their research based on their populations of bar exam takers, law schools might counsel at-risk students to take a handful or so of bar-tested subjects but also advise them that they need not take the entire panoply of bar-tested elective subjects (as more than the average has no empirical benefit of improving bar exam outcomes). And, we should not at all fear encouraging at-risk students from actively participating in experiential learning courses, whether in the form of clinics, internships, and/or simulation courses. 

In short, there's much room for curricular exploration by at-risk students without compromising their bar exam outcomes...and that's good news worth thinking about as we meet with our students about their curriculum choices. 

(Scott Johns).

 

September 26, 2019 in Advice, Bar Exam Issues, Bar Exam Preparation, Bar Exams, Learning Styles | Permalink | Comments (0)