Tuesday, May 14, 2019
This week, most of my 3L students are taking their last final exams. On Sunday they will graduate, and within a week or so, they will begin preparing to take the bar examination. Twenty years ago, this meant a return to the lecture hall for eight weeks of intensive lectures, surrounded by my closest classmates and a couple hundred other recent graduates. Today, the rise of online courses and live streaming means it is possible to complete an entire bar preparation course without getting out of bed, or at least without leaving one's home. It may be hard in the face of such convenience, but it is important to remind out graduating 3Ls of the substantial benefits of human contact.
One of the first things I tell my incoming 1L students is, "The law is a social profession." Successful practitioners, I explain, know the value of hashing out ideas and strategies with colleagues, and they develop networks of other lawyers to whom they can turn to make (or receive) referrals or to ask for guidance outside of their own areas of expertise. I tell my students this partly to help them to see the benefits of conferring with their own classmates and of taking advantage of mentoring and networking opportunities. But I also tell them because I know that a significant portion of the students in each incoming class needs this kind of encouragement, because they do not reflexively reach out to others for support and information. This tendency is explained in part by their natural inclinations; according to Eva Wisnik, president of Wisnik Career Enterprises, about 60 percent of those who become lawyers are introverts.
By their 3L year, many students, including some of those more introverted ones, have perceived the value of collaborative work, as in study groups and trial teams. Even so, the ten weeks or so between graduation and the bar exam pose new challenges. Some students, tired of the law school grind, envision a comparatively more manageable summer, one in which they can watch videos and undertake exercises online at their convenience instead of on a set schedule. Others may underestimate the time and attention demanded by the bar exam and conclude that the effort of traveling to campus, particularly on a set schedule, is not worth it. Under these circumstances, it may take extra persuasive effort to convince newly minted graduates that there are benefits to seeking out the company of other new graduates.
Still, there definitely are benefits. Full participation in bar preparation courses can be easier to achieve when the courses are seen as group activities in which groups of students commit to watching videos and working on exercises together (and to hold each other accountable for missed work). Group study and review provides additional opportunities for feedback and clarification. And when bar preparation becomes a stressful, tedious, and/or exhausting chore, as it often does halfway through the summer, commiseration can inspire tenacity.
How do you get soon-to-be ex-students to take advantage of these benefits by making particular efforts to associate with their peers, even when the apparently easier route would be to go solo? There are three things to keep in mind:
- Start early. Don't wait until graduation day is within reach to begin encouraging students to think of ways to work together during bar preparation. Social activities are easier to accept when they are perceived as social norms -- that is, just the way people expect to do things. Pointing out the social aspects of legal practice from the first year is one way to begin. Another way of normalizing the expectation that students will make efforts to work together during bar preparation is to encourage recent alumni who have done this successfully to share their experiences with friends from later classes.
- Make it easy. Bar study is difficult and consuming. Having to make special efforts to collaborate may seem like too much, to those overwhelmed by course expectations. Anything a school can do to lower the threshold of energy or attention required to collaborate can help. Provide dedicated space on campus so that bar studiers can easily find each other. Set up channels of communication early and keep students informed of resources and opportunities to gather, and look for ways to connect such opportunities to activities already on students' radar screens (such as live video programs sponsored by bar preparation companies).
- Add value. Finding ways to provide additional benefits to your alumni can change their calculation of whether or not it is worth it to them to step away from solitude and join their classmates, even if only occasionally. Offering small incentives, like free coffee and snacks or access to classroom space, can make getting together more inviting. More ambitious incentives might include providing supplemental live workshops on particular test-taking skills or subject matter areas, which can simultaneously draw students from their isolation and prompt interaction and planning with other participants.
At the end of the day, success on the bar exam does depend on individual effort. But in the face of innate introversion and technological isolation, we can help our students to recognize, once again, that individual effort can be promoted by social cooperation.
Friday, May 10, 2019
Kirsha Trychta, former contributing editor, gladly passed along her notes from the recent webinar discussing declining bar pass rates and the role of law schools. If you have questions, you can contact her for more details. Below are her notes.
On May 6, 2019, I attended a free webinar entitled “Live with Kellye & Ken: Declining Bar Passage and the Role of Law Schools in Bar Exam Prep and Reform.” The 90-minute presentation consisted of six panelists:
- Aviva Abramovsky, Dean of University at Buffalo School of Law
- Leonard M. Baynes, Dean of the University of Houston Law Center
- Jon M. Garon, Dean of Nova Southeastern University Shepard Broad College of Law
- Judith Gunderson, President of National Conference of Bar Examiners
- Kenneth Randall, Dean Emeritus at University of Alabama Hugh F. Culverhouse, Jr. School of Law
- Kellye Testy, President & CEO of LSAC
Gunderson opened the presentation with an update on the state of the bar exam. She explained that the February 2019 MBE mean increased for the first time since 2013. According to Gunderson, the NCBE regularly focuses on the MBE statistic because: (1) the NCBE does not grade the essay component, (2) there are different cut scores across the jurisdictions, and (3) not all jurisdictions release results at the same time.
She then told “the tale of two bar exams,” a tale which emerges if one compares July and February. The NCBE reports that 68-70% of all examinees that sit in February are repeat test takers. Meanwhile, in July repeat test takers comprise only 26% of all takers. Typically repeat test takers earn lower scores than first time takers. Moreover, even February first-time takers have a lower mean than first-time takers in July. Finally, February score reports are complicated by the small number of applicants in some jurisdictions. Consequently, just 3 or 4 people can totally derail a mean average for a particular jurisdiction. In short, February scores are “not stable.”
The adoption of the UBE is also impacting how many times each applicant sits for a bar exam. Overall, the total number of people sitting for the bar exam keeps dropping, and each year there are less “passers” or “strong repeaters” (that is, those people who passed in one jurisdiction and sit again for licensure in a second jurisdiction.) The decrease in overall takers—especially strong takers—continues to drive the overall pass rate numbers down. For more statistics, click here.
Next, the Deans were invited to opine on whether law schools really have a problem with bar passage. Abromovsky acknowledged that “we have a lot of changes going on right now, especially with the UBE.” She suggested that law schools might just need a certain amount of time to “react with pinpointed specificity” to the changing format. Baynes agreed and specifically highlighted the addition of civil procedure to the MBE. He was, however, more concerned that “we’ve created a social construct of who passes and who doesn’t pass.” If people are labeled as “likely to fail” or “likely to pass” perhaps they internalize the labels and then perform consistent with the assigned label. Garon raised another concern: the ABA’s competing goals of increasing the focus on experiential learning and learning outcomes, while also increasing bar passage. Can law schools really do both simultaneously, he wondered. Testy rounded out the discussion by reminding listeners that the LSAC is “an incredibly strong predictor of success in law school,” but it’s not the only thing a law school should consider.
Randall, serving as a moderator, then posed a batch of questions for the panelists: What is the responsibility of law schools regarding the bar exam? Are there tradeoffs? Should there be different curriculum tracks for students?
Garon responded unequivocally: there is a lot of pressure to assume a greater, more active, role in both job placement and bar passage. For example, at Nova Southeastern, they’ve extended bar preparation into all three years of the curriculum. In addition, there is a mentoring program during bar prep for both first-timer takers and repeaters. Nova even offers two years of free CLE to aid in the transition from law school to the workforce, including a “launch pad” program for those who are interested in solo practice. Garon linked the increased pressure to prepare students for the bar and for legal practice to economic changes. He suggested that “economics have undermined the relationship between law schools and law firms.” Students are expected to be billing associates on their first day at the office, instead of just beginning their training when they join the firm. Baynes aptly summarized, “we are now responsible for everything.”
The University of Houston Law Center conducted a regression analysis, using five years of law school data, and determined, unsurprisingly, that lower law school grades correlated with lower bar passage. In response to their findings, Houston created a “special course” for the lowest performing students. Baynes explained that the law school admits every student thinking they will pass the bar exam, so if it becomes apparent that the student might not pass the exam, it is incumbent upon the school to intervene. One possible intervention could be the mandatory implementation of midterm examinations in first-year courses. One Dean observed that since administering midterm examinations, students’ performances have increased overall, including in courses without a midterm examination (i.e. pedagogical transference). He then quickly—and probably correctly—remarked that law professors “might not be the best teachers.”
Baynes has also seen an increase in the degree of anxiety among his students. Students are more willing to talk about mental health issues, but the cost of treatment remains a barrier. To combat the growing trend, his law school now offers meditation embedded in the curriculum. Similarly, other schools have adopted wellness activities like yoga and petting zoos. Garon commented on the Board of Law Examiners continued improvement in their handling of character and fitness disclosures, especially as those disclosures relate to mental health issues. He then raised a parallel concern: academic testing accommodations. While the jurisdictions have been willing to revisit their position on mental health disclosures, many remain quite unmoved regarding testing accommodations. Too frequently, accommodations which were considered appropriately documented at law school are not sufficiently documented for the Board of Law Examiners, creating another barrier to exam success.
Abramovsky used most of her allotted time to discuss the impact of the post-2008 economy on law schools. The average law student is no longer unmarried, childless, willfully unemployed, and fully dedicated to their legal education. Her institution found, again unsurprisingly, that completing the bar preparation course was the strongest indicator of bar passage. She encouraged schools to focus their efforts on identifying why some students do not complete the bar preparation program. She suspects those students are too busy working part-time (or even full-time) jobs to study for the bar exam. Perhaps that also explains why the student earned poor grades in law school, she wondered aloud. She said law schools would be wise to check-in with their students in a routine and more holistic way. She offered this metaphor, ripped from the headlines: an emergency room adopted a series of mini-checklists that doctors must complete before discharging a patient, designed to reduce the frequency of post-discharge infections. Since adopting the quick “have you…” checklists, infections have dramatically decreased. It appears a little check-in goes a long way.
Following Abramovsky’s observations about the financial crunch, Testy announced that AccessLex is currently developing a lower-cost bar preparation course. AccessLex’s press release states, “The program will function like a co-operative, with a transparent pricing structure established at a break-even level and reduced further as cost efficiencies are gained.”
The panelists entertained questions from the audience. A listener inquired whether the NCBE could better assist law schools in identifying the specific subjects that are tested on the bar examination. Gunderson explained that the specific subtopics vary every few years, following input from various stakeholders. For example, in the last few years several jurisdictions have suggested that environmental law and Indian law should be added to the bar exam, but the number of requesting jurisdictions “has yet to reach critical mass.” Meanwhile, the number of stakeholders pushing for negotiable instruments continues to decline each year. Gunderson stressed that the “NCBE has no power.” Ultimately the individual jurisdictions decide what components to administer and how to score the exam.
Gunderson then pivoted to how students can better prepare and announced that NCBE study aids are now available in an interactive learning platform. The “everything” packet which includes over 900 practice questions costs $250. She also publicized that the NCBE plans to host an academic support focused conference this fall and will subsidize the travel costs for some attendees to ensure maximum participation. She then reminded everyone that the Testing Task Force is out there collecting suggestions on the future of the bar exam, including the focus groups which will take place at the Association of Academic Support Educators Conference later this month.
Garon is concerned that “we keep expanding what we expect of students.” The bar exam used to be just a measurement at a moment in time between law school and starting your legal training. Now the bar exam is frequently being used as a proxy by employers to measure the graduates’ readiness to join the workforce. Garon recommended that we scale back the breadth of knowledge tested and instead increase the professionalism component, because that is what employers want anyway.
The panelists also talked about the future of “state specific components” on the bar exam, considering the UBE. Each Dean explained how their particular jurisdiction has handled the issue. It quickly became apparent that there is little consensus among the jurisdictions. Abramovsky chimed in, and said, “reasonable discourse” was to be expected, and that “we should be proud to consistently reexamine issues [like this one] that require core balancing decisions.”
(Kirsha Trychta, Guest Blogger)
Friday, April 26, 2019
Myra Orlen was kind enough to put together a recap of the NY ASP workshop. Her report is below.
Kudos to Kris Franklin of the NYLS and Rebecca Flanagan of UMass Law School for organizing a wonderful workshop at NYLS on April 12, 2019.
The morning offered excellent presentations – most centering on providing ASP and Bar programs to part-time students.
The New York Workshop offers a unique opportunity for ASP’ers to select a topic that they want to learn more about and offer to lead a discussion on that topic. The afternoon sessions offered a mix of focused discussions and more traditional presentations. All were excellent!
The morning sessions focused on assisting part-time law students:
ASP’ers from Pace Law School – Danielle Kocal, Stephanie Desiato, Stephen Iannacone, and Kerriann Stout shared ideas about helping part-time students maximize their time by thinking about life in terms of buckets: work; family; and school. Part-time students can benefit by using a planner and filling each bucket at the beginning of the week.
ASP’ers from the CUNY School of Law addressed Time Management – inside and outside the Academic and Bar Support Classroom. Most striking in the CUNY presentation was the ratio of ASP staff to students – in both the full-time and part-time programs. CUNY has a very well-resourced program. Ninety percent of students participate in CUNY’s voluntary program that stands as a model for those ASP’ers attending the workshop. CUNY staffers provide in-person and on-line programming. ASP staff sit in on one-L doctrinal courses and run ASP sessions that cover skills such as doctrinal review, case reading/briefing, note taking, practice exams, and answering hypos. The CUNY presenters included Haley Meade, Laura Mott, Asima Chaudhary, Nate Broughty, and Allie Robbins.
Reichi Lee of Golden Gate University School of Law spoke on using online/hybrid programs to support part-time students. GGU has a 60-student part-time program. Students are on campus three nights a week. GGU maintains an e-learning on-line website. The e-learning website contains workshops that are accessible to students.
Kandace Kukas of Northeastern University School of Law discussed coaching part-time students through the bar, including having frank conversations about whether students are ready for the challenge. Factors to consider are work and life schedules, commitments, and whether they will be able to devote the necessary time to prepare for the bar exam. Kandace suggested meeting with part-time students early, by their second-to-last year, and at the beginning of their final year. The key is to establish the trust necessary for honest dialogue with part-time students. Topics to be discussed include planning, time to devote to bar preparation, work time – can students take time off from work – or will students quit work. It is important to check in with students during their final semester and as bar applications are due. Kandace also stressed that it is important to coach students that taking the bar exam unprepared hurts students and their school. Students who get raw scores of 80/90 on full-length practice exams should strongly consider delaying taking the bar exam. Attendees at the workshop agreed that failing the bar exam is a devastating blow.
Shane Dizon of Brooklyn Law School lead attendees in an exercise to consider whether law schools should require or recommend upper-division bar course mandates for evening students.
Rebecca Flanagan of the University of Massachusetts School of Law presented on “Them Digital Natives! Gen Z and Technology Usage.” Rebecca has continued her research on who our law students are – generationally. Current students can be viewed as Digital Natives – information has always been available to these digital natives. For Digital Natives, information has always been available and readily consumable. But these Digital Natives do not know everything about technology. They know the social aspects, but do not know how to use digital tools. They are not skilled at interacting with each other without a technology as a mediating force and can struggle with interpersonal communications.
The Afternoon Sessions:
As the afternoon sessions began, Kris Franklin sent around a pad and asked those attending the workshop to contribute a “what I wish I knew when I began my work in ASP.” That list has been shared on the ASP list serve and this blog.
Eileen Pizzurro of Rutgers Law School lead a discussion on Orientation and ASP.
Chris Payne-Tsoupros of the UDC/David A. Clarke School of Law lead a discussion on Enhancing Student Engagement in Summer Programming.
Nicole Lefton, C. Benji Louis, and Cara Caporale of Hofstra, Maurice A. Deane School of Law, lead a discussion on Reinforcing Executive Function Skills. In this session, we learned that our executive function is plastic and improvable and learned about techniques to incorporate executive functioning and metacognition into academic success and bar programming.
Stephen Horowitz, of St. John’s University School of Law, presented on “1.5 Gen. Students and “Sound Right” vs. Read-Right Grammar Strategies.” In this presentation, we learned techniques to use with students who came to the U.S. in their teens or earlier or for undergrad. They seem fluent in English, but “quirks” arise in written English. They learned English by ear and know what sounds right. One technique addressed was the use of iweb corpus as to word choice.
Kris Franklin of New York Law School, presented on “Framing Legal Rules Helpfully.” In her presentation, Kris Franklin used an IRAC exercise to show that framing legal rules helps to accurately spot issues. If a student has not accurately framed the rule, the student will have difficulty successfully addressing the whole problem contained in an IRAC hypothetical.
Susan Landrum, of St. John’s University School of Law, lead the final discussion on “Self-care: Reducing Burnout When Working with Stressed-Out Students.” The last session was a discussion of self-care for ASP’ers. “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” This discussion was a great way to end the workshop. Whether it’s setting a time each day for a walk or for meditating, ASP’ers experience high burnout; we cannot give everyone all of our time. The workshop ended with what all of us do for ourselves. This writer takes lessons in landscape painting.
As usual, after the workshop ended, we went to a local establishment and continued to socialize. Also as usual, the New York Academic Success workshop did not disappoint. I end where I began, kudos to Kris Franklin and Rebecca Flanagan!
Wednesday, April 24, 2019
The dog really did eat my homework. To be more precise, when I left my desk to fix a cup of tea, my four-month old puppy tore into my outline with joyous, tail-wagging abandon. Those pages that didn't turn into blobs of slobbery mush were ripped to shreds. I panicked, of course. Based on the nonchalant manner in which the professor had conducted the class, I had assumed the exam would be a policy-discussion cakewalk. Too late I realized that while classes were casual, the professor's exams were rigorous. My case briefs were chicken-scratch; my class notes, almost worthless. And the outline the dog destroyed? Well, it wasn't exactly "my" outline; it was a photocopy of a friend's outline because I'd been "too busy" to create my own. And since I had borrowed it only three days before the exam, in those days before e-mail attachments made routine information-sharing easy, I didn't feel like I could count on my friend's good graces to give up her original for the several hours it would take me to copy it again. I had an emergency on my hands.
To be sure, life has its share of genuine emergencies, the gut-wrenching, out-of-the-blue occurrences that shake our world to its foundations. And when these happen the best thing is to let someone at the law school know as soon as you can. But many, perhaps most, of the emergencies we encounter in the law school context, whether as students or instructors, stem from the combination of unexpected circumstances plus our own lack of foresight. We can mitigate the effect of these circumstances by prudent practices. Perhaps you've heard the acronym PPPPPP -- Proper Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance. Proper prior planning can indeed help weather most law school exigencies.
Computer mishaps are nowadays probably the most common law school emergencies. The hard drive crashes, the computer is dropped, the wifi network goes down, printers jam, and suddenly we lose precious work product or can't access needed materials. Consistently creating backups and having alternatives are the keys to mitigating any computer problem.
Using a cloud storage and file synchronization service like Dropbox is the easiest way to provide consistent backups, but because even the best systems fail occasionally, it's wise to periodically check that backups are actually being made. Those reluctant to trust documents to the cloud can effectively back up with encrypted thumb drives or external hard drives. In time-crunch situations like putting the finishing touches on a brief, even e-mailing critical documents to yourself works. When using physical backups, it's prudent to use multiple devices in different locations and to rotate them: for example, you can keep one encrypted thumb drive in your backpack, one in your vehicle, and one at home.
Just as important as backing up current documents is saving versions of your documents through time. Most of us have had the experience of either accidentally deleting a large chunk of material from a document or deliberately cutting out a sections of what seems like extraneous material, only to realize later we wanted the section back. So it's a good practice to save documents under a new name at least daily by adding the date or a sequential number so you can retrieve mistakenly deleted material from an earlier version of the document. At this time in the semester, for example, many students are filtering their outlines down to the essentials. When you use your capsule outline in tackling practice problems, you may find that you were over-enthusiastic in pruning rule statements or even left an important concept entirely out of your capsule outline. Having your earlier, more expansive outline to draw from can save you hours of work.
A good way to mitigate emergencies is to have alternatives in mind given the certain knowledge that things don't always work as they should. Are old exams easily accessible on the web? Figure that the school's internet may go down, and download them to your own computer so they are available when you need them. Does everyone in the law school use the same two printers when legal writing assignments are due? Chances are that your legal writing faculty does not accept "the printer jammed" as an excuse for late papers. Scope out alternatives across campus, or print out your near-perfect brief at home so you can have something to turn in on time even your last minute perfect brief gets stuck in the law school printer queue. Is arriving on time critical for a meeting, exam, or interview? Leave home early enough so you can cadge a ride if your car breaks down or stay calm in the midst of a traffic jam.
Prevention, of course, is the best cure. Learning and reviewing day by day, week by week, practicing problems, diligently doing interim assignments, building and refining your own outlines over time -- keeping a steady schedule of good habits can put you in a place where a total computer melt-down has limited effect because you already have have learned and practiced the material throughout the semester. Otherwise, you just have to hope the dog doesn't sneak into your study.
Tuesday, April 2, 2019
A blank piece of paper has so much potential. It can be used to display one's ingenuity. It can be a medium for communication between two people, or among thousands. It can record data and history and memory, to be used by people born long after the recorder is dead. And yet, under certain circumstances, our stationery friend can seem to turn on us. When we are asked to answer an inscrutable question, the oppressive blankness of an empty sheet can be smothering. When we think that our reputation, our livelihood, our entire future depends on scratching the right symbols in the right order, the page can seem like a minefield of hidden threats.
When I was a kid, television seemed to be entering its golden age of public service announcements, and to me it seemed the most common subject was fire. Fire was our friend, we were told, making food safe and houses warm; but we always needed to be aware of what to do if it grew dangerous. And what we needed to know was that our natural inclinations were usually wrong. Foe example, even though we knew that water was the opposite of fire, if something caught fire in the kitchen, then we were not supposed to throw water on it, because it was probably a grease or electrical fire, and water would just make it worse. If our whole house caught fire (say, because we threw water on a kitchen fire), then we weren't supposed to hide in a nice, safe closet, because then we'd be trapped and the firefighters would never find us. If we caught fire, then we weren't supposed to run, trying to find some water to jump into. That, we were told, would just light us up like a Roman candle. Instead, we had to fight every instinct and stop, drop to the ground, and roll around politely.
What I could not understand as a child was that these PSAs really had two purposes. One was simply educational, teaching us that behaviors that made perfectly good sense in one context (dousing fire, hiding from danger, fleeing danger) might actually expose us to additional harm in a different context. They were maladaptive behaviors. Sea turtle hatchings naturally paddle towards a bright light, which helps insure they reach the ocean when the brightest object in the night is the moon reflecting off the water, but which will insure they remain stranded on land when the brightest object is the patio light behind a beach house. Infantry charging a defensive position en masse often led to an advance when the defense was armed with swords, but always led to a slaughter when the defense was armed with entrenched machine guns. The ways to counter maladaptive behaviors are either to return to the original situation (turn of the patio light) or to replace the old behavior with a new one (attack with tanks and aircraft). When Ronald McDonald sang, "Stop, drop, and roll!", he was teaching children a new behavior to replace the old maladaptive behavior.
But even the dimmest of my childhood friends got the gist of Ronald's commands after the third or fourth viewing. Why were we hearing these messages so frequently, from so many different sources? That went to the second purpose of the PSAs. Education is a good start, a necessary start, but the problem is that being on fire, or at least near fire, is an inherently stressful situation. And psychologists know that "Under stress, we regress." That is, under difficulty situations like panic or sensory overload or fear of consequences, humans naturally fall back on older patterned behavior. Most drivers, for instance, know intellectually that if their car loses traction in a skid, they should pump the brakes and steer into the skid to regain control. But the first time they actually hit a skid, most drivers stand on that brake pedal. Only if they live someplace wacky with snow, like Buffalo, do they get enough practice with the skid to develop the new adaptive behavior.
Even television executives were able to recognize that it would be unethical to light kids on fire over and over again until they learned to stop, drop, and roll. So they did the next best thing: they repeated the message over and over again, and encouraged children to try practicing the moves even when they weren't alight, to ingrain the new behavior as much as possible. The more familiar a behavior became, through repetition and feedback, the less likely a person would be to regress away from it under the actual stress of combustion.
At this time of year, I am seeing work from a lot of students who seem to be regressing under stress: 1L students using tactics in their spring semester midterms that appear to be drawn from their most basic legal writing classes, or from college composition classes; 3L students trying to mechanically apply CREAC format to early MEE and MPT practice questions. Even when we know we have shown these students the more advanced strategies they should be using as they progress through their development as attorneys, we have to keep in mind that that blank piece of paper or computer screen can just as easily be a threat as a blessing. Under the stress of self-doubt, or of novelty, or of high ambition, or future consequences -- sometimes of all of these at once -- the amiably clean page can transform into an incandescent hazard. Repetition and feedback are important not just to help our students improve their use of the more advanced strategies they need, but also to make them comfortable and familiar enough to be able to use those strategies at all.
Tuesday, March 12, 2019
Two stories that I heard recently have been echoing off of each other in my mind, because of what they say about the human reaction to things that we, personally, would never consider doing.
The first was told to me by a fellow professor at my law school. She said she had been talking with two of her teaching fellows -- conscientious and diligent 3L students with excellent grades -- about the upcoming July 2019 bar exam. She conveyed to them a recent conversation she had had with me, in which I had told her about the data that showed that many students who were not passing the bar on their first attempt had also not been fully participating in their summer bar prep courses. She had expected that these top students would share in her incredulity that anyone would not commit themselves 100 percent to their summer bar prep . . . but was astonished when their actual incredulity was prompted by the suggestion that fresh law graduates really ought to do just that. Each of them had just assumed that, being newly-minted lawyers with excellent academic credentials, they were already mostly well-prepared for the bar exam. They told her they'd figured they'd watch maybe half the summer classes, in the subjects they had never studied before, and do some of the practice exercises, and that would be enough to bring them up to speed. Flabbergasted, the professor explained to them why it was important to sit through every lecture in every subject and to participate in as many practice exercises as possible, because the bar exam would be so very different from everything they had done before it.
Fortunately, these students respected this professor so much that they took her word as gospel, thanked her profusely for telling them what they needed to know, and promised to throw themselves wholeheartedly into their summer bar preparation. She told me this story partly to make the point: We think it's the struggling students, the ones who already have problems juggling all their assignments, who are the ones who flake out over the summer, but even top students can have the wrong impression about what is required for their success on the bar. Even as she was telling the story, though, she was still clearly shocked: How can people not know this?
I read the second story this week, when it was widely reported that a woman in Arizona was attacked by a jaguar when she tried to take a selfie in front of the creature. The beautiful black feline was pressed against the side of its cage, and the woman decided she wanted a photo of herself with the cat in the background. There was a metal barrier, designed to keep people a minimum distance from the side of the cage, but the woman stepped over it so she could get a closer shot. When she was within reach, the jaguar stuck its front leg between the bars of the cage and sank its claws into the woman's arm.
This story has been widely reported, and those reports usually feature two snarky points. One is a criticism of the ubiquitous modern urge to take selfies, even in dangerous situations. The other is a disdainful incredulity that anyone would blithely cross a safety barrier to put themselves in range of a pawful of tiny daggers. How can people not know this is a bad idea? Why, as several news outlets pointed out, the same jaguar did the same thing only last summer, clawing a man who had stuck his arm behind the barrier reaching towards the animal! Doesn't that just prove what a bad idea it was?
This last part is why the stories have been resonating for me. I'm only human, so I enjoy news stories like this, and tweets and memes like Florida Man and Darwin Awards, that purport to showcase just what poor decision makers humans can be. Can you believe these people? [shakes head and rolls eyes] But the fact that the same animal made the same kind of attack less than a year ago doesn't make the story funnier. It turns the story sour. Because the woman who was attacked didn't know about the previous attack. If, outside the jaguar's cage, there had been a photo display of the man attacked the previous summer, showing the eight stitches he had received just by reaching over the barrier, maybe the woman would have thought twice about cozying up to Panthera onca. Was not sharing this information with her justified simply because the man's behavior was simply inconceivable to most people? Because it was not inconceivable to her.
My colleague told me her story essentially for that reason -- she knows how many 3L students I work with, and she wanted to alert me to the need to tell all of them, not just the obviously struggling, about the consequences if they step too close to the jaguar cage by not fully participating in their summer bar courses. I am grateful to her for that. Sometimes when you tell people about some of the reasons students do not succeed at school or on the bar -- not participating in a bar prep course, say, or trying to work full-time and study full-time simultaneously -- their dismissive reactions are more along the lines of Can you believe these people? [shakes head and rolls eyes] Sometimes I find those reactions hard to believe in an educational setting, but I feel it is my job to find a way to help those people see that incredulity does not have to forestall empathy, kindness, and instruction.
Thursday, February 28, 2019
For those of you that just tackled the bar exam this week, here's a few words of congratulations and a couple of tips as you wait for bar exam results.
First, let me speak to you straight from my heart!
Bravo! Magnificent! Herculean!
Those are just some of the words that come to mind…words that you should be rightly speaking to yourself…because…they are true of you to the core!
But, for most of us right now, we just don’t quite feel super-human about the bar exam. Such accolades of self-talk are, frankly, just difficult to do. Rather, most of us just feel relief – plain and simple relief – that the bar exam is finally over and we have somehow survived.
That’s because very few of us, upon completion of the bar exam, feel like we have passed the bar exam. Most of us just don’t know. So now, the long “waiting” period begins with results not due out for a number of months.
So, here’s the conundrum about the “waiting” period:
Lot’s of well-meaning people will tell you that you have nothing to worry about; that they are sure that you passed the bar exam; and that the bar exam wasn’t that hard…really.
Not that hard?
You know that I passed?
There’s nothing for me to worry about?
Let me give you a concrete real life example...
Like you, I took the bar exam. And, like most of you, I had no idea at all whether I passed the bar exam. I was just so glad that it was finally over. But all of my friends, my legal employer (a judge), my former law professors, and my family kept telling me that I had absolutely nothing to be worried about; that I passed the bar exam; that I worked hard; that they knew that I could do it.
But, they didn’t know something secret about my bar exam experience. They didn’t know about my lunch on the first day of the bar exam.
At the risk of revealing a closely held secret, my first day of the bar exam actually started out on the right foot, so to speak. I was on time for the exam. In fact, I got to the convention center early enough to get a prime parking spot. Moreover, in preparation for my next big break (lunch), I had already cased out the nearest handy-dandy fast food restaurants for grabbing a quick bite to eat before the afternoon portion of the bar exam so that I would not miss the start of the afternoon session of the bar exam.
So, when lunch came, I was so excited to eat that I went straight to Burger King. I really wanted that “crown,” perhaps because I really didn’t understand many of the essay problems from the morning exam. But as I approached Burger King, the line was far out of the door. Impossibly out of the door. And, it didn’t get any better at McDonalds next door. I then faced the same conundrum at Wendy’s and then at Taco Bell.
Finally, I had to face up to cold hard facts.
I could either eat lunch or I could take the afternoon portion of the bar exam. But, I couldn’t do both. The lines were just too long. So, I was about to give up - as I had exhausted all of the local fast food outlets surrounding the convention center - when I luckily caught a glimpse of a possible solution to both lunch and making it back to the bar exam in time for the afternoon session – a liquor store. There was no line. Not a soul. I had the place to myself. So, I ran into the liquor store to grab my bar exam lunch: two Snicker’s bars. With plenty of time to now spare, I then leisurely made my way back to the bar exam on time for the start of the afternoon session.
But, here’s the rub:
All of my friends and family members (and even the judge that I was clerking for throughout the waiting period) were adamant that I had passed the bar exam. They just knew it!
But, they didn’t know that I ate lunch at the liquor store.
So when several months later the bar results were to become publicly available later that day, I went to work for my judge wondering what the judge might do when the truth came out – that I didn’t pass the bar exam because I didn’t pack a lunch to eat at the bar exam.
To be honest, I was completely stick to my stomach. But, I was stuck; I was at work and everyone believed in me. Then, later that morning while still at my work computer, the results came out. My heart raced, but my name just didn’t seem to be listed at all. No Scott Johns. And then, I realized that my official attorney name begins with William. I was looking at the wrong section of the Johns and Johnsons. My name was there! I had passed! I never told the judge my secret about my “snicker bar” lunch. I was just plain relieved that the bar exam “wait” was finally over.
That’s the problem with all of the helpful advice from our friends, employers, law professors, and family members during this waiting period. For all of us (or at least most of us), there was something unusual that happened during our bar exam. It didn’t seem to go perfectly. Quite frankly, we just don’t know if we indeed passed the bar exam.
So, here’s a few suggestions for your time right now with your friends, employers, law professors, and family members.
1. First, just let them know how you are feeling. Be open and frank. Share your thoughts with them along with your hopes and fears.
2. Second, give them a hearty thank you for all of the enriching support, encouragement, and steadfast faithfulness that they have shared with you as walked your way through law school and through this week’s bar exam. Perhaps send them a personal notecard. Or, make a quick phone call of thanks. Regardless of your particular method of communication, reach out to let them know out of the bottom of your heart that their support has been invaluable to you.
3. Finally, celebrate yourself, your achievement, and your true grit....by taking time out - right now - to appreciate the momentous accomplishment of undertaking a legal education, graduating from law school and tackling your bar exam.
You've done something great; something mightily significant! Congratulations to each of you! (Scott Johns).
Thursday, February 21, 2019
Next week, thousands will be headed to convention centers, etc., to show case the handy-work of their bar preparation efforts for the past two months. In preparation, bar takers have watched weeks of bar review lectures, worked hundreds and even thousands of bar exam problems, and created myriads of study tools, checklists, and flashcards.
Nevertheless, with one weekend to go, most of us feel like we aren't quite ready, like we don't really know enough, with all of the rules - to be honest - tangled and knotted up in a giant mess in our minds.
Yet, let me say this up front. Despite how most of us feel, this weekend is not the time to learn more law. Rather, it's time to reflect on what you've learned, to let it live in you, to give it presence within you. But, how do you do that?
Well, as I heard in a recent talk about medical education, I think we've got something important to learn from the medical schools that just might help with bar prep, too. You see, apparently, despite all of the massive amounts of information available from the learning scientists, the philosophy of training doctors boils down to just three very simple steps: "See it--Do it--Teach it."
Here's what that means for the upcoming bar prep weekend: For the past several months, you've been focused on "seeing it" and "doing it." You've been watching lectures, taking copious notes, reading outlines, and working problems. In short, you've been busily learning by seeing it and doing it.
But, for most of us, despite all of that work, we aren't quite sure (at all!) whether we are ready for the real bar exam because we haven't yet taken the last step necessary for cementing and solidifying our learning; namely, we haven't yet "taught it."
So, that's where this weekend comes in.
Throughout this weekend, grab hold of your notes or study tools or checklists or flashcards, pick out a subject, and teach it to someone. That someone can be real or imaginary; it can be even be your dog Fido. But, just like most teachers, get up out of your seat, out from behind your desk, and take 30 minutes per subject to teach it to that someone, from beginning to the end. Then, run through the next subject, and then the next subject, and then the next subject, etc. Even if you are by yourself, talk it out to teach it; be expressive; vocalize or even dance with it. Make motions with your hands. Use your fingers to indicate the number of elements and wave your arms to indicate the next step in the problem-solving process. Speak with expertise and confidence. And, don't worry about covering it all; rather, stick with just the big topics (the so-called "money ball" rules).
What does this look like in action? Well, here's an example:
"Let's see. Today, I am going to teach you a few handy steps on how to solve any contracts problem in a flash. The first thing to consider is what universe you're in. You see, as an initial consideration, there's the UCC that covers sales of goods (movable objects) while the common law covers all other subjects (like land or service contracts). That's step one. The next step is contract formation. That means that you'll have to figure out if there was mutual assent (offer and acceptance) and consideration. Let's walk through how you'll determine whether something is an offer...."
I remember when I first taught. I was hired at Colorado State University as a graduate teaching assistant to teach two classes of calculus. But, I had a problem; I had just graduated myself. So, I didn't really know if I knew the subject because I hadn't yet tried to teach it to someone. As you can imagine, boy was I ever scared! To be honest, I was petrified. Yet, before walking into class, I took time to talk out about my lesson plan for that very first class meeting. In short, I "pre-taught" my first class before I taught my first class. So, when I walked into the classroom, even though I still didn't quite feel ready (at all) to teach calculus students, I found myself walking in to class no longer as a student but as a teacher. In short, I started teaching. And, in that teaching, I learned the most important lesson about learning, namely, that when we can teach something we know something.
So, as you prepare for success on your bar exam next weekend, focus your work this weekend on teaching each subject to another person, whether imaginary or real. And, in the process, you'll start to see how it all comes to together. Best of luck on your bar exam! (Scott Johns).
February 21, 2019 in Advice, Bar Exam Issues, Bar Exam Preparation, Bar Exams, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Learning Styles, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)
Thursday, February 7, 2019
Recently, I heard a discussion suggesting that bar passers do things differently in the final two weeks than those who are not successful on the bar exam. That got me thinking about what I've been seeing, at least anecdotally, in my 10-plus years working with students in preparing for their bar exams.
First, both groups tend to work extraordinarily hard in the last two weeks before their bar exams. So, what's the difference? It must be in the type of work that the two groups are doing. In short, during the final two weeks, it seems to me that bar passers tend to ramp up their practice with lots and lots of MBE questions and essays [while also creating super-short compact homespun study tools (2-3-page outlines, flashcards, or posters)]. In contrast, people who find themselves unsuccessful tend to focus on creating extra-bulky study tools and trying to memorize those study tools with very little continued practice of MBE questions and essays. In brief, one group is continuing to practice for the exam and the other group is focused on memorizing for the exam.
But, here's the rub:
It’s a perfectly natural feeling during the final two weeks of bar prep to want to focus solely (or mostly) on creating perfect study tools and trying to perfectly memorize all the law.
But, according to the educational psychologists, there’s something called “useful forgetfulness.” You see, when we jam packet our study tools with everything, we aren’t learning much of anything because we haven’t had to make any hard decisions about what to let go (what to “forget”). We’re just typing or handwriting or flowcharting like a scribe. But, when we purposefully decide that we are only going to make a super-short “starter” study tools (knowing that we can always add more rules as we work through more questions during the next couple of weeks), our decisions about what to put in our super-short study tools (and what to leave out) means that we actually empower ourselves to know both what we put in our study tools (and what we left out).
As a suggestion, tackle two subjects per day – one subject that is essay-only and one subject tested on both the essay and the MBE exam. Starting with one subject in the morning, using the most compact outline that your commercial course provides (and referencing the table of contents for each subject), create a super-short study tool with the goal of completing your study tool in 2 hours or less.
Here’s a tip:
If you think that you need a rule, don’t put it in because you can always add more later. Instead, only add a rule that you’ve seen countless times over and over. Just get it done. Move quickly. Don’t get stuck with definitions of elements, etc. Stick with the big picture umbrella rules. Think BIG picture. For example, be determined to get through all of contracts in 2 hours (from what law governs to remedies). As a suggestion, have just one rule for each item in the table of contents for your commercial bar review outline. Don't go deep sea diving. Stay on the surface. Then, in the remainder of the morning, work with your study tool through a handful of practice essays. In the afternoon, repeat the same tasks using a different subject (creating a snappy study tool and working through a few essays). Finally, in the evening, work through mixed sets of MBE questions.
In the last week before the bar exam, with most of your starter study tools completed, focus on talking through your study tool (for about one hour or so) and then working through lots and lots essay problems and MBE questions. As you practice in the last week, feel free to add rules that come up in practice essays and MBE questions to your study tool. As I heard one person explain it, your study tool becomes sort of a "bar diary" of your adventurous travels through essays and MBE questions (thanks Prof. Micah Yarbrough!). In short, you've created a study tool that has been time-tested and polished through the hard knock experiences of working and learning through lots of bar exam hypothetical problems.
So, for those of you taking the February 2019 bar exam, focus on practice first and foremost because you aren't going to be tested on your study tool. Rather, you're going to be testing on whether you can use your study tool to solve hypothetical problems. And, good luck on your bar exam! (Scott Johns).
P.S. For those taking the Uniform Bar Exam, there are 12 subjects as grouped by the bar examiners (I think there are 14 subjects in California, depending on how you count subjects):
* Business Associations (Corporations, Agency, Partnership, and LLC)
* Secured Transactions
* Federal Civil Procedure
* Family Law
* Wills & Trusts
* Conflicts of Law
* Constitutional Law
* Criminal Law & Procedure
Friday, February 1, 2019
The ABA House of Delegates voted overwhelmingly against the proposed toughening of bar passage standards for ABA schools. The adverse impact on California law schools and on diversity were two reasons given for the defeat of the proposal. You can read about the vote in the post on Inside Higher Ed here.
Thursday, December 20, 2018
Congratulations December 2018 graduates! What a herculean achievement! Simply put, outstanding!
Nevertheless, I know that for many of you, right now it feels like a bit of a let down because you find yourself right back right back in the classroom as you prepare for your bar exam in February 2019.
That's exactly how I felt. Simply put, graduation felt a bit disingenuous as I had so much work left to be done to earn my law license. However, let me be frank. As you approach your bar studies, you are no longer a law student but a law school graduate. It may not feel like much of a difference, but its important to recognize - throughout these two months of your bar review learning - that you are a new person with a new professional identity, trained and well-seasoned to think through, analyze, and communicate solutions to vast arrays of legal scenarios.
Despite such remarkable progress as demonstrated by your law school graduation, many bar takers stumble in the first few weeks of bar prep, finding themselves increasing at odds with how to best learn and prepare themselves for the bar exam. I sure did. I spent much of the first few weeks trying to learn the law by, well, listening to professors talk about the law and watching professors talk about solving legal problems with the law. Big mistake! Cost me a lot of valuable time! That's why I write to you, dear law school graduate and now bar taker. Instead of focusing on learning the law, focus right from the get-go (i.e, that means right now, today!) on working through lots of practice problems each day. In short, I was, unfortunately, a "linear learner," as Professor Catherine Christopher says in her wonderful book entitled Tackling Texas Essays (Carolina Academic Press 2018): https://cap-press.com/books/
I. Linear Learning
Let me explain a bit about the difference between linear learning and recursive learning. As depicted by Professor Christopher in the diagram below from her book on successfully preparing for the bar exam , linear studying has a defined path. And, as a bonus, it sure looks nice and orderly, leading to the illusion of a direct straight-line path to success. Indeed, right now, many of you are focused (solely?) on watching videos, reviewing your notes, reading your commercial outlines, and making gigantic study tools. But, if you are like me, you aren't yet taking practice exams (or are only doing very few of them at the most).
Linear Learning (Professor Christopher 2018)
However, as explained by Professor Christopher, that's a big problem. Here's why. You'll end up spending most of the 8 - 10 week bar prep period doing very few practice problems, trying instead to master the law so perfectly so that you'll have enough confidence in the last few weeks to do well on practice problems. In short, you are afraid (I sure was!) to tackle practice problems because there's so much to know (and so many ways to make mistakes).
However, that's a big problem because it's in our mistakes that we learn best. We don't really learn by watching others. Who ever learned to play piano, play soccer, dance, or even litigate a case without practicing (which means "rehearing" and "acting out") what you hope to accomplish in the future with polish? No one prepares to become an expert without first being a novice.
But, as Professor Christopher comments, it feels really terrible, really terrible, to practice problems so early on because we make so many mistakes. But, if we delay practicing problems until the last few weeks possible, we make that practice much more of a high stake experience, in the words of Professor Christopher, such that there's no wiggle room for errors in our practicing experiences (so that there is no room for learning, either). In my opinion, linear studying leads to disappointment and frustration.
But, there's good news ahead, for those of you who engage in recursive learning.
II. Recursive Learning
Now here's a bit about recursive learning. As depicted in the diagram below from Professor Christopher's text, successfully preparing for the bar exam involves learning in a circular recursive process rather than a straight-line linear process.
Recursive Learning (Professor Christopher 2018)
As Professor Christopher explains, the first step - "reading and reviewing" - involves watching lectures, taking lectures notes, and reading outlines [about 4 hours or so per day].
But take note of second step in the circular process: "work to understand." That means that we get involved in the learning, we take center stage, so to speak, in our own learning by "work[ing] to understand the material" so that it becomes real to us. Just like learning a language, in which we start to start learning to speak and write a language by...speaking and writing a language! For bar takers, that means in this second stage that we make our own personal condensed notes or flashcards or other study tools to "help...get the information into [our] head[s]." (Here's a snappy suggestion: Just take hold of one (1) blank piece of paper, and, referencing your lecture notes in hand, write down, scribble, flowchart, and doodle the major take-aways from that day's lecture. Note: Don't let yourself get bogged down by trying to re-write your entire lecture notes; rather, focus only on big picture concepts because people pass the bar based on the big picture principles rather than the nitty picky details.). [about 1 hour or so per day].
The last step takes real bravery, discipline, and honesty too. And, it's vital for your learning. Start right away that very day, each day, by digging into actual bar exam questions, working through them one by one, using notes and outlines freely, and then reviewing practice answers afterwards to assess what went well along with concrete ways to improve with future practice problems. Here's a key tip for your practice sessions: Be super-curious when you miss a question; poke back around to the fact pattern - like a detective - to figure out whether you missed the question because you missed a rule or, more likely, you missed an important trigger fact in the fact pattern. So, for example, if you write a picture-perfect IRAC essay but then notice that the problem didn't involve that rule, go back and figure out where in the facts the correct rule was triggered. In short, don't just test yourself through practice problems but rather use the opportunity to learn through practice problems. [about 3 to 4 hours or so per day]. (Then, as illustrated by Professor Christopher's diagram, the next day we begin again with another bar review lecture.).
The great news is that throughout this process, while you might not feel like you are doing much learning, you are really dancing with the materials, making them your own, developing and finessing your critical reading, organizational, and writing skills. In short, you are productively on the path to successfully preparing for your bar exam.
So, in the midst of this bar review season, take courage. Indeed, be of good cheer, as the holiday saying goes, because true learning takes its shape in you - step by step - through the daily process of recursive learning - (1) reviewing, (2) working to understand, and (3) then testing yourself through practices problems. To be personal, I wish I had known this at the outset of my bar prep season. So, feel free to step out of the "line" and learn! Oh, and congratulations again on your graduation from law school! What a wonderfully momentous accomplishment! (Scott Johns).
December 20, 2018 in Advice, Bar Exam Issues, Bar Exam Preparation, Bar Exams, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Learning Styles, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)
Tuesday, December 4, 2018
At this time of year, I am working mostly with two groups of students: 1L students preparing for their first set of law school final examinations, and recent and soon-to-be graduates who are planning to take the February bar examination. While these two cohorts are about as far apart as students of law can be, there is at least one common element to their experiences: the peril associated with reaching a goal.
Regretfully, some of those preparing for the February bar exam, at my school and elsewhere, are graduates who have already taken the July bar last summer and did not pass. Every year, people who find themselves in this position include some strong law school performers, people with GPAs and other indicators that suggested that they should not have had any problem passing with their classmates. Sometimes, their disappointing performances can be explained by extenuating circumstances, like illness. But other times, it just appears that the new graduate only put in a fraction of the effort needed over the summer to prepare for the bar exam -- e.g., having signed up for a bar preparation course, they completed less than half of the assignments. Few people would stand a chance of passing the bar with so little preparation.
Observers of such misguided lack of effort might attribute it to overconfidence -- good students mistakenly believing their law school performance was preparation enough. Maybe it seems like that even to the disappointed graduates, shrugging their shoulders and otherwise unable to explain just how they had let 10 weeks get away from them without applying themselves to their studies as they had in the past. But perhaps for some there is another, less self-condemnatory element at work. Consider this: in the two or three weeks before bar studies were to begin, these students had just completed probably the most grueling three years of study of their lives, and it had all culminated in proud marches across the graduation stage. They had reached the finish line at the end of a very demanding course. But, as Gretchen Rubin notes in her book Better Than Before, "A finish line marks a stopping point. Once we stop, we must start over, and starting over is harder than continuing. . . . The more dramatic the goal, the more decisive the end -- and the more effort required to start over."
We see examples of this all the time. People who exercise scrupulously to lower their weight to a target goal -- and then stop exercising and gain back the weight. Writers who work diligently every day to complete a long-term project, but then lose the daily habit once the project is complete. Surely at least some portion of those capable law school graduates who did not put in the effort they might have made to prepare for the bar had at some level seen their final final exams and their pompously circumstantial degree conferment as manifestations of a very dramatic conclusion, and then found themselves at a psychological disadvantage in trying to start, in bar preparation, what seemed to them a brand new test of willpower, tenacity, and capacity.
This suggests that one way to help some of our 3L students prepare to jump right into the huge bar preparation undertaking is to message it not as a novel ordeal, but as just one more step toward the ultimate goal of practice. We might also downplay the significance of their spring final exams -- liberally reminding our students that those will not be the last exams they ever take -- and even minimize the ceremony of law school graduation, by pointing out to them that the real endgame is the swearing-in ceremony. The more psychological continuity that students cultivate between law school and the bar examination, the more likely they will be able to carry over their habits of diligence and fortitude into the bar study period.
This kind of messaging might also be helpful to some of our 1L students right now. They are not yet near graduation, but no set of final exams before the last seems more momentous and conclusive than the first set at the end of the fall semester. Students who have the perspective to see this first set of exams as just one of six may be less like to feel that they are psychologically starting over again in the spring. Conversely, those who more explicitly see these exams as a finish line -- students who tell themselves, "If I can just get through these . . .", or those who seem to focus on the weeks off between semesters as a sort of quasi-retirement -- may not have as much momentum going in to classes in 2019, and may struggle to bring themselves back to the same level of diligence they had reached in the fall. Bringing to these students' attention the long-term effort required in law school, and the expectation that what they learned in that first semester will be needed again and again through graduation, the bar exam, and practice, may help them find getting back into reading, briefing, and studying in January is just that much more achievable.
Sunday, November 25, 2018
Invitation from NCBE
The National Conference of Bar Examiners requests your assistance with a significant research study regarding the bar examination. NCBE has created a Testing Task Force to oversee a comprehensive, future-focused research study of the bar examination, and we want and need to tap the insights of legal academics. We would like to invite you to participate in one of six focus group sessions held at the AALS Annual Meeting in New Orleans on January 3 and 4, 2019.
The Task Force is approaching its study with no preconceived notions and is considering the content, format, timing, and delivery methods for the bar exam to ensure it keeps pace with a changing legal profession. For more information about the study, please read the overview of our research plan at www.testingtaskforce.org/research/.
As a legal educator, you are a vital part of the legal licensure process, and gathering input from you and other stakeholders is an essential component of the study. We hope you are as eager to share your ideas and opinions about the bar exam of the future as we are to hear them! The focus group sessions will be facilitated by one of the Testing Task Force’s independent research consulting firms, ACS Ventures LLC. The number of participants will be capped at 12-15 people per 90-minute session to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to provide their input, so you are encouraged to register early to reserve your spot in a session.
To sign up for a focus group session at the AALS Annual Meeting, complete this online registration form. You’ll receive a confirmation with logistical details and additional information about the session by email.
NCBE and its Testing Task Force are committed to creating additional opportunities for focus groups and web-based interactions to gain insights from legal academics, law students, and other stakeholders in the next six months. Subscribe at the Testing Task Force’s website to receive updates about the study and to be notified about other opportunities to participate.
Thank you for all you do to help prepare law students to become lawyers. If you have questions, please feel free to contact the Testing Task Force at email@example.com. We look forward to hearing from you!
Tuesday, November 13, 2018
I have learned probably hundreds of tips, tricks, and techniques to improve one's performance on examinations. But there is only one that I learned with ten million people watching.
In 2005, I took the Florida Bar Exam -- my second bar exam, after passing the DC Bar Exam seven years earlier. When I returned to my car, the lone message waiting for me on my cell phone was not the expected call from my family. Instead, it was Glenn, from Culver City, California, calling to inform me that I had been selected to be a contestant on Jeopardy! -- the fast-paced quiz show in which contestants vie to answer 61 questions in 22 minutes.
The taping was to be in a month, and so I went right from cramming for the bar to cramming for trivial warfare. I knew there was no way I could study every possible subject that might come up on the show. At the same time, I felt like I ought to be "training". Today, there are websites that archive years of Jeopardy! clues, and old episodes on demand on Netflix, but these weren't available in 2005, so my main source of practice was watching the daily broadcast of the show at 7:30 p.m. And, perhaps because I felt that it was a rather precious resource, I decided that I wasn't just going to casually sit on the couch and shout out responses with the contestants. I decided that I was going to act like a contestant. Each contestant stands behind a podium and holds in one hand a pen-sized electronic button, and the first person to press that button after host Alex Trebek finishes reading the clue gets the chance to give the response -- famously, in the form of a question (e.g., "Who is George Washington?"). So, for a month, I tried to simulate their actions. I watched the show standing up, behind a living room chair. I held a clickable ballpoint pen, and practiced pressing the top button after Trebek finished reading each clue, and only then did I allow myself to call out a response in the form of a question. From time to time, I would feel a little goofy doing this, thinking, Isn't the show really about what you know? But I kept at it, because it seemed like the only way to really practice.
Finally, I arrived in California for the taping. Jeopardy! tapes five episodes in one day, a couple days every few weeks, so on the day on which I was scheduled to tape, I was herded into the studio with about a dozen other contestants. We spent a few hours signing documents and having make-up applied and learning all the rules and, most important and exciting, playing a few practice rounds on the set to familiarize ourselves with the equipment. I noticed some of the other contestants -- all clearly bright and as delighted as I was to be there -- seemed slightly awkward behind the podium. We all knew intellectually what to do, of course; we had all been fans watching the show for years, and we had just received a thorough briefing on what was expected of us. Even so, some contestants struggled to push their electronic button at the right time -- pushing it before Trebek was done talking would lock you out so that you could not answer, but if you waited too long, someone else would get in before you. Others got the hang of the button, with concentration, but then could not remember the responses they were trying to give. And there were times when contestants would press the button correctly, and give the right response, but forget to give it in the form of a question.
But when I went up on stage to practice, it was like I was standing back in my living room. I had practiced the timing of pushing my pen button so many times that, when it came time to press the real thing, I did not even have to think about it. I rang in quickly, focused entirely on recalling the information needed, and then gave the answer automatically in the form of a question. It worked in practice, and it worked in the actual taping. Yes, the show is about what you know, but it's important that nothing hinder you from demonstrating what you know. I won four games, and eventually came back to be a finalist in the Tournament of Champions.
In the years since, I have learned that what I had stumbled onto is known as "simulation training". It is a kind of practice that is not unlike the physical training that athletes do to develop muscle memory and automatic responses. In the context of quiz shows and law examinations, though, what makes simulation training particularly useful is not just the physical skills that it develops. What makes it useful is that it frees up mental space and focus for more complex thought. Not having to think about when to push the button and how to phrase my answer enabled me to devote full attention to reading the clue and retrieving the correct response.
Practicing to take examinations -- whether final exams or Bar exams -- can provide the same kind of simulation training, under the right conditions. Of course, students should write practice exams for other very good reasons, like improving legal analysis and uncovering weaknesses in subject matter knowledge, because law examinations should also be about what you know. But there is an added benefit when practice exams are done under conditions that imitate expected exam conditions. There are dozens of details and stimuli that students encounter consistently during an actual exam that, if unfamiliar, can demand valuable thought or cause detrimental distraction: dressing comfortably, locating a seat, timing bathroom use, logging into ExamSoft, calculating timing targets, contending with silence or noise, reading and following directions, cutting and pasting text, properly submitting responses, etc. Encouraging students to incorporate attention to these elements during their practice work, even when they are not really necessary, can help them improve performance, not because performance depends on finding a proper seat, but because being able to do so with almost no thought allows them to devote their mental energies to the tasks that really need them. Exam performance is about what you know, but it is important that nothing hinder you from demonstrating what you know.
Thursday, November 8, 2018
I'm worried about final exams. To be frank, I don't like the word "final." I have to say that the word "final" particularly bothered me in my previous aviation career, where air traffic controllers clear airliners for the "final approach to runway 18." I just didn't want that to be my final approach. I hoped to have at least a few more years in aviation.
But, here's the biggest rub that I have with final exams.
Because law students frequently have only a few mid-term exams to assess their learning (and to therefore improve before their final exams), final exams are, well, too final to make an improvement in one's learning. In fact, I suspect that the term "final exams" tends to lead to more of a fixed mindset with respect to our law students' learning. They get their grades, often weeks after finals, and most students - it seems - never review their exams to identify what they did that was good (nor to look for ways to improve in the next round of final exams).
Nevertheless, it's not just final exams that can be a hurdle in improving learning for the future.
Our feedback can be too.
As summarized by Jennifer Gonzalez in her blog "The Cult of Pedagogy," where she writes that "[r]eally, the experience of school could be described as one long feedback session, where every day, people show up with the goal of improving, while other people tell them how to do it. And it doesn’t always go well. As we give and receive feedback, people get defensive. Feelings get hurt. Too often, the improvements we’re going for don’t happen, because the feedback isn’t given in a way that the receiver can embrace." https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/feedforward/. In short, feedback might just stunt growth, which is another way of saying that feedback might stunt learning.
But, there's great news!
Rather than providing our students with more and more feedback, we might consider providing them with "feedforward" instead.
But first, here are the problems with feedback. Feedback focuses on the past. It focuses on the negative without necessarily providing ways forward to improve. It focuses on being stuck rather than helping people get unstuck. Indeed, as outlined by Jennifer Gonzalez, there are at least three ways that feedback hinders learning:
• First, citing to author and educator Joe Hirsch, feedback shuts down our "mental dashboards." In my words, it crashes our brain. That's because the "red marks" and the many comments to "change this" or to "change that" tend to cause us to believe that all is lost; there's no hope for us. We just don't see a way forward because, frankly, we are stunned with a horrible feeling that we just don't get it...and never will. We are locked in the past. The future is hidden from us.
• Second, citing again to Joe Hirsch, feedback tends to reinforce negative thoughts because the comments tend to lead us to believe that we are stuck in a sort of "learned hopelessness" in which we cannot change our future. Rather than building a growth mindset in our students, feedback that is focused solely on what our students have done in the past creates a fixed mindset with students believing that there's little that they can do to improve their learning in the future.
• Third, citing again to Joe Hirsch, we tend to approach feedback with a single-minded crystalized focus to see what grades or marks or numbers we received (rather than seeing feedback as providing us with helpful and hopeful positive tools forward to achieve better grades in the future). In short, despite all the feedback given, students tend to see and internalize their grades first, and, because first impressions lead to lasting impressions, feedback often falls short in producing improvements in learning for future assessments. Too often, the grades on feedback crystalize into final exam grades, too.
In contrast, "feedforward" focus on the future. It takes the work of today and provides insights, comments, and tips framed in a communicative, generative way that leads to improvement in the future. It is forward looking; never backward looking. Feedforward believes in the future - a bright future - and provides particular ways for our students to move forward towards that future of improvements in their learning.
So, what is "feedforward?"
Simply put, it's coaching students about their current performance with heart-felt questions and insights that get our students thinking for themselves about how they can improve their learning for the future.
Curious? Rather than going through the six steps in providing helpful "feedforward" to our students, let me just point me to you the steps as cited by Jennifer Gonzalez in her blog article about "Feedforward," available at: https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/feedforward/.
And, one last thought...
As academic support professionals, this month is a great opportunity. In particular, nothing really needs to be "final" about final exams. That's because we can provide our students with opportunities to receive positive "feedforward" well before final exams - via practice exams, exam writing workshops, academic support small group tutoring sessions, etc. - such that our students will learn to improve well before they take their final exams. Indeed, the key to a great final exam experience is to have great "feedforward" experiences on the way to taking final exams. So cheers to the future - our students futures! (Scott Johns).
Thursday, October 25, 2018
My dog loves rabbit trails. Luckily for the rabbits, at least thus far, the trails have never led to rabbits.
That got me thinking about exam writing and rabbit trails.
But first, a bit of background...
I find that most bar exam takers who do not pass the bar exam write brilliantly well-organized professional essay answers. The rules are crisp; the IRAC is polished. But, in most cases, some of the answers are unresponsive to the fact patterns at hand. In other words, its as though the fact patterns were irrelevant to answering some of the particular essay questions. Instead of finding the "rabbits" in the essays, they followed "rabbit trails" leading to no where. And, it's often that way on law school exams too.
Take this summer's first essay question on the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE), available free-of-charge at https://www.ncbex.org/July2018Essays.
The fact problem was set in the world of constitutional law. As specified in the fact problem, the essay expressly indicated that US Supreme Court had recently found that Congress was within its power under the interstate commerce clause (ICC) to punish marijuana use. On the other hand, the fact problem indicated that a number of states were (and have) legalized marijuana use both for medicinal purposes and recreational purposes.
Frustrated by state decriminalization of marijuana, the fact pattern specified that Congress enacted a federal drug abuse prevention statute. Pertinent to the essay problem, one section of the statute required state law enforcement officers to investigate whether anyone within their custody, even on matters unrelated to controlled substance violations, was under the influence of marijuana and then make reports to the federal government. The other section of the statute, as specified in the fact pattern, provided that Congress would restrict federal law enforcement grants to states which decriminalized marijuana use. The fact pattern went on to indicate that a State had recently decriminalized marijuana use and would therefore be subject to a loss of approximately $10 million dollars in annual federal grant money out of a state budget of about $600 million total of state law enforcement spending. Based on this fact pattern, bar exam applicants were told to analyze whether each of these two statutes were constitutional as applied to this particular state's situation.
Let's deal with the first statutory section - the federal requirement ordering state law enforcement officers to conduct investigations and make reports. The key to figuring out where to go, i.e., to avoid the "rabbit trail," was to write out a good issue statement, perhaps as follows:
"The issue is whether Congress had constitutional authority when it requires state law enforcement officers to conduct investigations and make reports unrelated to state law enforcement purposes."
In this fact pattern, there's no issue that Congress did not have the commerce clause power because the fact pattern foreclosed that issue, once and for all, with its initial recognition of US Supreme Court precedent specifying that Congress had the power to regulate marijuana use. And, if Congress has the power to regulate marijuana use, it certainly has powers related to that under the "necessary and proper" clause. So, the focus must be elsewhere in answering this problem. As the issue statement makes clear, it's a federalism issue, namely, whether Congress can force states to do the work of the federal government. That's a 10th Amendment issue. In brief, Congress is limited in its ability to commandeer the states, which is precisely what this first section tries to do. It's unconstitutional, at least in my reading of it.
Let's take on the second statutory section - the federal spending restriction of law enforcement grants towards states that decriminalize marijuana. Once again, the key is to start with a sharp issue to avoid the "rabbit trails." Here, we might write as follows:
"The issue is whether Congress had constitutional authority when - as applied to the state at hand in this fact pattern - Congress cut off a federal law enforcement grant in the amount of $10 million out of a state budget of $600 million in state law enforcement spending."
Do you see the issue? It's lurking in the facts stated in the issue statement. Once again, this is a federalism issue. There's no issue that Congress can't spend money for the public welfare, particularly because the state in this fact pattern wants to receive the federal grant money. Rather, the issue is whether these "strings" constitute commandeering of the states by Congress in violation of the 10th Amendment. One could probably come out either way, but I think that the better answer based on Supreme Court precedent is that spending restrictions to encourage states to enact policies and law that comport with federal law are constitutional as long as states have a real choice as to whether to enact new favorable state laws to the federal government or give up the spending grants. In this fact pattern, the amount of money that the state will lose as a result of decriminalization of marijuana is only a small percentage of the entire amount that the state spends on law enforcement, which means that the state has a real meaningful choice to take the federal grant and comply with federal objectives or to refuse the federal grant and still have significant state law enforcement funding. It's constitutional, at least in my analysis.
Despite the fact that this essay problem was centered on federalism issues based on the 10th Amendment, a number of people talked about the commerce clause or equal protection concerns, neither of which were raised by the fact pattern. I can understand why. Bar takers have memorized so much law that they tend to put all of the law that they can think of without thinking through the problem first of all, especially because of the time pressures. But, I have a tip that can help preempt that sort of "rule dump." It's writing out an old-fashioned legal writing issue statement before beginning to write.
Here's what I mean by an old-fashioned issue statement. As set out by Ruta Stropus and Charlotte Taylor in their book "Bridging the Gap Between College and Law School," a great issue statement can take on the form as follows:
"The issue is whether [legal subject-verb-object] + when + [material facts]."
Take a look back at my issue statements. Do I start with the legal issue? Do I have the legal actor as a noun, a verb, and the legal object, here, as to the unconstitutionality of congressional action? Do I then add in a handful of hand-picked material facts from the fact pattern? You bet. In my own case, if I don't take time to work through crafting such an issue statement, I'm lost in most essay problems. I just start writing in circles, moving around in "rabbit trails" so to speak, without really understanding the fact pattern at hand or the questions presented in the essay scenario. In short, I ramble.
So, whether you are a bar taker or a law student preparing for mid-term exams, take a pause before you begin to write out your essays. Hunt for some "red hot" material facts to put down in paper as an issue statement. After all, it's what lawyers do best; they spot issues, the precise issues that are needed for solving their clients' problems. So, as you learn to think like a lawyer, practice like a lawyer too by taking time out to craft, identify, and precisely specify the exact issues posed in your midterms, final exams, or your bar exam essays. It's worth the time. Indeed, you'll be mighty glad because you'll find that you'll avoid the "rabbit trails" found on most essay exams and instead you'll be finding the rabbits themselves. (Scott Johns).
Tuesday, October 16, 2018
Final exams. Olympic competition. Oral argument. Job interviews. The bar examination. These are all high-stakes experiences, often competitive, in which successful outcomes depend on strong performance. As discussed last week, in such situations the human brain can adopt different chemical and behavioral states, depending on whether the situation is perceived as a threat or as a challenge. In a threat situation, the brain becomes hyper-alert to danger and error, processes information more deliberately, and shies away from risk. In a challenge situation, the brain pays less attention to detail, processes information in a more relaxed and automatic way, and is open to taking risks that have sufficient promise of reward. How can we use our knowledge of these two mental states, not just to understand our students better, but also to help them do better?
Let's start by noting that the brain can enter these different states at different times even if it is undertaking the exact same activity. A baseball player might step up to the plate in the third inning and see his task -- to try to get a hit -- as a challenge, and the same player could step to the same plate, even holding the same baseball bat, in the ninth inning and see it as a threat. So it's not the task itself that determines our mental state. It's the surrounding circumstances. Early in the game, when the outcome is still up in the air, a player may be "gain-oriented", focusing on accruing advantages (in this case, runs), and his brain will be in challenge mode. In the last inning, though, if his team has a slim lead, that same player could shift his focus and become "prevention-oriented", focusing on maintaining his team's lead by not making mistakes of which the other team might take advantage. In that case, his brain will be in threat mode.
In the same way, our students can undertake the same activity -- issue spotting, say, or answering multiple-choice questions -- at different times, and might find themselves in either challenge mode or threat mode. This is a good thing, a useful thing. After all, human brains evolved to be capable of these two modes, so each mode ought to have some beneficial qualities.
As Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman point out in Top Dog, in an academic setting there can be an optimal sequencing to these modes. Students perform best if they start their semester working in challenge mode and end it working in threat mode.
This makes sense in a general way. At the beginning of a course, students don't know much about the subject, and their goal should be to try to gain knowledge and skill as quickly as possible. A gain orientation is associated with challenge mode -- the brain plays hunches and takes educated guesses, because the risk (primarily, to grades) is low but the potential reward (flashes of insight) is high. Towards the end of the course, though, risk increases, as the student faces more heavily weighted final exams. At the same time, rewards are lessened, since (ideally) the student has already internalized most of the material and is not likely to learn a great deal more. On a final exam, a student is more likely to be in threat mode -- pondering the answer more slowly and cautiously, less inclined to make risky arguments, perhaps even debating word choice as he tries to recall the exact wording of a rule.
If a student is well-prepared for the final exam, proceeding cautiously with their mind in threat mode may be quite favorable. It can encourage methodical analysis, and help the student avoid unnecessary errors. However, there are two potential issues to consider.
First, as alluded to above, there are two sources of risk and reward in law school. One is the knowledge and understanding of the subject matter, and the other is the final grade in the class. A student who downplays either source is at a disadvantage. Reminding students to pay attention to learning the rules and how to use them, and to developing their test-taking skills at the same time, is part of what Academic Success is about. Being able to describe these abilities as complementary sources of risk and reward may provide us with another way of doing that.
Second, while being in threat mode may help a student avoid errors, they still may not perform well if they only enter threat mode for the first time in the final exam. Since threat mode slows analysis and limits the options the brain is willing to consider, it can change the way people behave during exams. We have doubtless all had students who felt confident in a subject all semester and then did poorly on their final, later explaining that they thought of some of the correct responses but abandoned them because they were afraid they might be wrong, and that they spent so much time working on the first half of the exam that they didn't have time to complete the second half. While there are several plausible explanations for such mistakes, one possibility for them to consider is that they had never practiced answering questions in that course in threat mode. If all of their practice was under the speedier, more relaxed challenge mode, then they had never really practiced under exam conditions.
Ideally, humans would have a switch we could activate to shift from challenge mode to threat mode and back. But, while we don't, it is nevertheless possible for professors to influence students and help shift them into threat mode. As Bronson and Merryman explain, teachers can affect their students' brains just by changing the way they present their examinations. If students are given a test and told that they will receive a certain number of points for every correct answer, then they focus more on the idea of gaining points, which encourages a gain orientation and thus a challenge mode. If, on the other hand, students are given a test and told that their scores start at 100 and that they will lose a certain number of points for every correct answer, then they focus more on not losing points, which encourages a prevention orientation and a threat mode. Even though mathematically the two scoring systems were identical, the differences in presentation caused measurable differences in performance.
Thus, one way to encourage our students to practice for final exams (and oral arguments, bar exams, etc.) in threat mode is to explain, in advance, that you will be scoring their practice work by subtracting points from a pre-determined maximum score. Conversely, students who fall into threat mode too early in the semester, perhaps because they are disproportionately worried about grade risk, might be coaxed towards challenge mode by being given exercises for which they will receive a certain number of points for every plausible point or argument. Even though the tasks the students are undertaking remain the same, we can help their brains approach them differently.
Sunday, October 14, 2018
Have you seen the new publication from AccessLex Institute titled Raising the Bar? The first issue includes a mix of articles on conferences, publications, tips, grant information, resources, program profiles, and more. If you missed the first issue, the link is here. (Amy Jarmon)
Thursday, October 11, 2018
It's that time of year. In the midst of many celebrations over bar passage, let's be frank.
There are many that are not celebrating. Their names were not on the list of bar exam passers. And, for some, it's not the first time that they've found themselves in this situation; it's a repeat of the last time around.
For aspiring attorneys that did not pass the bar exam, most don't know where to turn. Often embarrassed, many with significant debt loads, most feel abandoned by their schools, their friends, and their colleagues. All alone.
I'm not expert in helping with turnarounds. But, I'd like to offer a few tips that have proven quite helpful in helping repeaters change history to become "fresh start" bar passers:
First, as academic support professionals, reach out to each one. Make yourself available on their terms. Let them know that you care. Let them know that you are mighty proud of them, success or not. Support them, one and all.
Second, give them breathing room, lot's of time and space to grieve. Don't push them into diving back into the books. Don't lecture them. Rather, assure them that they don't need to get cranking on their studies. Help them to be kind to themselves. It's not a matter of just hitting the books again, and this time, doubly-hard. Instead, they need to take time out to just be themselves.
Third, when they are ready, set up a "one-with-one." Notice: I did not call it a "one-to-one". Rather, set up an appointment or meeting in a place of their choosing at a time that works for them in which you sit side by side, on the same side of the table or desk or cafe. They are not bar exam failures; they are real law school graduates. They earned their parchments. So, listen to them as colleagues on the same side of doing battle on the bar exam. Let them talk and express themselves as they'd like. Hear them out. How are they feeling? What went right? What's their passion? What saddens their hearts?
Finally, whey they are ready, make a copy of one of the essay problems that didn't go so well. Better yet, make two copies, one for each of you! That's because you are on the same team. Set aside 15 or 20 minutes and just ask them to mark up the question, brainstorm what they are thinking, and jot down the issues that they see. But...and this is important...tell them that you don't expect them to remember any law at all. Period. And, you do the same. Exactly the same. Don't peek at an answer key or even their answer. Instead, try your hand too; wrestle with the same question that they are wrestling with. Then, come back together to listen, ponder, and share what you both see as the plot of the essay question, the issues raised by the storylines, and the potential rules that might be in play. Once you've done all this prep work together, now, look at their answer. This is important, just look. Ask them what do they see? What do they observe? What went great for them? Where might they improve? In short, let them see that they have "inside information" about themselves based on their own personal bar exam experience and answers that they can capitalize to their advantage. Most often in the midst of working together, graduates tell me that they realize that they knew plenty of law to pass the bar exam. In fact, most are amazed at how well they memorized the law. And, that's great news because it means that they don't need to redo the bar review lectures at all. They know plenty of law. That frees up lots of time during the bar prep season to instead concentrate on just two (2) active learning tasks.
So, here are the two activities that bar re-takers should be prioritizing to successful pass the bar exam:
1. First, they should work daily throughout the bar study period through lots and lots of practice problems (essays and MBE questions). Every one that they can get their hands on. Open book is fine. It's even better than fine; it's perfect because they should be practicing problems to learn because we don't get better at problem-solving by guessing.
2. Second, they should keep a daily "journal" of the issues and rules that they missed when working over problems (to include tips about the analysis of those rules).
Just two steps. That's it. There's no magic. But, in not redoing the lectures, graduates will find that they have plenty of time to concentrate on what is really important - learning by doing through active reflective daily practice. Countless times, it's through this process of a "one-with-one" meeting that we have seen repeaters turn themselves into "fresh start" bar passers.
Finally, I want to write directly to those of you who find yourself in the situation of having to re-take the bar exam. You really aren't alone. Need proof? Here's a short video clip put together by the Colorado Supreme Court about re-taking the bar exam to include a few tips from some jurists and practitioners that have been in your shoes. (Scott Johns)
Tuesday, October 9, 2018
In the 1994 Winter Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway, the Japanese ski jumping team was having a very good day. After seven jumps, it had racked up a score so high that no one believed they could lose. The team’s final jumper, Masahiko Harada, who had already landed a jump of 122 meters on his first jump, only needed to jump 105 meters on his second to clinch the gold medal. But Harada faltered. His jump was not well executed, and he only managed to get to 97.5 meters before his skis touched the ground. The Japanese team ended up with the silver medal, finishing behind the German team.
Four years later, the Winter Olympics were being held in Nagano, Japan, and, once again, Masahiko Harada was on the team. He and the team were hoping to redeem themselves, and, of course, all eyes were on them as the home team. Harada was no longer the team anchor, so it was hoped that, without the pressure of having to be the final jumper for the team, he would perform at the Games as well as the team knew he could in practice. The first two jumpers did extremely well, putting the Japanese team in first place. But then Harada . . . did even worse than he had at Lillehammer, achieving a distance of only 79.5 meters on his first jump. The team fell to fourth place.
Things looked bad until Takanobu Okabe landed an Olympic record-setting 137-meter jump on his second attempt, bringing the Japanese team back into contention. They weren’t back in the lead, but at least they had a chance for a medal. And now it was Harada’s turn again. In his last two Olympic jumps, when he just needed to not screw up to keep the team in position, he screwed up. Now, if he wanted to help the team get a medal, he had to do more than not screw up. He had to excel.
And he did. He tied Okabe’s record, making his own 137-meter jump, and sending the Japanese team into first place. They would go on to win the gold medal in the event.
How did all of that happen? Why did Harada jump poorly in his last jump in Lillehammer, and his first jump in Nagano, but then manage to jump exceptionally well in his second Nagano jump? The stakes were high – Olympic gold – all three times, so surely there was always enormous pressure on him. What made the difference?
It might be easier to explain the difference if we consider, not the stakes, but the positions in which Harada found himself. In his second 1994 jump and his first 1998 jump, his team was in first place. He knew he had to perform to a certain level to maintain his team’s position. Expectations were high, but he didn’t have to do unusually well. He was just focusing on not making a mistake, because this situation was a threat to his (and his team’s) position.
In contrast, by the time he’d reached his second 1998, his team was no longer in first place. They weren’t expecting to win, but, thanks to Okabe’s big jump, at least they had a chance. Harada had less to lose, and good reason to allow himself to take risks, because there was more upside than downside to doing so. This situation was not a threat to his position; it was a challenge.
In their book Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman explain that there are physical differences between the way our brains react when we view a situation as a threat and the way they react when we view a situation as a challenge. In a threat situation, there is an increase in activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is associated with more deliberate and less automatic decision making. At the same time, the parts of the brain that watch out for external dangers (the left temporoparietal junction) and for internal errors in judgment (the anterior cingulate cortex) also become more engaged. Also, as activity in the amygdala increases, the brain becomes more sensitized to avoiding risk than to seeking reward.
In a sense, your brain starts paying closer attention to everything you see and do, and it clamps down on behaviors it perceives as potentially risky. In playing it safe, though, your brain limits the scope of the choices you feel comfortable making, which in turn shrinks the range of performance of which you are capable. When Harada was going for the 105-meter jump for gold in Lillehammer, his brain was subconsciously refusing to allow him to take actions – picking up more speed, jumping off closer to the end of the ramp – that would have given him great distance, but also would have carried an increased risk of falling. The cumulative effect of all those refusals made him, in a very real sense, incapable of performing anywhere near his best. In other circumstances, this would have been of little consequence -- 97.5 meters was by no means the worst jump in the Olympics that year, and it was probably several dozen meters longer than you or I could have managed. But in high-level competition, seeing the jump as a threat robbed Harada of the ability to show the world what he was capable of, and left him and his team wanting in comparison to the Germans.
In contrast, when you see something as a challenge, your brain takes on an entirely different set of characteristics. Hormones are released in the brain that dampen the activity in the left tempororparietal junction, the anterior cingulate cortex, and the amygdala, so you expend less energy and attention watching out for dangers, errors, and risks. Instead, your decision making starts to flow more easily and automatically; you rely on expertise and habit rather than stopping to deliberate over every choice. And when risks are perceived, they are not automatically shunned; instead, your brain attends to both the potential losses and the potential gains, and is open to taking the risks when the gains are great enough. When Harada was preparing to take his second jump in Nagano, he was no longer trying to protect his team's first-place position, so he didn't see the jump as a threat. He was able to look at it as a challenge -- Let me see how much I can obtain from this -- and, subconsciously, that freed up his range of behaviors to choose from. Only when his brain allowed him access to all the skills and knowledge he had acquired was he able to achieve the exceptional result he hoped for.
* * * * *
No doubt you smart people have already noticed the resemblances between Harada's performances and those of some of our law students, especially the ones who sometimes seem not to perform to the level of which they are capable. Whether students view tests, oral presentations, and other ordeals as "threats" or as "challenges" can have powerful effects on their performance. As we will see next week, though, threat stances and challenge stances both have a place in legal study, and there are ways that we, as teachers, can help students take the right stances at the right times.