Law School Academic Support Blog

Editor: Amy Jarmon
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Thursday, November 8, 2018

"Feedback" vs. "Feedforward:" A Path to Improve Learning & Final Exam Performance

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).

November 8, 2018 in Advice, Bar Exam Preparation, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Learning Styles, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 5, 2018

Recall Your Purpose for the Finals Push

The wind is gently blowing while the sun rises over the horizon.  A cool morning inviting everyone to enjoy the sunrise with a nice run.  Many dream of the excitement of running another race, feeling healthy, or being outside.  I am not one of those people.  Mornings are meant for sleeping.  Running is only useful for competitive sports or survival, and I am long past my competitive sports prime.

While I don’t want to run races, especially long distance races, I do run for about half the year.  For the past 3 years, I trained for and ran in the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon Relay from November to April.  I ran the 5k portion my first year and a 10k leg last year.  I plan to run the 12k leg this year.  I reluctantly started training a couple weeks ago and will continue until the end of April again.  I don’t like to run, but I am doing it.

I never enjoyed running in itself, so why would I put myself through the rigor?  The answer is the purpose for the run.  I was only 5 miles away on a middle school soccer field when the bomb exploded.  The explosion and smoke seemed to be around the corner.  No one knew what happened yet.

The bombing was surreal.  I watched the events unfold on a CRT TV on a rolling cart in English class.  My mom called my school to let me know she was ok because she worked across the street from the Murrah Building on the non-blast side.  I know numerous people who lost family in the bombing.  One of the staging areas for first responders was the original Oklahoma High School, which is the building OCU School of Law moved into a few years ago.  The bombing affected nearly everyone in OKC, so my purpose is more important than my disdain for running.

Passion and purpose are critical to success in law school and the practice of law.  Many people talk about grit, but some forget the passion aspect.  Dr. Angela Duckworth’s book titled Grit explicitly states passion is a large piece to overcoming adversity.  Perseverance without passion is unsustainable.  Having a purpose is what helps us continue through the roadblocks.

Recalling why you want to be an attorney is critical during law school, especially near finals.  You need to keep reading your assignments each day, but you should also start preparing for finals.  1Ls probably had a large memo or brief due recently.  2Ls have more classes and may even be working.  They are overwhelmed.  Pure perseverance may have sustained you up to now, but you probably need a recharge to push through November.  When getting the work done seems tough or when you feel like there is too much to accomplish, sit back for 5 minutes to think about why you want to become an attorney.  Are you in law school to help the underserved?  Do you want to fight injustice?  Do you want to change the trajectory of your own life?  Be specific to why you are in law school.

Know why you are putting yourself through the rigor of law school.  Seeing progress towards the end goal can make the pain worth it.  I don’t like running in my neighborhood, probably the only neighborhood in OKC with hills, but the pain is worth it knowing the cause I run for.  The rigor of law school is also worth it if you know what you can do when you are an attorney.  Now is the time to remember it to make that final push through finals!

(Steven Foster)

November 5, 2018 in Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Power of Gratitude

A note arrived in my office last week.  It said, "Thank you for believing in me when I didn't believe in myself. I do belong here."  I doubt the most experienced academic support professional could have received such a message without getting a little misty-eyed. For me, this note helped turn a sad time into a day of joy.

Later that same day, I talked with a law student who has earned a Ph.D. in the university of hard knocks. If ever a person had reason to be embittered by the hand life dealt her, it would be this woman, but instead she radiates joy. She's a true friend to her classmates, the custodians, the dean, and everyone in between. She mentioned keeping a gratitude journal, so I asked about it. She told me the last thing she does every evening is write in a gratitude journal. She keeps each entry short -- just a sentence or two. She said the gratitude journal profoundly affects the way she looks at life. "I won't lie," she said.  "Some days it's been hard to write something in there. But even on the worst days there's always something to be grateful for. It makes my life better to think about this every day."

Gratitude transforms lives -- not only the life of the person receiving the thanks, but even more the life of the person who is grateful. Consciously choosing joy can change your outlook on school, work, and life.

Most of us entered law school (whether two months or forty years ago) because we wanted to use the power of the law to help others. But law school and law practice have a way of dragging us down.  Stress piles on -- from lower-than-expected evaluations, heavy workloads, pointed critiques, looming deadlines, and the sheer mental effort of constantly being logical and analytical.  We end up swathing ourselves in a suffocating miasma of negativity. Our optimistic mission of serving others devolves into a pessimistic, painful grind of grubbing for grades instead of reaching for understanding, of grasping for prestigious positions rather than seeking opportunities to be of service.

Like the penetrating sunshine, consciously practicing gratitude can help dispel the miasma by recharacterizing our experiences. An extra-long homework assignment turns from a chore into an opportunity for effective reading; a heavy work assignment turns from a burden into a chance to practice efficiency. Professors' comments in class turn from cutting criticisms into helpful critiques which will help us become better lawyers; interactions with challenging peers turn from obnoxious situations into practice in people management skills. 

In a famous TED talk, Amy Cuddy discusses how adopting a powerful body language can actually help you feel and act empowered. Likewise, consciously spending time being grateful will turn you into a happier, more positive person. In her practical book, A Short & Happy Guide to Being a Law Student, Paula Franzese writes, "Say thank you countless times a day. . . . Your day will move in the direction of your focal point. Focus on the good in your midst and the good to come." 

Here's a concrete suggestion for 1Ls worried about fall semester finals -- look forward to your finals with gladness instead of trepidation. After all, you don't have to take exams. You get to take exams. You have the opportunity to strut your stuff by showing your professor -- and yourself -- how much you have learned in a few months and how far you have progressed on the road of thinking, writing, and acting like a lawyer. And that is definitely something worth celebrating. Write it down in your gratitude journal and rejoice in another great day.  (Nancy Luebbert)

October 31, 2018 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Rabbit Trails and Exam Writing - A Concrete Tip to Improve Exam Analysis

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).

October 25, 2018 in Advice, Bar Exam Issues, Bar Exam Preparation, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

The Lawyerly Skill of Asking for Help

With apologies to T.S. Eliot, April is not the cruellest month -- October is, at least for first-year law students.  The first heady glow and excitement of arriving at law school has faded.  Many students experience the shock of no longer being straight-A students as legal writing and midterm grades roll in.  The workload steadily increases, as do professors' expectations.  For 1Ls who feel like they are barely treading water to keep up with class preparation, it seems downright oppressive to hear they should be adding practice problems, outlining, and other long-term study methods to their weekly schedule, not to mention attending professional events and polishing their resumes to apply for summer internships and externships.  Added into this evil brew can be depression, anxiety, substance abuse, loneliness, or any number of other reactions to stress. 

What's a 1L to do?  The first thing, as Dean Jarmon observed last week, is put aside perfectionism and instead focus on realistic goals.  Establish routines, whether you do so by sheer will power, calendaring, habit stacking as discussed by Professor Foster, using resolutions charts, or some other method. 

But what if, after all your diligent work, you still feel lost, or confused, or overwhelmed, or panicked?  What do you do?

Ask for help.

Many law students are reluctant to ask for help because they think it shows weakness.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Asking for help is a professional skill which good lawyers practice constantly.  An associate asks a partner for advice on how to handle a particular client.  A lawyer consults the clerk of the court in advance to ensure filings are done correctly.  An experienced lawyer calls bar counsel for advice when a thorny ethical issue emerges.  A lawyer who recognizes that anxiety disorder is affecting her/his performance gets in touch with the state's Lawyer Assistance Program.  All of these are everyday examples of lawyers asking for help.  Appropriately asking for help sends the message, "I care enough about this to spend time learning to do it the best way I can, and I value your expertise."  

If you are experiencing a mental health or substance use crisis, ask for help as soon as you realize you have a problem.   While you can go straight to your institution's counseling center or your state's Lawyer Assistance Program, it is also appropriate to talk with any trusted person at your law school.  Not only do they know you personally, but many faculty and staff have taken Mental Health First Aid training and are equipped to assist you.  Likewise, talk with someone immediately if illness, injury, or major family issues have affected or may affect your ability to do the work of a law student.  You will get not only a sympathetic ear but also practical suggestions.

Be just as professional in asking for help as you are in other aspects of law school life.  Figure out what you need and frame your request narrowly.  Professors don't react well to a student coming into office hours saying, "I don't get torts," but they will gladly work with you if you narrow your problem to "I've gone over the casebook and the CALI lessons, but I'm still confused about the causation rules involving multiple actors." In particular, your academic support professor is an invaluable resource to help you balance the academic demands of law school with the equally compelling demands of being a whole human being.

Most faculty and staff are not only willing but happy to help you if you are respectful of them and the demands on their time.  But one circumstance bears special mention -- what we call "forum shopping" at my law school.  Forum shopping occurs when a student asks one faculty or staff member for help but doesn't like the advice s/he receives.  Without telling anyone that s/he asked another person first, the student then asks the identical question to a second person, and sometimes a third and a fourth.  Forum shopping shows an extreme lack of respect for faculty and staff.  Not only does the first person feel disrespected, but subsequent helpers can waste hours of time starting from ground zero when they don't know what guidance you've already received.  Don't be afraid to seek multiple perspectives -- just let everyone know who you've asked and what advice you received. 

 Finally, don't forget to thank people for the help they've given you.  This, too, is a mark of professionalism.  (Nancy Luebbert)  

October 25, 2018 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

A Marvelous Thing

Academic support professionals are often required to be observant, creative, and meticulous under demanding circumstances.  Sometimes it helps to take inspiration from unexpected places:

The world was at war.  It was 1943, and the United States was stretched across two oceans, trying to protect its merchant fleet while fighting at sea against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.  Shipyards were working around the clock to build new and better ships.

In one such facility on the Delaware River, in Philadelphia, Dick James was trying to solve a problem.  He was a mechanical engineer, and his task was to develop a support system from which to suspend delicate shipboard instruments, to keep them stable when a ship was in rough seas.  He was working with tension springs, and at one point he accidentally struck one that was sitting coiled on a shelf.  The spring arched over, planted itself on top of some books stacked nearby, flipped end over end and arched again onto the table on which the books were sitting, and then flipped again to stream in another arch over the edge of the table and onto the floor.

Anyone else in that room might not have noticed the spring's behavior, or, if they had, might only have responded with an amused chuckle and promptly forgotten about it.  But James saw something in the way the spring had practically stepped from level to level, like an animated pair of britches.  He wasn't sure what it was good for, and he soon discovered that he could not reproduce it reliably.  But he sensed it was something, and something that hadn't been seen before.  When he got home that day, he told his wife Betty about it and declared that he was going to find the right kind of steel and the right degree of tension to create a spring that could walk.

Dick James was on his way to inventing the Slinky, the perennially wonderful toy that still sells well, 75 years after that first accidental demonstration.  What I find inspiring about this story is not just the fact that James observed something new and thought it was worth considering simply because it was new, and not just the fact that he pondered the possibilities of the new phenomenon without knowing exactly where they would lead him.  What's inspiring for me personally is that James recognized that he would have to put in some serious work to make a spring that could walk, and that he undertook all that effort without a clear end result in mind at the start.  He experimented for over a year, using different types of steel-alloy wire wound in coils of various sizes and tensions, and as he worked, he and his wife worked out what they wanted their end product to be: a toy with a name that connotes graceful movement and with properties that would allow it to stride down inclined planes and stairs. 

James continued working on warships, because that was his job and it mattered.  But during his off hours, he kept testing and measuring and winding and cutting, and with his wife planned how to package and market and sell his new invention, until finally in November of 1945, a couple of months after the end of the war, experimentation and application came together in a demonstration at Gimbel's Philadelphia department store -- a Slinky, walking down a ramp set up in the middle of the store, surrounded by children and parents.  Within 90 minutes, James sold out his entire inventory.

Sometimes, in academic support, in the midst of putting out fires and ministering to students in distress and trying to build stable platforms that will keep our students steady even in rough seas, we might notice something out of the ordinary -- an odd pattern to student responses, an exercise format that isolates a particular skill, a certain stimulus that alters behavior or affect -- perhaps something that most other people would not recognize as unusual.  We don't have to discard such observations if their usefulness is not immediately obvious.  Sometimes, it makes sense to start refining a tool first, and then take advantage of that time spent in development to uncover what the tool might best be used for.

(Bill MacDonald)

October 23, 2018 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Miscellany | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Threats and Challenges in Law School

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.

October 16, 2018 in Advice, Bar Exam Preparation, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Science, Study Tips - General, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Tips for Turning Bar Exam Sorrow Into A Successful Fresh Start

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)

 

October 11, 2018 in Advice, Bar Exam Issues, Bar Exam Preparation, Bar Exams, Encouragement & Inspiration, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Threats and Challenges in the Brain

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.

 

October 9, 2018 in Advice, Bar Exam Preparation, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Science | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 4, 2018

The Key to that "Peaceful Easy Feeling"

As reported in a Wall Street Journal essay by author Nicholas Carr, if you have a smart phone, you'll likely be "consulting the glossy little rectangle nearly 30,000 times over the coming year."[1]  Most of us seem to think that is not a problem at all, at least based on our actions.

That’s certainty true of me.  I depend on my smart phone, nearly all of the time.  It’s with me everywhere.  To be honest, it’s not just a telephone to me.  It’s my mailbox, my knowledge bank, my social facilitator and companion, my navigator, my weather channel, my bookshelf, my news outlet, my alarm clock, and my entertainer, just to name a few of the wonderful conveniences of this remarkable handheld technology. 

But, here’s the rub. As outlined by Mr. Carr, there are numerous research studies indicating that smart phones, while often times beneficial to us, can also at times be harmful to our intellectual life, our communication and interpersonal skills, and perhaps even our own emotional and bodily health.[2] 

First, Mr. Carr cites to a California study that suggests that the mere physical presence of smart phones hampers our intellectual problem-solving abilities.[3] In the study of 520 undergraduate students, researchers analyzed student problem-solving abilities based on smart phone proximity. The researchers divided students into three classroom settings based on phone proximity while watching a lecture and then taking an exam.  In one classroom, students placed their phones in front of them during the lecture and the subsequent exam.  In another classroom, students stowed their phones in purses and backpacks, etc., so that students were prevented from having immediate phone access during both the lecture and the subsequent exam (i.e., sort of an "out-of-sight-out-of-mind" approach).  In the last classroom, students were required to leave their phones in a different room from the lecture classroom.  Interestingly, nearly all students reported that the proximity of their phones did not compromise their attention, learning, or exam performance.  But, test results indicated otherwise.  The researchers found that exam performance was inversely correlated with smart phone proximity.  Students with phones on their desks performed the worst while students with phones in another room performance the best. Surprisingly, however, just having a smart phone stowed nearby detracted from exam performance too.  Apparently, just the knowledge that our smart phones are readily available negatively impacts our problem-solving abilities. In other words, to perform our intellectual best as lawyers and law students, smart phones need to be - not just out of sight - but well beyond our grasps whenever we are engaged in intellectual tasks on behalf of our clients because problem-solving appears to be compromised just by the presence of our smart phones.

Second, Mr. Carr cites to a study where researchers found that smart phone proximity is harmful to face-to-face communication and interpersonal skills.[4] In this United Kingdom study, researches divided people into pairs and asked them to have a 10-minute conversation.  Some pairs of conversationalists were placed into a room in which there was a phone present.  The other pairs were placed in rooms in which there were no phones present.  The participants were then given tests to measure the depth of the conversation experienced based on measures of affinity, trust, and empathy.  Researchers found that the mere presence of cellphones in the conversational setting harmed human relationships and interpersonal skills such as empathy, closeness, and trust, and the results were most harmful when the topics discussed were personally meaningful.  In sum, smart phone proximity can negatively impact our interpersonal social communication skills, important skills for law students and attorneys to attend to and strengthen in order to better serve our clients and the public.

Third, Mr. Carr references a study substanting that smart phones can negatively impact our emotional and physical well-being.[5]  In this study out of large US university, researchers evaluated the impact of the presence of smart phones in self-identity, cognitive abilities, emotional anxiety, and physiology by having participants work on word puzzles while measuring blood pressure and pulse correlated with self-reported survey results on anxiety levels and emotional well-being based on a state of pleasantness. While solving word puzzles, researchers at times would remove phones from the presence of the subjects while on other occasions researchers would ring the phones of the subjects.  The results are startling.  Blood pressure rises, pulse quickens, anxiety increases, sense of unpleasantness increases while cognitive abilities decline both when participants are removed from their phones and when they receive phone calls. In other words, we identify ourselves with our phones.  They have become extensions of ourselves, to such a large degree, that to be deprived of access to our phones or the use of our phones negatively impacts our well-being as human beings.  In short, we have allowed our phones to become part of us, to share in our feelings, such that we feel detached from ourselves when we are detached from our phones. In my own words, we feel alone (and indeed unalive) without our smart phones by oursides and in control of our lives. Or, to put it more simply, we can’t seem to live without our smart phones, and we can’t live with them too.

Plainly, that's a lot to think about.  And, with all of the conversations swirling around with respect to the beneficial and detrimental impacts of technology on our cognitive, emotional, and physiological beings, there is still much that is yet to be known.  But, I leave you with this thought. 

Recently, I had one of my best weekend ever.  But, it didn’t start out grand at all.  In fact, the weekend begain like most of my weekends, busy, so busy that I neglected to check my pockets before washing my jeans.  In my haste, I washed my smart phone too.  Now horribly drenched, my phone was lifeless.  Comletely dead.  Stlll. At first, I was speechless. But, oh what I weekend I then experienced.  Freed from my smart phone, I slowly began to relax. I started to connect to real people in real relationships and with real things. No phone calls and no buzzing emails or texts to interpret life’s relationships. I have to admit; it was one of the most best days of my life.  Because of that experience, I now try to take one day per week free from my smart phone.  Life can indeed be sweet to our souls, bodies, and minds without the constant intervention of our phones.  And, better yet, life can be even sweeter for those around us too.  So, feel free to join me in taking meaningful smart phone respites.  The more the better.  (Scott Johns)

[1]Nicholas Carr, How Smart Phones Hijack Our Brains, Wall Street Journal, Oct 7, 2017.

[2]Mr. Carr references numerous research articles, several of which are discussed in this article.

[3]Adrian F. Ward, Kristen Duke, Ayelet Gneezy, and Maarten W. Bos, Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity, Journal of the Association for Consumer Research 2, no. 2 (April 2017): 140-154, https://doi.org/10.1086/691462.

[4]Andrew K. Przybylski, and Netta Weinstein, Can you connect with me now? How the presence of mobile communication technology influences face-to-face conversation quality, Journal of Social and Personal Relationships (2012), https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407512453827.

[5]Russell B. Clayton, Glenn Leshner, Anthony Almond; The Extended iSelf: The Impact of iPhone Separation on Cognition, Emotion, and Physiology, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, Volume 20, Issue 2 (2015), 119-135, https://doi.org/10.1111/jcc4.12109.

October 4, 2018 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Learning Styles, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 27, 2018

The Window of Knowledge vs. The Window of Experience: Learning Takes Seeing Out of Both Windows!

While recently hiking through a wildlife sanctuary, I came across this wooden facade of a building, and it got me stopped right in my tracks.

 You see, I was hiking so fast that I wasn't really seeing the beauty of nature all around me.  

I sometimes wonder if that's true of law school life too.  We tend to spend so much time reading cases and regurgitating notes that we don't often see the big picture purpose behind it all.  But, the goal of legal education is not to be an expert in all of the finer details of the cases but rather to build a legal "window" of experiences from which we can solve legal problems on midterm and final exams (and provide our future clients with wise counsel too).

So, with many law students facing upcoming midterms, now's the time for our students to grab hold of past exams and get out of the "books" to experience and try their own hands at working through hypothetical legal problems.  In short, as students walk through the materials students also need to stop and take in the view.  In my view, that's because learning requires both the so-called "book learning" along with heavy doses of experiential learning, particularly in working through hypotheticals.  As a helpful reminder - that the windows we look through influence what we learn - here's the photo of the facade that I found so encouraging in helping me focus on the big picture learning.  (Scott Johns).

IMG_0430

September 27, 2018 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Learning Styles, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 20, 2018

The Lowest in Years - The July 2018 MBE (and a Call to ASP Action!)

According to the American Bar Association (ABA), citing to Law.com and TaxProfBlog editor Dean Paul Caron, the national average score on the MBE multiple-choice portion of the July bar exam dropped to its lowest level in 34 years.  https://www.abajournal.com; https://www.law.com;  https://taxprof.typepad.com.  The National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) reports that the July 2018 MBE average score was just 139.5, while for the July 1984 exam, Law.com reports that the MBE average score was likewise low at 139.21.  https://www.ncbex.org/newshttps://www.law.com.

In an article by Law.com, the President of the NCBE - Judith Gundersen - is quoted as saying that "they [this summer's lower MBE scores] are what would be expected given the number of applicants and LSAT 25th percentile means of the 2015 entering class." https://www.law.com. In other words, according to the NCBE, this summer's low score average is the result of law school admissions decisions based on the NCBE's appraisal of 25 percentile LSAT data for entering 2015 law students.

Nevertheless, despite the NCBE's claim, which was previously theorized by the NCBE back in 2015 (namely, that bar exam declines are related to LSAT declines), previous empirical research found a lack of empirical support for the NCBE's LSAT claim, albeit limited to one jurisdiction, one law school's population, and admittedly not updated to reflect this summer's bar exam results.  Testing the Testers

As an armchair statistician with a mathematics background, I am leery of one-size-fits-all empirical claims.  Life is complex and learning is nuanced.  Conceivably, there are many factors at play that might account for bar exam results in particular cases, with many factors not ascribable to pure mathematical calculus, such as the leaking roof in the middle of the first day of the Colorado bar exam.  https://www.abajournal.com/news/article/ceiling_leaks_pause_colorado_bar_exam.  

Here's just a few possible considerations:

• The increase to 25 experimental questions embedded within the set of 200 MBE multiple-choice questions (in comparison to previous test versions with only 10 experimental questions embedded).

• The addition of Federal Civil Procedure as a relatively recent MBE subject to the MBE's panoply of subjects tested.

• The apparent rising incidences of anxiety, depression, and learning disabilities found within law school populations and graduates.

• The economic barriers to securing bar exam testing accommodations despite longitudinal evidence of law school testing accommodations.

• The influence of social media, the internet age, and smart phones in impacting the learning environment.

• The difficulty in equating previous versions of bar exams with current versions of bar exams given changes in the exam instrument itself and the scope of subject matter tested.

• The relationship among experiential learning, doctrinal, and legal writing courses and bar exam outcomes.

• Etc....

Consequently, in my opinion, there's a great need (and a great opportunity) for law schools to collaborate with bar examiners to hypothesize, research, and evaluate what's really going on with the bar exam.  It might be the LSAT, as the NCBE claims.  But, most problems in life are much more complicated.  So, as a visual jumpstart to help law schools and bar examiners brainstorm possible solutions, here's a handy chart depicting the overall downward trend with respect to the past ten years of national MBE average scores.  (Scott Johns).

July National MBE Average Scores

September 20, 2018 in Bar Exam Issues, Bar Exam Preparation, Bar Exams, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Exams - Theory, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

On Becoming Educated

What does it mean to be educated?  Tara Westover describes education as a form of self-creation.  Educated persons, she suggests, open themselves up to many different points of view, deepen their empathy, embrace doubt, and participate actively in their own learning.

In case you don't follow the best-seller lists, Westover is the author of the 2018 memoir Educated, www.nytimes.com/2018/03/01/books/review/tara-westover-educated.html.  Reared on a remote mountain in southeast Idaho as the youngest child of survivalist parents who opposed not only "government schools" but also any type of formal education for their daughter, she worked in the kitchen with her herbalist mother and in the junkyard with an increasingly paranoid father and an abusive older brother.  Westover gradually came to yearn for an education and taught herself enough to earn an ACT score good enough to enter Brigham Young University.  While her first months in the classroom were filled with failure and missteps, her intellectual curiosity propelled her forward and brought mentors who encouraged her to go beyond her self-imposed bounds.  After graduating from Brigham Young University, she earned a Masters of Philosophy and then a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Trinity College, Cambridge, as well as becoming a visiting fellow at Harvard University.

Last night Westover came to our university and delivered an electrifying address to a standing-room only crowd.  The feeling of community in the room was intense: some audience members had grown up in the same county as Westover or had met members of her family through the years.  Although few if any came from such extreme circumstances, many could relate to her experience of trying to maintain loving relationships while breaking free of family expectations that denigrated the value of higher education. 

Westover spoke movingly of the role of passion in learning.  "I'm a believer in following what you care about," she told the crowd.  The first time she ever thought about formal schooling, she said, was when she listened to the recording of an opera.  Although she was already a gifted singer, she instinctively recognized operatic singing as something beyond what she had experienced, something that would require not only talent but also years of disciplined learning to master.  While her passion for music was what initially prompted her to go to college, she said, once her intellectual curiosity was aroused, it took her in other directions, first to politics and history, then to intellectual history.  "You don't know where someone's passion will take them," she said, "but no passion will take them nowhere."

In an era when so much emphasis is put on measurable results such as grades, bar passage results, and job placement statistics, it's easy to dismiss Westover's view of education as a romantic vision suitable only for the gifted few.  But her vision of the educated person is exactly what we want and expect a good lawyer to be -- an engaged self-learner with drive, empathy, and curiosity, a person who maintains an open mind even when surrounded by others rigid in their certainty. 

Unfortunately, most of us have seen too many students during the course of law school shift their focus from intellectual curiosity to grade point average, from passionate interest to resume building.  Sadly, in transforming their mindset to what they think is a more realistic outlook, these students lose both what brought them to law in the first place and what will make law a worthwhile endeavor for the rest of their careers.

While there's no magic bullet to prevent this devolution, consistently modeling "ASPish" behaviors may help.  It's vital, of course, to consciously show our our own passion for learning, for law, and for our personal calling in legal education.  For example, in his Property syllabus, my colleague and mentor D. Benjamin Beard wrote as his first course objective, "I expect you to care as passionately about your learning as I do."  (In true ASP fashion, I borrowed this message to put into my own syllabus.)  In addition, in our classrooms, individual meetings, and materials, we can consistently encourage our students to consider their core values and the good they hope to accomplish by mastering law.  (Paula Franzese's A Short and Happy Guide to Being a Law Student has become a wonderful resource for me in encouraging this mindset.)  Finally, I believe it's critical for all of us in legal education to openly honor the wide panoply of positive choices our graduates can make as they enter their careers.  Students can begin to doubt their own passions when they receive overt or subliminal messages that certain types of practice are more worthy than others.  The student with a passion for helping children cannot help but feel denigrated in an atmosphere that only celebrates landing "BigLaw" jobs; the person with a transactional bent can have their choices derailed in an atmosphere that considers litigation to be the pinnacle of practice.  So as we commend our own interests (Criminal defense rocks!  Small-town lawyers hold rural communities together!), let's not forget to openly value the many different ways lawyers serve others by pursuing their own passions.  (Nancy Luebbert)

 

September 12, 2018 in Books, Encouragement & Inspiration | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, September 10, 2018

Excitement and Disappointment in the Same Day

Bar results began rolling in last week.  Oklahoma results posted on Friday.  Bar result day is both exciting and disappointing for me.  My emotions yo-yo from talking to thrilled students to discussing disappointment with unsuccessful alumni.  The personal stake we take in our students is what makes us successful, but it is also why we feel so much disappointment on an exciting day.

Nike has a famous Michael Jordan ad where he says “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career.  I’ve lost almost 300 games.  26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed.  I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life.  And that is why I succeed.”  Jordan is famous for being extra critical and focusing on what he missed.  He enjoyed his successes briefly, but he dwelled on defeat.  Nick Saban, Alabama football coach, is arguably the best college football coach in history.  When asked how long he would celebrate his recent National Championship, he said 1 day.  After that, he needed to start recruiting and preparing for the following year.  Neither person enjoyed their victories.

Anyone can make an easy argument to “be like Mike,” or get ready for the next bar the day after results.  February is only 5 ½ months away, and the bar does not wait for anyone.  However, dwelling on the disappointment robs both you and your students of the joy of their accomplishment.  Many students worked with us from the first day of school.  Other students struggled and sought our help 2L or 3L year.  Their excitement is worth celebrating.  Being a part of their accomplishment is important.  They will enjoy their celebration more with our excitement as well.  Celebrating the successes will also help fuel us to help more students clear their hurdle.  Celebrate with your students more than momentarily.

Celebrating does not take away the disappointment for the unsuccessful students.  We can learn from their experience and develop a plan to help them clear the hurdle as well.  Their pain is very real and has a significant impact on their future.  However, you can make a difference in their life by being ready to lift them up.  Lifting up someone else is difficult if we don’t have the emotional strength.  Celebrate successes to build strength to help those who need you even more now.

I completely understand the emotional difficulty revolving around bar results.  I have to work hard to not take students not passing as a personal failure.  It is easy to think about what we could have done different.  Suppress those thoughts to celebrate what you did correctly for the majority of students to pass.  You can then go back to the drawing board and be both an academic and emotional support for your re-takers.  Celebrate success!

(Steven Foster)

September 10, 2018 in Encouragement & Inspiration, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 6, 2018

A Digital Detox Intervention Across France (and Potential Benefits for Learners)!

Radical.  Bold.  Ambitious.  And shocking too.  Until I read the research. But first, the country-wide experiment in learning...

As reported by CNN, starting earlier this month with the new school year, France has banned, I mean completely banned, student cell phone use in all primary, middle, and high school campuses throughout France (and throughout the entire school day (lunch included)):  https://www.cnn.com/france-smartphones-school-ban-intl/index.html 

As detailed by CNN, there's research to back up the educational benefits.  As described by CNN, the research evaluated the relationship between cell phone use and academic achievement for 130,000 UK students.  The researchers "found that following a ban on phone use, the schools' test scores improved by 6.4%. [And,] [t]he impact on underachieving students was much more significant -- their average test scores rose by 14% (emphasis added)."  https://money.cnn.com/smartphones-schools-ban/index.html.  Citing research authors Dr. Richard Murphy and Dr. Louis-Philippe Beland, CNN reported that just by prohibiting cell phone use in schools, "[s]chools could significantly reduce the education achievement gap...."  

That's big news - that ought to make a big splash in legal education - because the research suggests that a low tech solution might help law schools too narrow the achievement gap for those most at-risk of not doing well in law school. So, as you meet with students who are struggling this semester, you might ask your learners about their cell phone habits.  No need to be pushy.  Instead, just show them the research and then let them make a decision.  https://cep.lse.ac.uk/publishedresearch   

Based on my own review of the research, here's my recommendation to my students:  "For one week, just leave the mobile phone at home...or in one's school locker...or tucked away with the power off in one's backpack.  Even if it doesn't lead to better learning, you'll find that you'll quickly put a quash to those never-ending furtive glances at one's phone to see if someone has tried to connect with you.  And, more importantly, you might find that you are actually making better connections with the materials (and others) by not connecting to the digital world while at law school.  In short, you might reap the same educational benefits as those documented in the UK."  That's a great educational goal for all of us.  (Scott Johns).

 

September 6, 2018 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Learning Styles, Program Evaluation, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

A Tribute to the Tale

I choose to spend much of my precious free time in the company of friends old and new.  Just in the past few weeks, I've bantered with pilots in a cockpit jumpseat at 30,000 feet, sweltered with desperadoes holed up in a moldering hotel in the East Indies, paced the deck of a British frigate with a tone-deaf captain, suffered the pounding echoes of a sacred Indian cave with an elderly English lady, fumed at the stupidity of Muggles in Little Whinging, sailed with self-styled Amazons in the English Lake District, groomed fellow primates in East Africa, confronted cynical gangsters in LA, and wandered happily through the Hundred Acre Wood with my great friend Christopher Robin.

In law school and my first few years of law practice, I neglected these friends.  I foolishly thought I didn't have time for pleasure reading, and that reading fun books was a distraction from the analytical reading demanded by the study and practice of law.  How wrong I was!  Indeed, working in academic support has made me realize that time spent reading for pleasure enhances the study and practice of law in at least four ways:

 1.  Better readers are better writers, and writing is at the heart of what lawyers and law students do.  Good writers read widely.  As William Faulkner famously said, "Read, read, read.  Read everything -- trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it.  Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master.  Read!  You'll absorb it.  Then write."

 2.  Reading for pleasure helps you understand human nature.  Much as struggling law students would sometimes like to treat law as a mechanical matter of applying rules to fixed facts, law is complicated precisely because it tries to make sense out of the messiness of human lives.  The better you understand human nature, whether the hard-bitten cynicism of Philip Marlowe (The Big Sleep), the introspective self-doubt of Horatio Hornblower (Ship of the Line), or the adventurous independence of Nancy Blackett (Swallows and Amazons), the better you can understand the actions, arguments, and decisions of clients, lawyers, and judges.

3.  Reading for pleasure helps make you a faster, more nimble reader.  Since trying to understand each word, sentence, and paragraph of a complicated legal case can be difficult, law students have a tendency to bog down, reading more and more slowly even when the passage does not demand it.  While slow methodical reading has its place, good readers vary their pace according to the demands of the text.  Reading strictly for pleasure, often at a rapid clip, is one of the easiest ways to retrain your brain to modify reading speed according to the difficulty of the material.  I'm convinced that even fifteen minutes of pleasure reading a day pays huge dividends in increasing overall reading speed.

4.  Reading just for pleasure is fun.  And as Professor Steven Foster reminded us in his Labor Day post, making time for fun helps you thrive in law school -- and, I'd add, in law practice.   (Nancy Luebbert)

 

 

September 5, 2018 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Reading | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, September 3, 2018

Benefits from a Day of College Football

My favorite season began last weekend.  Some people like one of the weather seasons, but my favorite season is college football season.  The pageantry, great food, and fanaticism permeates the air.  Last Saturday’s heat index rose above 100 degrees while hanging out with over 85,000 of my closest friends, but I couldn’t be more excited.  I get to experience that pure joy with my 2 sons, and we have a blast.  Similar experiences and joy are important for a successful law school career.

My love of college football didn’t start after law school.  I grew up rooting for my hometown team, which eventually became my alma mater.  I watched them consistently growing up and attended some games in college.  I wouldn’t miss watching a game.  When I got to law school, I made the decision to take off every Saturday to continue watching or attending games.  It was one of the best decisions I made for myself.

Law school is hard and busy, especially the first year.  The language isn’t the same as undergrad.  Readings take longer.  No one feels prepared, and many first year students feel behind almost immediately.  Many students have a tendency to work non-stop to make up for the perceived inadequacies.  Students will read something every day and not schedule down time.  LRW assignments start increasing, and by mid-October, many 1Ls start hating law school. 

Law school hatred is fueled by burn out and being overwhelmed.  Those feelings lead to less focus when reading, which then requires more time to complete the work.  Students will then take more breaks throughout the day, extending work late into the evening.  The extended work deprives them of relaxation each night.  Feeling behind causes some students to work 7 days a week, which then exacerbates the exhaustion.  The downward spiral unfortunately continues throughout the semester, and it causes many students to despise the law school experience. 

While law school is definitely hard, the experience can be much better with built in balance.  Work-life balance isn’t a fad, and balance isn’t a problem for “other people.”  Everyone needs time away from studying to stay both happy and productive when preparing.  Everyone is different.  I took almost every Saturday off during law school.  I made the choice that what I enjoyed would be a priority.  It made outlining on Sunday easier for me.  I had my break and could get back to work the next day.  I have students who spend every Sunday with their family.  Think about what is important for you.  Write it down.  Decide now what will help you enjoy life outside law school.

After deciding what is important, decide when you take time off to enjoy it.  Planning the time away now is important.  Everyone has difficulty taking time off when already overwhelmed.  Trying to come up with coping mechanisms while stressed is difficult, and trying to add in relaxation when overburdened is near impossible.  The time to plan your non-law activities is now.

While planning when to take time off, consider the impact when everything is scheduled.  Our 1L students have classes M-F.  Many students read the day before class.  On Friday, students go to class, but then tend to take the rest of the day easier.  They may look at a few extra problems or organize material from the week, but they don’t spend 4-5 hours on those tasks.  The day is still long, but not as productive as a normal day.  Those students then spend a significant portion of Sunday completing the reading for Monday, which is still exhausting.  For those students, 6 days a week are long and exhausting.  They also struggle to find time to complete outlines, practice problems, and LRW assignments.

A different plan may increase effectiveness and decrease stress.  I encourage students to spend Friday reading like a normal day.  Read the material for Monday.  The stress of required work on the weekend is gone.  Spend a day off either Saturday or Sunday.  On the other day, work on outlines, practice problems, and other study tools to prepare for finals.  I wouldn’t casually study on Sunday, but working for a couple hours, then taking a break is easier when class isn’t looming the next day.  Spending 5-6 hours on study tools provides a huge benefit for final exams.  Choosing what to study each day has an impact of how overwhelmed you feel.  This schedule benefits from a clear day off and a day focused on final exam study.

Peanuts, hot dogs, fresh air, and exuberance helped my mood throughout law school.  The break can help your mood as well.  Make time for your fun activities to not merely survive, but to thrive in law school.

(Steven Foster)

September 3, 2018 in Encouragement & Inspiration, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Lines versus Circles

I recently heard a pastor say something to the effect:

"We listen in lines.

But...

We learn in circles.

We grow in circles.

We change in circles."

As I take it, here's the point.  

Whether at a place of worship or at a school (or at any other place of learning), most of us think that we are learning when we are sitting passively, and yet attentively, in an orderly line with others, listening, watching, and taking notes from an expert teacher...as the teacher presents the materials to us.

In contrast, according to the speaker, if you (or me) think that we are learning by just being present in class, by sitting in lines, we are sorely mistaken.  Let me be frank. We are in fact self-deceived.  We are merely listening but not learning; not growing; not changing.  Listening ≠ Learning.

I realize these are strong words (strong medicine).  But, as Dr. John Dunlosky, professor of psychology, suggests, we are all easily tricked into imaging and believing that we are learning when we are merely studying.  https://www.aft.org/periodicals/dunlosky.pdf   There is in fact a big difference between studying and learning.

Let me be direct.

In my own view, learning requires us to live and move in circles. It requires us to move beyond the lines of our classroom environment, to no longer just sit still and silent, but rather to share with others what we are thinking, to loop back through our notes to distill and reshape them using our own words, and to make what we have heard into something personally meaningful to us individually.  In short, it means to act...to act upon what we have heard.

If that sounds difficult, it is. But, it's not impossible...for any of us.  

However, it does mean, as Dr. Dunlosky observes, that we will often feel uncomfortable and uncertain about our learning (indeed, whether we are even learning at all).  That's because learning means that we understand that - as presently situated - we have things to learn, things that we don't yet know, and indeed that we don't really know anything until what we learn becomes part of who we are as human beings. And, that happens in circles not lines. It happens with us daily interacting and acting with and upon the materials.  It happens when we pause and reflect.  It happens when we share and debate with others what we are thinking.  It happens because learning is really in reality a social activity, a social enterprise that helps shape us into who we are as people.

So, as you celebrate this upcoming Labor Day holiday, feel free to step back and think about your past learning. In particular, take time to reflect on how you personally learned something in the past that now sticks with you forever.  Perhaps it was learning to play guitar. Perhaps learning arithmetic.  Perhaps learning to meditate and be mindful.  Whatever it was, the things that you have learned -  really learned - all occurred because you moved beyond the line into creating meaningful circles of relationships with what you heard and watched.   So, take the next step in being a learner by taking charge of your learning journey, and, in the process, you will grow and change. In short, you'll learn. (Scott Johns).

 

 

August 30, 2018 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Learning Styles, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, August 23, 2018

The Remedy for the Over-Driven Programmatic Life - Take 5 to Pause and Reflect!

Last week, I received some of the best advice ever about how to run an academic support program from one of my law school colleagues (as I ran around the campus in obvious haste - from office to office...and....email to email....and....meeting to meeting).  

Short and sweet, it went something like this:  

"Remember, there are no emergencies in academics."  

At first, I wasn't quite sure what I heard.  No emergencies?  Really?  Of course, with every rule comes an exception.  But, the principle holds true.  

There really are no (or at least very few and far between) emergencies in academics.  

With her words freshly choreographed in my mind (and now fortunately taking grip of my frantic heart), I took the first pause of a very long day thus far to take in and reflect on the truth of what she said.  

There are no emergencies in academics.  None.  Zilch.  Nada.  

That led me to an uplifting and engaging conversation with her, a conversation that broke through the feverish pace of my day to restore in my spirit a much needed sense of peace and perspective.

As we talked further, I realized that I had been living an emergency life.  It was only the beginning of a new academic year but I already felt like I was way behind on everything that I needed to do.  Then, it came to me.  

Living an emergency life is not really living at all.  

Indeed, it is no life at all.  That's because as human beings living is about breathing and listening and pondering and reflecting and interacting with others.  It means stepping back from the push of the daily grind and seemingly every-pressing minutiae of tasks to comprehend the big picture perspective.  That we only truly live in community with others.  That life is social.  That being human means realizing that none of us - particularly me - can do it all.

A few years back, I recall listening to a NASA engineer talking about the engineer's work back in the 1960's when assigned to the Apollo moon missions.  It was the space age.  As the engineer related, he was commuting from Orlando to Cape Kennedy Spaceport for the big launch of a moon rocket.  But, he was running late. So, he did what most of us do when we are running late, whether walking or biking or driving. He sped.  To his astonishment, a state trooper pulled him over for speeding.  In response to the question as to why all the haste, the engineer said simply that he was needed for the space launch later that very day.  The officer thought a moment and then just asked him one question: "Sir, if you crash in a fiery crash on your way to the space launch, will NASA still launch the moon rocket?  If so, I'll let you on your way."  The engineer couldn't lie.  His answer was brief: "NASA will launch."  You see, the engineer wasn't really needed after all.  So, the officer handed him a speeding  ticket.

Perhaps you are like me, moving from one emergency to another emergency, with my vocabulary littered with sayings such as "I need to do this today" or "I've got to do this now" or "The program won't work unless I get this done now."  Let me be frank, to myself and to you, the words "necessary" and "needed" are overplayed.  Few things are necessary or needed.  Indeed, as Professor Nancy Luebbert from the University of Idaho suggested in her blog yesterday, the really only needful thing is not to do a thing...but to rather be a person.  Now, that's something to treasure; a life well-lived with others - person to person and people to people.  More to the point with respect to the nature of this blog, that's the better way to live academic support.  So, make a great day of it by taking "5" to pause and reflect upon this truism:  There really are no emergencies in academics.  (Scott Johns).  

August 23, 2018 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The ASPer as "Parson"

When I was growing up, the Random House Unabridged Dictionary held the place of honor in our home.  Lying resplendent on a huge dictionary stand, it invited a curious child to spend hours poring over exotic new words and exclaiming over the origin of familiar words.  Even many decades later, it is a treat to cap off a pleasant evening by perusing my dictionary to contemplate words and their etymology.

Thus is was that, several years ago, I learned that "parson" -- that lovely and rather antiquated term for a Protestant minister -- derived from the Middle English persone for "person."  Intrigued, I did a little digging.  Not surprisingly, some explanations for why a minister / priest / vicar / curate / rector (choose your favorite term) would be referred to as a "person" were lengthy, theological, and dull.  But I stumbled across one article that resonated with me.  The parson's calling, this interpretation suggested, was indeed to just be -- a person.  In a society where people were defined by pedigree, social rank, and how they made a living, the parson's role was to be a person to everyone in the parish, high or low, rich or poor.  Performing rites like baptism, weddings, and funerals was really just a way of being a person in relationship with others -- welcoming the birth of a child, celebrating the ties of love and family, and mourning with the bereaved.  The hallmarks of a parson, this article concluded, were listening much, grounding advice in the individual's particular circumstances, and always treating others as individuals worthy of respect.

I long ago lost this article about the parson as a professional "person," but it influenced and still guides the way I approach the profession of academic support.  I believe our highest and best calling as ASPers is to be a "parson" -- that is, to give primary emphasis to being a person in relationship to our students.  As ASPers, we have the training, education, and experience to help our students succeed.  But as Steven Foster pointed out last week, we can share our expertise best if we establish a relationship with our students first.

Moreover, we are often most effective when, by deep listening, we give students leave to follow their own best instincts rather than trudging along doing what they have convinced themselves they "should" do.  I think, for example, of the times struggling students have confided they are having trouble concentrating because a loved one is dying several hundred miles away.  Sometimes the best response is, "Don't you want to go home to be with your family?  I can help arrange things with your professors."  Given permission to honor their responsibilities as human beings, when they return to school they are then ready to concentrate and learn.

Listening much, grounding advice in the individual's particular circumstances, and always treating others as individuals worthy of respect are the hallmarks of an academic support professional -- the "parson" of the law school.  (Nancy Luebbert)

August 22, 2018 in Encouragement & Inspiration, Miscellany, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)