Thursday, April 8, 2021
With just a few more weeks of classes for most law students, many of us are afraid. Sorely afraid because we know that we've got a lot to do and a lot to learn.
Facing those fears is key. I recall when I was growing up that parents constantly told me to be "careful." "Watch your step." "Play more gentle."
Sometimes I wish that the advice was instead: "Be courageous!"
You see, without bruises there can be little growth and thus little learning.
Nevertheless, it need not be all hard-knock lessons. After all, you as law students are paying valuable consideration to earn your law degrees. So take advantage of the resources that are available to you.
Let me give you a suggestion based on a column that I saw from a behavioral economist in response to the question "[w]hat's the best way to get useful feedback and make the most of...conversations?" D. Ariely, Dear Can Column, Wall Street Journal (Feb. 4, 2021).
The short answer is don't ask for feedback.
Instead, "...research shows that in general, looking at the past isn't the best way to figure out what we should be doing differently in the future. Instead of asking for feedback, which is backward-looking and usually vague, try asking your [professor] for advice. That will encourage them to look ahead and give you concrete suggestions and actionable items." Id.
So, be courageous. Seek out advice. Ask for concrete action items to improve future performance. Skip the feedback and instead ask for "feed for the future," i.e., advice. (Scott Johns).
Saturday, March 27, 2021
I don’t know about your law school, but we did not have a regular week-long spring break this year. Instead, perhaps as an afterthought, we were awarded a one-day reprieve which occurred on St. Patrick’s Day…in Boston (people who have ever lived in Boston will know what I mean).
I truly understand why we did not have our usual break. We are part of a university that has undergraduates, as well as a business school, and we did not want students leaving and returning to campus in the middle of a pandemic, especially since these students are most likely to be vaccinated in the last wave. As a result, we started a week later in January to allow more self-quarantining and to keep our end dates and commencement on schedule. One Wednesday in the middle of March made sense from a strategic planning point of view.
And yet, this is the week I have spent the most time talking to tearful and anxious students who have hit a wall. This is also the week that students have disappeared from my radar and I have had the most correspondence with our Dean of Students Office about students I am worried about. I have begun starting my emails to them with, “me again...” and ending them with, “again, sorry to add something else to your plate.” Joni Mitchell was absolutely right when she said, “Don't it always seem to go; That you don't know what you've got till it's gone.” Sigh.
The one class I teach on Wednesdays is a one-credit MPT driven class. We meet for about an hour at the utter apex of the workweek: high noon. I am never sure if I should ask how everyone’s weekend was or whether I should wish them a good one-it is an awkward time for small talk. I’d like to think that this class, at its silly time, is an oasis in an otherwise Zoomful chaos. Since spring “break,” fell on our class day, I told the students in this class that I would consider the day sacred and assign no new work or have any assignments due, so long as they each did something that gave them joy and send me a picture to prove it. I wanted students to think that the one “assignment” they had, for the one day of break they had, was to do one thing that brought them joy. In return, I promised I would send them my proof as well.
As usual, this class of students did not disappoint. The first picture I received was of an absolutely adorable baby and the caption, “I’m spending some time with my niece!” This was followed by a selfie of a student driving a few dogs to the dog park-even the basset hound looked cheerful. So far, I have received photos of snuggly kittens, excited meetings with friends, a birthday cake, a recent publication, a dog who had lost a battle with a skunk but smiled at a bath, a bubble bath drawn and ready (for a human), a map of a five-mile run, and a pizza from a favorite place shared with a favorite person. The picture of a visit with a grandmother--for the first time in a year-- made me cry. In return, my students got a series of shots from me that included: a recipe, my gathered ingredients, batter in a pan, and, finally, my son eating a gooey brownie. The fact that not everyone was in a position to engage in happy activities was not lost on me either-there are no consequences or penalties for not sending the picture and pictures were sent only to me, not the whole class.
While our Wednesday off was something, it was also clear that one day was not enough of a break for students in times that are already fraught. It is not enough time for a student to turn away from the pressure of law school and then, refreshed, turn back to finish up the semester. Everything we do these days seems both rushed and suspended in time, abbreviated and yet drawn out. I worry that we will crawl over the finish line at the end of the semester at exactly the time students need to summon the energy to run. Safety and wellness do not belong on opposite sides of the same scale and I hope that we are not forced to weigh them against each other again. Next year, may we all find ourselves somewhere with, “a pink hotel, a boutique, and a swingin' hot spot” for spring break.
(Elizabeth Stillman - Guest Blogger)
Thursday, March 18, 2021
It might seem a bit late in the learning curve. To welcome our students, again, to class.
But, I suppose I'm in a habit of doing so because each class I start with an enthusiastic "Welcome!"
Nevertheless, do I, do we, really mean that? Do we really "welcome" our students? And, if so, what do we mean and how do we go about "welcoming" our students?
It seems to me that the word "welcome" suggests something like "being present to embrace my students, coming along side them to create a place of graciousness wellness."
So, taking the inspiration from a presentation by Prof. Katie Jones (Lincoln Memorial University) about how to incorporate online corporate drafting exercises in law school spaces, I tried my hand at a very brief mini-exercise with the goal of helping my students welcome each other.
As Prof. Katie Jones explained, the first step was to craft a discussion question requiring group responses. Dividing the class into 12 to 20 small groups of students (and using google docs), the students - working in teams - drafted answers to the following question:
"What are three things that you share in common with your group outside of law school and legal education?"
Hard at work, the groups came up with lists, often times with more than 3 things shared.
Back together as a whole, I asked one group to share what they had learned about their group. The lists were fascinating, welcoming, and embracing, even if some of the things that they shared were things such as "We are all so fully spent and exhausted."
In short, they learned, at least a bit, that they weren't alone.
I next asked the group of students to share how they had learned the things that they shared in common.
That's where it got really interesting because the key to learning about group members was in asking questions, lots of questions, sometimes questions that led to dead ends and then other questions that led to sparks of commonness.
The questions required curiosity and creativity and openness. As they questioned, they learned. In fact, as one of my students at the end of class responded to the question from me about what they had all learned today, the student remarked that she learned that "asking questions is a form of learning."
How true! How well said!
So, rather than having students read research articles about how to learn to learn, you might try this simple exercise, courtesy of Prof. Kate Jones, in exploring in real-time how to learn. After all, sometimes the best lessons - the lasting lessons - come from within. (Scott Johns - University of Denver).
P.S. Asking questions, being curious, and engaging in creativity seem like the same tools that can make law school learning bloom.
Thursday, March 11, 2021
You've most likely heard the expression that "there's a method to our madness." I'm not so sure that's true in much of legal education, at least when it comes to teaching and learning.
I sometimes wonder if there's not much of a method, beyond the Socratic method, which means that there might be a just a lot of plain madness without methods. If so, then I suspect that we are leaving a lot of learners behind. And our world needs each of them, each of their voices, their experiences, and their skills.
Big picture wise, I have a hunch that the method of legal education might be summarized as "outside-in" teaching. By this I mean that our teaching practices seem to suggest that we believe that the best way to teach our students to learn is to have them hear from us, to listen to us, to watch us, and to emulate us. "Outside-in."
But research on legal education suggests that much if not most learning takes place outside of the classroom. It's "inside-out." It's the work that our students undertake within themselves to make memories with the materials, to create new connections to what they've learned before, and to experience and grow as creative thinkers and critical problem-solvers.
Everyday I skim the news and learn nothing.
Why not? Because I don't act on it. By my actions (or rather lack of actions) I seem to think - erroneously - that just by taking the news in that I am in some way learning something new about the world around me. After all the word "news" is derived from the singular "new."
But nothing new happens to me unless I take another step, unless I change something about me and how I view the world, in short, unless I act upon what I read.
That takes resolve, work, time, reflection, passion, commitment, and patience. That's because, if I were to brainstorm possible words that might serve as synonyms to learning, I think that the word I would choose would be "growing." Learning means growing. So as you work with students, you might ask them how they view learning. Better yet, ask them what they are doing to learn...today. In fact, you might ask them to share examples of "inside-out" learning (and how that helped them learn). (Scott Johns).
Thursday, March 4, 2021
I just read an article suggesting that learning to learn is the latest fad in higher education. Something that will pass, sooner or later, much like the buzz a few years back about learning styles. I'm not so sure.
Now I do have my doubts about the efficacy of lectures featuring talking-head presentations about how to learn to learn. That doesn't seem like learning how to learn. Rather, that seems like a good way, especially on zoom, to lull a class into a nice dreamlike state of slumber.
But, I've shown a few of the charts from the research reports to my students. When I show graphs to my students, I don't' talk. I wait. I wait some more. And I ask them what they see. I ask them what they learn from that chart about learning. I ask them how they might apply what they are learning to their academic work as law students. In other words, I have them act and create something personal from what they are witnessing so that what they are learning becomes part of them, becomes true to them.
So is learning to learn the latest craze? I can't say for sure. But it sure seems to be helping my students develop confidence in actively learning and diving into their studies, not as students, but as learners instead. And that's something to say, fad or no fad. (Scott Johns).
You've heard the quip about "the chicken or the egg, which comes first?"
Well, as the joke goes, "I've just ordered one of each from Amazon, so I let you know tomorrow!"
That got me thinking about memorization.
My students are really concerned about memorization, particularly because most of their law school exams, unlike bar exams, are open book/open note exams. But take a look at the word "memorization." That's a word of action, of a process, of recalling something previously learned. In other words, at its root core the word "memorization" derives from creating "memories." So how do you create memories when it comes to learning rules of law?
Or, to ask it another way, which comes first, memorization or memories?
Well, I think that the answer to that question is in the question because it's memories that we memorize. So the key to memorizing is to work through lots of problems, to test yourself with your study tools, in short, to create lots of memories with the rules. You see, memorization is just a fancy word for the process of experiencing memories through distributed and mixed practice over time. So, instead of worrying about memorization, make a memory (and lots of them). (Scott Johns).
Sunday, February 28, 2021
A golfer is staring down a putt to win the tournament. His mind races to everything he could have done to prepare for that moment. He wonders, "did I do enough?" Moments before the gun sounds, the sprinter's mind wanders "did I prepare hard enough?" The list could be endless. Notable sports psychologists say one of the top fears of athletes is the fear of not doing enough and not being good enough. The fear permeates minds moments before an event and can distract from performance.
Athletes aren't alone. Law students fear the same thing every November/December and April/May. They wonder if they read enough, studied enough, or completed enough practice problems. Some wonder if they met with professors enough. Enough becomes the amorphous standard to measure past actions mere moments before performance.
The enough standard poses a few problems. The standard is too vague to reasonably measure, and it is different for every person. Students then proceed to say last semester's actions were or were not enough based on final grades. Grades are a poor measure of "enough." Enough connotes quantity, and sometimes, students do study enough. They just studied the wrong way or wrong material.
The more significant problem with enough is it breeds perfectionism. Athletes don't know whether they are training enough while training, and without that feedback, they could always do more. The golfer could practice 100 more 5 foot putts, and the 5 footer to win would be easier. The swimmer could stay in the pool an hour longer or lift weights 1 more time. One mistake and they didn't do enough. Perfectionism and drive produces elite athletes. Google athlete quotes and you will be inundated with statements about working harder than everyone else. I highly encourage working hard, but perfectionism significantly increases mental health problems. Britain's "Victoria Pendleton (Britain’s most successful female Olympian), middle-distance runner Kelly Holmes (double gold winner at the Athens Olympics), boxer Frank Bruno (heavyweight champion of the world) and cricketer Marcus Trescothick (hero of the 2005 Ashes)" all suffered from depression.1 Their mental health deteriorated from perfectionism.
The same phenomenon happens to law students. They worry about every mistake and whether the semester was enough. We can continue to help students worrying whether they did enough.
The same phenomenon happens to ASPers as well. Maybe it was just me, but my mind raced last week at the bar exam. Did I hold enough programs? Did I contact students enough? Did I do as much as I could in a virtual environment? Did I respond to email quickly enough? I cheered on students while worrying if I could have prepared them better.
Enough is a terrible standard for all of us. I want all of us to help both law students and each other overcome the worry of doing "enough." I tell my students that all I care about is whether they can walk out of the exam and say they did everything they could reasonably do in their circumstances. Everyone's circumstances are different, and I only want them to do what they reasonably can. I want to tell all ASPers the same thing during this trying time. Enough is doing what you reasonably can in your circumstances. Don't let it reach perfectionism.
Thursday, February 25, 2021
Sometimes I wonder if being a teacher is a bit of an act. If so, or at least if that's how I am playing my role in academic support, I might not be doing it quite right. I might not be really serving my students but myself instead.
You see, I love to be seen. In fact, when working with students, I find myself too often trying to mold them to think like me, to work through problems like me, to learn like me. In short, to watch me. But, that's a big problem because none of them - not one - is like me. We are all remarkably and marvelous and wonderfully different.
That means that my job is really not to be seen but to see, to observe, to listen, and to respond to my students. In short, I'm not the star; they are. And that makes a world of difference in how I approach academic support as a teacher, a coach, a facilitator, a mentor, and an encourager.
To put an emphasis on it, if I am only wanting to be seen, then I'm falling up short in my obligations to my students as an academic support professional. But if I am seeing them, like much in life, that's the beginning of understanding, learning, and growth, for my students and for myself.
Let's make this honest. Too often I do all of the talking, teaching, and coaching that I end up crowding out much of the learning.
To be frank, that's because I have "relationship" issues. I'm not confident enough in my abilities to actually help them, to listen to them, to respond with them.
But, as many have pointed out, the best solutions for overcoming learning difficulties come from within not without. So, as I move forward in my role as an academic support professional, I find myself trying to move a little out of the way so that my students can take center stage.
After all, it's for them that I serve. It's for them that we serve. (Scott Johns).
Thursday, February 18, 2021
Like many of you, this week's been hectic, filled with chats and jam sessions to help graduates finish strong in preparation for next week's bar exam.
Most look tired, really tired. Me too.
So we took a break from consideration and equal protection and secured transactions to talk about steps we might take to provide refreshment to rejuvenate our battle-worn minds.
I don't know what possessed me, but I asked our students if they had time to take a break, a walk, or a little excursion from bar prep. But before they could answer "no", I answered for them. Simply put, I blurted out - like an excited utterance - that "you can't afford NOT to take a break!"
As reporter Betsy Morris explains:
"Spending times in the woods - a practice the Japanese call 'forest bathing' - is strongly linked to lower blood pressure, heart rate, and stress hormones and decreased anxiety, depression and fatigue." Morris, B., "For Better Health, Just Head Outdoors," Wall Street Journal (Feb. 16, 2021). And, with respect to cognition, as Dr. Gretchen Daily observes based on research at Stanford University, "A 45-minute walk in nature can make a world of difference to mood, creativity, [and] the ability to use your working memory." Id.
In short, all work and no play is a recipe for disaster not success. Simply put, it doesn't work.
So, as you meet with bar takers for last moment tune-ups and encouragement, let them know that it's okay to take breaks, to put on a cap and gloves and hit a local park for a wintry walk. Along the way, they'll be not just feeding their spirits but also strengthening their minds. Now that's a great way to prepare for success, whether it's on the bar exam or in life. (Scott Johns).
Thursday, February 11, 2021
Wow; do I ever get distracted...with emails...incoming snapchats....Facebook posts....and just the overall buzz of the omnipresent internet. There is so much NOISE that takes up so much of my TIME that I seem to get so LITTLE done. That's particularly true for me in preparing for big exams because, to be honest, I am a big-time procrastinator...with a CAPITAL P!
In fact, I was just fretting about how much I had to do (which, of course, is related to my procrastination issues) when I came across an article by Lucette Lugando describing how surgeons stay focused during organ transplants.
Hum...That's what I need. To Focus. To Stay on Task. To Just Get Something Meaningful Done Today! http://www.wsj.com/articles/how-surgeons-stay-focused-for-hours-1479310052
So, here are a few thoughts that I gleaned from Lugando's article that might be especially handy for law graduates preparing for the Feb 2021 bar exam (and for people like me who live to procrastinate):
First, put away my cellphone. Turn it off. Hide it. Ditch it.
As detailed in Lugando's article, "Transplant surgeons, whose work includes stitching minuscule blood vessels together, minimize their distractions. No one checks cellphones in the operating room during surgery."
No one checks their phones? Really? Are you kidding? Of course not, at least not during surgery. And, bar exam preparation requires us to do surgery, so to speak, on our study tools and on loads of practice exams.
Thus, as I create study tools or as I learn by taking practice exams, I can help myself mightily by placing my focus on my work at hand... rather than the cellphone that is so often in my hand...by removing the "cellphone temptation" out of my grasp. Who knows? It might even lower my anxiety to stop looking at it constantly.
Second, sharpen my field of vision to just the essentials (working on my study tools, practicing lots of exam questions, and looping the lessons learned from my practice problems back into my study tools) by creating an environment that is free of my own personal distractions...so that I focus on learning rather than the noise that is so often around me.
As Lugando points out, "The surgeons often wear loupes mounted on eye glasses to magnify their work, which limits their field of vision to a few inches."
In other words, with respect to bar exam preparation, maybe I need to limit my field of vision to the "few" essentials, namely, creating study tools, testing my study tools out through practice exams, and then editing my study tools to incorporate what I learned about problem-solving through the practice exams.
There's a saying, apparently by Winston Churchill, that says: "You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks." Or, as Bruce Lee put it, "The successful warrior is the average [person] with a laser-like focus."
So, instead of having the cellphone bark at you constantly, you might just try out what surgeons do...and turn your focus into a laser by getting rid of distractions during the final two weeks of bar prep as you create your study tools and practice lots and lots of bar exam problems.
In the process, you'll become, to paraphrase Bruce Lee, a bar exam champion. (Scott Johns).
Sunday, January 31, 2021
Some of you are getting your Fall grades, and for some of you this is the first time in getting law school grades. So let me assure you of something – your grades do not define you. If your grades make you happy, you should be proud. But they don’t define you. If your grades were not what you had hoped for, your grades do not define you. Your actions, the way you treat classmates, the cases you take on, the way you treat future clients and future colleagues – all of these things will define you. But your grades are not on that list.
Now, having said that, I’m well aware that grades are important, they help you get on things like law review, obtain clerkships and obtain your first jobs. So yes, they are important. But no, they do not define you.
So, if your grades are less than stellar, or not what you were hoping, pick yourself up and learn from your mistakes. The key is to not dwell on the mistakes, but learn from them. What can you do in the Spring to bring those grades up? Or, if you are happy with the grades, ensure that Spring grades are just as good? Try the following:
- Meet with your professors and review your exams. Even if you did fairly well, it’s worth looking over your exams with your professors. Talk about what you did well, and where you can improve. Many students focus on the fact that they correctly issue spotted, or came to the “correct” conclusion, when in reality, most professors are also looking at things like organization, and most importantly, how you came to the conclusions that you did!
Don’t be afraid to reach out. I talk to many students who are embarrassed, or a bit nervous. Your professors want you to improve and succeed. It is part of their job to review these exams with you, so please approach them!
A good starting point is this CALI lesson: How to Learn from Exams, by Melissa A Hale
- Take an honest look at this past semester, and self assess. This is incredibly important for your law school career, but also for your legal career. Learning to self assess performance is an invaluable skill that we all need.
- Did you read and brief all cases?
- How much time did you spend studying for each class?
- Did you meet with your professors during the semester, and talk about things you struggled to understand?
- Did you complete practice exams? If so, how many?
- Did you start outlining early or late?
Be honest with yourself in all of these questions. In addition ,think about other things that might have been happening, especially since we are currently in a pandemic:
- How was your mental health?
- Do you have test taking anxiety?
- Did you have a good place to study?
- If you are easily distracted, did you find ways to deal with that anxiety?
- Were there any life events that interfered with studying? Such as a break up, a death in the family, other personal turmoil? A health concern or health issue?
Again, this is a self reflection, so be completely honest. There is a CALI lessons that helps lead you through these issues, written by Renee Nicole Allen - Semester Self Assessment and Reflection - https://www.cali.org/lesson/18326
In addition, try the following:
Grit, Growth, and Why it matters, by Melissa A. Hale
Assessing Your Own Work, by Allie Robbins
Above all else, remember that while grades might open up some opportunities for some, even a few years into the future, they will not matter. And also remember, you can always learn and grow – whether you want to improve on something you did well, or learn from mistakes.
Tuesday, January 26, 2021
There is something about this time of year – perhaps the sweeping winter landscape, perhaps the complex and dramatic tale that is law school – something that makes me think of the golden age of Russian literature. Where would jurisprudence be without The Government Inspector or Crime and Punishment? And of course, the most important line in literature for academic success professionals comes at the start of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina:
Happy families are all alike. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
The idea captured in this line has been recognized as a generalizable “Anna Karenina Principle”: In many systems, enterprises, or entities, a significant flaw in one or any combination of factors can lead to failure, while success depends on a certain similarity of strength in each of those factors. There is a satisfying monotony to success. But there are thousands of ways to fall short.
Tolstoy was not the first to think of this, or even to articulate it. Aristotle says, in his unputdownable classic Nicomachean Ethics, put it this way:
It is possible to fail in many ways . . . while to succeed is possible only in one way.
It’s not clear how much credence we should give to this work – no one even knows for sure which Nicomachus the book was dedicated to, since both Aristotle’s father and his son had that name – and we surely can’t take literally the intimation that everyone with a 3.5 GPA or above is exactly alike. But just as surely, each unhappy law student is unhappy in their own way.
Drawing a parallel between struggling law students and Anna Karenina might seem thoughtless or even risky, given Anna’s unhappy ending in the second-to-last part of the book. But there’s a reason the book does not end there. In the final part of the book, Levin, friend of Anna’s brother, comes to realize that, despite his past familial unhappiness, he has the capacity to build a happy family, despite the ways in which he knows he may continue to fall short, because he has the power to continue to keep working at it.
Besides evoking the Russian steppes (well, at least here in Buffalo), this time of year also delivers fall semester grades, and, thus, some unhappy law students. It is one of the privileges and challenges of this job that I get to know students well enough to learn their own ways of being unhappy. There is a kind of shivery tension in the air as students work with me, often for the first time since arriving at law school, to face their unhappy grades, with hope or shame or defiance or resignation. No one wants to remain unhappy, but not everyone wants to hear that their way of being unhappy is unique. To be sure, some students do want to hear that; individuality can be inspiring. But other students are hoping for the magic bullet, the one tool or book or trick or advice that will fix every problem. Still other students are discouraged by the idea that their issue, or combination of issues, makes them unique, as if that is proof of their fear that they alone among their classmates were not really meant for law school. The most important thing to remind all these students is that uncovering how each of them is unique is the first step towards helping them to discover how to be happy law students.
And, after all, as Tolstoy also said in Anna Karenina:
Spring is the time of plans and projects.
Monday, January 18, 2021
It is that time of year again. Many first-year law students are anxiously awaiting grades from their first semester of law school. To all of you, I say: I hope your first semester grades are everything you want them to be.
Regardless, try to maintain perspective. Each grade is but a snapshot of your performance during a “moment” in time and, sometimes, it can feel as if there is no rhyme or reason to how each of those snapshots develop. Students who studied more may not perform as well as expected. Students who studied less may perform better than expected. The exam you thought was your best performance may end up being your worst grade. Similarly, the exam you thought was your worst performance may end up being your best grade.
Whatever your grades are, your feelings about them are valid. It is okay to feel excited about and celebrate your good grades, but do not rest on your laurels (keep doing the work). It is okay to feel frustrated or disappointed about less-than-ideal grades, but do not get stuck in that frustration or disappointment. Process your feelings and then pivot.
Your grades are not the final word on your abilities or the opportunities you will have. They are also in no way indicative of your value as a person or how great of a lawyer you will become. What matters more than a less-than-ideal grade is what you do in response, and that response can make for a great narrative of grit and resilience that you share with, among others, future employers.
If your grades are not everything you want them to be, get to work changing your reality for the spring term. Connect with your ASP faculty and/or staff to discuss your strengths and identify areas for growth, then develop a plan to expand upon the former and work on the latter. Cultivate a growth mindset. Your abilities and skills are not fixed—you can develop and refine them with practice and by leveraging your feedback. One semester of grades does not define you or dictate your story. YOU are the author of your story. Keep writing.
(Victoria McCoy Dunkley)
Eduardo Briceño and Dawn Young, A Growth Mindset for Law School Success, ABA Student Lawyer Blog (Sept. 12, 2017), https://abaforlawstudents.com/2017/09/12/growth-mindset-law-school-success/.
Heidi K. Brown, Law School Grades Are Not Your Story—You Are Your Story, ABA Student Lawyer Blog (Jan. 9, 2020), https://abaforlawstudents.com/2020/01/09/law-school-grades-are-not-your-story-you-are-your-story/.
Thursday, January 14, 2021
I just got out of class. An online zoom class, not surprisingly. But, in reflection of the first class, I had a bit of a surprise. I did a whole lot of talking and talking and then, even more, talking. You see, I took a glance at the audio transcript file. And it was quite an eye-popper.
I did most of the talking, which means that my students did very little.
It makes me wonder whether I left enough time in the midst of my words for my students to learn. I once heard a brilliant teacher say something to the effect that "the less that I talk the more that they [my students] learn."
Of course, as the saying goes, the "proof is in the pudding."
Which leads to my next surprise. I try to end classes with asking students one thing that they learned along with one thing that they didn't understand. Well as you might expect, I didn't leave enough time for the last question because, you guessed it, I spent too much time talking.
But, in response to the first question, what they learned, well, they learned about what I liked (snickers!) and where I ate lunch on the first day of the bar exam (the liquor store since I forgot my lunch), etc. In other words, it seems like they learned a great deal about me but perhaps not as much about bar preparation, which is the subject of our course.
Lesson learned, especially for online teaching...speak less and listen more. In short, trust them to learn by learning together, as a team, rather than just trying to pound information into their heads. I sure learned a lot today. Next class...my students are going to learn plenty too! (Scott Johns)
Tuesday, January 12, 2021
When I was a kid, I saw an episode of the TV series Maude that was broadcast on November 1, 1976 – the day before Election Day. Maude, the assertive main character, was trying to convince everyone to write in Henry Fonda for President. When her featherbrained neighbor Vivian asked Maude why she was in such a rush to get the idea out, Maude looked at her severely and explained that the election was happening tomorrow.
“Tomorrow?!” exclaimed Vivian. “And it seems like only yesterday it was Halloween!”
Well, today, with the results of the October bar exam barely in hand for many examinees, we have leapt right back into preparation for the February exam. Perhaps the final casualty of the Endless Summer is the strict reduction of time to process the relationship between all that happened before the exam and the results that came out of it. Individuals who just found out in late December or early January that they did not pass have had to decide very quickly whether to register for the February exam. A California repeat examinee could still register next week, with as few as 32 days left before the exam is administered. And while many states and law schools have seen an increase in bar pass rates compared to July of 2019, we have entered the February bar study period without some of the data we might ordinarily use to assess the reasons for any changes in passage rates. At least here in New York, some of the granular data about subject-matter performance on the MBE portion has not been provided, and information about statewide trends have only been reported in the most general terms. This makes it harder to determine the effects of the delay, of the changes in format and delivery, and of strategies adopted or resources provided in response.
Tomorrow is February?! It seems like only yesterday it was October!
Thus, even though the February bar exam represents a great stride towards “normalcy” in many jurisdictions – in that it will be delivered on a traditional set date, with typical full UBE content – this will still be an unusual administration, affected by ripples of the pandemic. Some repeat examinees will be facing a compressed study period, although I have observed that a least a portion of them, perhaps spurred to greater-than-normal pessimism under the circumstances, began preparing prophylactically even before scores were announced. In any case, those of us who work with repeating graduates may be asked to provide additional support.
More frustrating to me is having to determine what aspects of the support provided to our examinees over the five months between graduation and the October bar would be most advantageously replicated over the next two months. The extended prep period was, I felt, grueling for all involved, but it provided time and motivation for examinees and teachers alike to try new strategies. Based on our results, some of these strategies appear to have beneficial. But which ones? And are they replicable between now and the end of February, or were they successful because, and not in spite of, the long stretch of time before the October administration? Without all the information I wish I had, this feels in some ways similar to what many of us had to do this summer: reacting to a novel situation without certainty, and ending up (very likely) relying in part on intuition and extraordinary effort.
Hopefully, knock on wood, fingers crossed, things won't feel this way come summer 2021. For now, the one thing I am fairly certain played an important part in my examinees' performance that is likely replicable now was the increased sense of camaraderie and support that they reported as a result of the very high-touch summer and fall. With so many changes so frequently, and with unbelievable levels of anxiety among bar studiers (who on the whole are not typically known for tranquil, detached attitudes), I initiated what would turn out to be bi-weekly (or more frequent) Zoom meetings to pass along news, share strategies, and provide opportunities for feedback. Already feeling isolated by the pandemic, the students reported that these meetings helped them feel connected to each other and to the school, and it appears they took more advantage of the resources we made available (including lots of one-on-one meetings with me). This was kind of a form of intrusive counseling. It seems to have worked, at least under those recent conditions, which in some ways are still ongoing. So, while I am still hoping to develop more clarity about how other specifics contributed to examinees' performance, this is one lesson I took from yesterday that I can apply today to help my examinees prepare for tomorrow.
Sunday, November 29, 2020
Raising some up does not diminish the work of others. Instead, it improves the whole of legal education. – Darby Dickerson
I am encouraged by the words of AALS President, Darby Dickerson, who calls out the caste system in law schools and advocates for its abolition. The caste system is an unnatural stratification that unnecessarily subdivides the legal academy in a manner that is contrary to the goals and best practices of quality legal education. Yet it prevails.
Dickerson acknowledges that there is much work to do in the quest for parity. She points out that some schools pay those with non-tenure track appointments (“NTT”) one-half or less of the average pay for tenure-line faculty, even with the same (or greater) number of credit hours taught. She also addresses the disrespect and other “affronts” that many NTT must bear, like exclusion from faculty meetings and votes.
ASPers know too well the stinging bite of having tenure-line administrators and faculty dictate which courses we teach and what the content of those courses will and will not include. Sung like the song of our collective souls, Dickerson recounts the common practice of having faculty or faculty committees change or attempt to change program design (e.g., number of credits, grading schemes, course titles, etc.) “without consultation and sometimes over [our] expert objections.” Our ideas and experience-based practices and recommendations for course revisions and program redesign are too often challenged or disregarded. Failing to acknowledge the expertise and accomplishments of non-tenure track faculty and staff is a mistake that should be avoided at all costs.
Of particular interest, is that Academic Support is neither assigned, nor expressly described by, a caste. If titles correlate to perceptions of one’s status, the omission of an entire skills discipline should sound an alarm. ABA Standard 405 makes specific reference to legal writing faculty and clinical faculty, and none specifically to ASP. Legal writing professors deserve every advance they have fought for over the years, and more. Still we cannot presume to be included in the decades-long battle to erode the hierarchy separating doctrine from skills.
Our legal writing and clinical counterparts are rarely categorized as staff. Yet many in ASP have staff classifications, despite teaching required and elective courses. Too many in ASP are denied a voice or vote in the programs they teach or direct, are physically segregated far from the faculty hallways, and are denied budget funding for travel and professional development, and have 12-month appointments that limit writing projects and scholarly pursuits. Have law schools and the ABA created a caste-in-caste system by further subdividing the “skills” faculty? Why is ASP too often omitted from the from discussions about hierarchy and status?
Dickerson asks what our law schools would look like without the labor and skill of NTT. Would our program of education be as robust? Would student class performance and outcomes decline? Would our students succeed on the bar at the same rate? Perhaps we can add to her well-voiced list of questions: 1) how would our profession look without the unnecessary stratification that law schools perpetuate? and 2) what are we willing to do about it?
Wednesday, November 25, 2020
To the Law Students, especially first years:
It's ok to take a break. I promise. I wanted to give you some great advice for exams, and since Victoria has written about so many tips for prepping for and writing the exams, my advice is to relax.
I know, I know, you have so much to do. But your brain really DOES retain information better if you give yourself breaks. I'm not suggesting that you don't do any work between now and Monday, but I am suggesting that you pace yourself, and do a few fun things for yourself as well. Netflix does have some great holiday movies coming out!
If you are a first year, it's also important to put things in perspective. Yes, grades are important, we can't get around that issue. But so is your mental and physical health. It's tempting to put so much pressure on yourself, and you need to realize that as long as you are doing your best, that's all we can ask of you.
Also, don't be afraid to ask for help. From your professors. From your Academic Support people. From a Dean of Students. We all want to see you succeed, and we will do what we can to make that happen. If you don't know how to ask for help, that's ok too. It's a good idea to start with someone like your Academic Support person, or your Dean of Students. Literally go in and say "I'm having a hard time, and I don't know how to ask for help." We will help you! Promise!
And speaking of help, if you are entitled to non standard testing accommodations, and especially if you have used them in other situations, please reach out and ask for them! For some schools, it might be late in the process, but it can't hurt to at least see what's possible.
Finally, practice! Don't go into your exams having never practiced one. The more practice exams you do, the better you will feel, and it WILL be reflected in your grades.
To my Academic Support Colleagues:
We need to take this advice as well! We are so good at advising our students on how to take care of their mental health, how important it is to take time for breaks, and to do things for themselves. But we don't always take our own advice. Hypocrites, the lot of us. The AASE programming board put on a fantastic workshop about how we should be helping ourselves, and each other, so take this as an important reminder. Especially, if you are like me, your list of things that must get done this weekend is a mile long. I'm going to try to take my own advice and do the best I can, while also spending some time with my husband, and maybe watching a Christmas movie or two! I hope all of you do the same.
Finally, I've been doing a month of gratitude. Each day, on facebook, I note one thing I'm grateful for. I started doing this a few years ago, as it is a really good way to boost serotonin and put things in perspective. This year I felt it was especially important, since this year has not been one of the best. So, I want all of you to know that I'm incredibly grateful for this community, and I'm thankful for each of you. Your wisdom and expertise, your friendship and support.
Happy Thanksgiving To All!
Tuesday, November 24, 2020
A quick etymology lesson to take us all into the holiday:
The words "thank" and "think" are both ultimately derived from the same Latin root word, "tongere", which means "to know". It appears that when our ancient forebears wanted to express appreciation for another person's action or contribution, they did not originally convey gratitude overtly. Instead, they conveyed understanding -- "I know what you did." "I am thinking about what you have given me." -- and that expression of awareness was meaningful. A mindful comprehension of a deed or a relationship or even an object implied that you recognized its worth. Over time, "think" and "thank" developed separate spellings, pronunciations, and nuances. "Think" focuses on the mental processes that enable us to better "know" something. "Thank" focuses on the recognition of something's value to you.
The link is the ancestral human insight that when you know something well, you naturally develop an appreciation for it. So when you take time this Thanksgiving to acknowledge your family and your friends, your comforts and luxuries, the good fortune you've enjoyed and the bad fortune you've avoided, spare a few moments to consider your legal education. It might seem odd to suggest you should be grateful for knowing the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure or how to write a legal brief or the different classifications of collateral in secured transactions, but if you stop to think about the value of these tools to you -- tools that most people cannot grasp, let alone wield -- don't you feel richer? And grateful, not just to the people who helped you acquire these tools (including, I hope, yourself), but also for the existence and quality and usefulness of them?
Cicero wrote, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” He knew that gratitude is not just a soppy sense of obligation for having received a boon. It is a deep and honest perception of meaning and value -- the starting point from which wonder, possibility, humility, generosity, and creativity can spring. This week, once you've recovered a bit from the sometimes exhausting, sometimes tedious, sometimes terrifying grind that this semester has been, give yourself the gift of earnestly contemplating all that you have learned and all the good that will come of it.
Tuesday, November 17, 2020
As we near the end of this first full semester under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, my colleagues and I are developing a clearer and broader picture of the sometimes unanticipated consequences of a shift towards distance learning. The biggest surprise for me has been the magnitude of the cumulative loss of the daily presence of my fellow teachers and administrators.
Halfway through spring semester last year, the State of New York ordered all SUNY schools, including the University at Buffalo School of Law, to move entirely to remote teaching. This was a shock and a strain for students and teachers alike, but we quickly figured out how to make it work reasonably well and get through the end of the school year. If it was a little rough and wearying, it seemed that everyone understood that we were all doing the best we could under exigent circumstances. For me and my graduating students, the stress did not let up over the summer, as the twice-delayed and newly remote NY bar exam was a source of unpredictability and anxiety all the way through to October. But at least, it seemed, my colleagues and I would be able to take what we had learned from all of this and apply it to plan and execute a robust, well-constructed hybrid program for the fall -- one that would allow a limited number of smaller in-person classes while taking advantage of the best practices we had developed for teaching other classes online. We provided rich pre-orientation and orientation programs for our incoming 1L students. Our school's experiential program directors worked tirelessly to adapt to the new conditions so that upper class students could continue to receive the benefits of clinical practice. And those of us in student support made extra effort to reach out and make ourselves available to students scattered throughout the virtual ether. It seemed to me -- and, I think, rightly -- that we, like many law schools, had recognized, prioritized, and attended to our students' novel needs.
What I did not realize until recently that I had overlooked was the value of simply being in the building every day with other professors and administrators. It seemed at first just a slightly lonely little inconvenience, having to work from home most days, and seeing maybe one or two people in the hallways on the days I did go in. After all, we still had regular online meetings of various staff groups and committees, and emails and phone calls were still happening, so it was not as though we did not see each other or even basically know what each of us was up to. And being busier than usual with student queries and online meetings, one might have thought it was a blessing not to have to commute in every day and to spend precious time walking from one end of the building to the other, bumping into people and engaging in chit-chat along the way.
But in these last couple of weeks, I have come to realize what has been reduced because of the lack of interaction with my colleagues: sharing, synergy, and sensibility. I think we (or, who knows, maybe it's just me) greatly underestimated how much gets communicated when you see people two or three times a week, spontaneously ask for opinions or bat ideas around, notice which students they are meeting with, or ask a quick question that would probably take twenty minutes to write adequately in an email. And suddenly we're only a few weeks from finals, and I discover that a student who has been working with me on one specific issue is actually contending with a related issue in a different class. In a Zoom meeting, one doctrinal professor brings up a pervasive issue among her 1L students, and several others realize they've been dealing with the same problem. I'm accidentally left off a group email discussion thread and don't find out for three days -- something that could never have happened if we were all in the building, as I would have wandered into the offices of at least one of the group members every day.
We took so much care to make sure we stayed connected to our students (although they, too, undoubtedly suffer from the dearth of day-to-day contact, with us and with their classmates, in the hallways and before and after class), but, perhaps a bit too stoicly, assumed we'd do fine with more tenuous connections to our colleagues. But now I see. We've missed opportunities to share ideas about the law school and information about our students. It's been harder to improvise together, to pool our strengths to come up with good solutions. And without the little bits of intelligence we pick up from out colleagues -- the pointillist accretion of points of light that add up to the big picture -- it has become harder to be sensitive to concerns that might affect one student or might affect an entire class.
Here I had been thinking that reaching out too much to my absent colleagues would be only a selfish pestering, a feel-good reprieve from isolation. But no! It would really be for the good of my students, and for the whole school. Starting this week, I have begun setting up regular one-on-one chats with folks, agendaless, just to catch up. Everyone I have proposed this to has welcomed the idea. And when I make my weekly visit to campus, I'm going to get out of my office and walk every floor of the law school, just to see the few people whose schedules overlap with mine. Who knows what good, if any, will come out of any particular encounter? All I know now is that nothing good comes from losing them altogether.
Thursday, November 12, 2020
In general, I don't believe in show and tell lectures. In particularly, I'm not convinced that a few powerpoint presentations about the benefits of mindfulness or positive growth mindsets can make much of a difference in academic performance. But, I do believe in the power of show, tell, and do experiences in changing lives for the better. And, there's research out of California funded in part by AccessLex to support my supposition.
As previously detailed, a brief intervention focused on belonging can make a big impact on undergraduate academic performance, especially for underrepresented minorities. Be-Long-Ing! It's Critical to Success (Oct. 3, 2019). Now, researchers in partnership with the State Bar of California and funding from AccessLex have expanded that work to the field of bar licensure. https://mindsetsinlegaleducation.com/bar-exam/
The brief 45-minute online program was made available to all bar takers for both the July 2018 and July 2019 California bar exams. Id. Interested bar applicants were able to freely sign-up for the program, which was timed to coincide right before bar preparation studies began. "The program include[d] an introductory film, stories from prior test takers, and a writing activity in which participants share[d] insights and strategies that m[ight] be useful to them and to future test takers." Id. In their research, the authors controlled for traditional bar performance predicators (LSAT and LGPA) along with psychological factors, demographic factors, and situational factors to evaluate whether the brief 45-minute intervention yielded statistically beneficial improvements in bar exam outcomes. Id.
According to a summary of the findings, "[t]hose who completed the full program and thereby received the full treatment saw their likelihood of passing the bar exam rise by 6.8-9.6%. Among all people who passed the bar after completing the program and thereby receiving the full treatment, one in six would have failed the bar if they had not participated in the program (emphasis in original)." Id. Significantly, as stated more completely in an article by the researchers, "[t}he program particularly helped applicants who were first-gen college students and underrepresented minorities, according to our analyses." Quintanilla. V., et al., Evaluating Productive Mindset Interventions that Promote Excellence on California’s Bar Exam (Jun. 25, 2020).
In finding evidence in support of the program, the authors posited a possible social-psychological explanation for the promising results:
"The California Bar Exam Strategies and Stories Program was designed to improve passage rates by changing how applicants think about the stress that they encounter and the mistakes that they make when studying for the exam. Our initial analyses of the effect of the program on psychological processes suggest that the program worked as intended, by reducing psychological friction. Participants appear to have succeeded in the face of stress, anxiety, and mistakes by adopting more adaptive mindsets. They moved from a stress-is-debilitating mindset to a stress-is- enhancing mindset. They learned to reappraise the anxiety they experienced. And they shifted toward meeting mistakes with a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset." Id.
As I understand the research, the researchers provided bar takers with research about tactics to turn stressors from negatives into positives and engaged bar takers in implementing those strategies. In my opinion, a primary reason why the intervention was so promising rests with the last step of the intervention, in which bar takers took positive action to help future bar takers, by having bar takers write letters to future takers sharing their experiences in learning to transform frictions into pluses.
In short, the intervention empowered people to make a difference, not just for themselves, but also for future aspiring attorneys. That's a wonderful win-win opportunity. And, there's more great news. The researchers are looking for additional participants to expand the program to other jurisdictions. For details, please see the links in this blog. (Scott Johns).