Sunday, December 8, 2019

Finals are Over, Now What?

First semester finals are similar to a Saw movie.  No, not in the blood is everywhere or the mental gymnastics needed for the puzzles way.  The movies leave many uneasy because the protagonist usually dies and there is a cliffhanger for what Jigsaw will do in the next movie.  If you watched them when they came out, you had to wait years for the next story, which left just as many questions at the end. 

First semester finals can leave some with the same lacking or cliffhanger feeling.  Grades won't come out for 2-4 weeks depending on the school.  No one usually walks out of finals feeling good about what they wrote.  Finishing finals doesn't seem like much of an accomplishment because they just end with no definitive answer, and the protagonist of the story (student walking out) isn't the obvious hero.

The lacking feeling is normal.  Most students feel the same way.  Once you finish finals, the goal is to not worry about law school for a few days.  Use the break to actually take a break.  The winter break is not as long as the summer, so if you spend too much time on law school related activities, then you won't be mentally fresh starting next semester.  The goal is to reset during the break to be ready for the spring.  If you can't completely ignore law school, then you could casually read a book.  You have many options depending on what area you want to improve in. Books that I like for learning/general improvement are: Make It Stick, How We Learn, and Grit. There are numerous law school specific books for each of the different skills needed for success. I like How to Succeed in Law School, Expert Learning for Law Students, and Reading like a Lawyer. Those are my personal favorites, but there are numerous great options.  You have more context for those books now that you have been through a semester.  That being said, don't try to read all of them.  If you casually read one, great.  If not, even better.  Get mentally fresh for next semester.

Good luck on the rest of finals and get ready for a great break.

(Steven Foster)

December 8, 2019 in Encouragement & Inspiration, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Taking Our Own Advice

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

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

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

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

However:

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

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

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

(Melissa Hale)

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

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Mentors, Students, and Student Support

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Bill MacDonald]

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

Friday, November 29, 2019

Thankful for You

After reading Scott's post yesterday, I felt convicted for not expressing my gratitude for my professional colleagues and students that put me in the position I am in today.  

With that in mind, I first want to thank everyone in the ASP community.  I can't name all of you in one post that have impacted my teaching in various ways.  From sitting next to veterans at LSAC workshops early in my career to reading discussions on the listserv and blog, I have learned from all of you.  Never underestimate the value of a response on the listserv.  I integrated numerous ideas from those discussions.  Casual discussions at meals helped my students pass the bar exam.  As a community, all of you have helped more than your own students.  I am thankful for this community.

I am thankful for my faculty and administration.  I have felt unwavering support through both the great years and the struggles.  I am able to support my students every day because they have supported me.  

Finally, I am especially thankful for my students, all of them.  The ones who work the hardest and the ones that needed help being motivated.  I learned, laughed, and interacted with tons of students.  They all brought different perspectives which I enjoyed.  Joy and accomplishment on students' faces make ASP work tons of fun.  

I agree with Scott.  Thanksgiving is a good day to be thankful, but we should have consistent gratitude.  It may be hard with our busy schedules, but I hope to follow his lead of giving thanks regularly.  Hope everyone enjoys the short break.

(Steven Foster)

November 29, 2019 in Encouragement & Inspiration | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

So You're Taking the Bar Exam . . . Again

First and foremost, this does not define you. Trust me, we have all heard stories of prominent lawyers, judges, and politicians that have failed the bar, sometimes multiple times. I could make you a list of all of the successful lawyers that were unsuccessful on the bar exam their first time.  But I won’t, because failing the bar does not define them. If you try to make a list, you won’t find “failed the bar” on Wikipedia pages, or official biographies, or resumes. It’s not because it’s some secret shame, but because no one cares. In 5-10 years, no one will care how many times it took you to pass the bar. In fact, they won’t care in 6 months or a year. It seems like a defining moment right now, but it isn’t. Your defining moments come from the way you treat clients, the way you treat colleagues, and what you choose to do with your license once you have it.  And, most importantly, how you learn from your mistakes.

So, take a few days to be upset, it’s ok. But then dust yourself off  and start looking towards the February bar. Also, remember that failure is not the opposite of success, it’s a part of success. Every successful lawyer has failed – on the bar, at trial, in a negotiation, not getting a job. Every successful politician has lost a race. Every Olympian has lost a game or a match. Those failures are a normal way to achieves success in the future. However, for that to be true, you have to learn from failure.

So, in looking towards February, learn from your mistakes. First and foremost, if you are in a jurisdiction that allows it, request your essays. Different jurisdictions will have different procedures, but most will allow you to at least look at your essays, and some will send them to you. View them with a critical eye towards what you can improve upon.  If you’re allowed to keep them, and not just view them at the bar headquarters, rewrite them. Use your notes to rewrite them. Focus on areas of improvement.

Secondly, many of you have Academic Support professors at your school. If you’re not sure, ask alumni relations if there is someone at your school that handles bar exam issues. Many of my repeat takers are hesitant to reach out to me because of their alumni status, worrying that it’s no longer my job to help them. I can tell you with certainty, it is my job to help them, and I care about them and want them to do well. None of us stop caring about our students just because you have graduated, or taken one bar exam. So, reach out to them, and see if they can help you review your essays, or score sheet, and come up with a plan. Some schools have resources specifically for repeat takers, so there is a strong chance they want you to reach out.

Finally, look back at the how you studied for the bar. Be honest, as this reflection is just for you, but assess a few things:

  • How much of your commercial bar prep course (Themis, BarBri, etc) did you complete?
  • If you completed less than 80% of the course, why?
  • Did anything happen in your personal life that interfered with your studying?
  • If you used accommodations during law school for exams, did you use them on the bar? If not, is it because you were denied accommodations, or because you didn’t apply?
  • How many practice essays and multiple choice did you do?
  • Did you learn from the practice multiple choice?
  • Did you spend hours in the library, or at a desk, but were continually distracted by facebook/twitter/snapchat, or something else?
  • Did you take care of yourself physically and mentally? Did you get enough sleep?
  • Did you take study breaks to let your brain process?

These are just some examples of ways to assess yourself. The point is to take a good look at that you did well, and what you can improve upon. Don’t assume that because you failed, you just need to put in more hours, or you didn’t know the material. Frequently when I counsel repeat takers they didn’t do enough practice questions, or life got in the way, or they studied so hard that they got burnt out and were not well physically or mentally.

Once you’ve really assessed, figure out your February plan. What can you do differently? You might only need to tweak a few small things to succeed. And once you do, no one will care or remember how many times it took you to succeed.

Finally, if you are dreading attending a Thanksgiving meal with potential questions about the bar, show them this blog post!

(Melissa Hale)

November 27, 2019 in Bar Exam Preparation, Encouragement & Inspiration | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Preparing to Dig In

It seems fitting that at my law school -- like most others, I presume -- the Thanksgiving holiday immediately precedes the fall semester final exam period.  Thanksgiving dinner and final exams have so much in common.

Each of them seems far off as the golden days of summer begin their inexorable diminution.  On Labor Day, we are all aware that [Thanksgiving dinner/final exams] will be the next significant break in our routines, but in the hazy warm thrill of the start of the academic year, it is so difficult to even consider the coming cold, dark days.

However, by the equinox, people start to pay attention to the distant approach of [Thanksgiving dinner/final exams].  Conscientious people even realize that they should probably start making plans early, so they don't find themselves without options in a last-minute rush to prepare.  But many folks, caught up in the rush of day-to-day life, might put off such measures, figuring they can address their reservations closer to the deadline.

Before you know it, though, here comes Halloween, and then suddenly it seems like reminders of [Thanksgiving dinner/final exams] are everywhere!  No matter how much dread they inspire, you have to admit they spark a bit of excitement, too, since [Thanksgiving dinner/final exams] will mark the real start of the winter holidays.  And, besides, no matter how onerous and monotonous the yearly ordeal might appear, it always carries with it at least the possibility of a pleasant surprise or two.

As time accelerates and the time for [Thanksgiving dinner/final exams] lurches to mere days away, all at once it seems like life has gone a little haywire.  You're still have to attend to all your ordinary quotidian responsibilities, but now you have to pile on top of that the preparations for [Thanksgiving dinner/final exams].  Schedules have to be coordinated, supplies have to be obtained.  Participants will struggle to nail down time-honored formulae, so they can be ready (if and when necessary) to apply these recipes to whatever ingredients are provided to produce a satisfying result.  Hopefully, even the most dilatory attendees will manage to eke out a little free time before [Thanksgiving dinner/final exams] to focus on preparation and maybe even a few practice creations.

Finally, the big day arrives!  It feels like you spend half the day in a frenetic rush, anxiously making sure you haven't forgotten anything.  But then the actual event -- [Thanksgiving dinner/final exams]! -- begins, and you are totally engrossed.  Confined in a room full of people, all of whom seem to be sitting a little too close, making a little bit too much noise.  But this is something you are doing together.   Sometimes one person just dives right in, and a bunch of people around him follow suit, not wanting to fall behind.  They might well spend too much attention on one or two meaty choices, and entirely overlook other valuable tidbits.  They could end up regretting not having given themselves enough time to digest things properly.  Other people might approach [Thanksgiving dinner/final exams] too cautiously, overly mindful that it will be a multi-course affair.  Afraid to make a mess or to risk something disagreeable, they may find at the end that they barely made a dent in their undertaking.  Hopefully, though, most of our students will pace themselves, knowing they are going to be there for a few hours, and will think carefully about how much they want to have on their plate at one time, so that they can get through the entire experience having indulged appropriately in every choice, and in a palatable way that leaves them drowsy and satisfied.

May this year's [Thanksgiving dinner/final exams] be a cause of celebration for all of us!

[Bill MacDonald]

 

November 26, 2019 in Current Affairs, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Food and Drink, Miscellany | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 25, 2019

Making Real Connections

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

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

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

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

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

(Marsha Griggs)

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

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

Thursday, November 21, 2019

A Queen Counsels: More Ear--Less Talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Scott Johns).

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

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Thanksgiving for the Academic Support Community

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

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

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

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

(Nancy Luebbert)

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

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Two Kinds of Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Bill MacDonald]

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

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Lollipop Learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Administrative Law

Agency

Civil Procedure

Constitutional Law

Contracts

Corporations

Criminal Law

Criminal Procedure

Evidence

Family Law

Partnership

Property

Torts

UCC Article 2 – Sales

UCC Article 3 – Commercial Paper

UCC Article 9 – Secured Transactions

Wills and Trusts

 

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

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

One More Time

We were sitting in my office dissecting a practice contracts answer the student had written, working on transforming a rambling paragraph into an answer that showed mastery of the law and an intelligible understanding of how the law applied to the facts of the problem. The initial answer suggested the student had worked hard at understanding the law and had an instinctive response to the obvious issues; the finished product exhibited a coherent, lawyerly approach to most of the issues suggested by the fact pattern. The puzzle pieces were finally coming into place. Near the end of our session, the student looked at me quizzically. "Did we cover this in class?" she asked. "I was flailing away, but now it seems simple." "Yes," I replied out loud. Inwardly, I added, "Many times." But it was worth revisiting, because this time it clicked.

Far too many times, despite my profession, I grow impatient when I must repeat or re-teach something that seems "obvious" to me. Sometimes I feel like the Bellman in Lewis Carroll's "The Hunting of the Snark," declaring "What I tell you three times is true." When I catch myself in such a crotchety mood, I consciously offer up the negativity to the Academic Support deities so it will drift away. Sometimes, students simply tune out: they are human, after all; like me, they have sleepless nights and nagging worries and obsessions over an impending events, both personal and professional. More often, the need for repetition is inherent in the very nature of learning a new practice. While I might hope that a preview followed by an in-depth discussion followed by practice followed by a review will cement a concept or a practice, it's usually not that simple. Even teaching the process of learning, I need to remember that a huge part of what they are learning is to go past "obvious," to go deep, and to go slow. Experiment with learning and writing and speaking. Embrace the difficulty. Try it over and over. And if you forget that you learned it once, that's all right, too.

Contrary to what I believed when I started in academic success work, it is rare for my students to run out of time, whether in day-to-day learning, the consolidation that happens near the end of the semester, or even on final exams. Indeed, it staggers me to see how many leave a final exam 30, 40, or even 60 minutes before time is called. The larger challenge is to spend enough time, to slow down, to lay aside the knee-jerk reactions to plumb the legal problems not only in depth but with the simplicity that comes from and leads to mastery. 

(Nancy Luebbert)

November 13, 2019 in Encouragement & Inspiration, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 7, 2019

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

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

Here's why:  

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

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

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

But that's great news because...

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

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

Administrative Law

Agency

Civil Procedure

Constitutional Law

Contracts

Corporations

Criminal Law

Criminal Procedure

Evidence

Family Law

Partnership

Property

Torts

UCC Article 2 – Sales

UCC Article 3 – Commercial Paper

UCC Article 9 – Secured Transactions

Wills and Trusts

(Scott Johns).

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

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Building an Archetype

A couple of years ago, there was a meme making its way across the internet encouraging people to describe themselves as a combination of three fictional characters.  In a rare moment of lucid self-awareness, I described myself as part Encyclopedia Brown, part Johnny from the movie Airplane! ("I can make a hat, or a brooch, or a pterodactyl . . ."), and part Dewey Finn, Jack Black's character in School of Rock.  It was a fun exercise, because it made folks think about what they considered their defining characteristics, and it gave us the giftie of finding out if others saw us the same way we see ourselves.

I thought about that game this week, when it randomly occurred to me that all Academic and Bar Support teachers must feel a bit like -- wait, spoilers; I'm going to save that character for last.  But it led me to consider: Is there a combination of three fictional characters that would constitute the archetypal A&B Support provider?  What are, or should be, our defining characteristics?  And will everyone agree with me?  And so, I submit for your approval my proposed set of three characters (though I am open to criticism and to suggestions for alternatives) that define Academic Support:

  1. Jubal Harshaw -- Harshaw is one of the main characters of Robert Heinlein's novel Stranger in a Stranger Land, a nifty, influential, and slightly heretical book from the 1960s that probably is not read now as much as it ought to be.  Harshaw, who ends up protecting and teaching the naive but powerful protagonist of the book, is a notable polymath: a lawyer, a physician, and a popular writer -- among other things, but those three are the most relevant to our work.  Basically, we have to know a lot about a lot of things.  We have to be comfortably familiar with every subject that is tested on the bar, and at least know enough about other legal subjects to be able to support students struggling in those areas.  A knowledge of the practice of medicine is not usually required -- thank goodness -- but, like a physician, we do have to care for our charges, to recognize symptoms of unease (of both mind and body), and to provide comfort, advice, and referrals when appropriate.  And naturally we have to be communicators skilled enough not just to see and address the communication flaws in others, but also to capture the attention of the sometimes jaded, reluctant, or resentful.  Take it from me: being a tax lawyer was hard, but at least you only had to know the entire Internal Revenue Code and all associated regulations.  To be an Academic Support professional, you have to know something about practically everything.
  2. Mickey Goldmill -- There are a lot of great sports movies anchored by wise, inspiring coaches, but can any of them compare for our purposes with Mick, the man who coached Rocky Balboa to the heavyweight championship of the world?  Because when it comes right down to it, no matter how much we encourage our students to support each other and learn together, no one takes a final or a bar exam as a team.  The people we work with have to step into the ring alone.  Like Mickey, we have to help our students find out just what they are capable, then help them find ways to make themselves capable of even more, and then help them to see that they carry that capacity within themselves.  And, like so many Academic Support providers, Mickey was a great improviser: when he didn't have the latest hi-tech sports equipment, he got Rocky into shape by having him chase chickens and pound on sides of beef.  Who else in law school but Academic Support has to squeeze so many results out of so few resources?  And one last thing: remember, Rocky lost in the first film.  He gave it his all, and he lost, and he thought, I guess I'm done with boxing.  It was Mickey who convinced Rocky that he could step into the ring again, against the champ that had beat him the first time, and that he had what it took to pull out the win.  Mickey Goldmill knew that just because you were down, that didn't mean you were out.
  3. Jiminy Cricket -- In the original Disney movie Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket actually played two roles.  He started off as the narrator, explaining to the audience that they are about to see the story of a wish coming true.  Then, after the Blue Fairy visits the puppeteer Geppetto, and brings his creation Pinocchio to life, she tasks Jiminy with the job of being Pinocchio's conscience.  If, with Jiminy's help, Pinocchio can prove himself worthy, then he will become a real boy.  I feel we have a lot of Jiminy Cricket in us.  We often start by explaining to our audience -- during orientation, or as part of a class or workshop -- what they are going to see and experience while they are in law school.  But then, inevitably, we get involved with our students as individuals, trying to help guide them into making good choices.  They still have to make the choices themselves -- how they spend their time, what they choose to focus on, how they plan and prepare -- and sometimes we can only watch as they make poor ones.  Sometimes they ignore our counsel, and it feels like you really are just an insect buzzing around a wooden-headed ne'er-do-well.  But we stick with our students, like Jiminy stuck with Pinocchio, because we want to give them the best chances to prove themselves worthy, so each can become a real . . . well, not boy, but lawyer, which practically rhymes.  

As an Academic Support professional, I'd be gloriously content if I possessed the know-how of Jubal, the inspiration of Mickey, and the compassion of Jiminy.  But that's just me.  What three characters compose your AS ideal?

[Bill MacDonald]

November 5, 2019 in Encouragement & Inspiration, Miscellany, Professionalism | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Wise Interventions: A Searchable Research Database

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

https://wise-interventions/research.

And there's more great news...

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

(Scott Johns).

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

Monday, October 28, 2019

Starting from Scratch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Marsha Griggs)

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

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Ritual Matters

Twenty times I've sat in the University ballroom in mid-semester, hearing welcoming speeches from representatives of the University, the College of Law, the state bar, and the state judiciary. Twenty times, I've seen students, staff, and faculty dressed to the nines and rapt in attention, whatever the lecture's subject matter. The signature event at my law school is the annual Sherman J. Bellwood Lecture, named after the state judge who left a generous (and evidently quite unexpected) bequest to fund endowed lectures. During the Bellwood Lectures, we've heard about topics ranging from federal Indian law to Abraham Lincoln, from racial injustice to climate change. We've heard perspectives from the right, left, and middle of the political spectrum, with speakers from Janet Reno to Kenneth Feinberg, Haleh Esfandiari to Alan Simpson.

The exposure to different ideas matters, as does the exposure to key persons in academia, the bar, the judiciary, and public policy. But as I left this year's lecture, I couldn't help but think about how much the very ritual of Bellwood matters. It undoubtedly mirrors similar events in schools across the country: a meet & greet to allow the student body to meet the distinguished speaker, an "in-house" panel with the guest speaker, a large public lecture, and several formal receptions and meals with invited dignitaries as well as law students, faculty, and staff. At and after the public lecture, I noticed students were energized: they were discussing ideas of justice and policy, whether directly connected to the lecture or not. I thought how important this event was, not only to bring the speakers' new ideas and insights to the school, but perhaps more importantly to remind all of us of the power of big ideas. Rather than dwelling on the pages of reading, or the disappointing grades from quizzes and midterms, students were prompted to think of those passions that drove them to law school: "Who or what do I care about? How can I serve these people or values in my legal practice?"

Every law school has rituals of welcoming in (convocation) and sending forth (commencement). The legal profession has rituals for swearing in members of the bar and of the judiciary. Rituals help us concentrate, learn, and viscerally understand our system of shared values. For example, when our state supreme court justices step down from the bench after oral argument to shake hands with counsel, this simple ritual powerfully speaks to the value placed on collegiality in our bench and bar. Rituals overdone can become stultifying customs or habits, but done at the right frequency, and with the right amount of emphasis, can help us lift us out of the ennui and lethargy that often creeps into our thinking and actions. Daniel Kirzane writes, "Both rituals and education seek to order, orient, and transform." In the coming months, I'll be on the lookout for ways of incorporating meaningful rituals, great and small, to celebrate, focus, and transform in my small corner of the legal community.

(Nancy Luebbert)

October 23, 2019 in Encouragement & Inspiration | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Football Clichés to Use with Students

We are halfway through the best time of the year, college football season.  As a kid, I always wanted to be a football coach.  I watched games all day Saturday, then I watched the coaches' shows during the week.  I wanted to understand the strategy.  I obviously did not take that path, but the intellectual curiosity is still there.  I still listen to post-game shows and analysis.  My wife needles me with "you just watched the game, why do you need the recap?"  She has a great point, but how will I know if my perception of the defensive line play was accurate if I don't listen to the recap?  

The recaps have the information I crave, but they also have the best clichés.  Every week, I hear some variation of the following:

1.  The game is never as good as you think or as bad as you think (a newer one from Oklahoma's coaches recently).

2.  We will enjoy this win today, but then, it is on to next week.

3.  We must get better each week, so we have a few things to clean up before the next game.

4.  Don't listen to the "rat poison." (Nick Saban made famous, and now, Jalen Hurts says it every week at Oklahoma).

5.  One play, drive, quarter, half, or game at a time.

The statements are obviously clichés, and some call it "coach speak."  However, I think the statements have value for our students if they pay attention to the meaning.  Let's look at each statement.

1.  The game is never as good as you think or as bad as you think.

This is absolutely true, and our students need to embrace this idea.  Too many students walk out of exams thinking it was either terrible or awesome.  Very few are correct.  If the test was that hard, it was hard for everyone.  If you think you knocked it out of the park, there is a chance everyone else feels the same way.  The review and feedback after exams is what matters.

2.  We will enjoy this win today, but then it is on to next week.

I encourage students to celebrate success.  Making it through law school is tough.  Every milestone from completing the first midterm to making it through the first semester should be celebrated.  However, I also tell students it is time to get to work the next day.  Finals, or the bar exam, won't change based on how long we celebrate.  The goal is still to be prepared by a certain day.

3.  We must get better each week, so we have a few things to clean up before the next game.

I use a form of this statement all the time with students.  Early the first semester, I over emphasize that I don't care if they are first or last in the class.  The goal is to get better every semester.  Employers want attorneys that can improve and learn throughout his/her career.  Self-reflection and improvement plans setup a great career.

4.  Don't listen to the "rat poison."  

This one is newer but funny.  The idea is to not let the media over inflate players' egos.  The same is true for our students.  Students should focus on getting better and self-assessment.  Don't listen to classmates talk about how great your class answers were.  Don't let previous grades lull you into complacency.  Every class and every test requires proper preparation.

5.  One play, drive, quarter, half, or game at a time.

Law school and the bar exam are overwhelming.  Over 500 hours of work for 10 weeks during the summer or countless hours of preparation for 14 weeks during the semester can cause anxiety and immobilize the calmest students.  The key is to only focus on today.  Do the work for today.  Complete the practice questions for today.  Focus on today because taking 1 step each day will eventually lead to the destination.

(Steven Foster)

October 20, 2019 in Encouragement & Inspiration | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, October 17, 2019

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

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

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

Feel free to blurt it out...

Perhaps Albert Einstein?

Or Marie Curie?  

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

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

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

Take law school for example.  

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

So, that begs the question.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Scott Johns)

 

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

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

The Calm Before the Storm

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

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

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

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

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

[Bill MacDonald]

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