Law School Academic Support Blog

Editor: Amy Jarmon
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Congratulations to Our First-Year Students

Most of our 1L students have persevered and completed their fall semesters now! Wow! Congratulations to all of you for your hard work! At times the challenges may have looked insurmountable, but you did it! Celebrate your accomplishments with your family and friends.

Applaud your efforts because you have accomplished so very much since August. Just think of everything you have done in that short amount of time:

  • You have met some of the brightest people you have ever known and in the process made some new friends for life.
  • You have braved a whole new academic environment and broadened your skills and horizons simultaneously.
  • You have participated in pro bono activities, joined student organizations, and learned about legal career paths and specialties you did not know existed.
  • You have learned a new legal vocabulary - very much like becoming conversant in a foreign language (and at times law school probably felt like a foreign country).
  • You have learned a new way of writing "like a lawyer" - who knew you could be so logical, precise, and concise!
  • You have survived the Socratic Method of questioning - you may have been scared, but you really did okay despite your nerves.
  • You have learned how our federal and state court systems work - gosh, think of all the rules and judicial trivia you can spout during family gatherings.
  • You have learned how Congress and our state legislative systems work - or don't work - oh well, better to avoid that discussion during family meals.
  • You have synthesized hundreds of pages of reading, case briefs, class notes, and outlines to distill the essence of the law for exams.
  • You have confronted fearful fact patterns and pared them down to size with your analysis both on practice questions and in exams.
  • You have attacked "best answer" multiple-choice questions and learned how important the legal nuances are in mastering them.
  • You have learned new study strategies, new time management tricks, and new organizational skills that prior education never required.

We are proud of you! You have come a long way in just 4 1/2 short months! You may be feeling a bit dazed from exams, but do not underestimate your accomplishments.

Recharge your batteries over the semester break. Enjoy your time with family and friends. Read fluff novels. Watch movies. Get some exercise that you enjoy. Bake cookies with younger siblings. Let your grandparents or aunts and uncles spoil you. Enjoy home-cooked meals.

Have a wonderful holiday season and a relaxing semester break. We look forward to seeing you at the beginning of spring semester. (Amy Jarmon)

December 16, 2018 in Encouragement & Inspiration | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Pineapple Charts - A Community Way to Improve Teaching!

Some say a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, perhaps a chart might be a way to improve classroom teaching...with the help of dozens of other teachers.  

Take a quick peek at the photo below.  What do you see?

image from www.cultofpedagogy.com

First, you might notice that the chart has a silhouette of a pineapple.  

As indicated by teacher extraordinaire Jennifer Gonzalez, the pineapple is a symbol of hospitality.  This photo is taken from her wonderful blog posting entitled: "How Pineapple Charts Revolutionize Professional Development." https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/pineapple-charts/  (The photo itself, on the blog "The Cult of Pedagogy," comes from Gator Run Elementary School in sunny Florida.)  As used in educational circles, the pineapple serves as a welcoming invitation to host other teachers to visit classroom spaces for informal observations of your teaching.

Second, the pineapple chart invites teachers to share in a community of teaching by learning in connection with each other.  The pineapple chart represents one week's worth of classes.  Teachers who are interested in opening up their classroom spaces for informal observations simply fill out one of the available spots with name, subject, time, and classroom location (and even sometimes a description of the agenda),

Third, find a common location for the pineapple chart.  Even better, make it a heavily trafficked prominent location.  You might consider locating the pineapple chart in your mailroom or student affairs office or even on the walls of one of the main corridors of your law school building.  In short, make it easy for people to sign up.

Fourth, participate.  We are all members of learning communities.  

Now, I realize that it takes great courage to open yourself up to others, especially to others to observe your teaching.  But, I often find that it's in the courageous things of life in which I grow best.  So, let go of being all alone in your teaching and instead invite others to participate with you in improving your classroom teaching.  And, for the rest of you yet to sign-up for observations, make yourself available and present to observe your colleagues as they freely open up their workspaces to you.  That takes courage too.  And, please know that we all have so much to learn from each other.

Let me be frank.  I suspect that this simple pineapple chart might radically change your learning community for the better, or, in the words of blogger Jennifer Gonzalez, might "revolutionize" your professional development.  That's something worthy of sharing with others.  (Scott Johns).

December 13, 2018 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Learning Styles, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

You've Messed Up on Exams -- Now What?

It's inevitable. Coming out of any law school exam, someone will know they messed up -- or feel like they've messed up. The list of things that can go wrong in an exam seems endless, from random quirks of fate to "I knew better than this but did it anyway" scenarios. Sometimes folks already have the sinking feeling coming out of the exam; others are filled with confidence over their performance until they start discussing the exam with others.

If the person who messed up was you, what do you do?

Unlike a lot of people, I'm not going to tell you to ignore that sinking feeling. You want a pity party? -- go ahead and throw it. Whether you know you messed up or whether you merely feel bad about your performance, it's disingenuous for those of us on the outside to tell you not to worry. It's like someone sitting in a warm dry house advising you not to panic when you get lost in the woods. So feel free to wallow in your misery, as long as you follow these ground rules:

  • Only one person is invited to the pity party. You.
  • You have ten minutes to wallow. Period.

Your ten minutes is up. Feel better? I thought so. Your emotions may still be running high, however, going in one of two directions:

  • It's not really my fault. The professor / the proctor / the tech person  /  the ________ (fill in your favorite scapegoat) messed up. I shouldn't have to pay for their mistakes.

OR

  • I am such an idiot. I don't belong here. I deserve to be thrown out. I should just disappear and not come back next semester.

Whichever is the case, now is your time to act like a lawyer. Be calm, be analytical, and spend your energy on solving problems, not on brooding about them.

Let's say the problem was caused or exacerbated by another person's actions. Was it a problem that's likely to recur? If by speaking up you can help prevent it from recurring during this exam period, by all means speak up, recognizing as you do that intelligent persons of good will can make mistakes. So focus not on blame -- "S/he did this which messed up my exam!" -- but on identifying a problem which might affect you or other test-takers in the future and on suggesting ways to prevent the problem.

Can you identify something discrete you personally did wrong? ("I skipped Question 5 but I didn't skip the scantron bubble for that question, so all my multiple choice answers are off by one"). After you have finished the exam, there will rarely be a chance of fixing the problem for that particular exam, but don't hesitate to calmly explain your problem to the exam coordinator in case there is a solution you hadn't considered. Communicate only with the exam coordinator -- writing a direct note to the professor, either in the exam itself or by a message after the exam, is never fruitful and may actually constitute an honor code violation by violating anonymity. Knowing that you made mistakes, accept yourself as a human, learn from the mistake and vow to not repeat it, forgive yourself, and move on.

In addition to things you know you messed up, you may feel you messed up based on your emotional reaction coming out of an exam ("I just flailed around and did awfully") or based on hearing others talk about the exam ("I didn't spot the same issue everyone else saw in the second essay"). Especially for 1Ls, neither one of these is an especially reliable way of analyzing your performance. Group post-mortems often get off track and usually freak people out unnecessarily, and your subjective reaction to an exam is rarely reliable. Step back from your own emotions (your pity party is already over, remember?) and view your reaction from the vantage point of a sympathetic outsider. Acknowledge that your very emotion shows that you care deeply about what you're doing. and practice self-compassion.

If you have a tendency to mull over your mistakes, real or imagined, now's the time to learn the lawyerly skill of harnessing those feelings toward improved performance. If you are still in the middle of exams, think about how you can apply what you learned from your mistake towards doing better on the next exam. If your semester's exams are over, practice empathetic self-reflection where you identify the type of mistakes you tend to make during exams and brainstorm ways of preventing those mistakes. Realize that worrying cannot help your grade: it will only distract you from paying attention to those ideas, experiences, and relationships you should be concentrating on now. Know that your both your successes and your mess-ups have the potential to move you along the path of becoming a better lawyer.  (Nancy Luebbert)

December 12, 2018 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Be Careful What You Wish For

Dear Santa,

How are you?  How is Mrs. Claus?  I hear the aurora borealis is quite nice right now.  I hope you can snag a few minutes to enjoy it.

I know how busy you are this month, so I will get right to the point: I have been a very good Director of Academic Success this year.  Or at least I have not been bad.  Fine – the truth is, I have had many students thank me effusively for my help and support, but I have also noticed a few people in the back of my class roll their eyes.  I don’t know if the latter have already learned what I am trying to teach, or if they have detached themselves from my class because it’s non-doctrinal, or if maybe some of them have pollen allergies that are causing them eye irritation.  Anyway, look me up – I’m pretty sure I’m on the “nice” list. 

Because I have been good this year – probably – I feel like I deserve an extra special present.  I have given this a great deal of thought.  My first idea for a present was a watch like the one on that old episode of The Twilight Zone – you know, the one with the pocket watch that froze time for everyone but the user when her clicked the button on top?  That would be an awesome present – more time!  Imagine having 150 essays to comment upon, and clicking on that watch to stop time all around me.  I could start commenting at 9:01 am, and finish before 9:02!  No more deadline stress!

But then I realized that I would have to sit through 50 or 60 hours of commenting, and then, once I got the world started again, I’d *still* have to do another entire day of work.  I’d probably age three or four times as fast as all of my colleagues, too.  Eventually my driver’s license would say “60” but my real age would be over 100.  No thank you.  I think I’ll just keep improving my time management skills.  After all, I am always suggesting the same thing to my students.  They may as well learn now that that quest never ends.

So then I came up with a second idea.  One of the toughest parts of my job is learning the names, faces, backgrounds, interests, strengths, and weaknesses of all 450+ students in my law school.  Don’t get me wrong – I have some great students with some amazing stories and aspirations – but it is hard to keep everything about everybody straight.  I don’t have a photographic memory.  But you could give me one!  How about one of those fancy electronic computer watches with a built-in camera, microphone, and speakers?  If I had that, then I could just take a quick photo every time I interact with a student, and then quickly type in or audio-record what they tell me about themselves. 

Still, once I had the photographs, I’d still need to cross-reference them to class lists, and I’d have to study all the facts to remember who is whom.  Every class I taught would become like a massive open-book test – I’d be spending half the class looking people up.  Plus, I get to know and understand facts better if I learn them and then work with them, rather than always just looking them up.  Again, like I say to my students.  So, ixnay on the atchway.

This brought me to my last idea, which, honestly, is probably asking a lot.  It’s not something I could find in a store here in the States, but, I mean, you are Santa Claus, right?  A genuine saint and performer of miracles?  So I thought I might as well ask.  What I want for Christmas is a mind-reading machine.  Nothing too conspicuous – maybe something I can strap to my forehead, or maybe a special kind of hat that connects my brain waves with other people’s brain waves?  See, students come into my office all the time to ask for help, but often, when they do, they can’t necessarily explain to me exactly what it is they need.  Sometimes they just have trouble putting their concerns into words, but more often it’s because they aren’t really clear themselves on what the issue is.  And we might have to meet more than once before we both finally can articulate exactly what help the student needs.

If I had a little mind-reading hat, though, BOOM!  Every time someone comes into my office, I could scan them, size them up in an instant, and send them along with whatever homework I think would help.  That would be supremely efficient!  Although, then I would not get to spend much time with any particular student.  I wouldn’t really get to know anybody.  And, the students wouldn’t really get to know me . . . and, I guess, in a way, they wouldn’t get to know themselves as well.  I mean, I could tell them, “This is what is giving you trouble,” and maybe they’ll take my word for it, but maybe not?  Sometimes people trust a discovery more when they feel like they made it, or at least helped to make it, themselves.  And, when it comes right down to it, while I want to help my students address individual issues, what I really want is to help them learn the process of figuring these things out themselves, following the example of working with me.  And I guess they won’t get that if I’m always just telling them what to do.

Well, where does that leave me?  I can’t see myself not continuing to want more time, memory, and understanding any time soon, but you don’t have to worry about that.  I’ll just keep gleaning what I can the way I have been.  So, for my actual Christmas list, I’ll just wish for peace on earth, goodwill towards all, and a substantial Barnes & Noble gift card.  Oh, and to keep getting to do this work for another year.

Thanks, Santa,

[Bill MacDonald]

December 11, 2018 in Advice, Current Affairs, Encouragement & Inspiration, Miscellany | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, December 8, 2018

New Law Student Mindfulness ABA Podcast

Hat tip to Susan Wawrose at the University of Dayton School of Law for alerting us to the third installment in the ABA's podcast series on law student well-being. The podcast (entitled Episode 3 on the web page) includes three parts (why a law student would benefit, ways to get started with mindfulness, how to overcome roadblocks) and a bonus 3-minute mindfulness exercise. The link to the ABA web page that has all three installments in the series is: ABA Law Student Well-Being Podcasts. (Amy Jarmon)

December 8, 2018 in Encouragement & Inspiration, Miscellany, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Power of Brain Breaks - The Heart-Mind-Body Connection to Empowered Learning

Want to power up your learning to improve your final exam performance?  Well, counterintuitively, that means that you just might need to take a break - a brief respite for your brain - by working out your heart instead.

You see, research shows that vigorous exercise, even if just for 10 minutes right prior to an exam, improves academic performance.  And, there's more great news.  The research also shows that exercise boosts your mood and optimism, and that, in turn, leads to more resiliency in learning, which, in turn again, improves academic performance.  In short, exercise is in the center of a great big circle of connections between your body, your heart, and your mind.  

So, rather than just focusing all of your energies in preparation for exams on your mental work, let your body and heart take up some of that cognitive load as you sweat it up a bit.  Feel free to hit the trail, or the bike, or just run up and down the stairs at your law school every hour or so.  Indeed, as the research shows, even just a 10 minute exercise brain break right before your next exam can increase your exam performance.  Not convinced?  We'll, here's a handy article by Marcus Conyers, Ph.D., and Donna Wilson, Ph.D., entitled "Smart Moves: Powering up the Brain with Physical Activity." http://www.kappancommoncore.org  

So, why not follow the evidence to help boost your learning by taking frequent exercise brain breaks - breaks that tap into the power of your whole self  - your mind, body, and heart - to best optimize your learning.  And, rest assured as you take your brain breaks while exercising, the science is behind you.  (Scott Johns).

December 6, 2018 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Learning Styles, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

On Tenacity

A colleague came by my office yesterday to tell me about a conference he had just held with one of his students. "S/he doesn't have any natural ability for law," this professor remarked of the student, "but s/he makes up for it in attitude and work ethic." We agreed that we both held the student in high regard.

When I think about the current and former law students I most admire, the tenacious ones rise to the top of the list:

  • the student, once on academic warning, who now teaches in law school;
  • the academically dismissed students who successfully tackled law school the second time around;
  • those students, once set back by illness, domestic violence, or other life circumstances that might derail most people, who are now respected members of the bar.

Tenacious law students keep their long-term goals in mind. They swallow their pride and ask "stupid" questions so they can learn, often to the great relief of their classmates who were too timid to ask themselves. They experiment with different learning techniques to find what works for them. They are willing to take the time to do what it takes for them to learn, whether it is writing outlines out in longhand, or enlisting the help of their teenager to quiz them with flashcards, or working over the same practice problem numerous times until they can produce a well-written analysis. They have the humility to listen deeply to peers, professors, and any sources of wisdom. If they feel they bombed an exam, they analyze what went badly to learn from the experience, then they set aside their disappointment to focus on the next task. They seek feedback, even when it is painful, so they can progress.

Tenacity, then, can be summed up as work ethic + self-reflection + long-term goal-orientation. By itself, tenacity will not always result in top grades, but it will result in solid achievement and a first-rate reputation. Tenacious students become the lawyers we refer clients to -- and becoming a great lawyer is the ultimate point of all the work in law school and the bar exam.  (Nancy Luebbert)

December 5, 2018 in Encouragement & Inspiration | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Finals Jeopardy

At this time of year, I am working mostly with two groups of students: 1L students preparing for their first set of law school final examinations, and recent and soon-to-be graduates who are planning to take the February bar examination.  While these two cohorts are about as far apart as students of law can be, there is at least one common element to their experiences: the peril associated with reaching a goal.

Regretfully, some of those preparing for the February bar exam, at my school and elsewhere, are graduates who have already taken the July bar last summer and did not pass.  Every year, people who find themselves in this position include some strong law school performers, people with GPAs and other indicators that suggested that they should not have had any problem passing with their classmates.  Sometimes, their disappointing performances can be explained by extenuating circumstances, like illness.  But other times, it just appears that the new graduate only put in a fraction of the effort needed over the summer to prepare for the bar exam -- e.g., having signed up for a bar preparation course, they completed less than half of the assignments.  Few people would stand a chance of passing the bar with so little preparation.

Observers of such misguided lack of effort might attribute it to overconfidence -- good students mistakenly believing their law school performance was preparation enough.  Maybe it seems like that even to the disappointed graduates, shrugging their shoulders and otherwise unable to explain just how they had let 10 weeks get away from them without applying themselves to their studies as they had in the past.  But perhaps for some there is another, less self-condemnatory element at work.  Consider this: in the two or three weeks before bar studies were to begin, these students had just completed probably the most grueling three years of study of their lives, and it had all culminated in proud marches across the graduation stage.  They had reached the finish line at the end of a very demanding course.  But, as Gretchen Rubin notes in her book Better Than Before, "A finish line marks a stopping point.  Once we stop, we must start over, and starting over is harder than continuing. . . . The more dramatic the goal, the more decisive the end -- and the more effort required to start over."

We see examples of this all the time.  People who exercise scrupulously to lower their weight to a target goal -- and then stop exercising and gain back the weight.  Writers who work diligently every day to complete a long-term project, but then lose the daily habit once the project is complete.  Surely at least some portion of those capable law school graduates who did not put in the effort they might have made to prepare for the bar had at some level seen their final final exams and their pompously circumstantial degree conferment as manifestations of a very dramatic conclusion, and then found themselves at a psychological disadvantage in trying to start, in bar preparation, what seemed to them a brand new test of willpower, tenacity, and capacity.

This suggests that one way to help some of our 3L students prepare to jump right into the huge bar preparation undertaking is to message it not as a novel ordeal, but as just one more step toward the ultimate goal of practice.  We might also downplay the significance of their spring final exams -- liberally reminding our students that those will not be the last exams they ever take -- and even minimize the ceremony of law school graduation, by pointing out to them that the real endgame is the swearing-in ceremony.  The more psychological continuity that students cultivate between law school and the bar examination, the more likely they will be able to carry over their habits of diligence and fortitude into the bar study period.

This kind of messaging might also be helpful to some of our 1L students right now.  They are not yet near graduation, but no set of final exams before the last seems more momentous and conclusive than the first set at the end of the fall semester.  Students who have the perspective to see this first set of exams as just one of six may be less like to feel that they are psychologically starting over again in the spring.  Conversely, those who more explicitly see these exams as a finish line -- students who tell themselves, "If I can just get through these . . .", or those who seem to focus on the weeks off between semesters as a sort of quasi-retirement -- may not have as much momentum going in to classes in 2019, and may struggle to bring themselves back to the same level of diligence they had reached in the fall.  Bringing to these students' attention the long-term effort required in law school, and the expectation that what they learned in that first semester will be needed again and again through graduation, the bar exam, and practice, may help them find getting back into reading, briefing, and studying in January is just that much more achievable.

[Bill MacDonald]

December 4, 2018 in Advice, Bar Exam Preparation, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Science, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 26, 2018

3 Ways to Work Your Plan

AT&T sponsors a huge college football game each year in Dallas.  During the breaks in the game, they have celebrities, including the coaches from each team, take the pledge to not text and drive.  They blast their “it can wait” slogan.  AT&T’s campaign has over 20 million supporters.  However, data from dmv.org indicates 1 in 4 car crashes are the result of texting and driving, and 9 people die every day from distracted driving.  We know we shouldn’t text and drive.  Many of us even pledge to make changes, but in the end, many people still succumb to the same bad habits, even when they are extremely dangerous.

Students fall into similar traps as distracted drivers.  They make plans and pledge to study more.  Some even incorporate more practice questions into the plans.  However, many students fall back into the same bad habits of re-reading outlines and studying throughout the night.  If distracted driving is a hard habit to break when the dangers are serious, then changing study habits will be near impossible without mechanisms in place to ensure quality studying.

My wife has a great quote on her wall in her office.  It is “dreams don’t work unless you do.”  I write often about how to plan for finals and the bar exam.  I believe planning is critical for success, but I always tell students in my bar prep class that students must plan and execute the plan.  Execution is critical.  Plans only work when followed.  The key is to figure out how to follow your plan.

The first step after creating the plan is to remove distractions.  Plans are great until a Kardashian posts a new Instagram story that is breaking news or when a friend sends a text.  After chasing rabbits for an hour, you may get back to studying.  Too many rabbit holes and you studied half the planned time.  When sitting down to study, get rid of distractions.  You can put your phone in another room or under some papers.  Print out your outlines and turn off your computer.  Study in the library so you can’t see the clutter in your house.  Removing distractions is the first step to successful studying.

After removing distractions, chunk your studying to improve execution and motivation.  Studying for long periods the same way without breaks is exhausting.  When reviewing material, look at outlines in chunks.  Understand the big picture skeletal outline.  After understanding the big picture, look at information within sub-topics.  Then, complete a few practice multiple choice questions or issue spot an exam.  Switching between tasks helps improve focus because the tasks aren’t monotonous.  Also, completing a task is rewarding.  Finishing a chunk marks something off our list, which many people find satisfying.  We are then more motivated to completed the next chunk.

The last step to executing your plan is constant evaluation.  In theory, plans are great.  However, sometimes we make bad plans.  I make bad plans all the time.  I overschedule myself by underestimating how much time a task will take.  I think leaving the house each morning should only take 5 minutes, but my 8 and 4 year old tend to double that amount of time, on the best days.  Studying is the same way.  You may think it only takes a couple hours to study agency (or any other topic), but after 6 hours, you may be off schedule.  Evaluate your progress at each major break, which is normally lunch and dinner.  Make adjustments as needed.  Evaluation and modifying your plan can help improve how much you accomplish.

Making plans is a great first step to studying.  Work your plan to accomplish more by eliminating distractions, chunking studying, and evaluating progress.  Those steps will put you in a good position on exam day.

(Steven Foster)

November 26, 2018 in Encouragement & Inspiration, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

It Is Always Darkest Before Finals

Law students about to head into their final exams -- especially those in their first year, facing this challenge for the first time -- are often weary, anxious, and despondent. Simultaneously burdened with too much to learn and too little time, they may feel like the universe is conspiring against them.  And some of them, in a sense, may be right.

The tilt of the Earth's axis and its movement around the Sun are responsible for our seasons, and, by chance or design, fall semester exams take place just as we are sliding into the winter solstice -- the day on which we in the Northern Hemisphere have the shortest day and receive the least amount of sunlight.  Two years ago, when I was teaching in Southern California, we received just under 10 hours of daylight on the solstice (December 21).  Now that I'm teaching in Buffalo, New York, we're already down to only 9 1/2 hours of daylight, and we'll get down to only 9 hours of light and 15 hours of darkness before the sun starts coming back.  It is little wonder that folks in the higher latitudes experience more instances of Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is a recognized mood disorder in which sufferers experience mood distortions -- most commonly, depression -- at particular times of the year.  Most commonly, these symptoms peak in the wintertime, and while the causes are not well understood, it seems very likely that the diminished amount of sunlight is a key trigger.  This may explain why SAD affects 8-10% of the population in states like New Hampshire and Alaska, but only 2% of the population in Florida.  Overall, about 6% of U.S. adults suffer from full-blown SAD, and another 14% suffer a milder, "subsyndromal" version.  This means that, on the average, one out of every five people -- including your students -- are clinically affected by the oncoming gloom.

When SAD manifests, as it usually does, as a type of depression, its symptoms (and those of its milder variant) are those of depression, including low energy and motivation, feelings of helplessness, withdrawal from social interaction, oversleeping, and difficulty concentrating or making decisions.  Any one of these symptoms would be a serious obstacle to success on final exams.  To have to bear a whole cluster of these decisions, on top of the intensity, stress, and anxiety normally experienced in law school, can be potentially debilitating.

Thus, it is important for Academic Success educators to observe their students with particular care as the autumn gloom descends.  Students who had seemed poised and optimistic in September might start to appear morose, scattered, or resigned as finals approach.  Of course, finals themselves can have a depressive effect, and after a semester of hard work, even the most buoyant student might be observed to sink a bit.  That is normal.  But if a student seems to be so down that it is pervasively affecting the quality of their work, consider offering the following suggestions:

  • Light: One reason that the diminished rays of the sun are felt to be a key trigger is the strong evidence that light therapy -- regular additional exposure to direct sunlight or to specially-made artificial lamps -- has a beneficial effect.  Spending additional time outdoors can provide the necessary sunlight supplement -- if winter clouds do not interfere.  If the weather doesn't cooperate, light therapy lamps can be purchased online or in department and specialty stores for less than $50.  Either way, 30 to 60 minutes of extra light every day -- something that might be easily done while studying -- often helps SAD victims recover (particularly when combined with other treatments, as listed below).
  • Exercise: Moderate aerobic exercise also appears to be helpful, particularly in combination with light therapy.  A walk outdoors or a 20-minute run on a treadmill under the glow of a light therapy lamp provides better relief than just light alone.  Exercise provides other benefits to students approaching the finals ordeal.  Regular workouts can alleviate stress and improve concentration, so a student with SAD who exercises and uses a light therapy lamp every day may actually end up in a better position than they were before they were affected by SAD.
  • Professional treatment: Students contending with a particularly nasty manifestation of SAD -- one that does not improve with light therapy and exercise, and that causes feelings of worthlessness or thoughts of self-harm, or prevents a student from attending class or from undertaking basic preparation for exams -- should be referred or encouraged to seek professional help.  Counselors can provide talk therapy, and physicians can prescribe drugs that, in conjunction with exercise and/or light therapy, may provide additional help in overcoming SAD.

The good news is that, since SAD is seasonal, almost everyone suffering from it in November will probably get over it by February, as the days start to lengthen after Christmas passes.  But to help them get to that place, we sometimes have to help students recognize that they are suffering from a treatable condition, and we have to help them find the solution that works for them.

[Bill MacDonald]

November 20, 2018 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Science, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, November 16, 2018

Cultivating Heart During the Focus on Head

During the demands of final papers, exam review, and practice questions, it is very easy to become so focused on intellectual "in your head" matters that all other aspects become blurs. Classmates who are typically collegial can become overly competitive. Intellectual discussions can degenerate into power struggles to show who is superior and always right. Unintended insults, judgmental put-downs, and clipped responses reflect the stress of the semester as students speak without thinking. 

Students handle the end-of-semester stress in differing ways. They can either give in to negativity or persevere with positivity. By taking intentional steps, it is possible to stay personally positive and contribute to a positive environment for others. Our thoughts and actions can build our resilience, grit, calm, and focus. 

  • Count your blessings. As a law student, you have the privilege of gaining professional skills that will make a significant difference in the lives of your clients in the future. You will be their hope in crises and injustice. You will be someone's hero many times over your career.
  • Make a list of encouraging quotes, scriptures, or sayings to read first thing in the morning and last thing at night. These positive affirmations will frame your mindset at both ends of the day.
  • Model collegiality for your classmates: offer your class notes to a student who has been ill; share information about a good study aid; explain a legal concept to a confused classmate; compliment a classmate on a good in-class answer.
  • Spread random acts of kindness throughout your day: hold the door for a classmate loaded down with books; buy a soda for the student behind you at the vending machine; smile and say good morning to a tired classmate; offer a slice of your pizza to someone with no lunch.
  • Say "please" and "thank you" often throughout the day. And look the person in the eye when you do so. Politeness can get lost in the rush, but it is gold to those who are recognized in the process.
  • At the end of the day, make a list of three things you did for others - however small they may be. Your humanity towards others will warm your heart and contribute to your outlook.
  • Take care of yourself. Positive coping results from regular sleep every night, healthy food, and exercise. You are part of an academic marathon and not a sprint right now. Pace yourself.
  • Take control of what you can control, and let the other things go. None of us is perfect. We can only do our best each day under that day's circumstances. The next day is a new start, and we can embrace that new start for it's possibilities. 
  • If you start to give in to the stress, get some help. Talk to family. Check in with a professor, dean, or ASP professional to get your perspective back and make a study plan.

 Best wishes for the remainder of the semester. (Amy Jarmon)  

 

November 16, 2018 in Encouragement & Inspiration, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 8, 2018

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

I'm worried about final exams.  To be frank, I don't like the word "final."  I have to say that the word "final" particularly bothered me in my previous aviation career, where air traffic controllers clear airliners for the "final approach to runway 18."  I just didn't want that to be my final approach. I hoped to have at least a few more years in aviation.

But, here's the biggest rub that I have with final exams.  

Because law students frequently have only a few mid-term exams to assess their learning (and to therefore improve before their final exams), final exams are, well, too final to make an improvement in one's learning.  In fact, I suspect that the term "final exams" tends to lead to more of a fixed mindset with respect to our law students' learning.  They get their grades, often weeks after finals, and most students - it seems - never review their exams to identify what they did that was good (nor to look for ways to improve in the next round of final exams).

Nevertheless, it's not just final exams that can be a hurdle in improving learning for the future.

Our feedback can be too.  

As summarized by Jennifer Gonzalez in her blog "The Cult of Pedagogy," where she writes that "[r]eally, the experience of school could be described as one long feedback session, where every day, people show up with the goal of improving, while other people tell them how to do it.  And it doesn’t always go well. As we give and receive feedback, people get defensive. Feelings get hurt. Too often, the improvements we’re going for don’t happen, because the feedback isn’t given in a way that the receiver can embrace."  https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/feedforward/.  In short, feedback might just stunt growth, which is another way of saying that feedback might stunt learning.

But, there's great news! 

Rather than providing our students with more and more feedback, we might consider providing them with "feedforward" instead.  

But first, here are the problems with feedback.  Feedback focuses on the past.  It focuses on the negative without  necessarily providing ways forward to improve.  It focuses on being stuck rather than helping people get unstuck.  Indeed, as outlined by Jennifer Gonzalez, there are at least three ways that feedback hinders learning:

• First, citing to author and educator Joe Hirsch, feedback shuts down our "mental dashboards." In my words, it crashes our brain.  That's because the "red marks" and the many comments to "change this" or to "change that" tend to cause us to believe that all is lost; there's no hope for us. We just don't see a way forward because, frankly, we are stunned with a horrible feeling that we just don't get it...and never will.  We are locked in the past. The future is hidden from us.

• Second, citing again to Joe Hirsch, feedback tends to reinforce negative thoughts because the comments tend to lead us to believe that we are stuck in a sort of "learned hopelessness" in which we cannot change our future. Rather than building a growth mindset in our students, feedback that is focused solely on what our students have done in the past creates a fixed mindset with students believing that there's little that they can do to improve their learning in the future.

• Third, citing again to Joe Hirsch, we tend to approach feedback with a single-minded crystalized focus to see what grades or marks or numbers we received (rather than seeing feedback as providing us with helpful and hopeful positive tools forward to achieve better grades in the future).  In short, despite all the feedback given, students tend to see and internalize their grades first, and, because first impressions lead to lasting impressions, feedback often falls short in producing improvements in learning for future assessments.  Too often, the grades on feedback crystalize into final exam grades, too.

In contrast, "feedforward" focus on the future.  It takes the work of today and provides insights, comments, and tips framed in a communicative, generative way that leads to improvement in the future. It is forward looking; never backward looking.  Feedforward believes in the future - a bright future - and provides particular ways for our students to move forward towards that future of improvements in their learning.

So, what is "feedforward?"

Simply put, it's coaching students about their current performance with heart-felt questions and insights that get our students thinking for themselves about how they can improve their learning for the future.  

Curious? Rather than going through the six steps in providing helpful "feedforward" to our students, let me just point me to you the steps as cited by Jennifer Gonzalez in her blog article about "Feedforward," available at:  https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/feedforward/.  

And, one last thought...

As academic support professionals, this month is a great opportunity.  In particular, nothing really needs to be "final" about final exams.  That's because we can provide our students with opportunities to receive positive "feedforward" well before final exams - via practice exams, exam writing workshops, academic support small group tutoring sessions, etc. - such that our students will learn to improve well before they take their final exams.  Indeed, the key to a great final exam experience is to have great "feedforward" experiences on the way to taking final exams.  So cheers to the future - our students futures! (Scott Johns).

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

Monday, November 5, 2018

Recall Your Purpose for the Finals Push

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Steven Foster)

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

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Power of Gratitude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 25, 2018

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

My dog loves rabbit trails.  Luckily for the rabbits, at least thus far, the trails have never led to rabbits.  

That got me thinking about exam writing and rabbit trails.  

But first, a bit of background...

I find that most bar exam takers who do not pass the bar exam write brilliantly well-organized professional essay answers.  The rules are crisp; the IRAC is polished.  But, in most cases, some of the answers are unresponsive to the fact patterns at hand.  In other words, its as though the fact patterns were irrelevant to answering some of the particular essay questions.  Instead of finding the "rabbits" in the essays, they followed "rabbit trails" leading to no where. And, it's often that way on law school exams too.

Take this summer's first essay question on the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE), available free-of-charge at https://www.ncbex.org/July2018Essays.  

The fact problem was set in the world of constitutional law.  As specified in the fact problem, the essay expressly indicated that US Supreme Court had recently found that Congress was within its power under the interstate commerce clause (ICC) to punish marijuana use.  On the other hand, the fact problem indicated that a number of states were (and have) legalized marijuana use both for medicinal purposes and recreational purposes. 

Frustrated by state decriminalization of marijuana, the fact pattern specified that Congress enacted a federal drug abuse prevention statute.  Pertinent to the essay problem, one section of the statute required state law enforcement officers to investigate whether anyone within their custody, even on matters unrelated to controlled substance violations, was under the influence of marijuana and then make reports to the federal government.  The other section of the statute, as specified in the fact pattern, provided that Congress would restrict federal law enforcement grants to states which decriminalized marijuana use.  The fact pattern went on to indicate that a State had recently decriminalized marijuana use and would therefore be subject to a loss of approximately $10 million dollars in annual federal grant money out of a state budget of about $600 million total of state law enforcement spending.  Based on this fact pattern, bar exam applicants were told to analyze whether each of these two statutes were constitutional as applied to this particular state's situation.

Let's deal with the first statutory section - the federal requirement ordering state law enforcement officers to conduct investigations and make reports.  The key to figuring out where to go, i.e., to avoid the "rabbit trail," was to write out a good issue statement, perhaps as follows:

"The issue is whether Congress had constitutional authority when it requires state law enforcement officers to conduct investigations and make reports unrelated to state law enforcement purposes."  

In this fact pattern, there's no issue that Congress did not have the commerce clause power because the fact pattern foreclosed that issue, once and for all, with its initial recognition of US Supreme Court precedent specifying that Congress had the power to regulate marijuana use.  And, if Congress has the power to regulate marijuana use, it certainly has powers related to that under the "necessary and proper" clause.  So, the focus must be elsewhere in answering this problem.  As the issue statement makes clear, it's a federalism issue, namely, whether Congress can force states to do the work of the federal government.  That's a 10th Amendment issue.  In brief, Congress is limited in its ability to commandeer the states, which is precisely what this first section tries to do.  It's unconstitutional, at least in my reading of it.

Let's take on the second statutory section - the federal spending restriction of law enforcement grants towards states that decriminalize marijuana.  Once again, the key is to start with a sharp issue to avoid the "rabbit trails."  Here, we might write as follows:  

"The issue is whether Congress had constitutional authority when - as applied to the state at hand in this fact pattern - Congress cut off a federal law enforcement grant in the amount of $10 million out of a state budget of $600 million in state law enforcement spending."  

Do you see the issue?  It's lurking in the facts stated in the issue statement.  Once again, this is a federalism issue.  There's no issue that Congress can't spend money for the public welfare, particularly because the state in this fact pattern wants to receive the federal grant money.  Rather, the issue is whether these "strings" constitute commandeering of the states by Congress in violation of the 10th Amendment.  One could probably come out either way, but I think that the better answer based on Supreme Court precedent is that spending restrictions to encourage states to enact policies and law that comport with federal law are constitutional as long as states have a real choice as to whether to enact new favorable state laws to the federal government or give up the spending grants.  In this fact pattern, the amount of money that the state will lose as a result of decriminalization of marijuana is only a small percentage of the entire amount that the state spends on law enforcement, which means that the state has a real meaningful choice to take the federal grant and comply with federal objectives or to refuse the federal grant and still have significant state law enforcement funding.  It's constitutional, at least in my analysis.

Despite the fact that this essay problem was centered on federalism issues based on the 10th Amendment, a number of people talked about the commerce clause or equal protection concerns, neither of which were raised by the fact pattern.  I can understand why.  Bar takers have memorized so much law that they tend to put all of the law that they can think of without thinking through the problem first of all, especially because of the time pressures.  But, I have a tip that can help preempt that sort of "rule dump."  It's writing out an old-fashioned legal writing issue statement before beginning to write.

Here's what I mean by an old-fashioned issue statement.  As set out by Ruta Stropus and Charlotte Taylor in their book "Bridging the Gap Between College and Law School," a great issue statement can take on the form as follows:

"The issue is whether [legal subject-verb-object] + when + [material facts]."

Take a look back at my issue statements.  Do I start with the legal issue?  Do I have the legal actor as a noun, a verb, and the legal object, here, as to the unconstitutionality of congressional action?  Do I then add in a handful of hand-picked material facts from the fact pattern?  You bet.  In my own case, if I don't take time to work through crafting such an issue statement, I'm lost in most essay problems.  I just start writing in circles, moving around in "rabbit trails" so to speak, without really understanding the fact pattern at hand or the questions presented in the essay scenario.  In short, I ramble.  

So, whether you are a bar taker or a law student preparing for mid-term exams, take a pause before you begin to write out your essays.  Hunt for some "red hot" material facts to put down in paper as an issue statement.  After all, it's what lawyers do best; they spot issues, the precise issues that are needed for solving their clients' problems.  So, as you learn to think like a lawyer, practice like a lawyer too by taking time out to craft, identify, and precisely specify the exact issues posed in your midterms, final exams, or your bar exam essays.  It's worth the time.  Indeed, you'll be mighty glad because you'll find that you'll avoid the "rabbit trails" found on most essay exams and instead you'll be finding the rabbits themselves. (Scott Johns).

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

The Lawyerly Skill of Asking for Help

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

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

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

Ask for help.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

A Marvelous Thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Bill MacDonald)

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

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Threats and Challenges in Law School

Final exams.  Olympic competition.  Oral argument.  Job interviews.  The bar examination.  These are all high-stakes experiences, often competitive, in which successful outcomes depend on strong performance.  As discussed last week, in such situations the human brain can adopt different chemical and behavioral states, depending on whether the situation is perceived as a threat or as a challenge.  In a threat situation, the brain becomes hyper-alert to danger and error, processes information more deliberately, and shies away from risk.  In a challenge situation, the brain pays less attention to detail, processes information in a more relaxed and automatic way, and is open to taking risks that have sufficient promise of reward.  How can we use our knowledge of these two mental states, not just to understand our students better, but also to help them do better?

Let's start by noting that the brain can enter these different states at different times even if it is undertaking the exact same activity.  A baseball player might step up to the plate in the third inning and see his task -- to try to get a hit -- as a challenge, and the same player could step to the same plate, even holding the same baseball bat, in the ninth inning and see it as a threat.  So it's not the task itself that determines our mental state.  It's the surrounding circumstances.  Early in the game, when the outcome is still up in the air, a player may be "gain-oriented", focusing on accruing advantages (in this case, runs), and his brain will be in challenge mode.  In the last inning, though, if his team has a slim lead, that same player could shift his focus and become "prevention-oriented", focusing on maintaining his team's lead by not making mistakes of which the other team might take advantage.  In that case, his brain will be in threat mode.

In the same way, our students can undertake the same activity -- issue spotting, say, or answering multiple-choice questions -- at different times, and might find themselves in either challenge mode or threat mode.  This is a good thing, a useful thing.  After all, human brains evolved to be capable of these two modes, so each mode ought to have some beneficial qualities.

As Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman point out in Top Dog, in an academic setting there can be an optimal sequencing to these modes.  Students perform best if they start their semester working in challenge mode and end it working in threat mode. 

This makes sense in a general way.  At the beginning of a course, students don't know much about the subject, and their goal should be to try to gain knowledge and skill as quickly as possible.  A gain orientation is associated with challenge mode -- the brain plays hunches and takes educated guesses, because the risk (primarily, to grades) is low but the potential reward (flashes of insight) is high.  Towards the end of the course, though, risk increases, as the student faces more heavily weighted final exams.  At the same time, rewards are lessened, since (ideally) the student has already internalized most of the material and is not likely to learn a great deal more.  On a final exam, a student is more likely to be in threat mode -- pondering the answer more slowly and cautiously, less inclined to make risky arguments, perhaps even debating word choice as he tries to recall the exact wording of a rule.

If a student is well-prepared for the final exam, proceeding cautiously with their mind in threat mode may be quite favorable.  It can encourage methodical analysis, and help the student avoid unnecessary errors.  However, there are two potential issues to consider.

First, as alluded to above, there are two sources of risk and reward in law school.  One is the knowledge and understanding of the subject matter, and the other is the final grade in the class.  A student who downplays either source is at a disadvantage.  Reminding students to pay attention to learning the rules and how to use them, and to developing their test-taking skills at the same time, is part of what Academic Success is about.  Being able to describe these abilities as complementary sources of risk and reward may provide us with another way of doing that.

Second, while being in threat mode may help a student avoid errors, they still may not perform well if they only enter threat mode for the first time in the final exam.  Since threat mode slows analysis and limits the options the brain is willing to consider, it can change the way people behave during exams.  We have doubtless all had students who felt confident in a subject all semester and then did poorly on their final, later explaining that they thought of some of the correct responses but abandoned them because they were afraid they might be wrong, and that they spent so much time working on the first half of the exam that they didn't have time to complete the second half.  While there are several plausible explanations for such mistakes, one possibility for them to consider is that they had never practiced answering questions in that course in threat mode.  If all of their practice was under the speedier, more relaxed challenge mode, then they had never really practiced under exam conditions.

Ideally, humans would have a switch we could activate to shift from challenge mode to threat mode and back.  But, while we don't, it is nevertheless possible for professors to influence students and help shift them into threat mode.  As Bronson and Merryman explain, teachers can affect their students' brains just by changing the way they present their examinations.  If students are given a test and told that they will receive a certain number of points for every correct answer, then they focus more on the idea of gaining points, which encourages a gain orientation and thus a challenge mode.  If, on the other hand, students are given a test and told that their scores start at 100 and that they will lose a certain number of points for every correct answer, then they focus more on not losing points, which encourages a prevention orientation and a threat mode.  Even though mathematically the two scoring systems were identical, the differences in presentation caused measurable differences in performance.

Thus, one way to encourage our students to practice for final exams (and oral arguments, bar exams, etc.) in threat mode is to explain, in advance, that you will be scoring their practice work by subtracting points from a pre-determined maximum score.  Conversely, students who fall into threat mode too early in the semester, perhaps because they are disproportionately worried about grade risk, might be coaxed towards challenge mode by being given exercises for which they will receive a certain number of points for every plausible point or argument.  Even though the tasks the students are undertaking remain the same, we can help their brains approach them differently.

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

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Tips for Turning Bar Exam Sorrow Into A Successful Fresh Start

It's that time of year.  In the midst of many celebrations over bar passage, let's be frank.  

There are many that are not celebrating.  Their names were not on the list of bar exam passers.  And, for some, it's not the first time that they've found themselves in this situation; it's a repeat of the last time around.

For aspiring attorneys that did not pass the bar exam, most don't know where to turn.  Often embarrassed, many with significant debt loads, most feel abandoned by their schools, their friends, and their colleagues.  All alone.  

I'm not expert in helping with turnarounds. But, I'd like to offer a few tips that have proven quite helpful in helping repeaters change history to become "fresh start" bar passers:

First, as academic support professionals, reach out to each one.  Make yourself available on their terms.  Let them know that you care.  Let them know that you are mighty proud of them, success or not.  Support them, one and all.

Second, give them breathing room, lot's of time and space to grieve.  Don't push them into diving back into the books.  Don't lecture them.  Rather, assure them that they don't need to get cranking on their studies.  Help them to be kind to themselves.  It's not a matter of just hitting the books again, and this time, doubly-hard.  Instead, they need to take time out to just be themselves.

Third, when they are ready, set up a "one-with-one."  Notice: I did not call it a "one-to-one".  Rather, set up an appointment or meeting in a place of their choosing at a time that works for them in which you sit side by side, on the same side of the table or desk or cafe.  They are not bar exam failures; they are real law school graduates.  They earned their parchments. So, listen to them as colleagues on the same side of doing battle on the bar exam.  Let them talk and express themselves as they'd like. Hear them out.  How are they feeling?  What went right?  What's their passion?  What saddens their hearts?  

Finally, whey they are ready, make a copy of one of the essay problems that didn't go so well.  Better yet, make two copies, one for each of you!  That's because you are on the same team.  Set aside 15 or 20 minutes and just ask them to mark up the question, brainstorm what they are thinking, and jot down the issues that they see.  But...and this is important...tell them that you don't expect them to remember any law at all. Period.  And, you do the same.  Exactly the same.  Don't peek at an answer key or even their answer. Instead, try your hand too; wrestle with the same question that they are wrestling with.  Then, come back together to listen, ponder, and share what you both see as the plot of the essay question, the issues raised by the storylines, and the potential rules that might be in play.  Once you've done all this prep work together, now, look at their answer.  This is important, just look.  Ask them what do they see? What do they observe? What went great for them? Where might they improve?  In short, let them see that they have "inside information" about themselves based on their own personal bar exam experience and answers that they can capitalize to their advantage.  Most often in the midst of working together, graduates tell me that they realize that they knew plenty of law to pass the bar exam.  In fact, most are amazed at how well they memorized the law.  And, that's great news because it means that they don't need to redo the bar review lectures at all.  They know plenty of law.  That frees up lots of time during the bar prep season to instead concentrate on just two (2) active learning tasks.

So, here are the two activities that bar re-takers should be prioritizing to successful pass the bar exam:

1. First, they should work daily throughout the bar study period through lots and lots of practice problems (essays and MBE questions).  Every one that they can get their hands on.  Open book is fine.  It's even better than fine; it's perfect because they should be practicing problems to learn because we don't get better at problem-solving by guessing.

2. Second, they should keep a daily "journal" of the issues and rules that they missed when working over problems (to include tips about the analysis of those rules).  

Just two steps.  That's it.  There's no magic.  But, in not redoing the lectures, graduates will find that they have plenty of time to concentrate on what is really important - learning by doing through active reflective daily practice.  Countless times, it's through this process of a "one-with-one" meeting that we have seen repeaters turn themselves into "fresh start" bar passers.  

Finally, I want to write directly to those of you who find yourself in the situation of having to re-take the bar exam.  You really aren't alone.  Need proof?  Here's a short video clip put together by the Colorado Supreme Court about re-taking the bar exam to include a few tips from some jurists and practitioners that have been in your shoes.  (Scott Johns)

 

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

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Threats and Challenges in the Brain

In the 1994 Winter Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway, the Japanese ski jumping team was having a very good day. After seven jumps, it had racked up a score so high that no one believed they could lose. The team’s final jumper, Masahiko Harada, who had already landed a jump of 122 meters on his first jump, only needed to jump 105 meters on his second to clinch the gold medal. But Harada faltered. His jump was not well executed, and he only managed to get to 97.5 meters before his skis touched the ground. The Japanese team ended up with the silver medal, finishing behind the German team.

Four years later, the Winter Olympics were being held in Nagano, Japan, and, once again, Masahiko Harada was on the team. He and the team were hoping to redeem themselves, and, of course, all eyes were on them as the home team. Harada was no longer the team anchor, so it was hoped that, without the pressure of having to be the final jumper for the team, he would perform at the Games as well as the team knew he could in practice. The first two jumpers did extremely well, putting the Japanese team in first place. But then Harada . . . did even worse than he had at Lillehammer, achieving a distance of only 79.5 meters on his first jump. The team fell to fourth place.

Things looked bad until Takanobu Okabe landed an Olympic record-setting 137-meter jump on his second attempt, bringing the Japanese team back into contention. They weren’t back in the lead, but at least they had a chance for a medal. And now it was Harada’s turn again. In his last two Olympic jumps, when he just needed to not screw up to keep the team in position, he screwed up. Now, if he wanted to help the team get a medal, he had to do more than not screw up. He had to excel.

And he did. He tied Okabe’s record, making his own 137-meter jump, and sending the Japanese team into first place. They would go on to win the gold medal in the event.

How did all of that happen? Why did Harada jump poorly in his last jump in Lillehammer, and his first jump in Nagano, but then manage to jump exceptionally well in his second Nagano jump? The stakes were high – Olympic gold – all three times, so surely there was always enormous pressure on him. What made the difference?

It might be easier to explain the difference if we consider, not the stakes, but the positions in which Harada found himself. In his second 1994 jump and his first 1998 jump, his team was in first place. He knew he had to perform to a certain level to maintain his team’s position. Expectations were high, but he didn’t have to do unusually well. He was just focusing on not making a mistake, because this situation was a threat to his (and his team’s) position.

In contrast, by the time he’d reached his second 1998, his team was no longer in first place. They weren’t expecting to win, but, thanks to Okabe’s big jump, at least they had a chance. Harada had less to lose, and good reason to allow himself to take risks, because there was more upside than downside to doing so. This situation was not a threat to his position; it was a challenge.

In their book Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman explain that there are physical differences between the way our brains react when we view a situation as a threat and the way they react when we view a situation as a challenge. In a threat situation, there is an increase in activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is associated with more deliberate and less automatic decision making. At the same time, the parts of the brain that watch out for external dangers (the left temporoparietal junction) and for internal errors in judgment (the anterior cingulate cortex) also become more engaged. Also, as activity in the amygdala increases, the brain becomes more sensitized to avoiding risk than to seeking reward.

In a sense, your brain starts paying closer attention to everything you see and do, and it clamps down on behaviors it perceives as potentially risky. In playing it safe, though, your brain limits the scope of the choices you feel comfortable making, which in turn shrinks the range of performance of which you are capable. When Harada was going for the 105-meter jump for gold in Lillehammer, his brain was subconsciously refusing to allow him to take actions – picking up more speed, jumping off closer to the end of the ramp – that would have given him great distance, but also would have carried an increased risk of falling.  The cumulative effect of all those refusals made him, in a very real sense, incapable of performing anywhere near his best.  In other circumstances, this would have been of little consequence -- 97.5 meters was by no means the worst jump in the Olympics that year, and it was probably several dozen meters longer than you or I could have managed.  But in high-level competition, seeing the jump as a threat robbed Harada of the ability to show the world what he was capable of, and left him and his team wanting in comparison to the Germans.

In contrast, when you see something as a challenge, your brain takes on an entirely different set of characteristics.  Hormones are released in the brain that dampen the activity in the left tempororparietal junction, the anterior cingulate cortex, and the amygdala, so you expend less energy and attention watching out for dangers, errors, and risks.  Instead, your decision making starts to flow more easily and automatically; you rely on expertise and habit rather than stopping to deliberate over every choice.  And when risks are perceived, they are not automatically shunned; instead, your brain attends to both the potential losses and the potential gains, and is open to taking the risks when the gains are great enough.  When Harada was preparing to take his second jump in Nagano, he was no longer trying to protect his team's first-place position, so he didn't see the jump as a threat.  He was able to look at it as a challenge -- Let me see how much I can obtain from this -- and, subconsciously, that freed up his range of behaviors to choose from.  Only when his brain allowed him access to all the skills and knowledge he had acquired was he able to achieve the exceptional result he hoped for.

* * * * *

No doubt you smart people have already noticed the resemblances between Harada's performances and those of some of our law students, especially the ones who sometimes seem not to perform to the level of which they are capable.  Whether students view tests, oral presentations, and other ordeals as "threats" or as "challenges" can have powerful effects on their performance.  As we will see next week, though, threat stances and challenge stances both have a place in legal study, and there are ways that we, as teachers, can help students take the right stances at the right times.

 

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