Thursday, April 18, 2019

Useful Forgetfulness and Study Tools/Outlines: Could There Be Too Much of a Good Thing?

Perhaps you've heard the phrase "Too big to fail."  Well, that might be true, at least according to some, with respect to some business enterprises in the midst of the last recession.  

But, at least from my point of view, that saying is not true at all with respect to student study tools and outlines.  In my experience, too big of an outline can lead to less than stellar final exam results.

Here's why...There's a learning concept called "useful forgetfulness."  

As I understand the educational science behind useful forgetfulness, it is in the midst of the filtering process - in which we decide to trim, shorter, collapse, and simplify our notes and outlines - that best promotes efficacious learning because the decision to leave something out of our outline means that we have made a proactive decision about its value.  In short, the process of sorting the important legal principles from the not-so-important leads to active and enriching learning.  

Nevertheless, for most of us, we are sorely afraid about leaving anything out of our outlines because we often lack confidence that we can make such filtering choices about what is important versus what is not important.  Consequently, we often end up with massive 50 plus page outlines in which we know very little because we have not made hard reflective decisions to prioritize the important.  So, here's a tip to help with trimming your outline down to a workable size to best enhance your learning.

First, grab a piece of paper and hand-write or type out, using both sides of the paper, the most important things from your outline.  If you think a rule might be important, don't put it in your outline yet because you can always add to your study tool later.  Instead, only put the rule down in your mini-study tool if the legal principle immediately jumps out to you as critically important.

Second, take your mini-study tool on a test flight.  Here's how.  Grab hold of a few essay problems or multiple-choice questions and see if you have enough on your "one-pager" outline to solve the problems.  If a rule is missing, just add it.  And, as you practice more hypothetical problems in preparation for your final exams, feel free to add more rules as needed.  And, there's more great news.  In the process of seeing a rule that might be missing from your mini-study tool, you'll know that rule down "cold" because you will have seen it applied in context. So, feel free to have less in your outlines because, with respect to study tools, less can indeed be more!  (Scott Johns).

April 18, 2019 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Learning Styles, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Only Thirteen More Meeting Days 'Til Exam Period!

This time of year sneaks up on us like the holidays in December.  It seems like only yesterday we were welcoming students back for spring semester.  We blink, and then poof!  Final exams are less than three weeks away.  And before they start, we have so much to take care of.  Drafting final exams, for one thing.  But, at the same time, staying on top of our current classes -- in particular, at least in my case, pushing feedback on written assignments out to students so they can make use of it as they prepare for finals.  Plus the approaching end of the semester often means a traffic jam of administrative work, as committees and working groups hasten to complete projects before a big chunk of their members leave for sabbaticals, holidays, or other teaching gigs over the summer.

When it gets crazy busy like this, it is important to set aside at least a measure of our thought and energy for that portion of our student population that might otherwise get lost in the background noise.  Sure, part of what makes us so busy are the students we've developed relationships with -- those who regularly seek us out because of anxiety or confusion or a habit of pursuing every advantage -- and part of it may be required meetings with students on academic probation.  We'll see those folks without much extra effort on our parts.  But there are other students who could use our help who might not put themselves on our radar screens.  Maybe they are shy; maybe they are overconfident; maybe they are just underestimating how much they have to do to get ready for the approaching finals.  Maybe they feel so busy that they can't make time for us.  

These are often students, not currently in academic difficulty, for whom a little support, guidance, or intervention will have a far more significant positive effect this week than it would have if it were delivered when the student showed up at the threshold to our office, panicking, a few days before finals.  So, even though we are busy, making the effort to identify and check in with these students now makes good cost/benefit sense.

If you have not already done so, consider taking some time over the next few days to:

  • Go through your calendar or appointment records from the fall and early spring and make note of any students who have sought help in the past, but from whom you have not heard for a while.  Send them quick e-mails, asking them how they are doing and inviting them to drop by or make an appointment if they'd like to talk about preparing for the end of the semester.
  • Check in with faculty (especially those teaching 1L courses) to ask if there are any students they have concerns about whom they haven't already referred to you.  At this point, spring midterms are probably all completely graded, and those professors may have information they didn't have at the start of the semester.
  • Remind the students (again, especially 1L students) in class or via social media or your school's information portal how close they are to the end of the semester, how busy your office gets at this time of year, and how wise it is to come to see you sooner rather than later if they have any concerns.

When we are this busy and things are moving towards a close so quickly, reaching out to students in the grey area can demand a bit of mindfulness.  But even one fruitful meeting with a student now might be more effective than a flurry of desperate conferences the week before finals.  That would be time well spent.

[Bill MacDonald]

April 16, 2019 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Meetings, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

What I Learned from a Saint with Scabies

There were no two ways about it -- the saint looked like she had scabies. Under my hands, the mixture of red oxide, Mars orange, yellow ochre, and chromium green produced a blotchy face, one that looked scabbed with pustules and rotting skin. I looked around the room. The same traditional colors in the hands of others produced a face that was serene and luminous. Frustration welled up inside me, and it took everything I had to keep back the tears that threatened to spill out. I was following the rules Father Damian had given us, yet what I was producing could hardly be called an icon; it was more like an amateurish cartoon. It wouldn't have bothered me so much if the others at this retreat were accomplished artists, but my peers were amateurs like me -- people from all walks of life and all religious traditions, taking a week off from their busy lives to learn an ancient art form and contemplative practice by "writing" an icon. Some were inspired by faith, some by art, some only by the idea of doing something different for a week.

Making his rounds through the room, the monk reached my table and thoughtfully contemplated my poplar board with its rough strokes, uneven lines, and errant splotches. "You've got the basics," he said. "Don't be afraid." And with a few deft brushstrokes, the scabies disappeared from the saint's face. "It's the practice. We use traditional pigments, and we follow rules so our boards don't warp and the icon has depth that draws the eye through, as though it were a window. A lot of the foundational work seems invisible, but it's important. It seems counterintuitive to use these colors that seem harsh and discordant. But as you build it up, layer by layer, you're adding depth and meaning. You'll make mistakes -- sometimes huge ones. But there's rarely a mistake you can't recover from. Work at it, and you'll be an iconographer."

St Gertrude icon Feb 2014 (3)As I painted, and corrected, and layered, and corrected again, tackling a practice for which I had no natural talent, I jotted down the lessons for life and law which came tumbling out day by day:

                • It seems to start with chaos, but as I work at it, it starts to make sense.
                • Some people are better at this than I am. That's OK. I can rejoice in their successes.
                • Enjoy this community of diverse people who came together for a common purpose.
                • Take time to share. Take time to laugh.
                • If I want to do this, I belong here.
                • If I practice, I will get better.
                • It's OK to ask for help when I need it.
                • Just because it's not perfect doesn't mean it's not good.

Every day when I look at the imperfect icon hanging on my wall, it reminds me of how hard learning can be, both for me and for my students. How critical it is to accept our stumbling and know the struggle is worthwhile! As the poet Wendell Berry said, "It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and that when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings." 

(Nancy Luebbert)

April 10, 2019 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, April 5, 2019

The Little Things Are the Big Things

Thirty feet can make a lot of difference. During the height of the advising season, I spend hours hanging out in the foyer, open to any student who might walk by. Just moving the few feet from my office to a low-slung chair in a corner of the foyer quadruples my usual amount of drop-in traffic. Students come and go: we exchange smiles, pull out the phone to share baby and puppy pictures, and bemoan the virus going around. Many students ask "by-the-way"-type questions; others plop down for extended discussions about how to tackle multiple choice questions, study for the bar, or choose courses for the next two years.

Time in the foyer is never wasted. If no one is in my corner, more often than not students are talking with each other, staff, or faculty. I listen. And I am struck by how many people passing through the space tell someone else how they have made a difference in their lives. A 2L tells a 3L how her advice helped him nail an interview. A student thanks an administrative assistant for helping her through a paperwork snaggle; the assistant visibly melts when the student tells her, "I consider you a role model." A 3L tells a professor how his advice helped him in a clinic case. A 1L thanks the tech guru who found her missing appellate brief when it seemed the computer had swallowed it forever. A student back from a funeral thanks classmates who shared their notes; another recovering from illness thanks the friends who brought over supper. A 4L tells me, "You probably don't remember this, but you gave me the courage to continue law school when I thought I'd have to quit." Another student shares, "That day we danced in the library made me smile when things were going really badly." On an ordinary day in an ordinary law school, the spirit of gratitude is pervasive.

With a sense of amazement, a good friend once shared this story with me. Ten years after getting a philosophy degree, he returned to college for a biology degree. A much younger student, whom my friend knew only slightly, invited him to his graduation party. At the party, the graduate pulled my friend aside privately and told him, "When I first came to school, I was close to dropping out because I was doing so badly. So I looked around for someone who seemed to know what they were doing, and I noticed you. We never talked much, and you never knew this, but I modeled everything I did in school on what you did. I'm graduating today because you taught me how to learn. So I want to thank you for everything."

We never know when we may have an impact, minor or profound, on another person. Kindness matters; professionalism matters; respect matters. Acting as though everything we do can have an impact helps us live out our belief in the dignity of every human being. Much of the time it's not the big things we do that elevate others' lives -- the little day-to-day things are the big things to those around us.

(Nancy Luebbert)

 

April 5, 2019 in Encouragement & Inspiration | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Exam Prep Tips From Learning to Ride A Bike!

I asked my classes this question today: "How did you learn to ride a bike?"

The students then turned to their small groups and the class lit up with stories and smiles and anecdotes as they shared their memories about learning to ride bikes.  Here are some of the things I heard:

• I started out with training wheels.

• No one helped me so I decided to try riding on the grass so that I wouldn't get hurt when I fell.

• I just kept getting back up, one fall after another and one bruise after another.

• Without my knowledge, someone gave me a big push and away I went!

As a class, here's what we realized about learning.  Not one of us learned to ride a bike by reading about riding a bike, or watching You Tube videos about bike riding, or creating a study tool on bike riding.  No.  Instead, to a "T," all my students said that they learned to ride bikes, well, by learning to ride bikes. And, most of us had help along the way.

The same is true with learning the law.  We don't really learn the law by reading about the law.  Instead, we learn the law by problem-solving with the law.  But, far too many students - understandably - don't feel ready to practice final exam problems because they feel like they don't know enough law.  So, here's some tips to get you learning by doing in preparation for your final exams.

Start with training wheels and practice on the grass.  

Here's what I mean.  

Instead of trying to test yourself through past exam problems, open up your notes, outlines, and casebook and work through problems as best you can, untimed, with the goal of learning the law through past exam problems.  

Just like learning to ride a bike, you'll experience a lot of cuts and bruises along the way as you review your answers. But, you'll get better and soon you'll be able to ride without your training wheels (notes).  And, you might start doing some tricks, too, like jumping off the curb, something that a few days or weeks previously was terrifyingly trepidatious. You see, the key to tackling your fears about taking final exams is to take final exams before you take final exams.  So, as you prepare for your exams this spring, make it your aim to practice final exams, slowly and open book.  One pedal at a time.  (Scott Johns).

April 4, 2019 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Learning Styles, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Paper and Fire

A blank piece of paper has so much potential. It can be used to display one's ingenuity. It can be a medium for communication between two people, or among thousands. It can record data and history and memory, to be used by people born long after the recorder is dead. And yet, under certain circumstances, our stationery friend can seem to turn on us. When we are asked to answer an inscrutable question, the oppressive blankness of an empty sheet can be smothering. When we think that our reputation, our livelihood, our entire future depends on scratching the right symbols in the right order, the page can seem like a minefield of hidden threats.

When I was a kid, television seemed to be entering its golden age of public service announcements, and to me it seemed the most common subject was fire. Fire was our friend, we were told, making food safe and houses warm; but we always needed to be aware of what to do if it grew dangerous. And what we needed to know was that our natural inclinations were usually wrong. Foe example, even though we knew that water was the opposite of fire, if something caught fire in the kitchen, then we were not supposed to throw water on it, because it was probably a grease or electrical fire, and water would just make it worse. If our whole house caught fire (say, because we threw water on a kitchen fire), then we weren't supposed to hide in a nice, safe closet, because then we'd be trapped and the firefighters would never find us. If we caught fire, then we weren't supposed to run, trying to find some water to jump into. That, we were told, would just light us up like a Roman candle. Instead, we had to fight every instinct and stop, drop to the ground, and roll around politely.

What I could not understand as a child was that these PSAs really had two purposes. One was simply educational, teaching us that behaviors that made perfectly good sense in one context (dousing fire, hiding from danger, fleeing danger) might actually expose us to additional harm in a different context. They were maladaptive behaviors. Sea turtle hatchings naturally paddle towards a bright light, which helps insure they reach the ocean when the brightest object in the night is the moon reflecting off the water, but which will insure they remain stranded on land when the brightest object is the patio light behind a beach house. Infantry charging a defensive position en masse often led to an advance when the defense was armed with swords, but always led to a slaughter when the defense was armed with entrenched machine guns. The ways to counter maladaptive behaviors are either to return to the original situation (turn of the patio light) or to replace the old behavior with a new one (attack with tanks and aircraft). When Ronald McDonald sang, "Stop, drop, and roll!", he was teaching children a new behavior to replace the old maladaptive behavior.

But even the dimmest of my childhood friends got the gist of Ronald's commands after the third or fourth viewing. Why were we hearing these messages so frequently, from so many different sources? That went to the second purpose of the PSAs. Education is a good start, a necessary start, but the problem is that being on fire, or at least near fire, is an inherently stressful situation. And psychologists know that "Under stress, we regress." That is, under difficulty situations like panic or sensory overload or fear of consequences, humans naturally fall back on older patterned behavior. Most drivers, for instance, know intellectually that if their car loses traction in a skid, they should pump the brakes and steer into the skid to regain control. But the first time they actually hit a skid, most drivers stand on that brake pedal. Only if they live someplace wacky with snow, like Buffalo, do they get enough practice with the skid to develop the new adaptive behavior.

Even television executives were able to recognize that it would be unethical to light kids on fire over and over again until they learned to stop, drop, and roll. So they did the next best thing: they repeated the message over and over again, and encouraged children to try practicing the moves even when they weren't alight, to ingrain the new behavior as much as possible. The more familiar a behavior became, through repetition and feedback, the less likely a person would be to regress away from it under the actual stress of combustion.

At this time of year, I am seeing work from a lot of students who seem to be regressing under stress: 1L students using tactics in their spring semester midterms that appear to be drawn from their most basic legal writing classes, or from college composition classes; 3L students trying to mechanically apply CREAC format to early MEE and MPT practice questions. Even when we know we have shown these students the more advanced strategies they should be using as they progress through their development as attorneys, we have to keep in mind that that blank piece of paper or computer screen can just as easily be a threat as a blessing. Under the stress of self-doubt, or of novelty, or of high ambition, or future consequences -- sometimes of all of these at once -- the amiably clean page can transform into an incandescent hazard. Repetition and feedback are important not just to help our students improve their use of the more advanced strategies they need, but also to make them comfortable and familiar enough to be able to use those strategies at all.

[Bill MacDonald]

April 2, 2019 in Advice, Bar Exam Preparation, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Science, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Now Is the Time for Kindness

We have four weeks of classes left in our semester. Midterm exams, quizzes, paper draft deadlines, presentations, group projects, and many other law school assignments have clustered in the last several weeks with more of the same to come. Grades on that myriad of items are now emerging - for many law students, not as high as they had hoped.

The level of stress and anxiety among the students has risen along with these events and deadlines. Many students are worried about how much they still need to do before the end of classes and start of exams. A number of students are focused on self-negatives: "I should have outlined sooner." "I didn't work hard enough over Spring Break." "I didn't complete enough practice questions." "I didn't study enough for the midterm." Some students are focused on other-negatives: "The prof didn't allow enough time for that quiz." "The midterm wasn't fair." "The multiple-choice questions were too picky." "The prof took off too many points for citation errors." In either version, the negativity abounds.

It is easy for stressed students to become totally self-focused and intense during this point in the semester. People irritate one another, become curt in conversations, and behave rudely perhaps without realizing it. Tempers flare. Hurt feelings increase. Anxiety and stress escalate. Before long, the environment becomes toxic.

Each student has the capacity to de-escalate the tension around the law school. Each individual can nurture a calmer law school environment through words and deeds. To do so, it requires focusing on community instead of self. It requires focusing on the positive instead of moaning. It requires kindness instead of conflict.

Small acts of kindness not only make the recipient feel better, but also make the actor feel better. Here are easy ways for an individual to impact the law school environment through random acts of kindness:

  • Make eye contact and smile at others. Your smile may be the only one a person sees today.
  • Say "please" and "thank you" more often than you might normally remember. You will acknowledge others' help, and notice your blessings more.
  • Hold open the door, offer to carry a box, or help pick up dropped books for someone. Etiquette is never out of fashion.
  • Compliment another student on the good answer given in class today. Everyone can use a boost after dealing with the Socratic Method.
  • Offer a copy of your class notes to a fellow student just back to class after an illness. Or suggest you meet with them to go over missed material.
  • Take time to say an encouraging word to a classmate who is obviously working hard, but struggling. Better yet, offer to chat about the current class topic.
  • Tell your study group members that you appreciate them and why they are important to your law school success.
  • Share your personal study aid copy with a fellow student who cannot afford one. It's not very hard to agree a sharing schedule.
  • Refuse to participate in or pass on gossip about a fellow student. Gossip hurts.
  • Buy a soda or a bag of chips for the person behind you in line at the law school canteen - whether or not you know them.
  • Unexpectedly offer to share your law school pizza delivery with a fellow law student without dinner. Free food is always appreciated.
  • Bake cookies on the weekend, and share your goodies with those who are studying nearby - even if you do not know them.
  • Write a thank-you note (not an email or text) to a classmate who did something nice for you recently or who needs encouragement.

There are many other ways to show kindness. Most of them will cost you nothing - except your heartfelt gesture and a bit of time. (Amy Jarmon)

March 31, 2019 in Encouragement & Inspiration, Miscellany, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, March 28, 2019

The Connected Student & Success

Perhaps you are like me (or your students).  As I confessed to my own students in class today, I spent three years in law school never making eye contact with professors.  I was just too scared to be called on.  I didn't feel smart enough (and I certainly never really understand the professors' questions.).  So, I hid...for three years.  

That experience left me feeling lonely and isolated, as not part of the profession. Looking back, I realize now that most of my fellow students felt the same.  Oh how I wish that I had opened up, just been a bit human instead of machine-like, and shared from the heart.  But, to be honest, I wasn't willing to reveal my deep-felt fears.  Consequently, I now try to share with my students about my own experiences as a law student and what I've learned in order to better help them.

That brings me to a thought.  In my early days as an academic support professional (ASP), I spent much of my time focused on teaching skills (reading, case briefing, preparing for class, taking notes, time management skills, synthesizing course materials into outlines or study tools, and exam writing, etc.).  I still teach those skills, but my focus is much broader now because the skills by themselves do not make for learning.  Rather, it seems to me that there is a social/emotional component to learned that is equally important.  And, the research seems to back up my hypothesis.  

In particular, as recently reported by Dr. Denise Pope, a researcher and cofounder of Challenge Success at Stanford University, it seems that student engagement is the most important factor correlated to academic success, future job satisfaction, and overall well-being. Saturday Essay, Wall Street Journal, March 22, 2019.  According to Dr. Pope:  "The students who benefit most from college, including first-generation and traditionally underserved students, are those who are most engaged in academic life and their campus communities, taking full advantage of the college’s opportunities and resources. Numerous studies attest to the benefits of engaged learning, including better course grades and higher levels of subject-matter competence, curiosity and initiative." Id. 

So, what is student engagement? In short, according to studies by Gallup-Purdue as reported by Dr. Pope, there are several key experiences of engagement that can make a lifetime of difference for our students.  Here's the list, as published in Dr. Pope's essay:

"• Taking a course with a professor who makes learning exciting

• Working with professors who care about students personally

• Finding a mentor who encourages students to pursue personal goals

• Working on a project across several semesters

• Participating in an internship that applies classroom learning

• Being active in extracurricular activities". Id.

Nevertheless, as Dr. Pope relates, few students report experiencing that sort of engagement with only 27 percent of students experiencing strong support from professors who cared about them and only 22 percent having a mentor to encourage them.  In other words, most college students, in my own words, feel disconnected and disembodied from school.  That was certainly me throughout much of law school. Nevertheless, there was one professor, later in my law school studies, who took an interest in me.  That professor ended up writing my letter of recommendation for my first job as a lawyer - a law clerk in court.  In other words, looking back, I made it through law school because someone believed in me...even when I didn't believe in myself.  

That gets me thinking about our roles as academic support professionals.  Much of learning can seem mechanical (case briefing, memorization, IRAC, etc.), but the stuff that sticks only sticks when it's socially experienced in an emotionally-positive and engaged academic community.  So, as we build our programs, I try to remember my purpose is not to create an award winning program but rather to help people believe in themselves as learners and experience the wonderful thrill of being part of something that is greater than themselves.  At least, that's my ambition, one student at a time.  (Scott Johns).

March 28, 2019 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Learning Styles, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

"Wise Interventions": Improving Performance by Altering Subjective Meanings

One of the most stimulating -- though, at times, overwhelming -- aspects of working in Academic Success is the necessity of performing in all the rings under the law school circus tent. In the same day, we can be teaching substantive law, providing feedback to help improve a student's writing and legal analysis, coaching another student on skills like time management or effective study, and counseling other students who are anxious, unmotivated, discouraged, or overconfident. To me, the counseling portion seems to be the most draining. Even when it is not taking up the greater part of my week -- and that is not always the case -- working with students' emotions, their self-awareness, their conceptions of what they are capable of, and their unrecognized assumptions requires high levels of energy and attentiveness. Anything that might make that part of the job easier without shortchanging my students would be gratefully welcomed.

To that end, I've been reading an interesting article called Wise Interventions: Psychological Remedies for Social and Personal Problems, written by the psychologists Gregory M. Walton and Timothy D. Wilson (Psychological Review (2018), 125(5), pp. 617-655). The authors explain that much of what either restrains or enhances our achievements does so because of how we perceive it, ourselves, and/or our place in the world. For example, a student who perceives her professor's probing Socratic questioning as demonstrating confidence in the student may learn more, and feel more confident about what they have retained, than another student who perceives the professor's intense questioning as disdain or ridicule.  Much depends on the subjective meaning that a person has assigned to himself ("I am clever/I am stupid/I am not good at math"), to his environment ("The professor doesn't like me/This subject is useless in the real world/That law firm only hires students in the top 5%" ), and to the interactions between the two ("I always screw up on multiple-choice questions/There's nobody in this class who would be willing to share notes with me/If I go to office hours the professor will think I can't handle the material.") The article points out that many of the techniques that have been demonstrated to produce lasting behavioral change with comparatively little effort on the part of coaches or intervenors do so because they help to change ineffective subjective meanings that the student had used previously into meanings that are naturally more likely to produce good results. For example, incoming African American college students participated in a one-hour discussion section at the start of the school year, in which stories told by former students were used to convey the idea that it is normal to feel, at first, that you "don't belong" in college, and that after a while that feeling goes away. Participating students had higher grades over the next three years than did similar students who did not join the discussion session. Walton and Wilson call these techniques "wise interventions" because those who used them are aware of ("wise to") the maladaptive meanings that some subjects have adopted, and therefore can more successfully change those meanings.

This is a dense and rich article, one I will have to return to a few times here, but today I wanted to point out three of the five general principles the authors suggest characterize a "wise intervention".  These three principles are all about how to effectively change maladaptive assigned meanings, and I think they can help us in Academic Support as we try to find new ways to help our students make the most of themselves and their environments.

The first principle is that in order to effectively alter ineffective perceptions, the explanations we offer in exchange have to be detailed and specific.  It was not enough, for example, to say to incoming college students, "College is tough on everyone.  You'll get over it." Instead, researchers used the detailed stories of former students to illustrate the specific feelings that incoming students often experience, and the journey that those students went through, so that the incoming students could more clearly relate to and remember those stories when they encountered similar feelings.  Similarly, in law school, it may not be enough just to tell 1L students that law school is going to be harder than any educational experience they've had in the past. Instead, we need to tell our own stories, and the stories of other law students and alumni, to better illustrate some of the specific obstacles that were faced and then overcome. Having those details to recall can help insure that 1L students will interpret their setbacks and difficulties as part of the usual law student experience.

Another principle is that, once we help students to generate more useful interpretations of themselves and their environments, these interpretations can lead to further recursive change in the future. A student introduced to the concept of the "growth mindset", for instance, may at first only accept its existence in a certain context, like the ability to memorize content.  However, as the student experiences success in that context, it becomes more likely that she will start to apply the growth mindset concept in other realms, such as making oral presentations or writing effectively under time pressure.  This is one of the chief benefits of a wise intervention: because of the possibility of recursive change, a comparatively small effort on the part of a counselor or coach can produce a lifetime of benefits.

However, the possibility of such recursion depends in part on a recognition of a third principle: the fact that the meanings that people assign to themselves and to their worlds all operate within complex systems of past experiences, present conditions, and future expectations.  In practical terms, this means that merely changing a student's meaning-making is not likely, by itself, to take root and produce extensive future benefits; there must also be some kind of change to the system in which the student operates.  It is not enough, for example, to get students to see that they have the analytical tools they need to respond properly to multiple-choice questions, and that such questions are not simply an opaque collection of "tricks", unless we also provide those students will access to practice questions upon which to apply their new view of the genre, along with answer explanations so the students will be able to confirm that the analytical approach is indeed the most effective. Changing your students' interpretation of themselves or of the law school environment should always be either in response to, or accompanied by, some kind of practical change to the rest of the system in which they operate, in order to give the students the opportunity to test and cultivate their new understandings.

This last bit is the part I want to incorporate more into my own teaching and advising. Whenever something seems to click for a student and they seem to recognize a possible new way of interpreting the world, that's a spark. Academic success depends not just upon generating such sparks, but also upon providing kindling so that the spark doesn't go out.

[Bill MacDonald]

March 19, 2019 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Program Evaluation, Science, Study Tips - General, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Consider the Inconceivable

Two stories that I heard recently have been echoing off of each other in my mind, because of what they say about the human reaction to things that we, personally, would never consider doing.

The first was told to me by a fellow professor at my law school.  She said she had been talking with two of her teaching fellows -- conscientious and diligent 3L students with excellent grades -- about the upcoming July 2019 bar exam.  She conveyed to them a recent conversation she had had with me, in which I had told her about the data that showed that many students who were not passing the bar on their first attempt had also not been fully participating in their summer bar prep courses.  She had expected that these top students would share in her incredulity that anyone would not commit themselves 100 percent to their summer bar prep . . . but was astonished when their actual incredulity was prompted by the suggestion that fresh law graduates really ought to do just that.  Each of them had just assumed that, being newly-minted lawyers with excellent academic credentials, they were already mostly well-prepared for the bar exam.  They told her they'd figured they'd watch maybe half the summer classes, in the subjects they had never studied before, and do some of the practice exercises, and that would be enough to bring them up to speed.  Flabbergasted, the professor explained to them why it was important to sit through every lecture in every subject and to participate in as many practice exercises as possible, because the bar exam would be so very different from everything they had done before it.  

Fortunately, these students respected this professor so much that they took her word as gospel, thanked her profusely for telling them what they needed to know, and promised to throw themselves wholeheartedly into their summer bar preparation.  She told me this story partly to make the point: We think it's the struggling students, the ones who already have problems juggling all their assignments, who are the ones who flake out over the summer, but even top students can have the wrong impression about what is required for their success on the bar.  Even as she was telling the story, though, she was still clearly shocked: How can people not know this?

I read the second story this week, when it was widely reported that a woman in Arizona was attacked by a jaguar when she tried to take a selfie in front of the creature.  The beautiful black feline was pressed against the side of its cage, and the woman decided she wanted a photo of herself with the cat in the background.  There was a metal barrier, designed to keep people a minimum distance from the side of the cage, but the woman stepped over it so she could get a closer shot.  When she was within reach, the jaguar stuck its front leg between the bars of the cage and sank its claws into the woman's arm.

This story has been widely reported, and those reports usually feature two snarky points.  One is a criticism of the ubiquitous modern urge to take selfies, even in dangerous situations.  The other is a disdainful incredulity that anyone would blithely cross a safety barrier to put themselves in range of a pawful of tiny daggers.  How can people not know this is a bad idea?  Why, as several news outlets pointed out, the same jaguar did the same thing only last summer, clawing a man who had stuck his arm behind the barrier reaching towards the animal!  Doesn't that just prove what a bad idea it was?  

This last part is why the stories have been resonating for me.  I'm only human, so I enjoy news stories like this, and tweets and memes like Florida Man and Darwin Awards, that purport to showcase just what poor decision makers humans can be.  Can you believe these people? [shakes head and rolls eyes] But the fact that the same animal made the same kind of attack less than a year ago doesn't make the story funnier.  It turns the story sour.  Because the woman who was attacked didn't know about the previous attack.  If, outside the jaguar's cage, there had been a photo display of the man attacked the previous summer, showing the eight stitches he had received just by reaching over the barrier, maybe the woman would have thought twice about cozying up to Panthera onca.  Was not sharing this information with her justified simply because the man's behavior was simply inconceivable to most people?  Because it was not inconceivable to her.

My colleague told me her story essentially for that reason -- she knows how many 3L students I work with, and she wanted to alert me to the need to tell all of them, not just the obviously struggling, about the consequences if they step too close to the jaguar cage by not fully participating in their summer bar courses.  I am grateful to her for that.  Sometimes when you tell people about some of the reasons students do not succeed at school or on the bar -- not participating in a bar prep course, say, or trying to work full-time and study full-time simultaneously -- their dismissive reactions are more along the lines of Can you believe these people? [shakes head and rolls eyes] Sometimes I find those reactions hard to believe in an educational setting, but I feel it is my job to find a way to help those people see that incredulity does not have to forestall empathy, kindness, and instruction. 

[Bill MacDonald]

March 12, 2019 in Bar Exam Preparation, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Learning Styles, Professionalism | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Beyond Your Imagination

As the school comes out of the dark and chill of winter -- not that that's happening all that quickly here in Buffalo -- and over the next couple of months, before we reach the crescendo of crunch time going into final exams, our students find themselves presented with a plethora of networking opportunities.  There are dinners and events hosted by student organizations to bring current students and alumni together.  There are panel discussions featuring practitioners in different fields.  There are alumni and alumni groups inviting the students to come meet potential mentors or even employers.

I believe that networking is not just good for career advancement.  It can also enhance one's academic experience.  At any given event, a student might meet someone who inspires them, someone who can help them grasp a particular subject, or someone who helps them envision a path through school and beyond that might otherwise have eluded them.  And I frequently tell my students, "The law is a social profession."  So I encourage all my students -- and especially my 1L students -- to participate in these events, even if they don't see what they might get out of it.  Sometimes what grows out of a new acquaintance is entirely unpredictable.  And if students are still a little dubious or hesitant, I have a story to tell them.

In the 1920s and ’30s, Arthur Murray became the most famous dance instructor in history, first through his mail-order business –- he invented a system of teaching dance by means of footprint diagrams, an idea that was sparked by a conversation he had had with perennial populist presidential candidate and anti-evolutionist Scopes Monkey Trial counsel William Jennings Bryan, of all people –- and then through the “Arthur Murray Dance Studio”, a chain that still exists today. Through the 1950s, Murray and his wife hosted a TV show, The Arthur Murray Party, which consisted in part of dance competitions between celebrity guests.

One such competition pitted the smoldering Latin actor Ricardo Montalban against the well-known ventriloquist Paul Winchell. Montalban was a star in his native Mexico and had had some success in Hollywood, though nothing like the fame he would achieve some two decades later as Captain Kirk's enemy Khan Noonian Singh in the Star Trek franchise and the mysterious Mr. Rourke on the series Fantasy Island.

Winchell, like Edgar Bergen, had inexplicably found national renown as a ventriloquist on a radio show, and later hosted TV series with his dummies Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead Smiff. From the 1960s onward, Winchell would be better known for his voiceover work: he gave life to chronic Smurf-hater Gargamel, to the leader of the Scrubbing Bubbles, and, most memorably, to Winnie-the-Pooh's elastically hyperactive friend Tigger. Perhaps his latent inner Tigger gave him an edge in the dance competition, because he defeated Montalban and took home the Buick (which sounds like a euphemism, but the car really was the grand prize).

Talented as he was as a performer, Winchell’s earliest career ambition was to become a doctor; but, when he was a youth, his family could not afford medical school. He retained a lifelong interest in medicine, though, even earning a degree and working in acupuncture in the 1970s. It was therefore quite natural that Winchell should form a connection with Arthur Murray’s son-in-law, a man named Dr. Henry Heimlich, when they met during the taping of the Winchell/Montalban dance-off. Around the time Winchell was going to acupuncture school, Heimlich would be lauded by some (including himself) as the most well-known physician in America, after his article in Emergency Medicine introduced the life-saving technique he termed “the Heimlich maneuver”. But in the 1950s, he was a more-or-less ordinary practicing surgeon, and Winchell was delighted to make his acquaintance.

Over the next several years, Winchell and Heimlich stayed in touch, and Heimlich even invited Winchell to join him several times in the operating room as an observer. It was during one of these operations that Winchell came up with an idea for a functional, implantable mechanical heart, one that could theoretically be used to replace a diseased human heart. He drew up the plans, consulting with Heimlich on the medical details, and in 1956 applied for a patent on the device he had invented. By 1963 he had been granted the first patent in the United States on a fully implantable artificial heart. Eventually, Winchell would contribute this patent to the University of Utah for use in its artificial organ design program — the same program from which Dr. Robert Jarvik produced the first successfully implanted artificial heart. That device, the Jarvik-7, formed the basis of the Syncardia temporary Total Artificial Heart, which has been used in more than 800 patients.

So. Tigger faced the wrath of Khan on the dance floor and, as a result, met The Most Famous Doctor in America, who helped him invent and patent the world’s first bionic heart, contributing at least in a small way, to saving the lives of 800+ people.

Could Winchell have predicted this when he agreed to participate in The Arthur Murray Party, or when he made the acquaintance of strangers like Heimlich backstage?  Of course not.  Nor can our students predict who they will meet, and what they may take away from those meetings, when they put themselves out there among alumni, practitioners, judges, and clients.  And that's the beauty of being open to such experiences.  You literally cannot imagine all the good things that may come of them.

March 5, 2019 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Meetings, Professionalism | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Big Picture Perspectives for The Final Weekend of Bar Prep: "See It--Do It--Teach It"

Next week, thousands will be headed to convention centers, etc., to show case the handy-work of their bar preparation efforts for the past two months.   In preparation, bar takers have watched weeks of bar review lectures, worked hundreds and even thousands of bar exam problems, and created myriads of study tools, checklists, and flashcards.  

Nevertheless, with one weekend to go, most of us feel like we aren't quite ready, like we don't really know enough, with all of the rules - to be honest - tangled and knotted up in a giant mess in our minds.  

Yet, let me say this up front.  Despite how most of us feel, this weekend is not the time to learn more law.  Rather, it's time to reflect on what you've learned, to let it live in you, to give it presence within you.  But, how do you do that?

Well, as I heard in a recent talk about medical education, I think we've got something important to learn from the medical schools that just might help with bar prep, too.  You see, apparently, despite all of the massive amounts of information available from the learning scientists, the philosophy of training doctors boils down to just three very simple steps: "See it--Do it--Teach it."

Here's what that means for the upcoming bar prep weekend:  For the past several months, you've been focused on "seeing it" and "doing it."  You've been watching lectures, taking copious notes, reading outlines, and working problems.  In short, you've been busily learning by seeing it and doing it.  

But, for most of us, despite all of that work, we aren't quite sure (at all!) whether we are ready for the real bar exam because we haven't yet taken the last step necessary for cementing and solidifying our learning; namely, we haven't yet "taught it."

So, that's where this weekend comes in.  

Throughout this weekend, grab hold of your notes or study tools or checklists or flashcards, pick out a subject, and teach it to someone.  That someone can be real or imaginary; it can be even be your dog Fido.  But, just like most teachers, get up out of your seat, out from behind your desk, and take 30 minutes per subject to teach it to that someone, from beginning to the end.  Then, run through the next subject, and then the next subject, and then the next subject, etc.  Even if you are by yourself, talk it out to teach it; be expressive; vocalize or even dance with it.  Make motions with your hands.  Use your fingers to indicate the number of elements and wave your arms to indicate the next step in the problem-solving process.  Speak with expertise and confidence.  And, don't worry about covering it all; rather, stick with just the big topics (the so-called "money ball" rules).

What does this look like in action?  Well, here's an example:  

"Let's see. Today, I am going to teach you a few handy steps on how to solve any contracts problem in a flash.  The first thing to consider is what universe you're in.  You see, as an initial consideration, there's the UCC that covers sales of goods (movable objects) while the common law covers all other subjects (like land or service contracts).  That's step one.  The next step is contract formation. That means that you'll have to figure out if there was mutual assent (offer and acceptance) and consideration.  Let's walk through how you'll determine whether something is an offer...."

I remember when I first taught.  I was hired at Colorado State University as a graduate teaching assistant to teach two classes of calculus.  But, I had a problem; I had just graduated myself.  So, I didn't really know if I knew the subject because I hadn't yet tried to teach it to someone.  As you can imagine, boy was I ever scared!  To be honest, I was petrified.  Yet, before walking into class, I took time to talk out about my lesson plan for that very first class meeting.  In short, I "pre-taught" my first class before I taught my first class.  So, when I walked into the classroom, even though I still didn't quite feel ready (at all) to teach calculus students, I found myself walking in to class no longer as a student but as a teacher.  In short, I started teaching.  And, in that teaching, I learned the most important lesson about learning, namely, that when we can teach something we know something.  

So, as you prepare for success on your bar exam next weekend, focus your work this weekend on teaching each subject to another person, whether imaginary or real.  And, in the process, you'll start to see how it all comes to together.  Best of luck on your bar exam! (Scott Johns).

February 21, 2019 in Advice, Bar Exam Issues, Bar Exam Preparation, Bar Exams, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Learning Styles, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Food for Thought

Law school is nutritionally disruptive.  This was common knowledge at my law school, where my classmates and I joked about having gained 15 pounds while we were getting our JDs.  We all felt we understood what had happened.  For three years we had chained ourselves to our desks, abandoned physical exercise in favor of mental anguish calisthenics, and frequently resorted to fast food or prepared meals to minimize time spent in the kitchen.  Some of us still managed to blow off some steam in a bar from time to time, but otherwise, culinary matters took a back seat to our studies.  The resulting excesses -- weight gain, or manic caffeine intake, or bingey sugar highs -- were seen almost as a badge of honor, like pulling an all-nighter to get a memo in on time.

As far as I can tell, things are still the same today.  Law students beset with too many tasks and not enough time have to find ways to make time or to soothe stress, and meals and snacks offer convenient opportunities to do so.  Not every student makes unhealthy choices, and many of those who do face few ill effects beyond the need for a new wardrobe.  But now, watching from the other side of the lectern, I can better see that food issues can have noticeable or even serious impacts on some students' academic performance:

  • While gaining weight often seems to be no more than a nuisance, to some students, such changes can be associated with actual effects on mental state, such as decreased stamina or alertness, or negative moods.  The weight gain may not be the cause of these changes -- it can sometimes be an effect of lifestyle changes in diet and exercise that can be the source of changes to mental state.
  • Sometimes dietary changes specific to certain substances -- such as increased intake of alcohol, caffeine, or sugar -- can have particular effects on behavior or mental state, such poor judgment, fatigue, agitation, or distractibility, that can have negative impacts on critical reading, time management, attention to detail, and other keys to success in law school.
  • Sometimes the problem is not so much too much food or the wrong kind of food, but too little food.  Students facing shaky finances may find their food budget the easiest thing to cut.  Other students may not eat enough food -- or at least not enough healthy food -- because of loss of appetite due to stress.  Food deprivation can lead to distraction, disrupt blood sugar levels, and affect memory and attentiveness.

When we work with students, especially one on one, we have opportunities to observe whether some of them are perhaps inordinately affected by dietary issues.  In some cases, we may need to enlist the help of others.  For example, if financial insecurity is manifesting in a poor diet, a referral to Financial Aid may be appropriate.  Encouraging students to seek help from physicians or mental health professionals may also be wise when food issues are leading to serious primary health concerns.  But sometimes our students just need a little grounding, a little reminder that they have to take care of themselves while they take care of their studies.  A few helpful tips can include:

  1. Eating smaller meals (or healthy snacks) over the course of the day, rather than pigging out on one big meal at the end of the day after classes are over, can help moderate calorie intake and lessen variations in blood sugar levels.
  2. Planning ahead for the day or even the week can help to insure steady, healthy eating while minimizing time spent in preparing or obtaining food.
  3. Buying and carrying around healthier snack alternatives can help forestall binge purchases of high-sugar and high-fat snacks during breaks between classes or study periods.
  4. Scheduling meals with classmates (for study purposes) or friends and family (to stay connected) can be a good way to make efficient use of the time that you have to spend eating anyway, so that good food doesn't seem so much like an expendable indulgence.

When they are stressed out about studies and papers and exams, taking care of themselves may be the last thing on students' minds.  Helping them see how beneficial and easy healthy eating can be may help some students' academic performance.

(Bill MacDonald)

 

 

February 19, 2019 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Food and Drink, Science, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Learning from the Charcoal Burners

Never let it be said that the stuck-in-bed-flat-on-your-back flu doesn't have its consolations. For me, there was the comfort of a kitty snuggling next to me and of the faithful dog taking his post by the bedroom door. There was the sure knowledge that being infectious gave me a temporary pass from committees and meetings, and that my sluggish mental condition made it unthinkable for me to tackle reports, spreadsheets, or even e-mails. But perhaps the greatest consolation was the ability to unabashedly indulge in one of my great pleasures, reading children's books.

I was lucky enough to have close at hand Alison Larkin's splendid audio recording of Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons. For those unfamiliar with this gentle classic, Swallows and Amazons follows the simple adventures of the "Swallows" or four Walker children (and their friends and rivals, the two Blackett "Amazons") as they sail, explore, camp, and meet "the natives" during their summer holiday in the English Lake District. In Chapter 13, the Walker children took an expedition to the west shore of the lake, where they met the local charcoal-burners, "Young Billy" (in his 70s) and "Old Billy" (in his 90s).

For those unfamiliar with this ancient craft, charcoal burning is the practice of carbonizing wood so that it will produce hot, clean-burning charcoal. First, woodcutters would carefully choose the correct fuel, wielding their axes to cut down huge piles of branches, small trees, and undergrowth. Then they would carefully layer these woody materials (taking into account the moisture content, diameter, density, and other characteristics), cover with an airtight layer of earth and moss, and build a controlled, slowly-burning fire which would last for days or weeks. Charcoal burners had to tend their piles night and day -- too little oxygen and the fire would smolder and expire, leaving only charred wood; too much oxygen and the fuel would be entirely consumed, leaving nothing but ashes.

In our novel, when the Walkers arrived at the charcoal-burners' encampment, they spied Young Billy carefully tending his charcoal mound:

A man with a spade was patting the mound and putting a spadeful of earth wherever the smoke showed. Sometimes he climbed on the mound itself to smother a jet of smoke near the top of it. As soon as he closed one hole another jet of smoke would show itself somewhere else. . . .

A big puff of smoke rolled from the burning mound.

"Look there," said Young Billy. "Can't leave him a minute but he's out. . . ." He picked up his spade and went to the mound, where a small tongue of flame was licking a hole from inside. He put a spadeful of earth on the hole and patted it down. . . . "We want ours to burn good and slow," said Young Billy. "If he burns fast he leaves nowt but ash. The slower the fire the better the charcoal."

The charcoal mound is a good metaphor for life. Holes will always pop up, given the vicissitudes of life. We may be on top of our law school studies, but there are dirty clothes in the laundry hamper or we haven't made it to the dentist this year. And as soon as we patch one hole -- for example, we create a good system for doing the laundry as we study criminal law -- another hole pops up: maybe now we haven't changed the oil in the van or we forgot to pick up the dog's medication.  How many times have we berated ourselves for not being in complete control of our lives? Prudence suggests it's wise to accept that holes not only can crop up in our lives, but will pop up. Accepting this, we can forgive ourselves for that most human of conditions -- not being perfect.

Moreover, the charcoal-burner Young Billy is as good a mentor as one is likely to find anywhere.  If we are hard-working and conscientious, we'll create excellent charcoal mounds (a/k/a outlines/case briefs/appellate briefs/lesson plans/curriculum proposals . . . ). And if our mounds are the result of so much good work, we naturally think we ought to be able to light them on fire and walk away, secure in the knowledge that our efforts will result in excellent charcoal with no further effort on our part. But even the best-laid plans need tending. There is no moment of perfection in which we can be secure and rest on our laurels. Rather, a hole will develop even in the best-created mound, meaning that we will need to pat down a spadeful of earth to make our mound secure -- and this will happen again, and again, and again. In his 70s, Young Billy was the most patient of professionals. However good his mound, he knew holes would develop. Rather than grow frustrated or angry, he paced himself, patting earth against one hole, then patiently patting over the next hole as it developed; in this almost meditative approach, he knew that his patient, consistent practice would over the long haul create consistently good charcoal -- and a good life in which he could be both excellent in his craft and a good neighbor to friends and curious children alike. And that's a pretty good recipe for being a lawyer, too.

(Nancy Luebbert)

 

February 13, 2019 in Encouragement & Inspiration | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Keeping Our Students in the Game

Watching the Super Bowl on Sunday made me think of my students.  By no means am I implying any similarity between football and the legal profession.  After all, one is a grueling slugfest, featuring breathlessly intense clashes between aggressive competitors on behalf of highly partisan, sometimes even fanatically tribal, stakeholders, with pride and sometimes lots of money at stake.  The other is just an athletic contest.

No, the reason I thought of my students was the sudden shift in the game in the fourth quarter.  Through the first 50 minutes or so of play, the scores remained unusually low and very close.  Neither team could gain a clear advantage, and with less than ten minutes remaining, the score was still only 3 to 3.  Across the country, spectators were complaining about how stagnant and boring the game seemed.

Suddenly, within a minute or so of game time, everything changed.  The Patriots called a play in which a receiver wound up open in the middle of the field, just beyond the Rams' defensive line, and Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady deftly passed the ball to him and gained several yards.  By itself, the play was only mildly exciting, and then only because it provided comparatively more action than most of the preceding gameplay.  But the Patriots realized right away that the Rams' defense, which up until that time had been pretty successful at confining the Patriots' forward motion, had not had anything in place to keep that lone receiver from appearing unguarded behind the defensive line.  So for the next few plays, the Patriots ran essentially the same play, except for choosing a different receiver to run up the field each time.  In the space of four plays, the team moved all the way down the field and set up the winning touchdown run.

From the Rams' point of view, everything was fine, until suddenly it wasn't.  They were basically evenly matched with their opponents, in a game that looked like it might go into overtime -- and then, in less than a minute, everything fell apart.  One weakness was exposed -- one play that they had no planned defense for -- and before they could adjust to it, the other side had taken advantage of that weakness and taken a significant lead.  And the fact that they were in that distressing position left the team vulnerable to more trouble.  They rushed and ran riskier plays, hoping to score their own tying touchdown in the short time they had left, and under this pressure the Rams' quarterback Jared Goff accidentally threw the ball into the hands of a Patriots defender, leading the Patriots to score an additional three points.  The Rams went from having an even chance of winning to having no chance, all because of one weakness that wasn't addressed quickly enough.

In his fascinating book How We Die, the physician Sherwin B. Nuland explained that human death often follows a similar trajectory.  Laypeople often imagine that those suffering from serious injury or illness usually experience a long but steady decline until they pass away.  However, Nuland pointed out that at least as often, if not more so, the afflicted person manages the illness (or injury, if it is not so catastrophic that it simply kills them right away) fairly handily, with only slight decline or sometimes even with improvement, for days or even weeks.  If nothing bad happens, then they might even make a full recovery.  But if one thing goes wrong and isn't corrected quickly enough, it can cause significant damage, which itself leads to additional life-threatening complications, and in a short time the patient may spiral down past the point where any medical intervention will be enough to save him.  An infected wound, for example, if not treated quickly enough, can lead to a generalized blood infection, which can cause a patient's kidneys, liver, and other organs to stop working properly, and the patient, who otherwise might have almost completely recovered from his initial injury, will die of multiple organ failure.

We see the same phenomenon in other realms than just sports and medicine, such as business and politics.  In any complicated system, there can be long, steady declines, but the sudden drastic reversal, attributable to one or a small number of neglected infirmities, is often more likely.

And the life of a law student is pretty complicated.  New information to learn, new ways to think about it, new tasks to perform, all while juggling stress and ambition and self-doubt and mountains of practicalities like housing and relationships and (painfully often) finances.  We all know that a few students struggle right from the start, but very often students will be managing -- holding their own, even if not excelling -- and then they run into one tribulation they can't fix, and they can't handle.  A course they can't wrap their head around.  A romantic breakup.  Lack of funds to buy textbooks.  A death in the family.  An extracurricular activity that takes up too much time.

It almost doesn't matter what the problem is, because it's just the trigger.  It starts the landslide that could pull the student down.  Struggling in one course, for example, could pull the student's attention away from his other courses, leading to anxiety about not maintaining his GPA . . . and what started as one problem spirals into multiple problems.

The response, from an Academic Success perspective, has to be twofold.  First, we need to be able to detect these kinds of issues as early as possible, before they turn into the equivalent of a touchdown by the other team or a raging blood infection.  We need to have direct interaction with the students most at risk (incoming students, first-generation students, those in danger of financial difficulty, etc.), so we get to know them and encourage them to be forthcoming.  We also need to develop strong networks among those in the faculty and student services who might pass along observations of possible distress.

Second, we need to have systems in place to help these students address these issues quickly, before they do become intractable.  We are expected, of course, to handle purely academic issues on a moment's notice.  But we should also be familiar with other means of support on campus and in the community, to be able to quickly refer students who need help in financial, psychological, spiritual, and other realms. 

Time sometimes really is of the essence.  None of us want to end up being Monday-morning quarterbacks, lamenting that if we had just changed our defense one play sooner, we could have saved the game.

(Bill MacDonald)

February 5, 2019 in Advice, Books, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Miscellany, Sports, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, February 4, 2019

Use the Simulated MBE Results for Improvement

One of my favorite sports commercials is the Nike Commercial with Michael Jordan below.

 

Bar takers can learn a valuable lesson from Jordan.  Arguably the greatest basketball player of all time failed constantly.  However, he didn’t let failure define him.  He used failure to learn how to get better.  Learning from the failure of the simulated MBE will be critical for success in a few weeks.

The simulated MBE is not a confidence boosting experience for most bar takers.  Many students from around the country will feel defeated and not know what to do between now and the bar exam.  My first suggestion is to take the results as an opportunity to learn where to improve.  If you missed 100 questions, then you have 100 opportunities to get better before the next test.  The goal isn’t to be perfect right now (or ever).  The goal is to get enough correct at the end of February to be sworn in.  That goal is still achievable.

After putting the test into perspective, develop a plan.  All the bar review companies produce a good score report.  I suggest identifying small sub-topics within each subject to study for a few minutes each night.  Finding significant time during the day for extra studying is near impossible.  However, 15 minutes right before bed to look at a handful of rules is possible.  Identify highly tested subtopics where you didn’t get many questions correct.  Spend 15-20 minutes each night on a subtopic.  Switch subjects each day.  With 21 days of studying left, everyone can make it through 3 subtopics per MBE subject. 

My other suggestion is to add a small set of MBE questions to each day.  Many of the bar review companies have small sets of questions in the subtopics.  Do a set of questions in one of the subtopics each day.  Don’t do the set of questions in the same subtopic that you study that night.  Rotating to different areas helps with long term retention. 

I know the simulated MBE was tough, and everyone wanted to get more questions correct.  Many students get knocked down on the test.  The question is what will you do after you get knocked down.  Watch the 2008 600m Big 10 Championship below.

 

There is still a lap left in bar prep.  What are you going to do?

(Steven Foster)

February 4, 2019 in Encouragement & Inspiration, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, January 24, 2019

The Prevalence of Neuroscience Myths in Education

I count myself as an educator.  And, as I am also a lawyer too, like many attorneys, I sort of consider myself as a bit of an expert in all things too because the law, at least it seems to me, has its hook in every field of endeavor.  As such, that means that I read and think an awlful lot, and therefore, I often see myself as an arm chair scientist, psychologist, and counselor too.  

But, could a little bit of dabbling in neuroscience and learning knowledge be a bit misleading?  Unfortunately, it seems that I'm not quite the expert in neuroscience and learning that I think I am (and, to be frank, I'm not much of an expert in most things at all).

The good news, if it is good, is that it seems like I'm not all alone, at least among educators.  Indeed, research indicates that "neuromyths" are widespread among educators.  K. Macdonald, L Germine, A. Anderson, J. Christodoulou, and L. McGrath, "Dispelling the Myth," Frontiers in Psychology (Aug 2017).  In particular, according to this research article, educators can often be susceptible to neuroscience myths concerning learning.  What's a neuromyth?  Well, "[n]euromyths are misconceptions about brain research and its application to education and learning."  Based on survey results with participants indicating whether a particular statement was true or false, "[t]he most commonly endorsed neuromyths item was 'individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (e.g., auditory, visual, kinesthetic),'" with 76 percent of educators erroneously believing in the learning style myth.  https://www.frontiersin.org/dispellingthemyth

Reading between the lines of the research article, it seems that educators like me are understandably scouring websites and media sources for the latest cure-all, really, anything at all, that might help our students improve their learning.  That's because we all understand the immense value that learning brings to individuals and to the worlds in which we inhabit.  That hunger for a solution, for a salve, for a cure-all, apparently means that as an educator I am vulnerable to neuroscience myths.  Indeed, as explained in the same research article, "[o]ne characteristic that seems to unite...neuromyths together...is an underestimation of the complexity of human behavior, especially cognitive skills like learning, memory, reasoning, and attention. Rather than highlighting these complexities, each neuromyth seems to originate from a tendency to rely on a single explanatory factor, such as the single teaching approach that will be effective for all children...."  https://www.frontiersin.org/dispellingthemyth

There's actually some very good news about the neuroscience myth concerning learning styles. It seems that classroom teachers who "weave visual and auditory modalities into a single lesson rather than providing separate modality-specific lessons to different groups of children based on self-identified learning style preferences" actually enhance learning.  As such, "[a]n unintended and potentially positive outcome of the perpetuation of the learning styles neuromyth is that teachers present material to students in novel ways through multiple modalities, thereby providing opportunities for repetition which is associated with improved learning and memory in the cognitive and educational literatures."  https://www.frontiersin.org/dispellingthemyth.  In other words, although the myth itself lacks empirical evidence to justify teaching to a particular student's preferred learning style, the method of implementation ends up producing concrete empirical evidence - according to peer-review research articles - of improvements in learning outcomes.  In short, the ends end up justifying the means, so to speak.

What do to about neuroscience myths concerning learning?  Well, the article has some suggestions.  Most to the point, the article suggests that educators ought to seek out peer-review articles behind the latest media stories and internet crazes.  Those stories might not be crazy at all, but often times, there's more lurking behind the story than first appears.  So, it's important for us as educators to take time to read the research, maybe just like we teach our students to read cases, with a critical eye.  (Scott Johns).

January 24, 2019 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Learning Styles, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

To His Coy 1L Students

O, why must IRAC dominate the page

When brilliant students try to write a bit,

Their eloquence confined, as in a cage,

Restricting scope and rhetoric and wit?

 

O, why must you capitulate to rote?

Abandon your unique persuasive voices?

Unless -- the logic these formats connote

Provides you with a better set of choices . . . ?

 

If you surrender to formality

You’ll find the structure helps you to direct

Your argument to only what is key,

And lets the reader know what to expect.

 

A writer who’s committed to a norm

Ironically is freed up to perform.

 

[Bill MacDonald]

January 22, 2019 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Miscellany, Writing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, January 17, 2019

The Power of Performance Reviews (and Feedback) to Influence Retention & Improve Performance

As educators, we hold enormous power in our hands; power to change destinations and shape destinies.  

Last fall, at the AccessLex Legal Education Research Symposium, Dr. Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio - Chair of the Executive Leadership Research Initiative for Women and Minority Attorneys at Harvard Law School - changed the way that I think when giving "performance reviews" to my students, whether in formal feedback, informally during class discussions, or during individual student meetings.  

The best way to express what I learned is to hear directly from Dr. Checchi-Dimeglio as she describes her research on the power of performance reviews to shape career destinies:  "Let me give you an example: the annual performance review. We’ve all been through it, either as a reviewer or as a reviewee. It can be dreadful because it's time-consuming and nerve-racking. What I found is women and minorities overall, were more likely to receive different types of feedback–more critical. Their successes were oftentimes attributed to luck. Based off of that, working with an organization, we came out with a new system that required more frequent performance reviews that would take less than fifteen minutes, where four to six people could be reviewed at the same time. The result was amazing." https://mgte.thefemalequotient.com

As I recall from her keynote address (with apologies if I don't remember precisely), Dr. Checchi-Dimeglio explained that she observed the interactions between supervisors (partners) and employees (junior associates) during performance reviews.   Overall, Dr. Checchi-Dimeglio observed that performance review comments differed between male and females associates.  In general, partners provided women with feedback focused on the past (leaving recipients with the message that this law firm wasn't the place for them); while, in contrast, partners provided men with feedback that was forward-looking (suggesting to recipients that there was work to do to improve performance but that the firm was in it for the long-haul with them, as exemplified by supervisory comments such as "you might try this to better persuade the court next time," etc).    Based on these findings, Dr. Checchi-Dimeglio empowered supervisors with ways to retool their comments for all associates by focusing on the future rather than the past, regardless of gender.  The results...retention significantly improved for women associates.

That brings me back to my role (our roles) as educators.  Our comments can make a difference; our feedback can change paths.  I often recall that I had a law professor who told me, point blank, that I would never be a litigator.  I just didn't have what it took.  That feedback stuck (and still sticks) to the heart.  But, I had others who encouraged me, believed in me, and supported me.  In short, their constructive feedback - focused on improving my performance with an eye to the future - won the day.  I became a litigator.  As a result of those experiences and in light of Dr. Checchi-Dimeglio's research as a behavioral scientist, my comments can make a truly positive difference for my students. Do I do it well?  Not yet.  But, I'm learning, one comment at a time...with an eye on my students' futures.  (Scott Johns).

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

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Listening to Learners

This may not be true in every law school, but at my school, things are a little quiet right now.  Some students and professors are on campus for the brief winter term, but the entire community will not return until the spring term begins in February.  The students are just now getting their fall grades, so the students who are around and have come looking for me have all wanted to talk about them -- whether they were surprised or disappointed or content, and what their grades might mean for the future.

I cannot help but be reminded by this combination of relative quiet and conversationally-motivated students of the importance of listening.  Like many teachers -- and many lawyers -- I revel in talking.  I like explaining things to people; I enjoy the performative aspects of a well-delivered lecture; I am fond of delivering spontaneous oracular pronouncements to my advisees.  And, aiming to communicate complex information in a useful way, I spend a fair amount of time fretting about the content of what I say and the manner in which I say it.  This is entirely appropriate: our students' expectations are high, their goals are ambitious, and their needs are great.  They deserve to hear wise and engaging words coming out of our mouths.

Still, nobody wants to be nothing but a bunch of talk.  If that's all you've got, you might as well just throw books at your students.  Listening is the complementary skill that helps to make sure that what we say possesses the value that our students need.  It's how we determine precisely which beautiful insights we choose to articulate.

As with many skills, people are not always good at judging how well they listen.  Those to whom it comes naturally may underestimate how talented they actually are.  Others may mistake mere silence for listening, or may assume that they are listening well because they are quickly assessing and generating responses to what they are hearing.  One way to more accurately judge -- and, if necessary, improve upon -- one's listening skills is to consider whether you are achieving any or all of these three outcomes:

  1. Determining what is troubling the speaker.  In many or even most cases, this is ostensibly the reason we are talking with our students in the first place.  They come to us with an issue or a concern, and we introduce conversational probes to figure out what the source of the problem is.  Ironically, though, the better and more experienced we get at our jobs, the easier it may become to jump to quick conclusions.  This speed, borne of experience, can be valuable, but we must take care not to confuse our satisfaction at having identified a likely issue with the student's confidence that they have actually conveyed the concerns they had.  Watch their facial expressions and body language.  Do they appear relieved, as if they have gotten something off of their chest, or are they still holding on to some tension?  Listen to the tone of their voice -- do they sound unsure?  Do they seem to want to interject more into the discussion?  Try not to judge how well you have listened for their concerns by how you feel about the conversation, but by how they appear to feel.  When in doubt, before making any definitive declarations of diagnosis, reflect the conversation back to them.  Statements like "It sounds like you feel you do not understand the law correctly" can be non-threatening ways to offer the speaker a chance to clarify what they mean to say, and you may find that there are more or different issues from what you had first suspected.
  2. Encouraging the speaker to dig deeper.  Sometimes students do not come to us entirely of their own free will; they are advised or even required to meet with us, and they just want to get it over with.  Other students may come anxiously to us, fearing complicated bad news and hoping instead to hear a quick fix.  Students like these might be content to give a brief synopsis of what they assume is the problem, in hopes that we will take over the conversation and get to the end as quickly as possible.  Such situations provide great opportunities to use your listening skills as active conversational tools.  Simply maintaining eye contact and keeping silent will prompt a speaker to continue to speak, sometimes revealing additional information in their stream-of-consciousness monologue.  If silence is not enough, a brief reflective question, based on what you have already heard, may help.  Even non-reluctant students can benefit from this kind of prompting.  If a student makes an assertion that sounds too pat or incomplete, attentive listening can encourage them to keep pressing on to try to get to the critical facts or to their real emotions.  Personally, I think every student conversation of more than just a few minutes should include at least one instance of focused, silent attention on the student, to give them the opportunity to elaborate on a point or to bring up a new one.
  3. Developing the speaker's trust.  Trust is valuable currency in our job, and like Bitcoin, it can take some time to generate.  It is great to be trusted for our sound advice, but that is not the only way to build trust.  Listening is another great way, and this illustrates why good listening is not mere passive silence but is actually active participation in the conversation.  A good listener demonstrates that they are hearing the information being conveyed by reflecting back some of what they've heard and by following up with questions that build off of that information.  What is also just as important, and in some cases is even more so, is that we attend to our student's affect as well -- not just the information, but the emotion.  Students can bring to Academic Success some intense feelings -- excitement and hope, when things are going well, or anxiety, sadness, and anger when they are not.  Acknowledging these sometimes uncomfortable feelings in a non-judgmental way, through our own facial expressions and responses, can help a student feel not only that are you listening to all they are saying, but also that your office is a safe place to experience and express those feelings.  This is a sure way to develop the trust that is often needed to get students to buy into your plans for their success.

These outcomes are noteworthy not just because they are the effects of good listening, but because they are specifically effects that are valuable to our work in Academic Success.  Even when things get hectic and tiring over the next few months, try to make a point of asking yourself, after every student encounter, if you are seeing any of these outcomes arising from your conversations.

[Bill MacDonald]

January 15, 2019 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Miscellany, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)