Thursday, March 5, 2020
Every once in awhile I have a "aha" moment. I stumbled into this one, and I'm not the same because of it.
As background, a student reached after having failed the MPRE on multiple tries despite having watched commercial bar review lectures, creating personal study tools, and working lots and lots of practice questions.
I was so impressed with the student's preparatory efforts. The student had created spectacular blackletter study tools. The student knew the law backwards and forwards and could retrieve rules in a flash. And yet, the student missed question after question despite lots of practice in working through and analyzing problems.
That's when it came to me.
My student had learned the law - cold - but was still missing questions because the student had not learned the culture of how the law was tested. Based on my student's prior experiences as an attorney, I asked how my student had learned to solve legal problems as an attorney. My student explained that the key was in learning the culture of how the law applied to client problems.
Likewise, I suggested that perhaps the key to success on the MPRE lies in learning the legal culture of the MPRE. With this thought in mind, my student focused preparation efforts anew on learning MPRE culture rather than MPRE law. And guess what? The student passed the MPRE with flying colors!
Based on this admittedly anecdotal experience, my sense is that many students do not pass the MPRE because they focus on learning the wrong thing. They try to learn the law without learning the socio-legal context of how the law applies - the culture of the law.
With this thought in mind, I now suggest to students that they work through practice problems as armchair legal sociologists to learn the culture of what is being tested. In short, in my opinion, the MPRE doesn't really test the law as much as it tests the legal culture of the law. (Scott Johns).
Tuesday, March 3, 2020
Human beings -- of which law students are a subset -- are notoriously unreliable when trying to figure out what to worry about.
This is not to say that we cannot recognize potential threats in a general way; only that, because of the way we are hard-wired to process threats, we sometimes overestimate certain threats, which in turn can cause us to underestimate, or even overlook, other threats. An article in The Washington Post several weeks ago explained why the public and the media seemed to be more panicky about the new coronavirus than about other looming threats. The article did not suggest that the virus is not dangerous or shouldn't be taken seriously, but it did try to explain why it has been featured so prominently in public discourse, when other greater and more palpable threats to health, like influenza or poor nutrition, barely merited discussion. Among the reasons for this amplification of attention:
- "We instinctively worry more about new risks than familiar ones" -- perhaps in part because we worry more about things we cannot control, and things that seem new and mysterious also seem more out of our control.
- We worry more about things that remind us of other things that frighten us -- the way a new global pandemic might remind us of The Plague or any of a dozen science-fiction movies -- because that fear is more readily elicited.
- We tend to pay more attention to threats that other people are talking about, because we are social animals and we assume there is a reason that other people are anxious.
Again, the point of the article was not to suggest that the new virus did not merit any concern. It was merely trying to explain why, for example, people who were blasé about obtaining a flu shot might be terrified of a disease that (at the time) hadn't even reached their hemisphere yet.
In a similar way, law students can sometimes be hyperaware of the existence of a particular threat to their performance, but might devote so much attention to it that they neglect or even overlook other concerns that, in reality, might have a bigger impact on their grades and other outcomes. They might pay a lot of attention to the risks of failing at new tasks -- like writing case briefs or mastering IRAC format -- simply because they are new and mysterious, and perhaps at the expense of addressing more familiar and pervasive concerns like grammar or logical reasoning. Students who are afraid of, say, public speaking might devote inordinate attention to being prepared to recite case details if they are cold-called in class -- as if the professor were planning to determine that student's grade for the course based on one recitation -- and in the process those students may not have the time or energy to try to extrapolate deeper implications from the case or to fit it into a larger picture. And if it seems like the rest of the class is saying that a particular resource or exercise is the key to acing a certain class, how many students are going to be able to resist the call of that bandwagon, even if a different resource might be more effective for them?
The things our students worry about, they are probably justified in worrying about them. But sometimes the way they worry about them might draw their attention from other threats to their performance that deserve more emphasis, more consideration, and more action.
Thursday, February 27, 2020
I love youth activities because they start out so spirited, often with a riddle, a challenge, or a song.
Recently, I realized that my some of the difficulties that students face is that they can easily avoid the obvious. That's because many students often lack confidence that they actually belong in law school, seeing themselves as imposters.
In working with children, youth leaders understand that the sense of inadequacy is omnipresent, especially with middle schoolers. So, in order to help build community and break down barriers to learning, leaders often start youth meetings with some adventurous fun. Call it team building if you want.
As academic support professionals, perhaps it might be helpful for us, likewise, to kick off workshops and classes with an "ice-breaker" of sorts because, let's face it, law school can share many of the insecurities of teenage life. So, below, is an exercise that might help your students relate to each other, laugh a bit, and learn perhaps even a little too.
As background, this week, most of my students missed a relatively easy essay issue dealing with consideration, even though it was right under their noses. That's because we really do often believe that we aren't smart enough to solve the problem or that they must be tricking us. But, sometimes the answer is right in front of us, if we just take the time to ponder it a bit. Nevertheless, we are often in a rush, because of time pressures, to start working on the problem at hand before we even understand the problem at hand.
With that background in mind, let your students know that you'd like to take a breather, and oh, let's say, work on a math problem for a moment. Not one that is too difficult, mind you. Just one from back from the days when you were taking algebra.
Then, scribble on the board: "Find x." Follow that with the equation: y = 2x/3 + 25. Then let them have at it. Oh, and make sure that they know that they are free to work in groups, after all, its a math problem!
At this point, a few engineers and scientists will be plugging away but most students will be frantically trying to figure out: "How do we solve for x?"
But note the "call" of the question. It's not to "solve" for x but rather to "find" x. And, just like that, one of your students will scream out I've got it! I've found x! That's when you ask the student to come to the board, with a marker in hand, and explain what they came up with. Watch with amazement as the student circles on the board where x is!
Back to my essay problem involving consideration. Based on a past bar exam essay, the problem involved a person who immediately risked her life to save a dog from a burning house. After the dog was rescued, a conversation ensued between the rescuer and the dog's owner with the owner learning that the rescuer wanted to go to paramedic school but couldn't afford it (no contract yet!). That's when things got exciting. The owner promised that she would pay for paramedic schooling because she wanted to "compensate" the rescuer for his heroism in rescuing her dog. Well, as things go on bar exam problems, the owner didn't pay and the rescuer, who was denied admission to the paramedic school, pursued a different line of education.
Most students explored lots of issues, including offer, acceptance, statute of frauds, mistake, conditions, anticipatory repudiation, and you name it. But, the key was in writing the issue: "The issue is whether the rescuer has any contract claims when the owner promised to pay for paramedic school to compensate the rescuer for a past act of heroism." In a nutshell, there was an issue concerning whether there was consideration based on the pre-existing duty rule and there was an issue concerning whether, assuming no consideration, whether the promise could be enforced under the material benefit rule and/or promissory estoppel. That was it. Once the students saw the answer, they then saw the facts that triggered that answer, and it all came down to writing the issue statement.
That's when I brought out the math problem below. Using this challenge, students were reminded that it's important to ask the right questions in order to get the right answers. And, in order to ask the right questions, we have to take time, before we write, to think. It was one of the most memorable learning exercises of all for my students because they all knew the rules of consideration and promissory estoppel but in their haste to solve the problem...they missed the problem. Love to have your thoughts on how the "Find x" exercise goes with your students! (Scott Johns)
Wednesday, February 26, 2020
This week we, as in the legal community, are in the midst of the February Bar Exam. For many taking the Feb exam, this can mean that they weren't successful in July. This isn't always the case, there are plenty reasons to take the bar exam in Feb for the first time. However, working with repeaters has made me reflect quite a bit on growth mindset and the importance of grit.
Grit is defined, by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, as "firmness of mind or spirit, unyielding courage in the face of hardship." Growth mindset is a frame of mind, a belief system we adopt to process incoming information. People with a growth mindset look at challenges and change as a motivator to increase effort and leaning. Most experts agree that grit and growth mindset are the most important factors in success.
Let's start with Grit. An entire book on grit was written by Angela Duckworth. (See her website for information on her book, as well as her grit scale - https://angeladuckworth.com/) Angela Duckworth is a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and founder and CEO of Character Lab. She started studying why certain people succeed, and others don't. She began at West Point Military Academy, studying why some complete the "Beast Barracks", essentially a boot camp, while others drop out. Given that to get into West Point, there was a certain similarity of background, in term of grades, extracurricular, etc. she set out to see if she could predict who would make it, and who wouldn't. It turns out they couldn't predict this based on grades, or background, but could base it on a grit scale that Prof. Duckworth created. The grittier the West Point cadet, the more likely they would complete the "Beast Barracks". She later expanded on her studies and found that the grittier you were, the more likely you were to complete a graduate degree. She further expanded this to other professions, Olympians, etc, and found that generally, the more grit you had, the more like you were to succeed.
This applies to law school, the bar exam, and the practice of law. Grittier people get back up. They fail, but they learn from that failure and try again. And sometimes try over and over again. However, the key is always learning WHY you failed. This brings me to growth mindset. Dr. Carol Dweck coined the terms "fixed mindset" and "growth mindset." These terms describe the underlying beliefs we have about learning and intelligence.
Professor Dweck explain why a fixed mindset can negatively impact all aspects of your life, but especially your learning:
"Believing that your qualities are carved in stone creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character, well then you'd better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn't do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics.
I've seen so many people with this one consuming goal of proving themselves in [a learning setting], in their careers, and in their relationships. Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character. Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser?
But when you start viewing things as mutable, the situation gives way to the bigger picture.
This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments, everyone can change and grow through application and experience.
This is important because it can actually change what you strive for and what you see as success. By changing the definition, significance, and impact of failure, you change the deepest meaning of effort."
In short, if you focus on learning for learning's sake, and not the end result, like grades or the bar exam, you will get more out of your effort! As a law student, focus on learning the law, and learning to be the best lawyer you can, will help you be more successful. (Here is the website on mindset, where you can take a quiz to find out where you are on the mindset scale, and learn more about the years of research done by Prof. Dweck - https://www.mindsetworks.com/science/)
Grit and growth mindset also take practice. Those that are grittier know that they have to put in the time and effort, that no one is just a "natural" - there is always behind the scenes work. Again, this also takes serious self reflection to learn from each failure, and to learn from each success. If you are a law student, assess your exams. Learn to assess your practice hypotheticals. Reflect on how you can improve. If you are studying for the bar, learn to track MBE questions and learn from each practice essay. If you are a practicing lawyer, learn from each and everything you do, whether it ended in a win or a loss. There is always room for improvement, and that is what makes successful people successful.
I don't think lawyers, as a profession, talk enough about our failures, or ways we can improve. Therefore, the messaging doesn't get passed down to students. But we have to make it the norm to fail, and get back up again. That needs to be part of our culture.
It should also be noted that I'm biased, because as I'm writing this I'm working on an entire CALI lesson on growth mindset and grit for law students, so if you are a student, look for that soon, and if you are a professor, feel free to pass it along to your students. In that lesson, I encourage students to reflect on failures, and what they learned. I encourage you all to share your failures, and how you bounced back, with your students.
Stay gritty! (Melissa Hale)
Tuesday, February 25, 2020
For the first time in eleven years, the February bar examination starts on Mardi Gras. For those celebrating the first day of Carnival, today will be a joyous and hopeful celebration, followed tomorrow by a weeks-long period of disciplined self-denial; for those taking the bar exam, today marks the culmination of a weeks-long period of disciplined self-denial, to be followed tomorrow by a joyous and hopeful celebration. To both krewes I say: Laissez les bon temps rouler!
Meanwhile, those of us in Academic Support engaged in less elevated pursuits are already making efforts and plans to help the next set of examinees get ready for the July administration of the bar examination. As we communicate with our current 3L students to lay the foundation for their prep work over the summer, it is not a bad idea to consider Shrove Tuesday and some of the value of celebration and ceremony in general. Holidays like Mardi Gras and festivities like weddings are not merely commemorations of momentous occasions, nor excuses for fun and excess. They also serve as cultural and psychological turning points, signaling for participants the seriousness of the transition they are about to make. (“Carnival” is, after all, derived from a Latin phrase for “remove meat” or “farewell to meat” – we associate the term with fun, but it really means preparing to sacrifice.) The grandiosity and tradition of such celebrations convey weighty significance, and their communal nature impress upon participants that they have both support from and responsibility towards a society – that they are not just taking this on alone. When effective, these implications encourage celebrants to take on their new situation immediately and wholeheartedly, and the (often subconscious) gravity impressed upon them by the jubilee can give them the perseverance not to abandon it when times are hard. Wedding ceremonies help couples take the hard work of being married seriously, even when they want to walk away. Mardi Gras helps observants stick to their resolutions of Lenten sacrifice, even when led into temptation.
Graduation is already a significant celebration in the minds of our law students, and we can use the weight and jubilation already associated with it to the advantage of our future bar examinees. A little additional messaging, suggesting that commencement is not just the start of their professional lives but also a milestone that marks the transition to a new mode of intensity, can help students see graduation day (even if only subconsciously) as a ceremony that signals their immediate and wholehearted commitment to bar study, and one that lends them additional perseverance throughout the months of May, June, and July. Be overt, be enthusiastic, and remind them that they will celebrating and then sacrificing together. There is power in a party, and we can put it to use.
Monday, February 24, 2020
The bar exam is so much more than a test. It is an arduous all-encompassing journey that begins with months of study and practice. Today, the journey comes to an end for the February bar takers. As we send positive thoughts and well-wishes to our students taking the bar exam, we should consciously acknowledge the individuality of the journey for each student, the diversity of experiences, and the sacrifices that were made to reach this point.
Bar takers of all ages and backgrounds have sacrificed, surrendered, lost, ignored, delayed, and missed so much while studying for the bar. Yet, life circumstances would not pause during bar study. Some wed, or welcomed a new child; others dealt with the loss of a pet or family member; some faced separation or divorce; while others moved in, moved away, or moved back home. There are bar takers who made the necessary decision to leave young children in the temporary care of family or friends, while others had to find ways to incorporate parenting and family time, or perhaps elder care, into the bar study routine.
For so many, there were financial struggles. Students took out loans to pay for a bar course, to eat, to live. Some quit their jobs for full-time bar study; others lost their jobs because they could not keep up with the hours and the demands of study. Repeat takers managed the stigma and financial distress of a second, or third, bar prep period. No dollar amount can truly capture the real cost of studying for the bar. There is a toll on your body, your back, your hands, and your eyesight.
Bar takers everywhere, we see you. We acknowledge your struggle. We affirm your efforts and we cannot wait to celebrate your success!
Thursday, February 20, 2020
We've been told that seeing is believing but I suspect that most of us don't really think that's quite true, at least when it comes to our own cognitive biases.
After all, we are trained attorneys, steeped in expertise in evaluating evidence carefully and thoughtfully. We don't rush into conclusions. We sort, we deduce, we reflect. At least that's what I used to think...until I got caught by one of my own students.
Here's what happened.
We were talking about cognition, and one of my students - a former teacher - asked me if I wouldn't mind taking part in a little experiment about thinking - a mathematics experiment. I was so excited because I'm a mathematician by professional training. I was ready for the test, or so I thought.
Step by step, my student became my teacher, asking me the following questions in front of about 90 of my students:
Prof. Johns, what's 1000 + 1000? Good.
Now, add 50. Good.
Now, add 40. Perfect.
Now, add 10.
What's that give you? ______.
I blurted out, as proudly and as loudly as I could...3000...and I was completely wrong and utterly embarrassed (since the correct answer is 2100).
Here's what happened: My thinking got in my way because I wasn't really thinking but acting like I was thinking, which is what I think cognitive bias might come down to.
Try this out with your own students. Ask them to work through this little math problem, out loud, one calculation at a time, as a class.
[Note: At first, few will participate by calculating answers, after all, because most are scared of math, so start the whole problem over until all are participating by speaking - out loud - the answers to each step of the math problem.]
What's 1000 plus 1000? _____
Plut 50? ______
Plus 40? ______
Plus 10? ______
Most, just like me, will blurt out 3000. And that's a problem - as attorneys and as law students - because that means that the first impulses of our minds are often wrong, whether we are working through multiple-choice questions, sketching out possible issues as we read through an essay question, or probing problems that we might need to address to help our clients.
So if you have a chance to try out this little experiment with your students, please let me know what you learn. And, let me know what your students say that they've learned from this experiment. If your students are at all like me, this little experiment will not just open up their minds but also their eyes too. And that's something worth seeing.
Wednesday, February 19, 2020
I think we all do. It has been that kind of week. I think we are all there, the bar exam is next week, it's the middle of winter, first year students want to meet about Fall grades, and most of us are teaching and doing workshop. So, it's a crazy time of year.
Today, as I am putting together a workshop for first years, and a class on the MPT, I realized that I was only able to do both of these things with the help of fellow ASPers. Literally, I was using parts of their powerpoints and handouts. I mean, 80% of my outlining presentation was the property of other ASPers. And that's what I love about this community. We share resources, tangible outlines, PowerPoints, syllabi and and so forth. Email an individual, or ask on the listserv, and you shall receive. Everyone is happy to share their work product without blinking.
Our conferences are also great for these tangible resources. I feel like each presentation is a collection of tangible things we can all take back to the classroom. (Speaking of conferences, remember that there are regional conferences coming up in TX (March 6th), Chicago (March 13th), and NY (March 20th), not to mention our annual conference in Washington, D.C. in May).
And then there are the intangibles, knowing I have people that get it. Knowing that there are people I can count on. Knowing I can email people in any state for a question about their state character and fitness or that they are willing to help one of my students. Knowing that they will listen, vent, share ideas, help brainstorm. Or even agree to write a book with you! To all of you, you are my people, my network, my village. And, as a colleague likes to say, "Teamwork makes the dream work."
To that end I encourage people to reach out. Maybe you're new, or feel like you can't reach out. I certainly felt like the new kid at my very first conference. I didn't feel confident reaching out to ask people for their syllabi or materials. But do it. We all encourage you to reach out. We are all happy to share ideas, advice, or actual materials. The AASE leadership is also diligently working on making sure our website has a section for materials from conferences, and otherwise, and we are getting there!
I also had to ask for help in a different way today. I had a health issue that wasn't going away, and had to cancel class. Something I hate doing. I was on the fence, wondering if I should just suck it up and push through. But my friend and Dean of Students insisted that she drive me home, while lecturing me on self care. The lecture was well deserved, and I needed to hear it.
So, while all of us are in a potentially stressful week, don't be afraid to ask for help. Don't stop practicing self care. And don't hesitate to email the listserv asking for something!
Monday, February 17, 2020
Bar takers, you have seven study days remaining to prepare, to take one last look at your bare bones outlines, to try to crack the code for recognizing recording statutes, and to improve your speed at performance testing. Adding to the angst of sitting for an exam that will determine entry into your chosen profession, is the foreboding fact that national bar passage rates have declined and not returned to prior years heights. News from bad to scary, logically, can lead to doubt and self-debasing thoughts like who am I to pass if as few as four of every 10 bar takers pass the bar in some states?
The negative thoughts creep in and resound even louder to those who entered law school against the odds. Those with LSAT scores below 150; those who juggled working to provide for a family by day, and the competitive rigors of law study by night; those who managed the anxiety of chronic illness and attendance requirements; those who faced implicit biases that created a presumption of lower competence and precluded their appointment to prestigious posts; those whose humble social or financial backgrounds placed them in a daily battle with imposter syndrome; those whose law schools don't rank elite; and those who’ve found a home in the bottom quartile of the law school class are left to silently question who am I to pass?
Let these words be the fight song for the academic underdog. You entered law school, wind at your front, and made it. You fed your family and persevered. You commuted two hours to and from school and made the 8:00 AM lectures. You tutored yourself. You feared failure, but kept going. You ignored the rankings, and focused on your exams. When things got hard, you got harder. So to those who still question, who are you to pass . . . ?
I ask the better question: who are you not to?
 The Louisiana Bar Examination is administered February 17 – 21, 2020, eight days before the administration of the Uniform Bar Exam and other state bar exams.
 Mark Hansen, Multistate Bar Exam Average Score Falls to 33-Year Low, A.B.A. J. (Mar. 31, 2016). See also Jeffrey Kinsler, Law Schools, Bar Passage, and Under and Over-Performing Expectations, 36 QUINNIPIAC L. REV. 183, 187 (“Between 2009 and 2013, nationwide firsttime bar passage rates remained in the high seventy percentile range with three years at 79%, one year (2013) at 78%, and one year (2012) at 77%. Those nationwide bar passage numbers slid from 78% in 2013 to 74% in 2014, 70% in 2015, and 69% in 2016.”).
 Joshua Crave, Bar Exam Pass Rate by State, LAWSCHOOLI (Jan. 29, 2019), https://lawschooli.com/bar-exam-pass-rate-by-state.
*adapted from BarCzar Blog originally published April 2018.
Thursday, February 13, 2020
Let me ask you a couple of questions posed by a recent article (illustrating how easily our minds can mislead us). M. Statman, Mental Mistakes, WSJ (Feb 9, 2020).
First, do you consider yourself an above average driver?
Second, do you consider yourself an above average juggler?
Most of us answer the first question: "Yes, of course I'm an above average driver." In contrast, most of us answer the second question: "No, absolutely not. Why, I can't even juggle so I'm definitely below average." But context matters in determining whether our answers to these questions are accurate. Id.
Let me explain.
Take driving. Most of us think that we are at least average drivers (and most likely above average) because we drove today and didn't (hopefully) have an accident. But most drivers are just like us. They didn't have accidents either. Id. Consequently, at least half of us have to be below average and the other half above average. And, because we haven't yet explored any factual evidence in order to accurately gauge our driving abilities (such as accident records, traffic tickets, etc), we are often mistaken about our driving abilities.
Now let's take juggling. Most of us can't juggle at all, and, because that includes virtually all people, we are probably at least average jugglers (and maybe even better than average jugglers!). Id. You see, evidence matters in judging accurately. Id.
Likewise, with respect to learning, most of us think that we are at least above average with respect to easy tasks (like driving) but below average with respect to the hard tasks of learning (like juggling). However, without concrete facts to evaluate our learning, we are likely wrong. And that's a problem because if we don't know what we know and what we need to know we can't improve our learning...at all. Indeed, that's why learning can be so difficult. We tend to get stuck within our minds, our own framework, seeing what we want to see rather than what is really true about our learning.
So, as you evaluate your own learning, step back. Ask yourself how do I know what I think I know. Challenge yourself to see from the perspective of others so that you don't miss out on wonderful opportunities to improve your learning. Be honest but not harsh. Focus on identifying ways to improve.
If you're not sure how to go about self-reflective learning, here's a quick suggestion:
Take for example an essay answer that you've written.
First, find, identify, and explain one thing that in your writing that is outstanding (and why).
Second, find, identify, and explain one way to improve your writing (and why that would be beneficial).
Indeed, towards the end of most meetings with students, rather than telling my students to do "this or that," I ask them to tell me what they've learned about themselves from talking together and what can they do to improve their own learning. And, I don't stop with just one answer. I keep on asking until we have at last three concrete action items, all of which sprung out from them rather than me. That's because the most memorable learning happens in "aha" moments, when we see what we didn't see before. And, after all, isn't that the essence of learning...seeing anew with free eyes to boot.
Tuesday, February 11, 2020
The year: 334 B.C.
The place: The ancient Phrygian city of Gordium
The tale you are about to read is as true as it can be:
Hephaestion: Hey, Seleucus! You just missed all the fun! Alex here just fulfilled another ancient prophecy!
Alexander the Great (shrugging): Don’t listen to Heph. It was no big deal.
Seleucus: “No big deal”? And a shrug? That’s what you said after you razed the city of Thebes. “Eh, no biggie.” Just another complete victory and total annihilation. Whatever. So what was it this time?
Hephaestion: Get this: There was this ox-cart in town tied to a post –
Seleucus: And Alex chopped it into kindling, burned it to ashes, then scattered the ashes to the four winds?
Alexander the Great: Gee, thanks, Seleucus, you make me sound like some kind of rampaging destroyer.
Seleucus: Well, you are conquering the known world. There’s bound to be a certain amount of destruction involved.
Alexander the Great: It’s not all destruction. Sometimes there’s creativity involved.
Seleucus: Yeah, like creating widows.
Hephaestion: As I was saying: there’s this ox-cart tied to a post by this knot. Been there hundreds of years, and no one’s ever been able to untie the knot. If you saw the knot, you’d understand why: totally complicated, gnarled and tangled, just a huge total mess.
Seleucus: Like Hephaestion’s tent.
Hephaestion: I’m ignoring you. This knot was tied by Midas—
Seleucus: Hold up, you mean King Midas? You mean everything-he-touched-turned-to-gold Midas? The guy who starved to death because every grape and loaf of bread he picked up turned to gold before he could eat it?
Alexander the Great: Yeah, I always wondered about that. Why didn’t he just have servants drop the food into his open mouth?
Seleucus: That’s what I like about you, Alex; always thinking outside the box.
Hephaestion: Yes, it was that Midas. See? Big names. No ordinary knot here. And there’s this prophecy, too: Whoever unties this knot is destined to be the ruler of all Asia.
Seleucus: I see where you’re going with this. Alex had to have a go at it, didn’t he?
Alexander the Great: Well, if you counted the number of turns visible around the rim of the knot, you could tell that—
Hephaestion: I’ll say he had a go! He scrunched up his Macedonian eyes, looked at it for a minute like it contained the secrets of the universe, and said, “I know how to take care of this!”
Seleucus: Did you? I’m impressed.
Hephaestion: He whipped out his sword, and snap! Cut right through that sucker!
Seleucus: You did? I’m not impressed.
Hephaestion: Oh, go suck a pomegranate. Alex dismantled that puppy! That knot is no more. And that means that Alex = ruler of all Asia. And what did you accomplish this morning, Seleucus? Clean your tent?
Seleucus: Yes, I did. But I’ll tell you what I didn’t do – I didn’t cheat. Which is what Alex did do.
Alexander the Great: Wait, Seleucus, you don’t understand—
Seleucus: No, Alex, I don’t understand. The prophecy said “whoever unties the knot”. I don’t understand how chopping it to pieces counts as “untying” it. When I untie my sandals do I pop a blade into them?
Alexander the Great: Look, I needed to use my sword—
Seleucus: Did you? Did you really? I’ve been seeing this trend in you for the last few years, Alex: when in doubt, wipe it out! Rivals to the throne – gone. Vanquished armies – eliminated. And now this knot – oh, let me just slice the cord in twain – problem solved! Well, you know what, Alex? That’s just cheating. Eliminating a problem is not the same as solving it. “Thinking outside the box” does not mean you just move yourself into a different box.
Hephaestion: Hey, step off, Seluke! You don’t know what you’re talking about.
Seleucus: Don’t I? Look, this time it’s just a damn knot, and knowing Alex the press will probably eat this up. They’ll be writing about it for at least 2,354 years – “And then Alexander the Great cut the Gordian Knot, and found a solution where no one else could!” But Alex is trying to rule the whole world, Heph, and this attitude of destroy/eliminate/repeat is going to be the end of him. If he doesn’t learn how to actually solve these “unsolvable” problems, then what’s he going to do when he encounters one he can’t get rid of?
Alexander the Great: Seleucus, I hear what you’re saying, and I appreciate it. But Heph is right – you didn’t hear the whole story. I didn’t simply chop the Gordian Knot into pieces, although I bet you’re right about that being how the press will report it. Quick and brutal gets people’s attention, but even I know that slow and elegant is often more effective. With the knot, I simply noticed that it could never be untied so long as the two ends of the rope remained spliced together, so I pulled out my sword and trimmed the splices. That left me with the two original ends of the rope – just like the two ends of your sandal laces. Once those were freed, I could actually start to work on the knot, like no one had done over the last, what, three hundred years? Duh. It took me a couple of hours, but eventually I was able to work the knot loose.
Alexander the Great: I think there’s a difference between changing the conditions to make them workable and completely blowing the problem up.
Hephaestion: Is that all you can say? “Oh. Yeah.” You called out the future ruler of all Asia by mistake and can’t even apologize?
Seleucus: Ah, Alex, I’m sorry. You know I was just worried about you.
Alexander the Great: I know. But I think I’m going to have to have you and your entire bloodline executed now, and your ashes — how did he put it?
Hephaestion: “Scattered to the four winds,” I think he said.
Alexander the Great: Yeah, that was it. I like that — little pieces of burnt-up Seleucus, and his kids, drifting south on a zephyr.
Alexander the Great: I’m just kiddin’, Seleucus. I know you care. Later, dude. Heph, let’s you and I go clean your tent.
Monday, February 10, 2020
And you'll finally see the truth, that a hero lies in you. Mariah Carey and Walter Afanasieff
Every lawyer who has completed the journey that begins with law school and ends with a multi-day bar examination knows the anxiety, the overload, and the sheer exhaustion that is bar study. There is no shortage of horror stories involving the bar exam.1 Virtually every attorney has a bar-related cautionary tale. Some of these tales recount the angst of making up legal rules to answer an essay question about which they had no clue how to answer.2 Other tales may involve the heart-stopping panic brought on by “Barmageddon” when technology glitches prevented examinees from electronically submitting their essays.3 The bar exam is a grueling rite of passage that no attorney wants to revisit or repeat.
But not accounted for in the published bar pass lists and statewide bar statistics is a group of unsung heroes that contribute in meaningful ways to the attorney rosters of each state. This group is largely unnoticed, unnamed, or misnomered as law school academic support staff, professional development personnel or even student services providers. These gifted folks, whether or not named or recognized, essentially relive the nightmare that is bar prep two times per year, every year, without break or exception, and without earning any additional licensure.
So, here’s to the bar prep heroes who, despite already having at least one law license, restudy, listen anew to lectures, and peruse endless pages of commercial outlines in search of changes to a majority rule or a better way to explain testable material. Hat tip to my colleagues in the trenches who biannually endure the round-the-clock cries for help, the endless essay grading, and the ulcer generating impathic nervousness for the aspiring attorneys in whom we are emotionally invested.
As the end of February draws nigh, you will soon return to regular sleep patterns and be able to answer the 100+ unread messages in your inboxes. Yes, all will be back to normal . . . except for the two to three months filled with delightfully dreaded anxious anticipation of released results. You are the heroes on the other side of bar prep.
 Marsha Griggs, Building A Better Bar Exam, 7 Tex. A&M L. Rev. 1 (2019).
 Karen Sloan, Software Maker Settles Barmageddon Class Action for $21 Million, NAT’L L.J. (May 15, 2015, 12:26 AM), https://www.law.com/nationallawjournal/
Thursday, January 30, 2020
Time is so precious. That's why I love elevators. Not because I like to wait. Indeed where I teach the elevators are as slow as molasses, which means, that I have a captive audience (especially because our elevators don't have music to calm the nerves).
That got me thinking. Why not make the most of the situation at hand? After all, we live and work and move in learning communities. So, here's a few suggestions to turn elevator rides into more "elevating experiences" to help celebrate community and learning.
First, smile. Yep, you might even make eye contact too. This is not the time to be bashful.
Second, recognize the other. Resist the tendency to pretend to be too busy for relationships by looking down at your smart phone, or up at the flashing numbers, or at the floor. After all, we are communities of learning, so extend a hearty hello to each one (and a gracious goodbye as people depart).
Third, introduce yourself if you haven't met. "Hi! I'm Scott Johns, one of your faculty members."
Fourth, ask questions such as: "What's something you're learning today?" What's your favorite class (and why?)? "What type of law are you interested in practicing?
You see, elevators can be elevating experiences...if only we take the time to be with each other. And who knows, you might make someone's day because most of us - if truth be known - go through much of life unrecognizable by others, just hoping to be known. But elevators are no place to be alone (nor is law school or life either).
So here's seeing (and chatting) with you on the elevator soon!
Tuesday, January 28, 2020
It is an oddly resonant time of year.
This has been happening for the past week or so:
- A student comes to my office to talk. It's a 1L student, wrestling with a mix of shock and panic after receiving first-semester grades. They did not do as well as they had expected, and they are not sure what that means. Are they really smart enough for law school? Will they even make it through the first year? They are willing to work hard to improve, but they don't even know where to begin, and they are not sure that they will improve enough to make it. I explain that of course they need to take their grades seriously, and that they do have a good deal of progress to make, preferably as quickly as possible. However, I note, it is not unusual for students not to reach their fully potential right away, especially when transitioning into new types of tasks, and that they do have time to get themselves where they want to be, as long as they are diligent and thoughtful and make every effort to learn useful lessons from the disappointing evaluations they have received so far.
- Next, a recent graduate comes to my office to talk. It's someone preparing to take the bar exam in February, wrestling with a mix of shock and panic after receiving the results of their first simulated MBE exam. They did not do as well as they had expected, and they are not sure what that means. Are they really smart enough for the bar exam? Will they even pass? They are willing to work hard to improve, but they don't even know where to begin, and they are not sure that they will improve enough to make it. I explain that of course they need to take their score seriously, and that they do have a good deal of progress to make, preferably as quickly as possible. However, I note, it is not unusual for examinees not to reach their fully potential right away, especially when transitioning into new types of tasks, and that they do have time to get themselves where they want to be, as long as they are diligent and thoughtful and make every effort to learn useful lessons from the disappointing evaluations they have received so far.
- Next, another 1L student comes to my office to talk . . .
It is the nature of our jobs that we sometimes find ourselves trying to convey multiple messages -- sometimes contradictory -- at the same time. In January, this messaging consists of finding the right balance of intensity and perspective, of patience and urgency, of recognizing the effects of circumstance and shouldering the burden of personal responsibility. It can be tough in part because the people we counsel can be so different -- words that barely allay the anxiety of one person might be enough to lull another person into a false sense of self-confidence. Better to calm our advisees down just enough for them to be able to hear and take in our more practical suggestions about focusing on step-by-step goals, specific tasks, and formative assessments, which provide them not only with routes to get to where they want to be, but also help them strengthen their abilities to more accurately judge their performance and progress.
For those preparing for the February bar, it might also be worthwhile reminding them that they may have had similar moments of uncertainty when they first entered law school. They figured out enough to get obtain their J.D.s. Why should they doubt that they have the capacity to figure out how to clear that final hurdle?
Thursday, January 23, 2020
Research suggests a relationship between a positive growth mindset mindset and improved learning. C. Dweck, G. Walton, G. Cohen, Academic Tenacity: Mindsets and Skills that Promote Long-Term Learning (2014). Consequently, I've been trying to "read" the minds of my students (and they often seem to look sullen, downtrodden, and burdened).
To be frank, that might well be my fault because I don't always accentuate the positives about the difficulties involved in learning. Yet for most of us, we realize that it's in the midst of the hard spots of our lives that our character was shaped. In short, we grew into the people we are today because of how we pulled through the difficulties of yesterday. And that's why learning is...growing our minds. So, why not see learning in similar light?
Here's a couple of suggestions that might help your students approach learning with a more positive growth mindset:
First, my best classes are when I leave room at the end of the class, well, for learning (or at least reflecting on learning). Here's how: I ask students to mingle about what they learned today. Instantly faces are transformed into beams of sunlight; frowns are replaced by the warmth of smiles; and, most significantly, the class becomes alive with criss-crossing conversations. Then, I open up the floor...and the floor fills up oh so quickly. Hand over there, another over here. Three over there. More that away. In short, as students open up, they come to appreciate that they have learned a great deal (and that most of their learning came through courageously probing mistakes made).
Second, I toss out a statement - in my best vocal rendition of Eeyore as possible - gloomily saying: "Oh my...oh me. Woe is me. I missed...another...problem." We then contrast that mindset with Winnie the Pooh: "Oh, look, there's honey over there, up in the tree, and back over there, why, there's even more honey; there's honey everywhere!" Suddenly students recognize that law school life is not really as gloomy as they think it is, that there's plenty of "honey" to be gathered from every problem that we miss; that it's in "climbing up the trees" and putting our hands in the thick of the "bee hives" that leads us to even more honey...because, well, "where's there's bees--there's got to be honey."
In short, it's in the midsts of mistakes that we learn best. So, to sum up what I've gleaned about learning from Winnie the Pooh and Eeyore it's this: "The best learning is like honey; it's a sticky mess of a problem (but a mighty good treat!)."
P.S. To learn more about Winnie the Pooh and friends, visit: https://winniethepooh.disney.com/winnie-the-pooh
Monday, January 20, 2020
Across the country this week, bar candidates will take a full-length practice exam. Your first simulated MBE scores may not be exactly what you expected. I took my first bar exam years ago, but I still remember the shock of my first practice test score. I could not believe my eyes. Never before had I seen a percentage so low. My practice test results triggered a fight or flight instinct in me. For others, this week's results may yield any one of a host of emotions: fear, devastation, sadness, indifference, or overconfidence. Bar passers must develop the coping mechanisms to rebuff these counterproductive, yet understandable, emotions.
The first step in your battle for resilience must be to reflect on your pre-bar journey. Approximately three years ago, you were wondering if you would get into your first-choice law school — or any law school for that matter. Once admitted, those first-year exams made you question your ability to make it through law school. Yet somehow by grace and sporadic unhealthy doses of caffeine, you are here with a law degree and one test that stands between you and the practice of law. What began as a quest both shaky and unsure, is now a dream realized. How you started is NOT how you will finish.
The second step is self-assessment. You may have learned that while you love e.g. Torts or Contracts, they do not reciprocate your sentiments. You may be equally shocked to discover that you excelled in a dreaded subject area, proving that you know the doctrine of equitable conversion and standards of review far better than you previously led yourself to believe. Analyze your practice exam results to identify your areas of strength and weakness.
The third step is to slow your roll. Before looking to new sets of practice questions, revisit questions that you have already answered and missed. Don't reread the answer explanations. Instead reread the question facts. It is highly likely that you may know the tested rule of law, but missed some key detail in the fact pattern or misread the call of the question. It is unwise to do more practice questions until you fully understand how to analyze and answer the ones you've already answered.
The fourth and final step is to execute a plan of attack. Once you come to terms with your weaknesses, develop an effective plan to combat them. The tools and assignments from your commercial bar review provider can only take you so far. If you need drastic improvement, consider reaching out to your law school academic and bar support team or a professional bar tutor. Sometimes the best bar therapy comes in the form of a volunteer bar coach or the supportive words of a recent bar passer.
Sunday, January 19, 2020
Comparison is the thief of Joy. - President Theodore Roosevelt
The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel. - Pastor Steven Furtick
Unfortunately, now is the season of comparison. Grades came out recently, and I hear 2 questions from many of my students. The first question is, "am I still in law school?" For the vast majority of law students, the answer is yes. The next question I hear is some version of how do I compared to everyone else. The joy of passing or completing a semester of law school isn't most students' reaction. The near immediate reaction is to start comparing to others. The immediate comparison furthers the demoralizing effect law school has on many students.
Depression in law school is four times higher than society. I believe one of the reasons is our natural tendency to compare ourselves to others. Not only do people like to compare, society has furthered the comparison mindset. Pastor Furtick's quote from above is specific to social media. He is 100% correct. One study indicates over 69% of adults use social media. Social media is a constant comparison. Individuals see friends' vacations, clothes, habits, food, etc. and start feeling bad about life. The perception is the pictures and stories on facebook are the constant, and our own daily constant can't compare.
Current students grew up on social media, so they are even more entrenched in comparisons. Our job is to find a way to help students fight the immediate need to compare to others' grades. When students come in, I always start with acknowledging students' feeling'. Many are upset with grades, and feeling disappointed is understandable. From there, I talk about what they accomplished. I tell them not everyone can make it into law school, and not everyone graduates. Making it through a semester is impressive. Here are a few additional strategies for decreasing comparisons:
1. Turn off social media as much as possible, but definitely during the week after grades are released. Disappointment from grades can be compounded by comparing to others on facebook.
2. Write down why you came to law school. Ask yourself, can you still complete your career goals? The answer is most likely yes. With a few exceptions, you can still accomplish your goals no matter what your grades were. Many jobs are found through networking.
3. Don't listen to others' stories. Too many people talk about their "great" grades or how well they did. Don't listen. I hear more people talk about how well they did than is statistically probable.
4. Focus on what matters, which is this semester. Last semester's grades are finished. The only thing that can change are current and future semester grades. Now is the time to focus on how to improve.
Grade comparison is a thief of the joy of law school. Intellectual attainment should be rigorous but fulfilling. Constant comparison can ruin it. Let's strive to help students stop comparing to each other.
Saturday, January 18, 2020
Many of us are trying to make changes for the new year. Success insider published 20 motivation quotes for the new year. Here they are:
Let today be the day you give up who you've been for who you can become. - Hal Elrod
The object of a new year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul. - G.K. Chersterton
When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be. - Lao Tzu
The new year stands before us, like a chapter in a book, waiting to be written. - Melody Beattie
If you don't like the road you're walking, start paving another one. - Dolly Parton
Year's end is neither an end nor a beginning but a going on, with all the wisdom that experience can instill in us. - Hal Borland
Tomorrow is the first blank page of a 365-page book. Write a good one. - Braid Paisley
You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose. - Dr. Seuss
For last year's words belong to last year's language and next year's words await another voice. - T.S. Elliott
The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams. - Eleanor Roosevelt
Only you have the power to determine whether your future mimics your past. - Skip Prichard
Your life journey is about learning to become more of who you are and fulfilling the highest, truest expression of yourself as a human being. - Oprah Winfrey
There is no passion to be found in playing small - in settling for a life that is less than what you are capable of living. - Nelson Mandela
Don't count the days. Make the days count. - Muhammad Ali
Twenty years from now you'll be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. - H. Jackson Brown Jr.
You are never too old to set a goal or to dream a new dream. - C.S. Lewis
And now let us welcome the new year, full of things that never were. - Rainer Maria Rilke
It is never too late to be what you might have been. - George Elliot
Ring out the old, ring in the new, ring, happy bells, across the snow: the year is going, let him go; ring out the false, ring in the true. - Alfred Lord Tennyson
I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past. - Thomas Jefferson
Thursday, January 16, 2020
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. So picture a triangle: One way to think about learning is to contemplate the three "angles" of learning.
At the apex of the triangle - from the viewpoint of most students - law school education is all about learning to think, act, and communicate like an attorney.
But that begs the question. What is learning?
Well, in my opinion there are two others corners to the triangle, and those - I believe - are the wellsprings or foundations for successful learning. And, as many have suggested, they often go overlooked in our haste to teach students to "think like attorneys."
Let me explain what I see as the other two corners that make a "well-rounded" triangle so that our students can effectively learn to think, act, and communicate like attorneys.
One of the corners involves applying the science of learning - the lessons learned from educational psychologists as how best to learn. And, as the scientists suggest, its often counter-intuitive to our own notions of how we best learn: To cut to the chase, less talk and more action, by having our students engage in pre-testing, practice testing, distributed practice, retrieval practice, and interleaving practice throughout the semester, is foundational to long-term meaningful learning.
The other corner, it seems to me, involves the interplay of the heart, the soul, and the mind. It's the psychological-social dimensions of what best equips us and our students to engage in optimal learning practices. Some emphasize academic tenacity or grit. But, in my opinion, this corner of the triangle rises (or falls) on whether we are developing within our students a sense of place, of belonging, as valuable members of our learning communities. You see, it's very difficult to have grit when we feel out of place, like we don't belong. But focus on equipping our students to belong...and tenacity will soon follow suit.
Lately, thanks to the work of many in the academic support field in teaching me about the interrelationships among (1) the skills of lawyering, (2) the science of learning, and (3) the psychological-social dimensions of learning, I've been regularly integrating, emphasizing, and sharing research about learning straight from the "scientists" mouths.
Here's two of my favorite articles, filled with colorful and vibrant charts and tables, which I flash onto the classroom screens (and then have my students ponder, decipher, and explain as to how they can best learn to "think like lawyers" based on the latest research):
And, if you want to make the most of this little blog, grab a piece of paper, close your computer, and draw a nifty picture of a triangle (with annotations as you try to recall as much as you can about what you learned).
Happy Learning to you and your students!
Thursday, January 9, 2020
In my experience, very few law students take advantage of exam reviews...and, when they do (or must because of law school requirements), they often leave my office unchanged, defensive, and feeling as though grades are mostly arbitrary.
That got me thinking...
I'm convinced that there must be a better way - a much better way - for students to meaningfully review exams.
So, with that in mind, here's my 3-step suggestion for conducting exam reviews.
1. First, ask students to mark up their exam answers as if they are grading their answers, using the exam keys or model answers provided by their professors.
2. Second, for each point in which a student misses an issue, a rule, or a fact analysis, etc., have the student go back to the exam question and highlight to identify where there were clues in the question that that issue was at play, or that rule was applicable, or those facts were meaningful to analyze.
3. Finally (and this is the hardest part for me), say nothing. Make no declarative statements at all. And, definitely make no suggestions at all.
Instead, ask the student open-ended questions, such as: "Looking back at the exam question now, what might have helped you realize at the time that you were taking the exam that that was an issue, etc." Then wait. Again say absolutely nothing. Let the student investigate, reflect, and ponder what the student saw and didn't see in the exam problem and what was missing from the student's rule statements or fact analysis, etc.
Then, put them in the pilot's seat by asking them questions such as: "Why do you think that you missed that issue or didn't have that rule in your answer or missed analyzing those facts, etc.?" As they talk, let the students be the experts. In fact, treat them as the expert by carefully jotting down notes as I listen to them.
At last, once they stop talking, I ask them this simple question: "Based on what you've now observed about your answer and the question, what are your recommendations as to how to improve your future learning, your exam preparations, and your exam problem-solving for the next time." Once they come up with one suggestion, ask them for another suggestion or tip that they can give to themselves...and then another one I like to see them come up with at least three concrete suggestions for ways that they can implement to improve their learning (and why they think those action items will be beneficial for their future learning).
In short, if I had to sum the best exam reviews that I've had with my students, its when I speak little and instead listen much.
(Many thanks goes to retired ASP professor and educational psychologist Dr. Marty Peters for sharing these insights with me).