Tuesday, June 11, 2019
It is June 11. Recent law school graduates, separated from the exaltation of graduation by two weeks of breakneck lectures, rote memorization, and mystifying practice questions, are increasingly conscious of the brief (and increasingly briefer) interval between now and the administration of the bar examination. Less than 50 days to learn all this new material, to recollect even more old material, and to master the skills needed for three different testing modes! If your students are like mine, they are still displaying a lot of grit and energy, but are beginning, after experiencing the intensity of bar preparation, to wonder if they will be able to accomplish all they need to succeed in the end.
Seven weeks does not seem like enough time to accomplish much. Or does it? Consider:
It is June 11. The Second Continental Congress has been considering the Lee Resolution, a proposal that the American colonies should formally declare their independence from the British Empire. Unable to agree without the text of an actual declaration in hand, the Congress appoints the Committee of Five – Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston – to draft a statement that all the colonies might agree upon. The Committee of Five presents their draft document less than three weeks later. The document is considered by the Congress as a whole, after which some changes are made on July 3. On the morning of July 4, the Declaration of Independence, in its final form, is adopted by the Second Continental Congress.
It is June 12. A French army, led by Joan of Arc, wins its first offensive victory at the Battle of Jargeau. After relieving the siege of Orleans earlier that spring, Joan had persuaded much of the French army to join her in opposing the English force that had occupied France and had prevented the coronation of the rightful French king, Charles VII. After Jargeau, Joan leads this army as it takes town after town and turns the tide against the English. After the army takes the city of Reims, the coronation of Charles VII takes place on July 17.
It is June 13. Having received from Daniel Ellsberg copies of the top-secret Vietnam Study Task Force – a collection of original government documents supplemented with historical analysis created by the Department of Defense as a history of the Vietnam War – the New York Times begins publishing excerpts that revealed details of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam that were not previously known publicly. These excerpts soon become known as "The Pentagon Papers." The Nixon Administration, hoping to discourage future leaks of classified information, seeks an injunction against the Times to prevent further publication. This action tests the limits of the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of the press as bounded by claims of national security concerns, and it moves apace all the way to the Supreme Court. On June 30, the Court, in a 6-3 decision, upholds the right of the New York Times to publish The Pentagon Papers.
This is a great week to begin to change the world. Remind your students that, this summer, they have the time to change theirs.
Tuesday, June 4, 2019
Yesterday, the quiz show Jeopardy! enjoyed its highest ratings in more than 14 years, <spoiler> on the day that 32-game winner James Holzhauer lost to librarian Emma Boettcher and fell just short of breaking the all-time record for most money won during regular play. (Sadly, James walked away with only $2,464,216.) My friends in the trivia community have been watching James's exploits with various mixtures of admiration, envy, bemusement, and exasperation. The latter two emotions have been prompted not by James himself, but by the sense-making reactions of casual viewers and the media to his success, and then to his defeat.
James racked up an intimidating number of high-scoring games -- including all of the top-ten highest-scoring games of all time -- and he sometimes won by six-figure margins. To a lot of pundits, these overwhelming victories suggested a new and singular player: either someone with unmatched, superhuman genius, or someone who had come up with a novel strategy that had "broken" the game forever. From the perspective of a lot of fans at home, this made sense. How else could someone achieve such never-before-seen results without some sort of mystical secret ingredient?
But to a coterie of former players and dedicated aficionados, there was nothing mysterious or unduplicable about James's style of play. He is a tremendous player, to be sure, certainly among the best. But the skills he brought to the game are pretty much the same skills other great players have exhibited before. He knows a lot of trivia; he is very adept at using the signaling device to snatch the opportunity to answer first; he understands the optimal strategies for choosing clues and making bets. His historically high scores are due mainly to a gutsy willingness to risk losing all or most of his pot by making big bets that, when successful, have left him with insurmountable leads. In the past, even the strongest players played more conservatively, hedging their bets so a wrong answer wouldn't take them out of the running. But James is a professional gambler, and he decided to maximize his return by maximizing his risk. This was a choice, not an aptitude, and anyone playing against him would have the capacity to make the same choice.
In fact, in yesterday's game, Emma did just that, making her own big bets to take a lead that James could not overcome. When the game hinged on one final question -- one that all three contestants would have the chance to answer, and on which each would have to make a wager -- Emma, in the lead, bet most of her accumulated winnings. James, close behind in second place, did something the audience had never seen him do before -- he bet only a tiny fraction of his pot, not even enough to catch up to Emma's pre-final score. Across the country, Twitterers and newspaper columnists alike responded incredulously. He wasn't even trying! they wrote. He's throwing the game on purpose! Commentators tried to make sense of the motivation behind such uncharacteristically tame behavior as James's desire to go home to be with his young daughter or his unwillingness to destroy the previous all-time record, out of respect to the record-holder, Ken Jennings.
But, again, to those who have played the game, there was nothing inconsistent or irrational about James's small bet. If you're in second place going into the final question, and you have more than half of the leader's score, then the leader is virtually always going to bet enough so that, if she answers correctly, her score will be more than twice your pre-final score. Even if you bet everything you have from second place, if the leader gets the final question right, you cannot catch her. There's nothing you can do to win if the leader gets the final question right -- so you need to think about how to maximize your chances of winning if she gets it wrong. And if she gets it wrong, she loses the amount that she bet -- often, an amount that is big enough to drop her score below your pre-final score. In such a case, if you want to make sure that you will win if the leader answers incorrectly -- whether or not you answer correctly yourself -- then you want to make a bet small enough to stay ahead of the leader's final score if she gets the last question wrong. And that is why James bet small at the end. He was still playing to win.
I'm saying all of this not to minimize the accomplishments of a truly great Jeopardy! player, and not even primarily to teach people sound game strategies. What I'm hoping I've done is illustrate how the natural human inclination towards sense-making can easily lead to misjudgments and misinterpretations, especially when people know something well enough for it to seem familiar, but not truly intimately. Sense-making is the act of coming up with plausible rationalizations for why things are the way they are. It is not necessarily a bad tendency -- it is, after all, how scientific inquiry begins. But "plausible rationalizations", while comforting, are often inaccurate, and relying on them uncritically can be dangerous.
Our students and recent graduates preparing for the bar exam are just now in that space where they've seen enough of the structure and content of the bar exam for them to seem familiar, but not enough of them to really intimately how to do well on it. As they take practice tests and observe their fellow preparers and hear stories about people who performed well or poorly in the past, they might run into some of the same issues with sense-making that I described in everyday Jeopardy! viewers:
- Misjudging the ratio of cause to effect -- People are naturally impressed by outcomes, and when causes are not well understood, there is sometimes an assumption that big differences in outcomes can only be explained by big differences in causes. Many viewers saw James's high scores, nearly twice as high as previous records, and assumed that he was twice as smart or twice as quick as anyone who had played before him. In reality, he was probably only slightly more skillful than most of the folks he played against, but the nature of the game is such that, once a player gains a small advantage in scoring, he can exploit and multiply that advantage enormously. In a similar way, bar studiers who see big differences between themselves and their classmates, or who see only small improvements in their own performance over time, might not be familiar enough with the task of bar preparation to recognize the true magnitude of the causes of those differences. They might assume that small improvements (or plateaus) indicate that they have not learned much, when in fact they've made a great deal of progress and are nearing a tipping point of improvement. They might assume that they could never get scores as high as some classmates', because they are just not smart enough or don't have time to study as much as they'd need to, when in fact in absolute terms they might only need to improve, say, recall by ten percent. (Or the mistake could be in the other direction -- for example, assuming that adding fifteen minutes of flash card study every day will double their MBE score.) Over time and with practice and feedback, they should get better at making these judgments, but this early in the summer, we should be generous with lending some perspective to their rationalizations.
- Tendency to search for a single overarching cause -- Systems are complicated, and humans like simplicity. There is something comforting and manageable about identifying one thing -- like a super big brain or a revolutionary game strategy -- that totally explains how to achieve a particular outcome. Thus, we see graduates who insist that the key to doing well on the bar is religiously answering a certain number of MBE questions each night, or memorizing the contents of a particular outline (especially one that someone who passed the bar before them has endorsed). The truth is that the bar exam is multimodal and designed to test multiple skills and multiple dimensions of understanding. There is no single overarching cause of success on the bar, no matter how comforting that would be, and helping students to recognize early on the rich multiple approaches to success will help them proceed more realistically towards their goals.
- Tendency to attribute unexpected observations to new causes -- At a primal level, there is something unsettling about the unexpected, and one sense-making reflex is to assume that anything we haven't seen before must be a manifestation of some new element. James's unexpectedly small bet was completely explainable within the schema he used to make his earlier large bets, as applied to a new set of conditions, but viewers unfamiliar with that schema assumed that the small bet indicated a complete change in goals and strategies. In the same way, a student who sees an unexpected drop in practice test scores one week might tell themselves that it's because the testing room has changed or the weather is hotter or the lecturer that week is not as good. But the reality might simply be that the method of study the student had been using for the previous few weeks, which was fine when they had only covered three or four subjects, is now just not able to help the student handle the burden of six or seven subject's worth of materials.
Of course, it is sometimes true that new observations are attributable to new causes. The reason sense-making can be dangerous for students is not because every plausible rationalization is wrong, but because, without support, students may not be able to tell the difference between sound and unsound rationalizations. The students most likely to succeed on the bar, just like the contestants most likely to win on a game show, are those who learn enough before the big day about the challenge they face to be able to actually make good sense of what they are doing.
Tuesday, May 14, 2019
This week, most of my 3L students are taking their last final exams. On Sunday they will graduate, and within a week or so, they will begin preparing to take the bar examination. Twenty years ago, this meant a return to the lecture hall for eight weeks of intensive lectures, surrounded by my closest classmates and a couple hundred other recent graduates. Today, the rise of online courses and live streaming means it is possible to complete an entire bar preparation course without getting out of bed, or at least without leaving one's home. It may be hard in the face of such convenience, but it is important to remind out graduating 3Ls of the substantial benefits of human contact.
One of the first things I tell my incoming 1L students is, "The law is a social profession." Successful practitioners, I explain, know the value of hashing out ideas and strategies with colleagues, and they develop networks of other lawyers to whom they can turn to make (or receive) referrals or to ask for guidance outside of their own areas of expertise. I tell my students this partly to help them to see the benefits of conferring with their own classmates and of taking advantage of mentoring and networking opportunities. But I also tell them because I know that a significant portion of the students in each incoming class needs this kind of encouragement, because they do not reflexively reach out to others for support and information. This tendency is explained in part by their natural inclinations; according to Eva Wisnik, president of Wisnik Career Enterprises, about 60 percent of those who become lawyers are introverts.
By their 3L year, many students, including some of those more introverted ones, have perceived the value of collaborative work, as in study groups and trial teams. Even so, the ten weeks or so between graduation and the bar exam pose new challenges. Some students, tired of the law school grind, envision a comparatively more manageable summer, one in which they can watch videos and undertake exercises online at their convenience instead of on a set schedule. Others may underestimate the time and attention demanded by the bar exam and conclude that the effort of traveling to campus, particularly on a set schedule, is not worth it. Under these circumstances, it may take extra persuasive effort to convince newly minted graduates that there are benefits to seeking out the company of other new graduates.
Still, there definitely are benefits. Full participation in bar preparation courses can be easier to achieve when the courses are seen as group activities in which groups of students commit to watching videos and working on exercises together (and to hold each other accountable for missed work). Group study and review provides additional opportunities for feedback and clarification. And when bar preparation becomes a stressful, tedious, and/or exhausting chore, as it often does halfway through the summer, commiseration can inspire tenacity.
How do you get soon-to-be ex-students to take advantage of these benefits by making particular efforts to associate with their peers, even when the apparently easier route would be to go solo? There are three things to keep in mind:
- Start early. Don't wait until graduation day is within reach to begin encouraging students to think of ways to work together during bar preparation. Social activities are easier to accept when they are perceived as social norms -- that is, just the way people expect to do things. Pointing out the social aspects of legal practice from the first year is one way to begin. Another way of normalizing the expectation that students will make efforts to work together during bar preparation is to encourage recent alumni who have done this successfully to share their experiences with friends from later classes.
- Make it easy. Bar study is difficult and consuming. Having to make special efforts to collaborate may seem like too much, to those overwhelmed by course expectations. Anything a school can do to lower the threshold of energy or attention required to collaborate can help. Provide dedicated space on campus so that bar studiers can easily find each other. Set up channels of communication early and keep students informed of resources and opportunities to gather, and look for ways to connect such opportunities to activities already on students' radar screens (such as live video programs sponsored by bar preparation companies).
- Add value. Finding ways to provide additional benefits to your alumni can change their calculation of whether or not it is worth it to them to step away from solitude and join their classmates, even if only occasionally. Offering small incentives, like free coffee and snacks or access to classroom space, can make getting together more inviting. More ambitious incentives might include providing supplemental live workshops on particular test-taking skills or subject matter areas, which can simultaneously draw students from their isolation and prompt interaction and planning with other participants.
At the end of the day, success on the bar exam does depend on individual effort. But in the face of innate introversion and technological isolation, we can help our students to recognize, once again, that individual effort can be promoted by social cooperation.
Monday, May 6, 2019
Exams have started at our law school, and law students are looking much more sleep-deprived than usual. It is tempting to skimp on sleep to study. It is also easy to toss and turn instead of sleeping once getting into bed. Here are some hints to help in the sleep department:
- Realize that a good night's sleep of 8 hours will do your brain more good than late-night cramming. You will be more alert, focused, and productive the next day.
- Exercise expends stress and helps you sleep. Even a 30-minute walk can help. Most research suggests that your exercise should be before 8:00 p.m. to get the most sleep benefits.
- Avoid naps because they ultimately can disrupt your night's sleep routine. If you must nap, make it a power nap of no more than 15-20 minutes.
- Take at least one hour as a wind-down break before bed each night. Make that hour non-law and non-electronic time. Walk your dog. Pack your lunch for the next day. Chat with your spouse. Read a fluff novel.
- If possible, stop studying by 8:00 p.m. at the latest on the night before an exam. Spend time doing something you enjoy that will occupy your mind fully and prevent you thinking about law school. Play the piano. Join a pick-up basketball game. Go to the IMAX theater.
- Do not stress if you need 30 or so minutes to fall into a deep sleep. Most people do not fall asleep the moment their heads hit the pillow. Breathe deeply; relax your muscles; think happy thoughts (a memorable vacation, a walk on the beach, inspirational quotes or scripture).
- Improve your sleep environment to optimize your chances for a good night's ZZZZs: a cool room temperature; blackout curtains; total quiet (for some) or an eco-sound machine as white noise (for others); a cool air mister to add moisture to a room with dry air.
- Go to bed and get up at the same time each day no matter what your exam schedule is. Your body likes a set routine. You will be more likely to get sleepy before bed and wake up alert if you stay on a schedule.
- If you wake up in the middle of the night and cannot fall back asleep, get up and go to another room. Don't stay in bed and toss and turn. Read a few pages in a novel or some magazine articles. Avoid electronics. As you begin to relax and get sleepy, go back to bed.
- Try one of the old-time remedies that seem to work for lots of people: drink a cup of herbal tea before bedtime; drink warm milk before bedtime; take a lavender bubble bath.
May you fall asleep and have sweet dreams! (Amy Jarmon)
Monday, April 29, 2019
It is the time in the semester when I give many, many pep talks. The time when I urge students to stay positive. The time when I suggest students need to rebut their negative self-talk.
We all have experienced a litany of negative statements that we say, often silently, to ourselves at one time or another. As the pressure of upcoming exams increases, I am hearing more and more negative comments verbalizing negative thoughts from students. The statements might be self-critical ("Oh, that was a stupid mistake!") or negative comparisons ("You just aren't as smart as they are.") or pessimistic ("No matter how hard you try, you won't be able to do this.). Whatever the form of the negativity, it deflates self-esteem, discourages further hard work, and waves the white flag of defeat.
I often point out to my students that one of the skills that every attorney needs is being able to plausibly rebut arguments presented by the opposing side. The skilled attorney can listen to the negative statement about their client's case, and then adroitly respond with the positive argument for the client's case. In fact, in preparation of the case, an attorney should consider the opponent's arguments and be ready to rebut those points. Whether by distinguishing facts, interpreting statutory language differently, mentioning an authority with the opposite outcome, or showing flawed logic, attorneys present their advocacy for the client's position.
Law students need to practice the same rebuttal skill when the negative self-talk in their heads starts to undermine their confidence and cause them to doubt their abilities. Here is an exercise that I suggest to my students to help them rebut the negative self-talk that stalks them:
- Take a sheet of paper and divide it into two columns.
- Head the left-hand column "Negative Self-Talk" and the right-hand column "Positive Self-Talk"
- In the negative column, list the negative statements that the little voice in your head says to discourage you.
- In the positive column, write out a positive rebuttal that tells the negative voice it is wrong and why.
- For example: negative side - "You will never learn Property in time for the exam!" positive side - "I can learn this. I just need to learn one subtopic at a time and then move on to the next subtopic."
- Add any new negative self-talk and the rebuttals to the list whenever you catch yourself stating something negative that you have not dealt with already.
How do you use the list? Practice your rebuttals and use them every time you state the corresponding negative self-talk. Some students tell me that after a few times, they start laughing at the negative voice. Other students tell me that after a few times, the negative voice has no power over them because they now believe the rebuttal. There are students who post the paper on the bathroom mirror and read the positive self-talk every time they brush their teeth or comb their hair. Other students tell me they carry it around in a notebook to reread the positive statements regularly.
We can be our own harshest critics. But we can also be our own greatest cheerleaders! Aim for the skill of rebuttal and stay positive. (Amy Jarmon)
Sunday, April 28, 2019
I love playing golf, and any time I can play, I make an effort. However, I am an average golfer at best. I tend to make the same mistakes time after time. I say to myself before starting the round, I will (insert new swing thought or strategy). Once the round starts, I revert back to my old routine and play about the same that I always play. Not a recipe for improvement, and many students fall into the same trap.
Law school is busy. I know most of you are screaming at the screen “tell me something I didn’t know Captain Obvious.” Being busy can lead to repetitive conduct, which is sometimes bad habits. Busy can be from too many student organizations, family obligations, work, or fun activities, but the effect is similar. Busy can lead to buying someone else’s outline, not completing practice questions, not seeking feedback, or any combination of bad study skills. Outlines that aren’t complete until finals week won’t be useful for exams. Practice questions the night before an exam don’t allow an opportunity to seek feedback. Try to make this exam period different.
Most people understand the need to improve studying. Some of you may have read this blog earlier in the semester and decided to have better study skills. The semester started and the best intentions faded. Similar to when I revert to my old routine, some students will as well. While the semester is almost over, there is still time to change finals preparation. Here are my suggestions for preparing better for finals:
- Write down what you plan to complete. Be specific with days and tasks. Make sure to add in practice questions and meetings with professors.
- Monitor and check your plan every day at lunch. Prioritize the remaining tasks for the day. Enjoy lunch without thinking about studying, but then focus again on the remaining tasks. Make sure practice questions and meetings are priorities.
- Check progress at the end of the day. Determine if unfinished tasks should be moved to the next day or not completed at all.
- Finish by looking over or creating a plan for the next day.
- Be flexible and adjust as needed.
Self-monitoring and adjusting is critical when time is limited during finals weeks. Efficiency is paramount. Continually assess and plan to accomplish more over the next few weeks. Good luck on finals.
Monday, April 22, 2019
Many students are trying to decide where they will find the time to get everything done. Here are some tips on finding more time:
- Block distractors while you study to avoid wasting time or getting side-tracked:
- put your phone into airplane mode
- turn off your message signal for email
- study where others will not stop to chat
- use one of the many apps available to block URLs
- Evaluate your class preparation time. You want to be well-prepared for class because the newer material will be tested. However, are you able to be more efficient and effective in your class preparation?
- Ask questions as you read to get more understanding during your reading which helps you to avoid re-reading sections.
- Make margin notes summarizing important points as you read so that you do not have to re-read the case to make your notes/brief.
- Read for understanding and for the case essentials, not minutia; for exams, you need to apply the law from cases, not recite the cases in detail.
- Use the weekend to prepare for Monday and Tuesday classes and then review your briefs/margin notes before classes. You then free up time during the week to study for exams.
- Evaluate your outlining time. You want to focus on the tools that will help you solve new fact scenarios on the exams.
- Avoid minutia in your outlines; focus on the important items.
- Ask yourself how an item of information will help you on the exam. If it will not be useful, then it does not need to be in the outline.
- Avoid perfectionism. Make the best outline you can in the time you have left. Next semester you can work on outlines earlier, but for now focus on utility.
- Evaluate the efficiency and effectiveness of study group/partner time.
- Are you spending mega time on study group and not spending enough time on your own learning?
- Is your group staying on task or becoming a social outlet?
- Does your study group have a set agenda for each meeting, so everyone can come prepared to discuss those topics/practice questions?
- If your group is having problems, visit with the academic support professional at your law school for help in resolving any conflicts.
- Evaluate your exercise routine. Are you spending more time worrying about your abs than exercising your brain?
- Experts recommend that you get 150 minutes (30 minutes X 5 days) of exercise a week.
- Consider exercising for shorter periods of time or fewer days a week if your routine is way over the 150-minutes recommendation.
- Consider changing your exercise routine for the remaining weeks: walking some days instead of gym time that would take longer; treadmill some days rather than an elaborate multi-machine routine.
- Would exercising and a meal as one longer block for a break be more efficient than several different blocks of time during the day?
- Would exercising at your apartment complex fitness center or at the rec center for a few weeks be less time-consuming than driving to and from your usual commercial gym in town?
- Evaluate your daily life chores for more efficient and effective ways to get things done. We often waste a lot of time on chores and errands that could be avoided.
- Set aside one block of time to run all of your errands for the week rather than make multiple trips; then plan the most efficient driving route to get them done without wasted miles (and fuel).
- Do a major shopping now for non-perishable items so your grocery trips in future weeks will take less time.
- Do your shopping for school-related items now so you have everything on hand when you need it later: pens, printer paper, colored tabs, highlighters, etc.
- Do shopping and errands at off-times when the stores are less crowded and lines are shorter.
- Prepare meals on the weekends that can then be portioned out for the week rather than cooking every day. Freeze some extra portions for future weeks as well.
- Consider packing your lunches/dinners to take to school rather than wasting time commuting back and forth for meals.
Avoid getting discouraged by "larger than life" tasks such as learning Constitutional Law or writing an appellate brief. Break big tasks into sections or topics. Then break those tasks down even more. Each small task can be completed in a smaller amount of time. Focus on subtopics instead of topics. Focus on editing citations rather than all editing tasks. Take control of that small task and slip it into your schedule. Baby steps over time still lead to mastery of walking. (Amy Jarmon)
Thursday, April 18, 2019
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).
Wednesday, April 17, 2019
In the busy-ness of the end of the term, it's important for all of us -- faculty, staff, and students -- to stick to the basics. And the most basic of all basics is to get sufficient sleep.
Let's just talk about the brain. Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky, of Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers fame (and also author of the lesser-known but magnificent A Primate's Memoir), posits that sleep helps cognition in three major ways. First, it restores energy. The brain, it turns out, is an energy hog. While it comprises only about 2% of the body's weight, it uses about 20% of the body's energy, with two-thirds of that energy going to firing neutrons. Wonder why you feel so tired after intensive thinking? -- you are actually churning through enormous amounts of energy. This energy is restored in slow wave sleep. Second, the REM sleep in which dreaming occurs consolidates memory. High levels of the class of hormones known as glucocorticoids elevate stress and disrupt cognition. Glucocorticoid levels, however, plummet during sleep, especially REM sleep. So cognition can be enhanced simply allowing the brain to work its way through learned material when these hormone levels are at their lowest, by getting a good night's sleep. Because REM sleep consolidates memory so well, those who study, sleep overnight, and take a test the next afternoon do significantly better than those who study the morning before a test. Finally, REM sleep improves assessment and judgment, especially in complex circumstances, perhaps by exercising lesser-used neural pathways during those wild and crazy dreams. This allows the brain to establish wide networks of connections instead of simple one-lane pathways, leading to deeper, more nuanced thinking. Indeed, Berkeley neuroscientist Matthew Walker suggests that the most significant cognitive benefit of sleep lies not in strengthening the memory of specific items but in assimilating small bits of knowledge into large-scale schema.
More energy for the brain to work, better memory, and better ability to put things into a larger perspective. Sounds like a winning combination for everyone. Let's ditch the late nights and catch some Z's.
Tuesday, April 16, 2019
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.
Friday, April 12, 2019
It has been an exciting time in Red Raider Land! Our basketball team returned home Tuesday afternoon to a warm welcome. Although they lost in the NCAA final against Virginia, they have set school history. In fact our TTU President cancelled evening classes Monday night and all classes for Tuesday.
I will admit that I was glued to my television for both the Final Four and the Final. The first of those games was such a joyous victory. The team was amazing. The loss to Virginia was heart-breaking, especially because of the OT call giving the ball to Virginia after the replay. The team played well and gave it every ounce of effort. Chris Beard has helped these young men become a family that supports one another at all times. In true Lubbock fashion the team was given a wonderful welcome home. This NCAA championship season will be remembered forever.
In many ways the NCAA tournament is a lot like final exams for law students. The hard work to get there, the high stakes, the pressure. Each exam feels like a "will I be victorious or go down in defeat" moment for some students. Here are some exam tips we can learn from the NCAA tournament:
- Daily preparation and hard work pay off in the big game. The road to success is built day by day.
- Practice, practice, and more practice is essential to honing skills for exams. You will never practice too much.
- A team to help you reach your game-day potential can be important - a study group, a study partner, teaching assistants/tutors, professors.
- People who believe in you and your abilities - friends, family, and mentors - should surround you in pre- and post-game times.
- Staying calm under pressure allows you to stay in the game and focus on every point you can get. Breathe deeply, and calm those jitters.
- Mistakes happen. Instant (or continual) replay after a disappointing exam performance is not helpful. Move on to the next exam in the series.
- Whether you win or lose, you are still a winner if you did your best on the day. All you can ask of yourself is to do your best.
- All of us can use victories or defeats to become better players in the future. Exam review later and new strategies can show us how to improve our scores.
For all of our students who are on the downward slope of classes to exams, keep up the hard work and show them what you can do! (Amy Jarmon)
Thursday, April 4, 2019
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).
Tuesday, April 2, 2019
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.
Tuesday, March 19, 2019
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.
Tuesday, March 12, 2019
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.
Thursday, February 21, 2019
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)
Monday, February 18, 2019
We all dream of new projects that could progress our programs, improve studying, or change our lives. I think about the article I want to finish, but find allocating time to research difficult. Adding more practice questions or additional study time is difficult. Many people look to others lives and wonder how successful people achieved success. We can model some of our behaviors from successful people to maximize our own potential.
I read an article last week from success.com titled “8 Things Successful People Never Waste Time Doing.” Cynthia Bazin said successful people don’t:
- Get Sucked Into Social Media
- Go Through the Day Without a Plan
- Do Emotionally Draining Activities
- Worry About Things They Can’t Control
- Hang Out With Negative People
- Dwell on Past Mistakes
- Focus on What Other People are Doing
- Put Themselves Last in Priority
She proceeds to quickly discuss how each of these activities can waste time and derail progress towards our goals.
Professors, law students, and attorneys could take this advice to improve productivity. The majority of us probably spend too much time on social media. While those apps have some advantages, the downfall is the amount of time spent using them. 30 minutes less on an app could be another article about a research topic, a practice question, or a response to client concerns. 30 minutes at night could be reading an inspiring book or quality time with family. Consider limiting social media, screen time, or both to improve productivity.
Creating a good plan for the day is something I need to do more. I fall into the trap of trying to solve every problem immediately and divert my attention constantly. A better plan could ensure I get through my research.
Check out the article. Pick one area to save time and the one task to insert into the saved time. Efficiency makes a huge difference in what we accomplish.
Monday, February 11, 2019
If I offered you a choice between 3 million dollars today or a penny today with double the amount each subsequent day for 31 days (ie - .01 today, .02 tomorrow, .04 next days, etc.), which would you take? In a small experiment, over 90% of people took the lump sum. A penny doubled every day over 31 days will net over 10 million dollars. However, that choice doesn’t beat the 3 million lump sum until day 30. Day 31 is when it crushes the lump sum by over 7 million dollars. The reason is the compounding effect.
The compounding effect is a common strategy for financial planning. Starting to save for retirement at age 20 makes a huge difference. Darren Hardy in his book The Compounding Effect applied the theory to life beyond finances to argue all of us can make dramatic changes in our careers and how we live. He argues the small choices we make consistently are the foundation for dramatically changing our life.
Small choices seem trivial. One of my favorite examples in his book relates to weight gain/loss. He illustrates the choices of 3 hypothetical people. 1 person continues to do the same thing he has always done. He is the constant. 1 person decreases calories by only 125 calories a day. 125 calories is the equivalent of a bowl of some cereal or a can of Dr. Pepper. The last person increases calories by 125 calories a day. The small decisions didn’t seem to make much difference in the first 6-12 months. Only small variations in weight. However, from month 12-18, the first person is losing weight and the last person is gaining significant weight. By the end of 2 years, the first person loses 30 pounds while the last person gains 30 pounds. There is a 60 pound difference based on 1 coke a day!
The weight example and other examples in the book illustrate the difficulty of applying the compounding effect to our lives. Choosing to not drink a coke today will not change the scale tomorrow. Eating 1 donut or a meal at Chik-fil-a will not change the scale tomorrow. We don’t perceive the benefits or consequences of small choices immediately, so many people choose the more fun donut. Over time, 125 calories can snowball from weight to other areas of life, like health problems and relationships with friends and family. The good news is the good choices snowball as well, and we should start considering what small changes to make in law school.
Law school epitomizes the problem of no immediate positive reinforcement. Reviewing course material today doesn’t produce a grade. Doing practice questions each week won’t have an immediate impact. Playing the Xbox or going out with friends provides the immediate dopamine rush without the perception of consequences.
Small changes now can make an impact at the end of this semester and future semesters. I want to provide numerous examples and tips for improvement. However, just as my pastor said yesterday, if I give you 4 things to do, you will do none of them. If I give you 1, then you may do it because you can easily integrate 1 thing into your routine. Hardy encourages the same thing. Start small. Pick 1 small thing to improve learning.
My suggestion is a small review each night. Learning literature indicates we immediately begin forgetting material. We can improve retention with immediate review within 24 hours and periodic review throughout a semester at progressively longer intervals. Each night, review the material from that day and the previous day. Summarize the information into your own words and think about where it fits in the outline. Don’t spend numerous hours on this task. Start small and move up.
Compounding makes theoretical sense. However, many of us make small choices that are compounding negatively. Choose something small today to compound in the right direction. Remember, you will not see immediately results. Consistency is what will produce the outcome you desire.
Tuesday, February 5, 2019
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.
Thursday, December 20, 2018
Congratulations December 2018 graduates! What a herculean achievement! Simply put, outstanding!
Nevertheless, I know that for many of you, right now it feels like a bit of a let down because you find yourself right back right back in the classroom as you prepare for your bar exam in February 2019.
That's exactly how I felt. Simply put, graduation felt a bit disingenuous as I had so much work left to be done to earn my law license. However, let me be frank. As you approach your bar studies, you are no longer a law student but a law school graduate. It may not feel like much of a difference, but its important to recognize - throughout these two months of your bar review learning - that you are a new person with a new professional identity, trained and well-seasoned to think through, analyze, and communicate solutions to vast arrays of legal scenarios.
Despite such remarkable progress as demonstrated by your law school graduation, many bar takers stumble in the first few weeks of bar prep, finding themselves increasing at odds with how to best learn and prepare themselves for the bar exam. I sure did. I spent much of the first few weeks trying to learn the law by, well, listening to professors talk about the law and watching professors talk about solving legal problems with the law. Big mistake! Cost me a lot of valuable time! That's why I write to you, dear law school graduate and now bar taker. Instead of focusing on learning the law, focus right from the get-go (i.e, that means right now, today!) on working through lots of practice problems each day. In short, I was, unfortunately, a "linear learner," as Professor Catherine Christopher says in her wonderful book entitled Tackling Texas Essays (Carolina Academic Press 2018): https://cap-press.com/books/
I. Linear Learning
Let me explain a bit about the difference between linear learning and recursive learning. As depicted by Professor Christopher in the diagram below from her book on successfully preparing for the bar exam , linear studying has a defined path. And, as a bonus, it sure looks nice and orderly, leading to the illusion of a direct straight-line path to success. Indeed, right now, many of you are focused (solely?) on watching videos, reviewing your notes, reading your commercial outlines, and making gigantic study tools. But, if you are like me, you aren't yet taking practice exams (or are only doing very few of them at the most).
Linear Learning (Professor Christopher 2018)
However, as explained by Professor Christopher, that's a big problem. Here's why. You'll end up spending most of the 8 - 10 week bar prep period doing very few practice problems, trying instead to master the law so perfectly so that you'll have enough confidence in the last few weeks to do well on practice problems. In short, you are afraid (I sure was!) to tackle practice problems because there's so much to know (and so many ways to make mistakes).
However, that's a big problem because it's in our mistakes that we learn best. We don't really learn by watching others. Who ever learned to play piano, play soccer, dance, or even litigate a case without practicing (which means "rehearing" and "acting out") what you hope to accomplish in the future with polish? No one prepares to become an expert without first being a novice.
But, as Professor Christopher comments, it feels really terrible, really terrible, to practice problems so early on because we make so many mistakes. But, if we delay practicing problems until the last few weeks possible, we make that practice much more of a high stake experience, in the words of Professor Christopher, such that there's no wiggle room for errors in our practicing experiences (so that there is no room for learning, either). In my opinion, linear studying leads to disappointment and frustration.
But, there's good news ahead, for those of you who engage in recursive learning.
II. Recursive Learning
Now here's a bit about recursive learning. As depicted in the diagram below from Professor Christopher's text, successfully preparing for the bar exam involves learning in a circular recursive process rather than a straight-line linear process.
Recursive Learning (Professor Christopher 2018)
As Professor Christopher explains, the first step - "reading and reviewing" - involves watching lectures, taking lectures notes, and reading outlines [about 4 hours or so per day].
But take note of second step in the circular process: "work to understand." That means that we get involved in the learning, we take center stage, so to speak, in our own learning by "work[ing] to understand the material" so that it becomes real to us. Just like learning a language, in which we start to start learning to speak and write a language by...speaking and writing a language! For bar takers, that means in this second stage that we make our own personal condensed notes or flashcards or other study tools to "help...get the information into [our] head[s]." (Here's a snappy suggestion: Just take hold of one (1) blank piece of paper, and, referencing your lecture notes in hand, write down, scribble, flowchart, and doodle the major take-aways from that day's lecture. Note: Don't let yourself get bogged down by trying to re-write your entire lecture notes; rather, focus only on big picture concepts because people pass the bar based on the big picture principles rather than the nitty picky details.). [about 1 hour or so per day].
The last step takes real bravery, discipline, and honesty too. And, it's vital for your learning. Start right away that very day, each day, by digging into actual bar exam questions, working through them one by one, using notes and outlines freely, and then reviewing practice answers afterwards to assess what went well along with concrete ways to improve with future practice problems. Here's a key tip for your practice sessions: Be super-curious when you miss a question; poke back around to the fact pattern - like a detective - to figure out whether you missed the question because you missed a rule or, more likely, you missed an important trigger fact in the fact pattern. So, for example, if you write a picture-perfect IRAC essay but then notice that the problem didn't involve that rule, go back and figure out where in the facts the correct rule was triggered. In short, don't just test yourself through practice problems but rather use the opportunity to learn through practice problems. [about 3 to 4 hours or so per day]. (Then, as illustrated by Professor Christopher's diagram, the next day we begin again with another bar review lecture.).
The great news is that throughout this process, while you might not feel like you are doing much learning, you are really dancing with the materials, making them your own, developing and finessing your critical reading, organizational, and writing skills. In short, you are productively on the path to successfully preparing for your bar exam.
So, in the midst of this bar review season, take courage. Indeed, be of good cheer, as the holiday saying goes, because true learning takes its shape in you - step by step - through the daily process of recursive learning - (1) reviewing, (2) working to understand, and (3) then testing yourself through practices problems. To be personal, I wish I had known this at the outset of my bar prep season. So, feel free to step out of the "line" and learn! Oh, and congratulations again on your graduation from law school! What a wonderfully momentous accomplishment! (Scott Johns).
December 20, 2018 in Advice, Bar Exam Issues, Bar Exam Preparation, Bar Exams, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Learning Styles, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)