Tuesday, October 8, 2019
One of my favorite seasons of the academic year runs between the last week of September and Halloween. In terms of academic meteorology, conditions are ideal for the formation of manageable disturbances, especially among first-year students: after a warming period of several weeks, they become a bit unsettled due to some mid-term squalls, but they retain a great deal of stored energy and begin to show signs of increasing organization, giving them plenty of room to develop before being overtaken by the late fall gloom that presages the tempest of finals.
Most of the students who breeze into my office at this time possess the three things I value most in my advisees: the motivation to try to improve their legal writing and/or analysis, the belief that they actually can improve, and the time to devote to that improvement. Earlier in the year, they may have more time but, without having received any feedback on their work, less motivation to improve. Come November, with finals looming, they may have motivation to spare, but a dearth of time, and, in some cases, a stunted belief in their own ability to improve. But right now, a lot of students have that ideal blend of motivation, belief, and time.
The more I have worked with students, the more I have come to see that the most important characteristic of time is not quantity but distribution. It is usually more helpful for me to meet with a student for 30 minutes every week than for 60 or even 90 minutes every two weeks. The quicker, more frequent meetings not only help the student feel more connected. Shorter meetings also force us to focus our work on one or two main skills each week. With more time, it might be tempting to try to cover every weakness in a student's repertoire -- active reading, organization of information, grammar, argument structure, analytical content, judgment, persuasive diction, etc. -- but this can be overwhelming. A student trying to improve in a dozen areas at once may not make progress in any of them. It is too much to think about, and there may be little sense of prioritization.
But when a student walks away from a discussion of their work with one or two clear messages about how to improve in one or two specific tasks, that makes their job for the week focused and manageable. And if that's why they focus on in their homework between meetings, then we can start the next meeting by looking for the improvement in those areas, and then follow up by addressing one or two new areas for improvement that can build upon the previous week. Timely feedback on, and immediate use of, the skills that a student works on is the best way to both hone and retain those skills. Thus, with appropriate exercises to complete between meetings, a student can make and preserve more progress in two hours of meeting time spread out over four weekly meetings than in two or even three hours of meeting time split between one meeting in week one and a follow-up meeting in week four.
After Halloween, the demands of writing assignments due, the stress of upcoming finals, and the interruptions of the holidays make it a lot more difficult to arrange these kinds of punchy weekly meetings. Now is the time to encourage your students to take advantage of the calm before the academic storm.
Tuesday, August 27, 2019
Last year I wrote a post about "simulation training" that described the benefits of rehearsal and practice under conditions that are as close as possible to performance conditions. When preparing for a final exam, for example, taking practice tests under exam conditions of strict timing and silence in a room similar to the room in which you will actually be tested can help you score better on the actual exam. The improvement seems to be linked to the reduction of unfamiliar stimuli and the association of familiar conditions with execution.
Given the demonstrable benefits of creating consistency between exam practice and exam execution, I would have presumed that a similar effect might have been observed with respect to the precursors to exam taking -- namely, study and memorization. If it makes sense to practice taking law exams in silence and in one particular environment, wouldn't it also make sense to learn all the rules, exceptions, and examples under the same conditions? In his book How We Learn, Benedict Carey suggests that may not be the case.
Learning facts like rules of law is different from learning how to perform tasks like timed essay writing, largely because of the different roles of background stimuli. When learning tasks, the consistent quality of background stimuli is important, because it helps provide a comfortable environment that we associate with the task. While this is also somewhat true when learning facts, it turns out that the quantity of stimuli is of relatively greater importance. An absence of stimuli makes it more difficult to memorize material. In one experiment, students were asked to memorize a list of forty words. While they studied, the scientists played either jazz or classical music in the background, or, alternatively, no music at all. Students who studied while listening to jazz had the highest rates of recall when tested while jazz played in the background, and those who studied while listening to classical did best when tested while classical was playing. When each of those groups of students were tested while listening to different music, or to no music at all, their rates of recall were cut roughly in half. But the students who studied in silence did not have higher rates of recall when tested in silence. Their recall rates were also about half that of jazz listeners who were tested with jazz, or classical listeners who were tested with classical.
The explanation seems to be that, when we are learning facts, it helps to have some level of background stimulus. The external stimulus seems to provide a framework within which learners can organize and attach meaning to the facts they are learning. Thus, when the external stimulus is present at testing time, it is easier for the test takers to access the facts for recall, because they have access to the framework in which they learned them.
Most professors, however, do not allow students to crank tunes during exam administration. Not even smooth jazz. And duplicating the silence of testing conditions will not be as helpful for memorizing the rules as it is for applying them, since silence does not provide the necessary external stimulus. So how should students learn their rules and examples?
Carey suggests that the best strategy for this kind of rote learning is to work in a variety of different environments. He points to another word-memorization experiment, one in which subjects were asked to study in two separate, ten-minute sessions. Some subjects spent both sessions in an untidy basement room. Others spent both sessions in a windowed room overlooking a green courtyard. And a third group of subjects spent one session in one of those rooms, and the other session in the other room. When all subjects were tested for recall later in a third room (a classroom), those in the last group, who had studied in two different environments, had 40 percent higher rates of recall. While no one knows for sure, the theory is that those who studied in two different rooms had the benefit of two different sets of external stimuli, and thus built two different, overlapping "frameworks" within which they learned the words. Having two different frameworks provided additional memory access points that might be used in the neutral third environment.
So what are the lessons for law students? First, we should help them to recognize that there should be different study strategies for learning and memorizing rules and facts, versus developing one's skills in applying those rules. Second, we can suggest that students add some variety to their study environments when they are performing more of the basic rote memorization (such as at the start of the semester, when they are first learning the relevant rules). Encourage them not to spend all their time in the same spot in the library, but to break up their study into chunks of time spent in different milieus -- spending some time in the library, some time outdoors, perhaps some time in a coffee shop (especially one playing jazz or classical music). Students who associate the learning of the same rules to different external stimuli will be more likely to be able to recall those rules under any set of external stimuli, or even when there seems to be no external stimuli at all.
Sunday, July 28, 2019
Social media timelines are aflutter since the California Bar Examiners released, days early, the question order and subjects for the July written exam. After someone “inadvertently transmitted” test information to “a number of deans of law schools,” the CA examiners disclosed the same information to all registered July 2019 California bar takers. The internet remains undefeated and the information now hovers in the public domain accessible to us all for comment and critique. The CaliLeaks, as I refer to them, sent ripples of shock, resentment, and gratitude throughout the community of future, past, and present bar takers.
Dear California Bar Examiners, you did the right thing. You responded to a mistaken disclosure by disseminating the same information to all bar takers, to prevent any actual or perceived unfair advantage. You made a mistake and you owned it. There is a lesson in every mistake and I hope that other bar examiners, and especially the NCBE, with its foot on the jugular of all but a few states, will learn from yours.
In an ideal scenario, the premature and selective leak of confidential information to some law deans would not have occurred. No student should be disadvantaged in terms of familiarity with the exam content, inside knowledge, or the opportunity to pass. We now know the identities and school affiliation of the receiving deans. I am naive enough to believe that respected academic leaders would not compromise the integrity of the bar exam by sharing confidential information about its content. I am also cynical enough to recognize the good reason of those who question whether bar takers from some schools may have received information days before bar takers from other schools. Notwithstanding the many unanswered questions, California's disclosure (the one to all of its bar takers) is something that could have and should have happened long ago.
For goodness sake, the bar exam is based, at least in theory, on fundamental legal principles learned in law school. Knowing the general subject area to be tested is not a dead giveaway to the question content. Bar examiners in Texas have provided general subject matter information for decades. It is a preposterous notion that knowing the subjects that will be tested will lead to a flood of unqualified lawyers. Consider the law school final exam as the loosest conceivable model. Law students know to expect Property questions on their Property final exam, but it still leaves them to their own devices to prudently review the full scope of course coverage from possessory estates and future interests, to conveyances, recording acts, and landlord-tenant rules. Disclosure of the tested question areas should not be Monday morning tea, instead it should be the norm in bar examination. Telling would-be lawyers what they need to know to be deemed competent to practice law isn’t a blunder or a gracious act. It is the right thing to do.
I challenge any lawyer, law student, or law professor to imagine the futility and frustration of completing a full semester of required first-year courses, spending weeks preparing for final exams, and then not learning until the beginning day of final exams which courses will be tested and which will not. As unthinkable as this notion may be, this precisely describes the current practice of bar examination in most states and under the UBE. Time will tell if California’s leak leads to a more reasonable exam process and to less arbitrary bar failure rates. If it does, then others should follow suit. We need a better bar exam and California’s error could be an accidental step in the right direction.
Thursday, July 18, 2019
I recently saw data suggesting that bar passers do things differently in the final weeks of bar prep than those who are not successful on the bar exam. That got me thinking about what I've been seeing, at least anecdotally, in working with students in preparing for their bar exams.
But first, let me be frank. Without hard dedicated work in learning throughout the course of bar prep period, and in particular, during the final week, it's really difficult to pass the bar exam because the bar exam, in the last few years, has become much more challenging, particularly due to cognitive load. See L. Schulze, Dear Practicing Attorneys: Stop Giving Our Bar Students Bad Advice. Thus, it's not just hard work that makes for passing the bar exam. Rather, it's important to make sure to do what is most optimal for learning during the final week of bar prep. See S. Foster, Positive Self-Talk.
So, even with all of the hard work, what might account for the differences in bar passage outcomes for both groups of diligent bar studiers? In short, it must be in the type of work that the two groups are doing rather than the quantity of work. In the last week, bar passers tend to ramp up their practice with lots and lots of MBE questions and essays while also working on memorization while people who are unsuccessful tend to focus on creating perfect study tools trying to memorize every little nuance of law with very little continued practice. In sum, one group is continuing to practice for the exam that they will take and the other group is focused on memorizing for the exam.
But, here's the rub:
It’s a perfectly natural feeling during the last week of bar prep to want to focus solely (or mostly) on creating perfect study tools and trying to perfectly memorize all the law.
But, according to the educational psychologists, there’s something called “desirable difficulties.” You see, when we jam pack our study tools with everything, we aren’t learning much of anything because we aren't making hard decisions about what is most meaningful. And, with everything written down, there's no opportunity for retrieval practice, which is the best form of memorization practice.
So, as a suggestion for the final week, tackle two to three subjects per day. Work through a number of essay questions for each subject. Then, take your study tool and use it for retrieval practice, reading it and then covering it up to see if you can spout out what's in it. Push yourself. You might even take your study tool and, without looking at it, recreate it in a different format, for example, converting it from an outline to a poster, etc. Then, in the evening, work through a batch of MBE questions, pouring and pondering through them. Finally, when you miss something in an essay or MBE question, add that concept to your study tool. As Prof. Micah Yarbrough at the University of Maryland says, your study tool becomes a sort of "bar diary" of your adventurous travels in learning by doing. And, it's in the learning by doing that makes all the difference in passing the bar exam because the bar exam tests - not just memorization - by problem-solving. So, for those of you taking the July 2019 bar exam, focus on practice first and foremost throughout the final week of your bar preparations because you aren't going to be tested on your study tool. Rather, you're going to be testing on whether you can use your study tool to solve hypothetical problems. And, good luck on your bar exam this summer! (Scott Johns).
Monday, July 15, 2019
You can choose to listen to the skeptics or hit the ignore button. - Michael Peggs
Our students today have become adept at shunning criticism and negative input. When coaches or teachers prejudge students at any age, there is an army of protective advocates who will stand up for the wronged student and demonstrate that with the right accommodation a student may exceed the expectations of a perceived disability. We full-scale reject the haterist mindset that seeks to label learners with arbitrarily imposed limitations. Taylor Swift warned us that “haters gonna hate”. Yet, too often when the stakes are high, and especially during bar study, we stir up our own hater-aid. Over the years I've overheard students say things like: “I’ve never been good at standardized tests,” “I am never going to learn all these essay subjects,” “I’ve got too much going on to study the way I should,” and “I don’t expect to pass on the first time.”
You may need to mute your inner monologue, if it is filling your mind with self-defeating prophecy. Each time a fear-based thought tries to creep in, hit the ignore button and block it like a call from a telemarketer. Follow Taylor’s lead and shake off the self-doubt. Use daily bar study affirmations as an exercise in mindfulness to allow you to meditate on your positive potential. For the next two weeks, the only attitude you can afford is a can-do attitude. Repeat these affirming words until they become your reality: I can and will pass the bar. I am worthy of a bar card, and right now I am making plans for my life as an attorney.
Thursday, July 11, 2019
It's time to create your own personal handy-dandy bar exam study tools. But, you ask, how, with so many other things to do (and with just a few weeks before the bar exam). Well, here's a suggestion for creating your study tools from scratch in just a few easy steps and in less than 2 hours flat.
But first, let's lay the groundwork. Why should I create a study tool, especially with so many other tasks at hand that demand my attention in preparation for the bar exam in a few weeks?
There are at least three reasons.
First, the process of creating your own study tools creates a "mental harness" for your thoughts. It serves to bring you back to the big picture of what you have been studying the past many weeks since graduation.
Second, the process of creating your own study tools cements your abilities to synthesize and distill the rules that you will be tested on this summer. In short, we memorize (remember) what we create rather than what we read that others have created.
Third, your study tools are, in essence, an organized collection of pre-written, bar exam answers for tackling the hypothetical problems that you will face this summer on your bar exam.
So, let's set out the steps:
1. Grab Your Study Tool Support Team!
That means grabbing hold of the shortest bar outline provided by your bar review company. Shorter is better because less is often more! And, you already have too much to remember.
2. Create the Big Picture Skeleton for Your Study Tool!
That means taking hold of the table of contents in your bar outline provided by your bar review company or the subject matter outlines provided by the bar examiners. For example, the NCBE provides super-short two-page outlines for each subject on what issues are testable. http://www.ncbex.org/meeoutlines. Then, using that skeleton structure, create an overview of the testable issues in your own desired format, whether as flashcards, posters, or outlines, etc.
3. Insert Rule Sound Bites!
Using your bar review lecture notes or subject matter outlines, insert rule "sound bites" for each item identified as testable subjects. Move swiftly. Don't dwell. If you think you you need a rule, don't put it in...because...you can always add more rules later if you see that rule popping up in your practice during the course of the next two weeks. Don't try to create perfect rule statements. Instead, just insert the "buzz words." Feel free to be bold, daring, and adventuresome in doodling or using abbreviations to remind you of the rule. For example, for negligence per se (NPS), my study tool just reads: (1) P.C. and (2) P.H. That stands for protected class and protected harm. By writing out just a few tips to help me remember, I am actually enhancing my study tool (and developing my confidence in being able to recall, for example, the requirements for NPS). Get your entire study tool completed in 2 hours or less! How, you ask? By leaving lots of stuff out because you can always add more later. Here's a tip: It's called "desirable difficulties." You see, according to my arm chair understanding of the science behind learning, optimal learning requires us to push ourselves; it requires mental perspiration, it takes sweat. So, the process of deciding what to put into your study tool (and what to leave out, and, indeed, leaving out lots) enhances are learning because we can't solely rely on our study tools for memorization. Rather, our study tool because a prompt for our memory. So, keep your study tools super-short and crisp.
6. Take Your Study Tool for Lots of Test Flights During the Final Several Weeks of Bar Prep!
Yes, you might crash. Yes, it might be ugly. In fact, if you are like me, you will crash and it will be ugly! But, just grab hold of lots and lots of past bar exam essays and see if you can outline and write out sample answers using your study tools
Finally, let me make set the record straight.
You don't have to make an outline as your study tool. Your study tool can be an outline…or a flowchart…or a poster with lots of pictures...or a set of flashcards, etc.
What's important is that it is YOUR study tool that YOU built from YOUR own handiwork and thoughts! It's got to be personal to you because it's going to be you that sits for your bar exam. So, have fun learning by creating super-short snappy study tools that serve as organized pre-written answers for this summer's bar exam. (Scott Johns)
Tuesday, July 9, 2019
Like my colleagues, I am thinking ahead to the new school year even as my attention is consumed by those preparing for the bar exam three weeks from now. Last year at this time I was thinking mainly about scheduling and content and skills development, and how to tweak and rearrange my classes and workshops to make them more effective. This year, I find myself thinking at least as much about stories as about skills.
Part of this cogitation is driven by my conversations of late with students dealing with varying degrees of anxiety about the bar exam. I ask them how they are doing and what has led them to whatever position they currently find themselves in, and their narratives fall broadly into two categories. Some students tell me kinetic stories about what work they have done, what challenges they have faced, and what strategies they have employed. They may not have conquered every problem that has come up -- in fact, that's usually why they are talking to me -- but they still see themselves as the protagonists who are driving their stories and pursuing some kind of prize. Other students, even some with objectively similar obstacles, tell their stories in a different way. They are still the centers of their own stories, but things keep happening to them (poor performance on a practice test, illness, misunderstanding, etc.), and they are just doing what they can to cope. These latter folks are not doomed, by any means; they are, in fact, often quite capable. But they do seem to feel more anxiety and doubt than the more protagonistic students. So part of what I am wondering is whether it might be possible to cultivate that sense of protagonism by using language that highlights one's sense of agency and potency, from the very start of law school. Perhaps by using less language about "what will happen" and "what you will encounter", and more language about "what you will learn to do" and "how others have overcome difficulties", I can shift students' perspectives in a more empowering direction.
Another aspect of storytelling that has become clearly significant over the past year is how students perceive their stories in relation to their law school -- their fellow students, their class as an entity, their professors, their administration, and their alumni community. At the start of my 3L pre-bar prep course this spring, I felt it was very important to intentionally and repeatedly talk about our class as a team. We were there to support each other, I said, because we had common goals as individuals and as a group. Each student wanted to pass the bar exam in July -- that much they knew going into the class -- but, I pointed out, each student should also want to see everyone else in the class pass, too. Teamwork might mean going a little further to help our classmates in a pinch, but it also means we've got a bunch of other people in our corner, willing to do the same for us. The faculty, the administration, and the alumni want to see them succeed, too, because their success makes everybody look better, and because we've invested so much energy and faith in them. And if the class does notably well as a group on the bar exam, their pass rate becomes public information that makes them all look like part of a stellar crop of new lawyers.
At times I felt almost like a goofy cheerleader telling this story, and encouraging my students to tell that story about themselves as a team. But it seems to have paid off. This summer we are seeing notably higher rates of participation and completion of assignments in summer bar prep courses. Recent graduates are spending more time together, on and off campus, and I've been talking to far more of them in my office and on the phone than last summer. Just telling a story of teamwork isn't enough -- the school has also had to walk the walk, by providing additional resources and guidance to students -- but it is clear that intensifying our characterization of getting ready for the bar as a communal effort has had a positive effect.
This is another thing I am wondering about, as I move forward with plans to work with our new incoming students. How can I tell that story of the law school as a team in a way that will stick with these new students for three intensive years? Is there a way to cultivate that story in the face of the known competition for grades in the first year? Is there a way to keep that story from becoming trite and from being tattered by cynicism? I think there must be. It's not just the telling of the story that makes it work; it's also acting the story out, and making it seem real because it could be real.
So, while I will be working on better ways to improve students' analytical and time management skills this fall, I will also be thinking about better ways to tell them stories -- about themselves as individuals and as part of this new community -- that they can believe in. Stories that they will want to carry on telling themselves.
Tuesday, July 2, 2019
In Michael Crichton's book The Lost World, his sequel to Jurassic Park, the scientist Ian Malcolm observes that the velociraptors -- pack-oriented hunting dinosaurs that have been brought back from extinction through genetic engineering -- behave unexpectedly viciously towards each other. Ordinarily, pack animals would work under some kind of social structure, as, for example, when wolves are led by a single alpha male, disadvantaging other males but minimizing conflict and maximizing cooperation among the pack as a whole. But in the book, the velociraptors are depicted as combative and treacherous, attacking each other at the slightest provocation or opportunity.
Malcolm realizes that even though the DNA used to recreate these creatures captured perfectly the information needed to duplicate the originals physically, there had been no means by which the scientists could have reproduced the social structure that the original animals had developed and passed along over uncounted millennia. Without that information inherited from previous generations, the cloned velociraptors could only work out their own "culture" by trial and error -- mostly maladaptive, destructive error. They might well destroy themselves as a species all over again, just because they had had no chance to observe and learn from those who had come before them.
Every year, we are midwives to a new brood of legal hatchlings, law school graduates who must face the professional equivalent of nature red in tooth and claw: the bar examination. In the majority of cases, this is not an iterative, developmental experience. Most attorneys take the bar exam once and never have to apply its lessons again. But the lessons are real and valuable.
Some of those lessons are relatively easily compiled and organized, so that they can be provided/sold to future graduates through various forms of mass marketing: bar review courses that offer exhaustive compendia of necessary legal rules and concepts, or books that provide tips about studying, memorizing, essay writing, or time management. These can be quite helpful, and they provide a very large portion of the information that determines most applicant's behavior as they prepare for, and then take, the bar examination.
Still, for the most part, this information goes only to the development of the individual's fitness for the exam. Each individual applicant acquires certain needed components -- some knowledge, some judgment, some skills -- in the same way that an individual velociraptor can develop pointed teeth, sharp claws, and a muscular tail. And these components may serve that applicant well on the exam.
What about the social aspect? I see my students this summer gathering to watch lectures together. I hear about them supporting each other when they are confused or frustrated. I know they are pushing each other to stay on track in their study progress. They tell me about meeting up off campus or trading thoughts by phone or online. I know that, for my school at least, something is different this summer: the students are more communicative with me, they are completing more of their assigned work on time, and they are sharing more notes and resources with each other. This isn't something they've read in a book or took down in a lecture. It is the social structure of this class of legal hatchlings, developing in a healthy way.
It may only be an incremental change, increasing engagement or completion or quality by a few percentage points. But such changes, over time, is the definition of evolution. But it can only happen if we have some way of passing it along, some analogue of DNA that transmits the essence of this slightly modified social structure along to the next generation of hatchlings.
In a way, one aspect of our existence as Academic Success vectors is to carry this information, as best we can, from class to class, like plasmids shuttling genetic material from one bacterium to another. We can tell next year's graduates what this year's graduates did, ask them to trust us and to try the same strategies. To the extent they do trust us, and to the extent that we know and can articulate the changes to the social structure, this can be helpful.
We can also ask our alumni to transmit directly, inviting them to return to the classroom next year and to share their experiences with the following class. I did this twice this past spring semester, and my students seemed very responsive, asking lots of questions to help them suss out what to expect in the summer. Later this month, I plan to record some video of students engaged in studying, or willing to open up after a lecture or an exercise, so that my future students can get a better idea of how these students worked alongside each other.
It is great to seem some improvement in outcomes for our students, and often we can point to better development of individual skills as a contributor to this improvement. But just because changes to the social component of performance might be more difficult to isolate and package doesn't mean we should let them slip away from year to year, with just the hope that they might be recreated from scratch each time. Some information is transmitted via nucleotides; some information, via letters and numbers; but some can only be passed along, by explanation and example, from one society to its successor.
Monday, July 1, 2019
Don't fight [challenges]. Just find a new way to stand. - Oprah Winfrey
The bar exam is 30 days away. It may feel like you have been prepping for the bar exam all your life instead of six weeks. The 30-day mark is a great opportunity to acknowledge that not all bar takers enter bar study on the same footing. Students without strong academic records may be riddled with self-doubt about their ability to pass. For repeat takers, the mental and financial exhaustion of bar study can be all the more discouraging when experienced a second or third time. Past negative experiences are setbacks of which bar study brings daily reminders. These setbacks are short-term, but under the lens of today, they may seem to indelibly mark one’s chance for future success.
Whether your setback was a previous bar exam failure, or not finishing law school with the ranking or job opportunity that you hoped for, there is a comeback in your future. Maybe your setback is trying to juggle a full-time job and raise a family, while your peers bask in the seeming luxury of full-time bar study and an arsenal of supplemental study aids. Whatever the setback, use it as the gateway to an epic comeback.
If we track the lives of great actors, athletes, political leaders, and other celebrities, we'll find some major comeback that catapulted their career success. Public figures who have mastered the art of the comeback transform their reputations and eradicate public recall of scandals, felonies, fraud, and political defeat. After a comeback, onlookers almost never remember the setback, that is because the setback is never as good or as lasting as the comeback.
Instead of allowing your setback-circumstances to shape your attitude or approach to bar study, let your setback elevate you to greater heights. Pledge today to reform your thoughts. You are not struggling through bar study. You are making your comeback.
Tuesday, June 25, 2019
Now that my law school’s most recent graduates are well into their preparations for the bar examination, I have noticed some of them exhibiting a kind of exasperated relief when they come to talk with me about how their studies are going. They are still feeling a good deal of anxiety about the test, and they are starting to show signs of that deep weariness that comes from focusing intently on a huge task during most of their waking hours. But they are in good spirits, because at long last they are starting to make sense of the Contracts, Property, and Torts classes they took more than two years ago.
“You know,” one of them told me recently, “they are finally just telling me, ‘This is the rule, this is when you use it, this is how you use it.’ All the rules, so I don’t have to extract them or look them up anywhere! I wish that my professor had just done this in my 1L year. That class would have made so much more sense.”
It is a curious system that has evolved in this country: We spend 140-odd weeks getting our students to think creatively, abstractly, and expansively about the practice of law, then push them to spend 10 weeks efficiently and mechanically cramming the specific material required to test into that practice. Imagine if we prepared for other tests in the same way:
Driver’s License Road Test: Students spend three months watching The Road Warrior, Cannonball Run I & II, Smokey and the Bandit I, II, & III, and the entire The Fast and the Furious series. Along the way, they discuss questions like, “Should speed limits always be obeyed, even in a post-apocalyptic world?”, “How is it possible that Burt Reynolds’s license has never been revoked?”, and “Suppose Blackchassis, who is too fast, arrives at an intersection at exactly the same time as Whitechassis, who is too furious. Who has the right of way?” Three days before the scheduled road test, students are permitted for the first time to sit in the driver’s seat, where they discover the existence of turn signals. (Former professors explain that they had not had time to discuss turn signals in class, and in any case, students could look them up in the owner's manual if they ever needed to know about them.)
Test of English as a Foreign Language: Assigned reading includes Infinite Jest, Ulysses, House of Leaves, and Code of Federal Regulations, Title 26. Students are required to write a brief summary of each chapter read; it must be written in iambic pentameter. One week before the TOEFL, the class begins watching “Schoolhouse Rock” and somebody finally explains that a noun is a person, place, or thing.
Presidential Fitness Test: Middle-school students spend the first half of the semester exploring ways to build bulk, stamina, and flexibility in their left gastrocnemius. They learn that the gastrocnemius wasn’t even considered a muscle in early 17th-century England, but had achieved muscular status in both the U.K. and the U.S. by the mid-19th century. There is also extensive discussion about the current treatment of the gastrocnemius as a flexor in most states, but as an extensor in a substantial minority, mostly in the South and New England. In the second half of the semester, the teacher races through the superficial conditioning of most of the major muscle groups of the body, frequently referring back to the gastrocnemius as a model. In the last week before Christmas break, a new gym teacher takes the class outside to run wind sprints in the snow while carrying barbells. She never once mentions the word “gastrocnemius”.
Rorschach Inkblot Test: For ten weeks, the professor requires the students each night to spend three or four hours examining a seemingly random formation of ink on paper. Each day, students come to class asking the professor to explain what they had tried to understand the night before, but the professor only responds with, “Well, what do *you* think it means?” [Wait a minute . . .]
Okay, it's easy to tease our academy for its idiosyncratic way of inculcating an understanding of the law in its students. But most of those students who seem gratified to finally receive concrete and particularized lists of rules to memorize and apply are not wholly frustrated that they had not received them in the first place. They recognize that they would not have known what to do with such a bare-bones framework of legal rules if they had never gone through the mental boot camp of their 1L year, or if they had never explored as much of the range and depth of our jurisprudence as they did in their 2L and 3L years. There are a few students who get hung up on the rote memorization and mechanical application that can, honestly, appear to take up most of the work done in bar preparation. It is always helpful to remind those students that the bar examination is not merely a test of technical ability, like a driver's license test or the TOEFL. It is also a test of judgment, and that, hopefully, is what they have developed, and can tap into, from those three sometimes dizzying years of law school.
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.