Thursday, December 5, 2019
There's a line from the movie "The Greatest Showman" that goes like this: "Comfort is the enemy of progress."
That got me thinking.
I wonder if comfort might also be an enemy of learning.
It seems to me, if I boil down the research on learning, that much of what we think is valuable for learning is, frankly, of little to no value at all.
Take for example re-reading notes and texts and highlighting information. Although I doubt any social scientist would put it this way, as I follow the research, those activities are essentially worthless as they really aren't activities of cognition at all. Rather, they are motions that we take in which we convince ourselves - falsely - that we are learning. (They are mere preparations to become a learner, not learning in itself.). That's why they feel so intuitively comfortable.
But true learning takes sweat. It requires workouts using our minds. It pushes us to build cognitive connections that previously didn't exist. In short, it's a struggle in growing, thinking, and practicing well beyond our comfort zones.
So, as you prepare for final exams, take heart. Be of good courage, knowing that while true learning doesn't feel comfortable, the science is behind you as you push into uncomfortable work.
From a practical viewpoint, as you work through your notes and outlines, talk them out, synthesize them, and generate lots of ideas and practice exam scenarios based on them. Test yourself frequently about what you think you are learning to see if you are truly learning it by turning your materials over and recalling what you think you know from memory. In short, prepare for your final exams by using interleaving practices (mixing up different topics and practice formats) and spaced repetition (revising topics and practices through intervals of spaced timing) in addition to forced retrieval exercises (deliberately forcing our minds to recall what we think we can't remember).
If you aren't sure about how to use interleaving practice, spaced repetition review, or forced recall learning, please dive into some of the charts and tables in this very helpful overview of the cognitive psychology for optimal learning: J. Dunlosky, "Strengthening The Student Tool Kit." Or better yet, check out some of the blog posts from Associate Dean Louis Schulze, an expert in legal education learning: L. Schulze, "Four Posts on Cognitive Psychology." They're sure to get you thinking, and, more importantly, learning...if you put them to practice.
Best of luck on your final exams!
Monday, December 2, 2019
Follow (v): To act according to an instruction or precept; to pay close attention to; to treat as a teacher or guide.
While in law school, I never connected with any of my professors on social media. Let's pretend that's not because social media tools were not yet sufficiently developed to allow me to do so. Fast forward into the information age where I've seen healthy discussions about whether law professors should encourage students to "follow them" on Twitter and other social mediums. Ultimately every professor has the right to their own individual preferences and likewise, their students have the freedom to decide whether and how to interact with their professors online.
Many professors are kind enough to freely spew out words of wisdom as regards exam preparation, and the beauty of Twitter makes these gems available to all. University of North Carolina School of Law Professor O.J. Salinas tweeted some words of wisdom that I wish I had access to as a first-year (or even second-year) law student. Professor Salinas shared:
"Law students (particularly 1Ls): Finals are here. Remember to support your conclusions w/ analysis. Apply the law to the facts of the hypo for every issue you spot. Conclusory answers (conclusions w/out analysis) don’t get you a lot of points (if any). The facts of the hypo are your friends. The facts are there to help nudge you (sometimes quite directly) to your analysis. If you are stuck on the exam and don't know where to go, first take a couple of deeps breaths. Then re-read the call of the question. Then revisit the facts. As you revisit each line of the facts, ask yourself: Why is this fact here? Have I applied this fact to any laws that we have covered in class? Does this fact or could this fact relate to something that we have covered in class?
Finally, make it easy for your prof. to read your exam. Aim for clear & concise writing. Short sentences. Paragraph breaks. Headings/subheadings. Walk the reader through your prediction by providing effective/complete legal analysis. And don't presume your reader knows anything. You can do this!"
I have a list of professors that I follow. Many of whom I know only through online interactions. I am grateful to be able to follow their wisdom and shared experiences. I benefit regularly from our exchanges. My daily takeaways include teaching tips, common struggles, and concise study and writing advice for my students. Thanks Professor Salinas for your exam writing wisdom. I remain a follower.
Tuesday, November 26, 2019
It seems fitting that at my law school -- like most others, I presume -- the Thanksgiving holiday immediately precedes the fall semester final exam period. Thanksgiving dinner and final exams have so much in common.
Each of them seems far off as the golden days of summer begin their inexorable diminution. On Labor Day, we are all aware that [Thanksgiving dinner/final exams] will be the next significant break in our routines, but in the hazy warm thrill of the start of the academic year, it is so difficult to even consider the coming cold, dark days.
However, by the equinox, people start to pay attention to the distant approach of [Thanksgiving dinner/final exams]. Conscientious people even realize that they should probably start making plans early, so they don't find themselves without options in a last-minute rush to prepare. But many folks, caught up in the rush of day-to-day life, might put off such measures, figuring they can address their reservations closer to the deadline.
Before you know it, though, here comes Halloween, and then suddenly it seems like reminders of [Thanksgiving dinner/final exams] are everywhere! No matter how much dread they inspire, you have to admit they spark a bit of excitement, too, since [Thanksgiving dinner/final exams] will mark the real start of the winter holidays. And, besides, no matter how onerous and monotonous the yearly ordeal might appear, it always carries with it at least the possibility of a pleasant surprise or two.
As time accelerates and the time for [Thanksgiving dinner/final exams] lurches to mere days away, all at once it seems like life has gone a little haywire. You're still have to attend to all your ordinary quotidian responsibilities, but now you have to pile on top of that the preparations for [Thanksgiving dinner/final exams]. Schedules have to be coordinated, supplies have to be obtained. Participants will struggle to nail down time-honored formulae, so they can be ready (if and when necessary) to apply these recipes to whatever ingredients are provided to produce a satisfying result. Hopefully, even the most dilatory attendees will manage to eke out a little free time before [Thanksgiving dinner/final exams] to focus on preparation and maybe even a few practice creations.
Finally, the big day arrives! It feels like you spend half the day in a frenetic rush, anxiously making sure you haven't forgotten anything. But then the actual event -- [Thanksgiving dinner/final exams]! -- begins, and you are totally engrossed. Confined in a room full of people, all of whom seem to be sitting a little too close, making a little bit too much noise. But this is something you are doing together. Sometimes one person just dives right in, and a bunch of people around him follow suit, not wanting to fall behind. They might well spend too much attention on one or two meaty choices, and entirely overlook other valuable tidbits. They could end up regretting not having given themselves enough time to digest things properly. Other people might approach [Thanksgiving dinner/final exams] too cautiously, overly mindful that it will be a multi-course affair. Afraid to make a mess or to risk something disagreeable, they may find at the end that they barely made a dent in their undertaking. Hopefully, though, most of our students will pace themselves, knowing they are going to be there for a few hours, and will think carefully about how much they want to have on their plate at one time, so that they can get through the entire experience having indulged appropriately in every choice, and in a palatable way that leaves them drowsy and satisfied.
May this year's [Thanksgiving dinner/final exams] be a cause of celebration for all of us!
Tuesday, November 19, 2019
Sometimes students think they are painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, when they are really inventing the light bulb.
Michelangelo famously worked from 1508 to 1512 to decorate the ceiling of the Chapel with biblical scenes comprising more than 300 figures. Contrary to popular belief, he did not do the work lying on his back; the scaffolding he designed and put in place left him room to stand. Try this right now: for one minute, stand up, look up at the ceiling above you, and hold your hand high over your head, grasping a pen, or a paintbrush if you have one handy. Now imagine doing that for four years, and creating an historical masterpiece. Amazing. If I had painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling under those conditions, it would have ended up taped to my parents’ refrigerator for a month, then discreetly recycled.
Still, the process did have one advantage: every evening, while Michelangelo was washing the paint off his brushes, he could look up and see a few more square feet of masterpiece. If his boss, Pope Julius II, swung by just to see how things were going, he would notice some prophet or angel that hadn’t been there the week before, and say something like, “Good work, Micky. I like the wrath there – very Old Testament. Keep it up.”
In contrast we have Thomas Edison and his invention of the light bulb. To be fair, it wasn't just the light bulb that made his electrical system so successful. He had a much broader vision, encompassing power generation and transmission facilities as well, so that once he had created a working light bulb, he had also designed an entire system capable of lighting it practically in every citizen’s home. But still, success did depend on finding that reliable, long-lasting bulb, and to do this, Edison tested thousands of different materials – varieties of animal hair, plant fiber, metal wire, etc. – to find a filament that would work.
But Edison’s work was not incremental the way Michelangelo’s work was. Over time, his experiments did provide some clues that guided him to the material (carbonized bamboo) that eventually worked, so his progress was not entirely random. Still, it was unpredictable. Edison could go through periods in which he’d test 100 filaments and not one of them would work any better than what he’d had at the start. While Michelangelo could work for a month and at least complete 2% of a ceiling -- and 100% of, say, Adam and Eve -- a month of work for Edison would not leave him with 2% of a working light bulb. He had no light bulb, until the day he found the right material; then he had the light bulb.
A lot of what our students do is Michelangelo work. They do a chunk of reading, or memorize a set of rules, or practice a certain writing format, and it may take them a while to reach their ultimate goal, but at least they can see measurable progress along the way: this many pages covered, or that many rules learned by heart, or some incrementally improved conformity with a norm. It can still be a grind, especially with a heavy workload and weighty syllabus, but at least the students can be sure of improvement and can project a likely date of completion.
It’s inevitable, though, that some of our students' work will be Edison work. They put in the time and the effort, but there’s not necessarily any obvious correlation to results. They could be working on a legal research project, looking for a needle and ending each day with a notebook full of hay. Or they might be practicing some skill that, for them, seems to resist improvement, at least until a certain critical mass of practice has been reached. (Performance on multiple-choice tests, for example, can sometimes plateau for weeks for soem students.) If the students don't realize that they are not doing Michelangelo work here -- if they are expecting incremental success and not seeing it -- then they can grow discouraged and self-doubtful, and may even abandon the effort, believing it is not doing any good.
It is crucial. before that happens, to explain to students (and to remind them, sometimes frequently) that there are two kinds of progress in work, and to get them to focus not on results but on well-directed effort. Help them to recognize, as Edison did, that some jobs simply require effort that won’t be directly rewarded, but that “every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.” As long as students are actually doing the right work -- and for that, too, they may need your guidance -- then, even if they are not seeing daily results, they are doing something useful -- ruling out fruitless lines of inquiry, or gradually building context and understanding to reach the critical mass needed. In the moment, such progress may not feel as satisfying as a tangible result, but with support, they can keep going, even in the face of doubt. And once they have completed the task successfully, they can look back and realize not just how the effort they made led to the result, but also that they are capable of making similar efforts -- and hopefully with a little more faith -- in the future.
Thursday, November 14, 2019
Picture a "lollipop." Unfortunately, that was me as a law school student preparing for my first final exams. You see, in preparation for final exams, I spent most of my time re-reading my notes, trying to master my outlines, and cramming as much information as possible into my head...with the hope that I might somehow be able to regurgitate as much as possible back to my professors.
In short, I looked much like a lollipop - stuffed with head knowledge but without much of a body or a heart to make it work.
That's because I had learned the law...but...I hadn't let the rest of my body, in particular my heart and my hands, share in the learning process. As such, I had much to say when it at came time for final exams but, unfortunately, little of anything practical or valuable because I had merely learned to parrot back my notes and outlines. I was as hard-headed as the candy on top of a lollipop; I couldn't dance with the final exam problems because I hadn't trained to work final exam problems. In retrospect, I should have fed my heart and hands as much as I engaged my mind in order to prepare for my final exams.
Let me be concrete. As you prepare for final exams, take it from me. Work your heart and body too as you learn the law. Here's what I mean. Rather than just learning the law, learn to problem-solve the law ... using the law that you are learning. That's because, in most law school courses, you won't be tested on what you've stuffed into your mind but rather on what you can personally do with what's in your mind by demonstrating how to solve hypothetical legal problems.
So, as you prepare for final exams, please feel free to re-read your notes (but only briefly because that's one of the weakest ways to learn) and make outlines (because the process of making your outlines is essential to learning the law)...but...then take your outlines and use them to solve batches of simulated final exam problems (and lots of them). And, when you miss an issue or a problem, rejoice...because missing that issue now means that you'll get that issue right in the midst of your final exams. In short, focus on learning the law by working through problems.
As a rule of thumb, about one-third of your time should be spent on reviewing your notes and creating outlines, one-third of your time spent on working through simulated exam problems, and one-third of your time spent on assessing what you did well (and why) along with what you can improve for the next time (and how).
In other words, just like a balanced diet with a lifestyle of exercise, let all of you (your mind, your heart, and your body) share in learning by learning the law through legal problem-solving. And, if you don't have a quick source of simulated exam problems, here's a batch below that can serve you well in a dash. Good luck on your final exams! (Scott Johns).
Thursday, November 7, 2019
It's quite common for most of us learn to prepare for final exams...by, unfortunately, not actually preparing for final exams.
If you're like me, I just never quite feel like I know enough law to start practicing problems.
But if we wait until we feel like we know enough, we'll run smack out of time to practice exams because most of our time will be spent instead on creating and reviewing our study tools (rather than using our study tools to help us navigate through "test flights" of practice final exam problems).
And that's a problem because professors don't test on the quality of your outlines but rather on whether you can use the law in your study tools to solve legal problems.
But that's great news because...
Solving legal problems is a skill that you can learn through practice! [Like any skill, it just takes pondering, puzzling, and practicing through lots of simulated exam problems to develop expertise as a legal problem-solver.] So, this harvest season as you turn towards final exam preparations, focus much of your learning on working through practice final exam problems.
As such, the best source of practice exam problems is to ask your professor for sample exam problems. If none (or only a few available), feel free to ask your professor and academic support department if they can suggest additional practice problems. Finally, if you still can't find practice problems, feel free to work through past bar exam essays. To get started, here's some links for some nifty old bar exam essays, organized by subject, complete with hypothetical scenarios and analysis:
Wednesday, October 30, 2019
At my law school, it is 40 total days, and 23 class days, until the first final exam. For some students, now is the time of reckoning.
There are always a few students who get a late-semester wake-up call: the 3Ls affecting insouciance who heretofore mouthed "C=J.D." but now want to demonstrate their mettle to a mentor; the 2Ls who did so well during the first year they initially assumed they could cruise through 2L year without effort; the 1Ls so impressed with their above-median LSAT they can't acknowledge their work product falls short of the mark; the students in any year who have spent the first months of the semester struggling with illness or family emergencies or pure bad luck. Ten weeks into the semester, they wonder if there is time to turn things around.
If the answer to every legal question is "It depends," the answer to "Is there time to turn things around? Can I pull this off?" is "Maybe. Are you willing to do what it takes?" Can you accomplish a lot in the last 40 days? Yes. Will you be as successful as you would have been if you spent all semester working on it? Probably not. Will it be good enough? That depends on your own hard and strategic work.
Strategies must necessarily differ for different kinds of courses, but here is an approach that can be helpful for law school courses with a comprehensive final exams:
- Read the syllabus. "What? I don't have time for that -- I have to catch up!" I repeat -- read the syllabus. Knowledge is power, and the syllabus lays out the expectations of your professor, including topics covered, the grading scheme, and penalties for missed classes. Pay attention to what you are supposed to know and how you are evaluated.
- Move forward, never backwards. You will just fall further behind if you decide to go back to read and brief the cases from day 1. Instead, do the current work to the best of your ability.
Does that mean blowing off all you have missed? By no means. Rather, for material you have missed:
- Ask for help. Ask friends if they are willing to share class notes. Buy lunch for a classmate who offers to walk you through how to analyze key issues. Ask to borrow outlines not to copy, but to give you a start on creating your own. Check for any materials your professor has posted on learning platforms or made available through the law library.
- Work through simple problems. You will learn much more by problem-solving than by reading casebooks or even excellent study supplements. Look for supplements that offer problems or exercises, and go straight to the problems without reading the background text. Think deeply as you work your way through the problems, and do your best. And whether you get the problems right or wrong (as with true/false or multiple choice questions), read the explanatory answers until you understand why your answer or reasoning was right or wrong.
- Utilize spaced repetition. You can use spaced repetition with your own flashcards or by using software resources available commercially or through your law library.
- Work your way through complex practice exams. If you have access to former midterms or finals, work your way through the complex problems. Pay special attention to the analytical steps you must take, and the order of reasoning. Gain an understanding of the big picture as well as the specific rules.
- Communicate with your professor. If you are demonstrating your willingness to do the hard work, your professors will usually be happy to help.
- Decide the hard work is worth it. When you are seriously behind, the work needed to turn things around will be considerable. Marshall your inner resources to help you stay motivated, work effectively, and devote the time and energy needed to complete the work.
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.