Friday, December 1, 2023
It’s the last day of classes. There is palpable stress in the air that can only be brought on by the collective dread of law school final exams. This time of year, I always seem to reflect on my own 1L fall exams. I remember a string of late nights spent furiously editing outlines. I can also clearly remember thinking to myself, “I’ll never have time to study if I don’t finish these!” Finally, I realized something was wrong with that picture. Isn’t creating a study tool supposed to help you study?
I felt an unbelievable amount of pressure to make outlines for every class. But the outline structure made it difficult for me to see the hierarchy of concepts, to synthesize the material (to cut an anecdote about a case felt like torture and a word document is endless anyway), or frankly to even review the material in a meaningful way. My strength in learning comes from my ability to see the big picture and make connections back to that structure. Working systematically on an outline each week, when many law classes are not taught with the big picture in mind, was painful. I was behind on my outlines, not because I wasn’t working hard or was procrastinating – I was behind because the process of outlining didn’t work for me. So, I did the unthinkable. I hit delete on all my outlines.
How did I manage to succeed on my final exams after I pressed delete? I created study tools that helped me see the big picture, synthesize rules, and think about how those rules apply to new scenarios. I made the same study tools I used successfully during my undergraduate career. I called them “concept pages.” They were single sheets of paper, each dedicated to a major concept in a class. They were messy with arrows connecting ideas. They also contained clear, concise rule statements and showed how the rules connected. I could make them quickly. They improved my understanding because they acted as a series of capstones on each major concept. They aren’t for everyone, but they worked for me. And that is my point.
Over the years, when students come to me panicked about the state of their outlines (not started, WAY too long, class notes with roman numerals that mean nothing to them, etc.), or crying because they will never finish their outlines in time to study for exams, I start the same conversation. “What if you tried something else? What type of study tool did you make in college? How do you like to organize material? Flow charts? Tables? Maybe something handwritten and messy?” I have seen many students do better in law school when they stop making outlines and start making something else. What would happen if we supported students to make the study tools that work best for them? If we gave them other options from day one? If we talked about creating study tools instead of using “outlining” as a synonym for law school success?
The best study tool to create is one that best organizes the information. For some topics that might be a short, traditional outline. For other topics, a table or flow chart will work better. We should be flexible about study tools because they need to flex around the subject matter and around individual needs. I’ve stopped telling students to outline. Instead, I ask what type of study tools they are working on and how the tools are working for them. Who’s with me?
Monday, October 23, 2023
There are a number of sources of the phrase, "once around the park and home," according to the Urban Dictionary.1 I prefer to think it comes from an old Tony Bennett song: Please Driver (Once Around the Park Again).2 The song is sung from the point of view of a man who has been dumped and is longing for his usual company around the park. As Bennett says, "The trees tonight are snowy white. We drove around like this till dawn last New Years Eve."3 But let's be clear: driving around a park is a loop, you are not going to get anywhere new driving in circles, but you will take in the view.
Just now, I met with a student who came in to chat about their (ungraded) property midterm and wanted me to take a look before the peer review occurred in the next property class. Luckily there was a grading rubric and a copy of the question for me to follow along with-it has been a good long while since I took property. As I looked over what the professor was looking for and what the student had produced, I saw a large gap. The student had essentially spotted the issues and came to a correct (per the rubric) conclusion about each one but had not (with maybe two exceptions) mentioned any law or used the facts they were given to reach the conclusions. They explained that they were only hoping to get the "correct answer" to each question. I gently pointed out that instead of IRAC, they had used IC-and that was only because I gave them credit for stating an issue because they had resolved it. On the rubric, 2 points were to each I, R, and C per question, but there were 4-6 points assigned for the analysis-and rightfully so. Based on what I saw, they had scored badly.
They were adamant that they knew the material. I agreed that it was more an output rather than input issue (putting law in students' heads is a different thing altogether), but unlike undergraduate exams (and ironically more like 7th grade geometry), they needed to show their work. On the one hand, I could see (but not really assume) that the student understood the class because they reached the correct conclusion, however, since all of our 1L exams are graded anonymously, their property professor would just be surprised entering the poor exam grade and could not know whose exam it was until that moment. On the other hand, it would be a shame to get an unsatisfactory grade on the exam despite knowing the material. It was a question of showing the work, contextualizing the conclusions by analyzing fact and law together, and just taking a minute to slow down and admire the scenery of IRAC as a format.
I showed the student the picture below (I took it this morning on the way to a haircut) and asked if they had ever taken a drive to look at the foliage (it is a very New England thing to do) and they said they had. I asked them where did you end up when you did that? What was your final destination? They couldn't recall but agreed that the drive was worthwhile. I made my "teachable moment noise"-which I can only assume is extremely annoying but unavoidable (sorry-not sorry). I told them that this is mainly the idea of law school essay exams: you need to state the route (issue), take the best road (rule), and look for the reasons you have taken the trip (analysis). And where you end up is not nearly as important as the road you took and what you saw along the way (the good and the bad). Getting from point A to point B without taking a detour into the rule and analysis is efficient but will leave you at point C (as a grade).
In other words, the "correct answer" is the journey.
- Urban Dictionary: Home James
- 1954 HITS ARCHIVE: Please Driver (Once Around The Park Again) - Tony Bennett - YouTube,
- Id. I mean who does not love Tony Bennett?
Monday, October 2, 2023
I had a student ask for an appointment to come in and discuss their study strategies. In the email asking for the appointment, they wanted to know if I had time to meet and discuss their, “dismal (by choice) first-month performance.” Yes, I also read that more than a few times trying to decipher what it meant. I offered them a quick sliver of time that very day to come in and set up a longer appointment on a different day, but to hopefully get something jumpstarted in the interim.
They told me that in the first 4.5 weeks of law school, they had worked for about ten hours. Hmm, I asked, is that ten hours a day (troubling because that seems like too much) or a week (too little)? “Total.” I did not gasp out loud (and I am quite proud of that). I asked them if that included the legal writing assignment that had been due the past week, and they said it did, and in fact, they had spent almost two of those hours on the paper. Another deep breath for me…
I asked a series of follow-ups after that revelation:
- Are you doing the reading?: Sort-of-I am skimming the cases and then we talk about them in class.
- Are you taking good notes in class?: Not really-It just makes sense.
- Have you started outlining?: Outlining what?
- Are you quizzing yourself after class? No.
They asked me if they were doing it wrong and when I said that it seemed to be the wrong choice, they went on to tell me about their undergraduate career that included a prestigious scholarship given to a handful of exceptional students. They told me their undergraduate GPA and how they never really worked hard at academics. I believe it. They seemed quite intelligent and quick to catch on to things. I took another deep breath and told them that law school was going to come and bite them in the ass (yes, I am a crass girl from the Bronx) if they didn’t do the reading, take notes, do practice questions, and start outlining-like right now. And, I added that my undergraduate GPA from the very same institution was also pretty good.
I explained the Dunning-Kruger effect to them: “a cognitive bias in which people wrongly overestimate their knowledge or ability in a specific area. This tends to occur because a lack of self-awareness prevents them from accurately assessing their own skills.” I told them that finding out what you don’t know when it counts towards, or even accounts for the entirety of, a grade is risky, particularly in law school. In classes where there is only one assessment, you will have absolutely no idea whether you are doing it right until it is too late.
Here’s the thing though, I am not 100% certain they needed the standard “how to do law school” menu of tasks. This may not be how they learn best, but their current “method” didn’t seem conducive to the 3.0 GPA the student wanted to have by the end of 1L year in order to move into our hybrid JD program and take their final two years online. In all honesty, I was really alarmed at the idea that after this year, they might be totally remote and have no 3-D peer or faculty reminders that they are not doing the same work-either qualitatively or quantitatively until they face the bar. They seemed like an unconventional learner who was very smart and not yet excited by what they were studying. But that is an excuse that flies in 7th grade, and not before our Academic Standing Committee.
I didn’t sugarcoat my concern with this student. Gentle cajoling wasn’t going to be an effective process here. I straightforwardly laid out the unnecessary risks I believed they were taking and then sent them a series of Outlook meeting invitations to check in on their progress. We’ll see if they come to anything.
In the meantime, this kind of student prompts me to remind my doctrinal faculty colleagues that the old school one high-stakes summative assessment at the end of a semester is going to be the downfall of otherwise smart students. This will weed out students who need to have their ass (gently) handed to them early on in order to light a fire in them to get the work done as well as those who cannot genuinely succeed. It is widening the net and letting otherwise good students fall through. We will ultimately lose students who will be world-changers this way. Is this coddling? In the first semester of law school, in particular, it is not. If our goal is bar passage, we need to make sure students can accurately self-assess by modeling what that looks like from day 1.
As for this student, while I am not absolutely sure they need to follow the regular path, I am certain that they will find the path they have taken thus far is unlikely to end in the place they hoped. I only hope I was persuasive in making that point.
 Normally, I would never, ever do that, but I got the very real sense that my perceived intelligence would be a factor in whether they deemed my admonitions credible.
Monday, August 28, 2023
Have you ever used a navigator when you are driving? I am probably the user that navigator designers despise the most: I argue and don’t always listen to their advice--mainly because I do not have complete faith in them. I have a strange feud with one particular navigator that I swear is a trust exercise because it will take me to places I have never been to before (like someone’s backyard it seems), but when I make a mistake (or willfully disregard their advice), they just shut down altogether. I swear mine is just leading me to strange places and seeing if I trust them enough to get me out. I don’t and am thus abandoned.
We have noticed (actually, this has been an issue for a long while) that students are not engaging with our 1L study seminars or office hours. Some seem skeptical about them, and some are surprised to learn that these were even happening despite numerous weekly emails, announcements during orientation, and the billboard we erected near Fenway Park (okay, there was no billboard, but it isn’t a crazy idea…). By the time students come to see us, often they are already in some academic distress and likely behind in some aspect of successful “law studenting.” It is frustrating. We spend a lot of time developing and offering resources and yet students seem to want to follow their own path or are afraid to ask for and accept help.
And they need this help because this is a place they haven’t visited before.
So, we decided to do what my (non-trust exercise) navigator does (at least three times during every excursion) and recalculated. This year we created a “Success Syllabus” for our 1L students and posted it on our Academic Support Canvas page. It takes students through the semester-week by week- and tells them what they should be doing during those weeks to be prepared for exams. I included their legal writing assignment due dates, calendar shifts (Monday schedule on a Tuesday for the win!) as well as any already knowable midterm dates. Basically, it tells students when to begin reading and briefing for classes (right now and all semester), outlining (in a few weeks), and practicing exam questions (a week or two after that). It also refers to outside resource lists that we created for each class 1Ls take based on a conducting a survey of 1L faculty members for their recommended study sources. We added a bold, underlined caveat that anything their professors say to the contrary should take precedence (we are lawyers).
In the end, the route is pretty simple: Prepare for class, Engage in class, Review after class (by outlining), and Practice for exams (PERP), but gaining students’ trust to follow this itinerary is the hard work ahead. If anyone would like an electronic copy of our Success Syllabus, please email me: [email protected], but only if you believe that I know where I am going with it.
Happy fall semester everyone!
Monday, May 8, 2023
You’ve got love this time of year in Massachusetts. Last Thursday, it was around 46 degrees and rainy, and on Saturday, I got sunburnt sitting at my daughter’s college graduation. On Sunday morning, I waited outside for an hour on line to get breakfast at a new bakery that opened in my neighborhood that appears to be “insta famous.” I got on line at around 7:55 a.m. (they open at 8) and it had already stretched around the corner from the storefront. It was a great vantage point for seeing everyone walking by (and their truly adorable dogs) as well as the folks on line. As I waited, here is what I saw: some folks were wearing winter coats or down vests, some were wearing quarter-zip fleeces (yes, it is New England), some were wearing workout gear, some wore shorts, some wore jeans, and some were wearing pajamas. A look down showed me Uggs, sneakers, flip-flops, crocs, and sandals. And yes, someone wearing a winter coat was also wearing shorts and Uggs. Again, it is an insta-worthy kind of place. But it reminded me that there is no objective way to “feel” the weather: how someone feels in terms of comfort and temperature is almost entirely subjective.
In this same way, no student feels the same during exams. A student who has done very well all semester--has outlined, studied, and done practice questions--may be more nervous than I think they should be-and the truth is, my dismissal of their exam anxiety is not going to help. At this point in the semester, I am also weary and my patience (which was never endless) seems to be experiencing some supply chain issues. So, as much as I would like to just tell the student, “you are fine,” I need to hold back my exhausted sighs and listen. I can gently counter with the evidence I have that they will, indeed, be okay. But my secret is that I always leave students with a task. It is something small-something they will likely excel at- and it is something to do rather than sit and stew in the feelings of being inadequately prepared for the exam. Am I giving them busy work to distract them from a self-destructive mindset? Yes, but I am also having them perform a task that will help them do better on the exam. Sometimes it is a set of multiple choice questions, sometimes it is making a Quizlet or other flashcards, sometimes it is going back and streamlining their outlines to just the headers (in a separate document-no deletions!) and use that to test themselves (added bonus: they can see that the number of possible issues on the exam is fewer than it seems). I have recommended making flow charts and/or tables.
Yet, I am careful. I always tell students that a little bit of exam anxiety is not a terrible thing, but anxiety that feels relentless or leads to mental paralysis is something that requires outside help. If I am really concerned, I will get our more specialized team to check-in with a student (Dean of Students, counselling center etc.). I am very cautious when I am walking in the territory of mental health.
The bottom line is that high-stakes summative assessments cause universal stress. There is no way around that-and for students who are seeing me because they have already hit some academic stumbling blocks, exams are even more fraught. And for students who have had nothing but academic success, the imposter syndrome can be overwhelming (“what if I was just lucky for the first exams?”). I should not be judging how students wear their exam nerves just because of the way I am looking at their forecast. How I feel about their likelihood of success carries some weight for sure, but it is not enough.
For the record, I was wearing a hoodie, shorts, and sandals; and my pistachio croissant was totally worth the wait.
*Please also remember to sign up for AASE Conference!*
Here is a final notification from our amazing host school colleagues:
Register here: https://associationofacademicsupporteducators.org/events/2023-10th-annual-aase-conference/ (Make sure you're logged in for member pricing.)
Our travel and lodging advice is here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1TwitZa9gnEPLRTcOuqMmZhQIiWTZic7owCcK5yXpJ78/edit?usp=sharing
-Your colleagues at Santa Clara Law
Monday, February 27, 2023
Last week I gave a quiz to my undergraduates: 14 multiple choice questions plus a short answer question. It was an open note, open book quiz. I had an honor affirmation at the start of it for those using their laptops for e-textbooks and notes. And there was still cheating. And I am not surprised that there was, but I was surprised at how it happened.
ChatGPT (and other forms of AI bots) are almost all we are talking about as a faculty these days. A student could very easily use one to answer a question on an exam, or to organize and write a paper, and it is extremely difficult to police. Additionally, at my school, we have recently begun slowly switching our platform from BlackBoard to Canvas-and our pilot version of Canvas does not have any anti-plagiarism software attached to it yet. (I miss SafeAssign.) I have asked the bot to do all my written assignments and have them handy for comparisons (and will add them to my platform’s institutional database when we have the software). But here is the real conundrum for law schools: is there any way to assess students that cannot be hacked at this point other than an old school closed book exam? Not every class can use the OG exam format for assessment.
There are, of course, two sides to the debate here: on the one hand, resourcefulness is a skill that we want students to have. We want them to ask the right questions in order to get answers that solve problems. Using a bot certainly can improve those skills. We do not actually have lawyers that to go into any form of legal employment where they will be given three hours, a water bottle, and a proctor in order to resolve a client’s case. We are not sure that the NextGen bar exam will ask anyone to memorize vast swaths of law anymore either. So, if there is a resource that can be helpful (and it seems at the moment to be free-ish), why not train students to use it? If we are in front of the use --and behind it as well-- then we can frame the appropriateness of the use and have more control over it.
On the other hand, is this what we want our profession to be? Should we aim to be a group of educated and licensed typists? How can we assess learning about the law separate from learning how to use the legal resources available? In some ways, I suppose we all fear being replaced by machines. It is a common science fiction trope. A computer, however, no matter how sophisticated, may never be able to see the nuances of the human condition that a well-trained attorney can. A bot would probably not make a creative argument for a change in the law since they are limited to the existing law and interpretations of it. Can we teach a bot to think like a lawyer? Probably. Can we teach it to have an off the record conversation with opposing counsel that hammers out a better deal because of something that cannot be said in court? Doubtful. There are unique spaces for human attorneys, even in this brave new world.
I suppose we could always ask ourselves how we would feel if our doctors typed our symptoms into a computer and then used what was spit back as a basis for treating us. I’m not sure I would still need a doctor to do that for me. I could also game the system by avoiding telling it about things where the answer they give might frighten me. I could, in short, lie to the bot and get the answer I wanted if I asked it often enough and changed the variables I share. My doctor sees through my bullshit-and that is why I trust her. She knows that I am more than the sum of my parts. Perhaps this gestalt is why human lawyers will always be superior.
In all honesty, I am not sure what the answer is here-there has to be a balance and there also has to be some nimbleness on the part of law schools in finding it-and soon. In the meantime, I keep telling students that I am assessing their knowledge of what we discuss in class rather than their ability to look it up. And that is what I told the student who copied their short answer on the quiz (verbatim) from the textbook. I wasn't expecting outright handwritten plagiarism. I guess we still need to be vigilant at all levels of technology. I told the student that I enjoyed pg. 104 of our textbook as much as they did (which is why it was assigned), but just being able to identify these words as correct is not the same as understanding why they are correct. Parrots may make lovely pets, but they do not make good lawyers.
Monday, January 23, 2023
It is that time of year when ASP folks are inundated with students who have had an epiphany about their study habits -- usually brought on by grades that were less than stellar. It is also the time of year when students with grades that our law school is concerned about are told to come visit ASP. These students all have a few Cs and have been told that this GPA might not be good enough to continue after the first year. They are frightened, chastened, and often need the tissues and the chocolate I've stocked for this season. I have a general plan for working with these students-almost a template: go over the bad exams, let's see where the deficiencies are (not phrased that way!), and let's get started with building the skills to avoid them for the next set of exams. If the issue is output (lack of IRAC, multiple choice questions that were confusing, etc., time), I get them started on practice questions ASAP. If it is input (didn't outline, didn't study efficiently, missing classes, other distractions), I get them started on building better habits and practice. If it was a mental health issue, or some outside trauma, I ask if they are in a better place, make sure that they are getting help, and then send them to practice (but very gently). I'm sure you do something very similar. This is the bread and butter of ASP. Time-proven technology that is individualized for each student.
But (you knew there would be a but), what do you do with the students who come to you with very good grades? Recently, before I even got a chance to email the 1Ls who will be notified that they should be seeing me, another first year student asked to meet with me to discuss improving their grades. Their grades were: A, A-, A-, and the dreaded B+. I had some good advice about improving their social life--i.e., don't complain to anyone else about these grades--that I kept to myself. I also did not want to dismiss the student with a "those are great grades, whatever you are doing, keep doing it." Although, I will admit this was my first thought along with, "do you realize that there are students here who would kill for those grades????" All I could think of was that Michael Jackson song, "[k]eep on, with the force, don't stop. Don't stop 'til you get enough1." Sigh.
Yet, I would never turn away a student who asked for help-even if my knee jerk reaction was that they did not need it. So, I followed the protocol-I told them to go talk to the professors and ask what was good, what might have been better on the exams, and then to come back to me so we can start working on those things. I warned them that the professors might be seeing students with lower grades first so that they would need some patience. I'm guessing I'll see them again by late February-hopefully.
In a way, I respect this student's drive, and in another way, I am a little concerned about it as well. So rather than act as a surly gatekeeper to the ASP resources in this situation, I thought it might be a good idea to keep an eye on this student to remind them every now and then that the goal is learning. I fully understand that if their grades are worse in the spring, I might be considered the reason.
Academic support is more than academic. We all know it, so while this student may not need academic help, they do seem to need support. So, if I am their personal Stuart Smalley2 who helps them see that they are good enough, smart enough, and doggone it, they belong in law school, maybe that will be enough.
Wednesday, December 7, 2022
That's my summary of a wonderful article sharing a helpful learning practice and the reasons behind it. In the article, Prof. Dawn Young at the University of Idaho shares that "working a hypo a day can help you grow a gigantic analytical muscle" because the daily practice helps organize thoughts, see patterns, and learn exam analysis skills. I wholeheartedly agree. Here's the link for the details: Brunette, J, "3 Reasons a Hypo a Day will Keep Bad Grades Away," National Jurist (Nov. 30, 2022) (quoting and referencing Prof. Dawn Young). (Scott Johns).
P.S. And, if you're in the midst of final exams, as many of you are at present, there's still ample time to start the habit, today. In fact, starring at your outlines, trying to memorize them, is not near as useful as using your outlines to solve hypes and past final exam problems. So take charge of your learning by courageously tackling and experiencing problems before you take on your remaining final exams.
Monday, November 7, 2022
After last week’s onslaught of students with legal writing questions (and some tears), I was hoping to be less busy this week. Yet, this morning I received several requests for appointments from students who just got back their first midterms as 1Ls, so a calmer week is not in the cards here. I have to admit that I spent some quality time this morning trying to decipher why a doctrinal professor wrote question marks on some parts of an exam answer, but check marks on others. I did this without a grading rubric to look at-and to be honest, it was, at best, purely speculative. So here are some things you can do with students when discussing their midterms that does not involve the use of a crystal ball or calling your psychic friends (you can save these resources for determining what might be on the final…):
- Send the student from whence they came: not to their parents, but to the professor who placed the check and question marks on the exam. They might know what they meant-and most likely have a better idea than you do. Or even the TA, who most likely speaks the professor’s language fluently. Tell them to ask for the rubric-or even to just see it.
- Remind students about IRAC. Sometimes the reason a student got a B- on an exam that the rest of study group got an A on is (hypothetically) because they didn’t outline any rules upfront but rather let them accumulate throughout the answer.
- Remind students that we are not mind readers. Yes, your professor knows the rules they are testing, but no, they don’t know what you know unless you tell them. So, tell them, even it is seems obvious, or they think it should “go without saying.” Nothing should go without saying.
- A corollary of the prior rule is do not leave any analysis in your head. Yes, the answer is clear sometimes, but again, explaining why it is clear is where the points come from. The journey > destination.
- Be sure to tell students that midterm exams are a gift. A midterm means that the stakes are lower than just having a final for the entire assessment of the course and understanding what your professor is looking for is a huge amount of helpful information. This also makes the doctrinal professors who give them (and grade them!) incentive to continue this important practice.
- Be sure to remind students where they can find practice essay and multiple-choice questions. Law School exam success is like getting to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice! A reminder of where the exam helpful resources are is always helpful. We have a hidden place on our law library website that is honestly full of great resources, but finding it is a little like looking for the room of requirement in Harry Potter. Since everyone needs these resources, be sure to share the links you know about with students!
As to the other midterms, please go vote. Or be proud that you already have.
"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."
- Martin Luther King, Jr
Thursday, September 15, 2022
I heard a recent joke that goes something like this, in a conversation between an insurance agent and the insured homeowner:
- Agent: Hello.
- Insured: Hi. I'd like to report a theft from my house.
- Agent: I'm so sorry to hear the news. Let me take a look at your policy.
- Agent: Okay, tell me more. Did your house also catch on fire?
- Insured: Oh, no. Just a theft.
- Agent: Well, in that case, I'm so sorry. You're not covered.
- Insured: What do you mean I'm not covered? My policy says right here that it is fire and theft protection.
- Agent: Well, that's precisely right. You see, you bought fire and theft protection, not fire or theft protection. So, since you didn't also have a fire, you aren't covered. It's as clear as day.
All kidding aside, contracts are often like that, as is much of law.
So, as you study cases, statutes, and other legal materials, pay attention to the writing, the terms, and the connectors. Be curious. Think outside the box. Be on the lookout for ambiguities in the text because that's the heart of lawyering, precision. Parse the words, particularly criminal statutes. And, if you seen ambiguities, try to clear them up. And, don't forget to do the same on midterm exams and practice exams. That's because it's in the ambiguities in which the points are most heavily concentrated. And if you'd like more advice and exercise in how to become better at reading, check on Prof. Jane Griese's book on Critical Reading for Law School Success. It's the book that I wished I had had in law school. (SJ).
Thursday, June 30, 2022
You've heard the quip about "the chicken or the egg, which comes first?"
Well, as the joke goes, "I've just ordered one of each from Amazon, so I let you know tomorrow!"
That got me thinking about memorization.
Most bar takers are really concerned about memorization, particularly because most of their law school exams, unlike bar exams, were open book/open note exams. But take a look at the word "memorization." That's a word of action, of a process, of recalling something previously learned. In other words, at its root core the word "memorization" derives from creating "memories." So how do you create memories when it comes to learning rules of law?
Or, to ask it another way, which comes first, memorization or memories?
Well, I think that the answer to that question is in the question because it's memories that we memorize. So the key to memorizing is to work through lots of problems, to test yourself with your study tools, to practice retrieval practice, and, in short, to create lots of memories with the rules.
You see, memorization is just a fancy word for the process of experiencing memories through distributed and mixed practice over time. So, instead of worrying about memorization as you prepare for your bar exam this summer, focus on making memories (and lots of them). (Scott Johns)
Tuesday, April 26, 2022
Law schools have not yet fulfilled the Carnegie Report’s call for more formative assessment. One reason for falling short is conflicting narratives about what is “good” formative assessment. One specific narrative seems particularly troublesome: That the only legitimate method for providing formative assessment is for the instructor to sit down with each student and explain their errors. This post pushes back on that narrative.
- Self-critique is more effective than we appreciate.
Most would agree that individualized feedback from an instructor, the expert both on the subject and the way the student will be graded, is most effective. But especially when using a model answer or quality student answer, allowing students to compare their work against the ideal version, doing so not only assists with doctrinal comprehension, legal writing, and exam skills, but also builds metacognitive abilities. Having the capacity to determine one’s own weaknesses is crucially important, as demonstrated by countless studies showing the performance-enhancing effect of improving metacognition.
The assumption that all feedback must come from the instructor certainly undercuts the mission to improve students’ metacognition. When students find themselves professorless during bar study, they will scramble around helplessly if they have absorbed the legal education fable that only professor knows best. Moreover, new lawyers will certainly struggle in the early years of practice when they need to run to the partner/ division chief/ client to do the metacognitive work for them.
Although some students certainly will do a poor job of self-critiquing (“I mentioned res ipsa loquitur just like the model did! I should get full points!”), this is no reason to underappreciate self-critique. First, in my experience, most students DO figure out their weaknesses from this process. While before the self-critique process they think their C-minus should be an A-minus, seeing the student essay that booked the course tends to leave them thinking otherwise. Second, even if the student still does not see the problems, this is where academic support faculty come in. In partnering with doctrinal faculty, academic support faculty can meet with underperforming students and comment not on the law but on the student’s metacognition. This method distributes personnel resources in a way that makes robust feedback more possible, fosters metacognition, demonstrates to students the valuable connection between doctrinal and academic support faculty, and frees up time for doctrinal faculty.
- Calcifying the status quo.
A particular danger with the solely instructor-based feedback narrative is that it preserves the status quo. We all know that formative assessment is lacking in legal education. The principal argument against remedying that problem is that individualized feedback is so time-consuming that one can accomplish little else. When those inclined to pursue efficient formative assessment are then met with the chorus of voices claiming that self-provided feedback is inadequate, they throw the baby out with the bathwater, dismiss formative assessment, and turn back to the same one-final-exam process used since 1877. Therefore, creating this strict dichotomy between individualized feedback and self-provided feedback makes the perfect the enemy of the very good and leaves students with nothing instead of at least something.
None of this is meant to say that instructor-led feedback is unnecessary or inferior. Feedback from course instructors is crucial. But when that type of formative assessment is not feasible, self-critique is a solid option.
There is a lot more to discuss on this subject. Unlike almost all other graduate programs, why do we think that TAs providing feedback is an unspeakable heresy? Why do we almost never use summative assessment as formative assessment by improving the process of post-semester self-critique? (FYI, simply letting students see their exam answers does not accomplish this goal.) Why do we see testing only as formative and summative assessment but not as a learning tool in-and-of itself?
Unfortunately, the time constraints on writing about the time constraints of formative assessments are such that I have to stop tying now. Ironic.
Louis Schulze, FIU Law
 Self-critique without a model answer is possible, too, but I concede that having a model answer is preferable. To those who would avoid providing such an answer because doing so would take time to write or risk being imprecise, I would argue that a simple solution is to release the strongest student answer.
 Metacognition is the process of assessing one’s knowledge: Do I really know the felony murder rule, or do I just think I know it? As I tell my students, it is like hovering over one’s knowledge and objectively scrutinizing one’s real comprehension.
 See generally J.A. Gundlach & J. Santangelo, Teaching and Assessing Metacognition in Law School, 69 J. LEGAL EDUC. 156 (2019) (reporting on empirical study of first-year law students, finding that students who demonstrated strong metacognitive skills were more likely to perform well).
Monday, April 18, 2022
Today I am sitting on my chosen side of Beacon Street while the Boston Marathon is happening just down the road. I cannot even imagine running over twenty-six miles -- especially considering that my “running” occasionally consists of trying to catch the train in the morning and occasionally deciding that the next train would be fine too.
According to the organizers of the Marathon, there will be numerous places to get water. There will also be places on the route to get some regular or decaf “hydrogel” (which honestly sounds like cheating, right?). There will also be people on bicycles bringing up the rear so that the slower runners are observed and safe even when the roads are re-opened, as well as 26 medical checkpoints. Don’t even get me started on the security surrounding the event (which is entirely understandable), I’ve been hearing helicopters overhead for about a week now. The route is marked on the ground and with signs. People are on the edge of route cheering all the runners on. Overall, the marathon runners are being cared for, protected, and encouraged all along the way.
Are we similarly helping our students in their upcoming exam marathon? We know students have been training for these final exams for months, and like the Boston marathon runners, since it is spring, these students have completed a set of exams that qualified them to tackle this one. We are getting to the point in the semester where just preparing and training will have to give way to running the actual course. Here are some things we can remind students to do for themselves, so they are ready when the starting gun is fired:
- Remind yourself that you have studied and put in the time. While you might have some regrets about the way you have studied or the amount of time you have put in, there is no changing that now and focusing on that will take up valuable time and bandwidth.
- Do not pull all-nighters before exams. This is not a sprint. You do not have the time to recover from a missed night of sleep before the next exam (if there is one), and more importantly you will need to be able to think clearly during the exam. Think of sleep as carbs for the busy work your brain needs to do.
- Be sure you have the correct technical equipment before you get to the starting point. Have you uploaded the exam software? Have you done any tutorials or tests that are recommended? Is your charger working? Now is a much better time to assess your equipment readiness than ten minutes into the exam.
- Do you know the rules? Have you looked over the exam requirements/restrictions? Is it open book, closed book, a hybrid? Can you bring in an index card? Write on the code (if that can come with you), tab your materials, bring in your outline? This will impact how you study and how you plan to access material during the exam (from your brain or other sources). Do you know what to do when you need to use a bathroom during the exam?
- Do you know your exam numbers?? Do you know where to find them? Also, do you have your ID with you for checking into the exam? Take a picture of it now just in case….
- Do you have SHARPENED number 2 pencils or know where to find them-- and a decent eraser? If you somehow ruin all your pencils and erasers during the exam, do you know who to ask for assistance and where they are located in the building?
- Do you have hydration for the exam? Is your water bottle clean and filled? Do you know where the water filling station nearest your exam room is? We will, sadly, be offering hydrogel (which, now that I think of it, may be the active ingredient in my sunscreen…).
- Know that the folks cheering for you on your exam route are your ASP faculty. We are also the folks who will have chocolate, band-aids, tissues, and a place to stash the stuff you cannot get into your locker in an emergency. No, we cannot stand in the hall with banners and yell (distracting and all), but we are there. We know how hard you have worked to get here, and we are behind you 100%.
 Once I was proctoring an exam and the student forgot their school ID and showed me their gun permit as an alternate picture ID. I reminded them (and myself) that I was not grading that exam-just proctoring….
Monday, April 11, 2022
Next Monday is Patriot’s Day here in Massachusetts. I used to think that since it was the day of the marathon, we all got the day off because getting anywhere in Boston can be fraught when you cannot cross Beacon Street. However, there is a revolutionary war meaning behind the holiday (it is Massachusetts, right?). Patriot’s Day commemorates the Battles of Lexington and Concord that began the colonists’ fight for independence from Great Britain on April 19, 1775. And we all know the story of Paul Revere, who warned the colonists here in the Commonwealth the day before-- if for no other reason than because we all had to memorize Longfellow’s poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride,” which starts with,
“Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.”
I think some of my students might actually believe that I do remember that famous day and year-sigh. But, more importantly, I think at this point in the semester students are starting to hear the warning about exams coming and are looking to Academic Support to hang a lantern aloft to help illuminate their approach to the battle ahead. Here is what I would be crying into the night as I rode through the towns where my students live:
Outlining: students who heard and followed through on our earlier admonition to start outlining in January (or even catch-up during spring break in March) have more munitions in stock here in April. But for those who did not, there is still time to outline-either in the standard or other useful formats-like annotated flowcharts or Prezi. Outlining is both a review and the creation of a document to study from. It is what I like to call a two-birder, it is useful to do and useful to have when you are done.
Practice: at this point in the semester, doctrinal professors are handing out and going over old exam questions. This is a gold mine, because it lets students know how a professor will raise an issue and the depth that is required to answer it appropriately. Even students who have already been through multiple sets of exams need this because knowing your audience is a good writing tactic no matter what type of legal writing you are undertaking. Also, practicing multiple choice questions daily, from multiple sources (because slight changes in terminology can really throw you off unless you’ve seen them before) is key. At this point in the semester (or year for yearlong classes), students can look to bar questions or even scramble around other sources because they have finally encountered most of the material (if done too early, students may panic at what they don’t already know even though it hasn’t come up in the class yet).
Planning: students should sit down with their exam schedule and work backwards to today to plan their study. An examplan™ is a REALISTIC plan that includes time for finishing up the outlines, practicing essay and multiple-choice questions, studying from your outline, and (please!!) remembering to attend to your personal hygiene, physical and mental health. I advise students to remember to preview for the exam that is after the one they are currently studying for-you need to stay mentally nimble and not have to relearn all of Torts or Con Law in the two days before that exam. Having a plan has the added bonus of helping students feel more in control of the situation. Control is comfort in stressful situations.
Study groups: yes, but…every year I meet with a student on academic warning who assures me that they were the expert in their study group and all their “students” got better grades than they did. Remind students that if they are teaching the group everything, that the group is not putting anything they need on the table for them. I tell students that community, camaraderie, and shared circumstances are all important, but you cannot bring anyone else’s brain into the exam with you.
So, while exams are indeed coming, and they will bring some panic and chaos into the lives of our students, there is a lot we can do to prepare them for the onslaught-more than I have listed certainly. All we can hope is that our students will hear our cry and know that it is,
“A cry of defiance and not of fear,
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo forevermore!”
 I am really hoping this phrase catches on, but like “fetch” I am afraid it will not be a thing after all.
 Ok, I haven’t really registered this trademark, but if I see you all wearing t-shirts that say this, I’ll be pretty upset.
 This is what I am always thinking about when I say this to students (Gary Larson, 1986):
Thursday, March 24, 2022
Courtesy of the Colorado Supreme Court, here's a whole bunch of free hypotheticals that are great for law students, albeit a bit outdated, trying to get a handle on testing themselves through practice exams: https://www.law.du.edu/academics/academic-achievement-program#colorado-exam-essays
Monday, November 29, 2021
Every summer, our family rents a (dog friendly) house out on Cape Cod. Recently, we have been renting bicycles when we get there at a bike rental place called Idle Times. It isn’t fancy, but it is friendly--the name is welcoming and seems to be assuring us that we need not race or even labor much to get around on the bicycles. It is the kind of place where an old black lab lies in the overgrown seagrass and seems to will the kids trying out bicycles to go around him rather than move from his shady spot. It is idyllic-no false advertising involved. This past weekend (that started on a Wednesday-shouldn’t they all?) was also gloriously idle (aside from the cooking, cleaning, laundry, and latkes). I removed my laptop from the table (yes, the new one for those of you who have been following these posts) and didn’t return it to its spot until yesterday. And here I am on a Monday morning trying to jump start my professional brain after this lovely idleness.
Today is the last day of classes for us. While many might think that this is the beginning of a nice break for all academics, it is absolutely crunch time for ASP folks. There are students panicked about finals. They seem shocked that exams are almost upon us despite all the warning signs. I agree that by the time we develop our fall mojo, it is already Veteran’s Day-which was less than three weeks ago. Fall seems like a slow walk uphill to a sudden cliff, while spring semester seems like a cold, dark walk through a cave into the light.
Nonetheless, we are about to begin our "reading days." I’m not sure how much time between classes ending and exams beginning is just right; I don’t think there is a one size fits all time period, but our 1L students have around 2.5 days.
Here is (some of) what I advise students to do now and during these days and the exam period:
- Get out of the law school building (we are all in one building here). The air is thick with stress and every little whisper will make you think someone knows something you don’t about a class you are in. I point out to our students that we are (in the fall at least) out of sync with our undergraduate and business schools, so their libraries might be a better place to study if a library is your preferred spot. At least the din there won’t make you feel unnecessarily inadequate. In pre-COVID times I would also recommend a coffee place (away from school) or even my favorite, the café at the Museum of Fine Arts (excellent place to study and wonderful place to be when you need a break from it).
- Make an exam plan. Work backwards from your last exam and plan reasonable study schedules for each day. Remember to add a teaser of the exam after the immediate one into your plan-so if Civ. Pro is on Thursday, you can take an hour and review a little Crim because that is next and so on.
- Attend to your hygiene and health! Seriously, this is going to be a marathon, pace yourself and be sure to stay hydrated. Don’t take unnecessary pandemic risks right now. Showering is important even if the alternative can help with social distancing.
- Practice writing answers and doing multiple choice questions: while reading carefully will be an important part of your exams, you will still need to produce an answer. You should practice essays often enough that IRAC is a muscle memory. Do enough multiple-choice questions that you are not confused by slight changes in terminology (because…gasp…sometimes doctrinal professors do not write their own questions). Remember, a good way to be prepared for exams is to be a PERP: Prepared for class, Engaged in class, Reviewing after class and Practicing. Ok, now I can see why this didn’t catch on, PERP is just not going to happen. But there is still hope for fetch.
- Handle different subjects with different strategic approaches: Civil Procedure is linear and chronological; Contracts is transactional; Torts and Criminal law just beg for making a chart with all the people and causes of action involved and so on…
- Just get started: if you are lost on the exam, start with something you can answer to get the brain engaged and then go back. However, do not go back and change any multiple-choice answers if you have already made a choice-it will not end well.
- Get out again-after the exam, leave the building. Do not discuss it with other people. I know that talking about a shared trauma can be therapeutic, but this will not be. I promise. Think about what you have done well on this exam and then move on with your plan. As Timon famously says in The Lion King, “You gotta put your past behind you.”
- When all the exams are over, enjoy the idle time.
Thursday, October 21, 2021
Poet Robert Frost writes:
Thursday, September 30, 2021
Often times I see but I don't. Perhaps an analogy will explain.
It's bear season where I live. But the bears are awful hard to spot, despite their large size. It seems that their big paws tend to distribute weight so that they move with stealth-like grace as they forage among the mountain berries, shrubs and trees. They tend to make not much more noise than a trifling breeze or a bird at work building a nest.
But I have a secret weapon to spot the bears - my dog.
You see, a few weeks back, while hiking, Maisey came to a screeching halt, sat perfectly still, and sniffed the mountain breeze. A sniff here and a sniff there. I was like, "Come on Maisey, let's get going." But she sat, still.
After about 5 minutes of waiting silently, I finally noticed a slight rustle down the hillside from the trail. Not much of anything. But then another rustle and another and another, all ever so silent. Suddenly, I saw what Maisey had sensed all along before. A bear, foraging in the scrub oaks. For the next twenty minutes or so, I watched the bear slowly eat its way down the hillside before I finally lost sight. But the lesson wasn't lost on me. I would not have seen that bear by myself. I needed the sense of another, one with keener senses than me.
I think law school is bit like that.
As law students, we can re-read our papers or our notes or our midterm answers and not really see what we really wrote. It's sort of like we are blinded by our own senses, by our own sight.
However, much like my experience on the trail scouting for bears, as law students, we have available to us, just for the asking, people who have keener senses than us, finely tuned, who can take a look at our work and thus open us up to a whole other way of seeing and experiencing things. In short, we can turn to our faculty and academic support teams to help us - as learners - see what's really in our answers (and what isn't).
So, as law students, don't feel like you need to go it alone in law school, at all. Freely reach out to others for help. Let experts review your work. Get feedback from your professors and your ASP team at your law school. You'll be surprised at what you'll see. It probably won't be a bear, but I can guarantee that it will help you become a better attorney. And that's what we are here for -- for you. (Scott Johns).
Monday, September 20, 2021
One of the ways we support our students who are on academic warning or probation is to require them to take a second-year course in Legal Analysis and Methods. The title is vague enough to appear on a transcript without stigma to the student and, as a side benefit, it also gives us a lot of latitude in what we teach in the course. In my section of Methods, I teach study and exam skills as well as a smidge of legal writing, a dash of argumentation, and a bissel of statutory construction/interpretation. I also conference with students one-on-one towards the beginning of the semester to check in on an ungraded “getting to know you” assignment and to try to understand how they got stuck, I mean were fortunate enough to enroll, in this class.
I had a set “script” for these conferences. At the beginning of each conference, we discussed the ungraded assignment (there is written feedback for everyone as well). I thanked each student for doing a great job in our simulated legislature class last week (seriously, the Massachusetts legislature could learn from them). Then, I asked about the other classes they are taking to see where there might be stress points.
Finally, I ask about the elephant in the room, “How do you find yourself on Academic Warning/Probation?” I intentionally use the passive voice. If a student says they had some “personal problems,” I do not ask for details, I just ask if the issues are resolved (or resolving), and if our Dean of Students’ office is aware of them just in case they need some higher power intervention. If a student says they had issues on exams, I make a note of the type of exam it was for future classes on exam skills. Now granted, I knew some of the students coming into these conferences because we met regularly last year. Other than now knowing how tall they really are and confirming that they do indeed have legs, I didn’t need to hear how they got here, but I did need to know how they were doing now.
This year, like all years, I take notes of these meetings. As I flipped through the legal pad for these conferences after meeting with my 22 students, I saw one word show up at the end of my notetaking for every single student, “Zoom.” This was the always part of the answer to how they found themselves in academic trouble.
Zoom or remote learning wasn’t the whole problem for most students: it was Zoom plus. Students told me that last year was not academically successful because of Zoom plus: ADD, ADHD, anxiety, dyslexia, having COVID, having a family member with COVID, having a chaotic living situation, having a bad internet connection, and so on. But remote learning was, as one student put it, “at least 30-40% of the issue.” Everyone in the remote learning situation-those of us teaching and the students learning- were all trying our best. The bottom line is that remote learning does not work for everyone. These students were concerned that when they take the bar, they will not have learned enough in their first-year classes to get them into a passing range. They felt that they were building their law school houses on weak foundations. This is a valid concern. Going through two (or three for evening students) more years of law school feeling like you are perpetually trying to overcome a deficit will also take a toll on confidence.
I am not saying that remote learning is universally negative either. I had students last year that thrived in a remote learning environment, as well as students who were very nervous about returning in-person because of the pandemic. Remote learning allows broader access for students; I think that is the promise of remote learning going forward. A student can, for example, attend a law school in a place they cannot afford to move to (like Boston) or attend school when health or family issues might otherwise prove an insurmountable barrier. And this is not even close to a complete list of pluses.
Yet, the students who preferred remote learning are just simply not the students I am seeing in academic distress right now. I am not asserting that my 22 student class is a representative sample of all law students but they are mine to teach and I need to know where things fell apart for them before they came to me. The current in-person situation has pluses and minuses as well. Students report that are much happier to be back in-person--but also stuck in a position of navigating the 2L curriculum with a 1L understanding of law school culture. Some of them have spent less time in the building than the 1L students who came to school before classes started for orientation-- a few more cracks in the foundation that will need filling. One student thought that being called an upperclassman was laughable because they felt they had very little to offer the incoming class in terms of wisdom and “the ways” of law school. And yet, they hoped that the expertise they did have was, and would continue to be, obsolete. I hope so too.
As academic support folks, we know there have always been (and will most likely be) students who are in academic distress. Some have had family issues, relationship issues, a failure to understand the time investment etc., but it seems that today’s students have all of these troubles plus Zoom.
 Bissel means just a little bit in Yiddish, https://www.dailywritingtips.com/the-yiddish-handbook-40-words-you-should-know/
Sunday, September 12, 2021
A supermarket I go to occasionally has a little maze of seasonal items right at the entrance. This is a tricky way to entice you to purchase these colorful things at the beginning of your shopping trip when your cart is empty and/or perhaps a way to mollify any small child you have brought with you with something small to play with on the journey. Yesterday, when I arrived, I saw a sea of orange and black: candy as far as the eye could see. There were also some decorative scarecrows and rust colored “hardy mums,” (which I consider a challenge, but more on my lack of gardening skills in another post). In the middle of the maze, I saw a single display of popsicle shaped window clings, Whiffle bats, sunscreen, some mismatched kickboards, and s’mores skewers-all 50-75% off. Summer was on sale-despite the fact that there is at least another week of it on the calendar. I sighed and realized that we had actually already been in school for almost four weeks and the time had come for the seasonal shift from merely briefing cases to…(please read each of those periods as dun, dun, dunnn respectively): OUTLINING.
Now that students have covered at least one full topic in each class, the time has come for them to take those case briefs and carefully written class notes and knit them into a nice cozy outline for December exams or, more urgently, upcoming midterms. This is also a good time to start because it intersects with students learning how we use and talk about cases in their legal writing courses. The magic formula of how we use cases in memos and briefs: FHR (facts, holding, reasoning) is how they can incorporate the components of their case briefs into their outlines. This is really a win-win because they are practicing using the FHR formula for outlining in legal writing and vice versa.
Now, I know you have probably discussed outlining at least twice already with students. We do it in a pre-orientation module, during orientation itself and have a class on it planned for the coming week. The number of times I say, “your outline should be rules based rather than case based” could be a drinking game at this point (not that I condone drinking while outlining as either effective or efficient).
How can we best communicate the message that it is currently prime outlining season to our students? I thought of the buzzer at the beginning of a swim meet heat, a ribbon cutting or even a giant banner, “START OUTLINING NOW!!!!” Maybe I should stand in front of the law school with a sandwich board that says, “Ask me about outlining-I’m not just an ASP professional, I’m a client!” Maybe we should perform, “Outlining the Musical,” with such tunes as:
525,000 pages more,
How do you make sense of a course in the law?”
“Oh, it is time to start ‘lining,
Time to take a little of the briefs we’re writing,
Time to take time,
Because it’s already fall--exams are in just no time at all….”
(sincere apologies to Rent and Pippin).
Yet, we all know that no matter how or how often we sound the alarm at this point in the semester, we will still be talking with students who are just getting started in November. And while we will silently groan and do an internal face palm, we will advise those students to move as quickly as they can to ideally finish their hastily organized (but nonetheless helpful) outlines when classes end.
I expect that the next time I will need to think about getting students to begin outlining, the supermarket entrance will be aglow in red, pink and white: candy as far as the eye can see -- except for the candy canes in the center on sale.