Law School Academic Support Blog

Editor: Amy Jarmon
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Power of Brain Breaks - The Heart-Mind-Body Connection to Empowered Learning

Want to power up your learning to improve your final exam performance?  Well, counterintuitively, that means that you just might need to take a break - a brief respite for your brain - by working out your heart instead.

You see, research shows that vigorous exercise, even if just for 10 minutes right prior to an exam, improves academic performance.  And, there's more great news.  The research also shows that exercise boosts your mood and optimism, and that, in turn, leads to more resiliency in learning, which, in turn again, improves academic performance.  In short, exercise is in the center of a great big circle of connections between your body, your heart, and your mind.  

So, rather than just focusing all of your energies in preparation for exams on your mental work, let your body and heart take up some of that cognitive load as you sweat it up a bit.  Feel free to hit the trail, or the bike, or just run up and down the stairs at your law school every hour or so.  Indeed, as the research shows, even just a 10 minute exercise brain break right before your next exam can increase your exam performance.  Not convinced?  We'll, here's a handy article by Marcus Conyers, Ph.D., and Donna Wilson, Ph.D., entitled "Smart Moves: Powering up the Brain with Physical Activity." http://www.kappancommoncore.org  

So, why not follow the evidence to help boost your learning by taking frequent exercise brain breaks - breaks that tap into the power of your whole self  - your mind, body, and heart - to best optimize your learning.  And, rest assured as you take your brain breaks while exercising, the science is behind you.  (Scott Johns).

December 6, 2018 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Learning Styles, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Finals Jeopardy

At this time of year, I am working mostly with two groups of students: 1L students preparing for their first set of law school final examinations, and recent and soon-to-be graduates who are planning to take the February bar examination.  While these two cohorts are about as far apart as students of law can be, there is at least one common element to their experiences: the peril associated with reaching a goal.

Regretfully, some of those preparing for the February bar exam, at my school and elsewhere, are graduates who have already taken the July bar last summer and did not pass.  Every year, people who find themselves in this position include some strong law school performers, people with GPAs and other indicators that suggested that they should not have had any problem passing with their classmates.  Sometimes, their disappointing performances can be explained by extenuating circumstances, like illness.  But other times, it just appears that the new graduate only put in a fraction of the effort needed over the summer to prepare for the bar exam -- e.g., having signed up for a bar preparation course, they completed less than half of the assignments.  Few people would stand a chance of passing the bar with so little preparation.

Observers of such misguided lack of effort might attribute it to overconfidence -- good students mistakenly believing their law school performance was preparation enough.  Maybe it seems like that even to the disappointed graduates, shrugging their shoulders and otherwise unable to explain just how they had let 10 weeks get away from them without applying themselves to their studies as they had in the past.  But perhaps for some there is another, less self-condemnatory element at work.  Consider this: in the two or three weeks before bar studies were to begin, these students had just completed probably the most grueling three years of study of their lives, and it had all culminated in proud marches across the graduation stage.  They had reached the finish line at the end of a very demanding course.  But, as Gretchen Rubin notes in her book Better Than Before, "A finish line marks a stopping point.  Once we stop, we must start over, and starting over is harder than continuing. . . . The more dramatic the goal, the more decisive the end -- and the more effort required to start over."

We see examples of this all the time.  People who exercise scrupulously to lower their weight to a target goal -- and then stop exercising and gain back the weight.  Writers who work diligently every day to complete a long-term project, but then lose the daily habit once the project is complete.  Surely at least some portion of those capable law school graduates who did not put in the effort they might have made to prepare for the bar had at some level seen their final final exams and their pompously circumstantial degree conferment as manifestations of a very dramatic conclusion, and then found themselves at a psychological disadvantage in trying to start, in bar preparation, what seemed to them a brand new test of willpower, tenacity, and capacity.

This suggests that one way to help some of our 3L students prepare to jump right into the huge bar preparation undertaking is to message it not as a novel ordeal, but as just one more step toward the ultimate goal of practice.  We might also downplay the significance of their spring final exams -- liberally reminding our students that those will not be the last exams they ever take -- and even minimize the ceremony of law school graduation, by pointing out to them that the real endgame is the swearing-in ceremony.  The more psychological continuity that students cultivate between law school and the bar examination, the more likely they will be able to carry over their habits of diligence and fortitude into the bar study period.

This kind of messaging might also be helpful to some of our 1L students right now.  They are not yet near graduation, but no set of final exams before the last seems more momentous and conclusive than the first set at the end of the fall semester.  Students who have the perspective to see this first set of exams as just one of six may be less like to feel that they are psychologically starting over again in the spring.  Conversely, those who more explicitly see these exams as a finish line -- students who tell themselves, "If I can just get through these . . .", or those who seem to focus on the weeks off between semesters as a sort of quasi-retirement -- may not have as much momentum going in to classes in 2019, and may struggle to bring themselves back to the same level of diligence they had reached in the fall.  Bringing to these students' attention the long-term effort required in law school, and the expectation that what they learned in that first semester will be needed again and again through graduation, the bar exam, and practice, may help them find getting back into reading, briefing, and studying in January is just that much more achievable.

[Bill MacDonald]

December 4, 2018 in Advice, Bar Exam Preparation, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Science, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, November 30, 2018

Staying on the Theme of Practice Questions for Exams

The posts on Wednesday and Thursday by Professors Luebbert and Johns gave excellent exam advice and suggestions about practice questions. In case you missed them, the links are: Professor Luebbert Post and Professor Johns Post .

To add to the theme, here are links to some law school or individual professor exams that were not passworded as of noon today.

You need to consider several caveats about these exam sources, however:

  • Some sites list exams by professor and not course, so it takes some patience in finding exams for your courses.
  • Many sites do not include model answers or rubrics with the exam questions.
  • Law schools outside your jurisdiction may test state-specific law for some subjects; you need to decide whether the questions/answers are relevant/correct for your course jurisdiction.
  • Some posted exams are old; you need to decide whether changes in the law make the questions/answers no longer relevant or incorrect.
  • Remember you can always rewrite a question for your jurisdiction or a change in the law if you need to do so.

Good luck with your exams! (Amy Jarmon)

November 30, 2018 in Exams - Studying | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Practice Tools for Approaching Law School Final Exams

As indicated in yesterday's wonderful post by Professor Nancy Luebett, one of the key steps for successfully preparing for final exams is to practice final exams. https://lapproaching-your-first-law-school-final.html. And, the best sources for practice exams are your professors' past exams.

But, what if your professor is new to the law school or there simply aren't many old exams available?  

Well, there are a number of sources for free practice essay problems.  

Here are a few to get you going:

First, you might dig into essays published by the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE).  The NCBE maintains links for a number of retired past essay questions that are available free of charge (the more recent are only available by purchase).  I recommend sticking to the free materials.  Each essay question packet also contains analysis of what the examiners were looking for in good quality answers, so the materials are quite helpful in assessing and improving your own problem-solving abilities.  Unfortunately, the essays are not easily identified by subject matter.  It requires a bit of trial and error to match up the subjects that you are taking as a first-year law student with the essays asked in the past on that subject.  But, below is subject matter table that can help.  Just find the subject and the bar exam month and year that it was tested and then find the bar exam question and answer packet for that particular bar exam using the following link: http://www.ncbex.org/exams/mee/preparing/

Second, if you want to work through a number of shorter hypothetical essays, the University of Denver maintains - free of charge - a repository of retired Colorado bar exam essays.  But, please be careful as the law might have changed.  You'll notice that the essays are arranged by exam date and then again by subject matter.  And, there's more great news.  The essays contain point sheets with short answer discussions to help you assess your own learning.  Here's the link for the old Colorado essays: https://www.law.du.edu/coloradoessays

Finally, I like to look through past California bar exam essays.  California provides both past bar exam essay questions (with good passing answers) along with first-year law student exam questions.  The first-year law school questions cover contracts, torts, and criminal law.  But, please be aware that the answers provided are not model answers.  Here's the link for past California first-year exam essays and answers: http://www.calbar.ca.gov/pastfirstyearexams. In addition, here's the link for past California bar exam essays and answers: http://www.calbar.ca.gov/pastbarexamessays 

One last thought...

No one learns to fly or play the piano or dance...without practice...lots of practice.  

Similarly, to prepare for final exams takes practicing final exams.  So, instead of re-reading your notes or memorizing your outlines, focus first and foremost on taking your notes and outlines for practice test flights, using them as your "go-to" tools to work through lots of past exam questions.  And, along the way, guess what?  You'll actually begin to memorize your notes and outlines because you've been using them as learning tools rather than rote memorization tools.  Good luck on your final exams! (Scott Johns).

MEE Essay Subjects List

November 29, 2018 in Advice, Exams - Studying, Learning Styles, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Approaching Your First Law School Final Exam

Treat your first law school final exam as an opportunity to show your excellence in thinking and writing like a lawyer. Here are some guidelines for the coming weeks.

Put together the final pieces:

  • Learn your professors' individual preferences. Should you use IRAC, IPRAC, CIRAC, or another organizing structure? Does your professor favor headings, abbreviations, or use of case names? Tailor your writing to their predilections.
  • Take practice exams. Use the professor's previous exams if available, but any exam with complex fact patterns and multiple issues will be useful. After writing your answer, set it aside for a time, then evaluate it, treating it as if it were written by a stranger. Peers and professors can provide useful feedback.
  • Distill your outline down to a one-page issue checklist or "attack outline" you can handwrite in 2-3 minutes. Memorize it.

Organize early:

  • Gather the items you want to bring to the exam room, and make sure you understand what is permitted. Common items include power cords, earplugs, watches, cough drops, and water bottles.
  • Don't stay up late cramming, because exhaustion hampers your ability to analyze. Do something fun for a few hours before bed and get a solid night's sleep.
  • Give yourself plenty of time to get to the exam: you don't need the anxiety of fearing you'll be late. And, remembering Hofstadter's Law, then give yourself more time than you planned.
  • The hours before the exam are for you and you only. Talk with classmates if you like, but don't feel you have to be sociable.

Approach the exam with confidence:

  • "Brain dump" (3 minutes). As soon as the exam starts, jot down your issue checklist from memory, or read through it carefully if the exam is open-book. Starting the exam with the issue checklist in mind prevents panic and helps you approach the exam from a position of knowledge and confidence.
  • Skim the exam and allocate your time (3 minutes). Look over the entire exam, noting the number of questions and the points or suggested time for each. Allocate your time according to the number and weight of questions. Write down the ending time for each section.

Devote quality time to reading and organizing:

  • For each question, read the call of the question first to make your reading and issue-spotting more efficient.
  • Read multiple times to spot issues and identify relevant facts. On the first read, immediately jot down the issues as you recognize them. Then read the fact pattern line by line, looking for relevant facts in every sentence. Mark every relevant fact and identify the issues, elements, or defenses raised by these facts.
  • Consult your issue checklist. It may alert you to issues in the fact pattern you did not previously notice.
  • On essay problems, spend 1/3 of your time reading/marking the fact pattern and outlining your answer. Don't rely on cut-and-paste to organize. Your exam outline can be sparse, consisting of just the issues, elements, and facts relevant to each. Don't waste time writing rules in the outline: save that for your written answer. Time dedicated to careful reading and outlining helps you craft a well-organized, thoughtful answer.

Show your excellence in essay answers:

  • Follow instructions: they are vital, not surplusage.
  • Make your answer easy to follow. Use headings for major issues. Treat issues and elements in logical order. Write simply and clearly.
  • Think inside the box. Thoroughly discuss each issue before moving on to the next. For instance, don't let a discussion of the mailbox rule creep into a paragraph about consideration.
  • Stick to the facts, and make sure you have them correct. Distorting the facts can make you miss issues entirely.
  • Interweave specific facts with the rule. Instead of blanket assertions ("Alonzo's actions show Alaska was his domicile"), interweave parts of the rule with specific facts ("Alonzo's intent to remain in Alaska was shown by him buying a house and voting in local elections.")
  • Use IRAC (or the organizing structure your professor prefers) for each issue. When resolving an issue requires detailed discussion of several elements, use mini-IRACS or sub-IRACs to work through each element's requirements.
    • Issue -- Ask a question: if you conclude first, you may disregard facts or law that don't support your preconceptions.
    • Rule -- Be concise but thorough. State the rule before, not midway through, the analysis.
    • Analysis -- Explain how the rule applies to the specific facts. Explore any ambiguity in the law and the facts by going down each "fork in the road."
    • Conclusion -- Limit your conclusion to one sentence; don't bring in new arguments or restate your analysis ad nauseam.
  • Omit needless paragraphs and issues. Nix any introductory paragraph that merely restates the facts. Discuss only issues that arise from the fact pattern. This is not the time to regurgitate everything you know just because you know it.
  • If it's hard, that's where the points are. Rejoice when an issue is difficult or when the facts or law seem ambiguous. Here's where you get to strut your stuff!
  • Keep track of your time, and move on. If you find yourself running out of time on a question, concisely treat the most important remaining issues, then move to the next question.

After the exam, let it go. Don't fret or dwell on mistakes. Avoid discussing the exam with your classmates, for someone in the group (maybe you, maybe a friend) will always leave dispirited after such a conversation. Take several hours off, then tackle the next challenge with confidence. You are now one step closer to achieving your goal of being an excellent lawyer.  (Nancy Luebbert)

November 28, 2018 in Advice, Exams - Studying | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Procrastination and Perfection

Procrastination reigns supreme during this time of year, in the last few weeks before the first set of finals. It's relatively easy to recognize procrastination in some of its forms, as when suddenly it becomes critical to clean behind the refrigerator and under the kitchen sink. Long "study breaks" for games, TV, or social media are another obvious sign of procrastination. But the most insidious form of procrastination is using law study itself to procrastinate from learning and practicing legal analysis.

During fall break, it's not unusual to find that outlining has become a form of procrastination, usually taking one of these forms:

  • The student focuses on one outline to the exclusion of all others. Their torts outline, for example, is close to done, and once they have finished that they will start working on their other subjects.
  • The outline becomes a detailed compendium of every case and every pearl of wisdom coming from the professor, rather than being a useful guide for how to approach a legal problem.
  • The outline goes into excruciating detail on minor topics but fails to show a coherent approach to major issues. 
  • The student is working exclusively on outlines, vowing that once the outlines are "done," they will turn to doing practice problems.

When students are getting bogged down in creating perfect outlines, this can be a symptom of depression or self-doubt, an honest but misguided attempt to master the material, or both. Depending on the situation, here are some approaches to consider:

  • Self-care. Even more than the rest of the semester, self-care is critical during the time approaching and taking finals. While the student may feel strapped for time, they can get some exercise and fresh air: walking briskly around the block is the best possible study break. Especially when students feel they don't have time to rest, it's vital to remember that getting a full night's sleep will help their academic performance better than pulling an all-nighter to study.
  • Self-confidence and goals. It's helpful for students to reflect on their strengths, especially the times that they have shown mastery of material in their law school classes. Finals is also a good time to reflect on their motivations for attending law school to give them the incentive to do work they might be avoiding.
  • Big-picture focus. Sometimes students need to back away from their outline to determine if they understand the major issues and the rules that govern them.  A useful exercise is to give 30 minutes to handwrite the major rules covered by the course in a logical sequence. This helps cement major concepts and structure. And if they are afraid to work on an outline in a subject where they perceive they are weak, focusing on the big picture can give them confidence to step forward.
  • The outline as pre-writing the exam. The most useful outlines essentially function as pre-writing the exam. A great outline will reflect in what order the student will tackle issues on an exam, and it will contain the rules the student will use to address those issues in words that the student can remember and recreate on the exam paper. Paraphrasing rules in the outline is far more useful than pasting in rules that come word-for-word from a case or Restatement, because the student can remember and write their own paraphrased rule on the exam far more easily than the arcane words of another.
  • Rotate subjects. While it is tempting to work on one outline until it is "done," students should consistently rotate the subjects they work on, addressing at least two subjects a day, so they can better master the material, remember the material, and catch errors before the last minute.

Finally, and most importantly, at this point in the semester it is vital to work on problems every single day, even if -- and especially if -- the student has not mastered all the nuances of the subject. Doing problems helps the student understand the issues that must be addressed in an exam, pinpoint their areas of strength and weakness, and practice writing in a clear, easy-to-follow order.  (Nancy Luebbert)

November 21, 2018 in Exams - Studying, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

It Is Always Darkest Before Finals

Law students about to head into their final exams -- especially those in their first year, facing this challenge for the first time -- are often weary, anxious, and despondent. Simultaneously burdened with too much to learn and too little time, they may feel like the universe is conspiring against them.  And some of them, in a sense, may be right.

The tilt of the Earth's axis and its movement around the Sun are responsible for our seasons, and, by chance or design, fall semester exams take place just as we are sliding into the winter solstice -- the day on which we in the Northern Hemisphere have the shortest day and receive the least amount of sunlight.  Two years ago, when I was teaching in Southern California, we received just under 10 hours of daylight on the solstice (December 21).  Now that I'm teaching in Buffalo, New York, we're already down to only 9 1/2 hours of daylight, and we'll get down to only 9 hours of light and 15 hours of darkness before the sun starts coming back.  It is little wonder that folks in the higher latitudes experience more instances of Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is a recognized mood disorder in which sufferers experience mood distortions -- most commonly, depression -- at particular times of the year.  Most commonly, these symptoms peak in the wintertime, and while the causes are not well understood, it seems very likely that the diminished amount of sunlight is a key trigger.  This may explain why SAD affects 8-10% of the population in states like New Hampshire and Alaska, but only 2% of the population in Florida.  Overall, about 6% of U.S. adults suffer from full-blown SAD, and another 14% suffer a milder, "subsyndromal" version.  This means that, on the average, one out of every five people -- including your students -- are clinically affected by the oncoming gloom.

When SAD manifests, as it usually does, as a type of depression, its symptoms (and those of its milder variant) are those of depression, including low energy and motivation, feelings of helplessness, withdrawal from social interaction, oversleeping, and difficulty concentrating or making decisions.  Any one of these symptoms would be a serious obstacle to success on final exams.  To have to bear a whole cluster of these decisions, on top of the intensity, stress, and anxiety normally experienced in law school, can be potentially debilitating.

Thus, it is important for Academic Success educators to observe their students with particular care as the autumn gloom descends.  Students who had seemed poised and optimistic in September might start to appear morose, scattered, or resigned as finals approach.  Of course, finals themselves can have a depressive effect, and after a semester of hard work, even the most buoyant student might be observed to sink a bit.  That is normal.  But if a student seems to be so down that it is pervasively affecting the quality of their work, consider offering the following suggestions:

  • Light: One reason that the diminished rays of the sun are felt to be a key trigger is the strong evidence that light therapy -- regular additional exposure to direct sunlight or to specially-made artificial lamps -- has a beneficial effect.  Spending additional time outdoors can provide the necessary sunlight supplement -- if winter clouds do not interfere.  If the weather doesn't cooperate, light therapy lamps can be purchased online or in department and specialty stores for less than $50.  Either way, 30 to 60 minutes of extra light every day -- something that might be easily done while studying -- often helps SAD victims recover (particularly when combined with other treatments, as listed below).
  • Exercise: Moderate aerobic exercise also appears to be helpful, particularly in combination with light therapy.  A walk outdoors or a 20-minute run on a treadmill under the glow of a light therapy lamp provides better relief than just light alone.  Exercise provides other benefits to students approaching the finals ordeal.  Regular workouts can alleviate stress and improve concentration, so a student with SAD who exercises and uses a light therapy lamp every day may actually end up in a better position than they were before they were affected by SAD.
  • Professional treatment: Students contending with a particularly nasty manifestation of SAD -- one that does not improve with light therapy and exercise, and that causes feelings of worthlessness or thoughts of self-harm, or prevents a student from attending class or from undertaking basic preparation for exams -- should be referred or encouraged to seek professional help.  Counselors can provide talk therapy, and physicians can prescribe drugs that, in conjunction with exercise and/or light therapy, may provide additional help in overcoming SAD.

The good news is that, since SAD is seasonal, almost everyone suffering from it in November will probably get over it by February, as the days start to lengthen after Christmas passes.  But to help them get to that place, we sometimes have to help students recognize that they are suffering from a treatable condition, and we have to help them find the solution that works for them.

[Bill MacDonald]

November 20, 2018 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Science, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Strunk and White Come to Law School

Mrs. Ryan would be surprised -- and happy, I hope -- to know that the principles I teach 1Ls come straight out of my seventh grade English class.

Marilyn Ryan was smart, demanding, and talented -- the epitome of a good teacher.  The first day of seventh grade, she told us, "You're supposed to study grammar in high school but you probably won't get more than a smattering. So this year I'm going to drill grammar into you because you'll need it. It may not be fun right now, but you'll be glad later on." (She was right, by the way -- none of my high school or college teachers ever taught grammar.) So, in addition to enjoying and dissecting great English and American authors, we spent seventh grade diagramming sentences, learning parts of speech, and mastering grammatical rules. During class, Mrs. Ryan would often refer to Strunk and White's classic book, The Elements of Style. And so it was that I was introduced to one of my favorite paragraphs in the English language, from William White's Rule #13, "Omit needless words."  White explained his elementary principle this way:

Vigorous writing is concise.  A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.  This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

"Omit needless words" and "[M]ake every word tell." It's clear how writing vigorous prose is useful in practice, in legal writing class, and in practice exam answers, but making every word tell is also, I submit, the key to effective outlines. I find that most 1Ls over-write their outlines. They are so afraid that they will leave something important out that they create monstrous "outlines" which not only record all the nuances of what was covered in class week by week but also add long excerpts from case briefs and sometimes material from hornbooks and other outside sources.  Often long quotations from cases and Restatements are pasted in verbatim. Creating a comprehensive record of the class can be a useful source document for students who want to make sure they haven't missed anything in class, but such a long, comprehensive "outline" is virtually useless for preparing for final exams.

It's more useful to think of an outline as a guide for solving a legal problem: in the law school context, this means the outline is a guide for taking an exam. When you approach an outline this way, the excess falls away, including long explanations of historical context, excruciatingly detailed statements of the facts in cases, and long quotations from Restatements and cases. What replaces the verbiage is a structured framework for what issues to address, the order in which to address those issues, the major rules, sub-rules, and elements needed to address the issues, and enough concise examples and context to help you spot the issues when they appear in a problem. In essence, by doing this you are pre-writing your exam, absent the specific facts the exam will supply.

It's especially helpful to write rules in your outline in the same manner in which you plan to write them on the exam. Many students are afraid to put rules into their own words in the outline: they copy rules from cases, restatements, or other sources because they are afraid they might miss the nuances of the rule, or they feel it takes too much time learn the rule well enough to put it into their own words. But that is "stinking thinking." You have more time during the fourteen weeks of the semester than during the three hours of the final. If you thoroughly digest rules well enough to put them into your own words in the outline, you will remember that phrasing during the final; otherwise, you'll waste precious time and mental energy during the exam struggling to translate obtuse phraseology from the outline into a concise sentence that captures the law -- time better spent applying law to the given facts. So prune and make every word tell so your outlines can be the best possible guide for taking your exams.  (Nancy Luebbert)

 

November 14, 2018 in Advice, Exams - Studying, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

What is Simulation Training?

I have learned probably hundreds of tips, tricks, and techniques to improve one's performance on examinations.  But there is only one that I learned with ten million people watching.

In 2005, I took the Florida Bar Exam -- my second bar exam, after passing the DC Bar Exam seven years earlier.  When I returned to my car, the lone message waiting for me on my cell phone was not the expected call from my family.  Instead, it was Glenn, from Culver City, California, calling to inform me that I had been selected to be a contestant on Jeopardy! -- the fast-paced quiz show in which contestants vie to answer 61 questions in 22 minutes.

The taping was to be in a month, and so I went right from cramming for the bar to cramming for trivial warfare.  I knew there was no way I could study every possible subject that might come up on the show.  At the same time, I felt like I ought to be "training".  Today, there are websites that archive years of Jeopardy! clues, and old episodes on demand on Netflix, but these weren't available in 2005, so my main source of practice was watching the daily broadcast of the show at 7:30 p.m.  And, perhaps because I felt that it was a rather precious resource, I decided that I wasn't just going to casually sit on the couch and shout out responses with the contestants.  I decided that I was going to act like a contestant.  Each contestant stands behind a podium and holds in one hand a pen-sized electronic button, and the first person to press that button after host Alex Trebek finishes reading the clue gets the chance to give the response -- famously, in the form of a question (e.g., "Who is George Washington?").  So, for a month, I tried to simulate their actions.  I watched the show standing up, behind a living room chair.  I held a clickable ballpoint pen, and practiced pressing the top button after Trebek finished reading each clue, and only then did I allow myself to call out a response in the form of a question.  From time to time, I would feel a little goofy doing this, thinking, Isn't the show really about what you know?  But I kept at it, because it seemed like the only way to really practice.

Finally, I arrived in California for the taping.  Jeopardy! tapes five episodes in one day, a couple days every few weeks, so on the day on which I was scheduled to tape, I was herded into the studio with about a dozen other contestants.  We spent a few hours signing documents and having make-up applied and learning all the rules and, most important and exciting, playing a few practice rounds on the set to familiarize ourselves with the equipment.  I noticed some of the other contestants -- all clearly bright and as delighted as I was to be there -- seemed slightly awkward behind the podium.  We all knew intellectually what to do, of course; we had all been fans watching the show for years, and we had just received a thorough briefing on what was expected of us.  Even so, some contestants struggled to push their electronic button at the right time -- pushing it before Trebek was done talking would lock you out so that you could not answer, but if you waited too long, someone else would get in before you.  Others got the hang of the button, with concentration, but then could not remember the responses they were trying to give.  And there were times when contestants would press the button correctly, and give the right response, but forget to give it in the form of a question.

But when I went up on stage to practice, it was like I was standing back in my living room.  I had practiced the timing of pushing my pen button so many times that, when it came time to press the real thing, I did not even have to think about it.  I rang in quickly, focused entirely on recalling the information needed, and then gave the answer automatically in the form of a question.  It worked in practice, and it worked in the actual taping.  Yes, the show is about what you know, but it's important that nothing hinder you from demonstrating what you know.  I won four games, and eventually came back to be a finalist in the Tournament of Champions.

In the years since, I have learned that what I had stumbled onto is known as "simulation training".  It is a kind of practice that is not unlike the physical training that athletes do to develop muscle memory and automatic responses.  In the context of quiz shows and law examinations, though, what makes simulation training particularly useful is not just the physical skills that it develops.  What makes it useful is that it frees up mental space and focus for more complex thought.  Not having to think about when to push the button and how to phrase my answer enabled me to devote full attention to reading the clue and retrieving the correct response.

Practicing to take examinations -- whether final exams or Bar exams -- can provide the same kind of simulation training, under the right conditions.  Of course, students should write practice exams for other very good reasons, like improving legal analysis and uncovering weaknesses in subject matter knowledge, because law examinations should also be about what you know.  But there is an added benefit when practice exams are done under conditions that imitate expected exam conditions.  There are dozens of details and stimuli that students encounter consistently during an actual exam that, if unfamiliar, can demand valuable thought or cause detrimental distraction: dressing comfortably, locating a seat, timing bathroom use, logging into ExamSoft, calculating timing targets, contending with silence or noise, reading and following directions, cutting and pasting text, properly submitting responses, etc.  Encouraging students to incorporate attention to these elements during their practice work, even when they are not really necessary, can help them improve performance, not because performance depends on finding a proper seat, but because being able to do so with almost no thought allows them to devote their mental energies to the tasks that really need them.  Exam performance is about what you know, but it is important that nothing hinder you from demonstrating what you know.

[Bill MacDonald]

November 13, 2018 in Advice, Bar Exam Preparation, Exams - Studying, Exams - Theory, Study Tips - General, Television | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Guest Blogger Post 3 - Louis Schulze: "Don't Even THINK About Using Supplements" Part One

Ever found yourself giving this advice to students?  Do you have colleagues who do so?  In this series of posts, I hope to push back against this practice … sort of.  There are five reasons why giving this advice is generally unwise.  Here goes….

  1. Missed opportunity. We all know that students will use supplements regardless of our advice.  I am a realist, and so I doubt that each of my 60 students will blindly and universally heed every word I say.  (Dear students reading this:  You should blindly and universally heed every word I say.) 

As a result, if my only input on this issue is a blanket policy lacking any nuance, I’ve lost my ability to guide students towards the good stuff (which I call “hornbooks”) and away from the schlocky stuff (which I call “supplements”).  (I make this nomenclature distinction because I want to capture the positive connotation of the former, and the negative connotation of the latter.  This allows me to focus students on professor-authored resources written with the primary purpose of supporting students, and non-professor-authored resources written for the primary purpose of revenue).    

Moreover, if some of my students’ other professors do recommend certain sources, I have just undercut my colleagues and probably undermined my credibility.  I would rather influence my students and support my colleagues than posit myself as the all-knowing sage. 

  1. Mitigating the advantage legal education grants to students from privileged backgrounds. Imagine a student whose mother, father, aunt, uncle, or cousins attended law school.  No doubt these family members will spend hours at a family barbeque in July inflicting imparting their advice upon the anxious pre-1L, especially if they attended the same law school.  This student now knows that her Criminal Law professor closely follows “Understanding Criminal Law.” The student then positively kills it (pun intended) when cold-called on Queen v. Dudley & Stephens, and she gains points for doing so.

Now imagine the student who is first in his family to attend college, let alone law school.  Not surrounded by those “in-the-know,” this student goes through law school not knowing some of the crucial hints that might support his success.  He struggles through State v. Wilson and loses points.  He does less well in the course not because he lacked aptitude or diligence but because he did not enjoy the privileged background that provided others with pre-knowledge.

If the professor admonished the students not to use supplements, she can share the blame for this troublesome reproduction of socio-economic hierarchy.  Not only did her blanket rule likely intimidate the second student more than the first, but her failure to guide her students towards quality materials exacerbated the imbalanced playing field that already existed.  

In my next post, I’ll continue to lay out the arguments against the blanket policy of “Don’t Even THINK of Using Supplements.”

November 11, 2018 in Academic Support Spotlight, Exams - Studying, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 8, 2018

"Feedback" vs. "Feedforward:" A Path to Improve Learning & Final Exam Performance

I'm worried about final exams.  To be frank, I don't like the word "final."  I have to say that the word "final" particularly bothered me in my previous aviation career, where air traffic controllers clear airliners for the "final approach to runway 18."  I just didn't want that to be my final approach. I hoped to have at least a few more years in aviation.

But, here's the biggest rub that I have with final exams.  

Because law students frequently have only a few mid-term exams to assess their learning (and to therefore improve before their final exams), final exams are, well, too final to make an improvement in one's learning.  In fact, I suspect that the term "final exams" tends to lead to more of a fixed mindset with respect to our law students' learning.  They get their grades, often weeks after finals, and most students - it seems - never review their exams to identify what they did that was good (nor to look for ways to improve in the next round of final exams).

Nevertheless, it's not just final exams that can be a hurdle in improving learning for the future.

Our feedback can be too.  

As summarized by Jennifer Gonzalez in her blog "The Cult of Pedagogy," where she writes that "[r]eally, the experience of school could be described as one long feedback session, where every day, people show up with the goal of improving, while other people tell them how to do it.  And it doesn’t always go well. As we give and receive feedback, people get defensive. Feelings get hurt. Too often, the improvements we’re going for don’t happen, because the feedback isn’t given in a way that the receiver can embrace."  https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/feedforward/.  In short, feedback might just stunt growth, which is another way of saying that feedback might stunt learning.

But, there's great news! 

Rather than providing our students with more and more feedback, we might consider providing them with "feedforward" instead.  

But first, here are the problems with feedback.  Feedback focuses on the past.  It focuses on the negative without  necessarily providing ways forward to improve.  It focuses on being stuck rather than helping people get unstuck.  Indeed, as outlined by Jennifer Gonzalez, there are at least three ways that feedback hinders learning:

• First, citing to author and educator Joe Hirsch, feedback shuts down our "mental dashboards." In my words, it crashes our brain.  That's because the "red marks" and the many comments to "change this" or to "change that" tend to cause us to believe that all is lost; there's no hope for us. We just don't see a way forward because, frankly, we are stunned with a horrible feeling that we just don't get it...and never will.  We are locked in the past. The future is hidden from us.

• Second, citing again to Joe Hirsch, feedback tends to reinforce negative thoughts because the comments tend to lead us to believe that we are stuck in a sort of "learned hopelessness" in which we cannot change our future. Rather than building a growth mindset in our students, feedback that is focused solely on what our students have done in the past creates a fixed mindset with students believing that there's little that they can do to improve their learning in the future.

• Third, citing again to Joe Hirsch, we tend to approach feedback with a single-minded crystalized focus to see what grades or marks or numbers we received (rather than seeing feedback as providing us with helpful and hopeful positive tools forward to achieve better grades in the future).  In short, despite all the feedback given, students tend to see and internalize their grades first, and, because first impressions lead to lasting impressions, feedback often falls short in producing improvements in learning for future assessments.  Too often, the grades on feedback crystalize into final exam grades, too.

In contrast, "feedforward" focus on the future.  It takes the work of today and provides insights, comments, and tips framed in a communicative, generative way that leads to improvement in the future. It is forward looking; never backward looking.  Feedforward believes in the future - a bright future - and provides particular ways for our students to move forward towards that future of improvements in their learning.

So, what is "feedforward?"

Simply put, it's coaching students about their current performance with heart-felt questions and insights that get our students thinking for themselves about how they can improve their learning for the future.  

Curious? Rather than going through the six steps in providing helpful "feedforward" to our students, let me just point me to you the steps as cited by Jennifer Gonzalez in her blog article about "Feedforward," available at:  https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/feedforward/.  

And, one last thought...

As academic support professionals, this month is a great opportunity.  In particular, nothing really needs to be "final" about final exams.  That's because we can provide our students with opportunities to receive positive "feedforward" well before final exams - via practice exams, exam writing workshops, academic support small group tutoring sessions, etc. - such that our students will learn to improve well before they take their final exams.  Indeed, the key to a great final exam experience is to have great "feedforward" experiences on the way to taking final exams.  So cheers to the future - our students futures! (Scott Johns).

November 8, 2018 in Advice, Bar Exam Preparation, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Learning Styles, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 5, 2018

Recall Your Purpose for the Finals Push

The wind is gently blowing while the sun rises over the horizon.  A cool morning inviting everyone to enjoy the sunrise with a nice run.  Many dream of the excitement of running another race, feeling healthy, or being outside.  I am not one of those people.  Mornings are meant for sleeping.  Running is only useful for competitive sports or survival, and I am long past my competitive sports prime.

While I don’t want to run races, especially long distance races, I do run for about half the year.  For the past 3 years, I trained for and ran in the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon Relay from November to April.  I ran the 5k portion my first year and a 10k leg last year.  I plan to run the 12k leg this year.  I reluctantly started training a couple weeks ago and will continue until the end of April again.  I don’t like to run, but I am doing it.

I never enjoyed running in itself, so why would I put myself through the rigor?  The answer is the purpose for the run.  I was only 5 miles away on a middle school soccer field when the bomb exploded.  The explosion and smoke seemed to be around the corner.  No one knew what happened yet.

The bombing was surreal.  I watched the events unfold on a CRT TV on a rolling cart in English class.  My mom called my school to let me know she was ok because she worked across the street from the Murrah Building on the non-blast side.  I know numerous people who lost family in the bombing.  One of the staging areas for first responders was the original Oklahoma High School, which is the building OCU School of Law moved into a few years ago.  The bombing affected nearly everyone in OKC, so my purpose is more important than my disdain for running.

Passion and purpose are critical to success in law school and the practice of law.  Many people talk about grit, but some forget the passion aspect.  Dr. Angela Duckworth’s book titled Grit explicitly states passion is a large piece to overcoming adversity.  Perseverance without passion is unsustainable.  Having a purpose is what helps us continue through the roadblocks.

Recalling why you want to be an attorney is critical during law school, especially near finals.  You need to keep reading your assignments each day, but you should also start preparing for finals.  1Ls probably had a large memo or brief due recently.  2Ls have more classes and may even be working.  They are overwhelmed.  Pure perseverance may have sustained you up to now, but you probably need a recharge to push through November.  When getting the work done seems tough or when you feel like there is too much to accomplish, sit back for 5 minutes to think about why you want to become an attorney.  Are you in law school to help the underserved?  Do you want to fight injustice?  Do you want to change the trajectory of your own life?  Be specific to why you are in law school.

Know why you are putting yourself through the rigor of law school.  Seeing progress towards the end goal can make the pain worth it.  I don’t like running in my neighborhood, probably the only neighborhood in OKC with hills, but the pain is worth it knowing the cause I run for.  The rigor of law school is also worth it if you know what you can do when you are an attorney.  Now is the time to remember it to make that final push through finals!

(Steven Foster)

November 5, 2018 in Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, October 28, 2018

The ASP Clinic Is Open and the Doctor Is In

For the past two weeks I have met many new first-year students. Feedback on midterms, practice questions, or legal practice assignments has begun. So students who previously had thought they did not need assistance - or at least were delaying assistance - have taken the plunge. Some have realized they need better time management routines for more study time. Some have realized they definitely need to start or catch up on outlines. Some have asked about IRAC or multiple-choice assistance. Some have realized that they need to curb procrastination. Some are just anxious and wondering if they should be more or less anxious than they currently are.

Other students, both 1L and upper-division, are returning for 10,000-mile checkups. We are tweaking their previous time management routines for more study time now that they are more efficient and effective at class preparation and outlines. We are exploring the different tasks that all make up exam review. We are discussing how to condense their outlines into attack outlines or how to add visual organizers for some learners. Memory strategies have been a popular topic with these students who have made progress on black letter law, but have a few stumbling blocks. 2Ls and 3Ls are thinking ahead to exam schedules and evaluating courses in that light.

And with both the new and returning students, there are good measures of dispelling rumors about grading for 1Ls (the grapevine is especially bizarre right now), praising progress and wise decisions, and motivating the procrastinators. In some cases I am dispensing tissues, in some cases packets or handouts, and in some I just let them vent before we look for solutions.

The students who are pretty much on target leave with renewed confidence and strategies. The students who are catching up but not in critical shape leave having regrouped. The students who are getting close to a danger zone leave with a reality check and a plan - and usually follow-up appointments.

For now, ASP is a bit like a local medical clinic: some need vitamins or a bandaid; some need an ace bandage or cold remedy; a few need crutches or a walking boot. Right now no epidemics or massive injuries have crossed the threshold.

But I have been doing ASP enough years to know that the triage cases will show up right at the end - just before and after Thanksgiving Break. And like any good ER doctor, I will try everything I can to save the patients. (Amy Jarmon)

October 28, 2018 in Exams - Studying, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Rabbit Trails and Exam Writing - A Concrete Tip to Improve Exam Analysis

My dog loves rabbit trails.  Luckily for the rabbits, at least thus far, the trails have never led to rabbits.  

That got me thinking about exam writing and rabbit trails.  

But first, a bit of background...

I find that most bar exam takers who do not pass the bar exam write brilliantly well-organized professional essay answers.  The rules are crisp; the IRAC is polished.  But, in most cases, some of the answers are unresponsive to the fact patterns at hand.  In other words, its as though the fact patterns were irrelevant to answering some of the particular essay questions.  Instead of finding the "rabbits" in the essays, they followed "rabbit trails" leading to no where. And, it's often that way on law school exams too.

Take this summer's first essay question on the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE), available free-of-charge at https://www.ncbex.org/July2018Essays.  

The fact problem was set in the world of constitutional law.  As specified in the fact problem, the essay expressly indicated that US Supreme Court had recently found that Congress was within its power under the interstate commerce clause (ICC) to punish marijuana use.  On the other hand, the fact problem indicated that a number of states were (and have) legalized marijuana use both for medicinal purposes and recreational purposes. 

Frustrated by state decriminalization of marijuana, the fact pattern specified that Congress enacted a federal drug abuse prevention statute.  Pertinent to the essay problem, one section of the statute required state law enforcement officers to investigate whether anyone within their custody, even on matters unrelated to controlled substance violations, was under the influence of marijuana and then make reports to the federal government.  The other section of the statute, as specified in the fact pattern, provided that Congress would restrict federal law enforcement grants to states which decriminalized marijuana use.  The fact pattern went on to indicate that a State had recently decriminalized marijuana use and would therefore be subject to a loss of approximately $10 million dollars in annual federal grant money out of a state budget of about $600 million total of state law enforcement spending.  Based on this fact pattern, bar exam applicants were told to analyze whether each of these two statutes were constitutional as applied to this particular state's situation.

Let's deal with the first statutory section - the federal requirement ordering state law enforcement officers to conduct investigations and make reports.  The key to figuring out where to go, i.e., to avoid the "rabbit trail," was to write out a good issue statement, perhaps as follows:

"The issue is whether Congress had constitutional authority when it requires state law enforcement officers to conduct investigations and make reports unrelated to state law enforcement purposes."  

In this fact pattern, there's no issue that Congress did not have the commerce clause power because the fact pattern foreclosed that issue, once and for all, with its initial recognition of US Supreme Court precedent specifying that Congress had the power to regulate marijuana use.  And, if Congress has the power to regulate marijuana use, it certainly has powers related to that under the "necessary and proper" clause.  So, the focus must be elsewhere in answering this problem.  As the issue statement makes clear, it's a federalism issue, namely, whether Congress can force states to do the work of the federal government.  That's a 10th Amendment issue.  In brief, Congress is limited in its ability to commandeer the states, which is precisely what this first section tries to do.  It's unconstitutional, at least in my reading of it.

Let's take on the second statutory section - the federal spending restriction of law enforcement grants towards states that decriminalize marijuana.  Once again, the key is to start with a sharp issue to avoid the "rabbit trails."  Here, we might write as follows:  

"The issue is whether Congress had constitutional authority when - as applied to the state at hand in this fact pattern - Congress cut off a federal law enforcement grant in the amount of $10 million out of a state budget of $600 million in state law enforcement spending."  

Do you see the issue?  It's lurking in the facts stated in the issue statement.  Once again, this is a federalism issue.  There's no issue that Congress can't spend money for the public welfare, particularly because the state in this fact pattern wants to receive the federal grant money.  Rather, the issue is whether these "strings" constitute commandeering of the states by Congress in violation of the 10th Amendment.  One could probably come out either way, but I think that the better answer based on Supreme Court precedent is that spending restrictions to encourage states to enact policies and law that comport with federal law are constitutional as long as states have a real choice as to whether to enact new favorable state laws to the federal government or give up the spending grants.  In this fact pattern, the amount of money that the state will lose as a result of decriminalization of marijuana is only a small percentage of the entire amount that the state spends on law enforcement, which means that the state has a real meaningful choice to take the federal grant and comply with federal objectives or to refuse the federal grant and still have significant state law enforcement funding.  It's constitutional, at least in my analysis.

Despite the fact that this essay problem was centered on federalism issues based on the 10th Amendment, a number of people talked about the commerce clause or equal protection concerns, neither of which were raised by the fact pattern.  I can understand why.  Bar takers have memorized so much law that they tend to put all of the law that they can think of without thinking through the problem first of all, especially because of the time pressures.  But, I have a tip that can help preempt that sort of "rule dump."  It's writing out an old-fashioned legal writing issue statement before beginning to write.

Here's what I mean by an old-fashioned issue statement.  As set out by Ruta Stropus and Charlotte Taylor in their book "Bridging the Gap Between College and Law School," a great issue statement can take on the form as follows:

"The issue is whether [legal subject-verb-object] + when + [material facts]."

Take a look back at my issue statements.  Do I start with the legal issue?  Do I have the legal actor as a noun, a verb, and the legal object, here, as to the unconstitutionality of congressional action?  Do I then add in a handful of hand-picked material facts from the fact pattern?  You bet.  In my own case, if I don't take time to work through crafting such an issue statement, I'm lost in most essay problems.  I just start writing in circles, moving around in "rabbit trails" so to speak, without really understanding the fact pattern at hand or the questions presented in the essay scenario.  In short, I ramble.  

So, whether you are a bar taker or a law student preparing for mid-term exams, take a pause before you begin to write out your essays.  Hunt for some "red hot" material facts to put down in paper as an issue statement.  After all, it's what lawyers do best; they spot issues, the precise issues that are needed for solving their clients' problems.  So, as you learn to think like a lawyer, practice like a lawyer too by taking time out to craft, identify, and precisely specify the exact issues posed in your midterms, final exams, or your bar exam essays.  It's worth the time.  Indeed, you'll be mighty glad because you'll find that you'll avoid the "rabbit trails" found on most essay exams and instead you'll be finding the rabbits themselves. (Scott Johns).

October 25, 2018 in Advice, Bar Exam Issues, Bar Exam Preparation, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Threats and Challenges in Law School

Final exams.  Olympic competition.  Oral argument.  Job interviews.  The bar examination.  These are all high-stakes experiences, often competitive, in which successful outcomes depend on strong performance.  As discussed last week, in such situations the human brain can adopt different chemical and behavioral states, depending on whether the situation is perceived as a threat or as a challenge.  In a threat situation, the brain becomes hyper-alert to danger and error, processes information more deliberately, and shies away from risk.  In a challenge situation, the brain pays less attention to detail, processes information in a more relaxed and automatic way, and is open to taking risks that have sufficient promise of reward.  How can we use our knowledge of these two mental states, not just to understand our students better, but also to help them do better?

Let's start by noting that the brain can enter these different states at different times even if it is undertaking the exact same activity.  A baseball player might step up to the plate in the third inning and see his task -- to try to get a hit -- as a challenge, and the same player could step to the same plate, even holding the same baseball bat, in the ninth inning and see it as a threat.  So it's not the task itself that determines our mental state.  It's the surrounding circumstances.  Early in the game, when the outcome is still up in the air, a player may be "gain-oriented", focusing on accruing advantages (in this case, runs), and his brain will be in challenge mode.  In the last inning, though, if his team has a slim lead, that same player could shift his focus and become "prevention-oriented", focusing on maintaining his team's lead by not making mistakes of which the other team might take advantage.  In that case, his brain will be in threat mode.

In the same way, our students can undertake the same activity -- issue spotting, say, or answering multiple-choice questions -- at different times, and might find themselves in either challenge mode or threat mode.  This is a good thing, a useful thing.  After all, human brains evolved to be capable of these two modes, so each mode ought to have some beneficial qualities.

As Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman point out in Top Dog, in an academic setting there can be an optimal sequencing to these modes.  Students perform best if they start their semester working in challenge mode and end it working in threat mode. 

This makes sense in a general way.  At the beginning of a course, students don't know much about the subject, and their goal should be to try to gain knowledge and skill as quickly as possible.  A gain orientation is associated with challenge mode -- the brain plays hunches and takes educated guesses, because the risk (primarily, to grades) is low but the potential reward (flashes of insight) is high.  Towards the end of the course, though, risk increases, as the student faces more heavily weighted final exams.  At the same time, rewards are lessened, since (ideally) the student has already internalized most of the material and is not likely to learn a great deal more.  On a final exam, a student is more likely to be in threat mode -- pondering the answer more slowly and cautiously, less inclined to make risky arguments, perhaps even debating word choice as he tries to recall the exact wording of a rule.

If a student is well-prepared for the final exam, proceeding cautiously with their mind in threat mode may be quite favorable.  It can encourage methodical analysis, and help the student avoid unnecessary errors.  However, there are two potential issues to consider.

First, as alluded to above, there are two sources of risk and reward in law school.  One is the knowledge and understanding of the subject matter, and the other is the final grade in the class.  A student who downplays either source is at a disadvantage.  Reminding students to pay attention to learning the rules and how to use them, and to developing their test-taking skills at the same time, is part of what Academic Success is about.  Being able to describe these abilities as complementary sources of risk and reward may provide us with another way of doing that.

Second, while being in threat mode may help a student avoid errors, they still may not perform well if they only enter threat mode for the first time in the final exam.  Since threat mode slows analysis and limits the options the brain is willing to consider, it can change the way people behave during exams.  We have doubtless all had students who felt confident in a subject all semester and then did poorly on their final, later explaining that they thought of some of the correct responses but abandoned them because they were afraid they might be wrong, and that they spent so much time working on the first half of the exam that they didn't have time to complete the second half.  While there are several plausible explanations for such mistakes, one possibility for them to consider is that they had never practiced answering questions in that course in threat mode.  If all of their practice was under the speedier, more relaxed challenge mode, then they had never really practiced under exam conditions.

Ideally, humans would have a switch we could activate to shift from challenge mode to threat mode and back.  But, while we don't, it is nevertheless possible for professors to influence students and help shift them into threat mode.  As Bronson and Merryman explain, teachers can affect their students' brains just by changing the way they present their examinations.  If students are given a test and told that they will receive a certain number of points for every correct answer, then they focus more on the idea of gaining points, which encourages a gain orientation and thus a challenge mode.  If, on the other hand, students are given a test and told that their scores start at 100 and that they will lose a certain number of points for every correct answer, then they focus more on not losing points, which encourages a prevention orientation and a threat mode.  Even though mathematically the two scoring systems were identical, the differences in presentation caused measurable differences in performance.

Thus, one way to encourage our students to practice for final exams (and oral arguments, bar exams, etc.) in threat mode is to explain, in advance, that you will be scoring their practice work by subtracting points from a pre-determined maximum score.  Conversely, students who fall into threat mode too early in the semester, perhaps because they are disproportionately worried about grade risk, might be coaxed towards challenge mode by being given exercises for which they will receive a certain number of points for every plausible point or argument.  Even though the tasks the students are undertaking remain the same, we can help their brains approach them differently.

October 16, 2018 in Advice, Bar Exam Preparation, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Science, Study Tips - General, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Threats and Challenges in the Brain

In the 1994 Winter Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway, the Japanese ski jumping team was having a very good day. After seven jumps, it had racked up a score so high that no one believed they could lose. The team’s final jumper, Masahiko Harada, who had already landed a jump of 122 meters on his first jump, only needed to jump 105 meters on his second to clinch the gold medal. But Harada faltered. His jump was not well executed, and he only managed to get to 97.5 meters before his skis touched the ground. The Japanese team ended up with the silver medal, finishing behind the German team.

Four years later, the Winter Olympics were being held in Nagano, Japan, and, once again, Masahiko Harada was on the team. He and the team were hoping to redeem themselves, and, of course, all eyes were on them as the home team. Harada was no longer the team anchor, so it was hoped that, without the pressure of having to be the final jumper for the team, he would perform at the Games as well as the team knew he could in practice. The first two jumpers did extremely well, putting the Japanese team in first place. But then Harada . . . did even worse than he had at Lillehammer, achieving a distance of only 79.5 meters on his first jump. The team fell to fourth place.

Things looked bad until Takanobu Okabe landed an Olympic record-setting 137-meter jump on his second attempt, bringing the Japanese team back into contention. They weren’t back in the lead, but at least they had a chance for a medal. And now it was Harada’s turn again. In his last two Olympic jumps, when he just needed to not screw up to keep the team in position, he screwed up. Now, if he wanted to help the team get a medal, he had to do more than not screw up. He had to excel.

And he did. He tied Okabe’s record, making his own 137-meter jump, and sending the Japanese team into first place. They would go on to win the gold medal in the event.

How did all of that happen? Why did Harada jump poorly in his last jump in Lillehammer, and his first jump in Nagano, but then manage to jump exceptionally well in his second Nagano jump? The stakes were high – Olympic gold – all three times, so surely there was always enormous pressure on him. What made the difference?

It might be easier to explain the difference if we consider, not the stakes, but the positions in which Harada found himself. In his second 1994 jump and his first 1998 jump, his team was in first place. He knew he had to perform to a certain level to maintain his team’s position. Expectations were high, but he didn’t have to do unusually well. He was just focusing on not making a mistake, because this situation was a threat to his (and his team’s) position.

In contrast, by the time he’d reached his second 1998, his team was no longer in first place. They weren’t expecting to win, but, thanks to Okabe’s big jump, at least they had a chance. Harada had less to lose, and good reason to allow himself to take risks, because there was more upside than downside to doing so. This situation was not a threat to his position; it was a challenge.

In their book Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman explain that there are physical differences between the way our brains react when we view a situation as a threat and the way they react when we view a situation as a challenge. In a threat situation, there is an increase in activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is associated with more deliberate and less automatic decision making. At the same time, the parts of the brain that watch out for external dangers (the left temporoparietal junction) and for internal errors in judgment (the anterior cingulate cortex) also become more engaged. Also, as activity in the amygdala increases, the brain becomes more sensitized to avoiding risk than to seeking reward.

In a sense, your brain starts paying closer attention to everything you see and do, and it clamps down on behaviors it perceives as potentially risky. In playing it safe, though, your brain limits the scope of the choices you feel comfortable making, which in turn shrinks the range of performance of which you are capable. When Harada was going for the 105-meter jump for gold in Lillehammer, his brain was subconsciously refusing to allow him to take actions – picking up more speed, jumping off closer to the end of the ramp – that would have given him great distance, but also would have carried an increased risk of falling.  The cumulative effect of all those refusals made him, in a very real sense, incapable of performing anywhere near his best.  In other circumstances, this would have been of little consequence -- 97.5 meters was by no means the worst jump in the Olympics that year, and it was probably several dozen meters longer than you or I could have managed.  But in high-level competition, seeing the jump as a threat robbed Harada of the ability to show the world what he was capable of, and left him and his team wanting in comparison to the Germans.

In contrast, when you see something as a challenge, your brain takes on an entirely different set of characteristics.  Hormones are released in the brain that dampen the activity in the left tempororparietal junction, the anterior cingulate cortex, and the amygdala, so you expend less energy and attention watching out for dangers, errors, and risks.  Instead, your decision making starts to flow more easily and automatically; you rely on expertise and habit rather than stopping to deliberate over every choice.  And when risks are perceived, they are not automatically shunned; instead, your brain attends to both the potential losses and the potential gains, and is open to taking the risks when the gains are great enough.  When Harada was preparing to take his second jump in Nagano, he was no longer trying to protect his team's first-place position, so he didn't see the jump as a threat.  He was able to look at it as a challenge -- Let me see how much I can obtain from this -- and, subconsciously, that freed up his range of behaviors to choose from.  Only when his brain allowed him access to all the skills and knowledge he had acquired was he able to achieve the exceptional result he hoped for.

* * * * *

No doubt you smart people have already noticed the resemblances between Harada's performances and those of some of our law students, especially the ones who sometimes seem not to perform to the level of which they are capable.  Whether students view tests, oral presentations, and other ordeals as "threats" or as "challenges" can have powerful effects on their performance.  As we will see next week, though, threat stances and challenge stances both have a place in legal study, and there are ways that we, as teachers, can help students take the right stances at the right times.

 

October 9, 2018 in Advice, Bar Exam Preparation, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Science | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 27, 2018

The Window of Knowledge vs. The Window of Experience: Learning Takes Seeing Out of Both Windows!

While recently hiking through a wildlife sanctuary, I came across this wooden facade of a building, and it got me stopped right in my tracks.

 You see, I was hiking so fast that I wasn't really seeing the beauty of nature all around me.  

I sometimes wonder if that's true of law school life too.  We tend to spend so much time reading cases and regurgitating notes that we don't often see the big picture purpose behind it all.  But, the goal of legal education is not to be an expert in all of the finer details of the cases but rather to build a legal "window" of experiences from which we can solve legal problems on midterm and final exams (and provide our future clients with wise counsel too).

So, with many law students facing upcoming midterms, now's the time for our students to grab hold of past exams and get out of the "books" to experience and try their own hands at working through hypothetical legal problems.  In short, as students walk through the materials students also need to stop and take in the view.  In my view, that's because learning requires both the so-called "book learning" along with heavy doses of experiential learning, particularly in working through hypotheticals.  As a helpful reminder - that the windows we look through influence what we learn - here's the photo of the facade that I found so encouraging in helping me focus on the big picture learning.  (Scott Johns).

IMG_0430

September 27, 2018 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Learning Styles, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 20, 2018

The Lowest in Years - The July 2018 MBE (and a Call to ASP Action!)

According to the American Bar Association (ABA), citing to Law.com and TaxProfBlog editor Dean Paul Caron, the national average score on the MBE multiple-choice portion of the July bar exam dropped to its lowest level in 34 years.  http://www.abajournal.com; https://www.law.com;  http://taxprof.typepad.com.  The National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) reports that the July 2018 MBE average score was just 139.5, while for the July 1984 exam, Law.com reports that the MBE average score was likewise low at 139.21.  http://www.ncbex.org/newshttps://www.law.com.

In an article by Law.com, the President of the NCBE - Judith Gundersen - is quoted as saying that "they [this summer's lower MBE scores] are what would be expected given the number of applicants and LSAT 25th percentile means of the 2015 entering class." https://www.law.com. In other words, according to the NCBE, this summer's low score average is the result of law school admissions decisions based on the NCBE's appraisal of 25 percentile LSAT data for entering 2015 law students.

Nevertheless, despite the NCBE's claim, which was previously theorized by the NCBE back in 2015 (namely, that bar exam declines are related to LSAT declines), previous empirical research found a lack of empirical support for the NCBE's LSAT claim, albeit limited to one jurisdiction, one law school's population, and admittedly not updated to reflect this summer's bar exam results.  Testing the Testers

As an armchair statistician with a mathematics background, I am leery of one-size-fits-all empirical claims.  Life is complex and learning is nuanced.  Conceivably, there are many factors at play that might account for bar exam results in particular cases, with many factors not ascribable to pure mathematical calculus, such as the leaking roof in the middle of the first day of the Colorado bar exam.  http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/ceiling_leaks_pause_colorado_bar_exam.  

Here's just a few possible considerations:

• The increase to 25 experimental questions embedded within the set of 200 MBE multiple-choice questions (in comparison to previous test versions with only 10 experimental questions embedded).

• The addition of Federal Civil Procedure as a relatively recent MBE subject to the MBE's panoply of subjects tested.

• The apparent rising incidences of anxiety, depression, and learning disabilities found within law school populations and graduates.

• The economic barriers to securing bar exam testing accommodations despite longitudinal evidence of law school testing accommodations.

• The influence of social media, the internet age, and smart phones in impacting the learning environment.

• The difficulty in equating previous versions of bar exams with current versions of bar exams given changes in the exam instrument itself and the scope of subject matter tested.

• The relationship among experiential learning, doctrinal, and legal writing courses and bar exam outcomes.

• Etc....

Consequently, in my opinion, there's a great need (and a great opportunity) for law schools to collaborate with bar examiners to hypothesize, research, and evaluate what's really going on with the bar exam.  It might be the LSAT, as the NCBE claims.  But, most problems in life are much more complicated.  So, as a visual jumpstart to help law schools and bar examiners brainstorm possible solutions, here's a handy chart depicting the overall downward trend with respect to the past ten years of national MBE average scores.  (Scott Johns).

July National MBE Average Scores

September 20, 2018 in Bar Exam Issues, Bar Exam Preparation, Bar Exams, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Exams - Theory, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Final Weekend Bar Exam Preparations for Your Bar Exam!

Attention Bar Takers:

Here's a couple of short winning tips for your final weekend flight plan checks as you prepare for success on your bar exam next week! 

I. Focus on a Winning Attitude:

First, remind yourself right now why you can pass the bar exam...because, after all, you've been trained as an attorney.  

That's right.  Boldy recognize that out of all of the people in the world, you are one of the very few who have earned a law degree.  Yep...YOU'VE earned your law degree, having successfully demonstrated that YOU know how to solve legal problems.  That doesn't mean that you know it all (nor that you need to know it all for your bar exam).  But, you do know how to read and ponder and analyze and write and communicate as an attorney because you've been trained - for over the course of three years - to think and, more significantly, be an attorney.  

So, as Professor Chad Noreuil says, look forward to your bar exam next week as a "get-to" opportunity rather than a "got-to" threat. That's because this is YOUR moment to show YOUR state Supreme Court that YOU are professionally-trained attorney.

II.  Rehearsing Your Lines:

Second, keep your focus on positive learning throughout this weekend as you...

DANCE

&

TALK

&

VISUALIZE

&

ACT OUT

 &

REHEARSE

&

PRACTICE

YOUR BIG PICTURE RULES FOR YOUR BAR EXAM NEXT WEEK!

In other words, don't think of memorization as dry and dusty work.  

Rather, consider memorization as theatre work.  

Just like actors, carry your script (your study tool) with you in hand, personally by your side, ready to swing into your eyesight, as you walk through the major issues and rules for each subject. Move swiftly. Your goal on Saturday is to work through each subject in well under an hour or much less. Then, do the same for each subject on Sunday.

Here's a Tip - Less is More! 

Stick with talking, singing, or acting out only the big picture rules.  Don't dive deep.  In other words, just state the rule for burglary but don't practice the definitions for each of the elements.  Then, do it again...quicker.  On Sunday, grab those study tools and once again work through each subject - one at a time - with freedom and abandon to peek at your study tools.  

The Memory Power of Peeking!  

Too many people don't want to peek.  But here's the secret to memorization (based on the famous saying that a "peek is worth a thousand words").  

When we peek, we visually see where the rule is on our study tool and how it is organized and positioned.  As the learning scientists indicate, we tend to comprehend (a.k.a., remember) things better when we see them in text (whether in our set of notecards or outlines or posters) because the visual position of the words creates meaning for us.  And, memorization is just about creating memories with your study tools. So, be a memory creator this weekend. 

Finally, I would be remise if I didn't talk about Monday (also known as the "day before the exam").  

If you can't help yourself, feel free to review your study tools.  But, most certainly don't do any more practice problems.  And, definitely don't work on memorizing your study tools.  Just skim through them.

And, if at all possible, take the day off.  I mean the whole day.  From start to finish.  

Recognize that brainwork - just like exercise in preparation for a marathon - requires rest and relaxation time the day before a big event in order to rejuvenate and refresh.  

So, be extra kind to yourself, my dear doctor of jurisprudence, and splurge with some good old fashioned R&R.  And, good luck on your bar exam next week! (Scott Johns)

July 19, 2018 in Advice, Bar Exam Issues, Bar Exam Preparation, Bar Exams, Exams - Studying, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Hot Tips for Cool Learning - Based on the Latest Empirical Research

It's sweltering in much of the USA.  And, the heat is only getting hotter for the many recent law school grads preparing for next month's bar exam.  

So, I thought I'd offer a few "hot" tips on how to enhance one's learning this summer based on a recently published study entitled:  "Smarter Law School Habits: An Empirical Analysis of Law Learning Strategies and Relationship with LGPA," by Jennifer Cooper, adjunct professor at Tulane University, https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3004988

As detailed in the article statistically analyzing study tactics and learning, Professor Cooper found that two particular study strategies are positively correlated with law school grades.  

The first is elaboration, i.e, explaining confusing concepts to others.  So, be a talker this summer as you prepare for your bar exam.  In short, be a teacher...be your teacher!

The second is the use of practice questions to learn.  So, grab hold of every opportunity you have this summer to learn by doing.  Take every mock bar exam you can.  Work through every bar exam practice problem available.  Be tenacious in your practice.  Learn by doing!

Finally, as documented by Professor Cooper, beware of reading and re-reading.  It might make you feel like you are learning, but there is little learning going on...until you put down the book and start working on problems for yourself.  And, that particularly makes sense with the bar exam...because...the bar exam is testing the "practice of law" not the "theory behind the law."  

So, throughout this summer, focus less on reading and more on active learning - through lots and lots of practice problems and self-taught elaboration to explain the legal principles and concepts - as you prepare for success on your bar exam next month.  (Scott Johns).

 

June 28, 2018 in Advice, Bar Exam Issues, Bar Exam Preparation, Bar Exams, Exams - Studying, Exams - Theory, Learning Styles, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)