Thursday, April 18, 2019
Perhaps you've heard the phrase "Too big to fail." Well, that might be true, at least according to some, with respect to some business enterprises in the midst of the last recession.
But, at least from my point of view, that saying is not true at all with respect to student study tools and outlines. In my experience, too big of an outline can lead to less than stellar final exam results.
Here's why...There's a learning concept called "useful forgetfulness."
As I understand the educational science behind useful forgetfulness, it is in the midst of the filtering process - in which we decide to trim, shorter, collapse, and simplify our notes and outlines - that best promotes efficacious learning because the decision to leave something out of our outline means that we have made a proactive decision about its value. In short, the process of sorting the important legal principles from the not-so-important leads to active and enriching learning.
Nevertheless, for most of us, we are sorely afraid about leaving anything out of our outlines because we often lack confidence that we can make such filtering choices about what is important versus what is not important. Consequently, we often end up with massive 50 plus page outlines in which we know very little because we have not made hard reflective decisions to prioritize the important. So, here's a tip to help with trimming your outline down to a workable size to best enhance your learning.
First, grab a piece of paper and hand-write or type out, using both sides of the paper, the most important things from your outline. If you think a rule might be important, don't put it in your outline yet because you can always add to your study tool later. Instead, only put the rule down in your mini-study tool if the legal principle immediately jumps out to you as critically important.
Second, take your mini-study tool on a test flight. Here's how. Grab hold of a few essay problems or multiple-choice questions and see if you have enough on your "one-pager" outline to solve the problems. If a rule is missing, just add it. And, as you practice more hypothetical problems in preparation for your final exams, feel free to add more rules as needed. And, there's more great news. In the process of seeing a rule that might be missing from your mini-study tool, you'll know that rule down "cold" because you will have seen it applied in context. So, feel free to have less in your outlines because, with respect to study tools, less can indeed be more! (Scott Johns).
Wednesday, April 17, 2019
In the busy-ness of the end of the term, it's important for all of us -- faculty, staff, and students -- to stick to the basics. And the most basic of all basics is to get sufficient sleep.
Let's just talk about the brain. Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky, of Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers fame (and also author of the lesser-known but magnificent A Primate's Memoir), posits that sleep helps cognition in three major ways. First, it restores energy. The brain, it turns out, is an energy hog. While it comprises only about 2% of the body's weight, it uses about 20% of the body's energy, with two-thirds of that energy going to firing neutrons. Wonder why you feel so tired after intensive thinking? -- you are actually churning through enormous amounts of energy. This energy is restored in slow wave sleep. Second, the REM sleep in which dreaming occurs consolidates memory. High levels of the class of hormones known as glucocorticoids elevate stress and disrupt cognition. Glucocorticoid levels, however, plummet during sleep, especially REM sleep. So cognition can be enhanced simply allowing the brain to work its way through learned material when these hormone levels are at their lowest, by getting a good night's sleep. Because REM sleep consolidates memory so well, those who study, sleep overnight, and take a test the next afternoon do significantly better than those who study the morning before a test. Finally, REM sleep improves assessment and judgment, especially in complex circumstances, perhaps by exercising lesser-used neural pathways during those wild and crazy dreams. This allows the brain to establish wide networks of connections instead of simple one-lane pathways, leading to deeper, more nuanced thinking. Indeed, Berkeley neuroscientist Matthew Walker suggests that the most significant cognitive benefit of sleep lies not in strengthening the memory of specific items but in assimilating small bits of knowledge into large-scale schema.
More energy for the brain to work, better memory, and better ability to put things into a larger perspective. Sounds like a winning combination for everyone. Let's ditch the late nights and catch some Z's.
Tuesday, April 16, 2019
This time of year sneaks up on us like the holidays in December. It seems like only yesterday we were welcoming students back for spring semester. We blink, and then poof! Final exams are less than three weeks away. And before they start, we have so much to take care of. Drafting final exams, for one thing. But, at the same time, staying on top of our current classes -- in particular, at least in my case, pushing feedback on written assignments out to students so they can make use of it as they prepare for finals. Plus the approaching end of the semester often means a traffic jam of administrative work, as committees and working groups hasten to complete projects before a big chunk of their members leave for sabbaticals, holidays, or other teaching gigs over the summer.
When it gets crazy busy like this, it is important to set aside at least a measure of our thought and energy for that portion of our student population that might otherwise get lost in the background noise. Sure, part of what makes us so busy are the students we've developed relationships with -- those who regularly seek us out because of anxiety or confusion or a habit of pursuing every advantage -- and part of it may be required meetings with students on academic probation. We'll see those folks without much extra effort on our parts. But there are other students who could use our help who might not put themselves on our radar screens. Maybe they are shy; maybe they are overconfident; maybe they are just underestimating how much they have to do to get ready for the approaching finals. Maybe they feel so busy that they can't make time for us.
These are often students, not currently in academic difficulty, for whom a little support, guidance, or intervention will have a far more significant positive effect this week than it would have if it were delivered when the student showed up at the threshold to our office, panicking, a few days before finals. So, even though we are busy, making the effort to identify and check in with these students now makes good cost/benefit sense.
If you have not already done so, consider taking some time over the next few days to:
- Go through your calendar or appointment records from the fall and early spring and make note of any students who have sought help in the past, but from whom you have not heard for a while. Send them quick e-mails, asking them how they are doing and inviting them to drop by or make an appointment if they'd like to talk about preparing for the end of the semester.
- Check in with faculty (especially those teaching 1L courses) to ask if there are any students they have concerns about whom they haven't already referred to you. At this point, spring midterms are probably all completely graded, and those professors may have information they didn't have at the start of the semester.
- Remind the students (again, especially 1L students) in class or via social media or your school's information portal how close they are to the end of the semester, how busy your office gets at this time of year, and how wise it is to come to see you sooner rather than later if they have any concerns.
When we are this busy and things are moving towards a close so quickly, reaching out to students in the grey area can demand a bit of mindfulness. But even one fruitful meeting with a student now might be more effective than a flurry of desperate conferences the week before finals. That would be time well spent.
Friday, April 12, 2019
It has been an exciting time in Red Raider Land! Our basketball team returned home Tuesday afternoon to a warm welcome. Although they lost in the NCAA final against Virginia, they have set school history. In fact our TTU President cancelled evening classes Monday night and all classes for Tuesday.
I will admit that I was glued to my television for both the Final Four and the Final. The first of those games was such a joyous victory. The team was amazing. The loss to Virginia was heart-breaking, especially because of the OT call giving the ball to Virginia after the replay. The team played well and gave it every ounce of effort. Chris Beard has helped these young men become a family that supports one another at all times. In true Lubbock fashion the team was given a wonderful welcome home. This NCAA championship season will be remembered forever.
In many ways the NCAA tournament is a lot like final exams for law students. The hard work to get there, the high stakes, the pressure. Each exam feels like a "will I be victorious or go down in defeat" moment for some students. Here are some exam tips we can learn from the NCAA tournament:
- Daily preparation and hard work pay off in the big game. The road to success is built day by day.
- Practice, practice, and more practice is essential to honing skills for exams. You will never practice too much.
- A team to help you reach your game-day potential can be important - a study group, a study partner, teaching assistants/tutors, professors.
- People who believe in you and your abilities - friends, family, and mentors - should surround you in pre- and post-game times.
- Staying calm under pressure allows you to stay in the game and focus on every point you can get. Breathe deeply, and calm those jitters.
- Mistakes happen. Instant (or continual) replay after a disappointing exam performance is not helpful. Move on to the next exam in the series.
- Whether you win or lose, you are still a winner if you did your best on the day. All you can ask of yourself is to do your best.
- All of us can use victories or defeats to become better players in the future. Exam review later and new strategies can show us how to improve our scores.
For all of our students who are on the downward slope of classes to exams, keep up the hard work and show them what you can do! (Amy Jarmon)
Thursday, April 4, 2019
I asked my classes this question today: "How did you learn to ride a bike?"
The students then turned to their small groups and the class lit up with stories and smiles and anecdotes as they shared their memories about learning to ride bikes. Here are some of the things I heard:
• I started out with training wheels.
• No one helped me so I decided to try riding on the grass so that I wouldn't get hurt when I fell.
• I just kept getting back up, one fall after another and one bruise after another.
• Without my knowledge, someone gave me a big push and away I went!
As a class, here's what we realized about learning. Not one of us learned to ride a bike by reading about riding a bike, or watching You Tube videos about bike riding, or creating a study tool on bike riding. No. Instead, to a "T," all my students said that they learned to ride bikes, well, by learning to ride bikes. And, most of us had help along the way.
The same is true with learning the law. We don't really learn the law by reading about the law. Instead, we learn the law by problem-solving with the law. But, far too many students - understandably - don't feel ready to practice final exam problems because they feel like they don't know enough law. So, here's some tips to get you learning by doing in preparation for your final exams.
Start with training wheels and practice on the grass.
Here's what I mean.
Instead of trying to test yourself through past exam problems, open up your notes, outlines, and casebook and work through problems as best you can, untimed, with the goal of learning the law through past exam problems.
Just like learning to ride a bike, you'll experience a lot of cuts and bruises along the way as you review your answers. But, you'll get better and soon you'll be able to ride without your training wheels (notes). And, you might start doing some tricks, too, like jumping off the curb, something that a few days or weeks previously was terrifyingly trepidatious. You see, the key to tackling your fears about taking final exams is to take final exams before you take final exams. So, as you prepare for your exams this spring, make it your aim to practice final exams, slowly and open book. One pedal at a time. (Scott Johns).
Tuesday, April 2, 2019
A blank piece of paper has so much potential. It can be used to display one's ingenuity. It can be a medium for communication between two people, or among thousands. It can record data and history and memory, to be used by people born long after the recorder is dead. And yet, under certain circumstances, our stationery friend can seem to turn on us. When we are asked to answer an inscrutable question, the oppressive blankness of an empty sheet can be smothering. When we think that our reputation, our livelihood, our entire future depends on scratching the right symbols in the right order, the page can seem like a minefield of hidden threats.
When I was a kid, television seemed to be entering its golden age of public service announcements, and to me it seemed the most common subject was fire. Fire was our friend, we were told, making food safe and houses warm; but we always needed to be aware of what to do if it grew dangerous. And what we needed to know was that our natural inclinations were usually wrong. Foe example, even though we knew that water was the opposite of fire, if something caught fire in the kitchen, then we were not supposed to throw water on it, because it was probably a grease or electrical fire, and water would just make it worse. If our whole house caught fire (say, because we threw water on a kitchen fire), then we weren't supposed to hide in a nice, safe closet, because then we'd be trapped and the firefighters would never find us. If we caught fire, then we weren't supposed to run, trying to find some water to jump into. That, we were told, would just light us up like a Roman candle. Instead, we had to fight every instinct and stop, drop to the ground, and roll around politely.
What I could not understand as a child was that these PSAs really had two purposes. One was simply educational, teaching us that behaviors that made perfectly good sense in one context (dousing fire, hiding from danger, fleeing danger) might actually expose us to additional harm in a different context. They were maladaptive behaviors. Sea turtle hatchings naturally paddle towards a bright light, which helps insure they reach the ocean when the brightest object in the night is the moon reflecting off the water, but which will insure they remain stranded on land when the brightest object is the patio light behind a beach house. Infantry charging a defensive position en masse often led to an advance when the defense was armed with swords, but always led to a slaughter when the defense was armed with entrenched machine guns. The ways to counter maladaptive behaviors are either to return to the original situation (turn of the patio light) or to replace the old behavior with a new one (attack with tanks and aircraft). When Ronald McDonald sang, "Stop, drop, and roll!", he was teaching children a new behavior to replace the old maladaptive behavior.
But even the dimmest of my childhood friends got the gist of Ronald's commands after the third or fourth viewing. Why were we hearing these messages so frequently, from so many different sources? That went to the second purpose of the PSAs. Education is a good start, a necessary start, but the problem is that being on fire, or at least near fire, is an inherently stressful situation. And psychologists know that "Under stress, we regress." That is, under difficulty situations like panic or sensory overload or fear of consequences, humans naturally fall back on older patterned behavior. Most drivers, for instance, know intellectually that if their car loses traction in a skid, they should pump the brakes and steer into the skid to regain control. But the first time they actually hit a skid, most drivers stand on that brake pedal. Only if they live someplace wacky with snow, like Buffalo, do they get enough practice with the skid to develop the new adaptive behavior.
Even television executives were able to recognize that it would be unethical to light kids on fire over and over again until they learned to stop, drop, and roll. So they did the next best thing: they repeated the message over and over again, and encouraged children to try practicing the moves even when they weren't alight, to ingrain the new behavior as much as possible. The more familiar a behavior became, through repetition and feedback, the less likely a person would be to regress away from it under the actual stress of combustion.
At this time of year, I am seeing work from a lot of students who seem to be regressing under stress: 1L students using tactics in their spring semester midterms that appear to be drawn from their most basic legal writing classes, or from college composition classes; 3L students trying to mechanically apply CREAC format to early MEE and MPT practice questions. Even when we know we have shown these students the more advanced strategies they should be using as they progress through their development as attorneys, we have to keep in mind that that blank piece of paper or computer screen can just as easily be a threat as a blessing. Under the stress of self-doubt, or of novelty, or of high ambition, or future consequences -- sometimes of all of these at once -- the amiably clean page can transform into an incandescent hazard. Repetition and feedback are important not just to help our students improve their use of the more advanced strategies they need, but also to make them comfortable and familiar enough to be able to use those strategies at all.
Tuesday, March 19, 2019
One of the most stimulating -- though, at times, overwhelming -- aspects of working in Academic Success is the necessity of performing in all the rings under the law school circus tent. In the same day, we can be teaching substantive law, providing feedback to help improve a student's writing and legal analysis, coaching another student on skills like time management or effective study, and counseling other students who are anxious, unmotivated, discouraged, or overconfident. To me, the counseling portion seems to be the most draining. Even when it is not taking up the greater part of my week -- and that is not always the case -- working with students' emotions, their self-awareness, their conceptions of what they are capable of, and their unrecognized assumptions requires high levels of energy and attentiveness. Anything that might make that part of the job easier without shortchanging my students would be gratefully welcomed.
To that end, I've been reading an interesting article called Wise Interventions: Psychological Remedies for Social and Personal Problems, written by the psychologists Gregory M. Walton and Timothy D. Wilson (Psychological Review (2018), 125(5), pp. 617-655). The authors explain that much of what either restrains or enhances our achievements does so because of how we perceive it, ourselves, and/or our place in the world. For example, a student who perceives her professor's probing Socratic questioning as demonstrating confidence in the student may learn more, and feel more confident about what they have retained, than another student who perceives the professor's intense questioning as disdain or ridicule. Much depends on the subjective meaning that a person has assigned to himself ("I am clever/I am stupid/I am not good at math"), to his environment ("The professor doesn't like me/This subject is useless in the real world/That law firm only hires students in the top 5%" ), and to the interactions between the two ("I always screw up on multiple-choice questions/There's nobody in this class who would be willing to share notes with me/If I go to office hours the professor will think I can't handle the material.") The article points out that many of the techniques that have been demonstrated to produce lasting behavioral change with comparatively little effort on the part of coaches or intervenors do so because they help to change ineffective subjective meanings that the student had used previously into meanings that are naturally more likely to produce good results. For example, incoming African American college students participated in a one-hour discussion section at the start of the school year, in which stories told by former students were used to convey the idea that it is normal to feel, at first, that you "don't belong" in college, and that after a while that feeling goes away. Participating students had higher grades over the next three years than did similar students who did not join the discussion session. Walton and Wilson call these techniques "wise interventions" because those who used them are aware of ("wise to") the maladaptive meanings that some subjects have adopted, and therefore can more successfully change those meanings.
This is a dense and rich article, one I will have to return to a few times here, but today I wanted to point out three of the five general principles the authors suggest characterize a "wise intervention". These three principles are all about how to effectively change maladaptive assigned meanings, and I think they can help us in Academic Support as we try to find new ways to help our students make the most of themselves and their environments.
The first principle is that in order to effectively alter ineffective perceptions, the explanations we offer in exchange have to be detailed and specific. It was not enough, for example, to say to incoming college students, "College is tough on everyone. You'll get over it." Instead, researchers used the detailed stories of former students to illustrate the specific feelings that incoming students often experience, and the journey that those students went through, so that the incoming students could more clearly relate to and remember those stories when they encountered similar feelings. Similarly, in law school, it may not be enough just to tell 1L students that law school is going to be harder than any educational experience they've had in the past. Instead, we need to tell our own stories, and the stories of other law students and alumni, to better illustrate some of the specific obstacles that were faced and then overcome. Having those details to recall can help insure that 1L students will interpret their setbacks and difficulties as part of the usual law student experience.
Another principle is that, once we help students to generate more useful interpretations of themselves and their environments, these interpretations can lead to further recursive change in the future. A student introduced to the concept of the "growth mindset", for instance, may at first only accept its existence in a certain context, like the ability to memorize content. However, as the student experiences success in that context, it becomes more likely that she will start to apply the growth mindset concept in other realms, such as making oral presentations or writing effectively under time pressure. This is one of the chief benefits of a wise intervention: because of the possibility of recursive change, a comparatively small effort on the part of a counselor or coach can produce a lifetime of benefits.
However, the possibility of such recursion depends in part on a recognition of a third principle: the fact that the meanings that people assign to themselves and to their worlds all operate within complex systems of past experiences, present conditions, and future expectations. In practical terms, this means that merely changing a student's meaning-making is not likely, by itself, to take root and produce extensive future benefits; there must also be some kind of change to the system in which the student operates. It is not enough, for example, to get students to see that they have the analytical tools they need to respond properly to multiple-choice questions, and that such questions are not simply an opaque collection of "tricks", unless we also provide those students will access to practice questions upon which to apply their new view of the genre, along with answer explanations so the students will be able to confirm that the analytical approach is indeed the most effective. Changing your students' interpretation of themselves or of the law school environment should always be either in response to, or accompanied by, some kind of practical change to the rest of the system in which they operate, in order to give the students the opportunity to test and cultivate their new understandings.
This last bit is the part I want to incorporate more into my own teaching and advising. Whenever something seems to click for a student and they seem to recognize a possible new way of interpreting the world, that's a spark. Academic success depends not just upon generating such sparks, but also upon providing kindling so that the spark doesn't go out.
Tuesday, March 12, 2019
Two stories that I heard recently have been echoing off of each other in my mind, because of what they say about the human reaction to things that we, personally, would never consider doing.
The first was told to me by a fellow professor at my law school. She said she had been talking with two of her teaching fellows -- conscientious and diligent 3L students with excellent grades -- about the upcoming July 2019 bar exam. She conveyed to them a recent conversation she had had with me, in which I had told her about the data that showed that many students who were not passing the bar on their first attempt had also not been fully participating in their summer bar prep courses. She had expected that these top students would share in her incredulity that anyone would not commit themselves 100 percent to their summer bar prep . . . but was astonished when their actual incredulity was prompted by the suggestion that fresh law graduates really ought to do just that. Each of them had just assumed that, being newly-minted lawyers with excellent academic credentials, they were already mostly well-prepared for the bar exam. They told her they'd figured they'd watch maybe half the summer classes, in the subjects they had never studied before, and do some of the practice exercises, and that would be enough to bring them up to speed. Flabbergasted, the professor explained to them why it was important to sit through every lecture in every subject and to participate in as many practice exercises as possible, because the bar exam would be so very different from everything they had done before it.
Fortunately, these students respected this professor so much that they took her word as gospel, thanked her profusely for telling them what they needed to know, and promised to throw themselves wholeheartedly into their summer bar preparation. She told me this story partly to make the point: We think it's the struggling students, the ones who already have problems juggling all their assignments, who are the ones who flake out over the summer, but even top students can have the wrong impression about what is required for their success on the bar. Even as she was telling the story, though, she was still clearly shocked: How can people not know this?
I read the second story this week, when it was widely reported that a woman in Arizona was attacked by a jaguar when she tried to take a selfie in front of the creature. The beautiful black feline was pressed against the side of its cage, and the woman decided she wanted a photo of herself with the cat in the background. There was a metal barrier, designed to keep people a minimum distance from the side of the cage, but the woman stepped over it so she could get a closer shot. When she was within reach, the jaguar stuck its front leg between the bars of the cage and sank its claws into the woman's arm.
This story has been widely reported, and those reports usually feature two snarky points. One is a criticism of the ubiquitous modern urge to take selfies, even in dangerous situations. The other is a disdainful incredulity that anyone would blithely cross a safety barrier to put themselves in range of a pawful of tiny daggers. How can people not know this is a bad idea? Why, as several news outlets pointed out, the same jaguar did the same thing only last summer, clawing a man who had stuck his arm behind the barrier reaching towards the animal! Doesn't that just prove what a bad idea it was?
This last part is why the stories have been resonating for me. I'm only human, so I enjoy news stories like this, and tweets and memes like Florida Man and Darwin Awards, that purport to showcase just what poor decision makers humans can be. Can you believe these people? [shakes head and rolls eyes] But the fact that the same animal made the same kind of attack less than a year ago doesn't make the story funnier. It turns the story sour. Because the woman who was attacked didn't know about the previous attack. If, outside the jaguar's cage, there had been a photo display of the man attacked the previous summer, showing the eight stitches he had received just by reaching over the barrier, maybe the woman would have thought twice about cozying up to Panthera onca. Was not sharing this information with her justified simply because the man's behavior was simply inconceivable to most people? Because it was not inconceivable to her.
My colleague told me her story essentially for that reason -- she knows how many 3L students I work with, and she wanted to alert me to the need to tell all of them, not just the obviously struggling, about the consequences if they step too close to the jaguar cage by not fully participating in their summer bar courses. I am grateful to her for that. Sometimes when you tell people about some of the reasons students do not succeed at school or on the bar -- not participating in a bar prep course, say, or trying to work full-time and study full-time simultaneously -- their dismissive reactions are more along the lines of Can you believe these people? [shakes head and rolls eyes] Sometimes I find those reactions hard to believe in an educational setting, but I feel it is my job to find a way to help those people see that incredulity does not have to forestall empathy, kindness, and instruction.
Thursday, February 21, 2019
Next week, thousands will be headed to convention centers, etc., to show case the handy-work of their bar preparation efforts for the past two months. In preparation, bar takers have watched weeks of bar review lectures, worked hundreds and even thousands of bar exam problems, and created myriads of study tools, checklists, and flashcards.
Nevertheless, with one weekend to go, most of us feel like we aren't quite ready, like we don't really know enough, with all of the rules - to be honest - tangled and knotted up in a giant mess in our minds.
Yet, let me say this up front. Despite how most of us feel, this weekend is not the time to learn more law. Rather, it's time to reflect on what you've learned, to let it live in you, to give it presence within you. But, how do you do that?
Well, as I heard in a recent talk about medical education, I think we've got something important to learn from the medical schools that just might help with bar prep, too. You see, apparently, despite all of the massive amounts of information available from the learning scientists, the philosophy of training doctors boils down to just three very simple steps: "See it--Do it--Teach it."
Here's what that means for the upcoming bar prep weekend: For the past several months, you've been focused on "seeing it" and "doing it." You've been watching lectures, taking copious notes, reading outlines, and working problems. In short, you've been busily learning by seeing it and doing it.
But, for most of us, despite all of that work, we aren't quite sure (at all!) whether we are ready for the real bar exam because we haven't yet taken the last step necessary for cementing and solidifying our learning; namely, we haven't yet "taught it."
So, that's where this weekend comes in.
Throughout this weekend, grab hold of your notes or study tools or checklists or flashcards, pick out a subject, and teach it to someone. That someone can be real or imaginary; it can be even be your dog Fido. But, just like most teachers, get up out of your seat, out from behind your desk, and take 30 minutes per subject to teach it to that someone, from beginning to the end. Then, run through the next subject, and then the next subject, and then the next subject, etc. Even if you are by yourself, talk it out to teach it; be expressive; vocalize or even dance with it. Make motions with your hands. Use your fingers to indicate the number of elements and wave your arms to indicate the next step in the problem-solving process. Speak with expertise and confidence. And, don't worry about covering it all; rather, stick with just the big topics (the so-called "money ball" rules).
What does this look like in action? Well, here's an example:
"Let's see. Today, I am going to teach you a few handy steps on how to solve any contracts problem in a flash. The first thing to consider is what universe you're in. You see, as an initial consideration, there's the UCC that covers sales of goods (movable objects) while the common law covers all other subjects (like land or service contracts). That's step one. The next step is contract formation. That means that you'll have to figure out if there was mutual assent (offer and acceptance) and consideration. Let's walk through how you'll determine whether something is an offer...."
I remember when I first taught. I was hired at Colorado State University as a graduate teaching assistant to teach two classes of calculus. But, I had a problem; I had just graduated myself. So, I didn't really know if I knew the subject because I hadn't yet tried to teach it to someone. As you can imagine, boy was I ever scared! To be honest, I was petrified. Yet, before walking into class, I took time to talk out about my lesson plan for that very first class meeting. In short, I "pre-taught" my first class before I taught my first class. So, when I walked into the classroom, even though I still didn't quite feel ready (at all) to teach calculus students, I found myself walking in to class no longer as a student but as a teacher. In short, I started teaching. And, in that teaching, I learned the most important lesson about learning, namely, that when we can teach something we know something.
So, as you prepare for success on your bar exam next weekend, focus your work this weekend on teaching each subject to another person, whether imaginary or real. And, in the process, you'll start to see how it all comes to together. Best of luck on your bar exam! (Scott Johns).
February 21, 2019 in Advice, Bar Exam Issues, Bar Exam Preparation, Bar Exams, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Learning Styles, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)
Monday, February 18, 2019
We all dream of new projects that could progress our programs, improve studying, or change our lives. I think about the article I want to finish, but find allocating time to research difficult. Adding more practice questions or additional study time is difficult. Many people look to others lives and wonder how successful people achieved success. We can model some of our behaviors from successful people to maximize our own potential.
I read an article last week from success.com titled “8 Things Successful People Never Waste Time Doing.” Cynthia Bazin said successful people don’t:
- Get Sucked Into Social Media
- Go Through the Day Without a Plan
- Do Emotionally Draining Activities
- Worry About Things They Can’t Control
- Hang Out With Negative People
- Dwell on Past Mistakes
- Focus on What Other People are Doing
- Put Themselves Last in Priority
She proceeds to quickly discuss how each of these activities can waste time and derail progress towards our goals.
Professors, law students, and attorneys could take this advice to improve productivity. The majority of us probably spend too much time on social media. While those apps have some advantages, the downfall is the amount of time spent using them. 30 minutes less on an app could be another article about a research topic, a practice question, or a response to client concerns. 30 minutes at night could be reading an inspiring book or quality time with family. Consider limiting social media, screen time, or both to improve productivity.
Creating a good plan for the day is something I need to do more. I fall into the trap of trying to solve every problem immediately and divert my attention constantly. A better plan could ensure I get through my research.
Check out the article. Pick one area to save time and the one task to insert into the saved time. Efficiency makes a huge difference in what we accomplish.
Monday, February 11, 2019
If I offered you a choice between 3 million dollars today or a penny today with double the amount each subsequent day for 31 days (ie - .01 today, .02 tomorrow, .04 next days, etc.), which would you take? In a small experiment, over 90% of people took the lump sum. A penny doubled every day over 31 days will net over 10 million dollars. However, that choice doesn’t beat the 3 million lump sum until day 30. Day 31 is when it crushes the lump sum by over 7 million dollars. The reason is the compounding effect.
The compounding effect is a common strategy for financial planning. Starting to save for retirement at age 20 makes a huge difference. Darren Hardy in his book The Compounding Effect applied the theory to life beyond finances to argue all of us can make dramatic changes in our careers and how we live. He argues the small choices we make consistently are the foundation for dramatically changing our life.
Small choices seem trivial. One of my favorite examples in his book relates to weight gain/loss. He illustrates the choices of 3 hypothetical people. 1 person continues to do the same thing he has always done. He is the constant. 1 person decreases calories by only 125 calories a day. 125 calories is the equivalent of a bowl of some cereal or a can of Dr. Pepper. The last person increases calories by 125 calories a day. The small decisions didn’t seem to make much difference in the first 6-12 months. Only small variations in weight. However, from month 12-18, the first person is losing weight and the last person is gaining significant weight. By the end of 2 years, the first person loses 30 pounds while the last person gains 30 pounds. There is a 60 pound difference based on 1 coke a day!
The weight example and other examples in the book illustrate the difficulty of applying the compounding effect to our lives. Choosing to not drink a coke today will not change the scale tomorrow. Eating 1 donut or a meal at Chik-fil-a will not change the scale tomorrow. We don’t perceive the benefits or consequences of small choices immediately, so many people choose the more fun donut. Over time, 125 calories can snowball from weight to other areas of life, like health problems and relationships with friends and family. The good news is the good choices snowball as well, and we should start considering what small changes to make in law school.
Law school epitomizes the problem of no immediate positive reinforcement. Reviewing course material today doesn’t produce a grade. Doing practice questions each week won’t have an immediate impact. Playing the Xbox or going out with friends provides the immediate dopamine rush without the perception of consequences.
Small changes now can make an impact at the end of this semester and future semesters. I want to provide numerous examples and tips for improvement. However, just as my pastor said yesterday, if I give you 4 things to do, you will do none of them. If I give you 1, then you may do it because you can easily integrate 1 thing into your routine. Hardy encourages the same thing. Start small. Pick 1 small thing to improve learning.
My suggestion is a small review each night. Learning literature indicates we immediately begin forgetting material. We can improve retention with immediate review within 24 hours and periodic review throughout a semester at progressively longer intervals. Each night, review the material from that day and the previous day. Summarize the information into your own words and think about where it fits in the outline. Don’t spend numerous hours on this task. Start small and move up.
Compounding makes theoretical sense. However, many of us make small choices that are compounding negatively. Choose something small today to compound in the right direction. Remember, you will not see immediately results. Consistency is what will produce the outcome you desire.
Tuesday, February 5, 2019
Watching the Super Bowl on Sunday made me think of my students. By no means am I implying any similarity between football and the legal profession. After all, one is a grueling slugfest, featuring breathlessly intense clashes between aggressive competitors on behalf of highly partisan, sometimes even fanatically tribal, stakeholders, with pride and sometimes lots of money at stake. The other is just an athletic contest.
No, the reason I thought of my students was the sudden shift in the game in the fourth quarter. Through the first 50 minutes or so of play, the scores remained unusually low and very close. Neither team could gain a clear advantage, and with less than ten minutes remaining, the score was still only 3 to 3. Across the country, spectators were complaining about how stagnant and boring the game seemed.
Suddenly, within a minute or so of game time, everything changed. The Patriots called a play in which a receiver wound up open in the middle of the field, just beyond the Rams' defensive line, and Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady deftly passed the ball to him and gained several yards. By itself, the play was only mildly exciting, and then only because it provided comparatively more action than most of the preceding gameplay. But the Patriots realized right away that the Rams' defense, which up until that time had been pretty successful at confining the Patriots' forward motion, had not had anything in place to keep that lone receiver from appearing unguarded behind the defensive line. So for the next few plays, the Patriots ran essentially the same play, except for choosing a different receiver to run up the field each time. In the space of four plays, the team moved all the way down the field and set up the winning touchdown run.
From the Rams' point of view, everything was fine, until suddenly it wasn't. They were basically evenly matched with their opponents, in a game that looked like it might go into overtime -- and then, in less than a minute, everything fell apart. One weakness was exposed -- one play that they had no planned defense for -- and before they could adjust to it, the other side had taken advantage of that weakness and taken a significant lead. And the fact that they were in that distressing position left the team vulnerable to more trouble. They rushed and ran riskier plays, hoping to score their own tying touchdown in the short time they had left, and under this pressure the Rams' quarterback Jared Goff accidentally threw the ball into the hands of a Patriots defender, leading the Patriots to score an additional three points. The Rams went from having an even chance of winning to having no chance, all because of one weakness that wasn't addressed quickly enough.
In his fascinating book How We Die, the physician Sherwin B. Nuland explained that human death often follows a similar trajectory. Laypeople often imagine that those suffering from serious injury or illness usually experience a long but steady decline until they pass away. However, Nuland pointed out that at least as often, if not more so, the afflicted person manages the illness (or injury, if it is not so catastrophic that it simply kills them right away) fairly handily, with only slight decline or sometimes even with improvement, for days or even weeks. If nothing bad happens, then they might even make a full recovery. But if one thing goes wrong and isn't corrected quickly enough, it can cause significant damage, which itself leads to additional life-threatening complications, and in a short time the patient may spiral down past the point where any medical intervention will be enough to save him. An infected wound, for example, if not treated quickly enough, can lead to a generalized blood infection, which can cause a patient's kidneys, liver, and other organs to stop working properly, and the patient, who otherwise might have almost completely recovered from his initial injury, will die of multiple organ failure.
We see the same phenomenon in other realms than just sports and medicine, such as business and politics. In any complicated system, there can be long, steady declines, but the sudden drastic reversal, attributable to one or a small number of neglected infirmities, is often more likely.
And the life of a law student is pretty complicated. New information to learn, new ways to think about it, new tasks to perform, all while juggling stress and ambition and self-doubt and mountains of practicalities like housing and relationships and (painfully often) finances. We all know that a few students struggle right from the start, but very often students will be managing -- holding their own, even if not excelling -- and then they run into one tribulation they can't fix, and they can't handle. A course they can't wrap their head around. A romantic breakup. Lack of funds to buy textbooks. A death in the family. An extracurricular activity that takes up too much time.
It almost doesn't matter what the problem is, because it's just the trigger. It starts the landslide that could pull the student down. Struggling in one course, for example, could pull the student's attention away from his other courses, leading to anxiety about not maintaining his GPA . . . and what started as one problem spirals into multiple problems.
The response, from an Academic Success perspective, has to be twofold. First, we need to be able to detect these kinds of issues as early as possible, before they turn into the equivalent of a touchdown by the other team or a raging blood infection. We need to have direct interaction with the students most at risk (incoming students, first-generation students, those in danger of financial difficulty, etc.), so we get to know them and encourage them to be forthcoming. We also need to develop strong networks among those in the faculty and student services who might pass along observations of possible distress.
Second, we need to have systems in place to help these students address these issues quickly, before they do become intractable. We are expected, of course, to handle purely academic issues on a moment's notice. But we should also be familiar with other means of support on campus and in the community, to be able to quickly refer students who need help in financial, psychological, spiritual, and other realms.
Time sometimes really is of the essence. None of us want to end up being Monday-morning quarterbacks, lamenting that if we had just changed our defense one play sooner, we could have saved the game.
Thursday, December 20, 2018
Congratulations December 2018 graduates! What a herculean achievement! Simply put, outstanding!
Nevertheless, I know that for many of you, right now it feels like a bit of a let down because you find yourself right back right back in the classroom as you prepare for your bar exam in February 2019.
That's exactly how I felt. Simply put, graduation felt a bit disingenuous as I had so much work left to be done to earn my law license. However, let me be frank. As you approach your bar studies, you are no longer a law student but a law school graduate. It may not feel like much of a difference, but its important to recognize - throughout these two months of your bar review learning - that you are a new person with a new professional identity, trained and well-seasoned to think through, analyze, and communicate solutions to vast arrays of legal scenarios.
Despite such remarkable progress as demonstrated by your law school graduation, many bar takers stumble in the first few weeks of bar prep, finding themselves increasing at odds with how to best learn and prepare themselves for the bar exam. I sure did. I spent much of the first few weeks trying to learn the law by, well, listening to professors talk about the law and watching professors talk about solving legal problems with the law. Big mistake! Cost me a lot of valuable time! That's why I write to you, dear law school graduate and now bar taker. Instead of focusing on learning the law, focus right from the get-go (i.e, that means right now, today!) on working through lots of practice problems each day. In short, I was, unfortunately, a "linear learner," as Professor Catherine Christopher says in her wonderful book entitled Tackling Texas Essays (Carolina Academic Press 2018): https://cap-press.com/books/
I. Linear Learning
Let me explain a bit about the difference between linear learning and recursive learning. As depicted by Professor Christopher in the diagram below from her book on successfully preparing for the bar exam , linear studying has a defined path. And, as a bonus, it sure looks nice and orderly, leading to the illusion of a direct straight-line path to success. Indeed, right now, many of you are focused (solely?) on watching videos, reviewing your notes, reading your commercial outlines, and making gigantic study tools. But, if you are like me, you aren't yet taking practice exams (or are only doing very few of them at the most).
Linear Learning (Professor Christopher 2018)
However, as explained by Professor Christopher, that's a big problem. Here's why. You'll end up spending most of the 8 - 10 week bar prep period doing very few practice problems, trying instead to master the law so perfectly so that you'll have enough confidence in the last few weeks to do well on practice problems. In short, you are afraid (I sure was!) to tackle practice problems because there's so much to know (and so many ways to make mistakes).
However, that's a big problem because it's in our mistakes that we learn best. We don't really learn by watching others. Who ever learned to play piano, play soccer, dance, or even litigate a case without practicing (which means "rehearing" and "acting out") what you hope to accomplish in the future with polish? No one prepares to become an expert without first being a novice.
But, as Professor Christopher comments, it feels really terrible, really terrible, to practice problems so early on because we make so many mistakes. But, if we delay practicing problems until the last few weeks possible, we make that practice much more of a high stake experience, in the words of Professor Christopher, such that there's no wiggle room for errors in our practicing experiences (so that there is no room for learning, either). In my opinion, linear studying leads to disappointment and frustration.
But, there's good news ahead, for those of you who engage in recursive learning.
II. Recursive Learning
Now here's a bit about recursive learning. As depicted in the diagram below from Professor Christopher's text, successfully preparing for the bar exam involves learning in a circular recursive process rather than a straight-line linear process.
Recursive Learning (Professor Christopher 2018)
As Professor Christopher explains, the first step - "reading and reviewing" - involves watching lectures, taking lectures notes, and reading outlines [about 4 hours or so per day].
But take note of second step in the circular process: "work to understand." That means that we get involved in the learning, we take center stage, so to speak, in our own learning by "work[ing] to understand the material" so that it becomes real to us. Just like learning a language, in which we start to start learning to speak and write a language by...speaking and writing a language! For bar takers, that means in this second stage that we make our own personal condensed notes or flashcards or other study tools to "help...get the information into [our] head[s]." (Here's a snappy suggestion: Just take hold of one (1) blank piece of paper, and, referencing your lecture notes in hand, write down, scribble, flowchart, and doodle the major take-aways from that day's lecture. Note: Don't let yourself get bogged down by trying to re-write your entire lecture notes; rather, focus only on big picture concepts because people pass the bar based on the big picture principles rather than the nitty picky details.). [about 1 hour or so per day].
The last step takes real bravery, discipline, and honesty too. And, it's vital for your learning. Start right away that very day, each day, by digging into actual bar exam questions, working through them one by one, using notes and outlines freely, and then reviewing practice answers afterwards to assess what went well along with concrete ways to improve with future practice problems. Here's a key tip for your practice sessions: Be super-curious when you miss a question; poke back around to the fact pattern - like a detective - to figure out whether you missed the question because you missed a rule or, more likely, you missed an important trigger fact in the fact pattern. So, for example, if you write a picture-perfect IRAC essay but then notice that the problem didn't involve that rule, go back and figure out where in the facts the correct rule was triggered. In short, don't just test yourself through practice problems but rather use the opportunity to learn through practice problems. [about 3 to 4 hours or so per day]. (Then, as illustrated by Professor Christopher's diagram, the next day we begin again with another bar review lecture.).
The great news is that throughout this process, while you might not feel like you are doing much learning, you are really dancing with the materials, making them your own, developing and finessing your critical reading, organizational, and writing skills. In short, you are productively on the path to successfully preparing for your bar exam.
So, in the midst of this bar review season, take courage. Indeed, be of good cheer, as the holiday saying goes, because true learning takes its shape in you - step by step - through the daily process of recursive learning - (1) reviewing, (2) working to understand, and (3) then testing yourself through practices problems. To be personal, I wish I had known this at the outset of my bar prep season. So, feel free to step out of the "line" and learn! Oh, and congratulations again on your graduation from law school! What a wonderfully momentous accomplishment! (Scott Johns).
December 20, 2018 in Advice, Bar Exam Issues, Bar Exam Preparation, Bar Exams, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Learning Styles, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)
Thursday, December 6, 2018
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).
Tuesday, December 4, 2018
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.
Friday, November 30, 2018
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)
Thursday, November 29, 2018
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).
Wednesday, November 28, 2018
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.
- 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)
Wednesday, November 21, 2018
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)
Tuesday, November 20, 2018
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.