Wednesday, February 26, 2020
This week we, as in the legal community, are in the midst of the February Bar Exam. For many taking the Feb exam, this can mean that they weren't successful in July. This isn't always the case, there are plenty reasons to take the bar exam in Feb for the first time. However, working with repeaters has made me reflect quite a bit on growth mindset and the importance of grit.
Grit is defined, by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, as "firmness of mind or spirit, unyielding courage in the face of hardship." Growth mindset is a frame of mind, a belief system we adopt to process incoming information. People with a growth mindset look at challenges and change as a motivator to increase effort and leaning. Most experts agree that grit and growth mindset are the most important factors in success.
Let's start with Grit. An entire book on grit was written by Angela Duckworth. (See her website for information on her book, as well as her grit scale - https://angeladuckworth.com/) Angela Duckworth is a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and founder and CEO of Character Lab. She started studying why certain people succeed, and others don't. She began at West Point Military Academy, studying why some complete the "Beast Barracks", essentially a boot camp, while others drop out. Given that to get into West Point, there was a certain similarity of background, in term of grades, extracurricular, etc. she set out to see if she could predict who would make it, and who wouldn't. It turns out they couldn't predict this based on grades, or background, but could base it on a grit scale that Prof. Duckworth created. The grittier the West Point cadet, the more likely they would complete the "Beast Barracks". She later expanded on her studies and found that the grittier you were, the more likely you were to complete a graduate degree. She further expanded this to other professions, Olympians, etc, and found that generally, the more grit you had, the more like you were to succeed.
This applies to law school, the bar exam, and the practice of law. Grittier people get back up. They fail, but they learn from that failure and try again. And sometimes try over and over again. However, the key is always learning WHY you failed. This brings me to growth mindset. Dr. Carol Dweck coined the terms "fixed mindset" and "growth mindset." These terms describe the underlying beliefs we have about learning and intelligence.
Professor Dweck explain why a fixed mindset can negatively impact all aspects of your life, but especially your learning:
"Believing that your qualities are carved in stone creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character, well then you'd better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn't do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics.
I've seen so many people with this one consuming goal of proving themselves in [a learning setting], in their careers, and in their relationships. Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character. Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser?
But when you start viewing things as mutable, the situation gives way to the bigger picture.
This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments, everyone can change and grow through application and experience.
This is important because it can actually change what you strive for and what you see as success. By changing the definition, significance, and impact of failure, you change the deepest meaning of effort."
In short, if you focus on learning for learning's sake, and not the end result, like grades or the bar exam, you will get more out of your effort! As a law student, focus on learning the law, and learning to be the best lawyer you can, will help you be more successful. (Here is the website on mindset, where you can take a quiz to find out where you are on the mindset scale, and learn more about the years of research done by Prof. Dweck - https://www.mindsetworks.com/science/)
Grit and growth mindset also take practice. Those that are grittier know that they have to put in the time and effort, that no one is just a "natural" - there is always behind the scenes work. Again, this also takes serious self reflection to learn from each failure, and to learn from each success. If you are a law student, assess your exams. Learn to assess your practice hypotheticals. Reflect on how you can improve. If you are studying for the bar, learn to track MBE questions and learn from each practice essay. If you are a practicing lawyer, learn from each and everything you do, whether it ended in a win or a loss. There is always room for improvement, and that is what makes successful people successful.
I don't think lawyers, as a profession, talk enough about our failures, or ways we can improve. Therefore, the messaging doesn't get passed down to students. But we have to make it the norm to fail, and get back up again. That needs to be part of our culture.
It should also be noted that I'm biased, because as I'm writing this I'm working on an entire CALI lesson on growth mindset and grit for law students, so if you are a student, look for that soon, and if you are a professor, feel free to pass it along to your students. In that lesson, I encourage students to reflect on failures, and what they learned. I encourage you all to share your failures, and how you bounced back, with your students.
Stay gritty! (Melissa Hale)
Monday, February 24, 2020
The bar exam is so much more than a test. It is an arduous all-encompassing journey that begins with months of study and practice. Today, the journey comes to an end for the February bar takers. As we send positive thoughts and well-wishes to our students taking the bar exam, we should consciously acknowledge the individuality of the journey for each student, the diversity of experiences, and the sacrifices that were made to reach this point.
Bar takers of all ages and backgrounds have sacrificed, surrendered, lost, ignored, delayed, and missed so much while studying for the bar. Yet, life circumstances would not pause during bar study. Some wed, or welcomed a new child; others dealt with the loss of a pet or family member; some faced separation or divorce; while others moved in, moved away, or moved back home. There are bar takers who made the necessary decision to leave young children in the temporary care of family or friends, while others had to find ways to incorporate parenting and family time, or perhaps elder care, into the bar study routine.
For so many, there were financial struggles. Students took out loans to pay for a bar course, to eat, to live. Some quit their jobs for full-time bar study; others lost their jobs because they could not keep up with the hours and the demands of study. Repeat takers managed the stigma and financial distress of a second, or third, bar prep period. No dollar amount can truly capture the real cost of studying for the bar. There is a toll on your body, your back, your hands, and your eyesight.
Bar takers everywhere, we see you. We acknowledge your struggle. We affirm your efforts and we cannot wait to celebrate your success!
Monday, February 17, 2020
Bar takers, you have seven study days remaining to prepare, to take one last look at your bare bones outlines, to try to crack the code for recognizing recording statutes, and to improve your speed at performance testing. Adding to the angst of sitting for an exam that will determine entry into your chosen profession, is the foreboding fact that national bar passage rates have declined and not returned to prior years heights. News from bad to scary, logically, can lead to doubt and self-debasing thoughts like who am I to pass if as few as four of every 10 bar takers pass the bar in some states?
The negative thoughts creep in and resound even louder to those who entered law school against the odds. Those with LSAT scores below 150; those who juggled working to provide for a family by day, and the competitive rigors of law study by night; those who managed the anxiety of chronic illness and attendance requirements; those who faced implicit biases that created a presumption of lower competence and precluded their appointment to prestigious posts; those whose humble social or financial backgrounds placed them in a daily battle with imposter syndrome; those whose law schools don't rank elite; and those who’ve found a home in the bottom quartile of the law school class are left to silently question who am I to pass?
Let these words be the fight song for the academic underdog. You entered law school, wind at your front, and made it. You fed your family and persevered. You commuted two hours to and from school and made the 8:00 AM lectures. You tutored yourself. You feared failure, but kept going. You ignored the rankings, and focused on your exams. When things got hard, you got harder. So to those who still question, who are you to pass . . . ?
I ask the better question: who are you not to?
 The Louisiana Bar Examination is administered February 17 – 21, 2020, eight days before the administration of the Uniform Bar Exam and other state bar exams.
 Mark Hansen, Multistate Bar Exam Average Score Falls to 33-Year Low, A.B.A. J. (Mar. 31, 2016). See also Jeffrey Kinsler, Law Schools, Bar Passage, and Under and Over-Performing Expectations, 36 QUINNIPIAC L. REV. 183, 187 (“Between 2009 and 2013, nationwide firsttime bar passage rates remained in the high seventy percentile range with three years at 79%, one year (2013) at 78%, and one year (2012) at 77%. Those nationwide bar passage numbers slid from 78% in 2013 to 74% in 2014, 70% in 2015, and 69% in 2016.”).
 Joshua Crave, Bar Exam Pass Rate by State, LAWSCHOOLI (Jan. 29, 2019), https://lawschooli.com/bar-exam-pass-rate-by-state.
*adapted from BarCzar Blog originally published April 2018.
Thursday, February 13, 2020
Let me ask you a couple of questions posed by a recent article (illustrating how easily our minds can mislead us). M. Statman, Mental Mistakes, WSJ (Feb 9, 2020).
First, do you consider yourself an above average driver?
Second, do you consider yourself an above average juggler?
Most of us answer the first question: "Yes, of course I'm an above average driver." In contrast, most of us answer the second question: "No, absolutely not. Why, I can't even juggle so I'm definitely below average." But context matters in determining whether our answers to these questions are accurate. Id.
Let me explain.
Take driving. Most of us think that we are at least average drivers (and most likely above average) because we drove today and didn't (hopefully) have an accident. But most drivers are just like us. They didn't have accidents either. Id. Consequently, at least half of us have to be below average and the other half above average. And, because we haven't yet explored any factual evidence in order to accurately gauge our driving abilities (such as accident records, traffic tickets, etc), we are often mistaken about our driving abilities.
Now let's take juggling. Most of us can't juggle at all, and, because that includes virtually all people, we are probably at least average jugglers (and maybe even better than average jugglers!). Id. You see, evidence matters in judging accurately. Id.
Likewise, with respect to learning, most of us think that we are at least above average with respect to easy tasks (like driving) but below average with respect to the hard tasks of learning (like juggling). However, without concrete facts to evaluate our learning, we are likely wrong. And that's a problem because if we don't know what we know and what we need to know we can't improve our learning...at all. Indeed, that's why learning can be so difficult. We tend to get stuck within our minds, our own framework, seeing what we want to see rather than what is really true about our learning.
So, as you evaluate your own learning, step back. Ask yourself how do I know what I think I know. Challenge yourself to see from the perspective of others so that you don't miss out on wonderful opportunities to improve your learning. Be honest but not harsh. Focus on identifying ways to improve.
If you're not sure how to go about self-reflective learning, here's a quick suggestion:
Take for example an essay answer that you've written.
First, find, identify, and explain one thing that in your writing that is outstanding (and why).
Second, find, identify, and explain one way to improve your writing (and why that would be beneficial).
Indeed, towards the end of most meetings with students, rather than telling my students to do "this or that," I ask them to tell me what they've learned about themselves from talking together and what can they do to improve their own learning. And, I don't stop with just one answer. I keep on asking until we have at last three concrete action items, all of which sprung out from them rather than me. That's because the most memorable learning happens in "aha" moments, when we see what we didn't see before. And, after all, isn't that the essence of learning...seeing anew with free eyes to boot.
Monday, February 10, 2020
And you'll finally see the truth, that a hero lies in you. Mariah Carey and Walter Afanasieff
Every lawyer who has completed the journey that begins with law school and ends with a multi-day bar examination knows the anxiety, the overload, and the sheer exhaustion that is bar study. There is no shortage of horror stories involving the bar exam.1 Virtually every attorney has a bar-related cautionary tale. Some of these tales recount the angst of making up legal rules to answer an essay question about which they had no clue how to answer.2 Other tales may involve the heart-stopping panic brought on by “Barmageddon” when technology glitches prevented examinees from electronically submitting their essays.3 The bar exam is a grueling rite of passage that no attorney wants to revisit or repeat.
But not accounted for in the published bar pass lists and statewide bar statistics is a group of unsung heroes that contribute in meaningful ways to the attorney rosters of each state. This group is largely unnoticed, unnamed, or misnomered as law school academic support staff, professional development personnel or even student services providers. These gifted folks, whether or not named or recognized, essentially relive the nightmare that is bar prep two times per year, every year, without break or exception, and without earning any additional licensure.
So, here’s to the bar prep heroes who, despite already having at least one law license, restudy, listen anew to lectures, and peruse endless pages of commercial outlines in search of changes to a majority rule or a better way to explain testable material. Hat tip to my colleagues in the trenches who biannually endure the round-the-clock cries for help, the endless essay grading, and the ulcer generating impathic nervousness for the aspiring attorneys in whom we are emotionally invested.
As the end of February draws nigh, you will soon return to regular sleep patterns and be able to answer the 100+ unread messages in your inboxes. Yes, all will be back to normal . . . except for the two to three months filled with delightfully dreaded anxious anticipation of released results. You are the heroes on the other side of bar prep.
 Marsha Griggs, Building A Better Bar Exam, 7 Tex. A&M L. Rev. 1 (2019).
 Karen Sloan, Software Maker Settles Barmageddon Class Action for $21 Million, NAT’L L.J. (May 15, 2015, 12:26 AM), https://www.law.com/nationallawjournal/
Sunday, February 9, 2020
So how can we avoid having a student’s working memory become compromised? There are a lot of different methods for doing so.
Practice Really Does Make Perfect
If we want to get better at anything, we have to practice it. A lot. This isn’t a novel idea, most of us know this instinctually or through our experiences. Malcolm Gladwell makes a very compelling argument in his book Outliers that in order to become an expert in any field or task, you must put in approximately 10,000 hours of practice. For example, Tiger Woods needed 10,000 hours of practice before he became a top-flight golfer, and he had amassed that mount of practice at a fairly young age because he had been trained since the age of 2 to play golf. By the time The Beatles had any real success, they had played 1200 times over a period of a few years, playing up to 8 hours at a time.
Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom became one of the largest and most powerful law firms in the world because its founders practiced hostile takeover law for decades before hostile takeovers became common – and being a master in that area of law became insanely valuable. That amount of practice shouldn’t be required to avoid the choke on a law school exam, but practice is certainly going to help.
So what might a student do in order to be better on pressure-packed law school exams, or even the bar exam? Take lots of pressure packed exams of course! Faculty can’t replicate the pressure of a bar exam perfectly, but they can put the students under pressure as often as possible. For example, one thing we do is have students take lots of timed, in class, for-credit examinations throughout certain courses. Students are subjected to the pressure of doing well to pass their course, the pressure of performing with their classmates around, the pressure of the clock ticking, not to mention the simple pressure placed upon themselves to perform as best they can. This training can greatly improve results, and might actually change the physical wiring of student’s brains.
Practice and experience can actually change the structure and function of people’s brains. London cabbies, who must navigate the city from memory all day, have enlarged hippocampus, the part of the brain that deals with navigation and recollection of driving routes. Individuals trained in juggling have increased brain mass in the areas of the brain that understand motion. Musicians, who must have superior control of both hands and be able to coordinate them in complex manners, have enlarged corpus callosum. The corpus callosum is the connection between the two halves of the brain that allows for the two halves to communicate with each other – an essential function for a musician who needs their hands to work together.
This makes sense when you think about our bodies’ ability to adapt to what we throw at them. I may not be able to go out and run a marathon tomorrow, but if I take the time to train my body to be able to do something like that, then it can be done. Likewise, practice under pressure can train our brains to manage pressure and stress much more efficiently. It can teach us to handle the pressure and allow our working memory to function at its highest level.
Practice has another terrific benefit for our working memories. Through practice, mental processes can be automated. Take for example a child learning how to tie their shoes. When the child is first learning this process, it requires most of their working memory to tie that shoelace – they have to focus on the process that was recently taught to them and make sure they are executing the steps properly. After lots of practice, however, the same child can carry on a conversation or perform some other mental task at the same time they tie their shoes. Why? Because they have automated the process of tying their shoes, thus freeing up their working memory for other tasks. Another way to look at it: the process for tying shoelaces has moved from the child’s working memory into procedural memory.
The same process can happen for students in law school. This is why we teach and drill our students on the proper use of IRAC throughout law school, for example. Through long periods of practice, the process of structuring an essay around an IRAC format can become automated. It becomes something the student doesn’t have to think about; they just do it as they have done a hundred times before. That frees up the student’s working memory to focus on handling their facts and doing good analysis.
Another example comes during bar exam preparation. We always teach our students to have rule statements memorized for as many different issues as possible. That way, when that particular issue shows up on the bar exam, the student has that rule statement in their procedural memory ready to go. They don’t have to think about it, they just write. Again, working memory is freed to focus on other things.
Practice is something that many of us already know is very effective in helping students achieve on exams. The rest of the suggested methods for dealing with difficult and stressful exams may not be as apparent to many.
Preparation and Confidence
A related concept to practice is preparation. The concepts are related, yet differ in important aspects. Practicing is when you actually do the task you are ultimately hoping to accomplish – for example, practice exams to get ready for the real exam. Preparation is different – this is the studying required to have the baseline knowledge required to perform well on the exam.
The need for preparation is obvious – if we need to prepare for an exam on ancient Greek history, we must study ancient Greek history, as well as write practice exams. But there is an added benefit to preparation, and it is confidence. When you know that you have thoroughly reviewed all required materials, you can answer questions about that material with more confidence. There are no surprises, and nothing rattles you because you have seen it all before – in both your preparation and your practice.
Famous trial attorney David Boies perfectly demonstrates how important preparation can be. He describes his preparation as such:
“When we showed up for the opening statement, I had read every single exhibit we had marked before we marked it. I had read every single deposition excerpt that we had marked for offering into evidence before we had marked it. I had read every single deposition line they had offered.” Such preparation required reading thousands of pages of documents, something most lawyers don’t do in preparation for trial because of the massive resources required to do so. “There are no surprises for me, but you can’t imagine how few people that’s true for” he says. “There is no way most lawyers do that.”
This preparation gives Boies a major advantage. He knows all of the material so well that he can remain focused on the story he wants to tell – not on reacting to what the other side might be saying. “When I get up there, I have the confidence of knowing what the total evidence record is, and I know how far I can push it and how far I can’t. I know what the limits are, and that’s the way you maintain your credibility.” And it is this credibility that wins him major cases, such as the antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft in the late 1990’s. “Most good lawyers lose credibility in a trial not because they intentionally mislead but because they make a statement that they believe is true at the time and it is not.”
Preparation can then clear your working memory to focus on the task at hand. In Boies’ case, he is never caught off-guard by anything during a trial, as happens to so many attorneys. He has seen everything before, and as he says “there are no surprises.” He can focus on his story, on his goals, and not get distracted.
For even more practical advice on this topic, see the Fall 2018 issue of the learning curve on ssrn. That issue includes additional information on overcoming negative stereotypes, journaling, and meditation to improve exam performance.
(Kevin Sherrill - Guest Blogger).
Sian Beilock, Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting it Right When You Have To, Free Press Publishing, 2010.
Paul Sullivan, Clutch: Excel Under Pressure, Portfolio/Penguin Publishing, 2010.
Larry Lage (June 26, 2008). Mediate makes the most of his brush with Tiger, The Seattle Times, Associated Press. Retrieved October 24, 2013.
Gerardo Ramirez and Sian Beilock, Writing About Testing Worries Boosts Exam Performance in the Classroom, Science Magazine, January 14, 2011 (Vol 331).
Daniel T. Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School?, Jossey-BassPublishing, 2009.
S.J. Spencer and C.M. Steele and D.M. Quinn, “Stereotype threat and women’s math performance.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35 (1999).
Matt Scott, Olympics: Korean Double Medalist Expelled for Drug Use, The Guardian, Retrieved on October 25, 2013 from http://www.theguardian.com/sport/2008/aug/15/olympics2008.drugsinsport
Malcolm Gladwell, The Art of Failure, The New Yorker, August 21 & 28, 2000.
Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers.
Tuesday, January 28, 2020
It is an oddly resonant time of year.
This has been happening for the past week or so:
- A student comes to my office to talk. It's a 1L student, wrestling with a mix of shock and panic after receiving first-semester grades. They did not do as well as they had expected, and they are not sure what that means. Are they really smart enough for law school? Will they even make it through the first year? They are willing to work hard to improve, but they don't even know where to begin, and they are not sure that they will improve enough to make it. I explain that of course they need to take their grades seriously, and that they do have a good deal of progress to make, preferably as quickly as possible. However, I note, it is not unusual for students not to reach their fully potential right away, especially when transitioning into new types of tasks, and that they do have time to get themselves where they want to be, as long as they are diligent and thoughtful and make every effort to learn useful lessons from the disappointing evaluations they have received so far.
- Next, a recent graduate comes to my office to talk. It's someone preparing to take the bar exam in February, wrestling with a mix of shock and panic after receiving the results of their first simulated MBE exam. They did not do as well as they had expected, and they are not sure what that means. Are they really smart enough for the bar exam? Will they even pass? They are willing to work hard to improve, but they don't even know where to begin, and they are not sure that they will improve enough to make it. I explain that of course they need to take their score seriously, and that they do have a good deal of progress to make, preferably as quickly as possible. However, I note, it is not unusual for examinees not to reach their fully potential right away, especially when transitioning into new types of tasks, and that they do have time to get themselves where they want to be, as long as they are diligent and thoughtful and make every effort to learn useful lessons from the disappointing evaluations they have received so far.
- Next, another 1L student comes to my office to talk . . .
It is the nature of our jobs that we sometimes find ourselves trying to convey multiple messages -- sometimes contradictory -- at the same time. In January, this messaging consists of finding the right balance of intensity and perspective, of patience and urgency, of recognizing the effects of circumstance and shouldering the burden of personal responsibility. It can be tough in part because the people we counsel can be so different -- words that barely allay the anxiety of one person might be enough to lull another person into a false sense of self-confidence. Better to calm our advisees down just enough for them to be able to hear and take in our more practical suggestions about focusing on step-by-step goals, specific tasks, and formative assessments, which provide them not only with routes to get to where they want to be, but also help them strengthen their abilities to more accurately judge their performance and progress.
For those preparing for the February bar, it might also be worthwhile reminding them that they may have had similar moments of uncertainty when they first entered law school. They figured out enough to get obtain their J.D.s. Why should they doubt that they have the capacity to figure out how to clear that final hurdle?
Thursday, January 23, 2020
Research suggests a relationship between a positive growth mindset mindset and improved learning. C. Dweck, G. Walton, G. Cohen, Academic Tenacity: Mindsets and Skills that Promote Long-Term Learning (2014). Consequently, I've been trying to "read" the minds of my students (and they often seem to look sullen, downtrodden, and burdened).
To be frank, that might well be my fault because I don't always accentuate the positives about the difficulties involved in learning. Yet for most of us, we realize that it's in the midst of the hard spots of our lives that our character was shaped. In short, we grew into the people we are today because of how we pulled through the difficulties of yesterday. And that's why learning is...growing our minds. So, why not see learning in similar light?
Here's a couple of suggestions that might help your students approach learning with a more positive growth mindset:
First, my best classes are when I leave room at the end of the class, well, for learning (or at least reflecting on learning). Here's how: I ask students to mingle about what they learned today. Instantly faces are transformed into beams of sunlight; frowns are replaced by the warmth of smiles; and, most significantly, the class becomes alive with criss-crossing conversations. Then, I open up the floor...and the floor fills up oh so quickly. Hand over there, another over here. Three over there. More that away. In short, as students open up, they come to appreciate that they have learned a great deal (and that most of their learning came through courageously probing mistakes made).
Second, I toss out a statement - in my best vocal rendition of Eeyore as possible - gloomily saying: "Oh my...oh me. Woe is me. I missed...another...problem." We then contrast that mindset with Winnie the Pooh: "Oh, look, there's honey over there, up in the tree, and back over there, why, there's even more honey; there's honey everywhere!" Suddenly students recognize that law school life is not really as gloomy as they think it is, that there's plenty of "honey" to be gathered from every problem that we miss; that it's in "climbing up the trees" and putting our hands in the thick of the "bee hives" that leads us to even more honey...because, well, "where's there's bees--there's got to be honey."
In short, it's in the midsts of mistakes that we learn best. So, to sum up what I've gleaned about learning from Winnie the Pooh and Eeyore it's this: "The best learning is like honey; it's a sticky mess of a problem (but a mighty good treat!)."
P.S. To learn more about Winnie the Pooh and friends, visit: https://winniethepooh.disney.com/winnie-the-pooh
Monday, January 20, 2020
Across the country this week, bar candidates will take a full-length practice exam. Your first simulated MBE scores may not be exactly what you expected. I took my first bar exam years ago, but I still remember the shock of my first practice test score. I could not believe my eyes. Never before had I seen a percentage so low. My practice test results triggered a fight or flight instinct in me. For others, this week's results may yield any one of a host of emotions: fear, devastation, sadness, indifference, or overconfidence. Bar passers must develop the coping mechanisms to rebuff these counterproductive, yet understandable, emotions.
The first step in your battle for resilience must be to reflect on your pre-bar journey. Approximately three years ago, you were wondering if you would get into your first-choice law school — or any law school for that matter. Once admitted, those first-year exams made you question your ability to make it through law school. Yet somehow by grace and sporadic unhealthy doses of caffeine, you are here with a law degree and one test that stands between you and the practice of law. What began as a quest both shaky and unsure, is now a dream realized. How you started is NOT how you will finish.
The second step is self-assessment. You may have learned that while you love e.g. Torts or Contracts, they do not reciprocate your sentiments. You may be equally shocked to discover that you excelled in a dreaded subject area, proving that you know the doctrine of equitable conversion and standards of review far better than you previously led yourself to believe. Analyze your practice exam results to identify your areas of strength and weakness.
The third step is to slow your roll. Before looking to new sets of practice questions, revisit questions that you have already answered and missed. Don't reread the answer explanations. Instead reread the question facts. It is highly likely that you may know the tested rule of law, but missed some key detail in the fact pattern or misread the call of the question. It is unwise to do more practice questions until you fully understand how to analyze and answer the ones you've already answered.
The fourth and final step is to execute a plan of attack. Once you come to terms with your weaknesses, develop an effective plan to combat them. The tools and assignments from your commercial bar review provider can only take you so far. If you need drastic improvement, consider reaching out to your law school academic and bar support team or a professional bar tutor. Sometimes the best bar therapy comes in the form of a volunteer bar coach or the supportive words of a recent bar passer.
Tuesday, January 14, 2020
I had a minor enlightening encounter this week that I thought worth sharing. I was going over the responses to some previous bar exam essay questions that a former student had wanted to review with me. One of the first questions we went over had a moderately long fact pattern involving a will of uncertain validity, and then asked simply, "Who will inherit the decedent's property?" The student properly recognized that there were several issues that had to be addressed in order to answer that question, and identified and fairly discussed most (but not all) of them.
Another question had been written in such a way that it clearly indicated that there were three specific issues to discuss: at the end of the page-long fact pattern, three separate questions were asked, in separate sentences, formatted into three separate enumerated paragraphs, as in*:
- Do you really want to hurt me?
- How can you mend a broken heart?
- Should I stay or should I go?
*Questions selected for illustration only. Not actual bar exam questions.
The student had done a fair job of answering these questions, creating a separate header for each one that incorporated the language of the question and then earnestly examining each question presented. A rule or two was misstated, some relevant facts were overlooked, but essentially the student had properly identified the relevant issues and had done some creditable analysis for each one.
A few questions later, we were looking at another question that seemed to wrap up in a similar way, with three enumerated statements. In this case, however, the question explained that one of the parties in the question had filed suit against another, and that the complaint had three allegations**:
- You think love is to pray, but I'm sorry I don't pray that way.
- You don't have to prove to me that you're beautiful to strangers; I've got lovin' eyes of my own.
- Now that I've surrendered so tenderly, you now want to leave, oooo you want to leave me.
**Valid only in jurisdictions that permit bar examination responses to be produced via karaoke.
After listing these allegations, the question asked, "Is the plaintiff likely to succeed on these issues? Explain."
As with the previous enumerated question, the student took cues from the formatting in the text to format the answer, again creating a separate header incorporating the language of each issue and then examining each issue separately. In doing so, however, the student implicitly assumed that the assertions made by the plaintiff were as sound and valid as the questions asked by the constructor of the question. In other words, the student took the precedent statements in the plaintiff's assertions -- "You think love is to pray", "I've got lovin' eyes of my own", and "I've surrendered so tenderly" -- as givens that could be employed to prove the asserted conclusions, rather than as unproven premises that needed to be demonstrated or disproved with reference to specific facts and legal rules. Thus, the analysis in this question was abbreviated and circular: "Because the plaintiff has lovin' eyes of his own, defendant does not have to prove that she is beautiful to strangers."
I pointed out to the student that, ordinarily, a decision maker would not simply take the plaintiff's assertions at face value, but would likely seek proof by citing facts and legal standards. The student acknowledged that it had not appeared, in the heat of the exam, that the implications of the two questions were very different -- the first providing three issues for analysis, and the second requiring the examinee to determine the real issues themselves. The student had not had any trouble recognizing this need to figure out the relevant issues in the first question, so it wasn't an inability to dig deeper that had prevented her from doing so in the last question. Instead, we agreed, it had been a reflexive reaction to the form of the question -- "1,2,3 means take those words as your givens". Making this explicit seemed to prepare the student to avoid doing the same thing in the future.
Just a neat little example of how the shortcuts we take, or make for ourselves, can sometimes take us places we don't want to go.
Thursday, January 9, 2020
In my experience, very few law students take advantage of exam reviews...and, when they do (or must because of law school requirements), they often leave my office unchanged, defensive, and feeling as though grades are mostly arbitrary.
That got me thinking...
I'm convinced that there must be a better way - a much better way - for students to meaningfully review exams.
So, with that in mind, here's my 3-step suggestion for conducting exam reviews.
1. First, ask students to mark up their exam answers as if they are grading their answers, using the exam keys or model answers provided by their professors.
2. Second, for each point in which a student misses an issue, a rule, or a fact analysis, etc., have the student go back to the exam question and highlight to identify where there were clues in the question that that issue was at play, or that rule was applicable, or those facts were meaningful to analyze.
3. Finally (and this is the hardest part for me), say nothing. Make no declarative statements at all. And, definitely make no suggestions at all.
Instead, ask the student open-ended questions, such as: "Looking back at the exam question now, what might have helped you realize at the time that you were taking the exam that that was an issue, etc." Then wait. Again say absolutely nothing. Let the student investigate, reflect, and ponder what the student saw and didn't see in the exam problem and what was missing from the student's rule statements or fact analysis, etc.
Then, put them in the pilot's seat by asking them questions such as: "Why do you think that you missed that issue or didn't have that rule in your answer or missed analyzing those facts, etc.?" As they talk, let the students be the experts. In fact, treat them as the expert by carefully jotting down notes as I listen to them.
At last, once they stop talking, I ask them this simple question: "Based on what you've now observed about your answer and the question, what are your recommendations as to how to improve your future learning, your exam preparations, and your exam problem-solving for the next time." Once they come up with one suggestion, ask them for another suggestion or tip that they can give to themselves...and then another one I like to see them come up with at least three concrete suggestions for ways that they can implement to improve their learning (and why they think those action items will be beneficial for their future learning).
In short, if I had to sum the best exam reviews that I've had with my students, its when I speak little and instead listen much.
(Many thanks goes to retired ASP professor and educational psychologist Dr. Marty Peters for sharing these insights with me).
Thursday, December 5, 2019
There's a line from the movie "The Greatest Showman" that goes like this: "Comfort is the enemy of progress."
That got me thinking.
I wonder if comfort might also be an enemy of learning.
It seems to me, if I boil down the research on learning, that much of what we think is valuable for learning is, frankly, of little to no value at all.
Take for example re-reading notes and texts and highlighting information. Although I doubt any social scientist would put it this way, as I follow the research, those activities are essentially worthless as they really aren't activities of cognition at all. Rather, they are motions that we take in which we convince ourselves - falsely - that we are learning. (They are mere preparations to become a learner, not learning in itself.). That's why they feel so intuitively comfortable.
But true learning takes sweat. It requires workouts using our minds. It pushes us to build cognitive connections that previously didn't exist. In short, it's a struggle in growing, thinking, and practicing well beyond our comfort zones.
So, as you prepare for final exams, take heart. Be of good courage, knowing that while true learning doesn't feel comfortable, the science is behind you as you push into uncomfortable work.
From a practical viewpoint, as you work through your notes and outlines, talk them out, synthesize them, and generate lots of ideas and practice exam scenarios based on them. Test yourself frequently about what you think you are learning to see if you are truly learning it by turning your materials over and recalling what you think you know from memory. In short, prepare for your final exams by using interleaving practices (mixing up different topics and practice formats) and spaced repetition (revising topics and practices through intervals of spaced timing) in addition to forced retrieval exercises (deliberately forcing our minds to recall what we think we can't remember).
If you aren't sure about how to use interleaving practice, spaced repetition review, or forced recall learning, please dive into some of the charts and tables in this very helpful overview of the cognitive psychology for optimal learning: J. Dunlosky, "Strengthening The Student Tool Kit." Or better yet, check out some of the blog posts from Associate Dean Louis Schulze, an expert in legal education learning: L. Schulze, "Four Posts on Cognitive Psychology." They're sure to get you thinking, and, more importantly, learning...if you put them to practice.
Best of luck on your final exams!
Monday, December 2, 2019
Follow (v): To act according to an instruction or precept; to pay close attention to; to treat as a teacher or guide.
While in law school, I never connected with any of my professors on social media. Let's pretend that's not because social media tools were not yet sufficiently developed to allow me to do so. Fast forward into the information age where I've seen healthy discussions about whether law professors should encourage students to "follow them" on Twitter and other social mediums. Ultimately every professor has the right to their own individual preferences and likewise, their students have the freedom to decide whether and how to interact with their professors online.
Many professors are kind enough to freely spew out words of wisdom as regards exam preparation, and the beauty of Twitter makes these gems available to all. University of North Carolina School of Law Professor O.J. Salinas tweeted some words of wisdom that I wish I had access to as a first-year (or even second-year) law student. Professor Salinas shared:
"Law students (particularly 1Ls): Finals are here. Remember to support your conclusions w/ analysis. Apply the law to the facts of the hypo for every issue you spot. Conclusory answers (conclusions w/out analysis) don’t get you a lot of points (if any). The facts of the hypo are your friends. The facts are there to help nudge you (sometimes quite directly) to your analysis. If you are stuck on the exam and don't know where to go, first take a couple of deeps breaths. Then re-read the call of the question. Then revisit the facts. As you revisit each line of the facts, ask yourself: Why is this fact here? Have I applied this fact to any laws that we have covered in class? Does this fact or could this fact relate to something that we have covered in class?
Finally, make it easy for your prof. to read your exam. Aim for clear & concise writing. Short sentences. Paragraph breaks. Headings/subheadings. Walk the reader through your prediction by providing effective/complete legal analysis. And don't presume your reader knows anything. You can do this!"
I have a list of professors that I follow. Many of whom I know only through online interactions. I am grateful to be able to follow their wisdom and shared experiences. I benefit regularly from our exchanges. My daily takeaways include teaching tips, common struggles, and concise study and writing advice for my students. Thanks Professor Salinas for your exam writing wisdom. I remain a follower.
Tuesday, November 26, 2019
It seems fitting that at my law school -- like most others, I presume -- the Thanksgiving holiday immediately precedes the fall semester final exam period. Thanksgiving dinner and final exams have so much in common.
Each of them seems far off as the golden days of summer begin their inexorable diminution. On Labor Day, we are all aware that [Thanksgiving dinner/final exams] will be the next significant break in our routines, but in the hazy warm thrill of the start of the academic year, it is so difficult to even consider the coming cold, dark days.
However, by the equinox, people start to pay attention to the distant approach of [Thanksgiving dinner/final exams]. Conscientious people even realize that they should probably start making plans early, so they don't find themselves without options in a last-minute rush to prepare. But many folks, caught up in the rush of day-to-day life, might put off such measures, figuring they can address their reservations closer to the deadline.
Before you know it, though, here comes Halloween, and then suddenly it seems like reminders of [Thanksgiving dinner/final exams] are everywhere! No matter how much dread they inspire, you have to admit they spark a bit of excitement, too, since [Thanksgiving dinner/final exams] will mark the real start of the winter holidays. And, besides, no matter how onerous and monotonous the yearly ordeal might appear, it always carries with it at least the possibility of a pleasant surprise or two.
As time accelerates and the time for [Thanksgiving dinner/final exams] lurches to mere days away, all at once it seems like life has gone a little haywire. You're still have to attend to all your ordinary quotidian responsibilities, but now you have to pile on top of that the preparations for [Thanksgiving dinner/final exams]. Schedules have to be coordinated, supplies have to be obtained. Participants will struggle to nail down time-honored formulae, so they can be ready (if and when necessary) to apply these recipes to whatever ingredients are provided to produce a satisfying result. Hopefully, even the most dilatory attendees will manage to eke out a little free time before [Thanksgiving dinner/final exams] to focus on preparation and maybe even a few practice creations.
Finally, the big day arrives! It feels like you spend half the day in a frenetic rush, anxiously making sure you haven't forgotten anything. But then the actual event -- [Thanksgiving dinner/final exams]! -- begins, and you are totally engrossed. Confined in a room full of people, all of whom seem to be sitting a little too close, making a little bit too much noise. But this is something you are doing together. Sometimes one person just dives right in, and a bunch of people around him follow suit, not wanting to fall behind. They might well spend too much attention on one or two meaty choices, and entirely overlook other valuable tidbits. They could end up regretting not having given themselves enough time to digest things properly. Other people might approach [Thanksgiving dinner/final exams] too cautiously, overly mindful that it will be a multi-course affair. Afraid to make a mess or to risk something disagreeable, they may find at the end that they barely made a dent in their undertaking. Hopefully, though, most of our students will pace themselves, knowing they are going to be there for a few hours, and will think carefully about how much they want to have on their plate at one time, so that they can get through the entire experience having indulged appropriately in every choice, and in a palatable way that leaves them drowsy and satisfied.
May this year's [Thanksgiving dinner/final exams] be a cause of celebration for all of us!
Tuesday, November 19, 2019
Sometimes students think they are painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, when they are really inventing the light bulb.
Michelangelo famously worked from 1508 to 1512 to decorate the ceiling of the Chapel with biblical scenes comprising more than 300 figures. Contrary to popular belief, he did not do the work lying on his back; the scaffolding he designed and put in place left him room to stand. Try this right now: for one minute, stand up, look up at the ceiling above you, and hold your hand high over your head, grasping a pen, or a paintbrush if you have one handy. Now imagine doing that for four years, and creating an historical masterpiece. Amazing. If I had painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling under those conditions, it would have ended up taped to my parents’ refrigerator for a month, then discreetly recycled.
Still, the process did have one advantage: every evening, while Michelangelo was washing the paint off his brushes, he could look up and see a few more square feet of masterpiece. If his boss, Pope Julius II, swung by just to see how things were going, he would notice some prophet or angel that hadn’t been there the week before, and say something like, “Good work, Micky. I like the wrath there – very Old Testament. Keep it up.”
In contrast we have Thomas Edison and his invention of the light bulb. To be fair, it wasn't just the light bulb that made his electrical system so successful. He had a much broader vision, encompassing power generation and transmission facilities as well, so that once he had created a working light bulb, he had also designed an entire system capable of lighting it practically in every citizen’s home. But still, success did depend on finding that reliable, long-lasting bulb, and to do this, Edison tested thousands of different materials – varieties of animal hair, plant fiber, metal wire, etc. – to find a filament that would work.
But Edison’s work was not incremental the way Michelangelo’s work was. Over time, his experiments did provide some clues that guided him to the material (carbonized bamboo) that eventually worked, so his progress was not entirely random. Still, it was unpredictable. Edison could go through periods in which he’d test 100 filaments and not one of them would work any better than what he’d had at the start. While Michelangelo could work for a month and at least complete 2% of a ceiling -- and 100% of, say, Adam and Eve -- a month of work for Edison would not leave him with 2% of a working light bulb. He had no light bulb, until the day he found the right material; then he had the light bulb.
A lot of what our students do is Michelangelo work. They do a chunk of reading, or memorize a set of rules, or practice a certain writing format, and it may take them a while to reach their ultimate goal, but at least they can see measurable progress along the way: this many pages covered, or that many rules learned by heart, or some incrementally improved conformity with a norm. It can still be a grind, especially with a heavy workload and weighty syllabus, but at least the students can be sure of improvement and can project a likely date of completion.
It’s inevitable, though, that some of our students' work will be Edison work. They put in the time and the effort, but there’s not necessarily any obvious correlation to results. They could be working on a legal research project, looking for a needle and ending each day with a notebook full of hay. Or they might be practicing some skill that, for them, seems to resist improvement, at least until a certain critical mass of practice has been reached. (Performance on multiple-choice tests, for example, can sometimes plateau for weeks for soem students.) If the students don't realize that they are not doing Michelangelo work here -- if they are expecting incremental success and not seeing it -- then they can grow discouraged and self-doubtful, and may even abandon the effort, believing it is not doing any good.
It is crucial. before that happens, to explain to students (and to remind them, sometimes frequently) that there are two kinds of progress in work, and to get them to focus not on results but on well-directed effort. Help them to recognize, as Edison did, that some jobs simply require effort that won’t be directly rewarded, but that “every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.” As long as students are actually doing the right work -- and for that, too, they may need your guidance -- then, even if they are not seeing daily results, they are doing something useful -- ruling out fruitless lines of inquiry, or gradually building context and understanding to reach the critical mass needed. In the moment, such progress may not feel as satisfying as a tangible result, but with support, they can keep going, even in the face of doubt. And once they have completed the task successfully, they can look back and realize not just how the effort they made led to the result, but also that they are capable of making similar efforts -- and hopefully with a little more faith -- in the future.
Thursday, November 14, 2019
Picture a "lollipop." Unfortunately, that was me as a law school student preparing for my first final exams. You see, in preparation for final exams, I spent most of my time re-reading my notes, trying to master my outlines, and cramming as much information as possible into my head...with the hope that I might somehow be able to regurgitate as much as possible back to my professors.
In short, I looked much like a lollipop - stuffed with head knowledge but without much of a body or a heart to make it work.
That's because I had learned the law...but...I hadn't let the rest of my body, in particular my heart and my hands, share in the learning process. As such, I had much to say when it at came time for final exams but, unfortunately, little of anything practical or valuable because I had merely learned to parrot back my notes and outlines. I was as hard-headed as the candy on top of a lollipop; I couldn't dance with the final exam problems because I hadn't trained to work final exam problems. In retrospect, I should have fed my heart and hands as much as I engaged my mind in order to prepare for my final exams.
Let me be concrete. As you prepare for final exams, take it from me. Work your heart and body too as you learn the law. Here's what I mean. Rather than just learning the law, learn to problem-solve the law ... using the law that you are learning. That's because, in most law school courses, you won't be tested on what you've stuffed into your mind but rather on what you can personally do with what's in your mind by demonstrating how to solve hypothetical legal problems.
So, as you prepare for final exams, please feel free to re-read your notes (but only briefly because that's one of the weakest ways to learn) and make outlines (because the process of making your outlines is essential to learning the law)...but...then take your outlines and use them to solve batches of simulated final exam problems (and lots of them). And, when you miss an issue or a problem, rejoice...because missing that issue now means that you'll get that issue right in the midst of your final exams. In short, focus on learning the law by working through problems.
As a rule of thumb, about one-third of your time should be spent on reviewing your notes and creating outlines, one-third of your time spent on working through simulated exam problems, and one-third of your time spent on assessing what you did well (and why) along with what you can improve for the next time (and how).
In other words, just like a balanced diet with a lifestyle of exercise, let all of you (your mind, your heart, and your body) share in learning by learning the law through legal problem-solving. And, if you don't have a quick source of simulated exam problems, here's a batch below that can serve you well in a dash. Good luck on your final exams! (Scott Johns).
Thursday, November 7, 2019
It's quite common for most of us learn to prepare for final exams...by, unfortunately, not actually preparing for final exams.
If you're like me, I just never quite feel like I know enough law to start practicing problems.
But if we wait until we feel like we know enough, we'll run smack out of time to practice exams because most of our time will be spent instead on creating and reviewing our study tools (rather than using our study tools to help us navigate through "test flights" of practice final exam problems).
And that's a problem because professors don't test on the quality of your outlines but rather on whether you can use the law in your study tools to solve legal problems.
But that's great news because...
Solving legal problems is a skill that you can learn through practice! [Like any skill, it just takes pondering, puzzling, and practicing through lots of simulated exam problems to develop expertise as a legal problem-solver.] So, this harvest season as you turn towards final exam preparations, focus much of your learning on working through practice final exam problems.
As such, the best source of practice exam problems is to ask your professor for sample exam problems. If none (or only a few available), feel free to ask your professor and academic support department if they can suggest additional practice problems. Finally, if you still can't find practice problems, feel free to work through past bar exam essays. To get started, here's some links for some nifty old bar exam essays, organized by subject, complete with hypothetical scenarios and analysis:
Wednesday, October 30, 2019
At my law school, it is 40 total days, and 23 class days, until the first final exam. For some students, now is the time of reckoning.
There are always a few students who get a late-semester wake-up call: the 3Ls affecting insouciance who heretofore mouthed "C=J.D." but now want to demonstrate their mettle to a mentor; the 2Ls who did so well during the first year they initially assumed they could cruise through 2L year without effort; the 1Ls so impressed with their above-median LSAT they can't acknowledge their work product falls short of the mark; the students in any year who have spent the first months of the semester struggling with illness or family emergencies or pure bad luck. Ten weeks into the semester, they wonder if there is time to turn things around.
If the answer to every legal question is "It depends," the answer to "Is there time to turn things around? Can I pull this off?" is "Maybe. Are you willing to do what it takes?" Can you accomplish a lot in the last 40 days? Yes. Will you be as successful as you would have been if you spent all semester working on it? Probably not. Will it be good enough? That depends on your own hard and strategic work.
Strategies must necessarily differ for different kinds of courses, but here is an approach that can be helpful for law school courses with a comprehensive final exams:
- Read the syllabus. "What? I don't have time for that -- I have to catch up!" I repeat -- read the syllabus. Knowledge is power, and the syllabus lays out the expectations of your professor, including topics covered, the grading scheme, and penalties for missed classes. Pay attention to what you are supposed to know and how you are evaluated.
- Move forward, never backwards. You will just fall further behind if you decide to go back to read and brief the cases from day 1. Instead, do the current work to the best of your ability.
Does that mean blowing off all you have missed? By no means. Rather, for material you have missed:
- Ask for help. Ask friends if they are willing to share class notes. Buy lunch for a classmate who offers to walk you through how to analyze key issues. Ask to borrow outlines not to copy, but to give you a start on creating your own. Check for any materials your professor has posted on learning platforms or made available through the law library.
- Work through simple problems. You will learn much more by problem-solving than by reading casebooks or even excellent study supplements. Look for supplements that offer problems or exercises, and go straight to the problems without reading the background text. Think deeply as you work your way through the problems, and do your best. And whether you get the problems right or wrong (as with true/false or multiple choice questions), read the explanatory answers until you understand why your answer or reasoning was right or wrong.
- Utilize spaced repetition. You can use spaced repetition with your own flashcards or by using software resources available commercially or through your law library.
- Work your way through complex practice exams. If you have access to former midterms or finals, work your way through the complex problems. Pay special attention to the analytical steps you must take, and the order of reasoning. Gain an understanding of the big picture as well as the specific rules.
- Communicate with your professor. If you are demonstrating your willingness to do the hard work, your professors will usually be happy to help.
- Decide the hard work is worth it. When you are seriously behind, the work needed to turn things around will be considerable. Marshall your inner resources to help you stay motivated, work effectively, and devote the time and energy needed to complete the work.
Tuesday, October 8, 2019
One of my favorite seasons of the academic year runs between the last week of September and Halloween. In terms of academic meteorology, conditions are ideal for the formation of manageable disturbances, especially among first-year students: after a warming period of several weeks, they become a bit unsettled due to some mid-term squalls, but they retain a great deal of stored energy and begin to show signs of increasing organization, giving them plenty of room to develop before being overtaken by the late fall gloom that presages the tempest of finals.
Most of the students who breeze into my office at this time possess the three things I value most in my advisees: the motivation to try to improve their legal writing and/or analysis, the belief that they actually can improve, and the time to devote to that improvement. Earlier in the year, they may have more time but, without having received any feedback on their work, less motivation to improve. Come November, with finals looming, they may have motivation to spare, but a dearth of time, and, in some cases, a stunted belief in their own ability to improve. But right now, a lot of students have that ideal blend of motivation, belief, and time.
The more I have worked with students, the more I have come to see that the most important characteristic of time is not quantity but distribution. It is usually more helpful for me to meet with a student for 30 minutes every week than for 60 or even 90 minutes every two weeks. The quicker, more frequent meetings not only help the student feel more connected. Shorter meetings also force us to focus our work on one or two main skills each week. With more time, it might be tempting to try to cover every weakness in a student's repertoire -- active reading, organization of information, grammar, argument structure, analytical content, judgment, persuasive diction, etc. -- but this can be overwhelming. A student trying to improve in a dozen areas at once may not make progress in any of them. It is too much to think about, and there may be little sense of prioritization.
But when a student walks away from a discussion of their work with one or two clear messages about how to improve in one or two specific tasks, that makes their job for the week focused and manageable. And if that's why they focus on in their homework between meetings, then we can start the next meeting by looking for the improvement in those areas, and then follow up by addressing one or two new areas for improvement that can build upon the previous week. Timely feedback on, and immediate use of, the skills that a student works on is the best way to both hone and retain those skills. Thus, with appropriate exercises to complete between meetings, a student can make and preserve more progress in two hours of meeting time spread out over four weekly meetings than in two or even three hours of meeting time split between one meeting in week one and a follow-up meeting in week four.
After Halloween, the demands of writing assignments due, the stress of upcoming finals, and the interruptions of the holidays make it a lot more difficult to arrange these kinds of punchy weekly meetings. Now is the time to encourage your students to take advantage of the calm before the academic storm.
Tuesday, August 27, 2019
Last year I wrote a post about "simulation training" that described the benefits of rehearsal and practice under conditions that are as close as possible to performance conditions. When preparing for a final exam, for example, taking practice tests under exam conditions of strict timing and silence in a room similar to the room in which you will actually be tested can help you score better on the actual exam. The improvement seems to be linked to the reduction of unfamiliar stimuli and the association of familiar conditions with execution.
Given the demonstrable benefits of creating consistency between exam practice and exam execution, I would have presumed that a similar effect might have been observed with respect to the precursors to exam taking -- namely, study and memorization. If it makes sense to practice taking law exams in silence and in one particular environment, wouldn't it also make sense to learn all the rules, exceptions, and examples under the same conditions? In his book How We Learn, Benedict Carey suggests that may not be the case.
Learning facts like rules of law is different from learning how to perform tasks like timed essay writing, largely because of the different roles of background stimuli. When learning tasks, the consistent quality of background stimuli is important, because it helps provide a comfortable environment that we associate with the task. While this is also somewhat true when learning facts, it turns out that the quantity of stimuli is of relatively greater importance. An absence of stimuli makes it more difficult to memorize material. In one experiment, students were asked to memorize a list of forty words. While they studied, the scientists played either jazz or classical music in the background, or, alternatively, no music at all. Students who studied while listening to jazz had the highest rates of recall when tested while jazz played in the background, and those who studied while listening to classical did best when tested while classical was playing. When each of those groups of students were tested while listening to different music, or to no music at all, their rates of recall were cut roughly in half. But the students who studied in silence did not have higher rates of recall when tested in silence. Their recall rates were also about half that of jazz listeners who were tested with jazz, or classical listeners who were tested with classical.
The explanation seems to be that, when we are learning facts, it helps to have some level of background stimulus. The external stimulus seems to provide a framework within which learners can organize and attach meaning to the facts they are learning. Thus, when the external stimulus is present at testing time, it is easier for the test takers to access the facts for recall, because they have access to the framework in which they learned them.
Most professors, however, do not allow students to crank tunes during exam administration. Not even smooth jazz. And duplicating the silence of testing conditions will not be as helpful for memorizing the rules as it is for applying them, since silence does not provide the necessary external stimulus. So how should students learn their rules and examples?
Carey suggests that the best strategy for this kind of rote learning is to work in a variety of different environments. He points to another word-memorization experiment, one in which subjects were asked to study in two separate, ten-minute sessions. Some subjects spent both sessions in an untidy basement room. Others spent both sessions in a windowed room overlooking a green courtyard. And a third group of subjects spent one session in one of those rooms, and the other session in the other room. When all subjects were tested for recall later in a third room (a classroom), those in the last group, who had studied in two different environments, had 40 percent higher rates of recall. While no one knows for sure, the theory is that those who studied in two different rooms had the benefit of two different sets of external stimuli, and thus built two different, overlapping "frameworks" within which they learned the words. Having two different frameworks provided additional memory access points that might be used in the neutral third environment.
So what are the lessons for law students? First, we should help them to recognize that there should be different study strategies for learning and memorizing rules and facts, versus developing one's skills in applying those rules. Second, we can suggest that students add some variety to their study environments when they are performing more of the basic rote memorization (such as at the start of the semester, when they are first learning the relevant rules). Encourage them not to spend all their time in the same spot in the library, but to break up their study into chunks of time spent in different milieus -- spending some time in the library, some time outdoors, perhaps some time in a coffee shop (especially one playing jazz or classical music). Students who associate the learning of the same rules to different external stimuli will be more likely to be able to recall those rules under any set of external stimuli, or even when there seems to be no external stimuli at all.