Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Getting Past Uncertainty

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?

[Bill MacDonald]

January 28, 2020 in Advice, Bar Exam Preparation, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Stress & Anxiety, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Winnie the Pooh & Learning?

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!)."

(Scott Johns)

P.S. To learn more about Winnie the Pooh and friends, visit: https://winniethepooh.disney.com/winnie-the-pooh

January 23, 2020 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 20, 2020

You are More than a Test Score

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.

(Marsha Griggs)

January 20, 2020 in Advice, Bar Exam Preparation, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Function Over Form

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*:

  1. Do you really want to hurt me?
  2. How can you mend a broken heart?
  3. 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**:

  1. You think love is to pray, but I'm sorry I don't pray that way.
  2. You don't have to prove to me that you're beautiful to strangers; I've got lovin' eyes of my own.
  3. 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.

[Bill MacDonald]

January 14, 2020 in Advice, Bar Exam Preparation, Exams - Studying, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, January 9, 2020

A 3-Step Method for Piloting Final Exam Reviews

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.

(Scott Johns)

(Many thanks goes to retired ASP professor and educational psychologist Dr. Marty Peters for sharing these insights with me).

January 9, 2020 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Learning Styles, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Comfort - An Enemy of Learning?

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. 

Here's why:  

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!

(Scott Johns).

December 5, 2019 in Advice, Exams - Studying, Learning Styles, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 2, 2019

Following Wisdom

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.

(Marsha Griggs)

December 2, 2019 in Advice, Exams - Studying, Exams - Theory, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Preparing to Dig In

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!

[Bill MacDonald]

 

November 26, 2019 in Current Affairs, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Food and Drink, Miscellany | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Two Kinds of Work

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.

[Bill MacDonald]

November 19, 2019 in Advice, Bar Exam Preparation, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Lollipop Learning

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).

Administrative Law

Agency

Civil Procedure

Constitutional Law

Contracts

Corporations

Criminal Law

Criminal Procedure

Evidence

Family Law

Partnership

Property

Torts

UCC Article 2 – Sales

UCC Article 3 – Commercial Paper

UCC Article 9 – Secured Transactions

Wills and Trusts

 

November 14, 2019 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 7, 2019

A Bountiful Harvest of Practice Problems - Just in Time for Final Exam Season

It's quite common for most of us learn to prepare for final exams...by, unfortunately, not actually preparing for final exams.  

Here's why:  

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:

Administrative Law

Agency

Civil Procedure

Constitutional Law

Contracts

Corporations

Criminal Law

Criminal Procedure

Evidence

Family Law

Partnership

Property

Torts

UCC Article 2 – Sales

UCC Article 3 – Commercial Paper

UCC Article 9 – Secured Transactions

Wills and Trusts

(Scott Johns).

November 7, 2019 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Learning Styles, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Is There Time to Turn Things Around?

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.

(Nancy Luebbert)

October 30, 2019 in Advice, Exams - Studying, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

The Calm Before the Storm

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.

[Bill MacDonald]

October 8, 2019 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Study Tips - General, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

When Difference Makes a Difference

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.

[Bill MacDonald]

August 27, 2019 in Advice, Bar Exam Preparation, Exams - Studying, Science, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, July 28, 2019

CaliLeaks – A Step in the Right Direction

Social media timelines are aflutter since the California Bar Examiners released, days early, the question order and subjects for the July written exam. After someone “inadvertently transmitted” test information to “a number of deans of law schools,” the CA examiners disclosed the same information to all registered July 2019 California bar takers. The internet remains undefeated and the information now hovers in the public domain accessible to us all for comment and critique. The CaliLeaks, as I refer to them, sent ripples of shock, resentment, and gratitude throughout the community of future, past, and present bar takers.

Dear California Bar Examiners, you did the right thing. You responded to a mistaken disclosure by disseminating the same information to all bar takers, to prevent any actual or perceived unfair advantage. You made a mistake and you owned it. There is a lesson in every mistake and I hope that other bar examiners, and especially the NCBE, with its foot on the jugular of all but a few states, will learn from yours.

In an ideal scenario, the premature and selective leak of confidential information to some law deans would not have occurred. No student should be disadvantaged in terms of familiarity with the exam content, inside knowledge, or the opportunity to pass. We now know the identities and school affiliation of the receiving deans. I am naive enough to believe that respected academic leaders would not compromise the integrity of the bar exam by sharing confidential information about its content. I am also cynical enough to recognize the good reason of those who question whether bar takers from some schools may have received information days before bar takers from other schools. Notwithstanding the many unanswered questions, California's disclosure (the one to all of its bar takers) is something that could have and should have happened long ago.

For goodness sake, the bar exam is based, at least in theory, on fundamental legal principles learned in law school. Knowing the general subject area to be tested is not a dead giveaway to the question content. Bar examiners in Texas have provided general subject matter information for decades. It is a preposterous notion that knowing the subjects that will be tested will lead to a flood of unqualified lawyers. Consider the law school final exam as the loosest conceivable model. Law students know to expect Property questions on their Property final exam, but it still leaves them to their own devices to prudently review the full scope of course coverage from possessory estates and future interests, to conveyances, recording acts, and landlord-tenant rules. Disclosure of the tested question areas should not be Monday morning tea, instead it should be the norm in bar examination. Telling would-be lawyers what they need to know to be deemed competent to practice law isn’t a blunder or a gracious act. It is the right thing to do.

I challenge any lawyer, law student, or law professor to imagine the futility and frustration of completing a full semester of required first-year courses, spending weeks preparing for final exams, and then not learning until the beginning day of final exams which courses will be tested and which will not. As unthinkable as this notion may be, this precisely describes the current practice of bar examination in most states and under the UBE. Time will tell if California’s leak leads to a more reasonable exam process and to less arbitrary bar failure rates. If it does, then others should follow suit. We need a better bar exam and California’s error could be an accidental step in the right direction.

(Marsha Griggs)

July 28, 2019 in Bar Exam Issues, Bar Exam Preparation, Bar Exams, Current Affairs, Exams - Studying, Exams - Theory, News | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, July 18, 2019

The "Secret Sauce" for the Final Week of Bar Prep - Making Memories through Practice!

I recently saw data suggesting that bar passers do things differently in the final weeks of bar prep than those who are not successful on the bar exam.  That got me thinking about what I've been seeing, at least anecdotally, in working with students in preparing for their bar exams.  

But first, let me be frank. Without hard dedicated work in learning throughout the course of bar prep period, and in particular, during the final week, it's really difficult to pass the bar exam because the bar exam, in the last few years, has become much more challenging, particularly due to cognitive load. See L. Schulze, Dear Practicing Attorneys: Stop Giving Our Bar Students Bad Advice.  Thus, it's not just hard work that makes for passing the bar exam.  Rather, it's important to make sure to do what is most optimal for learning during the final week of bar prep. See S. Foster, Positive Self-Talk.

So, even with all of the hard work, what might account for the differences in bar passage outcomes for both groups of diligent bar studiers?  In short, it must be in the type of work that the two groups are doing rather than the quantity of work.  In the last week, bar passers tend to ramp up their practice with lots and lots of MBE questions and essays while also working on memorization while people who are unsuccessful tend to focus on creating perfect study tools trying to memorize every little nuance of law with very little continued practice. In sum, one group is continuing to practice for the exam that they will take and the other group is focused on memorizing for the exam.  

But, here's the rub:

It’s a perfectly natural feeling during the last week of bar prep to want to focus solely (or mostly) on creating perfect study tools and trying to perfectly memorize all the law. 

But, according to the educational psychologists, there’s something called “desirable difficulties.”  You see, when we jam pack our study tools with everything, we aren’t learning much of anything because we aren't making hard decisions about what is most meaningful.  And, with everything written down, there's no opportunity for retrieval practice, which is the best form of memorization practice.

So, as a suggestion for the final week, tackle two to three subjects per day.  Work through a number of essay questions for each subject.  Then, take your study tool and use it for retrieval practice, reading it and then covering it up to see if you can spout out what's in it.  Push yourself.  You might even take your study tool and, without looking at it, recreate it in a different format, for example, converting it from an outline to a poster, etc.  Then, in the evening, work through a batch of MBE questions, pouring and pondering through them.  Finally, when you miss something in an essay or MBE question, add that concept to your study tool.  As Prof. Micah Yarbrough at the University of Maryland says, your study tool becomes a sort of "bar diary" of your adventurous travels in learning by doing.  And, it's in the learning by doing that makes all the difference in passing the bar exam because the bar exam tests - not just memorization - by problem-solving.   So, for those of you taking the July 2019 bar exam, focus on practice first and foremost throughout the final week of your bar preparations because you aren't going to be tested on your study tool.  Rather, you're going to be testing on whether you can use your study tool to solve hypothetical problems.  And, good luck on your bar exam this summer! (Scott Johns).

July 18, 2019 in Advice, Bar Exam Issues, Bar Exam Preparation, Bar Exams, Exams - Studying, Learning Styles, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 15, 2019

Shaking Off Self-Doubt

You can choose to listen to the skeptics or hit the ignore button. - Michael Peggs

Our students today have become adept at shunning criticism and negative input. When coaches or teachers prejudge students at any age, there is an army of protective advocates who will stand up for the wronged student and demonstrate that with the right accommodation a student may exceed the expectations of a perceived disability. We full-scale reject the haterist mindset that seeks to label learners with arbitrarily imposed limitations. Taylor Swift warned us that “haters gonna hate”. Yet, too often when the stakes are high, and especially during bar study, we stir up our own hater-aid. Over the years I've overheard students say things like: “I’ve never been good at standardized tests,” “I am never going to learn all these essay subjects,” “I’ve got too much going on to study the way I should,” and “I don’t expect to pass on the first time.”  

You may need to mute your inner monologue, if it is filling your mind with self-defeating prophecy. Each time a fear-based thought tries to creep in, hit the ignore button and block it like a call from a telemarketer. Follow Taylor’s lead and shake off the self-doubt. Use daily bar study affirmations as an exercise in mindfulness to allow you to meditate on your positive potential. For the next two weeks, the only attitude you can afford is a can-do attitude. Repeat these affirming words until they become your reality: I can and will pass the bar. I am worthy of a bar card, and right now I am making plans for my life as an attorney.

(Marsha Griggs)

July 15, 2019 in Advice, Bar Exam Preparation, Disability Matters, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Miscellany, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Creating Super-Short Bar Exam Study Tools (in 2 hours or less per subject!)

Bar Takers!  

It's time to create your own personal handy-dandy bar exam study tools.  But, you ask, how, with so many other things to do (and with just a few weeks before the bar exam).  Well, here's a suggestion for creating your study tools from scratch in just a few easy steps and in less than 2 hours flat.

But first, let's lay the groundwork.  Why should I create a study tool, especially with so many other tasks at hand that demand my attention in  preparation for the bar exam in a few weeks?  

There are at least three reasons.

First, the process of creating your own study tools creates a "mental harness" for your thoughts.  It serves to bring you back to the big picture of what you have been studying the past many weeks since graduation.

Second, the process of creating your own study tools cements your abilities to synthesize and distill the rules that you will be tested on this summer.  In short, we memorize (remember) what we create rather than what we read that others have created.

Third, your study tools are, in essence, an organized collection of pre-written, bar exam answers for tackling the hypothetical problems that you will face this summer on your bar exam.

So, let's set out the  steps:

1.  Grab Your Study Tool Support Team!  

That means grabbing hold of the shortest bar outline provided by your bar review company.  Shorter is better because less is often more!  And, you already have too much to remember.

2.  Create the Big Picture Skeleton for Your Study Tool!  

That means taking hold of the table of contents in your bar outline provided by your bar review company or the subject matter outlines provided by the bar examiners.  For example, the NCBE provides super-short two-page outlines for each subject on what issues are testable. http://www.ncbex.org/meeoutlines. Then, using that skeleton structure, create an overview of the testable issues in your own desired format, whether as flashcards, posters, or outlines, etc.

3.  Insert Rule Sound Bites!

Using your bar review lecture notes or subject matter outlines, insert rule "sound bites" for each item identified as testable subjects.  Move swiftly.  Don't dwell.  If you think you you need a rule, don't put it in...because...you can always add more rules later if you see that rule popping up in your practice during the course of the next two weeks.  Don't try to create perfect rule statements.  Instead, just insert the "buzz words."  Feel free to be bold, daring, and adventuresome in doodling or using abbreviations to remind you of the rule.  For example, for negligence per se (NPS), my study tool just reads: (1) P.C. and (2) P.H.  That stands for protected class and protected harm.  By writing out just a few tips to help me remember, I am actually enhancing my study tool (and developing my confidence in being able to recall, for example, the requirements for NPS).  Get your entire study tool completed in 2 hours or less!  How, you ask?  By leaving lots of stuff out because you can always add more later.  Here's a tip:  It's called "desirable difficulties."  You see, according to my arm chair understanding of the science behind learning, optimal learning requires us to push ourselves; it requires mental perspiration, it takes sweat.  So, the process of deciding what to put into your study tool (and what to leave out, and, indeed, leaving out lots) enhances are learning because we can't solely rely on our study tools for memorization.  Rather, our study tool because a prompt for our memory.  So, keep your study tools super-short and crisp.

6.  Take Your Study Tool for Lots of Test Flights During the Final Several Weeks of Bar Prep!

Yes, you might crash.  Yes, it might be ugly.  In fact, if you are like me, you will crash and it will be ugly!  But, just grab hold of lots and lots of past bar exam essays and see if you can outline and write out sample answers using your study tools 

Finally, let me make set the record straight.  

You don't have to make an outline as your study tool.  Your study tool can be an outline…or a flowchart…or a poster with lots of pictures...or a set of flashcards, etc.  

What's important is that it is YOUR study tool that YOU built from YOUR own handiwork and thoughts!  It's got to be personal to you because it's going to be you that sits for your bar exam.  So, have fun learning by creating super-short snappy study tools that serve as organized pre-written answers for this summer's bar exam.  (Scott Johns)

July 11, 2019 in Advice, Bar Exam Issues, Bar Exam Preparation, Bar Exams, Exams - Studying, Learning Styles, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Starting with Stories

Like my colleagues, I am thinking ahead to the new school year even as my attention is consumed by those preparing for the bar exam three weeks from now.  Last year at this time I was thinking mainly about scheduling and content and skills development, and how to tweak and rearrange my classes and workshops to make them more effective.  This year, I find myself thinking at least as much about stories as about skills.

Part of this cogitation is driven by my conversations of late with students dealing with varying degrees of anxiety about the bar exam.  I ask them how they are doing and what has led them to whatever position they currently find themselves in, and their narratives fall broadly into two categories.  Some students tell me kinetic stories about what work they have done, what challenges they have faced, and what strategies they have employed.  They may not have conquered every problem that has come up -- in fact, that's usually why they are talking to me -- but they still see themselves as the protagonists who are driving their stories and pursuing some kind of prize.  Other students, even some with objectively similar obstacles, tell their stories in a different way.  They are still the centers of their own stories, but things keep happening to them (poor performance on a practice test, illness, misunderstanding, etc.), and they are just doing what they can to cope.  These latter folks are not doomed, by any means; they are, in fact, often quite capable.  But they do seem to feel more anxiety and doubt than the more protagonistic students.  So part of what I am wondering is whether it might be possible to cultivate that sense of protagonism by using language that highlights one's sense of agency and potency, from the very start of law school.  Perhaps by using less language about "what will happen" and "what you will encounter", and more language about "what you will learn to do" and "how others have overcome difficulties", I can shift students' perspectives in a more empowering direction.

Another aspect of storytelling that has become clearly significant over the past year is how students perceive their stories in relation to their law school -- their fellow students, their class as an entity, their professors, their administration, and their alumni community.  At the start of my 3L pre-bar prep course this spring, I felt it was very important to intentionally and repeatedly talk about our class as a team.  We were there to support each other, I said, because we had common goals as individuals and as a group.  Each student wanted to pass the bar exam in July -- that much they knew going into the class -- but, I pointed out, each student should also want to see everyone else in the class pass, too.  Teamwork might mean going a little further to help our classmates in a pinch, but it also means we've got a bunch of other people in our corner, willing to do the same for us.  The faculty, the administration, and the alumni want to see them succeed, too, because their success makes everybody look better, and because we've invested so much energy and faith in them.  And if the class does notably well as a group on the bar exam, their pass rate becomes public information that makes them all look like part of a stellar crop of new lawyers.

At times I felt almost like a goofy cheerleader telling this story, and encouraging my students to tell that story about themselves as a team.  But it seems to have paid off.  This summer we are seeing notably higher rates of participation and completion of assignments in summer bar prep courses.  Recent graduates are spending more time together, on and off campus, and I've been talking to far more of them in my office and on the phone than last summer.  Just telling a story of teamwork isn't enough -- the school has also had to walk the walk, by providing additional resources and guidance to students -- but it is clear that intensifying our characterization of getting ready for the bar as a communal effort has had a positive effect.

This is another thing I am wondering about, as I move forward with plans to work with our new incoming students.  How can I tell that story of the law school as a team in a way that will stick with these new students for three intensive years?  Is there a way to cultivate that story in the face of the known competition for grades in the first year?  Is there a way to keep that story from becoming trite and from being tattered by cynicism?  I think there must be.  It's not just the telling of the story that makes it work; it's also acting the story out, and making it seem real because it could be real.

So, while I will be working on better ways to improve students' analytical and time management skills this fall, I will also be thinking about better ways to tell them stories -- about themselves as individuals and as part of this new community -- that they can believe in.  Stories that they will want to carry on telling themselves.

[Bill MacDonald]

July 9, 2019 in Bar Exam Preparation, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Miscellany, Orientation, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Law Finds a Way

In Michael Crichton's book The Lost World, his sequel to Jurassic Park, the scientist Ian Malcolm observes that the velociraptors -- pack-oriented hunting dinosaurs that have been brought back from extinction through genetic engineering -- behave unexpectedly viciously towards each other.  Ordinarily, pack animals would work under some kind of social structure, as, for example, when wolves are led by a single alpha male, disadvantaging other males but minimizing conflict and maximizing cooperation among the pack as a whole.  But in the book, the velociraptors are depicted as combative and treacherous, attacking each other at the slightest provocation or opportunity. 

Malcolm realizes that even though the DNA used to recreate these creatures captured perfectly the information needed to duplicate the originals physically, there had been no means by which the scientists could have reproduced the social structure that the original animals had developed and passed along over uncounted millennia.  Without that information inherited from previous generations, the cloned velociraptors could only work out their own "culture" by trial and error -- mostly maladaptive, destructive error.  They might well destroy themselves as a species all over again, just because they had had no chance to observe and learn from those who had come before them.

Every year, we are midwives to a new brood of legal hatchlings, law school graduates who must face the professional equivalent of nature red in tooth and claw: the bar examination.  In the majority of cases, this is not an iterative, developmental experience.  Most attorneys take the bar exam once and never have to apply its lessons again.  But the lessons are real and valuable.

Some of those lessons are relatively easily compiled and organized, so that they can be provided/sold to future graduates through various forms of mass marketing: bar review courses that offer exhaustive compendia of necessary legal rules and concepts, or books that provide tips about studying, memorizing, essay writing, or time management.  These can be quite helpful, and they provide a very large portion of the information that determines most applicant's behavior as they prepare for, and then take, the bar examination.   

Still, for the most part, this information goes only to the development of the individual's fitness for the exam.  Each individual applicant acquires certain needed components -- some knowledge, some judgment, some skills -- in the same way that an individual velociraptor can develop pointed teeth, sharp claws, and a muscular tail.  And these components may serve that applicant well on the exam.

What about the social aspect?  I see my students this summer gathering to watch lectures together.  I hear about them supporting each other when they are confused or frustrated.  I know they are pushing each other to stay on track in their study progress.  They tell me about meeting up off campus or trading thoughts by phone or online.  I know that, for my school at least, something is different this summer: the students are more communicative with me, they are completing more of their assigned work on time, and they are sharing more notes and resources with each other.  This isn't something they've read in a book or took down in a lecture.  It is the social structure of this class of legal hatchlings, developing in a healthy way.

It may only be an incremental change, increasing engagement or completion or quality by a few percentage points.  But such changes, over time, is the definition of evolution.  But it can only happen if we have some way of passing it along, some analogue of DNA that transmits the essence of this slightly modified social structure along to the next generation of hatchlings.

In a way, one aspect of our existence as Academic Success vectors is to carry this information, as best we can, from class to class, like plasmids shuttling genetic material from one bacterium to another.  We can tell next year's graduates what this year's graduates did, ask them to trust us and to try the same strategies.  To the extent they do trust us, and to the extent that we know and can articulate the changes to the social structure, this can be helpful.

We can also ask our alumni to transmit directly, inviting them to return to the classroom next year and to share their experiences with the following class.  I did this twice this past spring semester, and my students seemed very responsive, asking lots of questions to help them suss out what to expect in the summer.  Later this month, I plan to record some video of students engaged in studying, or willing to open up after a lecture or an exercise, so that my future students can get a better idea of how these students worked alongside each other.

It is great to seem some improvement in outcomes for our students, and often we can point to better development of individual skills as a contributor to this improvement.  But just because changes to the social component of performance might be more difficult to isolate and package doesn't mean we should let them slip away from year to year, with just the hope that they might be recreated from scratch each time.  Some information is transmitted via nucleotides; some information, via letters and numbers; but some can only be passed along, by explanation and example, from one society to its successor.

[Bill MacDonald]

July 2, 2019 in Bar Exam Issues, Bar Exam Preparation, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Science, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)