Thursday, February 20, 2020
We've been told that seeing is believing but I suspect that most of us don't really think that's quite true, at least when it comes to our own cognitive biases.
After all, we are trained attorneys, steeped in expertise in evaluating evidence carefully and thoughtfully. We don't rush into conclusions. We sort, we deduce, we reflect. At least that's what I used to think...until I got caught by one of my own students.
Here's what happened.
We were talking about cognition, and one of my students - a former teacher - asked me if I wouldn't mind taking part in a little experiment about thinking - a mathematics experiment. I was so excited because I'm a mathematician by professional training. I was ready for the test, or so I thought.
Step by step, my student became my teacher, asking me the following questions in front of about 90 of my students:
Prof. Johns, what's 1000 + 1000? Good.
Now, add 50. Good.
Now, add 40. Perfect.
Now, add 10.
What's that give you? ______.
I blurted out, as proudly and as loudly as I could...3000...and I was completely wrong and utterly embarrassed (since the correct answer is 2100).
Here's what happened: My thinking got in my way because I wasn't really thinking but acting like I was thinking, which is what I think cognitive bias might come down to.
Try this out with your own students. Ask them to work through this little math problem, out loud, one calculation at a time, as a class.
[Note: At first, few will participate by calculating answers, after all, because most are scared of math, so start the whole problem over until all are participating by speaking - out loud - the answers to each step of the math problem.]
What's 1000 plus 1000? _____
Plut 50? ______
Plus 40? ______
Plus 10? ______
Most, just like me, will blurt out 3000. And that's a problem - as attorneys and as law students - because that means that the first impulses of our minds are often wrong, whether we are working through multiple-choice questions, sketching out possible issues as we read through an essay question, or probing problems that we might need to address to help our clients.
So if you have a chance to try out this little experiment with your students, please let me know what you learn. And, let me know what your students say that they've learned from this experiment. If your students are at all like me, this little experiment will not just open up their minds but also their eyes too. And that's something worth seeing.
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.
Thursday, January 30, 2020
Time is so precious. That's why I love elevators. Not because I like to wait. Indeed where I teach the elevators are as slow as molasses, which means, that I have a captive audience (especially because our elevators don't have music to calm the nerves).
That got me thinking. Why not make the most of the situation at hand? After all, we live and work and move in learning communities. So, here's a few suggestions to turn elevator rides into more "elevating experiences" to help celebrate community and learning.
First, smile. Yep, you might even make eye contact too. This is not the time to be bashful.
Second, recognize the other. Resist the tendency to pretend to be too busy for relationships by looking down at your smart phone, or up at the flashing numbers, or at the floor. After all, we are communities of learning, so extend a hearty hello to each one (and a gracious goodbye as people depart).
Third, introduce yourself if you haven't met. "Hi! I'm Scott Johns, one of your faculty members."
Fourth, ask questions such as: "What's something you're learning today?" What's your favorite class (and why?)? "What type of law are you interested in practicing?
You see, elevators can be elevating experiences...if only we take the time to be with each other. And who knows, you might make someone's day because most of us - if truth be known - go through much of life unrecognizable by others, just hoping to be known. But elevators are no place to be alone (nor is law school or life either).
So here's seeing (and chatting) with you on the elevator soon!
Thursday, January 16, 2020
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. So picture a triangle: One way to think about learning is to contemplate the three "angles" of learning.
At the apex of the triangle - from the viewpoint of most students - law school education is all about learning to think, act, and communicate like an attorney.
But that begs the question. What is learning?
Well, in my opinion there are two others corners to the triangle, and those - I believe - are the wellsprings or foundations for successful learning. And, as many have suggested, they often go overlooked in our haste to teach students to "think like attorneys."
Let me explain what I see as the other two corners that make a "well-rounded" triangle so that our students can effectively learn to think, act, and communicate like attorneys.
One of the corners involves applying the science of learning - the lessons learned from educational psychologists as how best to learn. And, as the scientists suggest, its often counter-intuitive to our own notions of how we best learn: To cut to the chase, less talk and more action, by having our students engage in pre-testing, practice testing, distributed practice, retrieval practice, and interleaving practice throughout the semester, is foundational to long-term meaningful learning.
The other corner, it seems to me, involves the interplay of the heart, the soul, and the mind. It's the psychological-social dimensions of what best equips us and our students to engage in optimal learning practices. Some emphasize academic tenacity or grit. But, in my opinion, this corner of the triangle rises (or falls) on whether we are developing within our students a sense of place, of belonging, as valuable members of our learning communities. You see, it's very difficult to have grit when we feel out of place, like we don't belong. But focus on equipping our students to belong...and tenacity will soon follow suit.
Lately, thanks to the work of many in the academic support field in teaching me about the interrelationships among (1) the skills of lawyering, (2) the science of learning, and (3) the psychological-social dimensions of learning, I've been regularly integrating, emphasizing, and sharing research about learning straight from the "scientists" mouths.
Here's two of my favorite articles, filled with colorful and vibrant charts and tables, which I flash onto the classroom screens (and then have my students ponder, decipher, and explain as to how they can best learn to "think like lawyers" based on the latest research):
And, if you want to make the most of this little blog, grab a piece of paper, close your computer, and draw a nifty picture of a triangle (with annotations as you try to recall as much as you can about what you learned).
Happy Learning to you and your students!
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).
Friday, December 13, 2019
Basketball player "...Duncan Robinson was open and didn't shoot." So reads an article about the "Most Improbable Player in the NBA." The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 13, 2019, p. A14.
In response to Duncan's decision, "...[H]is coach immediately called timeout. 'That's selfish.... You're being selfish if you don't shoot.'" Id.
For our February 2020 takers, bar prep begins for many next week. But, as we approach bar studies, if you're at all like me, I'm much more comfortable being on the sidelines, not taking shots so to speak, watching others talk through hypothetical scenarios and work through practice problems.
That's because I often don't feel like I'm ready to take shots because I don't feel like I know enough to play the game.
Instead, I try to learn to "play basketball" by reading about basketball and by watching others play basketball...a sure recipe to fail at basketball.
Let me put it concretely. With respect to bar prep, I'm much more comfortable listening and watching professors from the sidelines as I observe them work through bar exam problems and scenarios.
However, take it from Duncan (who went from high school to a small time college basketball program to a big time basketball program to a minor league professional basketball team to now a multimillion dollar contract with a big time professional basketball team). Id. What was the key to Duncan's success? As Duncan indicates, "I was having a tough time figuring out what was a good shot--and I quickly realized that everything was a good shot...I needed to literally shoot everything. [my emphasis]" Id.
For those of you beginning to prepare for the winter bar exam, take Duncan's advice. Take every shot at learning. Know this: That every problem that you work through, every time you close your lecture book and then force your mind to recall things that you have learned, every time you take action based on the bar review lectures that you are hearing, you are becoming a better "shooter", getting closer to your goal in passing your bar exam.
So, be of good courage as you boldly study for your bar exam. After all, you're not going to be tested about what you saw from the sidelines. Instead, you're tested on your ability to play the game, to score points, to solve bar exam problems. Consequently, take every shot you can, everyday throughout this winter, as you prepare for success on your bar exam this upcoming February 2020. Oh, and by the way, Duncan missed lots of shots on the way to success. But, he kept at it. You too, keep at it, because as it's in the midst of our missed shots that we learn how to perform better!
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!
Saturday, November 30, 2019
Over the past couple months, Scott Fruehwald and the team at the Legal Skills Prof Blog tackled different neuromyths that permeate legal education. I previously passed along one of the articles, but I thought I would compile a longer list for everyone's reading pleasure. I may have missed one, but here are the ones I have saved. Enjoy the reading.
Thursday, November 21, 2019
I don't usually keep up with the world of royalty. But a recent article caught my attention.
You see, it seems that the one of the legal duties of Queen Elizabeth II is to meet weekly with the Prime Minister for counseling. Sam Walker, "The World's Top Executive Coach: It's Queen Elizabeth," Wall Street Journal, Nov. 16, 2019.
That takes time, energy, and commitment. And, the queen's been meeting with prime ministers weekly since 1952. Id. So, it might be worthwhile to see what she says about counseling and why prime ministers, despite vast differences from one another, continue to seek her advice.
First, the queen provides a safe place for leaders to speak out without "fear or reprisal." In the queen's words: "They unburden themselves. They tell me what's going on, or if they've got any problems." Id. Second, the queen by law is not allow to give orders or publicly takes sides on issues. Id. Third, the meetings focus on seeking impartial common ground. In other words, it's not about the queen's desires but about how to determine what's best for the common good of the people. Id. Fourth, the queen likens her role in meetings to that of a sponge, which I take to mean being a sounding board for prime ministers rather than offering advice. Id.
In summarizing the queen's coaching, author Sam Walker suggests the following:
That great coaches, even though they "often have a better grasp on a tricky situation than the person that they're advising, ...resist the urge to be a helicopter coach. [Instead,] [t]he only way to help leaders [and students] learn and grow is to allow them to make their own mistakes. [And,] [t]he only responsible method [to do this] is to let them speak openly, guard their secrets, and, once in a while try to incrementally redirect their thinking. Doing that requires humility--and lots of practice." Id.
That's not a role all that different from the world of academic support professionals.
Like the queen, we are granted access to some of the deepest secrets and most difficult struggles that our students face.
Like the queen, we must studiously guard our students' confidences.
Like the queen, we are called to listen lots and speak little.
Like the queen, our students learn and grow the most when we walk alongside them, helping them incrementally adjust their thinking, so that our students develop expertise in assessing their own learning with solutions that come forth out of the wellsprings of their own hearts and minds.
To sum up, in the course of most of our work, the truly royal moments of learning are the results of what our students come to experience for themselves under the confidential mentorship of us. As the queen suggests, speaking less can indeed mean speaking more (and in the end lead to better results for our students). So "hears" to better hearing for the betterment of our students!
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:
Thursday, October 31, 2019
Thanks to the work of social psychologists Gregory Walton (Stanford) and Timothy Wilson (Univ. of Virginia), here's a wonderful searchable database of research articles about interventions to concretely improve learning, life, and community.
And there's more great news...
It's a free! In fact, it's one of my go-to sources as I look for ways to enhance student learning.
Sunday, October 27, 2019
The Legal Skills Prof. Blog had 2 excellent posts last week regarding metacognition. The posts discuss different commonly held myths by students and faculty that have detrimental effects on learning. My experience is not only do these myths exist, but the hardest thing to overcome is the entrenched nature of the beliefs. As the posts suggest, students tend to continually slide into comfort over scientifically proven methods. I highly encourage reading the 2 posts.
Thursday, October 17, 2019
Ok...here's a thought experiment...
What person or name first comes to mind as the best learner of all time?
Feel free to blurt it out...
Perhaps Albert Einstein?
Or Marie Curie?
Or maybe the great scholar, teacher, and mathematician Hypatia?
Well, according to cognitive scientist Alison Gopnik (U.C. Berkeley), it turns out that "...babies are the best learners in the universe." A. Gopnik, The Ultimate Learning Machine, Wall Street Journal (Oct 12, 2019)
In fact, as a research psychologist, Dr. Gopnik explains that the key to successful development of artificial intelligence requires that computers learn to learn to learn and think like human babies. Id. And, that's very difficult for machines to do. Id. Computers are brilliant in processing lots and lots of data but not nearly so good as babies and toddlers in accurately making sense and judgements about the world around them with very little data to boot. Id. And, most of the time, we have very little data, too.
Take law school for example.
We read perhaps a handful of cases on intentional torts. Perhaps a few on contract formation or consideration. A few more about equal protection. And, out of just a few experiences we are suppose to generalize, to synthesize, to figure out what intentional torts are all about, or contract law, or equal protection analysis.
So, that begs the question.
Perhaps we as legal educators might also learn a few things about how to learn by also exploring how babies learn to learn...and learn so expertly and so quickly with so little knowledge at the start [since we too --in our work with law students --often given our law students very little to go on to figure out "the law."].
According to Dr. Gopnik, babies learn through the process of making a mess. Or, as Dr. Gopnik accentuates, "MESS," which is an acronym that stands for building models about the world that they observe, curiously exploring the world around then, and learning in social experiences with others. Id.
For example, with respect to models, toddlers and even babies can construct common sense models about such topics as physics and even psychology. Id. With respect to psychology, even a one-year old baby, when seeing an adult drop a pen, will try to help pick up the pen for the adult out of apparent empathy for the other (but not if the adult was seen by the baby intentionally dropping the pen). Id. You see, little toddlers have already learned through curious observations about gravity and even about human intentions too. Id.
With respect to exploring the world, "[babies] are insatiably curious and active experimenters. Parents call this 'getting into everything.'" Id. Toddlers love to explore, to test out everything, to take things apart and to try to put them together. Id. It's this sort of "playful experimentation" that is another secret to the ability of children to learn so adeptly. Id.
The final factor relates to learning in social contexts. Babies learn by observing people around them, who have the benefit of often times years of experiences, by trying to imitate them. But there's even more. Take the situation of toddlers learning to tie sneakers. Id. Try as you might, it turns out that it is very difficult to teach computers to learn to tie sneakers [I think it would take lots of mathematical code!]. But children learn to tie shoes by watching others, focusing on the purpose of the task and not just the steps, which leads to learning. Id. That's something that's just plain difficult for machines to do.
In fact, computers can't generalize very well at all from limited data (i.e., they aren't very good at creating accurate common sense models); they don't really experience the world around them (except to the extent that humans pre-program computers to "act" in particular ways; and they don't have an ability to watch what others are doing (and extract out of those observed activities what purposes might be lurking in one's activities).
So, that takes us back to law school. What can we learn about learning the law from babies?
First, as law students read cases (or even before), students can create models or theories about what might lay ahead as they read case after case (or what principle or principles might hold them together). In short, law students can formulate hypotheses about what they are preparing to read.
Second, as law students work on learning, students should be encouraged to tinker with the cases, to explore them, to be curiously playful. In particular, law students can imagine different facts, different judges, and whether those sorts of changes might change outcomes.
Third, as law students learn to solve legal problems, faculty should explore with them how they solve legal problems, perhaps walking through reading essay questions and then even writing out answers in real time, with students then having the opportunity to practice themselves by trying to imitate what they watched experts perform. And, students should be encouraged to think about the purpose behind solving the legal problems and reading the cases.
I know. There's a lot of deep cognitive science behind learning. But, perhaps the key to learning is not quite as difficult as we (or at least I) sometimes make it out to be. Life is complex; perhaps learning is not so complex; perhaps it's one of life's beautiful secrets that we - as legal educators and as law students - can learn from the smallest among us.
So, next time you see a baby, pay attention; there are important life lessons to be learned!
Monday, October 14, 2019
Consider the disturbing possibility that in law there is no ball or that, if there is one, no one has a really good account of what it looks like. – Pierre Schlag
The Socratic method is an iconic hallmark of legal education. Even in the face of evolving pedagogy, the Socratic method continues to be regarded as an excellent instructional tool that develops important skills and teaches students to think quickly. Yet, the Socratic method remains one of the most widely used, and possibly equally misused, tools relied upon by law faculty.
Taken to extremes, some scholars espouse the position that Socratic-style teaching should deliberately induce confusion in learners. Professor Rick Hills distinguishes “hopeless confusion” from “productive confusion” the latter in which the instructor “helps the student recognize that the way out of confusion is through focused thought and problem solving, by providing necessary information and suggesting strategies when appropriate.”1 Regardless of the distinction, students are likely to interpret instructor-induced confusion as withholding essential information or “hiding the ball.”
In his article by the same title, Pierre Schlag identifies the ironic significance of the “hiding the ball” metaphor: instead of promoting curiosity in new law students, it seduces their attention away from fundamental inquiry into law. Law students seem to prefer direct instruction that identifies the general rules and their distinctions. Professors commonly refer to this instructive style as “bar review.” Professor Hills recounted, [e]very once in a while, I engage in this “bar review” style lecturing just to make it easier. When I do, my [course evaluations] predictably tick up.2
Hills’ example begs the question to what extent should student preferences be considered in establishing legal education norms. In the face of changing enrollment demographics and declining bar passage, would being more direct with learning deliverables produce more practice ready graduates, or would it dilute the quality of legal education as we know it? Washburn Law Professor Jeffrey Jackson says that the Socratic method should not be the sole means for teaching law, but it can be a complementary tool to other methods of teaching, like Legal Writing and Analysis. By using a combination of teaching methods that provide a variety of approaches, the learning experience of law students can be greatly enhanced.3 Professor Jackson’s model allows for the type of multi-modal instruction that today’s law students deserve.
1 Roderick M. Hills, Jr., William T. Comfort III Professor of Law, New York University School of Law, In defense of hiding the ball in law school classes: Does being confused help you learn stuff?
2 Pierre Schlag, Hiding the Ball, 71 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 1681 (1996).
3 Jeffrey D. Jackson, Socrates and Langdell In Legal Writing: Is the Socratic Method a Proper Tool for Legal Writing Courses?, 43 Cal. W. L. Rev. 267 (2007).
Thursday, October 3, 2019
It's never too late to make a difference…a positively meaningful difference...to improve academic performance for students, and, in particular, for underrepresented students.
You see, as demonstrated by social science research from psychologists Gregory Walton and Geoffrey Cohen, a sense of belonging - as a valued participant within a cooperative learning community - is critical to academic success.
Indeed, belonging changes lives.
And, there's more great news.
According to the research, just a "brief social-belonging intervention" can make all the difference. A Brief Social-Belonging Intervention Improves Academic and Health Outcomes of Minority Students. And, that brief intervention is especially valuable for African-American students. Id.
So, here are the details, at least as I paraphrase the research findings.
Preliminarily, the researchers hypothesized that a brief intervention in the first week of undergraduate studies - to directly tackle the issue of belonging in college - might make a measurable impact with respect to academic performance and health outcomes. As background, previous research had suggested that a lack of a sense of belonging was particularly detrimental for academic success in college.
The research intervention was threefold.
First, the researchers directly shared survey information with students, showing that most college students "had worried about whether they belonged in college during the difficult first year but [they] grew confident in their belonging with time." Id.
Second, the students were encouraged to internalize the survey messages about belonging by writing a brief essay to describe "how their own experiences in college [in the first week] echoed the experiences summarized in the survey." Id.
Third, the students then created short videos of their essays...for the express purpose of sharing their feelings with future generations of incoming students, so that participating students would not feel like they were stigmatized by the intervention (but rather that they were beneficially involved in making the world better for future generations of incoming students - just like them). Id.
According to the research results, surveys in the week following the intervention indicated that participating students sensed that the intervention buttressed their abilities to overcome adversities and enhanced their achievement of a sense of belonging.
And, the impact was long-lasting, even when participating students couldn't recall much at all about the intervention.
The researchers then used the statistical method of multiple regression to control for various other possible influences.
As documented by their research findings, the intervention was particularly beneficial for African-American students - both in terms of improving GPA and also for improving well-being. In short, a brief intervention led to demonstrable benefits with students outperforming such traditional academic predicators such as standardized admission test scores. That's big news.
That brings us back to us ASPers!
As ASPers, we have a wonderful opportunity to engage in meaningful interventions...by sharing the great news about social belonging.
But, there's more involved than just sharing the news.
Based on the research findings, to make a real difference for our students, our students must not just see themselves - in the words of the research psychologists - as just "beneficiaries" of the intervention...but rather as "benefactors" of the intervention. Id.
In short, the key is to empower our law students with tools to share with future generations of students what they learned about adversity, belonging, and overcoming…and how to thrive in law school.
Wow! What a spectacular opportunity…and a challenge too!
P.S. Here's the research abstract to provide a precise overview of the research findings:
"A brief intervention aimed at buttressing college freshmen’s sense of social belonging in school was tested in a randomized controlled trial (N = 92), and its academic and health-related consequences over 3 years are reported. The intervention aimed to lessen psychological perceptions of threat on campus by framing social adversity as common and transient. It used subtle attitude-change strategies to lead participants to self-generate the intervention message. The intervention was expected to be particularly beneficial to African-American students (N = 49), a stereotyped and socially marginalized group in academics, and less so to European-American students (N = 43). Consistent with these expectations, over the 3-year observation period the intervention raised African Americans’ grade-point average (GPA) relative to multiple control groups and halved the minority achievement gap. This performance boost was mediated by the effect of the intervention on subjective construal: It prevented students from seeing adversity on campus as an indictment of their belonging. Additionally, the intervention improved African Americans’ self-reported health and well-being and reduced their reported number of doctor visits 3 years postintervention. Senior-year surveys indicated no awareness among participants of the intervention’s impact. The results suggest that social belonging is a psychological lever where targeted intervention can have broad consequences that lessen inequalities in achievement and health."
Wednesday, October 2, 2019
Some people arrive at law school with a particular passion such as helping immigrant communities, or aiding small businesses, or supporting victims of domestic violence or abuse. Given that I had no specific passion but only a yen to be useful to ordinary people, it was a relief to get a judicial clerkship, since the clerkship allowed me put off the decision about "what to do when I grow up" a little while longer. At the court, every month the judicial clerks would divvy up the cases newly assigned to our chambers in a totally informal process; as long as we got an approximately equal workload, our justice didn't care which clerk took a case. The court was a great experience, as I got to see not only good and bad lawyering but also cases running the gamut from criminal to workers compensation to water law. I still didn't know what I wanted to do when I grew up, but our monthly allocation of cases gave me some clue as to what I didn't want to do. Corporate law? Shudder. Election law? No thanks. Family law - no, PLEASE, I'll take any number of workers compensation cases to avoid family law. By the end of my clerkship, I knew for certain a large number of areas in which I didn't want to practice, which still left a broad universe of possibilities to consider as I moved ahead.
Today I was talking with an upper-division student about her future. A diligent person, she had just attended "Pizza with the Prosecutor," one of a series of events put on by the Career Development Office to introduce students to a variety of available career paths. While other students had emerged enthusiastic about careers in criminal law in general and with the local prosecutor's office in particular, this student was shaking her head as though trying to rid herself of a bad dream. "Well," she said, "that was informative. I definitely know I don't want to be a prosecutor. And half of life is figuring out what you don't want to do."
In any life transition, we spend a lot of time figuring out what not to do. As I've met with 1Ls over the past month, I've been struck by how often they related their experiences in figuring out what not to do. Sometimes, of course, this was because they initially ignored, or didn't believe, or didn't listen to the largely consistent messages conveyed by faculty, staff, and successful upper-division students about how to engage in the practice of being a successful law student. More often, though, they were experimenting and working through different ways of reading, reviewing, outlining, writing, and managing their time. Read two weeks ahead? No, that didn't work -- I spent so much time reviewing that I was doing the work twice. Prepare all my meals for the week on the weekend so I wouldn't have to cook on school nights? No, I know that works for other people, but I was just exhausted from cooking all day and got so bored with my meals that I ended up going out to eat. Retyping my notes after class? That worked, but only once I figured out it was best to write down a summary and then look over my notes and add highlights: when I read through my notes before retyping them, it took hours because I was trying to make everything perfect. Exercising between classes? It seemed like a good idea, but I barely made it to class on time, so I switched my gym time to early morning, which is better even though I'd rather sleep in. Do practice problems? I tried going to the old exams first, but I got so intimidated that I decided to concentrate for now on working through the problems in the notes and questions. As an ASPer, I'm happy to see students engage actively in this type of self-regulated learning that will improve their effectiveness and satisfaction in practicing the skills of successful law students.
Thursday, September 26, 2019
Common wisdom often suggests more is better...at least when it comes to passing the bar exam. But, just like more medicine is not always better for one's body (and even poisonous when taking too much), perhaps undertaking more bar-tested subjects as a law student is not associated with increasing bar passage results, at least for those most at-risk of not passing the bar exam. And, perhaps avoiding experiential learning courses is not necessary for students most at-risk of not passing the bar exam. Indeed, the latest forthcoming empirical research is all about exploring common conceptions about the relationships among experiential learning, taking bar-tested electives, and bar exam outcomes.
To evaluate these questions, we turn to two empiricist law professors - Robert Kuehn at Washington University and David Moss at Wayne State University - who have just released "must-read" research analyzing often-expressed narratives about the impacts of experiential learning and bar-tested elective courses on bar exam outcomes. Robert Kuehn and David Moss, A Study of the Relationship Between Law School Coursework and Bar Exam Outcomes, 68 J. Legal Educ. (2019) (forthcoming).
First, the authors evaluate the hypothesis that law students should refrain from taking too many experiential learning courses (such as clinics, field placements/internships, and simulation courses), most likely based on the belief that experiential learning crowds out doctrinal learning.
Second, the researchers evaluate the hypothesis that law students should take more bar-tested subjects rather than fewer to boost ones' promise of bar exam success, particularly for those most at-risk of not passing bar exams.
Their research is robust, using regression analysis to evaluate such variables as LSAT scores, UGPA, first-year LGPA, graduating LGPA, experiential learning courses (clinics, field placements/internships, and simulation courses), and bar-tested elective subjects [regression analysis allows researchers to control or take into account the influence of other variables in order to observe whether experiential learning credits and/or bar-tested course work are associated with improved bar exam outcomes].
As indicated in their republished table below, their research spans an impressive 10 year time span, examining first-time bar exam results, for 3891 law school graduates from Washington University and Wayne State University.
Given the depth and breadth of the professors' research, their findings provide food-for-thought for these two questions, at least based on their law school populations, as to whether law students most-at risk of bar failure based on LGPA should take fewer experiential learning courses and/or more bar-tested elective subjects.
As an initial observation, with respect to LSAT scores, both law schools observed relatively consistent LSAT means throughout the course of the ten-year period despite a general downward trend in bar passage rates beginning in or around 2013 and 2014. Consequently, at least based on their law school populations, bar exam declines appear to be unrelated to LSAT admission decisions since LSAT scores remained relatively flat throughout the ten-year research period.
With respect to experiential learning courses, the authors observe that both law schools have seen astounding increases in the number of experiential credits hours that their students are taking over the ten year period, which is not surprising given the American Bar Association's 2014 requirement mandating increased experiential learning requirements in order for law schools to satisfy more recent accreditation standards.
Nevertheless, despite the occasional claim suggesting that law students are taking too many experiential courses, which might compromise bar exam results, the researchers found that there was no statistical association between increases in experiential learning credits hours and bar exam performance (to include those students most at-risk of bar exam failure). Thus, the authors suggest that law schools should not counsel students to avoid experiential learning opportunities.
With respect to bar-tested elective subjects, the authors observed that both law schools have found that more recent bar takers are taking fewer bar-tested subjects than in the past. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the researchers found a modest correlation between taking bar-tested subjects and bar exam outcomes but only for those students with LGPA's that placed them most at-risk of bar exam failure.
However, critically, the authors observed that that was an apparent sweet spot in the number of bar-tested subjects taken by at-risk students such that there was no statistical benefit in at-risk students taking more than the approximate average number of bar-tested subjects at each school (just four electives out of fourteen bar-tested subjects for Washington University students and just seven electives out of nineteen bar-tested subjects for Wayne State students).
In other words, in my reading of their research based on their populations of bar exam takers, law schools might counsel at-risk students to take a handful or so of bar-tested subjects but also advise them that they need not take the entire panoply of bar-tested elective subjects (as more than the average has no empirical benefit of improving bar exam outcomes). And, we should not at all fear encouraging at-risk students from actively participating in experiential learning courses, whether in the form of clinics, internships, and/or simulation courses.
In short, there's much room for curricular exploration by at-risk students without compromising their bar exam outcomes...and that's good news worth thinking about as we meet with our students about their curriculum choices.
Monday, September 23, 2019
The most important knowledge teachers need to do good work is a knowledge of how students are experiencing learning and perceiving their teacher’s actions. ~ Steven Brookfield
I love innovative pedagogy. Tools like mind maps, retrieval practice, spaced repetition, and self-directed leaning strategies have been game changers in higher education. I am always looking for ways to enhance and improve my teaching. But innovation is an enhancement to, and not a replacement for, the most basic tenets of quality classroom teaching. In this series of weekly blog posts, I will address teaching basics that are the telltale traits of effective teachers.
- Know your audience
We cannot afford to make assumptions about the knowledge or background of the students in our classes. Recently, I attended a conference planned for academic support and bar prep professionals. The first few hours of the conference were devoted almost entirely to explaining basic components of the bar exam. I concluded that the presenters either underestimated the skill and experience of the audience or failed to tailor a previously used presentation for the present audience. My perception of audience reaction to the content and delivery was a combination of polite appreciation, genuine curiosity, and suppressed rage. As audience participants, we have both the luxury and opportunity to make critical assessments of the projected and realized learning outcomes. But a seat on the other side of the podium also yields an enlightened perspective on effective learning strategies.
Rather than disconnect myself entirely from the redundancy of the content presented, I used the time to introspectively examine whether I had made the same mistakes. To my deep chagrin, I had. Insert hand raise emoji. I teach an early bar prep course, enrollment in which is restricted to students in their final year of law school. Because I cannot cover all the bar exam subjects in the time allotted for class, I select a few subjects. Routinely included in my course coverage are Property, Torts, Evidence, and Criminal Law. Although I intentionally include required courses, and stray away from electives that not all students will have taken, I failed to thoroughly research my audience this semester. In so doing, I did not discover, until after class had begun, that two students in my class had not yet completed the required course in Evidence.
One student was concurrently enrolled in Evidence and my course, the other had decided to wait until next semester to complete their requirements. I gut-wrenched at the thought of their polite, yet passive, frustration with me as I assigned practice questions testing hearsay - a topic with which they had no prior exposure. Of course, there are many law schools who do not require coursework in Evidence, and a corresponding number of students who learn/study the evidentiary rules for the first time during bar prep. Pedagogically, however, had I taken the time (actually a lot of time) to review the transcripts of the students enrolled in my class, I could have scheduled assignments that equally serve and challenge them all. Even though time consuming, doing my homework on my audience is just as important as being well studied in the subject matter that I teach. Suddenly my frustration with another’s seeming underestimation of my knowledge base was supplanted with embarrassment by my own overestimation of my students’.
Thursday, September 12, 2019
I have to make a confession. Last week, I admitted that - as a law student - I was a proverbial "deer-in-the-headlights" when it came my time to face an ambush of socratic questioning. Confessions of a Socratic Deer (Sep 5, 2019). In retrospect, I think that some of that was due to my method of class preparation, namely, I tried to memorize as much of the case materials as I could so that I could regurgitate the cases when called upon (an impossible task, mind you!).
Now, looking back, I think I should have focused, as indicated in the final point of last week's blog, on preparing for classes by preparing my own questions about the cases assigned as reading, writing:
"As you read cases, puzzle over them, asking questions, evaluating arguments, voicing your own concerns, dialoguing and debating with the courts. In other words, don't read to memorize the cases. Instead, read to learn to have conversations with courts, to voice your own opinions and insights, in short, to prepare for a life in the law as a creative thoughtful attorney." Id.
That's when I got super-excited about the super-short case preparation checklist from the Royal Court of Justice for the Kingdom of Bhutan. Royal Bhutan Case Preparation Checklist (2018).
It's just two pages long but jam-packed with informative tips and questions that, in retrospect, would have made a mountain of difference in my law school learning, not to mention my confidence in the face of potential socratic questioning.
As the Royal Court explains in its document entitled "Briefing a Case," case briefing in preparation for court [and classes of course] is critically important for lawyers [and law students] because the process of case briefing "...organizes ones thinking and forces one, point by point, to consider all the important elements of the decision. Id.
To paraphrase, the Royal Court's checklist focuses one's mind on 8 steps:
- State the parties of the case and what they want.
- Provide a brief synopsis of essential facts.
- Briefly describe the procedural history of what happened.
- Find out the issue or issues.
- Figure out the holding/decisions of the judges.
- Explain the court's chain of reasoning using IRAC analysis.
- State the ultimate order of the court in disposition of the case.
- Voice your analysis. Id.
In my opinion, the first 7 steps are the means to an end with the end lying in step 8 - voicing your analysis.
As the Royal Court indicates its checklist, in the last step about voicing your analysis, explore the significance of the case, figure out how the case relates to others that you have read, identify the case's place in history, ponder what the case shows you about judges, courts, and society in general (to include its impact on litigants, both now and in the future), unpack both the explicit and implicit assumptions of the court, and engage in a thoughtful debate the "rightness" of the decision to include its persuasiveness and logic. Id.
I know that that sounds like a lot to take in. But, learning the law requires learning legal analysis and learning legal analysis requires digging in deeply into the cases assigned for each of your classes. Unfortunately, I spent way too much time in law school re-reading cases, trying to memorize them, rather than trying to see the patterns in legal thought and persuasion and, best yet, voicing my own analysis of them.
In short, as I reflect on my own law school experience, the key to case briefing and class preparation, it seems to me, is to take on the role of Socrates yourself, prior to class, in which you probe and ponder the cases assigned. As a bonus I can promise you, you'll learn to think like a lawyer and, more importantly, you'll be the sort of attorney to which your clients will be mighty grateful because you honed your skills and sharpened your analysis in law school (rather than with them).
Thursday, September 5, 2019
I'm a deer in the headlights. Throughout law school, I lived in what I'll call a perpetual state of "socratic fear." I muddled through classes for the first weeks of law school, never called on but ever so fearful. But, my day finally came. I was called to state the facts of the case and the issue at hand. What case? I couldn't recall. What issues? I didn't have any notion. Frozen and stuck, I stumbled badly. It's as though my mind went wildly bank despite my over preparation.
I never did get over my fear of the socratic method. Throughout all three years of law school, I was the quiet one. Indeed, I felt like I was the only one who was afraid to be called on by a professor. And, as you might have guessed, I definitely didn't voluntarily to speak in class. It was just too risky. Instead, I piled up as much fodder as I could in an attempt to barricade myself from making the dreaded "eye-to-eye" contact with my professors. That was a surefire way, it seemed to me, to be called on. So, I lived with my head buried throughout most of law school, looking down, not up.
But, there's great news for me (and for you!).
You see, we are not the only ones...at all...with "socratic fear." Indeed, according to survey research out of Europe based on language-learning courses in which students are called on to to speak on the "fly" as they learn foreign languages (much like law students are often put on the spot to answer questions in front of peers about cases), many students are just like us - they feel anxious when put in the spotlight to speak in class with the teacher. Alessia Occhipinti, Foreign Language Anxiety in In-Class Speaking Activities, University of Norway (2009) (published student research thesis). Not surprisingly, the survey results suggest that the level of anxiety increases, like a hot autumn day with the noontime sun directly overhead, as the level of personal interaction increases from individual work silently alone at one's desk without being called upon...to group activities and presentations in front of the class...to individual spotlight activities interacting directly with professors. Id.
That got me thinking because, prior to law school, I had no fears of speaking in class, whether language classes or even military pilot training (where students are called in "stand-ups" to explain how they would handle an unanticipated emergency situation to a safe conclusion).
In other words, there seemed to be something lurking in the law school educational experience that poked holes in my once courageous voice.
As I scan back to the past, it wasn't due to a lack of preparation but perhaps to a lack of knowing what was coming (which I suspect is the root of much of our anxieties and fears). And, to be honest, we (or at least I!) also fear being found out to be a fraud, to have been wrongly admitted to law school (or so we feel), that we don't belong at all in law school (and soon everyone will know the truth when they witness us self-destruct...right in front of the class of our peers as the professor interrogates us).
But, as I think about my own law school experience, and in talking with scores and scores of law students, here's what I've gleaned as suggestions about how to handle the stresses and strains of the socratic method. I just wish I had known them when I was a law student.
- Everyone (or most of us) are afraid of speaking in class.
- Just because you have trouble speaking in class, doesn't mean that you don't belong in class. In fact, it might really mean the opposite. That you, like the rest of your classmates, are human beings with shared worries and concerns.
- Talk with someone. Be open with classmates in particular. Be the first to break the ice with trusted friends. Reach out to student affairs, academic success professions, and even your professors. As a suggestion, ask your law school faculty about their own experiences with socratic questioning when they were students (and what suggestions they might have for you to overcome your concerns).
- Realize something extremely important. As far as I can tell, there's absolutely no association between speaking in class and serving as a first-rate attorney. Indeed, although I was overcome (gripped) by fear throughout my law school moot court experiences, I loved speaking in courts as an attorney. Here's why. I knew that the judges wanted to have conversations with me. Simply put, judges were asking me questions because they wanted to learn what I was thinking, they wanted to see things from multiple perspectives that they might have missed in their own preparations for oral arguments, etc., they were dependent on me (us) as attorneys to educate them about our clients, our cases, and the governing law. In short, based on my own experiences, oral argument in court is much more about having a conversation with the judge(s) rather than a battle with professors who, most likely, have already pre-determined most of the answers to their questions.
- Prepare for class with questions. As you read cases, puzzle over them, asking questions, evaluating arguments, voicing your own concerns, dialoguing and debating with the courts. In other words, don't read to memorize the cases. Instead, read to learn to have conversations with courts, to voice your own opinions and insights, in short, to prepare for a life in the law as a creative thoughtful attorney.
- Repeat no. 4. There's no relationship between socratic success and legal success, so far as I can tell. Rather, great attorneys think before they speak, often times rephrasing the questions, and sharing with courts what's on their mind and how that relates to the cases at hand.