Friday, August 3, 2012
A persistent problem with some of my law students is that they do not read carefully. It troubles me that this problem seems to cut across class years and class ranks and appears to be getting more wide-spread.
So much of our lives as attorneys revolves around tasks that call for precision. If our students do not learn to be more precise during law school, how are they going to excell in their work?
I am not talking about common first-year mistakes in understanding cases. I am talking about students who simply never learned to read with care. Here are some examples:
- Students regularly ask professors questions that were covered in detail in class syllabi.
- Students do not follow instructions on an assignment or exam even when clearly provided.
- Students are asked to read a document carefully, but come to class with only a gist of that document.
- Students do not read a complete e-mail or the attachments provided - even when they know that deadlines and task completions are required.
- Students fail to read law school announcements, Orientation packets, registration instructions, Student Handbooks, and other items that they told are important.
When I have talked to colleagues about this problem, the following thoughts have been shared:
- The Internet, e-mail, and text messages have turned students into grazers who never read for depth.
- The parents of this generation of students kept track of everything for them so they are unaccustomed to being responsible for reading carefully and retaining information.
- Students these days do not know how to read because they do not read books in their leisure time; they watch video clips on YouTube, watch TV, play video games, but rarely sit down to read books that are not assigned.
- Undergraduate professors told them exactly what they needed for the exams so they did not have to read carefully - in some cases did not read at all for most classes.
- They think they can look everything up on the Internet later, so why worry about boring text.
- They got As and Bs without having to work very hard because of grade inflation in lower education, so they do not know that precision might be important for graduate-level academics (and life).
So, what can we do to get our students ready for the careful reading, thinking, and writing that they will have to accomplish successfully in law practice? Below are a few things that I have become more conscious about doing with my students. I am sure that my colleagues can provide other thoughts and techniques.
- Discuss professionalism in one's work as a law student and how that becomes professionalism in one's work product as an attorney.
- Go over a case or fact pattern in great detail so they begin to see the information that they missed with only a cursory reading.
- Parse a complex statute so that they see why every word and punctuation mark matters.
- Ask questions that go to the legal nuances of the material they have read so that they begin to see the depth of understanding needed.
- Resist telling them the answer. At times I have to bite my tongue and reply along the lines of "turn to page 3 in your syllabus and read point 8 on the format for your presentation" or "read the facts paragraph again and tell me what the court said about the defendant's acts."
- Encourage them to review exams with C+ or lower grades with their professors to see how they could have improved the grade (more careful reading of the fact pattern, more care in the organization, more precise rule statements, more depth in analysis).
- Give examples of where a lack of careful reading or precision would cause problems for an attorney in practice - real-life examples are best.
- Allow them to experience consequences for missed assignment deadlines, incorrect format, lack of proof-reading, or misread instructions. Consequences learned in the law school environment will usually be less dire than than consequences learned later in practice. (Of course, there are times when a student's circumstances warrant an exception to this suggestion.)
Part of being a professional is being conscious of one's responsibility for a high quality work product. By mastering care in their everyday reading and class work, our students will learn to turn out work products that are professional. (Amy Jarmon)
Tuesday, January 24, 2012
One of the more depressing statistics I have come across is the rate of depression among lawyers and law students. I am further depressed when I see the random studies linking depression with heightened analytical ability. The theory (and it is only a theory) is that there is a connection between high-achieving lawyers and depression, because a good lawyer will see the flaw, the catch, or the error in any argument, and thereby save his or her client dollars. Someone who is depressed is more likely to see the downside, and therefore, be a better lawyer or law student. This theory ignores the enormous social and emotional toll of depression. It impacts not just the person suffering, but the people who care about the person suffering from depression.
I don't like this theory. I think it gives another excuse for maintaining the status quo. Depression should not be a way of life, for any reason. There is an excellent piece in the NYT's this week on sadness and depression, and the drive to find evolutionary justifications for depression. I found the arguments for an evolutionary explanation for depression similar to the rationalizations explaining why lawyers tend to be more depressed than people in other careers. And like the author, I am disheartened when the drive for explanations leads to a justification for an unhealthy way of life.
Larry Krieger has done amazing work on law students and depression; most of us in ASP are quite familiar with his work. In ASP, we need to recognize the difference between sadness and depression. Sadness is a temporary state all of us experience; depression should not be a common experience. Due to the populations so many of us work with in ASP, we should be trained to see the differences between ordinary sadness over an unfortunate event, and depression, which as Dr. Friedman explains in the NYT article, "a failure to adapt to stress or loss, because it impairs a person’s ability to solve the very dilemmas that triggered it." Depression, unlike sadness, causes memory problems and issues with learning, which cause additional academic problems, and causes depression to snowball. (RCF)
More information on lawyers and law students and depression:
WSJ: Why are so many lawyers depressed? http://blogs.wsj.com/law/2007/12/13/why-are-so-many-lawyers-so-depressed/
Lawyers With Depression: http://www.lawyerswithdepression.com/depressionstatistics.asp
Psychology Today: The Depressed Lawyer: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/therapy-matters/201105/the-depressed-lawyer?page=2
New York Times: Depression Defies the Rush to Find an Evolutionary Upside: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/17/health/depression-defies-rush-to-find-evolutionary-upside.html
Saturday, October 8, 2011
I just received a review copy of Barry Friedman and John CP Goldberg's Open Book, Succeeding on Exams from the First Day of Law School. While I have not had the chance to read the book closely, my first impression is that this is a book we will be seeing a lot in ASP. It is relatively short (180 pages) and uses cartoons and humor throughout. The structure of the book is clear; I can flip to the table of contents to find chapters on specific topics (IRACing, outlining, etc) without having to search. It starts with an introduction on how to use the book, which is especially useful, since most students do not know how to use exam skills books.
There are many good ASP books out there, but I think this one will get added to the pile I use and recommend to students. (RCF)
Saturday, August 20, 2011
There is a very interesting discussion at the Freakonomics blog (same authors as the book) about how to incentivize class attendance. I think this dovetails nicely with a question posted yesterday on the ASP listserv about laptops in class. Both attendance policies and laptops bans get at the same fundamental issue: how do professors keep students in class and engaged? I don't think there is one answer to this question, but a theme seems to run through both issues. The theme is lecture-only or lecture-from-the-book courses bore students, encourage students to miss class, and increase the use of distractions in class. I have heard over and over from doctrinal professors that the Socratic Method is not lecture-only, but as the Socratic Method is employed in many classes, students can't see the difference. This is especially true when the Socratic Method is used to question only a tiny number of students in a large class; I have heard students complain they would rather lecture-only, because questioning only a few students, who may or may not have done the reading, just increases confusion.
The comments below the post in Freaknomics make sense and pose the same questions law schools are struggling to answer.
Monday, September 20, 2010
I have been doing a brisk business in appointments with 1L students who are overwhelmed by how long it is taking them to read/brief cases for class. In talking with them, it is apparent that some of their difficulties are linked to not understanding why we read cases and how they fit into overall learning and skills development.
They make better decisions about their reading strategies once they realize the significance of reading cases. Here are some tips that we discuss:
All cases are not equal in importance. Some cases are read for historical background only - the law will change by the last case on a sub-topic. Some cases are packed full of important essentials such as rules, policies, jurisdictional differences, important points of reasoning. Some cases are included for just one smaller essential: a definition or an exception.
Cases need to be read at two levels. What are the important aspects to understand about the individual case itself? This level of reading focuses on the parts within a case and the specifics one needs to understand the case. How does the case fit into a series of cases, into the sub-topic, and into the topic? This level of reading focuses on the synthesis of the case into the larger body of law that one is learning.
Cases are a starting point in the study of law rather than an ending point. Cases show us how judges think about the law. Cases teach us how to extrapolate the most important aspects from the full opinion. Cases provide us with "tools" for our toolkit so we can solve new legal problems. Cases become illustrations in outlines rather than the basis of outlines. Professors will not ask one to "recite everything you know about Case X" on their exams.
Cases are essential to the practice of law. Lawyers read and analyze cases every day. They are constantly searching for precedents that relate to their clients' cases. Thus, the time spent in law school on reading and briefing is not merely an "ivory tower" exercise. Students who become skilled at these tasks are making an investment in their future expertise. Students who use canned briefs or headnotes as substitutes for these tasks ultimately shortchange their professional growth.
Case reading and case briefing are important legal skills that take time to learn. The process becomes faster as the law student becomes more expert at analysis. It also becomes faster once the law student understands why we read cases. (Amy Jarmon)
Sunday, August 22, 2010
Wednesday, April 21, 2010
Some interesting science to report...at least one presenter at every ASP conference mentions that students feel that red pen makes it look as if the paper is "bleeding" negative comments. A new spin: teachers actually grade more harshly when using red pen. Another reason why green, pink, purple might be better bets when giving student feedback.
(I realize this link doesn't look like it fits with my post...it does.)
And a link to the full study is here:
The pen is mightier than the word: Object priming of evaluative standards
by Rutchick, Slepian, and Ferris
Thursday, January 21, 2010
Here is a list of non-traditional (i.e., "ASP") books that I would recommend ASP professionals check out. These are books that you might find helpful when planning for classes and learning a bit more about teaching and learning.
What Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain
Read this in anticipation of Mike Schwartz's upcoming book, What Best Law Professors Do. I think we will see considerable overlap between what good teachers of any discipline do in the classroom.
Teaching Law By Design by Schwartz, Hess, and Sparrow
By three of the great thinkers in humanizing legal education and ASP.
Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin
I often start spring semester ASP classes with some of the science behind great achievement. The truly fantastic--Michael Jordan, Steve Jobs--have more than talent. The start with some talent, but they use deliberate practice to hone their skills. Great achievement is more about intense, correct study and practice in a discipline than some amorphous, intangible "thing" only some people have. This puts students back in control of their education, and helps move them past some of the self-pity that accompanies less-than-stellar grades. For most struggling students, they can change if they use the right study habits, and giving them some science to back up that assertion gives it more weight.
Changing Minds by Howard Gardner (yes, the same one behind Multiple Intelligences)
This is a book that is about changing established patterns of thought, entrenched beliefs, and attitudes.Inflexible beliefs are the downfall of many during their first year; breaking them of emotional, illogical thought patterns and teaching them dispassionate analysis without breaking their spirit and motivation in the process is one of the toughest parts of ASP. Law school is about learning how to think in a new way; this puts educational theory behind what we are supposed to be facilitating.
Friday, February 27, 2009
The typical law school class is heavily focused on cases. Consequently, to 1L law students, the cases often seem to be the essentials rather than mere vehicles for bringing them the essentials they will need for developing a bigger picture of the course. Part of their misunderstanding of how to use cases is caused by our teaching methods and part may be because of their learning styles.
Some law professors expect their students to know every detail of every case for class recitation. Others just touch on a few points from the case. The former style suggests to some students that they need to know every detail for the exam. The latter style may leave some students wondering which details tie to those points or which details were important.
Professors will often throw out a series of hypotheticals to get their students to understand nuances of the application of a legal rule. And, professors may give no answers to those hypotheticals and leave the ultimate task of getting from the cases to the big picture for students to discover in their studying outside of class. Some students will walk away not knowing how the class discussion of cases related to the hypotheticals and what they were supposed to learn.
Does this mean that these professors are bad teachers or bad people? No. It does mean that some 1L students struggle with determining what is ultimately important in the course.
Because of their learning styles, some students will struggle more than other students in making sense of law school classes and cases. Global-intuitive learners will tend to have less problem than the sequential-sensing learners in the class.
Global-intuitive learners naturally process everything looking for the bigger picture and the inter-relationship of ideas. They prefer essentials because details are not particularly attrative to them. The highly detailed professor will have them wondering why they have to sit through all of the trivia. The professor who touches on a few points, throws out unanswered hypotheticals, and expects the students to pull it all together is more understandable to these learners. However, if these learners are high scorers on their learning styles, they may miss important details, organization, and nuances of analysis.
Sequential-sensing learners naturally process each case and each sub-topic as discrete individual parts. They think about units and the facts and details of those units. They naturally gain security from knowing everything there is to know about a case. They only look for the bigger picture later. The stronger their preference for "bottom up" learning, the harder it will be for them to see the bigger picture. It is these learners who sometimes get "left in the dust" of our typical law school case approach. Without help, they may get to the bigger picture too late to do well on the exam. (By the way, these students actually know more law usually than any of their global-intuitive friends.)
(In the "old days" of law school teaching, global-intutitive professors probably predominated and may have thought that the sequential-sensing student was not made of the "right stuff" to be a good lawyer. Fortunately, more awareness of learning styles means that both processing types are seen to have advantages and disadvantages in the study of law because all four processing steps are needed for the best essay answers or memos. And, in practice, the client benefits most if both types of learners are on a team for the case.)
My sequential-sensing learners struggle in deciding what can be discarded for their outlines. They are concerned that they will leave out something important. They are concerned that they need to know it all - every minute detail and every tiny fact.
Over the years, I have tried to find ways to help these sequential-sensing learners get a different perspective on cases. They will still read in more detail and still have separate units initially, but they can get to the bigger picture more quickly with some help. I talk a great deal with them about synthesis of cases, of sub-topics, etc.
By chance I came up with a basic analogy to help sequential-sensors understand the relevance of cases to the overall course. We talk about cases being like motor vehicles that may drive into your driveway but are ultimately owned by someone else and just "visiting."
The shiny little sports car: These zippy little cases pull into your driveway with little cargo capacity. As a result, there is less of importance to unload. Perhaps, you will find a definition of an element or an exception to a rule.
The family sedan: These sedate cases pull into your driveway with large trunks of essentials. One may find a substantial rule discussion, a sizeable interpretation of a statute, and/or a well-reasoned opinion with steps of analysis.
The family station wagon: These workhorse cases will be loaded down with many essentials (using even the roof rack). In addition to the type of cargo found in a family sedan, they often come loaded with extra policy discussion, additional variations on rules (minority and majority rules, restatement rules, model code rules), discussions of ambiguous or vague statutes, and/or discussion of multliple issues.
The U-Haul rental truck: These vehicles are the really major cases driving into your driveway. Think U.S. Supreme Court and state court of last resort. These major cases are packed with important essentials: doctrines of epic proportion, significant policy discussion perhaps, methodologies or bright-line tests, involved discussions of multiple precedents, complex issues and points of law, and/or possibly dissents and concurrences.
Whatever the motor vehicle size of a case, however, you let it drive away. You do not park it permanently in your driveway. You unload the essentials for your outline and wave goodbye to the driver with a thank you.
My sequential-sensing learners suddenly understand that it is okay to let go of the myriad of details once the essentials are spotted for their outlines. They begin to see that their task is to find only the most important cargo. They begin to see how cases are mere vehicles that fit together into a bigger picture of sub-topics and topics and applying that law to new fact scenarios. (Amy Jarmon)
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
I'd like to thank Ruth Ann McKinney of Carolina Law and give her credit for conceptualizing this metaphor and introducing me to it while I was a law student.
One of the concepts my students have struggled with this semester is the importance of what is left out of the court's opinion. For students with a background in the arts, an apt metaphor is to space in a sculpture. When looking at a great sculpture, it's not just what the artist does with the clay, steel, or marble that is significant. The beauty and meaning of the sculpture is also shaped by the space in and around the sculpture, where the artist has chosen to remove, carve, or shape the sculpture. Similarly, the court's opinion is shaped not just by what facts they choose to include in their rationale, but the facts they choose to ignore, the facts they find irrelevant, and the thinking they choose not to explain in the holding. What is left out of an opinion is the space in the sculpture; it is what shapes the decision as much as the material used to create the sculpture.
My favorite example is Robert Indiana's Love sculpture. It is ubiquitous, so most students know it if I reference it as an example. Without space in the sculpture, the places where the artist choose to remove steel, it would be a giant block of metal, not one of the most important pieces of pop art of our time. An opinion that includes all facts, policy, and thinking about the case would be a giant stack of paper without any direction or meaning. (RCF)
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
Dennis Tonsing e-mailed me with a revised link for a column that he had published in April 2005 regarding non-traditional students. In fixing the link, I read through the journal entry from Alice Marie Beard that was referenced.
Two thoughts came to mind. First, the column reminds us of the struggles for non-traditional students. Although written after Ms. Beard's first semester in law school in 2001, it is apropos to non-traditional students who are struggling this semester. Second, we are fortunate that Ruth Ann McKinney has published her wonderful book Reading Like a Lawyer since this column and Ms. Beard's experience in 2001.
Rather than just fix the link, I decided to re-publish the column that Dennis wrote. It appears below with the corrected link to Ms. Beard's diary entry/essay. (Amy Jarmon)
April 1, 2005: One Hell: February Thoughts on Law School
Alice Marie Beard, a recent graduate of George Mason University School of Law, wrote this essay during her first year of law school, while attending The Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law.
Although this particular essay (diary entry)was written in February 2001, it is still instructive to those of us who deal with students, especially with "non-traditional" students. Are we, too often, out of touch with what is going on with our students?
This morning, I worked with a non-traditional student who was about to "jump out of her skin" with anxiety. She hails from another state. She has a husband, lots of bills, and an extremely annoying landlord. She is in her first year of law school. Her husband is still job hunting. Her first semester grades are lower than she anticipated. She never saw a "C" in college, was accustomed to nearly all A's. She did the right thing: she asked for help. (Academic support often includes more than an IRAC rehash - I referred her to professionals who will be of great and immediate assistance to her.) In order to comprehend the profundity of the emotional impact of law school on ALL of our students, we need to become familiar with what they are going through.
Alice Marie Beard has graduated from law school, and (in more recent essays linked to her web site) looks back on her years at "Catholic." (djt)
Sunday, July 15, 2007
Tuesday, September 5, 2006
A important new working paper by Leah M. Christensen, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, examines the differences in the way high performing and low performing law students read legal texts. The article, "Legal Reading and Success in Law School: An Empirical Study," will be published in the Seattle University Law Review this spring. Below is an abstract of the article, and you can click on its title above to access the paper itself in the SSRN Electronic Paper Collection. This paper is a must read for those of us in Academic Support. (dbw)
Abstract: Does the way in which law students read legal text impact their success? This
article describes important new research on how law students read legal text. This study
examined the way in which first year law students in the top and bottom 50% of their
class read a judicial opinion and whether their use of particular reading strategies
impacts their law school grades. The results were significant: even when students had
gone through the same first-semester classes, the more successful law students read a
judicial opinion differently than those students who were less successful. In addition,
there is a correlation between the reading strategies of the top law students and their
first-semester grades. This article describes the results of the study using both empirical
data and actual student transcripts to show how the most successful law students read
legal text. This article also offers practical suggestions for legal educators to help
students learn to internalize the most useful and efficient reading strategies.
Abstract: Does the way in which law students read legal text impact their success? This
Saturday, August 27, 2005
Having taken the Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics course in 1967 (okay, so I'm a little rusty at it now), I suspected the student may be confusing "speed-reading" with "not-reading."
So I went to my favorite research resource: the World Wide Web.
My first stop was at a site operated by "Reading Genius, Ed Strachar." When I notice that he advertises by telling students: "Learn more by studying you (sic) Law texts faster!" ... I wondered about Ed's attention to detail. The site advertises: "Law School: A Survival Guide to Success at Law School." Regular readers of this blog are probably aware of my allergic reaction to the "survival" concept. (I don't want my attorney whispering to me - at the start of my trial: "I sure hope I survive.") I was gratified to see that the $395 price has been reduced to $297.
I was thrilled to find Vernellia Randall's advice to beginning law students: "Find out how fast you read complex material and with what comprehension. Then spend the summer working to bring your reading speed of complex material up to between 200-300 words per minute and your comprehension 85-100 percent on one-time reading. ... Please note, I am NOT talking about speed reading but merely a decent reading speed with high comprehension."
Next, I found that both Vernellia and the Marshall-Wythe Law Library at the College of William and Mary suggest (the now out of print) Reading Skills for Law Students by Craig Mayfield (Michie Company, 1980). According to the library's description, this material was "...developed from a speed reading course for law students at Brigham Young University as a workbook for enhancing reading speed and comprehension skills of legal materials. Organized into three parts, each with reading selections followed by questions to gage comprehension. Time conversion tables are available in the appendix to convey (sic) time taken to read to words read per minute." Note that the material is developed from a speed reading course, but is not a speed reading method.
Yet another commercial enterprise advertises: "Our Law School Survival Skills [argh! (ed.)] programs cover the basic techniques required for students who wish to survive [argh again. (ed.)] and excel in the law school environment. Lawyers report that they would have done better in law school and had reduced stress levels if they had learned these skills before beginning law school. ... [including] ... speed reading." If you know these lawyers who reported to this company, let me know. I'd like to learn from them.
Then I stumbled upon the Law Nerds. Included under the heading "speed reading" are these expert pieces of advice:
- Skipping: As a result of pre-reading, you can determine which paragraphs you can skip altogether. ... skipping can actually increase overall comprehension.
- Skimming: ... use skimming when you are basically familiar with the material but need more information than what you got out of the overview.
- Reading: Reading doesn't mean that you have to read every word. ... Once the semester starts, you will be hard pressed to read every assignment during your first semester.
The bulleted material is quoted (admission: it's also lifted out of context for the sake of brevity). After reading the text in its entirety, I remain a skeptic.
Query: Should we be teaching our students how to "speed read?" Your thoughts? Send me an e-mail and I'll post it. (djt)