Thursday, June 4, 2020

Constitutional Disregard

I've taken the title to this little blog from a phrase in the recent post of Prof. Marsha Griggs, calling us, all of us, to action and resolve to fight, work, and promote justice. Griggs, M., "Despicable Us," Law School Academic Support Blog (June 2, 2020).  As Prof. Griggs reminds, it's our oath, and in that oath, we say that we are committed to safeguard justice for all.  But what if there's little to safeguard?  What then?

The horrific brutal torture and killing of another innocent person just last week makes one wonder.  There have been so many others, not just in the U.S., but around the world.  What is it that leads so many to blindly look away, to not care or empathize, to sit on laurels when, frankly, the laurels are all dried up?

I'm tired of calls to come together and talk.  And, in light of the ongoing protests, it seems like I am not alone.  But as Prof. Griggs points out, most are silent.  

So often I'm that one - the silent one.  I'm not sure what I can do or say but I know that I hold a position of great responsibility, which obligates me to spring to action to make the world as right as it can possibly be.  That takes real work, not trite talk.  I'm worried that so few really want to do that work, that so few are really eager to change, that so few are so wedded to the present that there's little promise or hope for a brighter future. I'm worried that I'm one of those, waiting for others to right an upside down world.

I didn't know what else to do.  So I wrote letters.  First to the mayor of Minneapolis.  Then to the police chief.  Next to the mayor of Denver and the police chief of Denver.  Finally to my U.S. senators and local U.S. representative.  

Everyday counts because every person counts.  As I tried to explain to my students this summer, there are ways to move forward towards the pursuit of justice, right now.  

First, take a look at how many municipal ordinances and state laws provide for incarceration.  I think that many of those punishments are out-of-all proportion with the social harms for which criminal laws are supposed to countenance.  And, the lack of proportionality is, I think, a violation of constitutional due process because it burdens people for no reason at all.

Second, take a look at the details of what happened in Minneapolis.  A telephone call about a possible counterfeit $20 bill.  Two police show up to investigate. One draws a gun and orders Mr. Floyd out of the car.  $20 dollars.  What happened to the investigation?  It was like the police wanted to make an arrest.  The alleged crime being investigated, I think, was a specific intent crime, requiring proof of both the act of using counterfeit currency to purchase goods or services along with the mental state of intent to use counterfeit currency.  Under the due process requirement of the Constitution, that would seem to require a real investigation rather than drawing a weapon.  It sure seems like a violation just to walk up to a car and threaten someone's life with lethal force without at least asking any questions.  That's why I wrote to the city leaders and politicians admonishing them to reform criminal laws to require the issuance of citations rather than proceeding with arrests, which are by their nature acts of force and the escalation of force.  Better to proceed with deescalation, issue a citation after a thorough investigation, and then bring the issue in front of an independent magistrate. 

Third, I've read a lot of police reports.  They talk a lot about probable cause but in general have little facts to show for it.  And, because the Constitution requires both probable cause to issue a citation or to make an arrest, with reasonable trustworthy facts as support, its time to ensure that police reports, etc., list identifiable, particularized, concrete allegations of fact to support both the culpable criminal act of the crime alleged along with the culpable mental state.  In my opinion, that's a requirement of not just the Fourth Amendment but also the Due Process Clause to provide meaningful notice of the specific grounds for criminal charges.  What if police reports fail to identify such facts? It's defective and the citation, arrest, and/or indictment should be quashed, immediately.  And, the police authorities who harmed a person by failing to provide constitutional notice ought to be liable under civil rights laws for acting under the color of law without constitutional authority in explicit derogation of due process protections.  And prosecutors that pursue such defective charges ought to be held accountable by regulatory agencies, the public, and the legal system.

Fourth, according to news media, at least one of the police officers arrested and charged for the death of Mr. Floyd had previous disciplinary records, which, as far as I can tell, resulted in little action and were not available to the public at large.  When political leaders, as our representatives, appoint police officers, as our agents, and when the political leaders then arm those police officers with lethal force, the HR records of those officers should be available to us all.  Nothing should be secret; after all, the police are supposed to work for us.  But, I hesitate to add, police unions are mighty powerful.  Often times, it seems, more powerful than political leaders.  But if a union protects someone who is engaged in unlawful acts, then we should hold unions accountable too.

Perhaps my suggestions to politically powerful leaders won't make any difference.  So far I've not received any responses.  But I'm not giving up.  All of us only have one life to live.  It's up to us to choose to live it fully, wisely, and for others.   I fall short, so often, and all the time.  But with each day, we get a new opportunity.  The past need not hold us back, if only we have the courage to act.  After all, that's the constitutional duty that we've pledged ourselves to embrace on the behalf of others. To act justly on the behalf of others. (Scott Johns).

P.S. As a starting point, please take a look at Attorney General Ellison's statement and the criminal charges filed against the 4 Minneapolis police officers:

https://www.ag.state.mn.us/Office/Communications/2020/06/03_GeorgeFloyd.asp:

I quote in part the words of Attorney General Ellison from the news release:  "

"To the Floyd family, to our beloved community, and everyone that is watching, I say: George Floyd mattered. He was loved. His life was important. His life had value. We will seek justice for him and for you and we will find it. The very fact that we have filed these charges means that we believe in them. But what I do not believe is that one successful prosecution can rectify the hurt and loss that so many people feel. The solution to that pain will be in the slow and difficult work of constructing justice and fairness in our society.  

That work is the work of all of us. We don’t need to wait for the resolution of the investigation and prosecution of the George Floyd case. We need citizens, neighbors, leaders in government and faith communities, civil- and human- rights activists to begin rewriting the rules for a just society. We need new policy and legislation and ways of thinking at municipal, state, and federal levels. The world of arts and entertainment can use their cultural influence to help inspire the change we need. There is a role for all who dream of a justice we haven’t had yet.  

In the final analysis, a protest can shake the tree and make the fruit fall down. But after that fruit is in reach, collecting it and making the jam must follow. The demonstration is dramatic and necessary. But building just institutions is slower and more of a grind, and just as important. We need your energy there too. We need it now." 

 

 

June 4, 2020 in Advice, Diversity Issues, Encouragement & Inspiration, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Bar Prep Begins . . . Sort of

In a normal year, my students would all have begun their bar preparation yesterday, coasting on their post-graduation-ceremony momentum right into a seat in front of the first of many lecturers.  But in New York, and more than a third of all U.S. jurisdictions (in which -- again, in a normal year -- more than half of all July examinees would be sitting for the exam), the date of the bar examination has been postponed for six weeks or more, leaving bar students in those jurisdictions with the gift they hate most of all: uncertainty.

What is to be done with all this extra time?  Bar preparation companies cannot agree: some are simply administering their typical ten-week program, just starting it six weeks later than usual, while others have reworked their program schedule, starting it earlier and drawing it out over a longer period, but with shorter study days.  Employers, many contending with their own virus-induced crises, have added variables to the new graduates' calculations, some allowing their new employees to start early and then take time off, others expecting hirees to adhere to their original early-August start dates, and still others unnervingly withdrawing their employment offers indefinitely.  Even we bar support specialists can only make well-educated guesses about how to make use of six extra weeks.  We have no data, no direct experience of how a delay like this will affect individual students or the testing cohort as a whole.  How much more study can a student put in without burning out?  Should the extra time be spread across all aspects of bar study, or should certain skills or subjects receive more attention?  Will MBE scores increase overall for those who take the test in September?  Decrease?  Will the bell curve spread out?  Will this hurt or help examinees?

Sensibly, 43 more days of prep time should be seen as a boon.  In a normal year for bar study, isn't time the most precious resource of all?  In my discussions with students, I have suggested they think of this extra time the way they might think of an unexpected financial windfall.  You don't have to spend it all in one place.  You might devote a large chunk of it to bar study -- that is, after all, the primary focus of the summer -- but how you specifically budget it depends on your own circumstances.  An examinee facing financial pressures might choose to work for a few weeks, then begin studying a few weeks early.  Someone eager to get started studying might begin this week, but set aside a week or two, at strategically placed spots on the calendar, to put study aside, connect with family and friends, or do whatever else helps them refill their gas tank.  It's important not to let the time slip by unnoticed -- it would be bad to turn off the TV one night near the end of June and realize you had not done any bar study -- and that's why it's important to budget the time and actually create a schedule.  And that, for some, is what seems to turn this temporal windfall into a vexation.  In order to budget, you have to make choices.

No one wants their bar prep period to feel like playing endless rounds of "The Lady or the Tiger?"  At every step: choose the right path, and you will be rewarded with contented knowledge and testing skills; choose the wrong path, and you will be mauled by a ravenous UBE with MPT fangs and MBE claws.  In a normal year, examinees only have to be certain that the regimented bar study course they have chosen, which has worked for thousands of examinees before them, will continue to reliably work for them.  This summer, though, because so much is unregimented, some examinees are anxious about being uncertain about so much more.  Am I studying enough?  Am I studying too much?  Am I studying too early?  Am I studying the right things, in the right way, for the right amount of time?

Two propositions can help people in such a tizzy of uncertainty.  First, assure them that they are not feeling this uncertainty because of some character flaw that prevents them from making definitive choices.  They are not losing their heads while all about them are keeping theirs.  This is an inherently uncertain situation -- we can't even be assured the exam will actually be administered in September! -- and so there is no single "correct" choice.  The best they can do is what they've been training to do for the past three years: exercise good judgment based on competent authority and relevant facts.  As long as they are not just guessing, as long as they are talking to us and their mentors and their instructors and applying what they learn to what they already know about themselves and the task before them, they can at least make a good choice.

Second, help them subdue the perception that they are overwhelmed by uncertainty by reminding them of what is certain.  The content and structure of the bar examination remains the same (well, except in Indiana), as do generally those of the reputable bar courses designed to prepare examinees for the test.  They still have their law degrees, and the skill, intelligence, and diligence that helped them earn those degrees.  They have a community of classmates, instructors, and mentors who they can rely on to share perspective and feedback on the decisions they do make.  They have a certain task, they have certain abilities, and they have certain resources.  In the face of uncertainty, those are best certainties to have.

[Bill MacDonald]

May 19, 2020 in Advice, Bar Exam Issues, Bar Exam Preparation, Current Affairs, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Less Might Be More -- For Success on the Bar Exam (and in Life)

I once had a teacher tell me to never read good books. Never ever. And why not?

Because if I spent my time reading good books (or doing good things), then I wouldn't have time left to read the really great books (or do the really great things of life).  

That's a lesson that has never left my side.

In bar prep, I'm convinced that too many are trying to do too much, and, in the process of doing good tasks, they aren't doing the great things that are really important for success on the bar exam.  Let me be frank. You don't have time in bar prep to do good things.  But, you have plenty of time to do the really great things, the things that produce fruitful learning.

With that in mind, here's a few tips:

  • Do less reading and more pondering the law, how it works or doesn't, and what it means to you as a person.
  • Do less note-taking and more puzzling through problems to learn the law.
  • Do less testing and more practicing, feeling free to work problems over slowly, reading them out loud if you'd like, as you develop confidence and competence in your own voice as an expert problem-solver.

That's just a few suggestions.  

But, rather than hear it from me, a teacher, I thought I'd share the wisdom of a recent successful bar-taker in that person's own words.  After all, they say that a picture is worth a thousand words (but the wise words from the heart & mind of a recent bar taker -- who wants to share with YOU what she/he learned through re-taking the bar exam -- is worth a priceless fortune).

Advice for First-Time Bar Takers:

  • Practice way more than you think! If you are wondering whether you should watch a lecture or do a practice question, do the practice question.
  • Let go of memorizing everything. It is impossible. Learn what your weak areas are and spend more time with those subjects.
  • You will feel like you know nothing until approximately the last week of bar prep. Somehow, magically, it does come together. I promise.
  • Do all the bar prep practice tests.
  • Think really hard about who you want to study with. This is not the time to do something different from how you handled law school.
  • Come up with a plan and stick to it. The bar prep calendar is really helpful for this. Decide how many practice questions you want to do everyday and do it. But if you are starting to burn out, be OK with taking breaks. It's a marathon!

Advice for Fresh Start Re-Takers:

  • First, I am so sorry that you have been dealt this card. There is no question that it hurts. Take care of yourself and do things that make you happy.
  • As you begin planning your next round of bar prep, make sure to work with the law school to identify the weak aspects of your exam answers. This will help define ways you can “work smarter” instead of “work harder.”
  • Also work with the law school to identify new ways to study. It might be changing up your study tool or how you review your answers. For me, studying ALONE the second round vastly improved my scores. I think studying alone boosted my confidence because it required me to look up answers to my own mistakes. I also stopped comparing myself to friends.  
  • Ditch the bar prep lectures. Use that time to practice WAY MORE MBE and MEE practice questions. I probably tripled the amount of practice questions I did during my second round of bar prep.
  • Log your progress. I was way more intentional about compiling lists of rules I kept missing on MBE questions. This helped me to keep track of weak areas so I could spend more time learning the law in specific subjects.
  • Spend timing thinking about any testing anxiety you might have. Adding mindfulness meditations to my study plan helped a ton!

That brings me back to the start of this little essay.  How do you know what are the really great books to read (or the great things to do)?  That's were wisdom comes in.  Reach out to a person you trust, on your faculty or staff or from a colleague or mentor who knows you as a person from head to toe.  The advice that I've shared in this blog is from such a person, who, although he/she doesn't know you, knows you, because she/he has cared enough to share with you the lessons learned through the process.  So, you have a friend who is rooting for you (and that includes me too!).

(Scott Johns)

May 7, 2020 in Advice, Bar Exam Issues, Bar Exam Preparation, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Reliance Interests

One thing that most of us probably don't full appreciate until we miss it is degree to which we rely on predictability.  When things are going well, it is often largely because so many things are doing just what we expect them to do, without us having to think about it.  When every paycheck is direct deposited, when every mocha latte tastes just like you like it, when your spouse kisses you every morning and your favorite TV show is on every evening, it's all part of one grand comfortable life.  It is not simply or even primarily the easy and convenience that makes it comfortable.  It's the reassurance that comes with knowing that, and understanding how, cause leads to effect.  Things happen because we make them happen, or if not, at least we expected them to happen, and all that generates confidence and a sense of efficacy.

Suddenly we enter an alternative universe in which supermarkets run out of the most basic, boring staples, like flour; in which basic medical precautions like hand washing might be useless because you were unknowingly infected two weeks ago; in which jobs and income just disappear for even the most conscientious employees; in which graduating with a degree, even with honors, from a decent law school may not even be enough to permit you to take a bar examination, let alone begin earning a living.  All of these are aggravating, and some have potentially dire consequences.  But taken as a whole, their greatest effect on us may be that they are contradicting our assumptions about how the world reliably runs.  

Trust is like a vitamin.  When we haven't got a minimum daily requirement -- when there are too many things in our lives that we can't rely on -- it's like a psychic scurvy.  Instead of bruising easily and losing our teeth, we panic easily and lose our self-confidence.  The cortisol levels in our bloodstreams shoot up, because in an unpredictable world we always have to be prepared to fight or flee.  We can't concentrate, we are easily rattled, we might even suffer illness because of it.  It's hard.  We need to be able to rely on some things to perform well.

This is one of the reasons that humans invented lawyers in the first place.  We needed more people we could trust to rely on.  We needed people who could develop frameworks of predictable rules so that we would not feel that conflicts were resolved arbitrarily.  Lawyers are a testament to the human craving for reliability.

And in order to make lawyers that clients can rely on, we need to teach students to rely on themselves, on their own capabilities and judgment.  And this does not happen overnight.  First we teach them that they can rely on others -- on their professors to teach them how the law works and on mentors to show them the ropes -- then that they can rely on systems, like legislatures and administrative bodies, and then ultimately on themselves.  You know these rules and how to apply them.  You understand how to navigate bureaucracy, at least enough to find your way through any new one you encounter.  You know how to come up with solutions, how to suggest them to other interested parties, how to negotiate a compromise.  You're a cause that has effect, because you are a lawyer.

Even with everything going well in law school, though -- and it may not be, at least not for every student, given the range of burdens that they are shouldering -- when the rest of the world is telling you that you can't eat in your favorite restaurant, that the only available toilet paper is the Want Ads section of your local paper, and it may be more than a year before you can begin working, it can be really easy to spend all your time on edge, trembling at the unclear implications of every announcement from the school or your state bar examiners.  And when it is easy to be that anxious, it is usually hard to study, focus, work efficiently, and present yourself to the world as a new lawyer.

So, lately, I've been thinking of how Academic Support professionals are kind of like psychic vitamin supplements.  In a world in which everybody feels that so many things are less reliable now, we are telling our students, "Look, you can trust us.  We'll explain the right answer; we'll send you feedback on your writing; we will find and share information you might not be able to access yourselves.  But we will also teach you that you can trust yourselves.  You're learning the rules you need to learn.  You're developing the writing and analytical and persuasive skills you need as tools to cause the effects you want.  You're going to develop the judgment that makes a good counselor, and some day other people will come to rely on you."

All of that messaging is what we do on a good day.  Lately, I feel like I have had to up my game to extra strength multivitamin levels.  Making myself available for conferences more frequently; responding to emails super-promptly, before students can feel ignored; finding additional resources for students in increasingly dire straits because of the current crisis.  Maybe this is really the core of what Academic Support does best at times like these: by actions that show our students that they can rely on us, we help them see they can rely on their professors, on the law, on the system, so that they can better learn to rely on themselves.  

[Bill MacDonald]

May 5, 2020 in Academic Support Spotlight, Bar Exam Issues, Current Affairs, Encouragement & Inspiration, Professionalism, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Next Year's Graduates

Has there ever been a U.S. law school class subject to more stress and uncertainty than the class of 2020?  Okay, not every student across the country has suffered equally, but here in New York our students were told all of their classes would abruptly be online, that they would not get to see their classmates for the rest of the year, that their bar examination would be postponed indefinitely, that a bizarrely deadly disease racing across the state, that their bar examination would be rescheduled for September but that there was no guarantee there would be space for them to take it, that the economy was collapsing and some of the jobs they were counting on could disappear, and that they would probably get to take the exam in September if there were an exam in September but nobody can really tell them how it's going to work yet anyway.  All of this in less than six weeks.  Plus now they have to do all of their classes and meetings via Zoom, which fosters so much lack of eye contact and awkward silence it reminds me of a sixth-grade dance.  No wonder our soon-to-be graduates are so weary.

Like a lot of us, I am weary, too, trying to be there for my 3L students, putting new resources in place, thinking ahead about how to contend with the changes to the bar exam.  But when things slow down (later and later in the evening) and I have a moment to stop thinking about my bar prep class and the latest news from the Board of Law Examiners, that's when I think about next year, when maybe things will be "back to normal".  And that's when I get really anxious.

Our current 3L students are stressed, but also super motivated.  They were 92% of the way through law school when things went whack, and they are not about to let that last 8% stand in their way.  Everyone with an interest in this summer's bar exam -- law schools, the state, employers -- wants to see these students get through the disruption and get into the workplace, and if that means relaxing some rules or changing some procedures well then so be it.  Sure, it's going to be an unusual summer, but there's a potential for six additional weeks of prep time for the bar exam.  It's possible that some students will be better prepared for the test.  It's my job not to assume that, but it could happen.

The students I actually worry about -- when I can, because our imminent graduates require so much immediate attention -- are the current 2Ls.  Many of them have seen their summer job or internship plans interrupted, and I know our careers services office is hearing from them about those issues.  But I am barely hearing from them at all about academic concerns, and my attempts at general outreach have generated very little response.  I do not doubt that most 2L students have simply made a successful transition to online classes -- a transition made easier in many schools by a move to mandatory pass/fail grading and by a general and humane understanding that this change has been fast and novel for all of us and that, considering the background stresses of illness, isolation, and finances, it is appropriate to give students a little slack.

But I also fear that there is a portion of the class of 2021 that is not handling the transition as well.  There could be some -- hopefully a small number -- directly affected by this crisis, dealing with their own illness or that of a loved one, or with financial difficulties, any of which could in turn affect their performance in school.  Others might just not be doing as well academically as they would be in a live classroom, with the opportunity to study with classmates every week.  Those students just might not be getting everything they otherwise might have from their classes, even though they feel like they are making the same effort.  And then there are sometimes a few students whose inclination is to do less work, when possible, and this is in many ways a situation in which that is possible.  

All of these subsets of 2L students might learn, understand, and be able to correctly apply less of what they are learning in their spring classes now than they would have if the world had not shifted so radically.  And we might not know it now, because it is so hard to make contact with them under these new conditions.  What's worse, without thinking ahead about this, we may not even find out who these students are and where they have developed gaps (Evidence? Criminal Procedure? Wills and Trusts?) until the start of next year's spring semester, if they just get "Passes" in all their classes this semester.   And by that time, I am sure we are all hoping, things will be "back to normal" -- classes back in the building, bar exam scheduled for ten weeks after graduation, employers expecting practice-ready students on August 1.  They won't be the beneficiaries of relaxed procedures or of extra study time, or of any other kind of leeway.

So this is what I think about when I can. How can I reach people who seem perfectly comfortable not being reached at this moment?  How can I, sooner rather than later, identify and help these students who might otherwise not manifest the effects of the spring of discontent until the glorious summer of 2021?

I think the fall of 2020 is going to be incredibly consequential to those students, and I think we need to be prepared for it.

[Bill MacDonald]

April 28, 2020 in Bar Exam Preparation, Miscellany, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, April 24, 2020

Educational Resilience

I’ve thought a lot about educational resilience in recent years, and the health, economic, and social crisis we find ourselves in today has made the topic seem all the more important and relevant.  

Educational resilience is distinct from concepts like grit or educational buoyancy that describe how students respond to the everyday challenges of academic life: getting started, staying focused, and putting in the effort necessary to complete difficult tasks. Resilience refers to how our students (or any of us) respond to extraordinary adversity. The type of adversity that disrupts our normal patterns and throws us out of equilibrium. Resilience theory looks at how people adjust after adversity: whether the experience permanently impacts their functionality and diminishes their potential; whether they return to something like the previous status quo; or whether they integrate the experience of overcoming adversity into a narrative of empowerment, leaving them more resilient and successful going forward.

As we communicate with students over the next weeks and months, we are, wittingly or not, co authoring their narratives of adversities and resilience and how it relates to their educational story. Research and experience have led me to believe that educationally resilient students share certain characteristics. None of these characteristics will be particularly surprising or ground-breaking to anyone in this community, but I think they still bear repeating.

Resilient students are realistic about challenges, but they emphasize the positive over the negative. They are unwilling to perceive themselves as victims and instead characterize themselves as powerful agents with influence over their world. They accept responsibility and learn from their mistakes, but they also focus on the future and on specific, tangible goals. And they respond to the challenges they face with transformative energy or, if you will, love. (My apologies if my hippie side is showing.)

I find myself reflecting on these characteristics of resilient narratives not only as it relates to how I’m communicating with my students, but also with respect to the story I’m telling myself about the world today and my place in it. I know others have said it before me, but in this time of crisis, I’ve never been more aware of the role I play as a supporter and advocate for my students, providing a measure of predictability and consistency in unsettling times.   

One thing on which all literature on resilience agrees is the enormous impact that having one consistent, engaged supporter can have on success. This is especially true when the supporter is advocating for and promoting the student’s success in a particular field of endeavor or in terms of meeting a particular goal. In many cases the supporter may not even realize the profound impact they have had or the fact that they have become a pivotal character in a student’s story of educational resilience.  

I have had my moments, these last few months, when I can’t tell if what I’m doing is making any difference; when it seems like nothing I do could possibly be equal to what my students are going through, anyway. Perhaps you have felt the same.

I encourage you all to be positive, empowered, future-focused, and loving, both with your students and yourselves. Because, what we are doing matters, enormously, whether or not we can always see the impact we are having.  

(Liam Skilling - Guest Blogger)

April 24, 2020 in Encouragement & Inspiration, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Now Comes the Hard Part

The last few weeks have been extraordinary in dizzying ways.  A massive and abrupt shift to online teaching; a disruptive delay in administration of the bar examination; increased academic, professional, and/or personal responsibilities; fears for one's health or the health of loved ones; actual physical illness; loss of income; loss of planned employment or experiential opportunities; long-term economic uncertainty; social isolation and loneliness -- any one of these would be distractingly stressful to a student or teacher under ordinary circumstances, and many of us and our students are facing most of them simultaneously. 

The saving grace has been the correspondingly extraordinary response -- demonstrations of grit, resourcefulness, generosity, and positivity -- that the situation has generated.  Administrators and technicians working 16-hour days to keep classes and resources flowing.  Educators implementing and sharing creative solutions to the problems of distance learning, and making special efforts to keep students engaged.  Students accepting their changed circumstances with remarkable flexibility, increased effort, and gracious understanding.  And, as a backdrop, millions of people, throughout the country and the world, working, sharing, and cooperating towards common goals.

But these last few weeks are really the first few weeks.  To many they seem much longer already, but everyone -- law schools included -- faces an even more extended period of disruption and deprivation.  That burst of energy and goodwill with which our students faced the initial transformation will have its limits.  Even our own stockpiles of buoyancy and resilience are going to be threatened.

That is normal.  It is really a form of culture shock, and as anyone who has experienced culture shock can tell you, there will be a cycle of highs and lows until we fully acclimate to our new world.  We can all deal with these, one way or another, but the best way is with open eyes and thoughtful consideration.  Expect at some point to feel exhaustion and discouragement in ourselves, and to recognize them in our students and colleagues. 

Plan for it if you can -- be thinking ahead about when (soon!) you can take some time for yourself, and about how you can encourage your students to do the same.  Classes will be over in a few weeks, exams a few weeks after that; a little downtime right about now, and then after exams are over, can help to stretch everyone's reserves. 

Reaching out to others for support -- sharing or trading tasks, enjoying a little social time (like a virtual happy hour), or even just mutual commiseration about how tough it has been -- should be a little more manageable at this point, now that we have all familiarized ourselves with our new schedules, our formerly unfamiliar conferencing tools, and the proper guidelines for face-to-face-but-still-six-feet-away interactions. 

And, most importantly, don't let the next plunge in spirits catch anyone by surprise.  Let your students know -- gently, not with a sense of foreboding -- that it would be natural to start feeling low at some point, and that the feeling will not be permanent, and that you can be there for them while it lasts.  Help them to focus on the tasks that will help them not only get through the next several months, but also accomplish things they will be proud to talk about years later.  And remember that you will not be immune, and that taking care of yourself is another way to help you take care of your students.

[Bill MacDonald]

April 7, 2020 in Advice, Bar Exam Preparation, Current Affairs, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Building Mental Toughness

Law school and the bar exam require immense mental toughness during regular preparation periods.  Online learning combined with the stress from uncertainty magnifies that difficulty.  Dr. Travis Bradberry wrote an article for Success magazine in 2016 describing 15 qualities mentally tough people exhibit.  The list includes:

  1. Emotional Intelligence
  2. Confidence
  3. Neutralizing toxic people
  4. Embracing change
  5. Saying no
  6. Fear leads to regret
  7. Embracing failure
  8. Not dwelling on mistakes
  9. Others won't limit joy
  10. Won't limit the joy of others
  11. Exercise
  12. Get enough sleep
  13. Limit caffeine
  14. Forgiving
  15. Relentlessly positive

All those qualities may not apply to law school or the current situation, but many of us could benefit from doing more of a few of them.  Most of us should be more confident, say no more, embrace failure, not dwell on mistakes, exercise, get sleep, forgive, and stay positive.  Check out the article for advice in each one of these areas.  Most of us are trying to do much more now than a couple months ago.  Be reasonable and take steps to stay mentally fresh.  

(Steven Foster)

 

 

April 5, 2020 in Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, March 16, 2020

A Message for Unchartered Territory

I'm sharing a message from Professor Janet Thompson Jackson of Washburn School of Law for all of us in this period of social distancing. Feel free to share it with your students or incorporate it into your own mindfulness meditation.
 
This is a very stressful and uncertain time.  None of us has lived through anything like this before.  You may be feeling scared or you may be unconcerned or you may be somewhere in the middle. However you are feeling is okay. I suggest you sit with your feelings for a bit and then ask yourself if where you are emotionally is serving you and others in a helpful way.
 
If you find yourself in a constant state of panic or worry, that is likely lowering your immune system, which is not what you want right now. Feeling some anxiety in a time of uncertainty is normal, but it’s good to make an effort to move out of that state. Try making a daily list of good things that happened during the day, even small things like laughing at a movie or show. Keeping a gratitude list helps us to shift perspective.
 
Or, you may be unconcerned and think that everyone is overreacting. That, too, is a legitimate feeling. It's good to realize, though, that your reaction may be your own response to stress. This might be a good time to extend some grace and compassion to others, including yourself.  Everyone is pretty much doing the best they can under the circumstances. Maybe demonstrating a sense of calm without any criticism is just what someone else needs right now.  You also may want to take some time to donate to an organization that is working to help people who are living in the margins and are particularly challenged at this time.
 
You may find yourself somewhere in between. You may vacillate between the extremes, but are able to come back to the middle most of the time. A good way to keep your equilibrium is to look for ways you can be of service. Is there someone you know who doesn’t do well with social isolation who could use a call or text (or even better, FaceTime or other video chat)? 
 
Here are some other ideas to help stay emotionally and physically healthy in uncertain times:
  1.  Meditate. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Sitting or laying down and focusing on your breathing will work. Or stare at a candle for a few minutes or listen to calming music.  Even 5 minutes of mindfulness helps. Try it a couple times a day, like in the morning and before bed.  The effects last longer than you would think.

  2. Give your devices a break. Isolation sometimes makes us even more attached to our devices, especially when we’re trying to keep up with the fast changing news. Try planning a time during the day or evening when you will not be on any device for an hour if possible. If that seems too long start with 15 min and work your way up.

  3. Laugh. Find a funny movie, book, song — anything that makes you laugh. Laughing is good medicine.

  4. Read something uplifting. Give the news a break and pick up a book that makes you feel good.

  5. Move. The gym may not be a good idea right now, but you can work out, dance, do yoga or other
    movement at home.

  6. Be kind. Just be kind to yourself and others. 

  7. Sleep. Now is a great time to catch up.

March 16, 2020 in Current Affairs, Encouragement & Inspiration, Miscellany, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, February 24, 2020

We See You

The bar exam is so much more than a test. It is an arduous all-encompassing journey that begins with months of study and practice. Today, the journey comes to an end for the February bar takers. As we send positive thoughts and well-wishes to our students taking the bar exam, we should consciously acknowledge the individuality of the journey for each student, the diversity of experiences, and the sacrifices that were made to reach this point.

Bar takers of all ages and backgrounds have sacrificed, surrendered, lost, ignored, delayed, and missed so much while studying for the bar. Yet, life circumstances would not pause during bar study. Some wed, or welcomed a new child; others dealt with the loss of a pet or family member; some faced separation or divorce; while others moved in, moved away, or moved back home. There are bar takers who made the necessary decision to leave young children in the temporary care of  family or friends, while others had to find ways to incorporate parenting and family time, or perhaps elder care, into the bar study routine.

For so many, there were financial struggles. Students took out loans to pay for a bar course, to eat, to live. Some quit their jobs for full-time bar study; others lost their jobs because they could not keep up with the hours and the demands of study. Repeat takers managed the stigma and financial distress of a second, or third, bar prep period. No dollar amount can truly capture the real cost of studying for the bar. There is a toll on your body, your back, your hands, and your eyesight.

Bar takers everywhere, we see you. We acknowledge your struggle. We affirm your efforts and we cannot wait to celebrate your success!

(Marsha Griggs)

February 24, 2020 in Bar Exam Preparation, Bar Exams, Diversity Issues, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, February 20, 2020

A Quick Classroom Experiment on Cognitive Bias

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.

(Scott Johns).

February 20, 2020 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Learning Styles, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, February 17, 2020

Who Am I to Pass the Bar?

Bar takers, you have seven study days remaining to prepare, to take one last look at your bare bones outlines, to try to crack the code for recognizing recording statutes, and to improve your speed at performance testing.[1] Adding to the angst of sitting for an exam that will determine entry into your chosen profession, is the foreboding fact that national bar passage rates have declined and not returned to prior years heights.[2] News from bad to scary, logically, can lead to doubt and self-debasing thoughts like who am I to pass if as few as four of every 10 bar takers pass the bar in some states?[3]

The negative thoughts creep in and resound even louder to those who entered law school against the odds. Those with LSAT scores below 150; those who juggled working to provide for a family by day, and the competitive rigors of law study by night; those who managed the anxiety of chronic illness and attendance requirements; those who faced implicit biases that created a presumption of lower competence and precluded their appointment to prestigious posts; those whose humble social or financial backgrounds placed them in a daily battle with imposter syndrome; those whose law schools don't rank elite; and those who’ve found a home in the bottom quartile of the law school class are left to silently question who am I to pass?

Let these words be the fight song for the academic underdog. You entered law school, wind at your front, and made it. You fed your family and persevered. You commuted two hours to and from school and made the 8:00 AM lectures. You tutored yourself. You feared failure, but kept going. You ignored the rankings, and focused on your exams. When things got hard, you got harder. So to those who still question, who are you to pass . . . ?

I ask the better question: who are you not to?

(Marsha Griggs)*

 

[1] The Louisiana Bar Examination is administered February 17 – 21, 2020, eight days before the administration of the Uniform Bar Exam and other state bar exams.

[2] Mark Hansen, Multistate Bar Exam Average Score Falls to 33-Year Low, A.B.A. J. (Mar. 31, 2016). See also Jeffrey Kinsler, Law Schools, Bar Passage, and Under and Over-Performing Expectations, 36 QUINNIPIAC L. REV. 183, 187 (“Between 2009 and 2013, nationwide firsttime bar passage rates remained in the high seventy percentile range with three years at 79%, one year (2013) at 78%, and one year (2012) at 77%. Those nationwide bar passage numbers slid from 78% in 2013 to 74% in 2014, 70% in 2015, and 69% in 2016.”).

[3] Joshua Crave, Bar Exam Pass Rate by State, LAWSCHOOLI (Jan. 29, 2019), https://lawschooli.com/bar-exam-pass-rate-by-state.

*adapted from BarCzar Blog originally published April 2018.

February 17, 2020 in Bar Exam Preparation, Bar Exams, Disability Matters, Diversity Issues, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, February 13, 2020

An Experiment in Learning to Think Reflectively

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.

(Scott Johns).

February 13, 2020 in Advice, Bar Exam Issues, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Learning Styles, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, February 10, 2020

The Other Side of Bar Prep

And you'll finally see the truth, that a hero lies in you. Mariah Carey and Walter Afanasieff

Every lawyer who has completed the journey that begins with law school and ends with a multi-day bar examination knows the anxiety, the overload, and the sheer exhaustion that is bar study. There is no shortage of horror stories involving the bar exam.1 Virtually every attorney has a bar-related cautionary tale. Some of these tales recount the angst of making up legal rules to answer an essay question about which they had no clue how to answer.2 Other tales may involve the heart-stopping panic brought on by “Barmageddon” when technology glitches prevented examinees from electronically submitting their essays.3 The bar exam is a grueling rite of passage that no attorney wants to revisit or repeat.

But not accounted for in the published bar pass lists and statewide bar statistics is a group of unsung heroes that contribute in meaningful ways to the attorney rosters of each state. This group is largely unnoticed, unnamed, or misnomered as law school academic support staff, professional development personnel or even student services providers. These gifted folks, whether or not named or recognized, essentially relive the nightmare that is bar prep two times per year, every year, without break or exception, and without earning any additional licensure.

So, here’s to the bar prep heroes who, despite already having at least one law license, restudy, listen anew to lectures, and peruse endless pages of commercial outlines in search of changes to a majority rule or a better way to explain testable material. Hat tip to my colleagues in the trenches who biannually endure the round-the-clock cries for help, the endless essay grading, and the ulcer generating impathic nervousness for the aspiring attorneys in whom we are emotionally invested.

As the end of February draws nigh, you will soon return to regular sleep patterns and be able to answer the 100+ unread messages in your inboxes. Yes, all will be back to normal . . . except for the two to three months filled with delightfully dreaded anxious anticipation of released results. You are the heroes on the other side of bar prep.

[1] Marsha Griggs, Building A Better Bar Exam, 7 Tex. A&M L. Rev. 1 (2019).

[2] Id.

[3] Karen Sloan, Software Maker Settles Barmageddon Class Action for $21 Million, NAT’L L.J. (May 15, 2015, 12:26 AM), https://www.law.com/nationallawjournal/

(Marsha Griggs)

February 10, 2020 in Bar Exam Issues, Bar Exam Preparation, Bar Exams, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, February 9, 2020

The Art of Being Clutch: How to Perform Your Best on Exams and Avoid the Choke Part 2

So how can we avoid having a student’s working memory become compromised?  There are a lot of different methods for doing so. 

Practice Really Does Make Perfect

If we want to get better at anything, we have to practice it.  A lot.  This isn’t a novel idea, most of us know this instinctually or through our experiences.  Malcolm Gladwell makes a very compelling argument in his book Outliers that in order to become an expert in any field or task, you must put in approximately 10,000 hours of practice.  For example, Tiger Woods needed 10,000 hours of practice before he became a top-flight golfer, and he had amassed that mount of practice at a fairly young age because he had been trained since the age of 2 to play golf.  By the time The Beatles had any real success, they had played 1200 times over a period of a few years, playing up to 8 hours at a time. 

Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom became one of the largest and most powerful law firms in the world because its founders practiced hostile takeover law for decades before hostile takeovers became common – and being a master in that area of law became insanely valuable.  That amount of practice shouldn’t be required to avoid the choke on a law school exam, but practice is certainly going to help. 

So what might a student do in order to be better on pressure-packed law school exams, or even the bar exam?  Take lots of pressure packed exams of course!  Faculty can’t replicate the pressure of a bar exam perfectly, but they can put the students under pressure as often as possible.  For example, one thing we do is have students take lots of timed, in class, for-credit examinations throughout certain courses.  Students are subjected to the pressure of doing well to pass their course, the pressure of performing with their classmates around, the pressure of the clock ticking, not to mention the simple pressure placed upon themselves to perform as best they can.  This training can greatly improve results, and might actually change the physical wiring of student’s brains.

Practice and experience can actually change the structure and function of people’s brains.  London cabbies, who must navigate the city from memory all day, have enlarged hippocampus, the part of the brain that deals with navigation and recollection of driving routes.  Individuals trained in juggling have increased brain mass in the areas of the brain that understand motion.  Musicians, who must have superior control of both hands and be able to coordinate them in complex manners, have enlarged corpus callosum.  The corpus callosum is the connection between the two halves of the brain that allows for the two halves to communicate with each other – an essential function for a musician who needs their hands to work together.   

This makes sense when you think about our bodies’ ability to adapt to what we throw at them.  I may not be able to go out and run a marathon tomorrow, but if I take the time to train my body to be able to do something like that, then it can be done.  Likewise, practice under pressure can train our brains to manage pressure and stress much more efficiently.  It can teach us to handle the pressure and allow our working memory to function at its highest level. 

Practice has another terrific benefit for our working memories.  Through practice, mental processes can be automated.  Take for example a child learning how to tie their shoes.  When the child is first learning this process, it requires most of their working memory to tie that shoelace – they have to focus on the process that was recently taught to them and make sure they are executing the steps properly.  After lots of practice, however, the same child can carry on a conversation or perform some other mental task at the same time they tie their shoes.  Why?  Because they have automated the process of tying their shoes, thus freeing up their working memory for other tasks.  Another way to look at it:  the process for tying shoelaces has moved from the child’s working memory into procedural memory.

The same process can happen for students in law school.  This is why we teach and drill our students on the proper use of IRAC throughout law school, for example.  Through long periods of practice, the process of structuring an essay around an IRAC format can become automated.  It becomes something the student doesn’t have to think about; they just do it as they have done a hundred times before.  That frees up the student’s working memory to focus on handling their facts and doing good analysis.

Another example comes during bar exam preparation.  We always teach our students to have rule statements memorized for as many different issues as possible.  That way, when that particular issue shows up on the bar exam, the student has that rule statement in their procedural memory ready to go.  They don’t have to think about it, they just write.  Again, working memory is freed to focus on other things.

Practice is something that many of us already know is very effective in helping students achieve on exams.  The rest of the suggested methods for dealing with difficult and stressful exams may not be as apparent to many.

Preparation and Confidence

A related concept to practice is preparation.  The concepts are related, yet differ in important aspects.  Practicing is when you actually do the task you are ultimately hoping to accomplish – for example, practice exams to get ready for the real exam.  Preparation is different – this is the studying required to have the baseline knowledge required to perform well on the exam.

The need for preparation is obvious – if we need to prepare for an exam on ancient Greek history, we must study ancient Greek history, as well as write practice exams.  But there is an added benefit to preparation, and it is confidence.  When you know that you have thoroughly reviewed all required materials, you can answer questions about that material with more confidence.  There are no surprises, and nothing rattles you because you have seen it all before – in both your preparation and your practice. 

Famous trial attorney David Boies perfectly demonstrates how important preparation can be.  He describes his preparation as such:

“When we showed up for the opening statement, I had read every single exhibit we had marked before we marked it.  I had read every single deposition excerpt that we had marked for offering into evidence before we had marked it.  I had read every single deposition line they had offered.”  Such preparation required reading thousands of pages of documents, something most lawyers don’t do in preparation for trial because of the massive resources required to do so.  “There are no surprises for me, but you can’t imagine how few people that’s true for” he says.  “There is no way most lawyers do that.” 

This preparation gives Boies a major advantage.  He knows all of the material so well that he can remain focused on the story he wants to tell – not on reacting to what the other side might be saying.  “When I get up there, I have the confidence of knowing what the total evidence record is, and I know how far I can push it and how far I can’t.  I know what the limits are, and that’s the way you maintain your credibility.”  And it is this credibility that wins him major cases, such as the antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft in the late 1990’s.  “Most good lawyers lose credibility in a trial not because they intentionally mislead but because they make a statement that they believe is true at the time and it is not.” 

Preparation can then clear your working memory to focus on the task at hand.  In Boies’ case, he is never caught off-guard by anything during a trial, as happens to so many attorneys.  He has seen everything before, and as he says “there are no surprises.”  He can focus on his story, on his goals, and not get distracted. 

For even more practical advice on this topic, see the Fall 2018 issue of the learning curve on ssrn.  That issue includes additional information on overcoming negative stereotypes, journaling, and meditation to improve exam performance.

(Kevin Sherrill - Guest Blogger).

 

Sources

Sian Beilock, Choke:  What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting it Right When You Have To, Free Press Publishing, 2010.

Paul Sullivan, Clutch:  Excel Under Pressure, Portfolio/Penguin Publishing, 2010. 

Larry Lage (June 26, 2008). Mediate makes the most of his brush with Tiger, The Seattle Times, Associated Press. Retrieved October 24, 2013.

Gerardo Ramirez and Sian Beilock, Writing About Testing Worries Boosts Exam Performance in the Classroom, Science Magazine, January 14, 2011 (Vol 331). 

Daniel T. Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School?,  Jossey-BassPublishing, 2009.

S.J. Spencer and C.M. Steele and D.M. Quinn, “Stereotype threat and women’s math performance.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35 (1999). 

Matt Scott, Olympics:  Korean Double Medalist Expelled for Drug Use, The Guardian, Retrieved on October 25, 2013 from http://www.theguardian.com/sport/2008/aug/15/olympics2008.drugsinsport

Malcolm Gladwell, The Art of Failure, The New Yorker, August 21 & 28, 2000.

Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers. 

February 9, 2020 in Bar Exam Preparation, Exams - Studying, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, February 1, 2020

The Art of Being Clutch: How to Perform Your Best on Exams and Avoid the Choke Part 1

It was my junior year in high school.  I had been playing golf for a few years now, but I was playing in my first real competition of consequence.  I was playing in the qualifying tournament to make the varsity golf squad at my high school.  If I finished in the top three, I would make the team.  If I didn’t, I would have to try and qualify again months down the road. 

Despite it being my first real tournament, I played well.  I suppose I went in thinking I wouldn’t have a chance, that the players who had made the team before would do the same now.  But after making a birdie on the 8th hole of the 9-hole competition, I found myself 2 strokes ahead for the final spot.

I saw my next closest competitor as I was leaving the 8th hole green.  He said something to the effect of “OK, let’s see what you got.”  It finally hit me that I had a real chance to make the team.  As I teed up on the ninth hole, a par 3, I was nervous.  Real nervous.  Lining the left side of the fairway was a giant net that separated the course from the neighboring driving range.  I looked at that and thought, OK, just don’t hit it over there.  My first tee shot was pulled way left, out of bounds into the bordering driving range.  My second attempt landed in just about the same spot.  With my chances of making the team nearly gone, and thus the pressure off, my third try landed safely on the green.  I made my put, and took my score of 8, and left the green.  I wasn’t disappointed, I was mad.  Mad that I had let my chance get away.

So why did I choke when the pressure was on?  What could I have done differently?  Most importantly, what can I learn from this incident that might help myself, and others, perform at their best when the pressure is on?  In particular, is there anything students can do to insure peak performance on law school exams or the bar exam?  While this is a very complicated issue, there are some very simple techniques and solutions that may be utilized. 

Why we Choke

 Working memory is the essential key to most cognitive functions, and a law school exam or bar exam is no exception.  Working memory is what we use to analyze information, evaluate potential outcomes, and eventually solve problems.  It is also where our “internal monologue” takes place, and where our worries and stresses reside.

We also might draw information from our procedural, or long term, memory.  This is where we store the things we have “committed to memory.”

The problem arises when a student’s working memory is compromised.  There are numerous ways this can happen.  For example, if a student is aware of a certain stereotype, it can bring down their performance.  How?    By just being aware of the stereotype, a certain portion of the student’s working memory is occupied by that awareness, and possibly worry.  By reducing working memory, the exam becomes more difficult than it should be. 

This is a greatly simplified explanation of why students choke, but essentially students fail to perform their best when their working memory is compromised.  This is exactly what happened to me in my golf tournament.  I played great when there was no pressure, when my working memory was solely focused on my play.  When I began to worry about whether I would make the team, whether I would be able to continue my great play, that occupied a certain portion of my working memory, and I was done.  

Another, much more famous example of how compromised working memory can affect performance, and the ability to be clutch, is Tiger Woods.  As many people know, Woods is perhaps the greatest golfer of all time.  More than just being great at the game of his choosing however, Woods was beyond clutch, pulling out his best performances when it counted the most.  This clutch ability was best on display during the 2008 U.S. Open, which Woods won in a playoff after playing 91 total holes.  Woods won this tournament despite having a knee injury so serious that it required reconstructive surgery, and would keep Woods out of competition for months.  “He beat everybody on one leg,” competitor Kenny Perry would say after the tournament. 

Soon after this triumph, everything fell apart for Woods.  A well-publicized scandal regarding Wood’s private life hit the media.  Woods had to deal with the public humiliation, but also lost endorsement deals and eventually faced a divorce from his wife.  In 2009, Woods choked for the first time in his professional career.  Woods led on the final day of the 2009 PGA Championship tournament, yet lost the tournament to little-known Y.E. Yang.  This was the first time Woods ever lost a major championship tournament after holding a lead on the final day of play. 

This need for total focus and a lack of distractions is not just apparent in sports.  David Boies is one of the greatest trial attorneys in the country.  He attributes much of his success to his massive amount of preparation, but also (relatedly) on his ability to focus.   In defending a $4.2 billion lawsuit against his client, he continually remained focused on the task at hand.  In the years leading up to the trial, between $75 and $150 million in legal fees were racked up.  Each day in court cost the parties $300,000 in legal fees alone, and the trial lasted almost a month.  Not to mention there was $4.2 billion on the line at trial.

Through it all, Boies remained focused.  “If you think in those terms, it can be disabling,” he said.  “You’ve got to try AIG against SICO just the way you would try a $100,000 case and not a $4.2 billion case, because the principles are the same.”  With that said, Boies was totally focused on the task at hand – being prepared for trial.  He cancelled his yearly cycling trip to Europe, something he had only done once in 20 years.  Leading up to the trial, he only socialized with lawyers on his team or the opposing team – he didn’t want to be distracted from the case for even a minute.  In trial, He never thinks about how the trial is going, and never about what is at stake.  He focuses only on the moment.   How is the evidence coming in?  Is the argument he is making working?  Is it believable?  Is what the other side saying believable?  If not, how can he point that out.  How the trial is going as a whole “is totally irrelevant.”  And this is the key to being clutch – focus on the task at hand, and don’t worry about anything else that may be going on. 

Looking at it from our simplified perspective, Woods lost his ability to be clutch because he was distracted.  His focus was gone, his working memory was compromised with doubt, guilt, remorse, and a feeling of being overly self-conscience.  These were foreign concepts to the “old” Woods.  Boies, on the other hand, always remained focused, prepared and ready.  Likewise, a student’s focus and working memory can be compromised by feelings of inadequacy, doubt, unpreparedness, and any number of other thoughts.  How can we avoid this?

Part 2 next week will explore more specific strategies for performing under pressure.

(Kevin Sherrill - Guest Blogger)

February 1, 2020 in Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, January 31, 2020

Brain Health Resource

Healthy habits can improve retention and our overall mental health.  Law students need help in both areas.  The massive amount of information needed for success on finals and the bar exam requires intentional efforts to keep our brains healthy.  Similar intentional actions are needed to decrease stress in law school.  The first step to building those healthy habits is to constantly seek information.  Debra Austin posts tips each Thursday to help with brain health.  I encourage everyone to read the tips each week.  The are online at https://debraaustin.com/newsletter/

Let's encourage students, faculty, staff, and ASPers to build healthy habits for the new year.

(Steven Foster)

January 31, 2020 in Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Building Community...In An Elevator

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! 

(Scott Johns).

January 30, 2020 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Learning Styles, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

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)