Thursday, January 23, 2020
Research suggests a relationship between a positive growth mindset mindset and improved learning. C. Dweck, G. Walton, G. Cohen, Academic Tenacity: Mindsets and Skills that Promote Long-Term Learning (2014). Consequently, I've been trying to "read" the minds of my students (and they often seem to look sullen, downtrodden, and burdened).
To be frank, that might well be my fault because I don't always accentuate the positives about the difficulties involved in learning. Yet for most of us, we realize that it's in the midst of the hard spots of our lives that our character was shaped. In short, we grew into the people we are today because of how we pulled through the difficulties of yesterday. And that's why learning is...growing our minds. So, why not see learning in similar light?
Here's a couple of suggestions that might help your students approach learning with a more positive growth mindset:
First, my best classes are when I leave room at the end of the class, well, for learning (or at least reflecting on learning). Here's how: I ask students to mingle about what they learned today. Instantly faces are transformed into beams of sunlight; frowns are replaced by the warmth of smiles; and, most significantly, the class becomes alive with criss-crossing conversations. Then, I open up the floor...and the floor fills up oh so quickly. Hand over there, another over here. Three over there. More that away. In short, as students open up, they come to appreciate that they have learned a great deal (and that most of their learning came through courageously probing mistakes made).
Second, I toss out a statement - in my best vocal rendition of Eeyore as possible - gloomily saying: "Oh my...oh me. Woe is me. I missed...another...problem." We then contrast that mindset with Winnie the Pooh: "Oh, look, there's honey over there, up in the tree, and back over there, why, there's even more honey; there's honey everywhere!" Suddenly students recognize that law school life is not really as gloomy as they think it is, that there's plenty of "honey" to be gathered from every problem that we miss; that it's in "climbing up the trees" and putting our hands in the thick of the "bee hives" that leads us to even more honey...because, well, "where's there's bees--there's got to be honey."
In short, it's in the midsts of mistakes that we learn best. So, to sum up what I've gleaned about learning from Winnie the Pooh and Eeyore it's this: "The best learning is like honey; it's a sticky mess of a problem (but a mighty good treat!)."
P.S. To learn more about Winnie the Pooh and friends, visit: https://winniethepooh.disney.com/winnie-the-pooh
Thursday, January 16, 2020
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. So picture a triangle: One way to think about learning is to contemplate the three "angles" of learning.
At the apex of the triangle - from the viewpoint of most students - law school education is all about learning to think, act, and communicate like an attorney.
But that begs the question. What is learning?
Well, in my opinion there are two others corners to the triangle, and those - I believe - are the wellsprings or foundations for successful learning. And, as many have suggested, they often go overlooked in our haste to teach students to "think like attorneys."
Let me explain what I see as the other two corners that make a "well-rounded" triangle so that our students can effectively learn to think, act, and communicate like attorneys.
One of the corners involves applying the science of learning - the lessons learned from educational psychologists as how best to learn. And, as the scientists suggest, its often counter-intuitive to our own notions of how we best learn: To cut to the chase, less talk and more action, by having our students engage in pre-testing, practice testing, distributed practice, retrieval practice, and interleaving practice throughout the semester, is foundational to long-term meaningful learning.
The other corner, it seems to me, involves the interplay of the heart, the soul, and the mind. It's the psychological-social dimensions of what best equips us and our students to engage in optimal learning practices. Some emphasize academic tenacity or grit. But, in my opinion, this corner of the triangle rises (or falls) on whether we are developing within our students a sense of place, of belonging, as valuable members of our learning communities. You see, it's very difficult to have grit when we feel out of place, like we don't belong. But focus on equipping our students to belong...and tenacity will soon follow suit.
Lately, thanks to the work of many in the academic support field in teaching me about the interrelationships among (1) the skills of lawyering, (2) the science of learning, and (3) the psychological-social dimensions of learning, I've been regularly integrating, emphasizing, and sharing research about learning straight from the "scientists" mouths.
Here's two of my favorite articles, filled with colorful and vibrant charts and tables, which I flash onto the classroom screens (and then have my students ponder, decipher, and explain as to how they can best learn to "think like lawyers" based on the latest research):
And, if you want to make the most of this little blog, grab a piece of paper, close your computer, and draw a nifty picture of a triangle (with annotations as you try to recall as much as you can about what you learned).
Happy Learning to you and your students!
Tuesday, January 7, 2020
The word "resolute" originally got its meaning from the basic meaning of its root verb, "resolve", which was "loosen" or "dissolve". (When Hamlet was depressed about his father's death and thought about joining him, Shakespeare had him wish, "Oh, that this too too solid flesh / Would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew".) So "resolute" initially meant "dissolute" or "infirm". Over time, "resolve" came to take on another meaning, a nuance of "solve" that implied "clarifying" or "freeing from doubt" in a definitive way. As a result, "resolute" also developed a new meaning -- that of "determined" or "firm". So: "resolute" can mean either "infirm" or "firm". It's a word that can mean the opposite of itself, like "sanction" (which can mean either "approve of" or "disapprove of") or "cleave" (which can mean either "adhere" or "separate"). Such words are called contronyms, auto-antonyms, or, in a nod to the two-faced god of transitions and doorways, Janus words. And Janus, of course, is the source of "January" -- the month in which resolutions are made. Coincidence?
Still, there is something droll about the way "resolution" can mean both "a firm declaration or undertaking" and "a dissolution or relaxation". It is like a vast image out of our lexical spiritus mundi, reminding us that simply vowing improvement is no guarantee of success. This is a time of year when a portion of our clientele is highly motivated to change because of the confluence of the New Year, the new semester, and the receipt of disappointing and/or surprising grade reports. We want to take advantage of that impetus, but we also have to find a way to tactfully remind those students that the road to the lowest quartile is paved with good intentions. Here are some suggestions that can help:
- Shift the focus from results to actions. A student who focuses on end results ("I am going to get an A in Property this semester!") or even intermediate results ("I am going to finish all of my reading before every class!") may be setting themselves up for failure if they do not articulate what altered actions will lead to the desired results. Talk them through an assessment of why they did not achieve these results in the prior semester to help them uncover the practical steps they will need to take to achieve them in the new semester. A commitment to start one's reading assignments one hour earlier in the day, for example, is clearer and easier to initiate than simply vowing, without a plan, to complete all reading assignments.
- Beware defensive resolutions. Sometimes students will recognize that they need to make a change in behavior, but -- consciously or unconsciously -- they see that the change that would be most effective is not desirable to them. To avoid that change, they might articulate a different change in behavior -- one that seems to them more achievable or less painful, and usually one that does demonstrate some effort being undertaken, so that it "feels" worthwhile. A student anxious about their essay-writing skills, for example, might promise to create a more detailed and comprehensive course outline next semester. Pressing students to undertake the more meaningful tasks, and applying our expertise to help determine and explain to them what those commitments would be, can be one of our most helpful contributions.
- Suggest ways to monitor compliance and progress. While stress and anxiety can be powerful motivators for change, they can also sap people of the self-assurance and determination that helps them to execute those changes. How common it is for all of us to adopt a new gameplan for life, one with obvious benefits, only to let it fall by the wayside when life kicks into high gear and we fall back into old habits. One of the best ways to support people who are trying to make a change is to find ways to make it easy for them to see how consistent and successful they are being -- it can provide the kind of positive feedback that leads to a virtuous circle, a behavior that reinforces its own existence. Checklists and diaries are ways to do this on their own; buddy systems and regular check-ins with Academic Success are ways to enlist outside help.
- Minimize the sense of "all-or-nothing". When the stakes are high, as they often are in law school, people sometimes see the world in absolute terms. This is often unrealistically constraining. A commitment to briefing every case read, for example, can quickly come to feel like an impossible task if a student misses briefing just one case per class each week, because after a few weeks they may be a dozen cases behind and feeling like they can never catch up. Some students -- not all, but some -- might just give up at that point, out of anxiety or a sense of futility. To help fight this outcome, help the students to see the benefits of the changes they have successfully made, especially in comparison to the situation in which they would have found themselves originally. This task can be easier if you have previously helped them to focus on actions and given them some ways to monitor their progress, so that, even if they do not do everything they had wanted, it will not be hard for them to recognize that the progress they did make was worthwhile.
This is a great time of year for re-evaluation, goal-setting, and developing new habits -- many students are primed for these by the turn of the calendar! But, by their nature, resolutions can be firm or infirm. The best way to nudge them towards the former is to help students make them much more than just resolutions.
Friday, December 13, 2019
Basketball player "...Duncan Robinson was open and didn't shoot." So reads an article about the "Most Improbable Player in the NBA." The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 13, 2019, p. A14.
In response to Duncan's decision, "...[H]is coach immediately called timeout. 'That's selfish.... You're being selfish if you don't shoot.'" Id.
For our February 2020 takers, bar prep begins for many next week. But, as we approach bar studies, if you're at all like me, I'm much more comfortable being on the sidelines, not taking shots so to speak, watching others talk through hypothetical scenarios and work through practice problems.
That's because I often don't feel like I'm ready to take shots because I don't feel like I know enough to play the game.
Instead, I try to learn to "play basketball" by reading about basketball and by watching others play basketball...a sure recipe to fail at basketball.
Let me put it concretely. With respect to bar prep, I'm much more comfortable listening and watching professors from the sidelines as I observe them work through bar exam problems and scenarios.
However, take it from Duncan (who went from high school to a small time college basketball program to a big time basketball program to a minor league professional basketball team to now a multimillion dollar contract with a big time professional basketball team). Id. What was the key to Duncan's success? As Duncan indicates, "I was having a tough time figuring out what was a good shot--and I quickly realized that everything was a good shot...I needed to literally shoot everything. [my emphasis]" Id.
For those of you beginning to prepare for the winter bar exam, take Duncan's advice. Take every shot at learning. Know this: That every problem that you work through, every time you close your lecture book and then force your mind to recall things that you have learned, every time you take action based on the bar review lectures that you are hearing, you are becoming a better "shooter", getting closer to your goal in passing your bar exam.
So, be of good courage as you boldly study for your bar exam. After all, you're not going to be tested about what you saw from the sidelines. Instead, you're tested on your ability to play the game, to score points, to solve bar exam problems. Consequently, take every shot you can, everyday throughout this winter, as you prepare for success on your bar exam this upcoming February 2020. Oh, and by the way, Duncan missed lots of shots on the way to success. But, he kept at it. You too, keep at it, because as it's in the midst of our missed shots that we learn how to perform better!
Sunday, December 8, 2019
First semester finals are similar to a Saw movie. No, not in the blood is everywhere or the mental gymnastics needed for the puzzles way. The movies leave many uneasy because the protagonist usually dies and there is a cliffhanger for what Jigsaw will do in the next movie. If you watched them when they came out, you had to wait years for the next story, which left just as many questions at the end.
First semester finals can leave some with the same lacking or cliffhanger feeling. Grades won't come out for 2-4 weeks depending on the school. No one usually walks out of finals feeling good about what they wrote. Finishing finals doesn't seem like much of an accomplishment because they just end with no definitive answer, and the protagonist of the story (student walking out) isn't the obvious hero.
The lacking feeling is normal. Most students feel the same way. Once you finish finals, the goal is to not worry about law school for a few days. Use the break to actually take a break. The winter break is not as long as the summer, so if you spend too much time on law school related activities, then you won't be mentally fresh starting next semester. The goal is to reset during the break to be ready for the spring. If you can't completely ignore law school, then you could casually read a book. You have many options depending on what area you want to improve in. Books that I like for learning/general improvement are: Make It Stick, How We Learn, and Grit. There are numerous law school specific books for each of the different skills needed for success. I like How to Succeed in Law School, Expert Learning for Law Students, and Reading like a Lawyer. Those are my personal favorites, but there are numerous great options. You have more context for those books now that you have been through a semester. That being said, don't try to read all of them. If you casually read one, great. If not, even better. Get mentally fresh for next semester.
Good luck on the rest of finals and get ready for a great break.
Thursday, December 5, 2019
There's a line from the movie "The Greatest Showman" that goes like this: "Comfort is the enemy of progress."
That got me thinking.
I wonder if comfort might also be an enemy of learning.
It seems to me, if I boil down the research on learning, that much of what we think is valuable for learning is, frankly, of little to no value at all.
Take for example re-reading notes and texts and highlighting information. Although I doubt any social scientist would put it this way, as I follow the research, those activities are essentially worthless as they really aren't activities of cognition at all. Rather, they are motions that we take in which we convince ourselves - falsely - that we are learning. (They are mere preparations to become a learner, not learning in itself.). That's why they feel so intuitively comfortable.
But true learning takes sweat. It requires workouts using our minds. It pushes us to build cognitive connections that previously didn't exist. In short, it's a struggle in growing, thinking, and practicing well beyond our comfort zones.
So, as you prepare for final exams, take heart. Be of good courage, knowing that while true learning doesn't feel comfortable, the science is behind you as you push into uncomfortable work.
From a practical viewpoint, as you work through your notes and outlines, talk them out, synthesize them, and generate lots of ideas and practice exam scenarios based on them. Test yourself frequently about what you think you are learning to see if you are truly learning it by turning your materials over and recalling what you think you know from memory. In short, prepare for your final exams by using interleaving practices (mixing up different topics and practice formats) and spaced repetition (revising topics and practices through intervals of spaced timing) in addition to forced retrieval exercises (deliberately forcing our minds to recall what we think we can't remember).
If you aren't sure about how to use interleaving practice, spaced repetition review, or forced recall learning, please dive into some of the charts and tables in this very helpful overview of the cognitive psychology for optimal learning: J. Dunlosky, "Strengthening The Student Tool Kit." Or better yet, check out some of the blog posts from Associate Dean Louis Schulze, an expert in legal education learning: L. Schulze, "Four Posts on Cognitive Psychology." They're sure to get you thinking, and, more importantly, learning...if you put them to practice.
Best of luck on your final exams!
Wednesday, December 4, 2019
Most of us are well trained in how to provide advice to our students. However, we don’t just advise them on the best study habits. Most of us act as counselors, providing support and advice on how to deal with anxiety and stress. We are good at it, if we were not, we wouldn’t be in the academic support profession.
But are we good at taking that advice? This is the time of year when so many of us are stretched to capacity, and in danger of suffering burn out. We also suffer from anxiety and stress, but my instincts tell me that most of us are much better at giving the advice than taking it. While we stress to our students that it is important to take care of themselves, especially around exam time, we neglect ourselves. I think this is because we put ourselves last on our to do list, so to speak.
Last week I was in a colleague’s office, discussing ways to help our students with mental health first aid. I was feeling incredibly stressed and anxious, in a way that I was unwilling to acknowledge. The more we discussed helping our students, the more I realized that I needed help. Thankfully, she was a colleague that is also a friend, and she listened to how stressed I was. She gave me some great advice on taking my own advice. She asked me what I would tell a student, and encouraged me to really listen and implement the advice I give.
I think that sometimes, despite what we tell our students, we think of self care as “selfish”, or something that we don’t have time to do.
“I have come to believe that caring for myself is not self indulgent. Caring for myself is an act of survival." — Audre Lorde
“As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands, one for helping yourself, the other for helping others.” - Maya Angelou
I think these are wise words from wise ladies, so I’m here to remind all of us to take care of ourselves. Practice what we preach to students. Take time each day for yourself, whatever self care looks like to you. And most importantly, use the resources we give to our students to reach out if we need help. That reaching out can even be to one another, as we all know what each other is going through. One last note, practice what you preach when it comes to physical health as well. We are no good to our students if we are not taking care of ourselves!
Monday, November 25, 2019
We’re more connected through social media than ever before . . . [yet] we’re losing our ability to think and feel. It’s hurting our personal connections and making us more distant and lonely. – Dallas Morning News Editorial Board
This week I recount the sad story of the late Ronald Wayne White. Who was Ronald Wayne White? His name may not ring a bell. White was not a celebrity or public figure. If Ronald Wayne White is known for anything, it is for being unknown. According to published reports, White was found dead inside his apartment this month. Medical examiner reports confirmed that his death had been undiscovered for three years. There are indeed unanswered questions surrounding this late discovered death, but the sad fact is that a man “apparently went missing for three years and no one noticed he was gone.”1
White’s tragic story is an opportunity for us to examine our connections to others. Those who attend and work inside law schools are subject to a special kind of isolation that is par for the course. Based on the volumes of reading, outlining, researching, writing, editing, and memorizing that is required to succeed in law school, we expect students and faculty to work in isolation for long stretches of time. The top students regale in finding that isolated corner hidden deep in the stacks of the fourth floor of the library where no one comes near to make a sound or disturb the concentration necessary to maintain top student status. I too am guilty of lauding solitude. I have, with giddiness, told my colleagues how much I look forward to holiday breaks alone at home to make some headway on my writing project.
While a certain degree of do-not-disturb-mode is both necessary and beneficial for productivity, I worry that we have become desensitized to isolation. We are all at risk of transcending deep focus into dangerous seclusion. Our law students, especially those who are far from home, or those who have no stable home to claim, are not immune to the risk. Loneliness is not a state of friendlessness, it is a position of lacked connection. People who are married, students in study groups, and faculty who interact well with colleagues can still suffer from debilitating loneliness that can only be cured with meaningful connection.
Connectivity cannot be measured by “likes” and social media followers alone. Please check on your students, your colleagues, and yourselves. If you have students who are far from home or without family, why not invite them to Thanksgiving dinner? Likewise, if there are international students in your program who are removed from our culture, maybe treat them to a meal over break. Perhaps your need to develop a work in progress or meet an article submission deadline can be morphed into an opportunity to interact with your colleagues by planning a “write-in.” Faculty colleagues from all disciplines can find an agreed window of time just to get together to write. Sometimes the camaraderie of shared presence and singleness of purpose can act as a proxy for interaction. Maybe extend your shared driveway morning wave, by baking (or buying) cookies and delivering them to a neighbor or senior citizen on your block that you have not spoken words to in years. Real connections don’t have to be big to be meaningful, they just have to be made.
1 A man was found in his apartment three years after his death – and what it can teach us about loneliness (Dallas Morning News Editorial, November 21, 2019).
Thursday, November 21, 2019
I don't usually keep up with the world of royalty. But a recent article caught my attention.
You see, it seems that the one of the legal duties of Queen Elizabeth II is to meet weekly with the Prime Minister for counseling. Sam Walker, "The World's Top Executive Coach: It's Queen Elizabeth," Wall Street Journal, Nov. 16, 2019.
That takes time, energy, and commitment. And, the queen's been meeting with prime ministers weekly since 1952. Id. So, it might be worthwhile to see what she says about counseling and why prime ministers, despite vast differences from one another, continue to seek her advice.
First, the queen provides a safe place for leaders to speak out without "fear or reprisal." In the queen's words: "They unburden themselves. They tell me what's going on, or if they've got any problems." Id. Second, the queen by law is not allow to give orders or publicly takes sides on issues. Id. Third, the meetings focus on seeking impartial common ground. In other words, it's not about the queen's desires but about how to determine what's best for the common good of the people. Id. Fourth, the queen likens her role in meetings to that of a sponge, which I take to mean being a sounding board for prime ministers rather than offering advice. Id.
In summarizing the queen's coaching, author Sam Walker suggests the following:
That great coaches, even though they "often have a better grasp on a tricky situation than the person that they're advising, ...resist the urge to be a helicopter coach. [Instead,] [t]he only way to help leaders [and students] learn and grow is to allow them to make their own mistakes. [And,] [t]he only responsible method [to do this] is to let them speak openly, guard their secrets, and, once in a while try to incrementally redirect their thinking. Doing that requires humility--and lots of practice." Id.
That's not a role all that different from the world of academic support professionals.
Like the queen, we are granted access to some of the deepest secrets and most difficult struggles that our students face.
Like the queen, we must studiously guard our students' confidences.
Like the queen, we are called to listen lots and speak little.
Like the queen, our students learn and grow the most when we walk alongside them, helping them incrementally adjust their thinking, so that our students develop expertise in assessing their own learning with solutions that come forth out of the wellsprings of their own hearts and minds.
To sum up, in the course of most of our work, the truly royal moments of learning are the results of what our students come to experience for themselves under the confidential mentorship of us. As the queen suggests, speaking less can indeed mean speaking more (and in the end lead to better results for our students). So "hears" to better hearing for the betterment of our students!
Tuesday, November 19, 2019
Sometimes students think they are painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, when they are really inventing the light bulb.
Michelangelo famously worked from 1508 to 1512 to decorate the ceiling of the Chapel with biblical scenes comprising more than 300 figures. Contrary to popular belief, he did not do the work lying on his back; the scaffolding he designed and put in place left him room to stand. Try this right now: for one minute, stand up, look up at the ceiling above you, and hold your hand high over your head, grasping a pen, or a paintbrush if you have one handy. Now imagine doing that for four years, and creating an historical masterpiece. Amazing. If I had painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling under those conditions, it would have ended up taped to my parents’ refrigerator for a month, then discreetly recycled.
Still, the process did have one advantage: every evening, while Michelangelo was washing the paint off his brushes, he could look up and see a few more square feet of masterpiece. If his boss, Pope Julius II, swung by just to see how things were going, he would notice some prophet or angel that hadn’t been there the week before, and say something like, “Good work, Micky. I like the wrath there – very Old Testament. Keep it up.”
In contrast we have Thomas Edison and his invention of the light bulb. To be fair, it wasn't just the light bulb that made his electrical system so successful. He had a much broader vision, encompassing power generation and transmission facilities as well, so that once he had created a working light bulb, he had also designed an entire system capable of lighting it practically in every citizen’s home. But still, success did depend on finding that reliable, long-lasting bulb, and to do this, Edison tested thousands of different materials – varieties of animal hair, plant fiber, metal wire, etc. – to find a filament that would work.
But Edison’s work was not incremental the way Michelangelo’s work was. Over time, his experiments did provide some clues that guided him to the material (carbonized bamboo) that eventually worked, so his progress was not entirely random. Still, it was unpredictable. Edison could go through periods in which he’d test 100 filaments and not one of them would work any better than what he’d had at the start. While Michelangelo could work for a month and at least complete 2% of a ceiling -- and 100% of, say, Adam and Eve -- a month of work for Edison would not leave him with 2% of a working light bulb. He had no light bulb, until the day he found the right material; then he had the light bulb.
A lot of what our students do is Michelangelo work. They do a chunk of reading, or memorize a set of rules, or practice a certain writing format, and it may take them a while to reach their ultimate goal, but at least they can see measurable progress along the way: this many pages covered, or that many rules learned by heart, or some incrementally improved conformity with a norm. It can still be a grind, especially with a heavy workload and weighty syllabus, but at least the students can be sure of improvement and can project a likely date of completion.
It’s inevitable, though, that some of our students' work will be Edison work. They put in the time and the effort, but there’s not necessarily any obvious correlation to results. They could be working on a legal research project, looking for a needle and ending each day with a notebook full of hay. Or they might be practicing some skill that, for them, seems to resist improvement, at least until a certain critical mass of practice has been reached. (Performance on multiple-choice tests, for example, can sometimes plateau for weeks for soem students.) If the students don't realize that they are not doing Michelangelo work here -- if they are expecting incremental success and not seeing it -- then they can grow discouraged and self-doubtful, and may even abandon the effort, believing it is not doing any good.
It is crucial. before that happens, to explain to students (and to remind them, sometimes frequently) that there are two kinds of progress in work, and to get them to focus not on results but on well-directed effort. Help them to recognize, as Edison did, that some jobs simply require effort that won’t be directly rewarded, but that “every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.” As long as students are actually doing the right work -- and for that, too, they may need your guidance -- then, even if they are not seeing daily results, they are doing something useful -- ruling out fruitless lines of inquiry, or gradually building context and understanding to reach the critical mass needed. In the moment, such progress may not feel as satisfying as a tangible result, but with support, they can keep going, even in the face of doubt. And once they have completed the task successfully, they can look back and realize not just how the effort they made led to the result, but also that they are capable of making similar efforts -- and hopefully with a little more faith -- in the future.
Thursday, November 14, 2019
Picture a "lollipop." Unfortunately, that was me as a law school student preparing for my first final exams. You see, in preparation for final exams, I spent most of my time re-reading my notes, trying to master my outlines, and cramming as much information as possible into my head...with the hope that I might somehow be able to regurgitate as much as possible back to my professors.
In short, I looked much like a lollipop - stuffed with head knowledge but without much of a body or a heart to make it work.
That's because I had learned the law...but...I hadn't let the rest of my body, in particular my heart and my hands, share in the learning process. As such, I had much to say when it at came time for final exams but, unfortunately, little of anything practical or valuable because I had merely learned to parrot back my notes and outlines. I was as hard-headed as the candy on top of a lollipop; I couldn't dance with the final exam problems because I hadn't trained to work final exam problems. In retrospect, I should have fed my heart and hands as much as I engaged my mind in order to prepare for my final exams.
Let me be concrete. As you prepare for final exams, take it from me. Work your heart and body too as you learn the law. Here's what I mean. Rather than just learning the law, learn to problem-solve the law ... using the law that you are learning. That's because, in most law school courses, you won't be tested on what you've stuffed into your mind but rather on what you can personally do with what's in your mind by demonstrating how to solve hypothetical legal problems.
So, as you prepare for final exams, please feel free to re-read your notes (but only briefly because that's one of the weakest ways to learn) and make outlines (because the process of making your outlines is essential to learning the law)...but...then take your outlines and use them to solve batches of simulated final exam problems (and lots of them). And, when you miss an issue or a problem, rejoice...because missing that issue now means that you'll get that issue right in the midst of your final exams. In short, focus on learning the law by working through problems.
As a rule of thumb, about one-third of your time should be spent on reviewing your notes and creating outlines, one-third of your time spent on working through simulated exam problems, and one-third of your time spent on assessing what you did well (and why) along with what you can improve for the next time (and how).
In other words, just like a balanced diet with a lifestyle of exercise, let all of you (your mind, your heart, and your body) share in learning by learning the law through legal problem-solving. And, if you don't have a quick source of simulated exam problems, here's a batch below that can serve you well in a dash. Good luck on your final exams! (Scott Johns).
Wednesday, November 13, 2019
We were sitting in my office dissecting a practice contracts answer the student had written, working on transforming a rambling paragraph into an answer that showed mastery of the law and an intelligible understanding of how the law applied to the facts of the problem. The initial answer suggested the student had worked hard at understanding the law and had an instinctive response to the obvious issues; the finished product exhibited a coherent, lawyerly approach to most of the issues suggested by the fact pattern. The puzzle pieces were finally coming into place. Near the end of our session, the student looked at me quizzically. "Did we cover this in class?" she asked. "I was flailing away, but now it seems simple." "Yes," I replied out loud. Inwardly, I added, "Many times." But it was worth revisiting, because this time it clicked.
Far too many times, despite my profession, I grow impatient when I must repeat or re-teach something that seems "obvious" to me. Sometimes I feel like the Bellman in Lewis Carroll's "The Hunting of the Snark," declaring "What I tell you three times is true." When I catch myself in such a crotchety mood, I consciously offer up the negativity to the Academic Support deities so it will drift away. Sometimes, students simply tune out: they are human, after all; like me, they have sleepless nights and nagging worries and obsessions over an impending events, both personal and professional. More often, the need for repetition is inherent in the very nature of learning a new practice. While I might hope that a preview followed by an in-depth discussion followed by practice followed by a review will cement a concept or a practice, it's usually not that simple. Even teaching the process of learning, I need to remember that a huge part of what they are learning is to go past "obvious," to go deep, and to go slow. Experiment with learning and writing and speaking. Embrace the difficulty. Try it over and over. And if you forget that you learned it once, that's all right, too.
Contrary to what I believed when I started in academic success work, it is rare for my students to run out of time, whether in day-to-day learning, the consolidation that happens near the end of the semester, or even on final exams. Indeed, it staggers me to see how many leave a final exam 30, 40, or even 60 minutes before time is called. The larger challenge is to spend enough time, to slow down, to lay aside the knee-jerk reactions to plumb the legal problems not only in depth but with the simplicity that comes from and leads to mastery.
Monday, October 21, 2019
My constant battle is putting aside time wasters, and I have to watch out for procrastination. Staying on the path of something you’re trying to create has much to do with having confidence in yourself and in your capacity to realize the things you want out of life. – Ruby Dee
Anyone in the dissertation process or in any stage of researching or writing a scholarly article knows that procrastination, not perfection, is the enemy of completion. Even the most well-intended scholars struggle with finding the will and motivation to write. Caring professors fall into the lure of putting off grading until the last possible moment – often to the disappointment of students eagerly awaiting grades. Students, in all fields, and at all levels, will wait until the last conceivable second to complete or even begin a task. We all fall prey to procrastination in one form or another.
Ironically, procrastination is a natural occurrence in the lives of highly productive individuals. Procrastination, as a form of managed delay, can generate productive and invigorating levels of adrenaline. According to Dr. Adam Gonzalez, “[w]hen you experience anxiety, it is often in response to an actual or perceived threat.” At low or moderate levels, anxiety can help increase productivity. Productive levels of anxiety may lead to hyper-focus and allows adaptive response to external demands like a challenging job or a tight deadline. However, this productive procrastination, while effective in the short term, can have negative long-term consequences, like over-commitment, disorganization, and unhealthy stress levels .
Procrastination can be both a contributor to, and a consequence of, cognitive distortions. One survey found that procrastination was a top reason that Ph.D. candidates failed to complete their dissertations. Another study identified four major cognitive distortions that lead to academic procrastination.*
- Overestimating how much time is left to perform a task;
- Overestimating future motivation for a task;
- Underestimating how long certain activities will take to complete; and
- Mistakenly assuming that a “right” frame of mind is needed to work on a project.
Although the study focused on student procrastination, each of the listed distortions can be equally applied to academics. The year-round deadlines for submissions, edits, proposals, evaluations and feedback can necessitate some degree of procrastination as a means of self-preservation. We engage in managed delay to strategically decide which tasks must be immediately completed, and which tasks can be put off or allotted comparatively less time and attention. We want our students to be well-prepared for class and professional life. Yet, there is no future in legal education wherein some students do not come to class unprepared. No scholarly psychological study will prevent the eleventh-hour email seeking an extension of a deadline imposed weeks, if not months, earlier. Perhaps self-reflection about our own effectively managed tendencies toward procrastination will cause us to be more compassionate when left to respond to the self-delayed outcomes of our students, family, and coworkers.
*Ferrari, J. R., Johnson, J. L., & McCown, W. G. (1995). The Plenum series in social/clinical psychology. Procrastination and task avoidance: Theory, research, and treatment. New York, NY, US: Plenum Press.
Thursday, October 3, 2019
It's never too late to make a difference…a positively meaningful difference...to improve academic performance for students, and, in particular, for underrepresented students.
You see, as demonstrated by social science research from psychologists Gregory Walton and Geoffrey Cohen, a sense of belonging - as a valued participant within a cooperative learning community - is critical to academic success.
Indeed, belonging changes lives.
And, there's more great news.
According to the research, just a "brief social-belonging intervention" can make all the difference. A Brief Social-Belonging Intervention Improves Academic and Health Outcomes of Minority Students. And, that brief intervention is especially valuable for African-American students. Id.
So, here are the details, at least as I paraphrase the research findings.
Preliminarily, the researchers hypothesized that a brief intervention in the first week of undergraduate studies - to directly tackle the issue of belonging in college - might make a measurable impact with respect to academic performance and health outcomes. As background, previous research had suggested that a lack of a sense of belonging was particularly detrimental for academic success in college.
The research intervention was threefold.
First, the researchers directly shared survey information with students, showing that most college students "had worried about whether they belonged in college during the difficult first year but [they] grew confident in their belonging with time." Id.
Second, the students were encouraged to internalize the survey messages about belonging by writing a brief essay to describe "how their own experiences in college [in the first week] echoed the experiences summarized in the survey." Id.
Third, the students then created short videos of their essays...for the express purpose of sharing their feelings with future generations of incoming students, so that participating students would not feel like they were stigmatized by the intervention (but rather that they were beneficially involved in making the world better for future generations of incoming students - just like them). Id.
According to the research results, surveys in the week following the intervention indicated that participating students sensed that the intervention buttressed their abilities to overcome adversities and enhanced their achievement of a sense of belonging.
And, the impact was long-lasting, even when participating students couldn't recall much at all about the intervention.
The researchers then used the statistical method of multiple regression to control for various other possible influences.
As documented by their research findings, the intervention was particularly beneficial for African-American students - both in terms of improving GPA and also for improving well-being. In short, a brief intervention led to demonstrable benefits with students outperforming such traditional academic predicators such as standardized admission test scores. That's big news.
That brings us back to us ASPers!
As ASPers, we have a wonderful opportunity to engage in meaningful interventions...by sharing the great news about social belonging.
But, there's more involved than just sharing the news.
Based on the research findings, to make a real difference for our students, our students must not just see themselves - in the words of the research psychologists - as just "beneficiaries" of the intervention...but rather as "benefactors" of the intervention. Id.
In short, the key is to empower our law students with tools to share with future generations of students what they learned about adversity, belonging, and overcoming…and how to thrive in law school.
Wow! What a spectacular opportunity…and a challenge too!
P.S. Here's the research abstract to provide a precise overview of the research findings:
"A brief intervention aimed at buttressing college freshmen’s sense of social belonging in school was tested in a randomized controlled trial (N = 92), and its academic and health-related consequences over 3 years are reported. The intervention aimed to lessen psychological perceptions of threat on campus by framing social adversity as common and transient. It used subtle attitude-change strategies to lead participants to self-generate the intervention message. The intervention was expected to be particularly beneficial to African-American students (N = 49), a stereotyped and socially marginalized group in academics, and less so to European-American students (N = 43). Consistent with these expectations, over the 3-year observation period the intervention raised African Americans’ grade-point average (GPA) relative to multiple control groups and halved the minority achievement gap. This performance boost was mediated by the effect of the intervention on subjective construal: It prevented students from seeing adversity on campus as an indictment of their belonging. Additionally, the intervention improved African Americans’ self-reported health and well-being and reduced their reported number of doctor visits 3 years postintervention. Senior-year surveys indicated no awareness among participants of the intervention’s impact. The results suggest that social belonging is a psychological lever where targeted intervention can have broad consequences that lessen inequalities in achievement and health."
Tuesday, October 1, 2019
July 2019 bar exam results are not due to be released in New York for a few more weeks, but already here in Buffalo we have glad tidings, for one of our students took the Florida bar exam and has learned that she has passed. What a thrill! One that will soon be experienced by many others across the land.
Is there anything else that prompts the same surreal combination of pride and relief? In an instant, a person’s very definition changes. They go from not possessing a certain authority to possessing it (at least after other formalities are met). Is it any wonder that the storied Jonathan Harker, wandering alone in a foreign land and distracted by the strangeness of it all, forgot for a moment his own momentous achievement?:
What sort of place had I come to, and among what kind of people? What sort of grim adventure was it on which I had embarked? Was this a customary incident in the life of a solicitor’s clerk sent out to explain the purchase of a London estate to a foreigner? Solicitor’s clerk! Mina would not like that. Solicitor—for just before leaving London I got word that my examination was successful; and I am now a full-blown solicitor!
Harker’s momentary pleasure at the memory of his bar passage is soon dampened, however, by the cold foreboding of the great estate he stands before – and no wonder, for only a few minutes later he meets the master of that castle, who greets him with the words, “Welcome to my house! Enter freely and of your own will! . . . I am Dracula. . .”
Whatever horrors Harker had to face next, at least he had made it past the doubt and anxiety that many people feel while waiting for their bar results to be revealed. Consider the unfortunate Mitch McDeere, the latest Harvard Law graduate to be hired by the high-end Memphis law firm of Bendini, Lambert and Locke. One autumn afternoon, Mitch is called unexpectedly into an urgent meeting:
Lambert, Avery, and what appeared to be most of the partners sat around the conference table. All of the associates were present, standing behind the partners. . . . The room was quiet, almost solemn. There were no smiles. . .
“Sit down, Mitch,” Mr. Lambert said gravely. “We have something to discuss with you.” . . . He frowned sincerely, as if this would be painful. “We’ve just received a call from Nashville, Mitch, and we wanted to talk with you about it.”
Poor Mitch immediately guesses what this is all about:
The bar exam. The bar exam. The bar exam. History had been made. An associate of the great Bendini firm had finally flunked the bar exam. . . . He wanted to speak, to explain that he deserved just one more chance, that the exam would be given again in six months and he would ace it, that he would not embarrass them again. A thick pain hit below the belt.
“Yes, sir,” he said humbly, in defeat.
Lambert moved in for the kill. “We aren’t supposed to know these things, but the folks in Nashville told us that you made the highest score on the bar exam. Congratulations, Counselor.”
The room exploded with laughter and cheers.
Surprise! Not what Mitch was expecting. Unfortunately, Mitch’s satisfaction is nearly as short-lived as was Harker’s, for less than two pages later, in John Grisham’s The Firm, Mitch McDeere meets an FBI agent who explains that the Bendini firm is mostly a front for the criminal activities of the Chicago Mob, and that attorneys who try to leave the firm always end up dead.
Dracula and The Firm were both sensationally popular novels, which suggests that there is something highly resonant about the notion of passing the ultimate test of professional ability, only to be led directly into a world of evil and mortal danger. I suspect some people enjoy the irony – He’s supposed to be so smart, but he wasn’t smart enough to avoid the King of the Undead or the Capo di Tutti Capi – and other people appreciate the moral question – Does mere intellectual knowledge even matter when a person is faced with a threat to his life and soul?
But law graduates might see yet another layer to these tales: After all this hard work to pass the bar, over three crushing years in law school and ten blistering weeks of bar preparation, is my “success” just going to take the form of an indenture to forces that seek only to exhaust my vitality to feed their own appetites? True, most attorneys do not end up working for vampires or gangsters, but even a wholesome job for a decent employer can feel like purgatory to someone whose interests and aptitudes lie elsewhere. When our students are no longer our students, when they have taken and passed the bar and are out there gainfully employed, is that the end of their stories?
There might be a brief frisson in thinking so. Isn’t that why people read suspense stories? But if there are two last messages we can leave our students with, they are that passing the bar is both an ending and a beginning, and that the skills they’ve learned in meeting that particular challenge will be skills they can use in meeting future challenges as well. If they can pass the bar exam, they can overcome anything – a misfit job, a toxic employer, even a threat to their lives and souls.
And Jonathan Harker and Mitch McDeere are evidence of this, because they each survive their ordeals. In both Dracula and The Firm, the heroes triumph by relying on three core competences – the same three competencies we emphasize in preparing our own students to pass the bar and to perform well in practice: knowledge of the law, application of sound personal judgment, and reliance on a network of support. Harker escapes from Dracula's castle by finding an unconventional route to freedom and judging that the risks of flight are smaller than those of remaining in place. Once he makes it back to England, he uses his legal skills to locate Dracula's hidden lairs, documented in a tangle of deeds and conveyances, and then he teams up with a band of friends to track down and eliminate the fiend and his minions. McDeere has the good sense to realize that neither the firm nor the FBI has his safety or best interests at heart, and, turning to a small group of family members of those previously hurt by the mob's activities, devises his own plan to use the legal tools he has learned to escape from the gangsters while passing along the evidence needed to bring down the Bendini firm. Sure, this is all fiction and fantasy, but fiction is often popular because it provides another way of telling a truth.
To everyone who finds out in the next few weeks that they have passed the bar examination: Congratulations, and may the rest of your life be just as successful. Know that you have the ability to make it so.
Thursday, September 19, 2019
With a hat tip to Prof. Chris Lasch...
This week, a federal judge issued an order, finding that the New York State Board of Law Examiners is not immune under the Eleventh Amendment in a civil action by a bar exam applicant who was twice denied testing accommodations, alleging violations of federal disability law. T.W. v New York State Board of Law Examiners, Memorandum and Order, September 18, 2019, U.S. District Court E.D New York, Case 16-CV-3029 (J. Dearie).
According to the brief facts as stated in the court's memorandum of its order, the plaintiff failed the New York Bar Exam in her "first two tries, causing her to lose a lucrative job...and undermining her job prospects to date," although the plaintiff subsequently passed the New York bar exam when she was finally provided testing accommodations.
The plaintiff raises two federal statutes in support of her claim that the New York bar examiners violated her rights in failing to twice provide bar exam accommodations. First, the plaintiff asserts violation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which, roughly speaking, prohibits discrimination by any program or activity that receives federal final assistance. Second, the plaintiff asserts violation of the Americans with Disability Act ("ADA"), which, broadly speaking and in relevant parts, prohibits discrimination by programs and activities by any public entity.
The New York bar examiners filed a motion to dismiss, contending that the federal court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over both of the plaintiff's federal statutory claims in that the State contends that the plaintiff's claims are barred by sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment, which, in general, prohibits suits in federal court against states absent an exception (two of which were raised by the plaintiff in response to the defendant's motion to dismiss).
First, with respect to the ADA statutory claim, the plaintiff asserted that Congress properly abrogated (or removed) state sovereign immunity when Congress adopted the ADA statute.
As indicated by the Court (and as tested in law school exams and bar exams too), Congress can remove sovereign immunity provided that Congress uses unmistakably clear language and provided that Congress adopted the statute at issue pursuant to congressional power to remedy and deter constitutional violations under Congress's post-Civil War 14th Amendment Section 5 power.
With respect to this issue, the New York bar examiners argued that Title II of the ADA was not enacted pursuant to a valid grant of constitutional authority as the commerce clause power, in and of itself, is constitutionally insufficient for Congress to abrogate state sovereign immunity. Despite the interesting constitutional arguments over this issue, the Court did not reach the constitutional issue with respect to the ADA, explaining that the plaintiff's claim under the Rehabilitation Act was sufficient to resolve this case because the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA have the "same legal standards and remedies." Thus, the Court focused only on whether to dismiss the plaintiff's claim under the Rehabilitation Act for lack of subject matter jurisdiction based on Eleventh Amendment immunity.
Second, with respect to the Rehabilitation Act claim, the plaintiff asserted that the State waived its constitutional right under the Eleventh Amendment to not be sued in federal court when the State accepted federal funding for some of its state court programs.
As the Court stated in its decision, the Rehabilitation Act requires states to waive sovereign immunity as a condition of receiving federal funds for state programs for lawsuits brought in federal courts for violations of the Rehabilitation Act. Consequently, the Court next focused on whether the state waived its constitutional rights when the New York court system received, in part, federal funding.
In brief, the Court held that the New York bar examiners had waived sovereign immunity protections from lawsuit in federal court under the Rehabilitation Act because the New York bar examiners were organized as a sub-entity of the New York court system, which did receive federal funding, and therefore, the plaintiff's claim of violation of the Rehabilitation Act by the New York bar examiners could proceed to the next stage of litigation as the court has federal question subject matter over the plaintiff's claim.
With respect to this issue, the decision is a bit complicated and is fact intensive, as illustrated by the Court's citations out of Wisconsin, which indicate that the Wisconsin bar examiners are distant separate entities from the Wisconsin court system. In such cases, the particular government entity must intentional waive its sovereign immunity rights by receiving federal funding, which, apparently, the Wisconsin bar examiners did not.
Nevertheless, with respect to New York, the Court ruled that the New York bar examiners were a sub-compnent agency of the larger state court system such that the New York bar examiners are subject to lawsuit in federal court based on the Rehabilitation Act. As such, the Court denied the New York bar examiners motion to dismiss. Consequently, the plaintiff can proceed with a claim against the New York bar examiners in federal court for violation of the Rehabilitation Act.
For those of us in the academic support field, that raises an interesting question because, anecdotally, even in states using the identical Uniform Bar Exam (UBE), it seems as though there are wide differences with respect to granting disability testing accommodations. But, before you counsel students to sue state bar examiners in federal court for potential violations of the Rehabilitation Act, its important to underscore that that a case in federal court might well turn on a deep analysis of the organizational and legal structure of the bar examiners, specifically, whether they are a sub-entity of a state agency that is the recipient of federal funding. Many or some state bar examiners might not receive any federal funding and might well be independent of a state agency that does receive federal funding such that federal litigation might be precluded against state bar examiners.
Finally, for those of you working with law students (or bar exam applicants), this is a great case to raise with them because it interweaves federal civil procedure and constitutional law. Indeed, this is a problem ripe for a bar exam question. And, for those law students preparing for midterms in civil procedure or constitutional law, this is a great practice problem to test one's analysis.
Wednesday, September 18, 2019
Four weeks into the semester, the reports of law dreams are starting to trickle in.
For those who have never experienced this phenomenon, law dreams are the bane of the conscientious law student. (I've never had a report of a classic law dream from a devil-may-care student.) The law dream doesn't resemble your garden-variety exam dream, in which students dream they are sitting down to take a Corporate Taxation exam when they haven't even finished Contracts, let alone registered for any upper-division courses. No, the classic law dream, as I've experienced it and as students describe it, involves involuntarily wrestling with legal concepts during sleep. After a full day of conscientious studying, you lay yourself down to sleep, hoping to feel rested and refreshed in the morning. You drift off to sleep, and suddenly your unconscious brain is wrestling with the reason Palsgraf wasn't decided on the basis of duty, why it matters which ship "Peerless" the cotton from Bombay was loaded on in its passage to Liverpool, or whether to treat consent or its lack as an element of the tort or as a defense. These dreams feel like they last forever, and students wake up feeling drained by the mental struggle.
Exhausting as law dreams may be, it may be some comfort to know they serve a useful function. Tons of research now shows how important sleep is not only for health but also for memory consolidation, with different areas of the brain consolidating long-term memory and procedural memory. Sleep after learning is essential to save the short-term memories into long-term memory, and new research also suggests that sleep is needed before new learning so the brain is receptive to new memories. But what about those law dreams? One influential paper suggests that "Type I" thought-like dreams are the result of memory replay as data is transferred from short-term working memory to long-term memory during non-REM sleep (those are the law dreams), while "Type II" dreams during REM sleep are the more familiar non-linear dreams. Remember the old jokes about sleeping with your book under your pillow to learn? Some researchers now advocate using sleep for active problem-solving by focusing on a problem before going to bed. There's even a technique called "lucid dreaming" which allows sleepers to gain control over the progression of their dreams as they practice awareness that they are actually dreaming and make choices about what will happen in the dream. Lucid dreaming, though, is only possible if you have regular healthy sleep.
Now, go to bed.
Thursday, September 12, 2019
I have to make a confession. Last week, I admitted that - as a law student - I was a proverbial "deer-in-the-headlights" when it came my time to face an ambush of socratic questioning. Confessions of a Socratic Deer (Sep 5, 2019). In retrospect, I think that some of that was due to my method of class preparation, namely, I tried to memorize as much of the case materials as I could so that I could regurgitate the cases when called upon (an impossible task, mind you!).
Now, looking back, I think I should have focused, as indicated in the final point of last week's blog, on preparing for classes by preparing my own questions about the cases assigned as reading, writing:
"As you read cases, puzzle over them, asking questions, evaluating arguments, voicing your own concerns, dialoguing and debating with the courts. In other words, don't read to memorize the cases. Instead, read to learn to have conversations with courts, to voice your own opinions and insights, in short, to prepare for a life in the law as a creative thoughtful attorney." Id.
That's when I got super-excited about the super-short case preparation checklist from the Royal Court of Justice for the Kingdom of Bhutan. Royal Bhutan Case Preparation Checklist (2018).
It's just two pages long but jam-packed with informative tips and questions that, in retrospect, would have made a mountain of difference in my law school learning, not to mention my confidence in the face of potential socratic questioning.
As the Royal Court explains in its document entitled "Briefing a Case," case briefing in preparation for court [and classes of course] is critically important for lawyers [and law students] because the process of case briefing "...organizes ones thinking and forces one, point by point, to consider all the important elements of the decision. Id.
To paraphrase, the Royal Court's checklist focuses one's mind on 8 steps:
- State the parties of the case and what they want.
- Provide a brief synopsis of essential facts.
- Briefly describe the procedural history of what happened.
- Find out the issue or issues.
- Figure out the holding/decisions of the judges.
- Explain the court's chain of reasoning using IRAC analysis.
- State the ultimate order of the court in disposition of the case.
- Voice your analysis. Id.
In my opinion, the first 7 steps are the means to an end with the end lying in step 8 - voicing your analysis.
As the Royal Court indicates its checklist, in the last step about voicing your analysis, explore the significance of the case, figure out how the case relates to others that you have read, identify the case's place in history, ponder what the case shows you about judges, courts, and society in general (to include its impact on litigants, both now and in the future), unpack both the explicit and implicit assumptions of the court, and engage in a thoughtful debate the "rightness" of the decision to include its persuasiveness and logic. Id.
I know that that sounds like a lot to take in. But, learning the law requires learning legal analysis and learning legal analysis requires digging in deeply into the cases assigned for each of your classes. Unfortunately, I spent way too much time in law school re-reading cases, trying to memorize them, rather than trying to see the patterns in legal thought and persuasion and, best yet, voicing my own analysis of them.
In short, as I reflect on my own law school experience, the key to case briefing and class preparation, it seems to me, is to take on the role of Socrates yourself, prior to class, in which you probe and ponder the cases assigned. As a bonus I can promise you, you'll learn to think like a lawyer and, more importantly, you'll be the sort of attorney to which your clients will be mighty grateful because you honed your skills and sharpened your analysis in law school (rather than with them).
Thursday, September 5, 2019
I'm a deer in the headlights. Throughout law school, I lived in what I'll call a perpetual state of "socratic fear." I muddled through classes for the first weeks of law school, never called on but ever so fearful. But, my day finally came. I was called to state the facts of the case and the issue at hand. What case? I couldn't recall. What issues? I didn't have any notion. Frozen and stuck, I stumbled badly. It's as though my mind went wildly bank despite my over preparation.
I never did get over my fear of the socratic method. Throughout all three years of law school, I was the quiet one. Indeed, I felt like I was the only one who was afraid to be called on by a professor. And, as you might have guessed, I definitely didn't voluntarily to speak in class. It was just too risky. Instead, I piled up as much fodder as I could in an attempt to barricade myself from making the dreaded "eye-to-eye" contact with my professors. That was a surefire way, it seemed to me, to be called on. So, I lived with my head buried throughout most of law school, looking down, not up.
But, there's great news for me (and for you!).
You see, we are not the only ones...at all...with "socratic fear." Indeed, according to survey research out of Europe based on language-learning courses in which students are called on to to speak on the "fly" as they learn foreign languages (much like law students are often put on the spot to answer questions in front of peers about cases), many students are just like us - they feel anxious when put in the spotlight to speak in class with the teacher. Alessia Occhipinti, Foreign Language Anxiety in In-Class Speaking Activities, University of Norway (2009) (published student research thesis). Not surprisingly, the survey results suggest that the level of anxiety increases, like a hot autumn day with the noontime sun directly overhead, as the level of personal interaction increases from individual work silently alone at one's desk without being called upon...to group activities and presentations in front of the class...to individual spotlight activities interacting directly with professors. Id.
That got me thinking because, prior to law school, I had no fears of speaking in class, whether language classes or even military pilot training (where students are called in "stand-ups" to explain how they would handle an unanticipated emergency situation to a safe conclusion).
In other words, there seemed to be something lurking in the law school educational experience that poked holes in my once courageous voice.
As I scan back to the past, it wasn't due to a lack of preparation but perhaps to a lack of knowing what was coming (which I suspect is the root of much of our anxieties and fears). And, to be honest, we (or at least I!) also fear being found out to be a fraud, to have been wrongly admitted to law school (or so we feel), that we don't belong at all in law school (and soon everyone will know the truth when they witness us self-destruct...right in front of the class of our peers as the professor interrogates us).
But, as I think about my own law school experience, and in talking with scores and scores of law students, here's what I've gleaned as suggestions about how to handle the stresses and strains of the socratic method. I just wish I had known them when I was a law student.
- Everyone (or most of us) are afraid of speaking in class.
- Just because you have trouble speaking in class, doesn't mean that you don't belong in class. In fact, it might really mean the opposite. That you, like the rest of your classmates, are human beings with shared worries and concerns.
- Talk with someone. Be open with classmates in particular. Be the first to break the ice with trusted friends. Reach out to student affairs, academic success professions, and even your professors. As a suggestion, ask your law school faculty about their own experiences with socratic questioning when they were students (and what suggestions they might have for you to overcome your concerns).
- Realize something extremely important. As far as I can tell, there's absolutely no association between speaking in class and serving as a first-rate attorney. Indeed, although I was overcome (gripped) by fear throughout my law school moot court experiences, I loved speaking in courts as an attorney. Here's why. I knew that the judges wanted to have conversations with me. Simply put, judges were asking me questions because they wanted to learn what I was thinking, they wanted to see things from multiple perspectives that they might have missed in their own preparations for oral arguments, etc., they were dependent on me (us) as attorneys to educate them about our clients, our cases, and the governing law. In short, based on my own experiences, oral argument in court is much more about having a conversation with the judge(s) rather than a battle with professors who, most likely, have already pre-determined most of the answers to their questions.
- Prepare for class with questions. As you read cases, puzzle over them, asking questions, evaluating arguments, voicing your own concerns, dialoguing and debating with the courts. In other words, don't read to memorize the cases. Instead, read to learn to have conversations with courts, to voice your own opinions and insights, in short, to prepare for a life in the law as a creative thoughtful attorney.
- Repeat no. 4. There's no relationship between socratic success and legal success, so far as I can tell. Rather, great attorneys think before they speak, often times rephrasing the questions, and sharing with courts what's on their mind and how that relates to the cases at hand.
Thursday, August 29, 2019
Much of the time, it seems to me, I am occupied with trying to reach the minds of our law students. But, perhaps that's putting the proverbial "cart before the horse." The cart, so to speak, is metacognition, or the process of learning to learn (practices such as spaced repetition and the implement of desirable difficulties throughout the course of one's learning). But, what might be the horse?
Well, a number of possibilities come to mind. There's been much research of late on the relationship between growth mindsets in predicting academic achievement. But, I think that there's another horse at play, a factor that might even serve as a necessary precondition for the development of such mindsets as grit, resiliency, and a growth mindset. In my opinion, that prerequisite is a well-formed sense of belonging...as empowered members of a vibrant learning community.
I love that word "belonging." It's chocked full of action with its "ing" begging us to be fully embraced (and to embrace others), despite all our blemishes and surprises. And, it starts with the prefix "be," which resonates and comes only alive within the present ongoing moments of community with others, indicating that this is something that we enjoy in the here and now rather than later. And, it's all-encompassing of the person, with its incorporation of the word "long," reminding me of arms outstretched, to be overtaken in the presence of others, to be accepted as we are...fully and completely (and to stretch our hearts around others within our midsts). In other words, the word "belonging" is full of action.
So, that brings up a few questions.
First, is belonging even much of a problem in law schools?
Second, what sort of spark might lead to the type actions that can then develop into a well-spring of belonging for our law students as members within learning communities?
Well, with respect to the first question, as Prof. Victor Quintanilla documents according to research at the Law School Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE): "[W]orries about belonging are endemic to law school." http://lssse.indiana.edu/tag/belonging/ That's the bad news. And, in my opinion, that's why many fall to the wayside. It's not because of LSAT scores or a lack of motivation. It's just darn difficult to succeed when you don't feel like you are a part of something, that you belong within the community, that you are welcome and embraced as vital law school participants.
But, there's great news to be had. Indeed, as Prof. Quintanilla further explains, the quality of one's relationships with students, faculty, and administrators significantly predicts one's sense of belonging in law school...and the strength of one's sense of belonging significantly predict's one's academic performance even controlling for traditional academic predicators such as LSAT scores. Id. In other words, "law school belonging is a critical predictor of social and academic success among law students." Id. (Quintanilla, et. al, in prep). And, that's great news because - as educational leaders in academic support - we can serve in the frontline of developing, strengthening, and securing our students in positive relationships with others throughout our law school's learning communities.
That brings me to our final quandary. How might we actually empower our students to be in vibrant relationship with others in law school?
In my own case, it means that I need to listen to my students. That I need to frequently pause to take in and hear and observe what's happening to my students, not as students, but as people. It means that I need to step up to the plate, so to speak, to proactively engage with my students. Nevertheless, with so much on our ASP plates, that sure sounds hard to implement.
So, here's an easy way that we might share with our students in order to help spark relationships that can then lead to a sense of belonging. It's called the "10/5 rule." Next time you're at your law school, when you come within 10 feet of another person, break out a brief smile. It doesn't have to be much, but it does have to be sincere. Then, when you're within about 5 feet of that other person, briefly recognize them with a short "howdy" or "hi." That's it.
You see, according to social science research, such actions of a brief smile lead to a sense of belonging, a feeling of inclusion, even, amazingly, if the other person doesn't even recall seeing your smile. See The Surprising Benefits of Chit Chat, Eye Contact, and a Hello for Law Students & ASP (and the 10/5 Rule)!
So, please join me in sharing a smile. It's a great way to not just brighten your day but brighten the lives of those around you. Indeed, who knows? Perhaps that brief smile that you just shared today (or will share in just a bit) will lead another to smile, and then another, and then a whole circles of smiles. And, isn't a circle of smiles the sort of spark that can create relationships that can lead to belonging and therefore might even help to empower successful learning? (Scott Johns).