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)

Thursday, January 16, 2020

A Legal Education "Learning Triangle"

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):

J. Dunlosky, Strengthening the Student Toolbox: Study Strategies to Boost Learning;

C. Dweck, et. al., Academic Tenancy: Mindsets and Skill That Promote Long-Term Learning.

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!

(Scott Johns).

 

 

January 16, 2020 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Learning Styles, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

You Say You Want a Resolution

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 contronymsauto-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?

Probably.

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:

  1. 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.  
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

[Bill MacDonald]

January 7, 2020 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, December 13, 2019

Turning Fear of Failure Into Acts of Success

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!

(Scott Johns).

December 13, 2019 in Advice, Bar Exam Issues, Bar Exam Preparation, Learning Styles, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Finals are Over, Now What?

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.

(Steven Foster)

December 8, 2019 in Encouragement & Inspiration, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Comfort - An Enemy of Learning?

There's a line from the movie "The Greatest Showman" that goes like this:  "Comfort is the enemy of progress."  

That got me thinking.

I wonder if comfort might also be an enemy of learning. 

Here's why:  

It seems to me, if I boil down the research on learning, that much of what we think is valuable for learning is, frankly, of little to no value at all.  

Take for example re-reading notes and texts and highlighting information. Although I doubt any social scientist would put it this way, as I follow the research, those activities are essentially worthless as they really aren't activities of cognition at all.  Rather, they are motions that we take in which we convince ourselves - falsely - that we are learning.  (They are mere preparations to become a learner, not learning in itself.).  That's why they feel so intuitively comfortable.  

But true learning takes sweat.  It requires workouts using our minds. It pushes us to build cognitive connections that previously didn't exist.  In short, it's a struggle in growing, thinking, and practicing well beyond our comfort zones. 

So, as you prepare for final exams, take heart.  Be of good courage, knowing that while true learning doesn't feel comfortable, the science is behind you as you push into uncomfortable work.

From a practical viewpoint, as you work through your notes and outlines, talk them out, synthesize them, and generate lots of ideas and practice exam scenarios based on them.   Test yourself frequently about what you think you are learning to see if you are truly learning it by turning your materials over and recalling what you think you know from memory.  In short, prepare for your final exams by using interleaving practices (mixing up different topics and practice formats) and spaced repetition (revising topics and practices through intervals of spaced timing) in addition to forced retrieval exercises (deliberately forcing our minds to recall what we think we can't remember).

If you aren't sure about how to use interleaving practice, spaced repetition review, or forced recall learning, please dive into some of the charts and tables in this very helpful overview of the cognitive psychology for optimal learning: J. Dunlosky, "Strengthening The Student Tool Kit."   Or better yet, check out some of the blog posts from Associate Dean Louis Schulze, an expert in legal education learning: L. Schulze, "Four Posts on Cognitive Psychology."   They're sure to get you thinking, and, more importantly, learning...if you put them to practice.  

Best of luck on your final exams!

(Scott Johns).

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

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Taking Our Own Advice

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.

However:

“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!

(Melissa Hale)

December 4, 2019 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Stress & Anxiety | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 25, 2019

Making Real Connections

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.

(Marsha Griggs)

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).

November 25, 2019 in Advice, Current Affairs, Encouragement & Inspiration, Food and Drink, Miscellany, News, Stress & Anxiety, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 21, 2019

A Queen Counsels: More Ear--Less Talk

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!

(Scott Johns).

November 21, 2019 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Learning Styles, Meetings, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Two Kinds of Work

Sometimes students think they are painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, when they are really inventing the light bulb.

Michelangelo famously worked from 1508 to 1512 to decorate the ceiling of the Chapel with biblical scenes comprising more than 300 figures.  Contrary to popular belief, he did not do the work lying on his back; the scaffolding he designed and put in place left him room to stand.  Try this right now: for one minute, stand up, look up at the ceiling above you, and hold your hand high over your head, grasping a pen, or a paintbrush if you have one handy.  Now imagine doing that for four years, and creating an historical masterpiece.  Amazing.  If I had painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling under those conditions, it would have ended up taped to my parents’ refrigerator for a month, then discreetly recycled.

Still, the process did have one advantage: every evening, while Michelangelo was washing the paint off his brushes, he could look up and see a few more square feet of masterpiece.  If his boss, Pope Julius II, swung by just to see how things were going, he would notice some prophet or angel that hadn’t been there the week before, and say something like, “Good work, Micky.  I like the wrath there – very Old Testament.  Keep it up.”

In contrast we have Thomas Edison and his invention of the light bulb.  To be fair, it wasn't just the light bulb that made his electrical system so successful.  He had a much broader vision, encompassing power generation and transmission facilities as well, so that once he had created a working light bulb, he had also designed an entire system capable of lighting it practically in every citizen’s home.  But still, success did depend on finding that reliable, long-lasting bulb, and to do this, Edison tested thousands of different materials – varieties of animal hair, plant fiber, metal wire, etc. – to find a filament that would work.

But Edison’s work was not incremental the way Michelangelo’s work was.  Over time, his experiments did provide some clues that guided him to the material (carbonized bamboo) that eventually worked, so his progress was not entirely random.  Still, it was unpredictable.  Edison could go through periods in which he’d test 100 filaments and not one of them would work any better than what he’d had at the start. While Michelangelo could work for a month and at least complete 2% of a ceiling -- and 100% of, say, Adam and Eve -- a month of work for Edison would not leave him with 2% of a working light bulb.  He had no light bulb, until the day he found the right material; then he had the light bulb.

A lot of what our students do is Michelangelo work.  They do a chunk of reading, or memorize a set of rules, or practice a certain writing format, and it may take them a while to reach their ultimate goal, but at least they can see measurable progress along the way: this many pages covered, or that many rules learned by heart, or some incrementally improved conformity with a norm.  It can still be a grind, especially with a heavy workload and weighty syllabus, but at least the students can be sure of improvement and can project a likely date of completion.

It’s inevitable, though, that some of our students' work will be Edison work.  They put in the time and the effort, but there’s not necessarily any obvious correlation to results.  They could be working on a legal research project, looking for a needle and ending each day with a notebook full of hay.  Or they might be practicing some skill that, for them, seems to resist improvement, at least until a certain critical mass of practice has been reached.  (Performance on multiple-choice tests, for example, can sometimes plateau for weeks for soem students.)  If the students don't realize that they are not doing Michelangelo work here -- if they are expecting incremental success and not seeing it -- then they can grow discouraged and self-doubtful, and may even abandon the effort, believing it is not doing any good.

It is crucial. before that happens, to explain to students (and to remind them, sometimes frequently) that there are two kinds of progress in work, and to get them to focus not on results but on well-directed effort.  Help them to recognize, as Edison did, that some jobs simply require effort that won’t be directly rewarded, but that “every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.”  As long as students are actually doing the right work -- and for that, too, they may need your guidance -- then, even if they are not seeing daily results, they are doing something useful -- ruling out fruitless lines of inquiry, or gradually building context and understanding to reach the critical mass needed.  In the moment, such progress may not feel as satisfying as a tangible result, but with support, they can keep going, even in the face of doubt.  And once they have completed the task successfully, they can look back and realize not just how the effort they made led to the result, but also that they are capable of making similar efforts -- and hopefully with a little more faith -- in the future.

[Bill MacDonald]

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

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Lollipop Learning

Picture a "lollipop."  Unfortunately, that was me as a law school student preparing for my first final exams. You see, in preparation for final exams, I spent most of my time re-reading my notes, trying to master my outlines, and cramming as much information as possible into my head...with the hope that I might somehow be able to regurgitate as much as possible back to my professors.  

In short, I looked much like a lollipop - stuffed with head knowledge but without much of a body or a heart to make it work.  

That's because I had learned the law...but...I hadn't let the rest of my body, in particular my heart and my hands, share in the learning process.  As such, I had much to say when it at came time for final exams but, unfortunately, little of anything practical or valuable because I had merely learned to parrot back my notes and outlines.  I was as hard-headed as the candy on top of a lollipop; I couldn't dance with the final exam problems because I hadn't trained to work final exam problems. In retrospect, I should have fed my heart and hands as much as I engaged my mind in order to prepare for my final exams.  

Let me be concrete.  As you prepare for final exams, take it from me.  Work your heart and body too as you learn the law.  Here's what I mean.  Rather than just learning the law, learn to problem-solve the law ... using the law that you are learning.  That's because, in most law school courses, you won't be tested on what you've stuffed into your mind but rather on what you can personally do with what's in your mind by demonstrating how to solve hypothetical legal problems.  

So, as you prepare for final exams, please feel free to re-read your notes (but only briefly because that's one of the weakest ways to learn) and make outlines (because the process of making your outlines is essential to learning the law)...but...then take your outlines and use them to solve batches of simulated final exam problems (and lots of them). And, when you miss an issue or a problem, rejoice...because missing that issue now means that you'll get that issue right in the midst of your final exams.  In short, focus on learning the law by working through problems.  

As a rule of thumb, about one-third of your time should be spent on reviewing your notes and creating outlines, one-third of your time spent on working through simulated exam problems, and one-third of your time spent on assessing what you did well (and why) along with what you can improve for the next time (and how).

In other words, just like a balanced diet with a lifestyle of exercise, let all of you (your mind, your heart, and your body) share in learning by learning the law through legal problem-solving.  And, if you don't have a quick source of simulated exam problems, here's a batch below that can serve you well in a dash.  Good luck on your final exams! (Scott Johns).

Administrative Law

Agency

Civil Procedure

Constitutional Law

Contracts

Corporations

Criminal Law

Criminal Procedure

Evidence

Family Law

Partnership

Property

Torts

UCC Article 2 – Sales

UCC Article 3 – Commercial Paper

UCC Article 9 – Secured Transactions

Wills and Trusts

 

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