Monday, January 23, 2023
It is that time of year when ASP folks are inundated with students who have had an epiphany about their study habits -- usually brought on by grades that were less than stellar. It is also the time of year when students with grades that our law school is concerned about are told to come visit ASP. These students all have a few Cs and have been told that this GPA might not be good enough to continue after the first year. They are frightened, chastened, and often need the tissues and the chocolate I've stocked for this season. I have a general plan for working with these students-almost a template: go over the bad exams, let's see where the deficiencies are (not phrased that way!), and let's get started with building the skills to avoid them for the next set of exams. If the issue is output (lack of IRAC, multiple choice questions that were confusing, etc., time), I get them started on practice questions ASAP. If it is input (didn't outline, didn't study efficiently, missing classes, other distractions), I get them started on building better habits and practice. If it was a mental health issue, or some outside trauma, I ask if they are in a better place, make sure that they are getting help, and then send them to practice (but very gently). I'm sure you do something very similar. This is the bread and butter of ASP. Time-proven technology that is individualized for each student.
But (you knew there would be a but), what do you do with the students who come to you with very good grades? Recently, before I even got a chance to email the 1Ls who will be notified that they should be seeing me, another first year student asked to meet with me to discuss improving their grades. Their grades were: A, A-, A-, and the dreaded B+. I had some good advice about improving their social life--i.e., don't complain to anyone else about these grades--that I kept to myself. I also did not want to dismiss the student with a "those are great grades, whatever you are doing, keep doing it." Although, I will admit this was my first thought along with, "do you realize that there are students here who would kill for those grades????" All I could think of was that Michael Jackson song, "[k]eep on, with the force, don't stop. Don't stop 'til you get enough1." Sigh.
Yet, I would never turn away a student who asked for help-even if my knee jerk reaction was that they did not need it. So, I followed the protocol-I told them to go talk to the professors and ask what was good, what might have been better on the exams, and then to come back to me so we can start working on those things. I warned them that the professors might be seeing students with lower grades first so that they would need some patience. I'm guessing I'll see them again by late February-hopefully.
In a way, I respect this student's drive, and in another way, I am a little concerned about it as well. So rather than act as a surly gatekeeper to the ASP resources in this situation, I thought it might be a good idea to keep an eye on this student to remind them every now and then that the goal is learning. I fully understand that if their grades are worse in the spring, I might be considered the reason.
Academic support is more than academic. We all know it, so while this student may not need academic help, they do seem to need support. So, if I am their personal Stuart Smalley2 who helps them see that they are good enough, smart enough, and doggone it, they belong in law school, maybe that will be enough.
Sunday, November 20, 2022
Almost everyone in my family is a massive sports fan. College football Saturdays are a tradition, so we talk non-stop about the current rankings and debate the what-ifs. A couple weeks ago after another fun Saturday, my 8-year old concluded Alabama football isn't very good this year. While many people in Tuscaloosa might agree with him (and want to fire every coach on the team), the statement is absurd. For non-college football readers, Alabama football has been the most dominant team over the past 15 years. They expect to win every game. My son made this pronouncement after they lost their second game this year. They are still ranked in the top 10 out of 130 teams, which is extremely good. However, since expectations required perfection, they fell short.
I want to remind all of us to manage our expectations going into the winter season. For students taking exams, no one writes perfect exam answers. Professors intentionally construct hard exams. You will probably miss a few (or more) small nuances. Everyone will. You can also still be successful on the exam while missing those nuances. Also, don't expect perfect grades. I understand most law students obtained great undergraduate grades. However, very few people graduate with all A's in law school. My suggestion for exams is to focus on preparation. Create a good plan that includes understanding the material, completing practice questions, and seeking feedback.
To our amazing future attorneys (February Bar takers), you will make mistakes. No one answers every MBE question correct. The vast majority of students don't start bar preparation with a passing score. Embrace mistakes as learning opportunities. Work as hard as you can within your program, but also, give yourself grace. When you miss an assignment, pick it up tomorrow. It is easy to miss a day, but don't let it snowball to 2.
For my ASP colleagues, you can't be perfect. You probably want to hold extra final exam workshops while meeting with every student who needs help and provide non-stop individual feedback. Unfortunately, there isn't enough time in the day to do everything you want to do. Your school probably asks you to do more than you can reasonably accomplish in 8-10 hours. Give yourself grace if you can't get to everything. Talk to a few faculty members for extra help providing feedback to students. Encourage students to meet with their doctrinal professors. Use time blocking strategies to focus on specific tasks long enough to mark things off your to-do list. Lastly, walk through your law school and smile at students studying. Your time is limited, but some students just need to see you pulling for them. A smile could make their day.
The end of the semester is a sprint. Most of us (students and professors) are in law school because we continually push ourselves beyond our limits. While I encourage everyone to push yourself to new heights, I also want to remind you that you are Alabama football. Very few people get an opportunity to go to law school (<2% of population), and even less are ASPers. Don't expect perfection over the next couple weeks. Instead, focus on studying or helping students each day. Try to enjoy the spring through the next couple weeks.
Monday, November 7, 2022
After last week’s onslaught of students with legal writing questions (and some tears), I was hoping to be less busy this week. Yet, this morning I received several requests for appointments from students who just got back their first midterms as 1Ls, so a calmer week is not in the cards here. I have to admit that I spent some quality time this morning trying to decipher why a doctrinal professor wrote question marks on some parts of an exam answer, but check marks on others. I did this without a grading rubric to look at-and to be honest, it was, at best, purely speculative. So here are some things you can do with students when discussing their midterms that does not involve the use of a crystal ball or calling your psychic friends (you can save these resources for determining what might be on the final…):
- Send the student from whence they came: not to their parents, but to the professor who placed the check and question marks on the exam. They might know what they meant-and most likely have a better idea than you do. Or even the TA, who most likely speaks the professor’s language fluently. Tell them to ask for the rubric-or even to just see it.
- Remind students about IRAC. Sometimes the reason a student got a B- on an exam that the rest of study group got an A on is (hypothetically) because they didn’t outline any rules upfront but rather let them accumulate throughout the answer.
- Remind students that we are not mind readers. Yes, your professor knows the rules they are testing, but no, they don’t know what you know unless you tell them. So, tell them, even it is seems obvious, or they think it should “go without saying.” Nothing should go without saying.
- A corollary of the prior rule is do not leave any analysis in your head. Yes, the answer is clear sometimes, but again, explaining why it is clear is where the points come from. The journey > destination.
- Be sure to tell students that midterm exams are a gift. A midterm means that the stakes are lower than just having a final for the entire assessment of the course and understanding what your professor is looking for is a huge amount of helpful information. This also makes the doctrinal professors who give them (and grade them!) incentive to continue this important practice.
- Be sure to remind students where they can find practice essay and multiple-choice questions. Law School exam success is like getting to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice! A reminder of where the exam helpful resources are is always helpful. We have a hidden place on our law library website that is honestly full of great resources, but finding it is a little like looking for the room of requirement in Harry Potter. Since everyone needs these resources, be sure to share the links you know about with students!
As to the other midterms, please go vote. Or be proud that you already have.
"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."
- Martin Luther King, Jr
Friday, October 28, 2022
In late August, ASU Law Professor Charles Calleros wrote a guest post calling for essay submissions describing different law schools’ academic support programs.
As described before, the purpose of this project is to assemble a number of those descriptions to demonstrate the many ways law schools can commit to their students’ success by investing genuinely and substantially in a robust academic support program. A Short Series of Blogs. He noted that future contributions to this project would include guest posts by Jacquelyn Rogers (Southwestern) and Louis Schulze (FIU), and he invited others to contribute towards a larger piece. Those interested in contributing to the project should send a draft to me at email@example.com.
In the meantime, Louis Schulze’s description essay can be found HERE.
Thursday, September 8, 2022
"Too often facts around me change, but my mind doesn't. Impervious to new information, I function like a navigation system that has missed a turn but won't re-route," writes attorney Mike Kerrigan in a story about "A Sweet Lesson From Pie," WSJ (Sep. 8, 2022).
I suspect that is true of most of us. But why? In my own case, my stubborn mind clings to the facts as I know them because, to admit that facts have changed and a new course of "navigation" is required is in someways to admit that I'm a human being, frail in more ways that I wish to admit.
I think that is especially a challenge in legal education and for bar exam authorities. We cling to the past because that's all we know and, to be frank, sometimes all we want to know.
Take legal education. We know that learning requires much from our students and from us. But many of our classes go on despite the new facts that have emerged from the learning sciences. Louis N. Jr. Schulze, Using Science to Build Better Learners: One School's Successful Efforts to Raise Its Bar Passage Rates in an Era of Decline, 68 J. Legal Educ. 230 (2019)., Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2960192
Take the bar exam. The best available data suggests that there is a dearth of evidence to support a relationship between bar exam scores and competency to practice law. Yet we cling to the past. Putting the Bar Exam on Constitutional Notice: Cut Scores, Race & Ethnicity, and the Public Good (August 31, 2022). Forthcoming, Seattle University Law Review, Vol. 45, No. 1, 2022, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4205899
I've made lots of wrong turns in my career, my work, and in my life. To keep on going in the wrong way gets me no closer to where I should be going. So let's give ourselves and each other the freedom to be changed, the freedom to travel a new path, the freedom to, in short, be curious, creative, and courageous about our work in legal education, on the bar exam, and in life in general. (Scott Johns).
Tuesday, April 26, 2022
Law schools have not yet fulfilled the Carnegie Report’s call for more formative assessment. One reason for falling short is conflicting narratives about what is “good” formative assessment. One specific narrative seems particularly troublesome: That the only legitimate method for providing formative assessment is for the instructor to sit down with each student and explain their errors. This post pushes back on that narrative.
- Self-critique is more effective than we appreciate.
Most would agree that individualized feedback from an instructor, the expert both on the subject and the way the student will be graded, is most effective. But especially when using a model answer or quality student answer, allowing students to compare their work against the ideal version, doing so not only assists with doctrinal comprehension, legal writing, and exam skills, but also builds metacognitive abilities. Having the capacity to determine one’s own weaknesses is crucially important, as demonstrated by countless studies showing the performance-enhancing effect of improving metacognition.
The assumption that all feedback must come from the instructor certainly undercuts the mission to improve students’ metacognition. When students find themselves professorless during bar study, they will scramble around helplessly if they have absorbed the legal education fable that only professor knows best. Moreover, new lawyers will certainly struggle in the early years of practice when they need to run to the partner/ division chief/ client to do the metacognitive work for them.
Although some students certainly will do a poor job of self-critiquing (“I mentioned res ipsa loquitur just like the model did! I should get full points!”), this is no reason to underappreciate self-critique. First, in my experience, most students DO figure out their weaknesses from this process. While before the self-critique process they think their C-minus should be an A-minus, seeing the student essay that booked the course tends to leave them thinking otherwise. Second, even if the student still does not see the problems, this is where academic support faculty come in. In partnering with doctrinal faculty, academic support faculty can meet with underperforming students and comment not on the law but on the student’s metacognition. This method distributes personnel resources in a way that makes robust feedback more possible, fosters metacognition, demonstrates to students the valuable connection between doctrinal and academic support faculty, and frees up time for doctrinal faculty.
- Calcifying the status quo.
A particular danger with the solely instructor-based feedback narrative is that it preserves the status quo. We all know that formative assessment is lacking in legal education. The principal argument against remedying that problem is that individualized feedback is so time-consuming that one can accomplish little else. When those inclined to pursue efficient formative assessment are then met with the chorus of voices claiming that self-provided feedback is inadequate, they throw the baby out with the bathwater, dismiss formative assessment, and turn back to the same one-final-exam process used since 1877. Therefore, creating this strict dichotomy between individualized feedback and self-provided feedback makes the perfect the enemy of the very good and leaves students with nothing instead of at least something.
None of this is meant to say that instructor-led feedback is unnecessary or inferior. Feedback from course instructors is crucial. But when that type of formative assessment is not feasible, self-critique is a solid option.
There is a lot more to discuss on this subject. Unlike almost all other graduate programs, why do we think that TAs providing feedback is an unspeakable heresy? Why do we almost never use summative assessment as formative assessment by improving the process of post-semester self-critique? (FYI, simply letting students see their exam answers does not accomplish this goal.) Why do we see testing only as formative and summative assessment but not as a learning tool in-and-of itself?
Unfortunately, the time constraints on writing about the time constraints of formative assessments are such that I have to stop tying now. Ironic.
Louis Schulze, FIU Law
 Self-critique without a model answer is possible, too, but I concede that having a model answer is preferable. To those who would avoid providing such an answer because doing so would take time to write or risk being imprecise, I would argue that a simple solution is to release the strongest student answer.
 Metacognition is the process of assessing one’s knowledge: Do I really know the felony murder rule, or do I just think I know it? As I tell my students, it is like hovering over one’s knowledge and objectively scrutinizing one’s real comprehension.
 See generally J.A. Gundlach & J. Santangelo, Teaching and Assessing Metacognition in Law School, 69 J. LEGAL EDUC. 156 (2019) (reporting on empirical study of first-year law students, finding that students who demonstrated strong metacognitive skills were more likely to perform well).
Monday, February 7, 2022
I have spent the last few weeks working with students who did not perform as well as they (or their doctrinal professors) thought they should on exams. While information on what went wrong on multiple choice exams is scarce (other than not choosing the correct answer), determining where things went awry on essay questions is diagnostic gold. So, like I am sure we all do, I tell students to go talk to the professors about their exams. This isn’t a novel idea to the students, but often the reaction I get is abject fear. Here are some things you can tell students about the necessary post-mortem conversation:
- The Professor isn’t going to lower your grade. There is a lot of paperwork and sometimes even a faculty vote involved, so it is extremely difficult to change a grade in any direction. You are more likely to have the U.S. Supreme Court grant certiorari on an appeal than for a professor to change your grade based on this conversation.
- The Professor is very, very unlikely to raise your grade unless there is a clear mathematical error. See above (less paperwork and no votes when it is math).
- There may be some fiery hoops to jump through to get to this conversation. There are no three-headed dogs guarding the gates, but you may need to pick up your exam, check the class-wide comment sheets, check your individual grading rubric, and read any posted sample answers before you even attempt to sign up for an appointment.
- Jump through the aforementioned hoops and then make the appointment.
- Keep the appointment. Trust me, there is someone who could have used this appointment and by making it and monopolizing this time, you have an obligation (unless it is an emergency) to not waste it.
- Prepare concrete questions for the appointment-not, “what did I do wrong?” but more, “I see the rubric indicated that you were looking for a different restatement section here, can you explain why that one was more applicable than the one I mentioned?” Write these questions down because you will get flustered. Also, write down the answers because your relief that this meeting is over will erase the answers from your memory.
- This is going to be hard. There is no way (and no need) to sugarcoat it. Facing the reality that you did not do well is really hard and hearing the details is even harder.
- It is worthwhile-because the information from this meeting will form the basis of the plan that we will work on together to prevent the issues from reoccurring. The emphasis is on “we,” because you are not alone in this journey. ASP is with you.
- It is also worth noting that while the Professor is very unlikely to yell at you, belittle you, mock you, or tell you to leave law school altogether, you may see it that way in the heat of the meeting. Try to distinguish your inner voice from the comments and critique they are giving you. If you have done this and realize that the call is not coming from inside the house, please come tell me and we will make a plan to address it.
- Someday you will laugh about the fear you had going into this meeting. I recognize that today is not that day.
So, as Irving Berlin said in 1936, “Before the fiddlers have fled; Before they ask us to pay the bill; And while we still have the chance, Let’s face the music and dance.”
Sunday, February 6, 2022
I enjoy watching golf tournaments with my kids, and WHOOP sponsors a new fun feature. WHOOP is a wearable that monitors certain health data. The focus is on physical strain and recovery. Users start an activity, and the band tracks heart rate along with other data. The fun part is some golfers allow the TV broadcast to show their whoop data before certain shots. Viewers can see in real time what Rory McIlory's heart rate is walking up the fairway to win. The astonishing thing I see is many players hearts either maintain or even slow during pre-shot routines immediately preceding the shot. They maintain calmness, and then their heart races watching the result. Justin Thomas' heart rate skyrocketed watching an eagle putt drop and when one of his tee shots came too close to the water. However, his heart rate slowed during his pre-shot routine, which is when I am most nervous hitting a golf shot.
The best in the world create a routine to stabilize their body in important moments. All of us can do the same thing. As faculty, we can create routines immediately prior to class to optimize our teaching effectiveness. Their heart rates during golf are higher than regular activity, but they stabilize and drop them during the most important moments. That provides the physical and mental clarity to do their best. Our activities may not seem as physical as sports, but we need mental clarity to create the best educational environment. Techniques to stabilize heart rates for performance can help our teaching.
Stabilizing heart rates can have massive impacts for students taking exams. The last minute studying 5 minutes before the exam starts with the anxiety of a single test contributing the majority of the points to final grades would cause anyone's heart to race. Professionals find a way in the stressful environments (with shots worth millions of dollars) to stabilize heart rates. Many strategies exist to help any of us during these situations. Here are a few I heard about:
1. Lemon Squeeze - Ball up the hands to control blood flow. Some people feel more in control thinking they are controlling blood flow.
2. Imagining a non-distracting place - Picture having fun in a place that is not the current situation.
3. Deep breaths from the diaphragm.
I am not a specialist in controlling my heart rate, but these techniques were recommended to me when I feel my heart racing. I recommend reading and asking specialists about different ways to maximize our performance in teaching and on exams.
Monday, January 10, 2022
When I was in high school, and college and law school, I would tell my parents when I was nervous about exams like SATs, midterms, finals... And they would always answer, “you’ll be fine.” I’m not complaining about the faith they had in me, but even after I explained the reason for my extra concern, the answer remained the same. I was dismissed. It didn’t help me feel better in any way and certainly didn’t help me prepare for what was ahead.
Grades were released last week at my law school, and it has been…a lot. I can hear a lot of you nodding in agreement right now. In between extremely interesting AALS sessions, I spent hours speaking with students towards the end of the week. And like most of you, I met with students at all positions on the grade spectrum from, “I don’t know how I got an A-“ to “Am I going to get dismissed?”
Our list-serv has also been full of amazing emails and messages we send students to get them through this time-all starting with the basic idea that “your grades do not define you.” I wholeheartedly agree that students are more than their grades and that their grades do not define them. Collectively, in the next few weeks, we will help students make study plans, assure them that they have more exam experience going forward, and remind them that we are here to help. We will give advice to talk to professors about exam performance, diagnose the issues or types of questions that plagued their exam, and offer practice materials. We will take action.
Yet, there is an elephant in the room: how can I tell students that they are not their grades and at the same time fail to acknowledge the reality that until they have some legal work experience, they may, in fact, be defined by their grades. I am telling them to transcend the grades at the same time I am helping them make plans to get better ones. They know, and they know that I know, that potential employers do care about class rank even I don’t agree with that as a bright line rule for granting interviews (and trust me, “don’t agree” is an extremely diluted way to express how I feel about that). I worry that I am being dismissive if I say it shouldn’t matter-or even worse-misleading some students to blame circumstances (or people) they cannot control for the grades they received. I absolutely know that some students are laid low by circumstances outside of their control (I had a student whose house burned down last year), but frequently students need to own (or adversely possess) the bad grades to make positive changes.
I think some of the hardest work I have done these past few days (and I assure you, my dance card is full today as well) is speaking to students who need to plead their case to a committee to be allowed to stay in law school (after one seemingly catastrophic semester). There is, per our academic rules, a presumption of dismissal (albeit rebuttable). We advise our students to share all the distractions, traumas, and circumstances that led to this situation. No doubt, this pandemic will be the underlying cause of trauma and academic distress long after we box up our masks and hope they get moldy in the basement from non-use. More importantly, students need to tell the committee about the plans they have made to deal with these issues. I remind them to tell the committee that they are taking control over what is in their power to control and talk about their plans to ask for help when what is uncontrollable becomes too much. I assure them that asking for, and receiving, help is a sign of maturity and resilience-not weakness. And we should not forget that the next time these students take an exam, they will have an extra layer of stress added because they need to do better and are still frightened by how things went last time.
I will definitely tell students that things are going to be okay (and more often than not, they will be)-but it cannot be the only thing I tell them. I know students need to hear those words in my voice, but I also need to be certain that they will benefit from hearing it more than I will.
 Thank you to Melissa Hale, Susan Landrum, and Kirsha Trychta!
 I don’t even agree with ranking them, but that will be another post.
Monday, November 29, 2021
Every summer, our family rents a (dog friendly) house out on Cape Cod. Recently, we have been renting bicycles when we get there at a bike rental place called Idle Times. It isn’t fancy, but it is friendly--the name is welcoming and seems to be assuring us that we need not race or even labor much to get around on the bicycles. It is the kind of place where an old black lab lies in the overgrown seagrass and seems to will the kids trying out bicycles to go around him rather than move from his shady spot. It is idyllic-no false advertising involved. This past weekend (that started on a Wednesday-shouldn’t they all?) was also gloriously idle (aside from the cooking, cleaning, laundry, and latkes). I removed my laptop from the table (yes, the new one for those of you who have been following these posts) and didn’t return it to its spot until yesterday. And here I am on a Monday morning trying to jump start my professional brain after this lovely idleness.
Today is the last day of classes for us. While many might think that this is the beginning of a nice break for all academics, it is absolutely crunch time for ASP folks. There are students panicked about finals. They seem shocked that exams are almost upon us despite all the warning signs. I agree that by the time we develop our fall mojo, it is already Veteran’s Day-which was less than three weeks ago. Fall seems like a slow walk uphill to a sudden cliff, while spring semester seems like a cold, dark walk through a cave into the light.
Nonetheless, we are about to begin our "reading days." I’m not sure how much time between classes ending and exams beginning is just right; I don’t think there is a one size fits all time period, but our 1L students have around 2.5 days.
Here is (some of) what I advise students to do now and during these days and the exam period:
- Get out of the law school building (we are all in one building here). The air is thick with stress and every little whisper will make you think someone knows something you don’t about a class you are in. I point out to our students that we are (in the fall at least) out of sync with our undergraduate and business schools, so their libraries might be a better place to study if a library is your preferred spot. At least the din there won’t make you feel unnecessarily inadequate. In pre-COVID times I would also recommend a coffee place (away from school) or even my favorite, the café at the Museum of Fine Arts (excellent place to study and wonderful place to be when you need a break from it).
- Make an exam plan. Work backwards from your last exam and plan reasonable study schedules for each day. Remember to add a teaser of the exam after the immediate one into your plan-so if Civ. Pro is on Thursday, you can take an hour and review a little Crim because that is next and so on.
- Attend to your hygiene and health! Seriously, this is going to be a marathon, pace yourself and be sure to stay hydrated. Don’t take unnecessary pandemic risks right now. Showering is important even if the alternative can help with social distancing.
- Practice writing answers and doing multiple choice questions: while reading carefully will be an important part of your exams, you will still need to produce an answer. You should practice essays often enough that IRAC is a muscle memory. Do enough multiple-choice questions that you are not confused by slight changes in terminology (because…gasp…sometimes doctrinal professors do not write their own questions). Remember, a good way to be prepared for exams is to be a PERP: Prepared for class, Engaged in class, Reviewing after class and Practicing. Ok, now I can see why this didn’t catch on, PERP is just not going to happen. But there is still hope for fetch.
- Handle different subjects with different strategic approaches: Civil Procedure is linear and chronological; Contracts is transactional; Torts and Criminal law just beg for making a chart with all the people and causes of action involved and so on…
- Just get started: if you are lost on the exam, start with something you can answer to get the brain engaged and then go back. However, do not go back and change any multiple-choice answers if you have already made a choice-it will not end well.
- Get out again-after the exam, leave the building. Do not discuss it with other people. I know that talking about a shared trauma can be therapeutic, but this will not be. I promise. Think about what you have done well on this exam and then move on with your plan. As Timon famously says in The Lion King, “You gotta put your past behind you.”
- When all the exams are over, enjoy the idle time.
Sunday, November 14, 2021
The semester is almost over, which means final exams are right around the corner. I wanted to pass along a handful of mistakes to avoid when preparing for finals.
- Don't ignore the last couple weeks of class. Some students think professors won't put material from the last couple weeks on the exam. That is not the case in most classes, and some professors will intentionally test that material if they perceive the class is showing up ill prepared.
- Don't wait until after Thanksgiving to update, start, edit, etc. outlines. This advice would apply to early in the semester as well, but don't wait until the last minute to update outlines. Keep adding in material to maximize study and practice time later.
- Don't stay up all night studying. I engaged in this conversation a few times already this past week. Staying up all night studying is not ideal. Sleep is critical for the brain to rest and retain information. Losing sleep equals losing information. One student responded saying some students like to study at night and sleep during the day. I understand that happens, but your body needs to be ready to take the exam during the actual exam time. Learning and performance is impacted by the time you do it. This is one reason why West Coast NFL teams play worse when traveling to the East Coast for games.
- Don't Constantly re-read outlines. The most common study mistake is repetitive reading of an outline. Re-reading passively attempts to learn the material and is inefficient. Most people feel more comfortable reading when studies show it doesn't work as well. The best way to study is retrieval practice. After reviewing your outline, try to write your outline down from memory. Issue spot and outline practice questions. Complete multiple choice questions. Try to talk through your outline out loud. The key is to add in attempts at recalling the information.
- Don't try to memorize every case name at the expense of understanding the big picture doctrine. Final exams include stories of individual's actions. The goal is to determine whether the individual action resulted in a Tort, Contract, etc. Cases help in the process, but not the way most students think they help. Professors may give bonus points for case names, but name dropping cases while not understanding how the rules fit together will not lead to high scores.
Finals induce significant stress. My advice is to work both hard and smart. Use the most efficient study techniques, especially practice. The end of the race is near. Good luck!
Monday, October 18, 2021
In the musical Hamilton, Eliza tries to persuade her husband, Alexander, to take a break, “Take a break…Run away with us for the summer. Let's go upstate…There's a lake I know…In a nearby park. I'd love to go.” Alexander refuses to go and, no spoilers beyond this, it doesn’t end well.
Two weeks ago, on the first Monday in October, I asked my undergraduates why this time of year was so important, and one student said, “It’s spooky season.” I was trying to get at the Supreme Court getting back to work (on what very well may a spooky season of cases), but it is also, as ASP folks know, that scary time of year when our 1Ls hit a wall. I’ve stockpiled candy (easy this time of year), tissues, and some advice.
We all know that 1Ls have a moment of crisis when they lose their altruism about helping the world with their law degree and become caught up in a smaller world of grades, midterms, legal writing assignments, outlining, and the overwhelmingness of just showing up for class. Students lose sight of why they even came to law school to begin with. Surely, masochism wasn’t the reason mentioned in their application personal statements. Sometimes, students need to be reminded of their initial reasons for being a lawyer. A gentle reminder might be enough for some students. It never hurts to tell them that no one really comes to law school to be a law student, they come to become a lawyer. Being a law student is temporary. And while it seems counterintuitive to advise taking a break, that is the advice I often give them at this point in the semester.
This may be a perfect time for a student to take a small break (hours, not days). Midterms are over, legal writing is less intense (for the moment) and they have been doing the reading, briefing, and outlining for long enough that it isn’t all consuming. Honestly, if Boston was a drag queen, this time of year would be its death drop in terms of the weather and natural beauty. Soon enough, everything will ramp up again and often with larger consequences, but at this very moment, a few hours spent away from law school is doable.
To that end, I have “prescribed” a drive to a beach town about 40 minutes north of here with saltwater taffy, a giant rocky sea wall that is both walkable and climbable, and just sitting at the edge of the ocean and getting perspective. Need something closer? Walk down to the aquarium, smell the ocean, and watch the harbor seals frolic in the outdoor (free!) exhibit. Even closer? Walk the Freedom Trail (it is right outside the doors to our law school). Really, anything can be a break; the only rules are no books, no laptop, and no regrets. Time spent rebuilding yourself is priming the pump for students (and faculty). The investment will pay off.
So be on the lookout for students hitting the wall. Be their Eliza. I would always prefer my students took a break than get broken.
 © Lin-Manuel Miranda
Monday, October 4, 2021
When you Google “magic formula,” you get a series of articles all referring to the “Magic Formula of Investing” which is based on a book written by Columbia University Professor Joel Greenblatt. That formula is often defined on websites as, “… a simple, rules-based system designed to bring high returns within reach of the average investor.”
The first set of 1L legal writing memos were due over the weekend. For our students, it was a closed objective memo involving essentially two issues, three cases, and one overarching statutory rule. I must have discussed and drawn the chart that accompanies my magic formula for legal writing easily twenty times in just the past week, in person on a 3x5 post-it note, or over Zoom. I have shared my formula possibly thousands of times over the years. I would describe it as a rules-based system designed to bring good analysis within the reach of the average legal writer.
This is the “magic formula” that I share with my students:
- Start with a Rule. A well-synthesized, complete rule is the key to everything. Everything unspools from your rule. It shapes and orders your discussion of the cases and your analysis of the facts. The rule divides your small legal world into essentially yes and no. Some cases will fall on the yes side of the rule while others will be nos.
- Your rule may come from more than one source. Cases, statutes, regulations etc. may all be relevant.
- Do your research. You need to use cases on both sides of the rule divide.
- Talk about cases in the past tense-they have no value but historical value. Precedent is about the past and how it shapes the decisions that will be made in the future (stare decisis).
- Use the Facts, Holding, Reasoning (FHR) method of using cases in your writing. For example: In Claus, where a senior citizen was struck by a reindeer, the court held that the sleigh driver was not liable because plaintiff’s decedent was walking on the reindeer path. The court reasoned that "grandma" assumed the risk of walking on the path, and while the driver had less than ideal lighting conditions, a pedestrian on the path was not a foreseeable event. I know-I haven’t even decorated for Halloween yet and here I am putting a winter earworm in your head. I’m almost sorry.
- While this is somewhat formulaic writing, you can control your narrative. We all teach this, but possibly in different ways. Here is where the chart below comes in handy. In paragraphs where you are explaining the law in your writing, think of this as the space where you place cases on a spectrum created by dividing your world by the rule (this would be E paragraphs in CREAC, and the first part of the A in IRAC). You should place your cases (using the FHR format) on this “spectrum” and then when doing your analysis later on (or soon thereafter in IRAC), put the facts of your current “case” on the spectrum as well. The place where I put the circle is where the facts in front of you go-this is the sweet spot-the facts are not a slam dunk “yes” like case 1, but better than case 2--while still staying on the side of the rule you want to be on. The court cases closer to yours are your positive analogies because the facts are more similar, and you distinguish the cases on the far side of the rule. You only create this “distance” by having a full spectrum. The key here is that you, as the writer, get to lay out the spectrum.
Honestly, this is probably old news to most of you. But on the off chance that this rules-based system brings good analysis within reach of the students you are working with, I feel it was worth putting out there. Some might say there is no magic in legal writing, but as for me and grandpa, we believe.
Sunday, September 12, 2021
A supermarket I go to occasionally has a little maze of seasonal items right at the entrance. This is a tricky way to entice you to purchase these colorful things at the beginning of your shopping trip when your cart is empty and/or perhaps a way to mollify any small child you have brought with you with something small to play with on the journey. Yesterday, when I arrived, I saw a sea of orange and black: candy as far as the eye could see. There were also some decorative scarecrows and rust colored “hardy mums,” (which I consider a challenge, but more on my lack of gardening skills in another post). In the middle of the maze, I saw a single display of popsicle shaped window clings, Whiffle bats, sunscreen, some mismatched kickboards, and s’mores skewers-all 50-75% off. Summer was on sale-despite the fact that there is at least another week of it on the calendar. I sighed and realized that we had actually already been in school for almost four weeks and the time had come for the seasonal shift from merely briefing cases to…(please read each of those periods as dun, dun, dunnn respectively): OUTLINING.
Now that students have covered at least one full topic in each class, the time has come for them to take those case briefs and carefully written class notes and knit them into a nice cozy outline for December exams or, more urgently, upcoming midterms. This is also a good time to start because it intersects with students learning how we use and talk about cases in their legal writing courses. The magic formula of how we use cases in memos and briefs: FHR (facts, holding, reasoning) is how they can incorporate the components of their case briefs into their outlines. This is really a win-win because they are practicing using the FHR formula for outlining in legal writing and vice versa.
Now, I know you have probably discussed outlining at least twice already with students. We do it in a pre-orientation module, during orientation itself and have a class on it planned for the coming week. The number of times I say, “your outline should be rules based rather than case based” could be a drinking game at this point (not that I condone drinking while outlining as either effective or efficient).
How can we best communicate the message that it is currently prime outlining season to our students? I thought of the buzzer at the beginning of a swim meet heat, a ribbon cutting or even a giant banner, “START OUTLINING NOW!!!!” Maybe I should stand in front of the law school with a sandwich board that says, “Ask me about outlining-I’m not just an ASP professional, I’m a client!” Maybe we should perform, “Outlining the Musical,” with such tunes as:
525,000 pages more,
How do you make sense of a course in the law?”
“Oh, it is time to start ‘lining,
Time to take a little of the briefs we’re writing,
Time to take time,
Because it’s already fall--exams are in just no time at all….”
(sincere apologies to Rent and Pippin).
Yet, we all know that no matter how or how often we sound the alarm at this point in the semester, we will still be talking with students who are just getting started in November. And while we will silently groan and do an internal face palm, we will advise those students to move as quickly as they can to ideally finish their hastily organized (but nonetheless helpful) outlines when classes end.
I expect that the next time I will need to think about getting students to begin outlining, the supermarket entrance will be aglow in red, pink and white: candy as far as the eye can see -- except for the candy canes in the center on sale.
Thursday, August 19, 2021
In follow-up to Professor Victoria McCoy Dunkley's outstanding blog post entitled "Be in Your Bag (of Questions) as a 1L Reader," here's some thoughts about how you might use your senses to help make sense of the cases that you are assigned for class reading: https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/academic_support/2021/08/be-in-your-bag-of-questions-as-a-1l-reader.html
But first a story...
I've been doing a lot of walking. In fact, I've walked about 380 miles from Denver to Durango on the Colorado Trail (I still have about 120 miles to go of high altitude terrain). As a person who fractured my back two summers ago in a car accident, I'm a slow mover and that's okay.
You see, as Professor Denise DeForest at Colorado Law quips, when you find yourself lost, "slow down, stop, and sit on a log." I love logs, rocks, and boulders. My favorite time on the trail is resting. But, as I sit on a log recuperating, my senses come alive. I start to hear buzzing. I spot all kinds and manners of activity that I missed while hiking, like the scurry of ants preparing for the fall mountaintop snow storms. My hands feel the bark of the downed log that has become my lounging spot. In short, just because I stopped doesn't mean that I stopped learning and experiencing. Rather, by slowing down and stopping, I saw more than I did while moving.
There's a lot to be gleaned from these sorts of experiences. Most of our lives, let's be honest, are lived in haste. As though there's no time to waste. But critical reading takes pondering time; it takes using your senses to experience what the parties might have felt like when they litigated the case that you are reading, what they might have exclaimed or cursed when the decision came out, how the court might have explored and explained how they viewed the case and the facts.
So, in follow-up to yesterday's excellent blog post on 1L reading, feel free to journey through and with the cases. Situation yourself in them. Be expressive, feel free to be combatant and skeptical, let yourself run wild, so to speak, as you give voice to what you are seeing, as you learn and question and interpret what you are reading. That's learning. In other words, it's going to take time. But it is not wasted time at all.
That being said, I spent all of first-year of law school super-afraid (really most of law school) because I'm not good speaker or a reader (I was a mathematician in college). And, the gold lettering on most of the case books - with lots of red and black - psyched me out.
But not all that is gold glitters. Much of what you read is, well, not very well-written or good or even just. So take aim at it. Don't let the cases fool you. You belong in law school, which means that your voice and life counts. Share it with others. And, as you journey through reading, let me know what you are learning. I'd love to hear from you! (Scott Johns).
Tuesday, August 10, 2021
Over the years, I have noticed that many legal educators and students have an imperfect understanding of the utility of using prior exams for practice. This misunderstanding usually holds that the purpose of such materials is for students to review the exams simply to see what topics professors test and methods with which they do so. In turn, faculty become leery of providing such materials, as doing so might create an unwarranted expectation on students’ part that their exam will test the same topics and use the same methods.
This impression is problematic. Both students and faculty are squandering the opportunity for students to use materials that will make them better learners, improve their performance in law school and the bar exam, and increase their knowledge and skills (both in classes and on the bar exam).
An important recent (methodologically sophisticated) study supports this claim. In Understanding the Metacognitive “Space” and its Implications for Law Students’ Learning, Professors Jennifer Gundlach and Jessica Santagelo found statistically significant evidence that: “Students who reported using active strategies at the end of the semester were more likely to succeed in the class … relative to students who never used active strategies.”
Faculty should better understand the use of prior exams and other materials that would allow students to practice rather than re-read over and over again. Although many law professors used re-reading and re-reviewing prior exams in their studies, their success quite possibly could have been despite and not because of those flawed methods. Faculty tend to have had an elite education, elite aptitude, and elite socio-economic condition opportunities for academic success. They thus had a great degree of wiggle-room in terms of the efficacy of their learning methods
Many of our students are not so lucky. If we admit students with fewer socio-economic opportunities and with non-elite academic credentials, we should not erect further obstacles to their success by assuming that the methods we used in very different circumstances will be effective for them.
Especially given the recent findings quoted above, we should not rely on the anecdote fallacy (that because one person had success with a method all will have such success) and the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy (that because certain study methods preceded success, those methods must have caused that success). Instead, we should rely on the empirical evidence that shows that active learning, including taking practice exams, fosters success more optimally.
(Louis Schulze, FIU Law)
Thursday, July 1, 2021
Ah, just about the middle of the summer. It's sort of like the 7th inning stretch in baseball, a time to stand, sing, and refocus a bit. Especially with so many of us working with so many of our recent graduates as they prepare for remote and in-person bar exams. It's an opportunity for a quick breather before the final three weeks of bar prep polish and work.
Personally, this weekend is an opportunity for me to step back a bit, to take a look at what I ought to really be focused on, to ask how would others view the programs that I am responsible for delivering to our students and graduates.
Well, to be honest, I'm a bit afraid to ask others. But, as I think about preparing for the upcoming academic year, I thought I'd share the follow as food for thought about "ASP Best Practices." I'd love to hear your suggestions and comments too. P.S. Thanks to Visiting Prof. Chris Newman (DU Law) for development of this slide and his insights too. (Scott Johns).
Wednesday, June 30, 2021
So, you may, or may not, remember my yule log. As I mastered the art of making a roulade, or rolled cake, it made me think of growth mindset and legal writing.
Last month, well in May, I traveled to St. Louis for the virtual AASE Conference. Yes, I realize I didn’t have to leave my home, or even my yoga pants, for a virtual conference. But I decided to join fellow AASE member and my co-author, Toni Miceli, as we are both vaccinated, so we could enjoy the conference together. There may have also been the real need to work on finalizing some teacher’s manual materials for our book, as well as bake with her son, Alex. Both clearly, equally important.
Alex loves to bake, and loves to learn about baking. Specifically, I think he loves to decorate more than the baking part, and I’m not sure I can blame him. Plus, he’s getting good at it!
So, he heard that I might be coming to his house for a visit, and kindly asked whether we could make a layered cake. (Fun fact, when I was 6 I wrote in one of those school projects that “I want to be a layer when I grow up”. Well, now I am a lawyer that can layer! Sorry, I’ll see myself out.)
Alex wanted a 3-tiered ocean themed cake. I assured him that we could make this happen, but we would have to learn some new things together.
See, as much as I love to bake, I’ve never really layered things before. So, this became my opportunity to continue my baking growth mindset. See, I had mastered the rolled cake (I use the term “mastered” loosely), but that doesn’t mean I can make ALL cakes expertly. And just like with the rolled cake, while I could transfer SOME skills, many were still brand new.
Now, last time I tried layering a cake it had a distinct Leaning Tower of Pisa vibe that was not part of my vision. So, this time around I did some research, and discovered that – a ha – I needed to use dowels and cardboard to stack the layers. Fantastic! So, Toni went out and bought a set. Then, I watched multiple videos on stacking. Finally, the day came – we were going to stack these cakes! Six of them to be precise, for a grand total of three tiers! Toni and I read the directions for the layering kit carefully, remembered the video, and viola – success. Well, there was still a minor tilt or two that we smoothed with icing. But overall, a resounding success.
Similarly, in law school you will learn many new skills. And most of them transfer to new situations and assignments. However, you often have to tweak these skills, adapting them to new situations (or more likely, varied types of legal writing), just like I had to adapt to a new style of cake!
The two most important steps in adapting to this new style of cake making were to 1) read the directions before hand and carefully follow those directions and 2) have patience. It also helped to work in collaboration. Toni and I are both skilled and experienced bakers, but putting our skills together meant we likely got a better result than we would have working by ourselves. Unless otherwise prohibited, work with your study groups, or even just one partner. If you are in law school, you are a skilled and experienced student, and combining your skills and experience with others skilled and experienced students might help you refine the new skill a bit faster!
Finally, don’t be afraid to ask questions or try new techniques. Or rather, just think outside of the box. One of the joys of baking with Toni’s son was seeing growth mindset in real time, through a child’s eyes. Alex is learning new baking skills all the time, and eager to learn new things. He’s getting better and better at baking and decorating because he’s not afraid to fail. We decided to try to make our seaweed out of melting chocolate (remember, this was an ocean themed cake, so seaweed was a must). I will admit that I had never done this before, and am not great at “freehand” chocolate. I told Alex as much, and very wisely he said “Well, let’s try. If it’s bad, it’s still chocolate – we can eat it!”
So true – and I encourage us all to adopt Alex’s attitude in all things – if it’s bad, it’s still chocolate and we can eat it!
Sunday, May 2, 2021
The first Saturday in May is must watch TV every year. The fastest 2 minutes in sports. The Run for the Roses. The iconic Kentucky Derby. Everyone in my house listens to the analysts for the hour leading up to the race, and then, we choose who to root for. For 2 minutes, we jump, scream, and cheer on our chosen horse. Most years, one of my kids picks the winner. It is always fun, and the last few years made me think of our students.
This year, the winner was a front running horse. He got to the lead early and held it the entire race. They kept saying he has never been passed in a race, and he wasn't last Saturday. However, I have seen many front runners tire out and lose. I have seen horses in the middle of the pack win and horses come from nearly last (Street Sense). The winners are the ones who run their race not letting the other horses dictate their strategy. We should all understand that running our own race is the best strategy.
I know many students are studying for finals right now. Let me overemphasize, run your race. Don't worry about what your friends are doing. They may be doing something that is incorrect or not the best for you. Don't worry about what the upper class students say. Think about what works best for you, and discuss your strategy with an Academic Support Professional. He/She can tell you if your strategy will put you in a good position to succeed.
Also, run your own law school career race. Don't worry about someone else's CALI/Am Jur awards or class rank after first semester, year, etc. I see students start at the top and slide down the rankings over 2 years. I also see students start near the bottom of the class and climb their way up. Everyone has a different background and knowledge base walking into law school. Run your race to do your best. Keep improving on your best, not worried about what others are doing.
I understand the anxiety of asking whether you are doing enough and seeking information. I am not saying ignore feedback or outside information. I am saying get feedback from faculty and staff at the law school that can help you do what is best for you. Stay on your pace to do your best. Do what is best for you on these upcoming finals. Good luck.
Thursday, April 22, 2021
As one of my colleagues Visiting Prof. Chris Newman mentioned, "reading week" is a bit of a misnomer (at best) and a disaster (at worst). That's because preparation for final exams requires, well, lots of preparation with lots of activity and engagement in learning and doing.
With that in mind, I asked my students to share one thing they learned this semester.
Here's a sample of the many suggestions from my students to you that can help you engage in successfully preparing for your final exams too:
"Practice even if you think you don't need it."
"Practice makes perfect."
"Re-reading is not the best way to study."
"When you eliminate the impossible, whatever's left has to be right."
"Practice and don't be afraid to fail."
"Keep the hope high and practice!"
"Believe in the growth mindset!"
"Embrace failure and learn from it."
"Because, Because, Because!"
"Failure is a part of learning."
"Start with the call of the question."
"Making mistakes and getting things wrong helps you learn even more."
"Do vs. Memorize."
So, good luck to all of you as you put these sorts of tips into action in preparing for your final exams! (Scott Johns).
P.S. For more information along with concrete strategies and action items, please see Prof. Steven Foster's blog post, entitled: Foster, S., Effective Finals Preparation (Apr. 18, 2021). Not sure where to find practice problems, here's a resource of old bar exam problems, organized by subject matter (and they are available free of charge!): Practice Essay Exams.