Thursday, October 17, 2019
Ok...here's a thought experiment...
What person or name first comes to mind as the best learner of all time?
Feel free to blurt it out...
Perhaps Albert Einstein?
Or Marie Curie?
Or maybe the great scholar, teacher, and mathematician Hypatia?
Well, according to cognitive scientist Alison Gopnik (U.C. Berkeley), it turns out that "...babies are the best learners in the universe." A. Gopnik, The Ultimate Learning Machine, Wall Street Journal (Oct 12, 2019)
In fact, as a research psychologist, Dr. Gopnik explains that the key to successful development of artificial intelligence requires that computers learn to learn to learn and think like human babies. Id. And, that's very difficult for machines to do. Id. Computers are brilliant in processing lots and lots of data but not nearly so good as babies and toddlers in accurately making sense and judgements about the world around them with very little data to boot. Id. And, most of the time, we have very little data, too.
Take law school for example.
We read perhaps a handful of cases on intentional torts. Perhaps a few on contract formation or consideration. A few more about equal protection. And, out of just a few experiences we are suppose to generalize, to synthesize, to figure out what intentional torts are all about, or contract law, or equal protection analysis.
So, that begs the question.
Perhaps we as legal educators might also learn a few things about how to learn by also exploring how babies learn to learn...and learn so expertly and so quickly with so little knowledge at the start [since we too --in our work with law students --often given our law students very little to go on to figure out "the law."].
According to Dr. Gopnik, babies learn through the process of making a mess. Or, as Dr. Gopnik accentuates, "MESS," which is an acronym that stands for building models about the world that they observe, curiously exploring the world around then, and learning in social experiences with others. Id.
For example, with respect to models, toddlers and even babies can construct common sense models about such topics as physics and even psychology. Id. With respect to psychology, even a one-year old baby, when seeing an adult drop a pen, will try to help pick up the pen for the adult out of apparent empathy for the other (but not if the adult was seen by the baby intentionally dropping the pen). Id. You see, little toddlers have already learned through curious observations about gravity and even about human intentions too. Id.
With respect to exploring the world, "[babies] are insatiably curious and active experimenters. Parents call this 'getting into everything.'" Id. Toddlers love to explore, to test out everything, to take things apart and to try to put them together. Id. It's this sort of "playful experimentation" that is another secret to the ability of children to learn so adeptly. Id.
The final factor relates to learning in social contexts. Babies learn by observing people around them, who have the benefit of often times years of experiences, by trying to imitate them. But there's even more. Take the situation of toddlers learning to tie sneakers. Id. Try as you might, it turns out that it is very difficult to teach computers to learn to tie sneakers [I think it would take lots of mathematical code!]. But children learn to tie shoes by watching others, focusing on the purpose of the task and not just the steps, which leads to learning. Id. That's something that's just plain difficult for machines to do.
In fact, computers can't generalize very well at all from limited data (i.e., they aren't very good at creating accurate common sense models); they don't really experience the world around them (except to the extent that humans pre-program computers to "act" in particular ways; and they don't have an ability to watch what others are doing (and extract out of those observed activities what purposes might be lurking in one's activities).
So, that takes us back to law school. What can we learn about learning the law from babies?
First, as law students read cases (or even before), students can create models or theories about what might lay ahead as they read case after case (or what principle or principles might hold them together). In short, law students can formulate hypotheses about what they are preparing to read.
Second, as law students work on learning, students should be encouraged to tinker with the cases, to explore them, to be curiously playful. In particular, law students can imagine different facts, different judges, and whether those sorts of changes might change outcomes.
Third, as law students learn to solve legal problems, faculty should explore with them how they solve legal problems, perhaps walking through reading essay questions and then even writing out answers in real time, with students then having the opportunity to practice themselves by trying to imitate what they watched experts perform. And, students should be encouraged to think about the purpose behind solving the legal problems and reading the cases.
I know. There's a lot of deep cognitive science behind learning. But, perhaps the key to learning is not quite as difficult as we (or at least I) sometimes make it out to be. Life is complex; perhaps learning is not so complex; perhaps it's one of life's beautiful secrets that we - as legal educators and as law students - can learn from the smallest among us.
So, next time you see a baby, pay attention; there are important life lessons to be learned!
Wednesday, October 9, 2019
As Bill MacDonald reminded us in yesterday's post, this is the time of academic potential and progress. It's also the time of raw nerves. While there's no panacea, there's a good starting place -- and that's talking it out. (And a little patience and humility help, too.)
In the first flush of excitement at the beginning of fall semester, we all tend to be on our best behavior. Faculty and staff want to show 1Ls that they chose the right law school; 1Ls and transfer students want to show the law school that its faith in admitting them was justified. Every person -- whether faculty, staff, upper-division student, or incoming student -- wants to put her or his best foot forward. It is the honeymoon phase of law school. At the end of the semester, as final projects wind up and exams loom, and as we have come to understand each others' foibles, we are too engaged in the big stuff to pay much attention to minor shortcomings. Like a long marriage, there is a sense of understanding and acceptance, even when we acknowledge that the relationship may not be not perfect.
But the middle of the semester? That's when mannerisms which at first seemed charmingly awkward now grate on your nerves. That's when the workload, initially so manageable, now seems to loom over every hour of the day and night, weekday and weekend. That's when instructors, instead of praising every good-faith effort, now critique openly or press for more concise and precise answers in the classroom and for more tightly-reasoned, well-constructed written work product. That's when the e-mail deluge threatens to overwhelm every person in the law school, with every message being urgent and needing immediate attention, even while you must attend more mandatory meetings and respond to more. So the stress level goes up, and up, and up, and tolerance for others can plummet.
In A Short & Happy Guide to Being a Law Student (which I'd submit is also a pretty good guide to being an ASPer), Paula Franzese suggests, "Give everyone and everything the benefit of the doubt. . . . People will rise or fall to your level of expectancy about them. When someone disappoints you, simply say to yourself, 'She wasn't in her right mind just then. She'll get back to good.'"
To Professor Franzese's wise words, I'd add a second piece of advice, which is to go to the source. Did the professor (or student) say something which seemed inappropriate? Are they doing something that is making it hard for you to do your best? If it feels safe, try talking with them directly.
If you don't feel safe, the conversation cannot be direct. For example, if a person screams in your face and punches a fist through the wall, or invades your personal space and growls, "I know where you live, and I'm watching you" (both happened to me in my law school career), you cannot have a safe direct conversation.
Notice I didn't say "If it feels comfortable." Because hard conversations are often uncomfortable, but having the direct conversation often makes matters better. So if a person made an insensitive remark, or someone is wearing so much body spray you can't be in the same room, or if an instructor is piling on what seems to be an excessive amount of homework, or -- well, you can fill in scores of other examples -- then the best way to address the problem is usually the direct approach. Go talk with them, and listen to them. Assertive speech and active listening aren't just skills for the classroom -- they are skills for life, and for the practice of law. Act on the assumption that most people are of good will and don't want to offend you or sabotage your work. Moreover, the folks who have (usually inadvertently) caused you discomfort will appreciate hearing from you first-hand rather than hearing of your disgruntlement from others. They can apologize or explain directly to you, rather than involving others or going through layers of bureaucracy. So respect yourself and respect others by talking with them. You'll probably be pleasantly surprised.
Tuesday, October 8, 2019
One of my favorite seasons of the academic year runs between the last week of September and Halloween. In terms of academic meteorology, conditions are ideal for the formation of manageable disturbances, especially among first-year students: after a warming period of several weeks, they become a bit unsettled due to some mid-term squalls, but they retain a great deal of stored energy and begin to show signs of increasing organization, giving them plenty of room to develop before being overtaken by the late fall gloom that presages the tempest of finals.
Most of the students who breeze into my office at this time possess the three things I value most in my advisees: the motivation to try to improve their legal writing and/or analysis, the belief that they actually can improve, and the time to devote to that improvement. Earlier in the year, they may have more time but, without having received any feedback on their work, less motivation to improve. Come November, with finals looming, they may have motivation to spare, but a dearth of time, and, in some cases, a stunted belief in their own ability to improve. But right now, a lot of students have that ideal blend of motivation, belief, and time.
The more I have worked with students, the more I have come to see that the most important characteristic of time is not quantity but distribution. It is usually more helpful for me to meet with a student for 30 minutes every week than for 60 or even 90 minutes every two weeks. The quicker, more frequent meetings not only help the student feel more connected. Shorter meetings also force us to focus our work on one or two main skills each week. With more time, it might be tempting to try to cover every weakness in a student's repertoire -- active reading, organization of information, grammar, argument structure, analytical content, judgment, persuasive diction, etc. -- but this can be overwhelming. A student trying to improve in a dozen areas at once may not make progress in any of them. It is too much to think about, and there may be little sense of prioritization.
But when a student walks away from a discussion of their work with one or two clear messages about how to improve in one or two specific tasks, that makes their job for the week focused and manageable. And if that's why they focus on in their homework between meetings, then we can start the next meeting by looking for the improvement in those areas, and then follow up by addressing one or two new areas for improvement that can build upon the previous week. Timely feedback on, and immediate use of, the skills that a student works on is the best way to both hone and retain those skills. Thus, with appropriate exercises to complete between meetings, a student can make and preserve more progress in two hours of meeting time spread out over four weekly meetings than in two or even three hours of meeting time split between one meeting in week one and a follow-up meeting in week four.
After Halloween, the demands of writing assignments due, the stress of upcoming finals, and the interruptions of the holidays make it a lot more difficult to arrange these kinds of punchy weekly meetings. Now is the time to encourage your students to take advantage of the calm before the academic storm.
Thursday, October 3, 2019
It's never too late to make a difference…a positively meaningful difference...to improve academic performance for students, and, in particular, for underrepresented students.
You see, as demonstrated by social science research from psychologists Gregory Walton and Geoffrey Cohen, a sense of belonging - as a valued participant within a cooperative learning community - is critical to academic success.
Indeed, belonging changes lives.
And, there's more great news.
According to the research, just a "brief social-belonging intervention" can make all the difference. A Brief Social-Belonging Intervention Improves Academic and Health Outcomes of Minority Students. And, that brief intervention is especially valuable for African-American students. Id.
So, here are the details, at least as I paraphrase the research findings.
Preliminarily, the researchers hypothesized that a brief intervention in the first week of undergraduate studies - to directly tackle the issue of belonging in college - might make a measurable impact with respect to academic performance and health outcomes. As background, previous research had suggested that a lack of a sense of belonging was particularly detrimental for academic success in college.
The research intervention was threefold.
First, the researchers directly shared survey information with students, showing that most college students "had worried about whether they belonged in college during the difficult first year but [they] grew confident in their belonging with time." Id.
Second, the students were encouraged to internalize the survey messages about belonging by writing a brief essay to describe "how their own experiences in college [in the first week] echoed the experiences summarized in the survey." Id.
Third, the students then created short videos of their essays...for the express purpose of sharing their feelings with future generations of incoming students, so that participating students would not feel like they were stigmatized by the intervention (but rather that they were beneficially involved in making the world better for future generations of incoming students - just like them). Id.
According to the research results, surveys in the week following the intervention indicated that participating students sensed that the intervention buttressed their abilities to overcome adversities and enhanced their achievement of a sense of belonging.
And, the impact was long-lasting, even when participating students couldn't recall much at all about the intervention.
The researchers then used the statistical method of multiple regression to control for various other possible influences.
As documented by their research findings, the intervention was particularly beneficial for African-American students - both in terms of improving GPA and also for improving well-being. In short, a brief intervention led to demonstrable benefits with students outperforming such traditional academic predicators such as standardized admission test scores. That's big news.
That brings us back to us ASPers!
As ASPers, we have a wonderful opportunity to engage in meaningful interventions...by sharing the great news about social belonging.
But, there's more involved than just sharing the news.
Based on the research findings, to make a real difference for our students, our students must not just see themselves - in the words of the research psychologists - as just "beneficiaries" of the intervention...but rather as "benefactors" of the intervention. Id.
In short, the key is to empower our law students with tools to share with future generations of students what they learned about adversity, belonging, and overcoming…and how to thrive in law school.
Wow! What a spectacular opportunity…and a challenge too!
P.S. Here's the research abstract to provide a precise overview of the research findings:
"A brief intervention aimed at buttressing college freshmen’s sense of social belonging in school was tested in a randomized controlled trial (N = 92), and its academic and health-related consequences over 3 years are reported. The intervention aimed to lessen psychological perceptions of threat on campus by framing social adversity as common and transient. It used subtle attitude-change strategies to lead participants to self-generate the intervention message. The intervention was expected to be particularly beneficial to African-American students (N = 49), a stereotyped and socially marginalized group in academics, and less so to European-American students (N = 43). Consistent with these expectations, over the 3-year observation period the intervention raised African Americans’ grade-point average (GPA) relative to multiple control groups and halved the minority achievement gap. This performance boost was mediated by the effect of the intervention on subjective construal: It prevented students from seeing adversity on campus as an indictment of their belonging. Additionally, the intervention improved African Americans’ self-reported health and well-being and reduced their reported number of doctor visits 3 years postintervention. Senior-year surveys indicated no awareness among participants of the intervention’s impact. The results suggest that social belonging is a psychological lever where targeted intervention can have broad consequences that lessen inequalities in achievement and health."
Wednesday, October 2, 2019
Some people arrive at law school with a particular passion such as helping immigrant communities, or aiding small businesses, or supporting victims of domestic violence or abuse. Given that I had no specific passion but only a yen to be useful to ordinary people, it was a relief to get a judicial clerkship, since the clerkship allowed me put off the decision about "what to do when I grow up" a little while longer. At the court, every month the judicial clerks would divvy up the cases newly assigned to our chambers in a totally informal process; as long as we got an approximately equal workload, our justice didn't care which clerk took a case. The court was a great experience, as I got to see not only good and bad lawyering but also cases running the gamut from criminal to workers compensation to water law. I still didn't know what I wanted to do when I grew up, but our monthly allocation of cases gave me some clue as to what I didn't want to do. Corporate law? Shudder. Election law? No thanks. Family law - no, PLEASE, I'll take any number of workers compensation cases to avoid family law. By the end of my clerkship, I knew for certain a large number of areas in which I didn't want to practice, which still left a broad universe of possibilities to consider as I moved ahead.
Today I was talking with an upper-division student about her future. A diligent person, she had just attended "Pizza with the Prosecutor," one of a series of events put on by the Career Development Office to introduce students to a variety of available career paths. While other students had emerged enthusiastic about careers in criminal law in general and with the local prosecutor's office in particular, this student was shaking her head as though trying to rid herself of a bad dream. "Well," she said, "that was informative. I definitely know I don't want to be a prosecutor. And half of life is figuring out what you don't want to do."
In any life transition, we spend a lot of time figuring out what not to do. As I've met with 1Ls over the past month, I've been struck by how often they related their experiences in figuring out what not to do. Sometimes, of course, this was because they initially ignored, or didn't believe, or didn't listen to the largely consistent messages conveyed by faculty, staff, and successful upper-division students about how to engage in the practice of being a successful law student. More often, though, they were experimenting and working through different ways of reading, reviewing, outlining, writing, and managing their time. Read two weeks ahead? No, that didn't work -- I spent so much time reviewing that I was doing the work twice. Prepare all my meals for the week on the weekend so I wouldn't have to cook on school nights? No, I know that works for other people, but I was just exhausted from cooking all day and got so bored with my meals that I ended up going out to eat. Retyping my notes after class? That worked, but only once I figured out it was best to write down a summary and then look over my notes and add highlights: when I read through my notes before retyping them, it took hours because I was trying to make everything perfect. Exercising between classes? It seemed like a good idea, but I barely made it to class on time, so I switched my gym time to early morning, which is better even though I'd rather sleep in. Do practice problems? I tried going to the old exams first, but I got so intimidated that I decided to concentrate for now on working through the problems in the notes and questions. As an ASPer, I'm happy to see students engage actively in this type of self-regulated learning that will improve their effectiveness and satisfaction in practicing the skills of successful law students.
Wednesday, September 25, 2019
Helping students achieve academic success involves working on at least three levels. The first, and most obvious, level is specific to learning the practice of law: helping students master effective outlining, case briefing, and issue spotting are two examples. The second level is learning how to learn on a more general level -- pre-reading strategies, spaced repetition, multiple choice skills, and self-regulated learning techniques come to mind. Work on the third level, however, often is the one that bears the most fruit in my experience. This is the level of trying to work through non-academic situations that affect students' academic success -- life hacks, as it were. Of course, you never know whether a life hack will be a hit or a miss, old hat or new insight. But when a student tells me, "You changed my life!" (quite a wonderful thing to hear at 9:30 on a Monday morning), it's almost always because a life hack we brainstormed together made a significant positive change that helped all the academic pieces fall into place.
Here I offer four life hacks that have generated some of the most effusive student thanks recently. Interestingly enough, all of them center on sleep. To me, that suggests that today's students recognize the importance of sleep in maintaining energy as well as academic performance.
1. "I just want ten more minutes before I get up."
The hack: sitting up and listening to your breath in the morning.
The problem is a familiar one: you wake up on your own, or to the alarm clock, but you want just a few minutes more of feeling happy and relaxed before you go into full gear and encounter the day. Jumping straight out of bed, especially if you woke to an alarm, feels precipitous and stressful. But you also know that if you hit the snooze alarm, you're going to feel even more groggy in ten minutes, or worse, you might sleep through the alarm and be late for class. So create a gentle transition: sit up (in bed or a comfortable chair) and start off the day with five or ten minutes of stillness. It can be as simple as feeling your breath go in and out, or sending good thoughts to people in your life. You'll feel like you got precious extra minutes for yourself, and you'll start the day in a good mood. (Hint: when I share this hint, I try to be aware of my audience: some students respond well to words like meditation or mindfulness, while others immediately shy away.)
2. "I can't get to sleep because my mind keeps racing."
The hack: Count to four, or practice something similarly familiar and repetitious.
Students who voice this plaint are usually familiar with and practicing the precepts of good "sleep hygiene": they turn off the computer an hour before bedtime, have the bedroom dark and cool, and lay off the caffeine by early afternoon. Yet as soon as their head hits the pillow, the mind starts going a hundred miles an hour with the perceived failures of the past day and the dozens of things they must accomplish on the morrow. They need a gentle transition to help them let go of the cares of the day. One of the easiest is just counting slowly from 1 to 4, over and over again. Another variation is to listen to, or read, or recite, a story that is so familiar that they practically know it by heart. The repetition without judgment gives them permission to let go and unwind.
3. "I can't establish a regular schedule."
The hack: Get up at the same time each morning.
When students tell me the have trouble keeping to a schedule, the first thing I ask about is their sleep habits. Students straight out of college are especially prone to base wake-up times on class schedules. On days starting with an 8 am class, they get out of bed at 7; on days starting with an 11:30 class, they get out of bed at 10:30, and on weekends, anything goes. The result is what I call "virtual jet lag," where the body is continually trying to readjust itself. Often these students stay up late because they aren't sleepy when their brain tells them they should be going to bed: the result is a continual state of exhaustion. I suggest they get up at the same time each school day (and vary by no more than one hour on weekends) so their body and brain know what's coming day by day. Once they establish a regular wake-up routine, schedules tend to naturally follow.
4. "I'm exhausted in the afternoon, but napping is a disaster."
The hack: Nap or listen to your breath for 20 minutes, not more.
It's natural to have a "low" in the afternoon: our internal circadian biological clocks mean that most of us have a two-hour period of reduced energy sometime between one and four pm. Most people push through this low period with exercise or caffeine or sheer willpower, but a nap seems like an obvious choice for others. If you choose to nap, 15-20 minutes is ideal, because that amount of time allows you to rest in the first two stages of the sleep cycle. Go half an hour, though, and you can enter into deep sleep: at best, you'll have the groggies when you wake up and spend an hour dragging yourself back to alertness; at worst, you'll be impossible to rouse from your nap and end up throwing your nighttime sleep cycle out of whack. A lovely alternative to napping is to allow yourself a 20-minute period of rest, allowing but not expecting sleep. That rest can come in the form of listening to your breath (see #1) or doing something familiar and repetitious (see #2). Practicing any of these during an afternoon rest break can boost your energy to make your late afternoon and evening more productive.
Thursday, September 12, 2019
I have to make a confession. Last week, I admitted that - as a law student - I was a proverbial "deer-in-the-headlights" when it came my time to face an ambush of socratic questioning. Confessions of a Socratic Deer (Sep 5, 2019). In retrospect, I think that some of that was due to my method of class preparation, namely, I tried to memorize as much of the case materials as I could so that I could regurgitate the cases when called upon (an impossible task, mind you!).
Now, looking back, I think I should have focused, as indicated in the final point of last week's blog, on preparing for classes by preparing my own questions about the cases assigned as reading, writing:
"As you read cases, puzzle over them, asking questions, evaluating arguments, voicing your own concerns, dialoguing and debating with the courts. In other words, don't read to memorize the cases. Instead, read to learn to have conversations with courts, to voice your own opinions and insights, in short, to prepare for a life in the law as a creative thoughtful attorney." Id.
That's when I got super-excited about the super-short case preparation checklist from the Royal Court of Justice for the Kingdom of Bhutan. Royal Bhutan Case Preparation Checklist (2018).
It's just two pages long but jam-packed with informative tips and questions that, in retrospect, would have made a mountain of difference in my law school learning, not to mention my confidence in the face of potential socratic questioning.
As the Royal Court explains in its document entitled "Briefing a Case," case briefing in preparation for court [and classes of course] is critically important for lawyers [and law students] because the process of case briefing "...organizes ones thinking and forces one, point by point, to consider all the important elements of the decision. Id.
To paraphrase, the Royal Court's checklist focuses one's mind on 8 steps:
- State the parties of the case and what they want.
- Provide a brief synopsis of essential facts.
- Briefly describe the procedural history of what happened.
- Find out the issue or issues.
- Figure out the holding/decisions of the judges.
- Explain the court's chain of reasoning using IRAC analysis.
- State the ultimate order of the court in disposition of the case.
- Voice your analysis. Id.
In my opinion, the first 7 steps are the means to an end with the end lying in step 8 - voicing your analysis.
As the Royal Court indicates its checklist, in the last step about voicing your analysis, explore the significance of the case, figure out how the case relates to others that you have read, identify the case's place in history, ponder what the case shows you about judges, courts, and society in general (to include its impact on litigants, both now and in the future), unpack both the explicit and implicit assumptions of the court, and engage in a thoughtful debate the "rightness" of the decision to include its persuasiveness and logic. Id.
I know that that sounds like a lot to take in. But, learning the law requires learning legal analysis and learning legal analysis requires digging in deeply into the cases assigned for each of your classes. Unfortunately, I spent way too much time in law school re-reading cases, trying to memorize them, rather than trying to see the patterns in legal thought and persuasion and, best yet, voicing my own analysis of them.
In short, as I reflect on my own law school experience, the key to case briefing and class preparation, it seems to me, is to take on the role of Socrates yourself, prior to class, in which you probe and ponder the cases assigned. As a bonus I can promise you, you'll learn to think like a lawyer and, more importantly, you'll be the sort of attorney to which your clients will be mighty grateful because you honed your skills and sharpened your analysis in law school (rather than with them).
Sunday, September 8, 2019
Learning the law is a skill, and for some reason this isn’t obvious to most law students, or many practitioners. It’s viewed as a lofty intellectual pursuit, where people can have very robust intellectual conversations about various aspects of the law. And sometimes it is, I suppose. But mostly, it’s a skill. And in your first year of law school, and sometimes second and third, you have to remember you are learning a NEW skill and learning to master something you’ve never done before.
So, I present to you, how I learned to roll a cake.
See, I’ve been baking since I was a little girl. I started baking with my grandpa, learning to make banana bread, and brownies, and cakes. My mother also loved to bake, and mostly learned from her father. And she loved to decorate. My birthday cakes were the envy of the neighborhood. She also taught me to work with chocolate. I bring all of this up because I don’t consider myself a baking novice. I’m not an expert, but I thought I had skills. So, when my British husband declared that he really missed yule logs (which can be purchased in the US, but the store bought is never the same I guess) I leapt at the challenge to master a new baking skill.
So, I first watched about 3 videos on “how to roll a cake.” I learned that you 1) use a jelly roll pan (thinner pan, like a cookie sheet), 2) put the cake RIGHT away on a towel, and 3) roll, and then 4) unroll and frost, 5) roll the cake again. I watched the video for tips, and soaked it in. I paid attention to what kind of towel to use, whether to use parchment paper, how warm the cake should be, and I felt ready. I used my normal chocolate cake recipe, and got to work. You see, I’ve baked cakes so many times before, and I really like my recipe. I’m comfortable with it too. I was excited, and got to work. Baked the cake, put it on the towel, started to roll, all seemed to be going well. I set the roll aside to let it cool. I felt pretty pleased, and was excited to unroll it and frost. But, it came unrolled in pieces. Delicious pieces that I ate, I’m not a fool, but it wasn’t supposed to unroll in pieces. (There is also a note here on how failure CAN be delicious, so long as you learn form it).
So, the next day I decided to try again, after all, it’s what one does. I asked the internet for more advice, watched a few different videos to see if I could learn anything new. The only thing I picked up was that I may have rolled it while it was TOO hot. So I did everything the same, but waited until it was warm, instead of hot. Rolled it again. This time it came out in LESS pieces, but pieces just the same. My husband and I were delighted to eat the mess, but I kept pondering what I needed to do to roll this cake.
I’m not going to lie, this was frustrating. True, I was enjoying the delicious cake, but it was still frustrating to not get the results I wanted.
So, instead of just watching videos on the actual rolling of the cake, I opted to go look at some yule log, swiss roll, or roulade (all rolled cakes) recipes. I noticed something strange; the recipes were not like my recipe at all. The ingredients were vastly different. So, I picked a yule log cake recipe, and tried again. This time it worked! The different recipe meant a different cake consistency, so a better roll!
So, why does this matter? Why is this like studying the law? Well, first and foremost, I went with a preconceived notion of what I knew, or what I could do. It took two attempts before looking back and thinking that I might need to change my initial recipe. But that made all the difference. Often, students come in with a preconceived notion of what they know, or how to study, or even how to write. They are often shocked to find out that the writing is vastly different from what they knew prior to law school, or even what they considered good. Remember, my sheet cake recipe is delicious, and undisputedly so, but it didn’t work for what I wanted to do, which is to roll the cake. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t make a great sheet cake, it just doesn’t work in THIS context. This is similar to your writing; your prior writing skills may be great, and work for some things, just not law school essays. You might also think you know how to do certain things very well, maybe you even took a constitutional law or business law class in your undergraduate years, or worked as a paralegal. But that information might not work in THIS context.
The second thing to take away from this is timing. I wanted to make the cake for Christmas. But, as I’d never rolled a cake before, I started practicing in September. Plenty of time to practice, as it wouldn’t make sense to roll a cake for the very first time the day I needed it to count! In a similar way, you would never write a law school essay the very first time on test day! You practice, and probably starting in September as well!
Lastly, you should take away the importance of tenacity. I finally perfected the cake in time for Christmas eve, but much to the delight of my husband, it took about 8 cakes total to perfect. You should be practicing roughly the same amount of essays, sadly, they are just less delicious. But the idea is the same, you practice an essay, look for ways to improve it, write another. Work on mastering more law, work on perfecting your writing technique, and keep doing that until you are certain you can do it in timed conditions for an exam.
This Autumn I’m working on chocolate collars, and chocolate flourishes. Remember I said my mother taught me to make chocolates? Well, that was using molds, which means you essentially pour chocolate into, well, molds, and let them sit. There is a skill, but it’s fairly basic. A chocolate collar, or flourish, requires what is essentially freehand drawing with chocolate. I tried my first “collar” today, and it’s far from perfect. However, I’m already planning on altering my technique next time. I initially tried with a piping bag, and didn’t have the control I wanted. So, I used a bottle, but it was too large and had too much air. So, my takeaway is perhaps a smaller bottle. The point is that you shouldn’t be afraid to mix up what you use. Even with different classes, you might use a different style of outline, or a different way of taking notes. That’s ok, and I encourage you to keep altering things until you find the tools and style that work for you.
If you don’t like my baking analogy, I could have written the same thing about ballet, running, football, knitting, or any number of skills you need to master. Practice DOES make perfect, so does learning from your mistakes. And I promise, failure is delicious if you use it as a learning experience.
(Melissa Hale - Guest Blogger)
Saturday, September 7, 2019
Thursday, September 5, 2019
I'm a deer in the headlights. Throughout law school, I lived in what I'll call a perpetual state of "socratic fear." I muddled through classes for the first weeks of law school, never called on but ever so fearful. But, my day finally came. I was called to state the facts of the case and the issue at hand. What case? I couldn't recall. What issues? I didn't have any notion. Frozen and stuck, I stumbled badly. It's as though my mind went wildly bank despite my over preparation.
I never did get over my fear of the socratic method. Throughout all three years of law school, I was the quiet one. Indeed, I felt like I was the only one who was afraid to be called on by a professor. And, as you might have guessed, I definitely didn't voluntarily to speak in class. It was just too risky. Instead, I piled up as much fodder as I could in an attempt to barricade myself from making the dreaded "eye-to-eye" contact with my professors. That was a surefire way, it seemed to me, to be called on. So, I lived with my head buried throughout most of law school, looking down, not up.
But, there's great news for me (and for you!).
You see, we are not the only ones...at all...with "socratic fear." Indeed, according to survey research out of Europe based on language-learning courses in which students are called on to to speak on the "fly" as they learn foreign languages (much like law students are often put on the spot to answer questions in front of peers about cases), many students are just like us - they feel anxious when put in the spotlight to speak in class with the teacher. Alessia Occhipinti, Foreign Language Anxiety in In-Class Speaking Activities, University of Norway (2009) (published student research thesis). Not surprisingly, the survey results suggest that the level of anxiety increases, like a hot autumn day with the noontime sun directly overhead, as the level of personal interaction increases from individual work silently alone at one's desk without being called upon...to group activities and presentations in front of the class...to individual spotlight activities interacting directly with professors. Id.
That got me thinking because, prior to law school, I had no fears of speaking in class, whether language classes or even military pilot training (where students are called in "stand-ups" to explain how they would handle an unanticipated emergency situation to a safe conclusion).
In other words, there seemed to be something lurking in the law school educational experience that poked holes in my once courageous voice.
As I scan back to the past, it wasn't due to a lack of preparation but perhaps to a lack of knowing what was coming (which I suspect is the root of much of our anxieties and fears). And, to be honest, we (or at least I!) also fear being found out to be a fraud, to have been wrongly admitted to law school (or so we feel), that we don't belong at all in law school (and soon everyone will know the truth when they witness us self-destruct...right in front of the class of our peers as the professor interrogates us).
But, as I think about my own law school experience, and in talking with scores and scores of law students, here's what I've gleaned as suggestions about how to handle the stresses and strains of the socratic method. I just wish I had known them when I was a law student.
- Everyone (or most of us) are afraid of speaking in class.
- Just because you have trouble speaking in class, doesn't mean that you don't belong in class. In fact, it might really mean the opposite. That you, like the rest of your classmates, are human beings with shared worries and concerns.
- Talk with someone. Be open with classmates in particular. Be the first to break the ice with trusted friends. Reach out to student affairs, academic success professions, and even your professors. As a suggestion, ask your law school faculty about their own experiences with socratic questioning when they were students (and what suggestions they might have for you to overcome your concerns).
- Realize something extremely important. As far as I can tell, there's absolutely no association between speaking in class and serving as a first-rate attorney. Indeed, although I was overcome (gripped) by fear throughout my law school moot court experiences, I loved speaking in courts as an attorney. Here's why. I knew that the judges wanted to have conversations with me. Simply put, judges were asking me questions because they wanted to learn what I was thinking, they wanted to see things from multiple perspectives that they might have missed in their own preparations for oral arguments, etc., they were dependent on me (us) as attorneys to educate them about our clients, our cases, and the governing law. In short, based on my own experiences, oral argument in court is much more about having a conversation with the judge(s) rather than a battle with professors who, most likely, have already pre-determined most of the answers to their questions.
- Prepare for class with questions. As you read cases, puzzle over them, asking questions, evaluating arguments, voicing your own concerns, dialoguing and debating with the courts. In other words, don't read to memorize the cases. Instead, read to learn to have conversations with courts, to voice your own opinions and insights, in short, to prepare for a life in the law as a creative thoughtful attorney.
- Repeat no. 4. There's no relationship between socratic success and legal success, so far as I can tell. Rather, great attorneys think before they speak, often times rephrasing the questions, and sharing with courts what's on their mind and how that relates to the cases at hand.
Wednesday, September 4, 2019
I've spent an inordinate amount of time in the past week creating files on all our 1Ls. One by one, I open a document, type in the student's name (always with the preferred name taking precedence over the legal name), paste in two or more means of contact, crop a copy of the official photograph (and some casual photographs if those are available) to best show the face, then add information I garner from Admissions spreadsheets, Orientation, and chats with the students or information gleaned from other professors.
It's not an efficient process, and I often wonder if my time might be better spent. But I always go back to this process because it helps me know our students better. For several years, my assistant created these files; I could pull a file up at any time, familiarize myself with the basic information it contained, meet with the student, then add notes from the meeting for my later use. On the surface, it seemed like a far better system. But I found that having ready-made files, with standard information inserted by someone else and myself a passive consumer, meant that I really didn't have any insight into the students I was trying to assist. So I returned to the old process that allows me to build up a picture like putting together a mosaic, tiny piece by tiny piece, each jagged little piece chosen to contribute to the whole. Once I've created a file in this way, I feel like I know the student. While my prosopagnosia means I may not be able to recognize them until they introduce themselves, I can work with them because of the time I've spent building a picture of their backgrounds and interests and passions.
Since effective time management is a key to thriving in law school, it's common for students to feel that reducing effort creates efficiencies. So after creating case briefs in Word or in OneNote (or copying case briefs from another source), they paste the briefs into larger catch-all "outlines." Unsophisticated students will create an "outline" consisting of case brief after case brief, while students who've heard they should organize outlines by rules instead of cases put in the effort to rearrange the case brief so the rule comes first, one rule per case. When time comes to consolidate outlines, they cut out the paragraphs containing case facts and reasoning, efficiently leaving only scores of rules and case names. It's all done as speedily as possible, with the verbiage from the initial case brief remaining unexamined and unchanged since the words were first written down, although moved from document to document.
It's rare for such "efficiency" to result in deep learning. Indeed, deep learning is messy, involving cross-outs, deletions, insertions, rewording, struggle, rewriting synthesized rules that encompass multiple cases, rethinking structure, and often starting from scratch multiple times. Independently writing multiple documents from scratch -- case briefs, case charts, summaries, hypos, and outlines -- can seem like a colossal waste of time. But the messy, inefficient process of forcing yourself to think through and re-examine a matter multiple times from multiple angles usually results in much greater understanding and an ability to use rather than merely regurgitate law. Sometimes being inefficient is the most efficient way to learn.
Sunday, September 1, 2019
The air conditioners blow at full blast, but the intensity still heats the room. Outlines are furiously shuffled and read at breakneck speed. Some people are chanting to themselves or closing their eyes trying to recall information. Other individuals are pacing around the room. The moments before a law school exam appear to be pure chaos. Students are trying to cram just a few more rules before the exam starts. Is this last second memorizing, or memorizing in general, critical for law school exams? I believe the answer is yes, and our students can approach memorizing the material better.
Most law professors emphasize analysis. They will reiterate the importance of analyzing the facts ad nauseam. Many even say all their points on the final will be analysis of facts. Unfortunately, the message students receive is much different than the intended message. Too many of my students believe only a basic understanding of the rules is what matters. They believe fact discussions, which don't tend to be fact applications, will score well on finals. In turn, they don't spend as much time memorizing the rules in the depth necessary to do a thorough fact application.
An in-depth knowledge of the rules is the foundation for quality legal analysis. The in-depth knowledge requires both knowing the rule and understanding how it operates. I know many people argue that understanding the rule is the most important because understanding is precondition to knowing what facts to apply. I generally agree with that statement. Students should definitely understand rules and how they operate. However, students sometimes misinterpret understanding rules as they just need to know the gist of what the rule is. That is a mistake. I believe a prerequisite to understanding the rules is knowing what they are. Analyzing a battery is difficult if a student just understands the gist of needing an intentional contact and the intent can be a little less than purpose. Students should memorize that a battery has 4 elements: intent; harmful or offensive contact; to the person of another; and causation. Knowing the elements helps students integrate specific rules for each element into a schema that translates better to fact applications. Some students are misunderstanding some of the messages from law school, so they may not be memorizing specific rules.
We can combat these misunderstandings with some tips on how to memorize and teach them how to apply facts to rules. A book I recently listened to titled Remember It! by Nelson Dellis provides great tips for creating images to remember large amounts of information. Nelson is a former memory champion and wrote about specific techniques he used that are practical for everyday activities. The biggest takeaway I pulled from the book was engaging all the senses through vivid imagery can dramatically increase memory. Instead of trying to memorize the 4 elements of battery, create an image that specifically included all the elements. In our mind, we could conjure an image of the Hulk full of rage with veins popping out of his head walking up to a small pedestrian with pale skin and glasses at the intersection of International St. and Harvard Blvd (2 streets easy for me with the first letters of the next 2 elements). Hulk yells to Pedestrian, "I want to break every one of your bones!" while making a breaking motion with his hands (intent element). Hulk's eyes are bulging out while he reaches back and swings at pedestrian with all his might. He hits the book pedestrian is holding hard enough to send pedestrian flying backwards (touching to the person). You hear bones breaking as pedestrian falls limp to the ground (harmful contact). Hulk then spits on pedestrian while he is down (offensive contact). Hulk then laughs, gives himself a high five, and struts down the street.
The last image is imperfect because I am not as good as Nelson at creating memorable images. However, you can see how using all the senses makes it more memorable. The image also includes all the elements for the cause of action. The difficulty arises when dealing with harder subjects or trying to remember more information. The book is great because it provides specific tips for large amounts of information and remembering sequences. He details how to use the memory palace (or journey method) for recalling order. Some of his tips just use the first letter of something or other shortcuts. He uses images of famous people or areas he already knows well. The idea though is to use images to retain information. I encourage listening to the book to understand exactly how he creates lasting memories.
I generally agree with people who say law school requires more than rote memorization. However, I do believe remembering information is critical to understanding, and understanding is critical to application. Hopefully we can pass along resources to our students to improve their retention.
Saturday, August 31, 2019
Everyone knows the saying the early bird gets the worm. I remember hearing it throughout my childhood. I understand the idea that getting an early start to the day. However, does getting up early really matter? I think I can spend just as much time, or more, than anyone else while still starting later? Are worms really a finite commodity where the second, third, or 10am riser won't get breakfast? I firmly believe the saying is pure propaganda by corporate elites to squeeze even more out of workers (firmly may be a stretch).
Robin Sharma advocates that everyone should wake up at 5am. His newest book is The 5am Club, and he argues the first hour of the day using his 20/20/20 formula will dramatically increase productivity. The formula includes 20 minutes of exercise, 20 minutes of reflecting, and 20 minutes of learning. Sounds great, but I think I can do the same thing at 8am. Scott Bedgood at Success Magazine tends to agree with me. He was skeptical, but as a journalist, he was willing to put the formula to the test. Read Scott's article about his experience.
In the end, Scott does think the 5am hour leads to more productivity. 2 people may not be enough to convince me. I think I will do more research before my 5am start, but the idea of more productivity is appealing. I will pass it along to my students though.
Thursday, August 29, 2019
Much of the time, it seems to me, I am occupied with trying to reach the minds of our law students. But, perhaps that's putting the proverbial "cart before the horse." The cart, so to speak, is metacognition, or the process of learning to learn (practices such as spaced repetition and the implement of desirable difficulties throughout the course of one's learning). But, what might be the horse?
Well, a number of possibilities come to mind. There's been much research of late on the relationship between growth mindsets in predicting academic achievement. But, I think that there's another horse at play, a factor that might even serve as a necessary precondition for the development of such mindsets as grit, resiliency, and a growth mindset. In my opinion, that prerequisite is a well-formed sense of belonging...as empowered members of a vibrant learning community.
I love that word "belonging." It's chocked full of action with its "ing" begging us to be fully embraced (and to embrace others), despite all our blemishes and surprises. And, it starts with the prefix "be," which resonates and comes only alive within the present ongoing moments of community with others, indicating that this is something that we enjoy in the here and now rather than later. And, it's all-encompassing of the person, with its incorporation of the word "long," reminding me of arms outstretched, to be overtaken in the presence of others, to be accepted as we are...fully and completely (and to stretch our hearts around others within our midsts). In other words, the word "belonging" is full of action.
So, that brings up a few questions.
First, is belonging even much of a problem in law schools?
Second, what sort of spark might lead to the type actions that can then develop into a well-spring of belonging for our law students as members within learning communities?
Well, with respect to the first question, as Prof. Victor Quintanilla documents according to research at the Law School Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE): "[W]orries about belonging are endemic to law school." http://lssse.indiana.edu/tag/belonging/ That's the bad news. And, in my opinion, that's why many fall to the wayside. It's not because of LSAT scores or a lack of motivation. It's just darn difficult to succeed when you don't feel like you are a part of something, that you belong within the community, that you are welcome and embraced as vital law school participants.
But, there's great news to be had. Indeed, as Prof. Quintanilla further explains, the quality of one's relationships with students, faculty, and administrators significantly predicts one's sense of belonging in law school...and the strength of one's sense of belonging significantly predict's one's academic performance even controlling for traditional academic predicators such as LSAT scores. Id. In other words, "law school belonging is a critical predictor of social and academic success among law students." Id. (Quintanilla, et. al, in prep). And, that's great news because - as educational leaders in academic support - we can serve in the frontline of developing, strengthening, and securing our students in positive relationships with others throughout our law school's learning communities.
That brings me to our final quandary. How might we actually empower our students to be in vibrant relationship with others in law school?
In my own case, it means that I need to listen to my students. That I need to frequently pause to take in and hear and observe what's happening to my students, not as students, but as people. It means that I need to step up to the plate, so to speak, to proactively engage with my students. Nevertheless, with so much on our ASP plates, that sure sounds hard to implement.
So, here's an easy way that we might share with our students in order to help spark relationships that can then lead to a sense of belonging. It's called the "10/5 rule." Next time you're at your law school, when you come within 10 feet of another person, break out a brief smile. It doesn't have to be much, but it does have to be sincere. Then, when you're within about 5 feet of that other person, briefly recognize them with a short "howdy" or "hi." That's it.
You see, according to social science research, such actions of a brief smile lead to a sense of belonging, a feeling of inclusion, even, amazingly, if the other person doesn't even recall seeing your smile. See The Surprising Benefits of Chit Chat, Eye Contact, and a Hello for Law Students & ASP (and the 10/5 Rule)!
So, please join me in sharing a smile. It's a great way to not just brighten your day but brighten the lives of those around you. Indeed, who knows? Perhaps that brief smile that you just shared today (or will share in just a bit) will lead another to smile, and then another, and then a whole circles of smiles. And, isn't a circle of smiles the sort of spark that can create relationships that can lead to belonging and therefore might even help to empower successful learning? (Scott Johns).
Wednesday, August 28, 2019
My inbox is crammed with pictures of pangolins. Pangolins with claws turned under walking on the ground, pangolins scaling trees, pangolin babies clinging to their mothers' backs and tails, pangolins held in the palm of a human hand, even pangolin skeletons in natural history displays.
For those of you quite as ignorant of this fascinating mammal as I was last week, the pangolins, also known as scaly anteaters, are the only mammals covered with sharp, protective keratin scales. The family consists of eight remaining species, four in Africa and four in Asia, some burrowing and some tree-dwelling. When threatened, they typically spray a foul substance (think of skunks) and roll into a tight protective ball like an oversized pine cone. Because pangolins typically produce only one offspring per year, don't fare well in captivity, and are extensively poached for their distinctive scales, they are among the most endangered species in the world.
So why is my inbox crammed with pangolin pictures? Because in my Academic Skills class, I want an early indication of who might need early intervention and who is already engaging in the practices of successful law students. Among my first assignments is explicitly requiring students to carefully read the syllabus. Stealing an idea from my colleague Rebekah Cudé, I embed into my syllabus a sentence telling students to send me a specific kind of picture. (Last year's platypuses were equally adorable.) When students don't send pictures in, it usually means: (a) they are not careful readers; (b) they aren't linked into a social network of information-sharing; or (c) they resist engaging in activities they feel are beneath them. Because careful, critical reading is so instrumental to success in law school and the practice of law, students who miss important information immediately garner my attention. Likewise, social isolation often foreshadows academic difficulty. Since I expect there will be some "buzz" and explicit sharing about the picture assignment, not sending a picture can be an early indication that certain students aren't linked into peer networks. Finally, I've found a correspondence between weak analysis and those who read but don't comply with directions; not complying can presage a student who easily identifies issues and spits out rules but considers the step-by-step process of careful legal analysis to be an unnecessary bother on the way to a foregone conclusion.
I also use the first weeks of the semester to give private feedback solely on the importance of following directions. Complying with directions, of course, pays dividends whether one is answering the exact call of an exam question or following the local rules in court proceedings. Especially when students go well beyond what my directions call for, they can feel somewhat aggrieved when I point out, for example, that the directions asked for a one-sentence answer but their answer was four sentences, or that the directions asked for the number of elements and their answer named the elements instead. Nevertheless, by continually tying the importance of following directions to exams and practice, the message usually gets through.
The best thing about careful reading and following directions as predictors of success is that these are factors totally within a student's control. Undergraduate GPAs and LSAT scores certainly have some predictive value, but from my experience, careful reading and following explicit directions are far more powerful indicators of future success as a law student.
Tuesday, August 27, 2019
Last year I wrote a post about "simulation training" that described the benefits of rehearsal and practice under conditions that are as close as possible to performance conditions. When preparing for a final exam, for example, taking practice tests under exam conditions of strict timing and silence in a room similar to the room in which you will actually be tested can help you score better on the actual exam. The improvement seems to be linked to the reduction of unfamiliar stimuli and the association of familiar conditions with execution.
Given the demonstrable benefits of creating consistency between exam practice and exam execution, I would have presumed that a similar effect might have been observed with respect to the precursors to exam taking -- namely, study and memorization. If it makes sense to practice taking law exams in silence and in one particular environment, wouldn't it also make sense to learn all the rules, exceptions, and examples under the same conditions? In his book How We Learn, Benedict Carey suggests that may not be the case.
Learning facts like rules of law is different from learning how to perform tasks like timed essay writing, largely because of the different roles of background stimuli. When learning tasks, the consistent quality of background stimuli is important, because it helps provide a comfortable environment that we associate with the task. While this is also somewhat true when learning facts, it turns out that the quantity of stimuli is of relatively greater importance. An absence of stimuli makes it more difficult to memorize material. In one experiment, students were asked to memorize a list of forty words. While they studied, the scientists played either jazz or classical music in the background, or, alternatively, no music at all. Students who studied while listening to jazz had the highest rates of recall when tested while jazz played in the background, and those who studied while listening to classical did best when tested while classical was playing. When each of those groups of students were tested while listening to different music, or to no music at all, their rates of recall were cut roughly in half. But the students who studied in silence did not have higher rates of recall when tested in silence. Their recall rates were also about half that of jazz listeners who were tested with jazz, or classical listeners who were tested with classical.
The explanation seems to be that, when we are learning facts, it helps to have some level of background stimulus. The external stimulus seems to provide a framework within which learners can organize and attach meaning to the facts they are learning. Thus, when the external stimulus is present at testing time, it is easier for the test takers to access the facts for recall, because they have access to the framework in which they learned them.
Most professors, however, do not allow students to crank tunes during exam administration. Not even smooth jazz. And duplicating the silence of testing conditions will not be as helpful for memorizing the rules as it is for applying them, since silence does not provide the necessary external stimulus. So how should students learn their rules and examples?
Carey suggests that the best strategy for this kind of rote learning is to work in a variety of different environments. He points to another word-memorization experiment, one in which subjects were asked to study in two separate, ten-minute sessions. Some subjects spent both sessions in an untidy basement room. Others spent both sessions in a windowed room overlooking a green courtyard. And a third group of subjects spent one session in one of those rooms, and the other session in the other room. When all subjects were tested for recall later in a third room (a classroom), those in the last group, who had studied in two different environments, had 40 percent higher rates of recall. While no one knows for sure, the theory is that those who studied in two different rooms had the benefit of two different sets of external stimuli, and thus built two different, overlapping "frameworks" within which they learned the words. Having two different frameworks provided additional memory access points that might be used in the neutral third environment.
So what are the lessons for law students? First, we should help them to recognize that there should be different study strategies for learning and memorizing rules and facts, versus developing one's skills in applying those rules. Second, we can suggest that students add some variety to their study environments when they are performing more of the basic rote memorization (such as at the start of the semester, when they are first learning the relevant rules). Encourage them not to spend all their time in the same spot in the library, but to break up their study into chunks of time spent in different milieus -- spending some time in the library, some time outdoors, perhaps some time in a coffee shop (especially one playing jazz or classical music). Students who associate the learning of the same rules to different external stimuli will be more likely to be able to recall those rules under any set of external stimuli, or even when there seems to be no external stimuli at all.
Thursday, August 22, 2019
I hear voices. Not all of the time, mind you. But, definitely at the most inconvenient of times...like when I'm trying to read! [I think this is called sub-vocalization.] You see, I can only read as fast as I speak (and I don't tend to speak very fast unless I'm excited or nervous, which I often am, particularly when I'm trying to digest dense legal materials).
Indeed, when a student asks me to work with them through any reading passage (whether a case, a statute, or a multiple-choice problem or essay prompt), I really want to go in hiding, into a "sound chamber" so to speak, so that I can read slowly and not so-silently, as I work out the meaning of the text through hearing - in my mind - the words as they become alive, the punctuation marks as they spring up from the page into my voice, and the paragraph breaks as they give me time to catch my breath.
In short, if you haven't caught the gist of what I am saying, I feel like I am a poor reader because I am a slow reader.
Now, I suspect that most students don't sub-vocalize when they read, i.e., they don't hear voices when they read. Nevertheless, I gather that most first-year law students (and perhaps most law students in general) feel like they read too slow. If so, then you're exactly like me (and I'm supposed to be an expert at critical reading, particularly in reading legal texts, etc.).
But, before I get too far, in my opinion, rushed reading is not reading. To paraphrase Socrate's famous line that the "unexamined life is not worth living," an "unexamined case" is not worth reading. In other words, in law school, it's not how fast you read but what your learning about the law and legal problem-solving as you read. To cut to the chase, reading is about examining the cases and the statutes and the legal texts assigned in law school. And that takes time, lots of time. Or, to put it more bluntly, reading is really about "cross-examining" those legal materials, evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments and analysis, and then forming your own opinion about the merits of those arguments (and how you might use those arguments in the future to solve hypothetical problems posed on mid-term exams and final exams).
That gets me to the next question. How might I teach reading?
When I first started in academic support, I taught case briefing but not case reading, most likely, because it seemed to me that by briefing a case I had read the case. I'm not so sure now. That's because most case briefs (at least most of my case briefs) are composed of just bits of quotes and paraphrases of what the court said...rather than my evaluation of what the court said (or didn't say). Indeed, as Professor Jane Grisé writes, "critical reading is about 'learning to evaluate, draw inferences, and arrive at conclusions.'" J. Grisé, Critical Reading Instruction: The Road to Successful Legal Writing Skills, 18 W. Mich. Univ. Cooley J. of Prac. & Clinical L. (2017) (quoting L. Christensen, Legal Reading and Success in Law School: An Empirical Study, 30 Seattle U.L. Rev. 603, 603 (2007). Thus, because critical reading is about learning, it is something that can be taught. Id. Consequently, based on Professor Grisé research, let me offer the following suggestions on how one might teach critical reading, particularly reading cases that are jam-packed into the massive casebooks that comprise the bulk of reading in law school.
- First, confess. Set the stage for learning by sharing the worries and frustrations that you had (and perhaps still have) as a legal reader. Let students know that it wasn't a natural skill for you (or for anyone for that matter). Rather, critical legal reading is a skill that is developed, like muscles through exercise, bit by bit, in which we can all learn.
- Second, model pre-reading strategies. Share with students some of the ways that you engage in reading, even before you begin to read, by, for example, figuring out the purpose of the case by placing it in context with the prior and later assignments based on the case's position in table of contents and it's placement in the course syllabus. Then, get to know the players. Learn something about the case from the case caption, figure out the stage or setting for the case by talking through the information gleaned from the citation, etc., picture yourself as another judge or advocate for one of the parties, hypothesize how you might use this case in the future when it comes to exam time, skim through the case to capture the sorts of sections of the case and its organization (either by looking at headings or by skimming the paragraphs), and then poke around at the very end of the case to see what the court decided. Indeed, that's my favorite pre-reading strategy: Peeking at the end before I begin. That gets my focus jumpstarted!
- Third, read with gusto. Reading takes energy and focus, so if the time doesn't feel quite right, wait. But then, when you are reading to go, read the case facts - not as fiction - but recognizing rather that the facts involve real people and entities with real struggles. After all, cases often come to the court because people couldn't resolve hard-felt (and heart-felt) disputes on their own. As you read, look up words that you don't know. Write the meaning of those words, in your own words, in the margins of the text. Rather than highlighting lots of phrases that you think are important, make a notation on the text as to why you think that phrase or sentence might be important. Feel free to draw pictures or make paraphrases to help you capture the meanings of the words. If something seems unclear, it probably is, to you and to most of us. So, go back to those sections, in which the court often times doesn't explain its analysis, and make inferences (guesses) as to what is going on. Realize that the most (and perhaps all) cases are subject to different interpretations. Be creative to scope out connections with previous readings. Look for patterns. Dialogue with the materials. Question them, indeed, interrogate the court. Don't let the court baffle you. Instead, be on the lookout for mistakes that the court might have made in its analysis. In sum, talk back to the court and with the court as you read.
- Fourth, reading doesn't stop after you read. Instead, after reading, be an explorer to construct your own meaning of the case. As a suggestion, compile a list of questions that you would like to have asked the court or the advocates. Summarize in your own words what you think the case stands for (and why it was assigned for your course). Evaluate the case as to whether its reasoning was puzzling, or startling, or settling (and why). Conjure up different facts to test how the decision might have been impacted in different circumstances. Finally, synthesis a one sentence or phrase statement for what you've learned from the case, such as: "Vosburg (involving a schoolhouse kick) stands for the proposition that people are liable for battery even when they don't intend to harm anyone as long as they intended the contact because the purpose of battery is to protect people from - not just harmful contacts - but from all contacts that interfere with another's bodily integrity as a co-human being."
Now, before I let you go, just one more word about speed. You don't get faster at reading cases by trying to read fast. Rather, over time, much like water as it heats slowly on the oven range, using these strategies won't feel like an improvement...at all. Instead, if you're like me, you feel like its taking lots more of your time, energy, and perspiration to learn to be a critical legal reader. And, it is! But, by going slow, conversationally with the text, through practice in pre-reading strategies, then reading the text with robust gusto, and finally polishing off the reading by making sense and connections with the text for future use, you'll end up becoming a faster reader without even trying.
Much like learning to ride a bike, if you are like me, you fall lots and get lots of bruises along the way. That's because learning is hard difficult work. But, just like learning to ride a bike, once you get the hang of it, you'll be well on your way to being a better legal reader (and a better advocate on behalf of your clients in the future). (Scott Johns).
Tuesday, August 20, 2019
It is the start of the school year, and we are welcoming new classes of students to begin their courses of study in law school. Each course of study will comprise a score or more individual courses in particular subjects, and we hope that in due course every student will consume and fully digest a rich multi-course legal banquet. Of course.
Our versatile word "course" is derived from the Latin word "currere", meaning "to run" or "to flow". In all of its varied uses, it alludes to a sense of movement and progress, and this is particularly fitting when we think of the course of a law student's passage from matriculation to graduation. They arrive at school, eager and perhaps a bit awed as they imagine themselves advancing, starting off slowly, developing the knowledge, skill, and judgment of an attorney as they make their ways along, and then racing to the finish line to collect their prizes.
To many incoming 1L students, law school may seem like a watercourse -- like a channel through which they will be carried, sometimes swept through dizzying rapids, other times dragged through muddy waters of confounding breadth, ultimately to squeeze past a perilous bar and then be deposited at the port of Career, where their next adventure begins. In this view, all students need to do is learn to paddle, avoid rocking the boat, and make use of their brains and perseverance, and they will arrive at their destinations.
But there are better courses for comparison. Law school is best considered like a racecourse or a golf course -- not because their structures are more precisely analogous, but because of the way successful performers approach them. Sure, great sports performers make the most of their talents and training. But before they begin a race or a tournament, they get to know the course. A runner will trace out the course route, measuring the flats and the hills, and will plan out her pacing accordingly. A golfer will play or at least walk the course, making note of obstacles, slopes, and doglegs, and getting to know the feel of the greens. A skier will take practice runs down the course, developing a mental map so he can plan when to be cautious, when to be daring, when to push for speed. Knowing the course means they can make the best use of their skills and strategies over the long term.
So it is in law school. Week to week, month to month, semester to semester, knowing what it coming means students can expend their resources (time, attention, energy, etc.) more wisely. It means they can allow sufficient time to prepare for opportunities, or for challenges. It lessens the chances that they will wander out of bounds or run around in circles.
This is one of the reasons I love the start of the new academic year. It gives those of us in Academic Success a wonderful opportunity to provide something of immediate and long-term value to every new student we meet. We can walk them through the course! We can explain to them what a typical week will be like. We can preview all the major tasks of their first semester -- reading, attending class, outlining, midterms, legal writing assignments, practice tests, and final exams -- and help the students develop their own mental maps of the course. We can give them a bird's-eye of the entire tournament: the timing, value, and effort required of the opportunities and expectations they will encounter over the next few years. And we can do all of this for them painlessly -- not in response to an individual's frustration or anxiety or poor performance. It's the best part of the year, because we can give our students something they all can use, whether or not they have come into law school having learned the lesson that so many champions have learned: Successful performers don't see the course as running and carrying them along with it. They see the course as something they themselves run.
Sunday, August 18, 2019
I enjoy listening to books or material while driving. Music is nice, and a good break for some, but I don't need to listen to music often. My commute is about 30 minutes, which I believe can help me learn. Some of our students have longer commutes and feel the same way. Halle Hara put together a good resource that could help those students. Her new website lawschoolplaybook.com has numerous podcasts on critical law school skills.
I always warn my students that listening to material cannot be the exclusive way to absorb information. I don't absorb as much as I should when driving and listening to a book. However, listening to these podcasts could reinforce skills we are all teaching. I plan to see if I could integrate them into my D2L course as an additional quick assignment.
From my brief glance, I like the topics. We are spending significant time this year on reading comprehension. The podcast section of the site has 10 episodes on reading cases alone. I know my students need that information.
I am glad to see another one of our colleagues producing material that has the potential to help our students. Keep up the good work.
Wednesday, August 14, 2019
I entered the academic support field with the goal of keeping law students from making the mistakes I made in law school. In the yin and yang of my first year, I think I might have made every mistake possible. Here are some of the things I wish I'd known as a 1L.
You can make it as well as anyone else. I don't care if you're 16 or 65, just got out of college or finished college three decades ago, are the first in your family to get past high school or come from five generations of lawyers, went to nationals in debate or fear speaking in public. You belong here just as much as the rest of the class.
You're not better than anyone else. Congratulations if you graduated from an Ivy League school or worked 20 years as a top-level paralegal in a high-powered law firm or rose to prominence in the military or a corporation. Those experiences are enriching and will add depth to your understanding. Your classmates who attended community college or were river guides or worked the floor in a big box store bring equally valuable perspectives. If you have a tendency towards having a swelled head, ditch it now.
You don't have to study 100 hours a week to make it. Honestly, that's what our Dean of Students recommended at my convocation. I hope I was the only person stupid enough to follow his advice. Sufficient exercise, adequate sleep each night, and a day of rest each week, combined with a sustainable study schedule, will help you learn far more than putting in non-stop 15-hour days.
What you did as an undergraduate isn't good enough. Skimming the reading, doing an assignment at the last minute, just doing what's assigned and no more, and cramming at the end of the semester were adequate for many folks as undergraduates. They don't cut it in law school. Even if you keep your head above water doing this in law school, you won't gain the deep understanding that good lawyers need.
If you don't understand a case, don't read it over and over without a strategy. One how-to-go-to-law-school book I read suggested reading cases six or eight times superficially to make the salient points sink in. Baloney. But don't read once and give up, either. Talk with your academic support professional about effective reading strategies. Previewing, talking back to the case, and asking questions might seem artificial and stilted, but they are some methods expert readers use to understand -- and as a lawyer you must be an expert reader.
Ask questions. Even if you're shy. Especially if you think your question is stupid. There's no shame in not understanding. Asking for help is something that good lawyers do, all the time. And chances are that your classmates will heave a sigh of relief when you ask something that they were afraid to ask, or when you expose a problem that they didn't even see.
Learn to seek and welcome criticism. Opposing counsel and judges will point out every weakness in your case and every place your argument doesn't hold water. So use your time in law school not only to develop a thick skin, but also to actively seek out oral and written feedback, positive and negative -- on your case briefs, on your outlines, on practice exams, and on legal writing assignments. Taking critiques seriously will make you a better lawyer.
Be open to learning in new ways. You're lucky to be going to school at a time when the ABA mandates that every law school offer academic support to its students. Taking advantage of your school's academic support (variously known as Academic Success, Skills, Excellence, Achievement, and similar terms) will help your first year's experience be more efficient, effective, and enjoyable.
You're not here to learn the law. You're here to become a lawyer. Sure, you will be learning a lot of rules, just like a beginning medical student has to learn a lot of basic biochemistry and molecular biology. But just like a medical student is training to heal the human body, you are using the raw material of rules to learn how to use facts, words, and ideas to promote an orderly and just resolution of disputes. When you start to get bogged down and think all you're doing is memorizing, step back and think about how real people are affected by what you're learning. Use law school to practice becoming a great lawyer.
Be happy. Law professor Paula Franzese writes, "[L]ife will meet you at your level of expectation for it." If you expect to be miserable in law school, you will be. If you expect to be happy and fulfilled, you will be. Approach everything you do with a positive attitude, and 1L year will be a great stepping-stone not only to your life as a lawyer but to your life as a person living with purpose and joy.