Law School Academic Support Blog

Editor: Amy Jarmon
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Monday, November 12, 2018

Embrace the Grind through Finals

Last Friday, I experienced the pure joy of coaching an 8 year old flag football game at 9:30pm with the wind chill in the 20s.  The temperature was the same for both teams, but everyone in attendance could see the difference between how the teams handled the conditions.  One team bounced around with everyone running to the ball, celebrating, and having a good time.  The other team shivered, jogged, and repeatedly shook their hands to try to stay warm.  Most of those kids couldn’t feel their hands by the 2nd quarter, and as you would guess, they lost the game.

I witnessed a similar event a few years ago during the College Softball World Series.  In the final series, Oklahoma played Alabama.  Oklahoma dominated teams most of the year.  They had the best hitter and pitcher in the country.  During the second game of the best of 3 series, the heavens opened and rain drenched everything.  Oklahoma made a few bad plays, and then, the umpire delayed the game until the rain subsided.  During the rain delay, Alabama bounced around their dugout.  They danced and sang through the whole delay.  Oklahoma mulled around with their heads down from the couple bad plays.  After the rain delay, Alabama trounced the Sooners.  They subsequently won game 3 the next day for the National Championship beating an Oklahoma team that the following year with similar players was arguably one of the best in history. 

The ability to respond to undesirable conditions is critical from elementary school to elite athletes.  The same is true for law school final exams.  The conditions will be similar for most students.  Everyone is taking the same exam.  Everyone has the same amount of time between the last day of class and final exams.  Some people may have slightly different obligations during finals, but most students are on a similar playing field for finals.  The ability to embrace the situation can make a difference in performance on finals.

I tell students every semester that final exams are as much a test of mental strength and discipline as they are a test of legal knowledge and analysis.  The key is to embrace the grind of finals.  Complaining about the exam, the amount of time, or unknown expectations is the equivalent of shivering on the field.  Letting those thoughts creep in gives the final exam the edge before the test begins.  Complaining students are the ones sleeping on coaches around the law school or finding every excuse necessary to not study.  Making the final harder than it is becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy causing lower performance.

Overcoming negativity makes an impact of scores.  Michael Hunter Schwartz developed a program for pre-law students many years ago where he described how high self-efficacy leads to persistence.  Worry and other negative emotions don’t promote self-efficacy and tend to harm persistence.  Persistence, or the grind, is what leads to improvement and readiness for exams.  Final exams are hard.  There is an unknown element.  However, that is true for everyone taking the exam. 

Embrace the grind by planning.  As I have posted before, writing down a detailed monthly, weekly, and daily plan can make finals more manageable.  The unknown causes some people stress because of the lack of control.  Take that control back with a plan of attack.  Plan for the whole study period from now through the last final.  At the beginning of each day, plan the hours of the day.  Take adequate breaks to mentally refresh and eat.  Finish at a reasonable time each night.  Grab momentum with the areas you can control, which should alleviate some stress.  Remember, the vast majority of exams will come from material discussed in class.  Exam period is a review of what everyone already experienced throughout the semester.

Start each day with positive affirmations to stop the negative emotion spiral before it starts.  Be confident with statements about the ability to succeed, completing the necessary tasks, and overcoming obstacles.  Focus affirmations on the study process or overcoming obstacles.  Statements about the ability to study hard material or previous hard tasks can motivate anyone to push through the tasks for that day.  Exams are a culmination of studies throughout a long period of time.  Don’t focus affirmations on final exam results, which is unattainable on a given day.  Focus on attainable goals for that day, for example “I am always able to recite sections of my outline after a few hours of study.  I will be able to do that by lunch.”  Affirmations on attainable goals builds over time for an impact on final exams.

Hard conditions can affect anyone, and law school exam conditions are difficult.  However, planning and positivity can put everyone in the best possible position for success.  The goal is to be able to walk into the exam with your head up and not shivering.  Embrace the opportunity to demonstrate your ability on each exam.

(Steven Foster)

November 12, 2018 in Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Guest Blogger Post 3 - Louis Schulze: "Don't Even THINK About Using Supplements" Part One

Ever found yourself giving this advice to students?  Do you have colleagues who do so?  In this series of posts, I hope to push back against this practice … sort of.  There are five reasons why giving this advice is generally unwise.  Here goes….

  1. Missed opportunity. We all know that students will use supplements regardless of our advice.  I am a realist, and so I doubt that each of my 60 students will blindly and universally heed every word I say.  (Dear students reading this:  You should blindly and universally heed every word I say.) 

As a result, if my only input on this issue is a blanket policy lacking any nuance, I’ve lost my ability to guide students towards the good stuff (which I call “hornbooks”) and away from the schlocky stuff (which I call “supplements”).  (I make this nomenclature distinction because I want to capture the positive connotation of the former, and the negative connotation of the latter.  This allows me to focus students on professor-authored resources written with the primary purpose of supporting students, and non-professor-authored resources written for the primary purpose of revenue).    

Moreover, if some of my students’ other professors do recommend certain sources, I have just undercut my colleagues and probably undermined my credibility.  I would rather influence my students and support my colleagues than posit myself as the all-knowing sage. 

  1. Mitigating the advantage legal education grants to students from privileged backgrounds. Imagine a student whose mother, father, aunt, uncle, or cousins attended law school.  No doubt these family members will spend hours at a family barbeque in July inflicting imparting their advice upon the anxious pre-1L, especially if they attended the same law school.  This student now knows that her Criminal Law professor closely follows “Understanding Criminal Law.” The student then positively kills it (pun intended) when cold-called on Queen v. Dudley & Stephens, and she gains points for doing so.

Now imagine the student who is first in his family to attend college, let alone law school.  Not surrounded by those “in-the-know,” this student goes through law school not knowing some of the crucial hints that might support his success.  He struggles through State v. Wilson and loses points.  He does less well in the course not because he lacked aptitude or diligence but because he did not enjoy the privileged background that provided others with pre-knowledge.

If the professor admonished the students not to use supplements, she can share the blame for this troublesome reproduction of socio-economic hierarchy.  Not only did her blanket rule likely intimidate the second student more than the first, but her failure to guide her students towards quality materials exacerbated the imbalanced playing field that already existed.  

In my next post, I’ll continue to lay out the arguments against the blanket policy of “Don’t Even THINK of Using Supplements.”

November 11, 2018 in Academic Support Spotlight, Exams - Studying, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 8, 2018

"Feedback" vs. "Feedforward:" A Path to Improve Learning & Final Exam Performance

I'm worried about final exams.  To be frank, I don't like the word "final."  I have to say that the word "final" particularly bothered me in my previous aviation career, where air traffic controllers clear airliners for the "final approach to runway 18."  I just didn't want that to be my final approach. I hoped to have at least a few more years in aviation.

But, here's the biggest rub that I have with final exams.  

Because law students frequently have only a few mid-term exams to assess their learning (and to therefore improve before their final exams), final exams are, well, too final to make an improvement in one's learning.  In fact, I suspect that the term "final exams" tends to lead to more of a fixed mindset with respect to our law students' learning.  They get their grades, often weeks after finals, and most students - it seems - never review their exams to identify what they did that was good (nor to look for ways to improve in the next round of final exams).

Nevertheless, it's not just final exams that can be a hurdle in improving learning for the future.

Our feedback can be too.  

As summarized by Jennifer Gonzalez in her blog "The Cult of Pedagogy," where she writes that "[r]eally, the experience of school could be described as one long feedback session, where every day, people show up with the goal of improving, while other people tell them how to do it.  And it doesn’t always go well. As we give and receive feedback, people get defensive. Feelings get hurt. Too often, the improvements we’re going for don’t happen, because the feedback isn’t given in a way that the receiver can embrace."  https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/feedforward/.  In short, feedback might just stunt growth, which is another way of saying that feedback might stunt learning.

But, there's great news! 

Rather than providing our students with more and more feedback, we might consider providing them with "feedforward" instead.  

But first, here are the problems with feedback.  Feedback focuses on the past.  It focuses on the negative without  necessarily providing ways forward to improve.  It focuses on being stuck rather than helping people get unstuck.  Indeed, as outlined by Jennifer Gonzalez, there are at least three ways that feedback hinders learning:

• First, citing to author and educator Joe Hirsch, feedback shuts down our "mental dashboards." In my words, it crashes our brain.  That's because the "red marks" and the many comments to "change this" or to "change that" tend to cause us to believe that all is lost; there's no hope for us. We just don't see a way forward because, frankly, we are stunned with a horrible feeling that we just don't get it...and never will.  We are locked in the past. The future is hidden from us.

• Second, citing again to Joe Hirsch, feedback tends to reinforce negative thoughts because the comments tend to lead us to believe that we are stuck in a sort of "learned hopelessness" in which we cannot change our future. Rather than building a growth mindset in our students, feedback that is focused solely on what our students have done in the past creates a fixed mindset with students believing that there's little that they can do to improve their learning in the future.

• Third, citing again to Joe Hirsch, we tend to approach feedback with a single-minded crystalized focus to see what grades or marks or numbers we received (rather than seeing feedback as providing us with helpful and hopeful positive tools forward to achieve better grades in the future).  In short, despite all the feedback given, students tend to see and internalize their grades first, and, because first impressions lead to lasting impressions, feedback often falls short in producing improvements in learning for future assessments.  Too often, the grades on feedback crystalize into final exam grades, too.

In contrast, "feedforward" focus on the future.  It takes the work of today and provides insights, comments, and tips framed in a communicative, generative way that leads to improvement in the future. It is forward looking; never backward looking.  Feedforward believes in the future - a bright future - and provides particular ways for our students to move forward towards that future of improvements in their learning.

So, what is "feedforward?"

Simply put, it's coaching students about their current performance with heart-felt questions and insights that get our students thinking for themselves about how they can improve their learning for the future.  

Curious? Rather than going through the six steps in providing helpful "feedforward" to our students, let me just point me to you the steps as cited by Jennifer Gonzalez in her blog article about "Feedforward," available at:  https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/feedforward/.  

And, one last thought...

As academic support professionals, this month is a great opportunity.  In particular, nothing really needs to be "final" about final exams.  That's because we can provide our students with opportunities to receive positive "feedforward" well before final exams - via practice exams, exam writing workshops, academic support small group tutoring sessions, etc. - such that our students will learn to improve well before they take their final exams.  Indeed, the key to a great final exam experience is to have great "feedforward" experiences on the way to taking final exams.  So cheers to the future - our students futures! (Scott Johns).

November 8, 2018 in Advice, Bar Exam Preparation, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Learning Styles, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 5, 2018

Recall Your Purpose for the Finals Push

The wind is gently blowing while the sun rises over the horizon.  A cool morning inviting everyone to enjoy the sunrise with a nice run.  Many dream of the excitement of running another race, feeling healthy, or being outside.  I am not one of those people.  Mornings are meant for sleeping.  Running is only useful for competitive sports or survival, and I am long past my competitive sports prime.

While I don’t want to run races, especially long distance races, I do run for about half the year.  For the past 3 years, I trained for and ran in the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon Relay from November to April.  I ran the 5k portion my first year and a 10k leg last year.  I plan to run the 12k leg this year.  I reluctantly started training a couple weeks ago and will continue until the end of April again.  I don’t like to run, but I am doing it.

I never enjoyed running in itself, so why would I put myself through the rigor?  The answer is the purpose for the run.  I was only 5 miles away on a middle school soccer field when the bomb exploded.  The explosion and smoke seemed to be around the corner.  No one knew what happened yet.

The bombing was surreal.  I watched the events unfold on a CRT TV on a rolling cart in English class.  My mom called my school to let me know she was ok because she worked across the street from the Murrah Building on the non-blast side.  I know numerous people who lost family in the bombing.  One of the staging areas for first responders was the original Oklahoma High School, which is the building OCU School of Law moved into a few years ago.  The bombing affected nearly everyone in OKC, so my purpose is more important than my disdain for running.

Passion and purpose are critical to success in law school and the practice of law.  Many people talk about grit, but some forget the passion aspect.  Dr. Angela Duckworth’s book titled Grit explicitly states passion is a large piece to overcoming adversity.  Perseverance without passion is unsustainable.  Having a purpose is what helps us continue through the roadblocks.

Recalling why you want to be an attorney is critical during law school, especially near finals.  You need to keep reading your assignments each day, but you should also start preparing for finals.  1Ls probably had a large memo or brief due recently.  2Ls have more classes and may even be working.  They are overwhelmed.  Pure perseverance may have sustained you up to now, but you probably need a recharge to push through November.  When getting the work done seems tough or when you feel like there is too much to accomplish, sit back for 5 minutes to think about why you want to become an attorney.  Are you in law school to help the underserved?  Do you want to fight injustice?  Do you want to change the trajectory of your own life?  Be specific to why you are in law school.

Know why you are putting yourself through the rigor of law school.  Seeing progress towards the end goal can make the pain worth it.  I don’t like running in my neighborhood, probably the only neighborhood in OKC with hills, but the pain is worth it knowing the cause I run for.  The rigor of law school is also worth it if you know what you can do when you are an attorney.  Now is the time to remember it to make that final push through finals!

(Steven Foster)

November 5, 2018 in Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 29, 2018

Time for Hot Chocolate and Completed Outlines

The leaves are changing and falling.  For some, the weather is beautiful.  The crisp air makes many want to cuddle up by the fire with hot chocolate and read a fully completed Con Law outline.  Well, maybe not the outline part.

All joking aside, now is the time to evaluate your preparedness for finals.  The semester flew by, and for most, finals are 4-5 weeks away.  You still have classes for 3 weeks, so you don’t get unlimited study time.  Analyzing how prepared you are right now and planning for November is critical.

First, check your reading progress.  Are you still completing all your class readings?  If not, put reading back on your daily schedule.  Your professors will test material from the last few weeks of class.  If my memory is correct, which is debatable, over half of my classes had material on the final exam from the very last day of instruction.  Every day matters, so get back on track reading for each class.

Next, check your outlines.  My advice is to complete outlines before reading week.  I know many students wait until reading week to finish, but reading week is too late.  Working on outlines that week means you aren’t doing practice questions, reviewing the material in depth, or talking with professors about confusing topics.  Reading week is most useful for in-depth preparation, not finishing outlines.

Create a plan to finish outlines before Thanksgiving.  Look at where you are now with outlines and determine how much time you need to get them up to date.  Write down what must happen prior to reading week, which is normally right after Thanksgiving.  A good plan is to have outlines up to date before eating turkey and dressing.  You will be both better prepared and less stressed out while quietly dozing off to the Lion’s game.

Lastly, analyze your progress on practice questions.  Have you completed questions in each of your classes?  Have you completed CALI lessons or multiple choice questions?  Have you sought feedback on your answers?  Make sure to schedule time during November to both write answers and meet with professors for feedback, especially if you haven’t completed questions yet.  Feedback is critical to improvement.  Professors want to meet with students to help them improve.

The semester is almost over.  Now is the time to evaluate where you are and create your plan for November.  Enjoy the weather, crisp air, and completed class outlines.

(Steven Foster)

October 29, 2018 in Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Rabbit Trails and Exam Writing - A Concrete Tip to Improve Exam Analysis

My dog loves rabbit trails.  Luckily for the rabbits, at least thus far, the trails have never led to rabbits.  

That got me thinking about exam writing and rabbit trails.  

But first, a bit of background...

I find that most bar exam takers who do not pass the bar exam write brilliantly well-organized professional essay answers.  The rules are crisp; the IRAC is polished.  But, in most cases, some of the answers are unresponsive to the fact patterns at hand.  In other words, its as though the fact patterns were irrelevant to answering some of the particular essay questions.  Instead of finding the "rabbits" in the essays, they followed "rabbit trails" leading to no where. And, it's often that way on law school exams too.

Take this summer's first essay question on the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE), available free-of-charge at https://www.ncbex.org/July2018Essays.  

The fact problem was set in the world of constitutional law.  As specified in the fact problem, the essay expressly indicated that US Supreme Court had recently found that Congress was within its power under the interstate commerce clause (ICC) to punish marijuana use.  On the other hand, the fact problem indicated that a number of states were (and have) legalized marijuana use both for medicinal purposes and recreational purposes. 

Frustrated by state decriminalization of marijuana, the fact pattern specified that Congress enacted a federal drug abuse prevention statute.  Pertinent to the essay problem, one section of the statute required state law enforcement officers to investigate whether anyone within their custody, even on matters unrelated to controlled substance violations, was under the influence of marijuana and then make reports to the federal government.  The other section of the statute, as specified in the fact pattern, provided that Congress would restrict federal law enforcement grants to states which decriminalized marijuana use.  The fact pattern went on to indicate that a State had recently decriminalized marijuana use and would therefore be subject to a loss of approximately $10 million dollars in annual federal grant money out of a state budget of about $600 million total of state law enforcement spending.  Based on this fact pattern, bar exam applicants were told to analyze whether each of these two statutes were constitutional as applied to this particular state's situation.

Let's deal with the first statutory section - the federal requirement ordering state law enforcement officers to conduct investigations and make reports.  The key to figuring out where to go, i.e., to avoid the "rabbit trail," was to write out a good issue statement, perhaps as follows:

"The issue is whether Congress had constitutional authority when it requires state law enforcement officers to conduct investigations and make reports unrelated to state law enforcement purposes."  

In this fact pattern, there's no issue that Congress did not have the commerce clause power because the fact pattern foreclosed that issue, once and for all, with its initial recognition of US Supreme Court precedent specifying that Congress had the power to regulate marijuana use.  And, if Congress has the power to regulate marijuana use, it certainly has powers related to that under the "necessary and proper" clause.  So, the focus must be elsewhere in answering this problem.  As the issue statement makes clear, it's a federalism issue, namely, whether Congress can force states to do the work of the federal government.  That's a 10th Amendment issue.  In brief, Congress is limited in its ability to commandeer the states, which is precisely what this first section tries to do.  It's unconstitutional, at least in my reading of it.

Let's take on the second statutory section - the federal spending restriction of law enforcement grants towards states that decriminalize marijuana.  Once again, the key is to start with a sharp issue to avoid the "rabbit trails."  Here, we might write as follows:  

"The issue is whether Congress had constitutional authority when - as applied to the state at hand in this fact pattern - Congress cut off a federal law enforcement grant in the amount of $10 million out of a state budget of $600 million in state law enforcement spending."  

Do you see the issue?  It's lurking in the facts stated in the issue statement.  Once again, this is a federalism issue.  There's no issue that Congress can't spend money for the public welfare, particularly because the state in this fact pattern wants to receive the federal grant money.  Rather, the issue is whether these "strings" constitute commandeering of the states by Congress in violation of the 10th Amendment.  One could probably come out either way, but I think that the better answer based on Supreme Court precedent is that spending restrictions to encourage states to enact policies and law that comport with federal law are constitutional as long as states have a real choice as to whether to enact new favorable state laws to the federal government or give up the spending grants.  In this fact pattern, the amount of money that the state will lose as a result of decriminalization of marijuana is only a small percentage of the entire amount that the state spends on law enforcement, which means that the state has a real meaningful choice to take the federal grant and comply with federal objectives or to refuse the federal grant and still have significant state law enforcement funding.  It's constitutional, at least in my analysis.

Despite the fact that this essay problem was centered on federalism issues based on the 10th Amendment, a number of people talked about the commerce clause or equal protection concerns, neither of which were raised by the fact pattern.  I can understand why.  Bar takers have memorized so much law that they tend to put all of the law that they can think of without thinking through the problem first of all, especially because of the time pressures.  But, I have a tip that can help preempt that sort of "rule dump."  It's writing out an old-fashioned legal writing issue statement before beginning to write.

Here's what I mean by an old-fashioned issue statement.  As set out by Ruta Stropus and Charlotte Taylor in their book "Bridging the Gap Between College and Law School," a great issue statement can take on the form as follows:

"The issue is whether [legal subject-verb-object] + when + [material facts]."

Take a look back at my issue statements.  Do I start with the legal issue?  Do I have the legal actor as a noun, a verb, and the legal object, here, as to the unconstitutionality of congressional action?  Do I then add in a handful of hand-picked material facts from the fact pattern?  You bet.  In my own case, if I don't take time to work through crafting such an issue statement, I'm lost in most essay problems.  I just start writing in circles, moving around in "rabbit trails" so to speak, without really understanding the fact pattern at hand or the questions presented in the essay scenario.  In short, I ramble.  

So, whether you are a bar taker or a law student preparing for mid-term exams, take a pause before you begin to write out your essays.  Hunt for some "red hot" material facts to put down in paper as an issue statement.  After all, it's what lawyers do best; they spot issues, the precise issues that are needed for solving their clients' problems.  So, as you learn to think like a lawyer, practice like a lawyer too by taking time out to craft, identify, and precisely specify the exact issues posed in your midterms, final exams, or your bar exam essays.  It's worth the time.  Indeed, you'll be mighty glad because you'll find that you'll avoid the "rabbit trails" found on most essay exams and instead you'll be finding the rabbits themselves. (Scott Johns).

October 25, 2018 in Advice, Bar Exam Issues, Bar Exam Preparation, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

The Lawyerly Skill of Asking for Help

With apologies to T.S. Eliot, April is not the cruellest month -- October is, at least for first-year law students.  The first heady glow and excitement of arriving at law school has faded.  Many students experience the shock of no longer being straight-A students as legal writing and midterm grades roll in.  The workload steadily increases, as do professors' expectations.  For 1Ls who feel like they are barely treading water to keep up with class preparation, it seems downright oppressive to hear they should be adding practice problems, outlining, and other long-term study methods to their weekly schedule, not to mention attending professional events and polishing their resumes to apply for summer internships and externships.  Added into this evil brew can be depression, anxiety, substance abuse, loneliness, or any number of other reactions to stress. 

What's a 1L to do?  The first thing, as Dean Jarmon observed last week, is put aside perfectionism and instead focus on realistic goals.  Establish routines, whether you do so by sheer will power, calendaring, habit stacking as discussed by Professor Foster, using resolutions charts, or some other method. 

But what if, after all your diligent work, you still feel lost, or confused, or overwhelmed, or panicked?  What do you do?

Ask for help.

Many law students are reluctant to ask for help because they think it shows weakness.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Asking for help is a professional skill which good lawyers practice constantly.  An associate asks a partner for advice on how to handle a particular client.  A lawyer consults the clerk of the court in advance to ensure filings are done correctly.  An experienced lawyer calls bar counsel for advice when a thorny ethical issue emerges.  A lawyer who recognizes that anxiety disorder is affecting her/his performance gets in touch with the state's Lawyer Assistance Program.  All of these are everyday examples of lawyers asking for help.  Appropriately asking for help sends the message, "I care enough about this to spend time learning to do it the best way I can, and I value your expertise."  

If you are experiencing a mental health or substance use crisis, ask for help as soon as you realize you have a problem.   While you can go straight to your institution's counseling center or your state's Lawyer Assistance Program, it is also appropriate to talk with any trusted person at your law school.  Not only do they know you personally, but many faculty and staff have taken Mental Health First Aid training and are equipped to assist you.  Likewise, talk with someone immediately if illness, injury, or major family issues have affected or may affect your ability to do the work of a law student.  You will get not only a sympathetic ear but also practical suggestions.

Be just as professional in asking for help as you are in other aspects of law school life.  Figure out what you need and frame your request narrowly.  Professors don't react well to a student coming into office hours saying, "I don't get torts," but they will gladly work with you if you narrow your problem to "I've gone over the casebook and the CALI lessons, but I'm still confused about the causation rules involving multiple actors." In particular, your academic support professor is an invaluable resource to help you balance the academic demands of law school with the equally compelling demands of being a whole human being.

Most faculty and staff are not only willing but happy to help you if you are respectful of them and the demands on their time.  But one circumstance bears special mention -- what we call "forum shopping" at my law school.  Forum shopping occurs when a student asks one faculty or staff member for help but doesn't like the advice s/he receives.  Without telling anyone that s/he asked another person first, the student then asks the identical question to a second person, and sometimes a third and a fourth.  Forum shopping shows an extreme lack of respect for faculty and staff.  Not only does the first person feel disrespected, but subsequent helpers can waste hours of time starting from ground zero when they don't know what guidance you've already received.  Don't be afraid to seek multiple perspectives -- just let everyone know who you've asked and what advice you received. 

 Finally, don't forget to thank people for the help they've given you.  This, too, is a mark of professionalism.  (Nancy Luebbert)  

October 25, 2018 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 22, 2018

Habit Stacking to Create Lasting Change

Have you ever decided to eat healthy, exercise, or do some other generally good action only to fail within a few days?  If not, then you are awesome and can go back to studying.  However, if you are like me, then you struggle to create new habits.  I resolve to eat healthy and not drink Dr. Pepper every Sunday night, but by Monday around 1:30, I eat whatever I have time for and drink a Dr. Pepper.  Forming new habits is hard, but the simple trick of habit stacking may be able to help.

Habits form and continue based on cues.  Some people smell donuts or see a Starbucks and immediately crave the item.  Everyone has tons of habits we go through each day to automate our lives.  Habits make life manageable.  As law students, studying becomes a habit.  Studying in a particular spot at a particular time is a habit.  The spot could be a comfy couch with electronic distractions everywhere or a quality desk with no noise.  The goal is to create study cues that can help with focus, concentration, and understanding.

James Clear has great resources for creating habits at https://jamesclear.com/articles.  I plan to try to implement his habit stacking idea and encourage students to attempt it as well.  Habit stacking is a way to form new habits.  He says to make a list of current habits.  I would encourage students to make a list of current study habits.  List when, where, how long, and anything that triggers studying.  I would also suggest students create a list of desired study habits.  The key is to write it down to help plan the habit stacking.

The next step in habit stacking is to link desired habits with ones already occurring.  If I know that I heat up my lunch every day at the microwave, I can then use the microwave as a cue to refill my water bottle or use the Kuerig next to the microwave to make tea.  The idea is to attach the new activity to one already on autopilot.  The new habit is easier to maintain when it is next in line of a string of tasks.  You can also insert new habits between two existing ones.  Habit stacks can make new activities or choices easier to maintain.

For students, I suggest a handful of activities for you to consider for habit stacks.  My suggestions assume you are setting aside enough time to read and understand the material.  After reading, write down the 3 biggest takeaways.  Explain how the reading relates to previous material and draft 2-3 questions for class.  Do that prior to closing the casebook.  After writing that last question, then close the book.  Closing the book is a cue homework is finished, so add in the thinking exercise prior to that cue. 

Pre-reading activities are good habits to form.  After sitting down to study, open the book, and then write down what you think the reading will be about.  Write down any questions from the previous reading and class.  After that, start reading.  Opening the book is an existing cue to start working.  Sandwiching pre-reading between opening the book and starting the reading will build that habit.

Reviewing after class is a good stacking exercise.  Once class is over, many students close their book and leave class.  My suggestion is to stay seated and leave your book open.  Write down the main takeaways and any questions or confusing topics from class.  Also, write down where in the outline or big picture of the class you think this fits.  Finally, close your book after writing everything down.

Lastly, consider where to stack practice questions and/or quizzes.  Find time immediately after dinner or between 2 other activities where quizzing, CALI lessons, or other assessments will fit.  It could be get to class, open your laptop, and complete a quick quiz.  Anything that helps stack the habit.

Creating new habits is difficult, but connecting the new habit to something you already do could make small changes that have big impacts.

(Steven Foster)

October 22, 2018 in Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Are you being sabotaged by perfectionism?

A perfectionism epidemic has broken out at most law schools across the country. It is the time in the semester when many students spin their wheels in studying because perfectionism has them in its grip. First-year students suffer acutely; but upper-division students are not immune. 

The symptoms may vary, but the underlying perfectionism is there. Here are some of the symptoms I see regularly:

  • Spending an exorbitant amount of time preparing for class because "I don't understand every bit of every case yet."
  • Copying large chunks of case language into a case brief because "I may not state it as well as the judicial opinion."
  • Getting less than 6 (in some cases way less) hours of sleep each night because "I haven't finished everything to the standard I want."
  • Feeling paralyzed about starting course outlines because "I have never outlined before and may get it wrong."
  • Filling tome-like outlines with total trivia because "I may leave out something important."
  • Avoiding practice questions because "I don't know everything yet."
  • Abandoning completion of practice questions because "I didn't get them all right."
  • Despairing over an average grade on a quiz because "I should have gotten an A."
  • Continuing to research after the exact same sources are found because "There may be something out there that I missed."
  • Procrastinating because "It won't be perfect and starting late gives me an excuse for it being less than perfect."

Perfectionism makes people miserable. No human will ever be perfect. Our students come with histories of success: high grades; superb recommendations; trophies; accolades for A-Z. Many of them have minimum experience with being less than perfect (or at least appearing perfect). Consequently, it is hard to settle for excellent or very good instead of perfect.

One of my law professors warned me my first semester of law school that I would never feel that I had done everything that could be done. There would always be one more case I could read, one more edit of a draft I could do, one more practice problem I could complete, one more study aid I could check, and so forth. He warned that perfect was not the goal - the best I could do under the circumstances for that day was all I could ask of myself.

He was right - not only about law school, but also about legal practice. We could spend 24/7 and still feel as though there was more we could do.

We need to put aside perfectionism before it gives us sleepless nights, ulcers, migraine headaches, and more physical souvenirs. We need to refuse perfectionism's cocktail of shame, guilt, worry, frustration, and depression.

So, let's embrace accomplishing what we can to our best ability today under today's circumstances:

  • Set a realistic number of goals for today.
  • Prioritize those goals as very important, important, least important and finish them accordingly.
  • Set a realistic time allotment for each goal and stick to it rather than push for perfect.
  • Recognize today's circumstances and work realistically within them: deadlines, appointments, personal illness, etc.
  • Refuse to equate your human imperfections with failure.
  • Make a new "to do" list for tomorrow and realize tomorrow is another day to do your best.
  • Get a good night's sleep: you will be more alert, focused, and productive for tomorrow's tasks.

(Amy Jarmon)

October 20, 2018 in Miscellany, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Threats and Challenges in Law School

Final exams.  Olympic competition.  Oral argument.  Job interviews.  The bar examination.  These are all high-stakes experiences, often competitive, in which successful outcomes depend on strong performance.  As discussed last week, in such situations the human brain can adopt different chemical and behavioral states, depending on whether the situation is perceived as a threat or as a challenge.  In a threat situation, the brain becomes hyper-alert to danger and error, processes information more deliberately, and shies away from risk.  In a challenge situation, the brain pays less attention to detail, processes information in a more relaxed and automatic way, and is open to taking risks that have sufficient promise of reward.  How can we use our knowledge of these two mental states, not just to understand our students better, but also to help them do better?

Let's start by noting that the brain can enter these different states at different times even if it is undertaking the exact same activity.  A baseball player might step up to the plate in the third inning and see his task -- to try to get a hit -- as a challenge, and the same player could step to the same plate, even holding the same baseball bat, in the ninth inning and see it as a threat.  So it's not the task itself that determines our mental state.  It's the surrounding circumstances.  Early in the game, when the outcome is still up in the air, a player may be "gain-oriented", focusing on accruing advantages (in this case, runs), and his brain will be in challenge mode.  In the last inning, though, if his team has a slim lead, that same player could shift his focus and become "prevention-oriented", focusing on maintaining his team's lead by not making mistakes of which the other team might take advantage.  In that case, his brain will be in threat mode.

In the same way, our students can undertake the same activity -- issue spotting, say, or answering multiple-choice questions -- at different times, and might find themselves in either challenge mode or threat mode.  This is a good thing, a useful thing.  After all, human brains evolved to be capable of these two modes, so each mode ought to have some beneficial qualities.

As Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman point out in Top Dog, in an academic setting there can be an optimal sequencing to these modes.  Students perform best if they start their semester working in challenge mode and end it working in threat mode. 

This makes sense in a general way.  At the beginning of a course, students don't know much about the subject, and their goal should be to try to gain knowledge and skill as quickly as possible.  A gain orientation is associated with challenge mode -- the brain plays hunches and takes educated guesses, because the risk (primarily, to grades) is low but the potential reward (flashes of insight) is high.  Towards the end of the course, though, risk increases, as the student faces more heavily weighted final exams.  At the same time, rewards are lessened, since (ideally) the student has already internalized most of the material and is not likely to learn a great deal more.  On a final exam, a student is more likely to be in threat mode -- pondering the answer more slowly and cautiously, less inclined to make risky arguments, perhaps even debating word choice as he tries to recall the exact wording of a rule.

If a student is well-prepared for the final exam, proceeding cautiously with their mind in threat mode may be quite favorable.  It can encourage methodical analysis, and help the student avoid unnecessary errors.  However, there are two potential issues to consider.

First, as alluded to above, there are two sources of risk and reward in law school.  One is the knowledge and understanding of the subject matter, and the other is the final grade in the class.  A student who downplays either source is at a disadvantage.  Reminding students to pay attention to learning the rules and how to use them, and to developing their test-taking skills at the same time, is part of what Academic Success is about.  Being able to describe these abilities as complementary sources of risk and reward may provide us with another way of doing that.

Second, while being in threat mode may help a student avoid errors, they still may not perform well if they only enter threat mode for the first time in the final exam.  Since threat mode slows analysis and limits the options the brain is willing to consider, it can change the way people behave during exams.  We have doubtless all had students who felt confident in a subject all semester and then did poorly on their final, later explaining that they thought of some of the correct responses but abandoned them because they were afraid they might be wrong, and that they spent so much time working on the first half of the exam that they didn't have time to complete the second half.  While there are several plausible explanations for such mistakes, one possibility for them to consider is that they had never practiced answering questions in that course in threat mode.  If all of their practice was under the speedier, more relaxed challenge mode, then they had never really practiced under exam conditions.

Ideally, humans would have a switch we could activate to shift from challenge mode to threat mode and back.  But, while we don't, it is nevertheless possible for professors to influence students and help shift them into threat mode.  As Bronson and Merryman explain, teachers can affect their students' brains just by changing the way they present their examinations.  If students are given a test and told that they will receive a certain number of points for every correct answer, then they focus more on the idea of gaining points, which encourages a gain orientation and thus a challenge mode.  If, on the other hand, students are given a test and told that their scores start at 100 and that they will lose a certain number of points for every correct answer, then they focus more on not losing points, which encourages a prevention orientation and a threat mode.  Even though mathematically the two scoring systems were identical, the differences in presentation caused measurable differences in performance.

Thus, one way to encourage our students to practice for final exams (and oral arguments, bar exams, etc.) in threat mode is to explain, in advance, that you will be scoring their practice work by subtracting points from a pre-determined maximum score.  Conversely, students who fall into threat mode too early in the semester, perhaps because they are disproportionately worried about grade risk, might be coaxed towards challenge mode by being given exercises for which they will receive a certain number of points for every plausible point or argument.  Even though the tasks the students are undertaking remain the same, we can help their brains approach them differently.

October 16, 2018 in Advice, Bar Exam Preparation, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Science, Study Tips - General, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Tips for Turning Bar Exam Sorrow Into A Successful Fresh Start

It's that time of year.  In the midst of many celebrations over bar passage, let's be frank.  

There are many that are not celebrating.  Their names were not on the list of bar exam passers.  And, for some, it's not the first time that they've found themselves in this situation; it's a repeat of the last time around.

For aspiring attorneys that did not pass the bar exam, most don't know where to turn.  Often embarrassed, many with significant debt loads, most feel abandoned by their schools, their friends, and their colleagues.  All alone.  

I'm not expert in helping with turnarounds. But, I'd like to offer a few tips that have proven quite helpful in helping repeaters change history to become "fresh start" bar passers:

First, as academic support professionals, reach out to each one.  Make yourself available on their terms.  Let them know that you care.  Let them know that you are mighty proud of them, success or not.  Support them, one and all.

Second, give them breathing room, lot's of time and space to grieve.  Don't push them into diving back into the books.  Don't lecture them.  Rather, assure them that they don't need to get cranking on their studies.  Help them to be kind to themselves.  It's not a matter of just hitting the books again, and this time, doubly-hard.  Instead, they need to take time out to just be themselves.

Third, when they are ready, set up a "one-with-one."  Notice: I did not call it a "one-to-one".  Rather, set up an appointment or meeting in a place of their choosing at a time that works for them in which you sit side by side, on the same side of the table or desk or cafe.  They are not bar exam failures; they are real law school graduates.  They earned their parchments. So, listen to them as colleagues on the same side of doing battle on the bar exam.  Let them talk and express themselves as they'd like. Hear them out.  How are they feeling?  What went right?  What's their passion?  What saddens their hearts?  

Finally, whey they are ready, make a copy of one of the essay problems that didn't go so well.  Better yet, make two copies, one for each of you!  That's because you are on the same team.  Set aside 15 or 20 minutes and just ask them to mark up the question, brainstorm what they are thinking, and jot down the issues that they see.  But...and this is important...tell them that you don't expect them to remember any law at all. Period.  And, you do the same.  Exactly the same.  Don't peek at an answer key or even their answer. Instead, try your hand too; wrestle with the same question that they are wrestling with.  Then, come back together to listen, ponder, and share what you both see as the plot of the essay question, the issues raised by the storylines, and the potential rules that might be in play.  Once you've done all this prep work together, now, look at their answer.  This is important, just look.  Ask them what do they see? What do they observe? What went great for them? Where might they improve?  In short, let them see that they have "inside information" about themselves based on their own personal bar exam experience and answers that they can capitalize to their advantage.  Most often in the midst of working together, graduates tell me that they realize that they knew plenty of law to pass the bar exam.  In fact, most are amazed at how well they memorized the law.  And, that's great news because it means that they don't need to redo the bar review lectures at all.  They know plenty of law.  That frees up lots of time during the bar prep season to instead concentrate on just two (2) active learning tasks.

So, here are the two activities that bar re-takers should be prioritizing to successful pass the bar exam:

1. First, they should work daily throughout the bar study period through lots and lots of practice problems (essays and MBE questions).  Every one that they can get their hands on.  Open book is fine.  It's even better than fine; it's perfect because they should be practicing problems to learn because we don't get better at problem-solving by guessing.

2. Second, they should keep a daily "journal" of the issues and rules that they missed when working over problems (to include tips about the analysis of those rules).  

Just two steps.  That's it.  There's no magic.  But, in not redoing the lectures, graduates will find that they have plenty of time to concentrate on what is really important - learning by doing through active reflective daily practice.  Countless times, it's through this process of a "one-with-one" meeting that we have seen repeaters turn themselves into "fresh start" bar passers.  

Finally, I want to write directly to those of you who find yourself in the situation of having to re-take the bar exam.  You really aren't alone.  Need proof?  Here's a short video clip put together by the Colorado Supreme Court about re-taking the bar exam to include a few tips from some jurists and practitioners that have been in your shoes.  (Scott Johns)

 

October 11, 2018 in Advice, Bar Exam Issues, Bar Exam Preparation, Bar Exams, Encouragement & Inspiration, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, October 4, 2018

The Key to that "Peaceful Easy Feeling"

As reported in a Wall Street Journal essay by author Nicholas Carr, if you have a smart phone, you'll likely be "consulting the glossy little rectangle nearly 30,000 times over the coming year."[1]  Most of us seem to think that is not a problem at all, at least based on our actions.

That’s certainty true of me.  I depend on my smart phone, nearly all of the time.  It’s with me everywhere.  To be honest, it’s not just a telephone to me.  It’s my mailbox, my knowledge bank, my social facilitator and companion, my navigator, my weather channel, my bookshelf, my news outlet, my alarm clock, and my entertainer, just to name a few of the wonderful conveniences of this remarkable handheld technology. 

But, here’s the rub. As outlined by Mr. Carr, there are numerous research studies indicating that smart phones, while often times beneficial to us, can also at times be harmful to our intellectual life, our communication and interpersonal skills, and perhaps even our own emotional and bodily health.[2] 

First, Mr. Carr cites to a California study that suggests that the mere physical presence of smart phones hampers our intellectual problem-solving abilities.[3] In the study of 520 undergraduate students, researchers analyzed student problem-solving abilities based on smart phone proximity. The researchers divided students into three classroom settings based on phone proximity while watching a lecture and then taking an exam.  In one classroom, students placed their phones in front of them during the lecture and the subsequent exam.  In another classroom, students stowed their phones in purses and backpacks, etc., so that students were prevented from having immediate phone access during both the lecture and the subsequent exam (i.e., sort of an "out-of-sight-out-of-mind" approach).  In the last classroom, students were required to leave their phones in a different room from the lecture classroom.  Interestingly, nearly all students reported that the proximity of their phones did not compromise their attention, learning, or exam performance.  But, test results indicated otherwise.  The researchers found that exam performance was inversely correlated with smart phone proximity.  Students with phones on their desks performed the worst while students with phones in another room performance the best. Surprisingly, however, just having a smart phone stowed nearby detracted from exam performance too.  Apparently, just the knowledge that our smart phones are readily available negatively impacts our problem-solving abilities. In other words, to perform our intellectual best as lawyers and law students, smart phones need to be - not just out of sight - but well beyond our grasps whenever we are engaged in intellectual tasks on behalf of our clients because problem-solving appears to be compromised just by the presence of our smart phones.

Second, Mr. Carr cites to a study where researchers found that smart phone proximity is harmful to face-to-face communication and interpersonal skills.[4] In this United Kingdom study, researches divided people into pairs and asked them to have a 10-minute conversation.  Some pairs of conversationalists were placed into a room in which there was a phone present.  The other pairs were placed in rooms in which there were no phones present.  The participants were then given tests to measure the depth of the conversation experienced based on measures of affinity, trust, and empathy.  Researchers found that the mere presence of cellphones in the conversational setting harmed human relationships and interpersonal skills such as empathy, closeness, and trust, and the results were most harmful when the topics discussed were personally meaningful.  In sum, smart phone proximity can negatively impact our interpersonal social communication skills, important skills for law students and attorneys to attend to and strengthen in order to better serve our clients and the public.

Third, Mr. Carr references a study substanting that smart phones can negatively impact our emotional and physical well-being.[5]  In this study out of large US university, researchers evaluated the impact of the presence of smart phones in self-identity, cognitive abilities, emotional anxiety, and physiology by having participants work on word puzzles while measuring blood pressure and pulse correlated with self-reported survey results on anxiety levels and emotional well-being based on a state of pleasantness. While solving word puzzles, researchers at times would remove phones from the presence of the subjects while on other occasions researchers would ring the phones of the subjects.  The results are startling.  Blood pressure rises, pulse quickens, anxiety increases, sense of unpleasantness increases while cognitive abilities decline both when participants are removed from their phones and when they receive phone calls. In other words, we identify ourselves with our phones.  They have become extensions of ourselves, to such a large degree, that to be deprived of access to our phones or the use of our phones negatively impacts our well-being as human beings.  In short, we have allowed our phones to become part of us, to share in our feelings, such that we feel detached from ourselves when we are detached from our phones. In my own words, we feel alone (and indeed unalive) without our smart phones by oursides and in control of our lives. Or, to put it more simply, we can’t seem to live without our smart phones, and we can’t live with them too.

Plainly, that's a lot to think about.  And, with all of the conversations swirling around with respect to the beneficial and detrimental impacts of technology on our cognitive, emotional, and physiological beings, there is still much that is yet to be known.  But, I leave you with this thought. 

Recently, I had one of my best weekend ever.  But, it didn’t start out grand at all.  In fact, the weekend begain like most of my weekends, busy, so busy that I neglected to check my pockets before washing my jeans.  In my haste, I washed my smart phone too.  Now horribly drenched, my phone was lifeless.  Comletely dead.  Stlll. At first, I was speechless. But, oh what I weekend I then experienced.  Freed from my smart phone, I slowly began to relax. I started to connect to real people in real relationships and with real things. No phone calls and no buzzing emails or texts to interpret life’s relationships. I have to admit; it was one of the most best days of my life.  Because of that experience, I now try to take one day per week free from my smart phone.  Life can indeed be sweet to our souls, bodies, and minds without the constant intervention of our phones.  And, better yet, life can be even sweeter for those around us too.  So, feel free to join me in taking meaningful smart phone respites.  The more the better.  (Scott Johns)

[1]Nicholas Carr, How Smart Phones Hijack Our Brains, Wall Street Journal, Oct 7, 2017.

[2]Mr. Carr references numerous research articles, several of which are discussed in this article.

[3]Adrian F. Ward, Kristen Duke, Ayelet Gneezy, and Maarten W. Bos, Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity, Journal of the Association for Consumer Research 2, no. 2 (April 2017): 140-154, https://doi.org/10.1086/691462.

[4]Andrew K. Przybylski, and Netta Weinstein, Can you connect with me now? How the presence of mobile communication technology influences face-to-face conversation quality, Journal of Social and Personal Relationships (2012), https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407512453827.

[5]Russell B. Clayton, Glenn Leshner, Anthony Almond; The Extended iSelf: The Impact of iPhone Separation on Cognition, Emotion, and Physiology, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, Volume 20, Issue 2 (2015), 119-135, https://doi.org/10.1111/jcc4.12109.

October 4, 2018 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Learning Styles, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Getting Unstuck

 

We all get "stuck" sometimes.  Whether you call it writer's block, perfection paralysis, or another name, you're in the grip of it when you've spent hours or days on a project with precious little to show for it --except, perhaps, some record-setting times in online games.  1Ls get bogged down with legal writing assignments and outlines; upper-division students get stuck on moot court briefs or law review articles; lawyers and faculty can grind to a halt on briefs, memos, papers, or any of the myriad of projects we tackle.

How do you get unstuck?   Everyone must find their own approach, but these ideas can help:

  • Recognize that you are stuck.  Be honest, but gentle, with yourself.  "Hmm, I don't seem to be getting anywhere; I must be stuck again" acknowledges your paralysis as a fact without any negative judgment.  On the other hand, "What's wrong with me?  I always sabotage myself.  I'm a failure" can slow you down even further as your writer's block becomes an occasion for beating yourself up over anything you've ever done less than perfectly.  Practice being as nice to yourself as you are to others.
  • Stop digging.  The saying "If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging" is attributed to everyone from Will Rogers to Warren Buffett, but whatever the source it contains a lot of wisdom.  Once you recognize you're stuck, change what you're doing.  Whether it's checking Instagram or playing FreeCell or merely staring blankly at a screen, stop!  Close the tab or the app; shut down your computer/tablet/phone if that's what it takes.  Don't succumb to "just a minute more" thinking.
  • Break the cycle by doing something physical for a few minutes.  Walk upstairs or around the block.  Do some crunches, jumps, power poses -- whatever makes you feel good and gets some oxygenated blood flowing back into your system.
  • Try tackling your project in a more physical way.  Drafting your writing in longhand can help.
  • Try freewriting.  Set your timer for five to ten minutes and write without stopping, even if at first all you can put on the page is "I have absolutely no idea what to say."  Don't edit, correct, or ponder -- just write.  The actual physical act of writing without stopping somehow breaks the cycle of self-criticism that gets in the way of generating ideas and flow.  Although 95% of what you produce during this period will be end up on the cutting room floor, freewriting not only unblocks barriers but often results in choice insights that you can use in your finished product. 
  • When you are back in the flow, write first and revise only afterwards.  The curse of computers and their progeny is they encourage us to proof, edit, and revise from the start, which gets in the way of creating a coherent draft incorporating all our ideas.  Try writing out your entire piece in rough form first to get your ideas out on paper, then revise for spelling, grammar, flow, and sense.
  • Create something and let it go.  Learn when you need perfection (rarely) and when you are best served by producing something that is merely good.
  • Did I mention being gentle with yourself?  Getting stuck is part of the human condition.  Resolving the problem calmly is part of the lawyer's toolbox.  (Nancy Luebbert)

 

October 3, 2018 in Advice, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 1, 2018

Legal Analysis is a Skill to Perpetually Shape

The book Building a Better Teacher confronts the myth of natural born teachers.  Some early researchers in the academy thought some teachers just had “it”, and poor performing teachers lacked innate ability.  The book proceeds to explain how teaching is like any other skill and can be improved.  Our students need to understand that not only is teaching them a skill, taking our exams and demonstrating legal analysis is a skill to hone as well.

Most of us talk ad nauseam about growth mindset to our students, and many of them understand the basic idea.  They can logically understand throwing a baseball can be improved and working out builds muscles.  However, too many students forget that logic when thinking about cognition and her/his law school experience.  I hear students say “I am just a bad test taker” or “I can’t do multiple choice questions” every week.  Law school grade curves perpetuate this internal dialogue, and unfortunately, we don’t get to help as many students because of these thoughts.  Our communication with students needs to bridge the gap and help students understand cognition and legal analysis is a skill.

One of the steps from ASPers is to communicate previous success stories.  We can illustrate improvement with before and after practice problems where a student took a test, received feedback, and improved with the next practice problem.  Personalized stories either from us or former students can help stimulate growth.  We don’t want to promise results, but hearing about other students overcoming a bad exam or LSAT can plant the seed that improvement is possible.

For students, you all should start treating legal analysis and cognition as a lump of clay.  Left alone, the clay will stay the same shape and end up less useful than if molded.  Molding clay into a pot takes time, effort, and precision.  Every touch impacts the whole pot.  Practice problems with feedback produce the same effects.  Timing a question, spotting issues, writing the answer, and seeking feedback will not only help learn the law but also determine where to improve.  Your legal analysis shape changes a little.  More practice with feedback molds legal analysis even more and starts to produce the desired pot.

Legal analysis develops every day from now until retirement.  Every brief, motion, or argument changes the advocate’s skill.  Don’t let your legal analysis clay stay stagnate during a semester.  Start now writing out at least 1 essay answer each week.  Seek feedback to mold your skill, and then, take another question.  Issue spot and outline a couple more essays in each subject.  With approximately 8 weeks left for most students, practice now can have remarkable impacts on exam performance.

Nothing in the law is static, including our legal analysis skills.  All of us in ASP should continually communicate how improvement is possible, and students need to start molding their professional skills now with practice and feedback.

(Steven Foster)

October 1, 2018 in Study Tips - General, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 27, 2018

The Window of Knowledge vs. The Window of Experience: Learning Takes Seeing Out of Both Windows!

While recently hiking through a wildlife sanctuary, I came across this wooden facade of a building, and it got me stopped right in my tracks.

 You see, I was hiking so fast that I wasn't really seeing the beauty of nature all around me.  

I sometimes wonder if that's true of law school life too.  We tend to spend so much time reading cases and regurgitating notes that we don't often see the big picture purpose behind it all.  But, the goal of legal education is not to be an expert in all of the finer details of the cases but rather to build a legal "window" of experiences from which we can solve legal problems on midterm and final exams (and provide our future clients with wise counsel too).

So, with many law students facing upcoming midterms, now's the time for our students to grab hold of past exams and get out of the "books" to experience and try their own hands at working through hypothetical legal problems.  In short, as students walk through the materials students also need to stop and take in the view.  In my view, that's because learning requires both the so-called "book learning" along with heavy doses of experiential learning, particularly in working through hypotheticals.  As a helpful reminder - that the windows we look through influence what we learn - here's the photo of the facade that I found so encouraging in helping me focus on the big picture learning.  (Scott Johns).

IMG_0430

September 27, 2018 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Learning Styles, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 20, 2018

The Lowest in Years - The July 2018 MBE (and a Call to ASP Action!)

According to the American Bar Association (ABA), citing to Law.com and TaxProfBlog editor Dean Paul Caron, the national average score on the MBE multiple-choice portion of the July bar exam dropped to its lowest level in 34 years.  https://www.abajournal.com; https://www.law.com;  https://taxprof.typepad.com.  The National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) reports that the July 2018 MBE average score was just 139.5, while for the July 1984 exam, Law.com reports that the MBE average score was likewise low at 139.21.  https://www.ncbex.org/newshttps://www.law.com.

In an article by Law.com, the President of the NCBE - Judith Gundersen - is quoted as saying that "they [this summer's lower MBE scores] are what would be expected given the number of applicants and LSAT 25th percentile means of the 2015 entering class." https://www.law.com. In other words, according to the NCBE, this summer's low score average is the result of law school admissions decisions based on the NCBE's appraisal of 25 percentile LSAT data for entering 2015 law students.

Nevertheless, despite the NCBE's claim, which was previously theorized by the NCBE back in 2015 (namely, that bar exam declines are related to LSAT declines), previous empirical research found a lack of empirical support for the NCBE's LSAT claim, albeit limited to one jurisdiction, one law school's population, and admittedly not updated to reflect this summer's bar exam results.  Testing the Testers

As an armchair statistician with a mathematics background, I am leery of one-size-fits-all empirical claims.  Life is complex and learning is nuanced.  Conceivably, there are many factors at play that might account for bar exam results in particular cases, with many factors not ascribable to pure mathematical calculus, such as the leaking roof in the middle of the first day of the Colorado bar exam.  https://www.abajournal.com/news/article/ceiling_leaks_pause_colorado_bar_exam.  

Here's just a few possible considerations:

• The increase to 25 experimental questions embedded within the set of 200 MBE multiple-choice questions (in comparison to previous test versions with only 10 experimental questions embedded).

• The addition of Federal Civil Procedure as a relatively recent MBE subject to the MBE's panoply of subjects tested.

• The apparent rising incidences of anxiety, depression, and learning disabilities found within law school populations and graduates.

• The economic barriers to securing bar exam testing accommodations despite longitudinal evidence of law school testing accommodations.

• The influence of social media, the internet age, and smart phones in impacting the learning environment.

• The difficulty in equating previous versions of bar exams with current versions of bar exams given changes in the exam instrument itself and the scope of subject matter tested.

• The relationship among experiential learning, doctrinal, and legal writing courses and bar exam outcomes.

• Etc....

Consequently, in my opinion, there's a great need (and a great opportunity) for law schools to collaborate with bar examiners to hypothesize, research, and evaluate what's really going on with the bar exam.  It might be the LSAT, as the NCBE claims.  But, most problems in life are much more complicated.  So, as a visual jumpstart to help law schools and bar examiners brainstorm possible solutions, here's a handy chart depicting the overall downward trend with respect to the past ten years of national MBE average scores.  (Scott Johns).

July National MBE Average Scores

September 20, 2018 in Bar Exam Issues, Bar Exam Preparation, Bar Exams, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Exams - Theory, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Using Flashcards to Outline

Starting outlines can be an intimidating process, especially for those who are not "born organized."  Using flashcards to construct outlines is a useful technique for those having trouble getting started, for kinesthetic and visual learners, and for anyone who has trouble organizing masses of complex material within the confines of a laptop computer screen.  This is also a useful technique when small study groups want to work together to construct an outline. 

Although outlining with flashcards can be time intensive and certainly doesn't work for all students, it has advantages for many students.  Like using a whiteboard to construct flowcharts and mind maps, using cards is highly visual and kinesthetic, so it involves the whole person in learning.  The learner doesn't have to start off being organized or understanding the material  -- rather, understanding and organization come from engaging in the process.  Unlike a whiteboard, cards allow for more detailed information and more permanence even while they allow for easily moving, manipulating, and deleting information.  And the same cards used for constructing the outline can also be used as flashcards for memory work and issue spotting.

Here's my recipe for starting to outline using the flashcard method.  Like any recipe, alter it to your own taste.

Ingredients: 

  • 3 X 5 cards, store-bought or homemade (Check your local dollar store for good deals. It may be cheaper to buy cardstock paper and cut to size.)
  • Pens, pencils, and highlighters in desired colors
  • Glue dots
  • Rubber bands
  • Source material -- case briefs, class notes, casebook
  • Room with a big table or tables (an empty classroom is ideal) or with big blank walls

Process. 

  • "Brain-dump."  On each card, handwrite one, and only one, piece of information.  That could be a concept, definition, major rule, subrule, element, policy, case holding, case facts, example, or hypothetical.  Handwriting is important here, because creating cards on a computer may bog you down in perfection paralysis  -- and perfectionism is the enemy of starting outlines in the first place.
  • Once you have brain-dumped, review each individual piece of information to make sure it is accurate.  Did you use the proper terminology?  Does a rule include all the elements in the proper order? 
  • Spread your cards out so you can see each individual card.  You can do this on any flat surface like a table, but many people find it easier to see and grasp the information if the cards are on a wall (glue dots are incredibly useful for this).  
  • Now start sorting your cards into rough groupings. For example, which rules and cases come under duty and which under breach? 
  • As you engage in working your way through the material, you will almost certainly think of more concepts, rules, definitions, and examples you didn't think of when you were starting out.  Great!  Create a new card for each of these and plug into the appropriate place.
  • Work your way from rough groupings into more formal relationships shown by outline format.  For instance, does this case illustrate a major rule or a subrule? 
  • Use this process to think your way systematically through the material and deeply engage with it.  Remember, relationships are not always obvious and might be logically placed in different places, but you want to find the best place.  For example, if you were analyzing some torts or crimes, would you treat lack of consent as an element, or would consent be an affirmative defense?   
  • Color code, number, or otherwise mark your cards to show the order between them.  It's handy to periodically take pictures of your cards as arranged on the wall to record your outline as a visual construct.  If you are working at home and have lots of room, you might keep the cards on the wall; if not, take down your cards in order and secure them with a rubber band. 
  • Revisit your outline often with the new understanding gained by working your way through hypotheticals and taking practice tests.  Are the concepts in the best order?  Are your rules accurate?  Are your examples helpful for understanding the concept?
  • The more you use the cards, the better you can understand the material on both a micro and macro level.  It's critical to periodically spread the cards out to get a visual sense of the whole organization of your subject.  In addition, you can use the cards as flashcards for memory or issue-spotting work. 

 (Nancy Luebbert)

September 19, 2018 in Advice, Learning Styles, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Great Expectations

There is nothing like undertaking a new exploit to help you establish an affinity with the 1L law students with whom you are working. Enlisting as a contributing editor to the Law School Academic Support Blog, for example, has for me provoked the mix of hopeful excitement and mystified apprehension that used to be just a fuzzy memory from my own first year of law school. Will I impress people favorably? Will I put my foot in my mouth? Suddenly I feel a fresh sense of empathy with the incoming class.

And this makes sense! How else would anybody feel upon realizing that they have voluntarily taken on a future of writing dozens or hundreds of essays in which they are expected to take a stance and justify it with a combination of facts, logic, judgment, history, inference, speculation, and the occasional appeal to emotion, and then presenting these essays to readers who are knowledgeable attorneys with high standards? Whether you are a law student or a law blog author, this can be an intimidating position.

Okay, I’m exaggerating. I am excited to have joined the Law School Academic Success Blog team, notwithstanding any qualms about performing on a new stage. But I have been reminded of my first few weeks in law school, and even a brief flash of empathy with our new law students has some value. It can build rapport. It can also help us find ways to exploit our own experiences for our students’ benefit.

In this case, as I considered writing for this blog, I realized that the greatest source of uncertainty, and thus anxiety, was not knowing the expectations of my readers. What topics do you want to read about? What kind of tone do you prefer? There is not much I can do to answer those questions, other than to write and wait for reaction. But it does not have to be that way for our students.

An issue I see commonly in 1L writing, particularly in the first semester, is a misapprehension of the expectations of the person grading the writing. Some students rely mistakenly on crafting the kind of intricate prose for which they received high grades in the past. Others, in lieu of legal analysis, reflexively regurgitate the rules, case names, and historical details they have memorized. Sometimes students overemphasize something they have learned in law school -- IRAC format, for example -- and apply it indiscriminately, without prioritizing the most relevant issues. These errors are not always the result of not grasping their professors’ expectations, but sometimes they are, and when they are, it can be frustrating for a student not to realize their lapse until after they receive a disappointing grade that might have been avoided.

For this reason, when I am working with 1L students, I try to convey a blend of messages about what they should be striving for. While I aim to be clear with students about the importance of developing skills such as clear analysis and precision, I also insert explicit messages about how law professors, in general, often have expectations of student performance that differ from those of students’ previous teachers. Yes, professors expect their students to know the rules discussed in class, but they also expect students to use those rules as tools, and to exercise judgment in choosing which tools to use, and how to use them. They expect students to make choices about what they discuss, and at how much depth. Moreover, different professors may have different expectations with respect to these choices, and students can learn to glean these individual preferences by paying attention to what each professor emphasizes in class and by talking with the professors and their teaching assistants.

Of course, many law students figure out the importance of their audience’s expectations naturally. But there is a subset of students who seem most comfortable approaching academic performance as an objective, quantitative measure of how much they know. Helping them to see early on that, in most cases, their academic performance in law school will be judged by qualitative standards that are shaped to some degree by their teachers’ subjective expectations can hasten those students’ movement out of their comfort zone and into a realm in which they make prudent decisions about what issues to address, which facts and rules to use, and which outcomes are most likely. Encouraging students to consider their readers’ expectations can help them to see that their job as law students, both in class and beyond, is not merely to memorize and recite, but to learn how to engage in discourse as part of a larger legal community. (Bill MacDonald)

September 18, 2018 in Advice, Study Tips - General, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, September 16, 2018

The 1L "I am the only one who ..."

We are finishing our fourth week of classes for all students and the fifth week of Torts for 1L students (they started Torts during orientation week). Multiple 1L students have been in my office the last 2 weeks stressing over the amount of work and their struggles to comprehend the material. Many of them have been comparing themselves to "everyone else." They are convinced that they are the only ones who are confused, overwhelmed, sleep-deprived, and chips-and-coffee-fueled.

When I reassure them that they are not "the only ones" and that "everyone else" is not leaps and bounds ahead of them, I see a glimmer of hope. They are not yet convinced, but they are willing to take a deep breath and regroup. 

Each student's concerns are somewhat different. We unpack what is going on, and most often make future appointments to address specific topics (time management, learning preferences, reading/briefing, etc.). Here are some of the things we may discover with different students when we start to unpack the overwhelmed responses to the situation:

  • The student does not fully account for the newness of law school: a new language, a new way of thinking, a new way of questioning, a new way of writing, and a new professional experience.
  • The student has always been one of the brightest immediately in a new course and suddenly is not.
  • The student's prior education has not been very challenging and did not require much time and effort to get high grades.
  • The student believes that "fast is best." Finishing before everyone else has been the student's measure for success in learning. Suddenly the student is painfully slow.
  • The student has lost perspective of what is needed for a course and is overworking (capturing trivia, reading multiple study aids, reading string cites and note cases in full).
  • The student believes that everyone else is grasping the classes in less time, with less work, and at greater depth.
  • The student believes every classmate who brags s/he understood the 25-page assignment in 30 minutes or never studies evenings and weekends.
  • The student forgets that judicial opinions are not written for law students, that not all questions have right answers, and that edited opinions may skip paragraphs linking ideas.
  • The student is preparing for either case understanding or synthesis but not both so that some questions are always "from left field."

With each student's appointment, I am once again reminded of what it was like to be a fall semester 1L without an academic support professional to help. The good news is that they already know more than 5 weeks ago (if they just look back), they will know far more in another 5 weeks, and at the end of the 1L year they will be amazed at themselves. (Amy Jarmon)

 

 

 

September 16, 2018 in Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 6, 2018

A Digital Detox Intervention Across France (and Potential Benefits for Learners)!

Radical.  Bold.  Ambitious.  And shocking too.  Until I read the research. But first, the country-wide experiment in learning...

As reported by CNN, starting earlier this month with the new school year, France has banned, I mean completely banned, student cell phone use in all primary, middle, and high school campuses throughout France (and throughout the entire school day (lunch included)):  https://www.cnn.com/france-smartphones-school-ban-intl/index.html 

As detailed by CNN, there's research to back up the educational benefits.  As described by CNN, the research evaluated the relationship between cell phone use and academic achievement for 130,000 UK students.  The researchers "found that following a ban on phone use, the schools' test scores improved by 6.4%. [And,] [t]he impact on underachieving students was much more significant -- their average test scores rose by 14% (emphasis added)."  https://money.cnn.com/smartphones-schools-ban/index.html.  Citing research authors Dr. Richard Murphy and Dr. Louis-Philippe Beland, CNN reported that just by prohibiting cell phone use in schools, "[s]chools could significantly reduce the education achievement gap...."  

That's big news - that ought to make a big splash in legal education - because the research suggests that a low tech solution might help law schools too narrow the achievement gap for those most at-risk of not doing well in law school. So, as you meet with students who are struggling this semester, you might ask your learners about their cell phone habits.  No need to be pushy.  Instead, just show them the research and then let them make a decision.  https://cep.lse.ac.uk/publishedresearch   

Based on my own review of the research, here's my recommendation to my students:  "For one week, just leave the mobile phone at home...or in one's school locker...or tucked away with the power off in one's backpack.  Even if it doesn't lead to better learning, you'll find that you'll quickly put a quash to those never-ending furtive glances at one's phone to see if someone has tried to connect with you.  And, more importantly, you might find that you are actually making better connections with the materials (and others) by not connecting to the digital world while at law school.  In short, you might reap the same educational benefits as those documented in the UK."  That's a great educational goal for all of us.  (Scott Johns).

 

September 6, 2018 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Learning Styles, Program Evaluation, Study Tips - General | Permalink | Comments (0)