Sunday, December 8, 2019
First semester finals are similar to a Saw movie. No, not in the blood is everywhere or the mental gymnastics needed for the puzzles way. The movies leave many uneasy because the protagonist usually dies and there is a cliffhanger for what Jigsaw will do in the next movie. If you watched them when they came out, you had to wait years for the next story, which left just as many questions at the end.
First semester finals can leave some with the same lacking or cliffhanger feeling. Grades won't come out for 2-4 weeks depending on the school. No one usually walks out of finals feeling good about what they wrote. Finishing finals doesn't seem like much of an accomplishment because they just end with no definitive answer, and the protagonist of the story (student walking out) isn't the obvious hero.
The lacking feeling is normal. Most students feel the same way. Once you finish finals, the goal is to not worry about law school for a few days. Use the break to actually take a break. The winter break is not as long as the summer, so if you spend too much time on law school related activities, then you won't be mentally fresh starting next semester. The goal is to reset during the break to be ready for the spring. If you can't completely ignore law school, then you could casually read a book. You have many options depending on what area you want to improve in. Books that I like for learning/general improvement are: Make It Stick, How We Learn, and Grit. There are numerous law school specific books for each of the different skills needed for success. I like How to Succeed in Law School, Expert Learning for Law Students, and Reading like a Lawyer. Those are my personal favorites, but there are numerous great options. You have more context for those books now that you have been through a semester. That being said, don't try to read all of them. If you casually read one, great. If not, even better. Get mentally fresh for next semester.
Good luck on the rest of finals and get ready for a great break.
Thursday, December 5, 2019
There's a line from the movie "The Greatest Showman" that goes like this: "Comfort is the enemy of progress."
That got me thinking.
I wonder if comfort might also be an enemy of learning.
It seems to me, if I boil down the research on learning, that much of what we think is valuable for learning is, frankly, of little to no value at all.
Take for example re-reading notes and texts and highlighting information. Although I doubt any social scientist would put it this way, as I follow the research, those activities are essentially worthless as they really aren't activities of cognition at all. Rather, they are motions that we take in which we convince ourselves - falsely - that we are learning. (They are mere preparations to become a learner, not learning in itself.). That's why they feel so intuitively comfortable.
But true learning takes sweat. It requires workouts using our minds. It pushes us to build cognitive connections that previously didn't exist. In short, it's a struggle in growing, thinking, and practicing well beyond our comfort zones.
So, as you prepare for final exams, take heart. Be of good courage, knowing that while true learning doesn't feel comfortable, the science is behind you as you push into uncomfortable work.
From a practical viewpoint, as you work through your notes and outlines, talk them out, synthesize them, and generate lots of ideas and practice exam scenarios based on them. Test yourself frequently about what you think you are learning to see if you are truly learning it by turning your materials over and recalling what you think you know from memory. In short, prepare for your final exams by using interleaving practices (mixing up different topics and practice formats) and spaced repetition (revising topics and practices through intervals of spaced timing) in addition to forced retrieval exercises (deliberately forcing our minds to recall what we think we can't remember).
If you aren't sure about how to use interleaving practice, spaced repetition review, or forced recall learning, please dive into some of the charts and tables in this very helpful overview of the cognitive psychology for optimal learning: J. Dunlosky, "Strengthening The Student Tool Kit." Or better yet, check out some of the blog posts from Associate Dean Louis Schulze, an expert in legal education learning: L. Schulze, "Four Posts on Cognitive Psychology." They're sure to get you thinking, and, more importantly, learning...if you put them to practice.
Best of luck on your final exams!
Monday, December 2, 2019
Follow (v): To act according to an instruction or precept; to pay close attention to; to treat as a teacher or guide.
While in law school, I never connected with any of my professors on social media. Let's pretend that's not because social media tools were not yet sufficiently developed to allow me to do so. Fast forward into the information age where I've seen healthy discussions about whether law professors should encourage students to "follow them" on Twitter and other social mediums. Ultimately every professor has the right to their own individual preferences and likewise, their students have the freedom to decide whether and how to interact with their professors online.
Many professors are kind enough to freely spew out words of wisdom as regards exam preparation, and the beauty of Twitter makes these gems available to all. University of North Carolina School of Law Professor O.J. Salinas tweeted some words of wisdom that I wish I had access to as a first-year (or even second-year) law student. Professor Salinas shared:
"Law students (particularly 1Ls): Finals are here. Remember to support your conclusions w/ analysis. Apply the law to the facts of the hypo for every issue you spot. Conclusory answers (conclusions w/out analysis) don’t get you a lot of points (if any). The facts of the hypo are your friends. The facts are there to help nudge you (sometimes quite directly) to your analysis. If you are stuck on the exam and don't know where to go, first take a couple of deeps breaths. Then re-read the call of the question. Then revisit the facts. As you revisit each line of the facts, ask yourself: Why is this fact here? Have I applied this fact to any laws that we have covered in class? Does this fact or could this fact relate to something that we have covered in class?
Finally, make it easy for your prof. to read your exam. Aim for clear & concise writing. Short sentences. Paragraph breaks. Headings/subheadings. Walk the reader through your prediction by providing effective/complete legal analysis. And don't presume your reader knows anything. You can do this!"
I have a list of professors that I follow. Many of whom I know only through online interactions. I am grateful to be able to follow their wisdom and shared experiences. I benefit regularly from our exchanges. My daily takeaways include teaching tips, common struggles, and concise study and writing advice for my students. Thanks Professor Salinas for your exam writing wisdom. I remain a follower.
Thursday, November 21, 2019
I don't usually keep up with the world of royalty. But a recent article caught my attention.
You see, it seems that the one of the legal duties of Queen Elizabeth II is to meet weekly with the Prime Minister for counseling. Sam Walker, "The World's Top Executive Coach: It's Queen Elizabeth," Wall Street Journal, Nov. 16, 2019.
That takes time, energy, and commitment. And, the queen's been meeting with prime ministers weekly since 1952. Id. So, it might be worthwhile to see what she says about counseling and why prime ministers, despite vast differences from one another, continue to seek her advice.
First, the queen provides a safe place for leaders to speak out without "fear or reprisal." In the queen's words: "They unburden themselves. They tell me what's going on, or if they've got any problems." Id. Second, the queen by law is not allow to give orders or publicly takes sides on issues. Id. Third, the meetings focus on seeking impartial common ground. In other words, it's not about the queen's desires but about how to determine what's best for the common good of the people. Id. Fourth, the queen likens her role in meetings to that of a sponge, which I take to mean being a sounding board for prime ministers rather than offering advice. Id.
In summarizing the queen's coaching, author Sam Walker suggests the following:
That great coaches, even though they "often have a better grasp on a tricky situation than the person that they're advising, ...resist the urge to be a helicopter coach. [Instead,] [t]he only way to help leaders [and students] learn and grow is to allow them to make their own mistakes. [And,] [t]he only responsible method [to do this] is to let them speak openly, guard their secrets, and, once in a while try to incrementally redirect their thinking. Doing that requires humility--and lots of practice." Id.
That's not a role all that different from the world of academic support professionals.
Like the queen, we are granted access to some of the deepest secrets and most difficult struggles that our students face.
Like the queen, we must studiously guard our students' confidences.
Like the queen, we are called to listen lots and speak little.
Like the queen, our students learn and grow the most when we walk alongside them, helping them incrementally adjust their thinking, so that our students develop expertise in assessing their own learning with solutions that come forth out of the wellsprings of their own hearts and minds.
To sum up, in the course of most of our work, the truly royal moments of learning are the results of what our students come to experience for themselves under the confidential mentorship of us. As the queen suggests, speaking less can indeed mean speaking more (and in the end lead to better results for our students). So "hears" to better hearing for the betterment of our students!
Tuesday, November 19, 2019
Sometimes students think they are painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, when they are really inventing the light bulb.
Michelangelo famously worked from 1508 to 1512 to decorate the ceiling of the Chapel with biblical scenes comprising more than 300 figures. Contrary to popular belief, he did not do the work lying on his back; the scaffolding he designed and put in place left him room to stand. Try this right now: for one minute, stand up, look up at the ceiling above you, and hold your hand high over your head, grasping a pen, or a paintbrush if you have one handy. Now imagine doing that for four years, and creating an historical masterpiece. Amazing. If I had painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling under those conditions, it would have ended up taped to my parents’ refrigerator for a month, then discreetly recycled.
Still, the process did have one advantage: every evening, while Michelangelo was washing the paint off his brushes, he could look up and see a few more square feet of masterpiece. If his boss, Pope Julius II, swung by just to see how things were going, he would notice some prophet or angel that hadn’t been there the week before, and say something like, “Good work, Micky. I like the wrath there – very Old Testament. Keep it up.”
In contrast we have Thomas Edison and his invention of the light bulb. To be fair, it wasn't just the light bulb that made his electrical system so successful. He had a much broader vision, encompassing power generation and transmission facilities as well, so that once he had created a working light bulb, he had also designed an entire system capable of lighting it practically in every citizen’s home. But still, success did depend on finding that reliable, long-lasting bulb, and to do this, Edison tested thousands of different materials – varieties of animal hair, plant fiber, metal wire, etc. – to find a filament that would work.
But Edison’s work was not incremental the way Michelangelo’s work was. Over time, his experiments did provide some clues that guided him to the material (carbonized bamboo) that eventually worked, so his progress was not entirely random. Still, it was unpredictable. Edison could go through periods in which he’d test 100 filaments and not one of them would work any better than what he’d had at the start. While Michelangelo could work for a month and at least complete 2% of a ceiling -- and 100% of, say, Adam and Eve -- a month of work for Edison would not leave him with 2% of a working light bulb. He had no light bulb, until the day he found the right material; then he had the light bulb.
A lot of what our students do is Michelangelo work. They do a chunk of reading, or memorize a set of rules, or practice a certain writing format, and it may take them a while to reach their ultimate goal, but at least they can see measurable progress along the way: this many pages covered, or that many rules learned by heart, or some incrementally improved conformity with a norm. It can still be a grind, especially with a heavy workload and weighty syllabus, but at least the students can be sure of improvement and can project a likely date of completion.
It’s inevitable, though, that some of our students' work will be Edison work. They put in the time and the effort, but there’s not necessarily any obvious correlation to results. They could be working on a legal research project, looking for a needle and ending each day with a notebook full of hay. Or they might be practicing some skill that, for them, seems to resist improvement, at least until a certain critical mass of practice has been reached. (Performance on multiple-choice tests, for example, can sometimes plateau for weeks for soem students.) If the students don't realize that they are not doing Michelangelo work here -- if they are expecting incremental success and not seeing it -- then they can grow discouraged and self-doubtful, and may even abandon the effort, believing it is not doing any good.
It is crucial. before that happens, to explain to students (and to remind them, sometimes frequently) that there are two kinds of progress in work, and to get them to focus not on results but on well-directed effort. Help them to recognize, as Edison did, that some jobs simply require effort that won’t be directly rewarded, but that “every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.” As long as students are actually doing the right work -- and for that, too, they may need your guidance -- then, even if they are not seeing daily results, they are doing something useful -- ruling out fruitless lines of inquiry, or gradually building context and understanding to reach the critical mass needed. In the moment, such progress may not feel as satisfying as a tangible result, but with support, they can keep going, even in the face of doubt. And once they have completed the task successfully, they can look back and realize not just how the effort they made led to the result, but also that they are capable of making similar efforts -- and hopefully with a little more faith -- in the future.
Thursday, November 14, 2019
Picture a "lollipop." Unfortunately, that was me as a law school student preparing for my first final exams. You see, in preparation for final exams, I spent most of my time re-reading my notes, trying to master my outlines, and cramming as much information as possible into my head...with the hope that I might somehow be able to regurgitate as much as possible back to my professors.
In short, I looked much like a lollipop - stuffed with head knowledge but without much of a body or a heart to make it work.
That's because I had learned the law...but...I hadn't let the rest of my body, in particular my heart and my hands, share in the learning process. As such, I had much to say when it at came time for final exams but, unfortunately, little of anything practical or valuable because I had merely learned to parrot back my notes and outlines. I was as hard-headed as the candy on top of a lollipop; I couldn't dance with the final exam problems because I hadn't trained to work final exam problems. In retrospect, I should have fed my heart and hands as much as I engaged my mind in order to prepare for my final exams.
Let me be concrete. As you prepare for final exams, take it from me. Work your heart and body too as you learn the law. Here's what I mean. Rather than just learning the law, learn to problem-solve the law ... using the law that you are learning. That's because, in most law school courses, you won't be tested on what you've stuffed into your mind but rather on what you can personally do with what's in your mind by demonstrating how to solve hypothetical legal problems.
So, as you prepare for final exams, please feel free to re-read your notes (but only briefly because that's one of the weakest ways to learn) and make outlines (because the process of making your outlines is essential to learning the law)...but...then take your outlines and use them to solve batches of simulated final exam problems (and lots of them). And, when you miss an issue or a problem, rejoice...because missing that issue now means that you'll get that issue right in the midst of your final exams. In short, focus on learning the law by working through problems.
As a rule of thumb, about one-third of your time should be spent on reviewing your notes and creating outlines, one-third of your time spent on working through simulated exam problems, and one-third of your time spent on assessing what you did well (and why) along with what you can improve for the next time (and how).
In other words, just like a balanced diet with a lifestyle of exercise, let all of you (your mind, your heart, and your body) share in learning by learning the law through legal problem-solving. And, if you don't have a quick source of simulated exam problems, here's a batch below that can serve you well in a dash. Good luck on your final exams! (Scott Johns).
Sunday, November 10, 2019
The regular readers know my love for sports, but the following confession will probably remove any doubt of my sports geekdom. An annual golf hole design contest is held every year since 1998 to honor Dr. Alister MacKenzie, world famous golf architect. I discovered the contest a few years ago, and of course, I submitted my very rudimentary drawing. My 9-year old even participated this year with his own submission. Following the MacKenzie Society's lead, the Perry Maxwell Society (slightly less famous designer) held a 9-hole course design contest through last week. My son and I participated again. The interesting part of the contest was all the different ways to route the holes. I completed my design and compared with my son's drawing. Using the same terrain, he envisioned a completely different use of the land in numerous different directions. Looking at his, I rethought my design. I started seeing even better possibilities. I wanted to submit multiple entries, which is against the rules. The possibilities were endless, and perfection was in the eye of the beholder. The process was the fun part.
Outlines for finals are similar. While I will concede there are more correct ways to structure the law than golf holes, perfect outlines are in the eye of the beholder. The vision of one person with flow charts and bubbles will be completely different than a classmate. The linear outline that follows all the correct design rules may not work for everyone. Mike Strantz was an eccentric golf course designer. I played Tobacco Road, one of his courses in North Carolina, and it was one of the most visually exciting courses I have played. My dad played with me that day and hated the course. He couldn't comprehend why the valleys and sandhills flowed the way they did. He commented that the course got in his heard early. Don't worry about what someone else thinks of your outline. Your outline is intended to help you prepare.
As we all know, the process is what matters. I sat with my son drawing our courses last week. We talked about the possibilities and why we chose our routing. Neither of us was right, but we enjoyed the process. Outlining is the same way. The process of making the outline and looking through the material develops understanding. The repetition improves retention. The outlining process is what matters.
Outlining and preparing for finals is in full swing. Remember to focus on the process to produce what will work best for you.
Sunday, November 3, 2019
November barged in completely changing our weather. November also brings the last leg of the semester marathon. I encourage preparing for finals throughout the semester, a few activities should be highlighted the last month. The activities should be integrated into a comprehensive finals study plan. Here are a few ideas:
1. Work on and finish outlines early. If you worked on outlines throughout the semester, this is an easy task. If not, plan significant time to get outlines done as early as possible. Integrate new material from November into the outline as you go. Having everything in the outline up to November allows for the activities below.
2. Complete practice questions. I encourage completing 2 types of practice questions. First, go through multiple choice questions that test broad areas within each course. Multiple choice questions test more material in a shorter amount of time. If the question does not follow exactly what your professor said, don't worry. Knowing that fact illustrates an understanding of the material. Also integrate simulated essays. Look at old exams from your professor or find hypos from online, bar review companies, etc. Think about the most likely tested sub-topics and do questions on those. Time yourself and fully write out an answer. Writing out the answer is important because what someone thinks about a question and what they tend to write is 2 different things.
3. Seek feedback. Take the practice essays to your professor or academic support person. Feedback is what improves scores.
4. Rotate subjects. One of the most uncomfortable ways to study is to rotate subjects throughout a session or few days. Studies show that rotating subjects throughout studying will lead to longer term retention. For example, don't study 1 subject (ie - Torts) for 3 straight days, then Contracts, etc. Switch subjects frequently during November. As you get to the end of November and the few days before the exam, you may focus primary on the upcoming test. Only do that close to the exams, not before Thanksgiving.
5. Don't forget to complete your regular course activities. Nearly every professor will put material from November on the final exam.
6. Lastly, plan your breaks. You cannot study non-stop from now until mid-December. Take breaks to stay mentally fresh.
Good luck on the last leg of the semester!
Wednesday, October 30, 2019
At my law school, it is 40 total days, and 23 class days, until the first final exam. For some students, now is the time of reckoning.
There are always a few students who get a late-semester wake-up call: the 3Ls affecting insouciance who heretofore mouthed "C=J.D." but now want to demonstrate their mettle to a mentor; the 2Ls who did so well during the first year they initially assumed they could cruise through 2L year without effort; the 1Ls so impressed with their above-median LSAT they can't acknowledge their work product falls short of the mark; the students in any year who have spent the first months of the semester struggling with illness or family emergencies or pure bad luck. Ten weeks into the semester, they wonder if there is time to turn things around.
If the answer to every legal question is "It depends," the answer to "Is there time to turn things around? Can I pull this off?" is "Maybe. Are you willing to do what it takes?" Can you accomplish a lot in the last 40 days? Yes. Will you be as successful as you would have been if you spent all semester working on it? Probably not. Will it be good enough? That depends on your own hard and strategic work.
Strategies must necessarily differ for different kinds of courses, but here is an approach that can be helpful for law school courses with a comprehensive final exams:
- Read the syllabus. "What? I don't have time for that -- I have to catch up!" I repeat -- read the syllabus. Knowledge is power, and the syllabus lays out the expectations of your professor, including topics covered, the grading scheme, and penalties for missed classes. Pay attention to what you are supposed to know and how you are evaluated.
- Move forward, never backwards. You will just fall further behind if you decide to go back to read and brief the cases from day 1. Instead, do the current work to the best of your ability.
Does that mean blowing off all you have missed? By no means. Rather, for material you have missed:
- Ask for help. Ask friends if they are willing to share class notes. Buy lunch for a classmate who offers to walk you through how to analyze key issues. Ask to borrow outlines not to copy, but to give you a start on creating your own. Check for any materials your professor has posted on learning platforms or made available through the law library.
- Work through simple problems. You will learn much more by problem-solving than by reading casebooks or even excellent study supplements. Look for supplements that offer problems or exercises, and go straight to the problems without reading the background text. Think deeply as you work your way through the problems, and do your best. And whether you get the problems right or wrong (as with true/false or multiple choice questions), read the explanatory answers until you understand why your answer or reasoning was right or wrong.
- Utilize spaced repetition. You can use spaced repetition with your own flashcards or by using software resources available commercially or through your law library.
- Work your way through complex practice exams. If you have access to former midterms or finals, work your way through the complex problems. Pay special attention to the analytical steps you must take, and the order of reasoning. Gain an understanding of the big picture as well as the specific rules.
- Communicate with your professor. If you are demonstrating your willingness to do the hard work, your professors will usually be happy to help.
- Decide the hard work is worth it. When you are seriously behind, the work needed to turn things around will be considerable. Marshall your inner resources to help you stay motivated, work effectively, and devote the time and energy needed to complete the work.
Sunday, October 27, 2019
The Legal Skills Prof. Blog had 2 excellent posts last week regarding metacognition. The posts discuss different commonly held myths by students and faculty that have detrimental effects on learning. My experience is not only do these myths exist, but the hardest thing to overcome is the entrenched nature of the beliefs. As the posts suggest, students tend to continually slide into comfort over scientifically proven methods. I highly encourage reading the 2 posts.
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.