Sunday, December 9, 2018
In my last post, I took up the issue of “blanket policies forbidding supplements.” I argued that such blanket policies squander an opportunity to influence students and that they re-entrench socio-economic hierarchies. In this post, I will continue to contend that such policies are generally unwise, but I will focus now on arguments arising out of the science of learning.
- Killing Metacognition. If Donald Rumsfeld taught us just one thing it is that the “unknown unknowns” are the biggest problems. That is, the biggest problems are the ones we do not even know that we do not know. This is true in learning the law as well. After underperforming on an exam, a student might say “I knew that course backwards and forwards.” The problem, though, is that she only knew what she knew … she was blissfully unaware of the things she did not even know she did not know. How does a student fix this problem when she does not even know what she is missing?
The answer is metacognition. Roughly speaking, metacognition the practice of skeptically monitoring one’s own knowledge, learning, and progress. That skepticism – always pushing back on that “illusion of mastery” – compels the student to explore her learning assumptions and root out the things she did not even know she did not know. If, for instance, she takes a practice problem and gets it wrong due to a doctrinal misunderstanding, she just discovered a misunderstanding that otherwise might have hurt her performance on an exam.
Students need extrinsic sources to support metacognition. If the knowledge they have gained from the traditional sources has left them with (unknown) learning gaps, it is patently illogical to guide them back to those same sources. By imposing a blanket policy against the tools of metacognition (tools like Joe Glannon’s questions in his fantastic E&E series), the professor has just undercut one of the most powerful tools of learning.
But, what about the problem of conflicting sources? Each professor likely has certain nuances that differ from the sea of supplements out there. I would rebut this argument on two grounds. First, this is why we should lead students towards “hornbooks” and not “supplements.” Focusing on hornbooks, i.e., sources written by professors who are experts in their fields, reduces the chance that multiple sources will lead to doctrinal discrepancies. I also lead students away from “supplements,” sources not written by professors, because I have observed doctrinal errors or difference in nuance in these sources.
Second, I think it is key not to let the perfect be the enemy of the very, very, very good. Although slight distinctions might exist between one professor and another, it is entirely rational to believe that the law in required courses is settled to the degree that any doctrinal distinctions between faculty and quality hornbooks will be limited in number and de minimus in scope. The benefits of metacognition are so great that we should not undermine metacognitive practice just because of slight differences in nuance. See generally Preston, et al., Teaching 'Thinking Like a Lawyer': Metacognition and Law Students, 2014 BYU L. Rev. 1053 (2015) (noting the importance of teaching law students the skills of metacognition).
Banning outside sources undermines the crucial skill of metacognition and, in turn, leaves students without these important skills as they become practitioners. They become dependent on the “sage on the stage,” which after law school takes the form of the law firm partner who has little time to lecture to a neophyte lawyer who lacks the skills to find answers herself.
In my next post, I will continue to line up arguments that push back on the practice of banning outside sources.
Thursday, December 6, 2018
Want to power up your learning to improve your final exam performance? Well, counterintuitively, that means that you just might need to take a break - a brief respite for your brain - by working out your heart instead.
You see, research shows that vigorous exercise, even if just for 10 minutes right prior to an exam, improves academic performance. And, there's more great news. The research also shows that exercise boosts your mood and optimism, and that, in turn, leads to more resiliency in learning, which, in turn again, improves academic performance. In short, exercise is in the center of a great big circle of connections between your body, your heart, and your mind.
So, rather than just focusing all of your energies in preparation for exams on your mental work, let your body and heart take up some of that cognitive load as you sweat it up a bit. Feel free to hit the trail, or the bike, or just run up and down the stairs at your law school every hour or so. Indeed, as the research shows, even just a 10 minute exercise brain break right before your next exam can increase your exam performance. Not convinced? We'll, here's a handy article by Marcus Conyers, Ph.D., and Donna Wilson, Ph.D., entitled "Smart Moves: Powering up the Brain with Physical Activity." http://www.kappancommoncore.org
So, why not follow the evidence to help boost your learning by taking frequent exercise brain breaks - breaks that tap into the power of your whole self - your mind, body, and heart - to best optimize your learning. And, rest assured as you take your brain breaks while exercising, the science is behind you. (Scott Johns).
Tuesday, December 4, 2018
At this time of year, I am working mostly with two groups of students: 1L students preparing for their first set of law school final examinations, and recent and soon-to-be graduates who are planning to take the February bar examination. While these two cohorts are about as far apart as students of law can be, there is at least one common element to their experiences: the peril associated with reaching a goal.
Regretfully, some of those preparing for the February bar exam, at my school and elsewhere, are graduates who have already taken the July bar last summer and did not pass. Every year, people who find themselves in this position include some strong law school performers, people with GPAs and other indicators that suggested that they should not have had any problem passing with their classmates. Sometimes, their disappointing performances can be explained by extenuating circumstances, like illness. But other times, it just appears that the new graduate only put in a fraction of the effort needed over the summer to prepare for the bar exam -- e.g., having signed up for a bar preparation course, they completed less than half of the assignments. Few people would stand a chance of passing the bar with so little preparation.
Observers of such misguided lack of effort might attribute it to overconfidence -- good students mistakenly believing their law school performance was preparation enough. Maybe it seems like that even to the disappointed graduates, shrugging their shoulders and otherwise unable to explain just how they had let 10 weeks get away from them without applying themselves to their studies as they had in the past. But perhaps for some there is another, less self-condemnatory element at work. Consider this: in the two or three weeks before bar studies were to begin, these students had just completed probably the most grueling three years of study of their lives, and it had all culminated in proud marches across the graduation stage. They had reached the finish line at the end of a very demanding course. But, as Gretchen Rubin notes in her book Better Than Before, "A finish line marks a stopping point. Once we stop, we must start over, and starting over is harder than continuing. . . . The more dramatic the goal, the more decisive the end -- and the more effort required to start over."
We see examples of this all the time. People who exercise scrupulously to lower their weight to a target goal -- and then stop exercising and gain back the weight. Writers who work diligently every day to complete a long-term project, but then lose the daily habit once the project is complete. Surely at least some portion of those capable law school graduates who did not put in the effort they might have made to prepare for the bar had at some level seen their final final exams and their pompously circumstantial degree conferment as manifestations of a very dramatic conclusion, and then found themselves at a psychological disadvantage in trying to start, in bar preparation, what seemed to them a brand new test of willpower, tenacity, and capacity.
This suggests that one way to help some of our 3L students prepare to jump right into the huge bar preparation undertaking is to message it not as a novel ordeal, but as just one more step toward the ultimate goal of practice. We might also downplay the significance of their spring final exams -- liberally reminding our students that those will not be the last exams they ever take -- and even minimize the ceremony of law school graduation, by pointing out to them that the real endgame is the swearing-in ceremony. The more psychological continuity that students cultivate between law school and the bar examination, the more likely they will be able to carry over their habits of diligence and fortitude into the bar study period.
This kind of messaging might also be helpful to some of our 1L students right now. They are not yet near graduation, but no set of final exams before the last seems more momentous and conclusive than the first set at the end of the fall semester. Students who have the perspective to see this first set of exams as just one of six may be less like to feel that they are psychologically starting over again in the spring. Conversely, those who more explicitly see these exams as a finish line -- students who tell themselves, "If I can just get through these . . .", or those who seem to focus on the weeks off between semesters as a sort of quasi-retirement -- may not have as much momentum going in to classes in 2019, and may struggle to bring themselves back to the same level of diligence they had reached in the fall. Bringing to these students' attention the long-term effort required in law school, and the expectation that what they learned in that first semester will be needed again and again through graduation, the bar exam, and practice, may help them find getting back into reading, briefing, and studying in January is just that much more achievable.
Thursday, November 29, 2018
As indicated in yesterday's wonderful post by Professor Nancy Luebett, one of the key steps for successfully preparing for final exams is to practice final exams. https://lapproaching-your-first-law-school-final.html. And, the best sources for practice exams are your professors' past exams.
But, what if your professor is new to the law school or there simply aren't many old exams available?
Well, there are a number of sources for free practice essay problems.
Here are a few to get you going:
First, you might dig into essays published by the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE). The NCBE maintains links for a number of retired past essay questions that are available free of charge (the more recent are only available by purchase). I recommend sticking to the free materials. Each essay question packet also contains analysis of what the examiners were looking for in good quality answers, so the materials are quite helpful in assessing and improving your own problem-solving abilities. Unfortunately, the essays are not easily identified by subject matter. It requires a bit of trial and error to match up the subjects that you are taking as a first-year law student with the essays asked in the past on that subject. But, below is subject matter table that can help. Just find the subject and the bar exam month and year that it was tested and then find the bar exam question and answer packet for that particular bar exam using the following link: http://www.ncbex.org/exams/mee/preparing/
Second, if you want to work through a number of shorter hypothetical essays, the University of Denver maintains - free of charge - a repository of retired Colorado bar exam essays. But, please be careful as the law might have changed. You'll notice that the essays are arranged by exam date and then again by subject matter. And, there's more great news. The essays contain point sheets with short answer discussions to help you assess your own learning. Here's the link for the old Colorado essays: https://www.law.du.edu/coloradoessays
Finally, I like to look through past California bar exam essays. California provides both past bar exam essay questions (with good passing answers) along with first-year law student exam questions. The first-year law school questions cover contracts, torts, and criminal law. But, please be aware that the answers provided are not model answers. Here's the link for past California first-year exam essays and answers: http://www.calbar.ca.gov/pastfirstyearexams. In addition, here's the link for past California bar exam essays and answers: http://www.calbar.ca.gov/pastbarexamessays
One last thought...
No one learns to fly or play the piano or dance...without practice...lots of practice.
Similarly, to prepare for final exams takes practicing final exams. So, instead of re-reading your notes or memorizing your outlines, focus first and foremost on taking your notes and outlines for practice test flights, using them as your "go-to" tools to work through lots of past exam questions. And, along the way, guess what? You'll actually begin to memorize your notes and outlines because you've been using them as learning tools rather than rote memorization tools. Good luck on your final exams! (Scott Johns).
Monday, November 26, 2018
AT&T sponsors a huge college football game each year in Dallas. During the breaks in the game, they have celebrities, including the coaches from each team, take the pledge to not text and drive. They blast their “it can wait” slogan. AT&T’s campaign has over 20 million supporters. However, data from dmv.org indicates 1 in 4 car crashes are the result of texting and driving, and 9 people die every day from distracted driving. We know we shouldn’t text and drive. Many of us even pledge to make changes, but in the end, many people still succumb to the same bad habits, even when they are extremely dangerous.
Students fall into similar traps as distracted drivers. They make plans and pledge to study more. Some even incorporate more practice questions into the plans. However, many students fall back into the same bad habits of re-reading outlines and studying throughout the night. If distracted driving is a hard habit to break when the dangers are serious, then changing study habits will be near impossible without mechanisms in place to ensure quality studying.
My wife has a great quote on her wall in her office. It is “dreams don’t work unless you do.” I write often about how to plan for finals and the bar exam. I believe planning is critical for success, but I always tell students in my bar prep class that students must plan and execute the plan. Execution is critical. Plans only work when followed. The key is to figure out how to follow your plan.
The first step after creating the plan is to remove distractions. Plans are great until a Kardashian posts a new Instagram story that is breaking news or when a friend sends a text. After chasing rabbits for an hour, you may get back to studying. Too many rabbit holes and you studied half the planned time. When sitting down to study, get rid of distractions. You can put your phone in another room or under some papers. Print out your outlines and turn off your computer. Study in the library so you can’t see the clutter in your house. Removing distractions is the first step to successful studying.
After removing distractions, chunk your studying to improve execution and motivation. Studying for long periods the same way without breaks is exhausting. When reviewing material, look at outlines in chunks. Understand the big picture skeletal outline. After understanding the big picture, look at information within sub-topics. Then, complete a few practice multiple choice questions or issue spot an exam. Switching between tasks helps improve focus because the tasks aren’t monotonous. Also, completing a task is rewarding. Finishing a chunk marks something off our list, which many people find satisfying. We are then more motivated to completed the next chunk.
The last step to executing your plan is constant evaluation. In theory, plans are great. However, sometimes we make bad plans. I make bad plans all the time. I overschedule myself by underestimating how much time a task will take. I think leaving the house each morning should only take 5 minutes, but my 8 and 4 year old tend to double that amount of time, on the best days. Studying is the same way. You may think it only takes a couple hours to study agency (or any other topic), but after 6 hours, you may be off schedule. Evaluate your progress at each major break, which is normally lunch and dinner. Make adjustments as needed. Evaluation and modifying your plan can help improve how much you accomplish.
Making plans is a great first step to studying. Work your plan to accomplish more by eliminating distractions, chunking studying, and evaluating progress. Those steps will put you in a good position on exam day.
Wednesday, November 21, 2018
Procrastination reigns supreme during this time of year, in the last few weeks before the first set of finals. It's relatively easy to recognize procrastination in some of its forms, as when suddenly it becomes critical to clean behind the refrigerator and under the kitchen sink. Long "study breaks" for games, TV, or social media are another obvious sign of procrastination. But the most insidious form of procrastination is using law study itself to procrastinate from learning and practicing legal analysis.
During fall break, it's not unusual to find that outlining has become a form of procrastination, usually taking one of these forms:
- The student focuses on one outline to the exclusion of all others. Their torts outline, for example, is close to done, and once they have finished that they will start working on their other subjects.
- The outline becomes a detailed compendium of every case and every pearl of wisdom coming from the professor, rather than being a useful guide for how to approach a legal problem.
- The outline goes into excruciating detail on minor topics but fails to show a coherent approach to major issues.
- The student is working exclusively on outlines, vowing that once the outlines are "done," they will turn to doing practice problems.
When students are getting bogged down in creating perfect outlines, this can be a symptom of depression or self-doubt, an honest but misguided attempt to master the material, or both. Depending on the situation, here are some approaches to consider:
- Self-care. Even more than the rest of the semester, self-care is critical during the time approaching and taking finals. While the student may feel strapped for time, they can get some exercise and fresh air: walking briskly around the block is the best possible study break. Especially when students feel they don't have time to rest, it's vital to remember that getting a full night's sleep will help their academic performance better than pulling an all-nighter to study.
- Self-confidence and goals. It's helpful for students to reflect on their strengths, especially the times that they have shown mastery of material in their law school classes. Finals is also a good time to reflect on their motivations for attending law school to give them the incentive to do work they might be avoiding.
- Big-picture focus. Sometimes students need to back away from their outline to determine if they understand the major issues and the rules that govern them. A useful exercise is to give 30 minutes to handwrite the major rules covered by the course in a logical sequence. This helps cement major concepts and structure. And if they are afraid to work on an outline in a subject where they perceive they are weak, focusing on the big picture can give them confidence to step forward.
- The outline as pre-writing the exam. The most useful outlines essentially function as pre-writing the exam. A great outline will reflect in what order the student will tackle issues on an exam, and it will contain the rules the student will use to address those issues in words that the student can remember and recreate on the exam paper. Paraphrasing rules in the outline is far more useful than pasting in rules that come word-for-word from a case or Restatement, because the student can remember and write their own paraphrased rule on the exam far more easily than the arcane words of another.
- Rotate subjects. While it is tempting to work on one outline until it is "done," students should consistently rotate the subjects they work on, addressing at least two subjects a day, so they can better master the material, remember the material, and catch errors before the last minute.
Finally, and most importantly, at this point in the semester it is vital to work on problems every single day, even if -- and especially if -- the student has not mastered all the nuances of the subject. Doing problems helps the student understand the issues that must be addressed in an exam, pinpoint their areas of strength and weakness, and practice writing in a clear, easy-to-follow order. (Nancy Luebbert)
Monday, November 19, 2018
Law school is expensive. Tuition continues to rise across the country. I constantly hear anecdotal stories of students walking out of law school with $150,000-$200,000 in debt. The debt load can be crippling when trying to buy a house or even consider starting a firm. Many administrators will suggest to students to plan ahead and try to save money. Saving money is a great idea unless the saving leads to decreased learning.
Students can now save money with digital textbooks. Many publishers are offering digital options, and the digital books tend to be a little cheaper. Students trying to save money are following our basic advice and making the logical move to buy digital books. However, digital books may be harming their long term learning.
Business insider published a story a few weeks ago about reading digital materials. The story is here. The article initially considered previous research on comprehension. Previous studies concluded students reading material longer than a page on digital devices had lower comprehension than if they read the material in print. However, the story wanted to explore digital preferences, reading speed, and comprehension, so they conducted 3 new studies.
The conclusions were not surprising. The overwhelming majority of participants preferred to read digitally. Participants read material on screens significantly faster, and they believed their comprehension was much better. However, their belief was wrong when testing for details. Participants’ comprehension of details was much worse reading digitally, which has an extreme impact on law school and the practice of law.
Print material is much better for identifying the details and placing material in context. One major complaint from law professors is students lack recall of details when reading cases and don’t respond to specific exam prompts. Digital reading exacerbates that problem. 1 word can make a difference in each rule. I recall my Criminal Law exam where the professor had 4 self-defense answers where the word “reasonably” was in a different place in the sentence. Moving the word around changed the meaning of the sentence. Not knowing the specific detail made answering the question impossible. Many rules operate the same way, and the practice of law is similar. 1 word can be the difference between a good contract and malpractice.
Sometimes what we prefer isn’t good for us. That will be true this week when I eat an entire pumpkin pie in less than 24 hours. It is also true for digital reading. Our preference for online material will be less effective when preparing for finals, studying for the bar, and practicing law. Take every advantage possible by using print materials.
Wednesday, November 14, 2018
Mrs. Ryan would be surprised -- and happy, I hope -- to know that the principles I teach 1Ls come straight out of my seventh grade English class.
Marilyn Ryan was smart, demanding, and talented -- the epitome of a good teacher. The first day of seventh grade, she told us, "You're supposed to study grammar in high school but you probably won't get more than a smattering. So this year I'm going to drill grammar into you because you'll need it. It may not be fun right now, but you'll be glad later on." (She was right, by the way -- none of my high school or college teachers ever taught grammar.) So, in addition to enjoying and dissecting great English and American authors, we spent seventh grade diagramming sentences, learning parts of speech, and mastering grammatical rules. During class, Mrs. Ryan would often refer to Strunk and White's classic book, The Elements of Style. And so it was that I was introduced to one of my favorite paragraphs in the English language, from William White's Rule #13, "Omit needless words." White explained his elementary principle this way:
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
"Omit needless words" and "[M]ake every word tell." It's clear how writing vigorous prose is useful in practice, in legal writing class, and in practice exam answers, but making every word tell is also, I submit, the key to effective outlines. I find that most 1Ls over-write their outlines. They are so afraid that they will leave something important out that they create monstrous "outlines" which not only record all the nuances of what was covered in class week by week but also add long excerpts from case briefs and sometimes material from hornbooks and other outside sources. Often long quotations from cases and Restatements are pasted in verbatim. Creating a comprehensive record of the class can be a useful source document for students who want to make sure they haven't missed anything in class, but such a long, comprehensive "outline" is virtually useless for preparing for final exams.
It's more useful to think of an outline as a guide for solving a legal problem: in the law school context, this means the outline is a guide for taking an exam. When you approach an outline this way, the excess falls away, including long explanations of historical context, excruciatingly detailed statements of the facts in cases, and long quotations from Restatements and cases. What replaces the verbiage is a structured framework for what issues to address, the order in which to address those issues, the major rules, sub-rules, and elements needed to address the issues, and enough concise examples and context to help you spot the issues when they appear in a problem. In essence, by doing this you are pre-writing your exam, absent the specific facts the exam will supply.
It's especially helpful to write rules in your outline in the same manner in which you plan to write them on the exam. Many students are afraid to put rules into their own words in the outline: they copy rules from cases, restatements, or other sources because they are afraid they might miss the nuances of the rule, or they feel it takes too much time learn the rule well enough to put it into their own words. But that is "stinking thinking." You have more time during the fourteen weeks of the semester than during the three hours of the final. If you thoroughly digest rules well enough to put them into your own words in the outline, you will remember that phrasing during the final; otherwise, you'll waste precious time and mental energy during the exam struggling to translate obtuse phraseology from the outline into a concise sentence that captures the law -- time better spent applying law to the given facts. So prune and make every word tell so your outlines can be the best possible guide for taking your exams. (Nancy Luebbert)
Tuesday, November 13, 2018
I have learned probably hundreds of tips, tricks, and techniques to improve one's performance on examinations. But there is only one that I learned with ten million people watching.
In 2005, I took the Florida Bar Exam -- my second bar exam, after passing the DC Bar Exam seven years earlier. When I returned to my car, the lone message waiting for me on my cell phone was not the expected call from my family. Instead, it was Glenn, from Culver City, California, calling to inform me that I had been selected to be a contestant on Jeopardy! -- the fast-paced quiz show in which contestants vie to answer 61 questions in 22 minutes.
The taping was to be in a month, and so I went right from cramming for the bar to cramming for trivial warfare. I knew there was no way I could study every possible subject that might come up on the show. At the same time, I felt like I ought to be "training". Today, there are websites that archive years of Jeopardy! clues, and old episodes on demand on Netflix, but these weren't available in 2005, so my main source of practice was watching the daily broadcast of the show at 7:30 p.m. And, perhaps because I felt that it was a rather precious resource, I decided that I wasn't just going to casually sit on the couch and shout out responses with the contestants. I decided that I was going to act like a contestant. Each contestant stands behind a podium and holds in one hand a pen-sized electronic button, and the first person to press that button after host Alex Trebek finishes reading the clue gets the chance to give the response -- famously, in the form of a question (e.g., "Who is George Washington?"). So, for a month, I tried to simulate their actions. I watched the show standing up, behind a living room chair. I held a clickable ballpoint pen, and practiced pressing the top button after Trebek finished reading each clue, and only then did I allow myself to call out a response in the form of a question. From time to time, I would feel a little goofy doing this, thinking, Isn't the show really about what you know? But I kept at it, because it seemed like the only way to really practice.
Finally, I arrived in California for the taping. Jeopardy! tapes five episodes in one day, a couple days every few weeks, so on the day on which I was scheduled to tape, I was herded into the studio with about a dozen other contestants. We spent a few hours signing documents and having make-up applied and learning all the rules and, most important and exciting, playing a few practice rounds on the set to familiarize ourselves with the equipment. I noticed some of the other contestants -- all clearly bright and as delighted as I was to be there -- seemed slightly awkward behind the podium. We all knew intellectually what to do, of course; we had all been fans watching the show for years, and we had just received a thorough briefing on what was expected of us. Even so, some contestants struggled to push their electronic button at the right time -- pushing it before Trebek was done talking would lock you out so that you could not answer, but if you waited too long, someone else would get in before you. Others got the hang of the button, with concentration, but then could not remember the responses they were trying to give. And there were times when contestants would press the button correctly, and give the right response, but forget to give it in the form of a question.
But when I went up on stage to practice, it was like I was standing back in my living room. I had practiced the timing of pushing my pen button so many times that, when it came time to press the real thing, I did not even have to think about it. I rang in quickly, focused entirely on recalling the information needed, and then gave the answer automatically in the form of a question. It worked in practice, and it worked in the actual taping. Yes, the show is about what you know, but it's important that nothing hinder you from demonstrating what you know. I won four games, and eventually came back to be a finalist in the Tournament of Champions.
In the years since, I have learned that what I had stumbled onto is known as "simulation training". It is a kind of practice that is not unlike the physical training that athletes do to develop muscle memory and automatic responses. In the context of quiz shows and law examinations, though, what makes simulation training particularly useful is not just the physical skills that it develops. What makes it useful is that it frees up mental space and focus for more complex thought. Not having to think about when to push the button and how to phrase my answer enabled me to devote full attention to reading the clue and retrieving the correct response.
Practicing to take examinations -- whether final exams or Bar exams -- can provide the same kind of simulation training, under the right conditions. Of course, students should write practice exams for other very good reasons, like improving legal analysis and uncovering weaknesses in subject matter knowledge, because law examinations should also be about what you know. But there is an added benefit when practice exams are done under conditions that imitate expected exam conditions. There are dozens of details and stimuli that students encounter consistently during an actual exam that, if unfamiliar, can demand valuable thought or cause detrimental distraction: dressing comfortably, locating a seat, timing bathroom use, logging into ExamSoft, calculating timing targets, contending with silence or noise, reading and following directions, cutting and pasting text, properly submitting responses, etc. Encouraging students to incorporate attention to these elements during their practice work, even when they are not really necessary, can help them improve performance, not because performance depends on finding a proper seat, but because being able to do so with almost no thought allows them to devote their mental energies to the tasks that really need them. Exam performance is about what you know, but it is important that nothing hinder you from demonstrating what you know.
Monday, November 12, 2018
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.
Sunday, November 11, 2018
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….
- 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.
- 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.”
Thursday, November 8, 2018
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).
Monday, November 5, 2018
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!
Monday, October 29, 2018
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.
Thursday, October 25, 2018
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).
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)
Monday, October 22, 2018
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.
Saturday, October 20, 2018
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.
Tuesday, October 16, 2018
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.
Thursday, October 11, 2018
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)