Thursday, June 13, 2019
If I recall correctly, the line went something like this: "The world is filled with lonely people waiting for others to make the first move." At least, that's my recollection of the saying from the wonderful movie entitled "The Green Book," which I happened to have the opportunity to watch on my flight while traveling to the Association of Academic Support Educators (AASE) Conference a few weeks back. Little did I know at the time the tremendous impact someone would make by reaching out to me at the AASE Conference in Seattle.
You see, it was the final day of the three-day conference. With just a few more presentations available, I thought it best to focus my remaining time on bar prep sessions because that's my primary job. But, while mingling in the hallways of the law school building at Seattle University, I got a friendly tug in another direction. A person - who I had only briefly talked with at the conference - came marching and smiling right up to me and encouraged me to go to her presentation, which was set to start in a matter of moments. The warm-hearted invitation got me. Oh my golly, am I ever glad that I went! Her presentation was earth-shattering. It was the sort of talk from the heart that brought tears and promise.
Here's a brief snapshot.
The presentation was entitled "Academic Skills Invented by Necessity - the Untapped Potential and Creativity of Disabled Learning, and Inclusive Teaching." Professor Karen Wade Cavanagh's story was featured as part of a documentary by Oprah Winfrey in 2015 entitled "Belief:" http://www.bu.edu/law/featured-in-oprah-winfreys.
In short, Karen suffered a traumatic brain injury in a boogie boarding accident. In her talk, Karen showed photos of her rescue. Twice Karen was brought back from the brink. Life for Karen has since necessitated numerous surgeries and rehabilitation. Much was starting over from scratch. But, that hasn't stopped her (or others either).
Here's as an example...
Post-accident, while moving on a sidewalk in a wheelchair on her way to school, Karen was at an impasse. You see, due to crumbling infractures, many of the intersections at city crosswalks were no longer graded to allow rolling back up. Karen went down to cross the street...but couldn't get back up due to curb. Stopped in the roadway in the crosswalk, Karen noticed joggers and walkers run and walk past her, up the curb, and back onto the sidewalk. So, what did Karen do? She stuck her thumb out to the next passer by. That jogger came alongside and pushed her up and over back onto the sidewalk. Success. She was soon at school.
Life has tough spots for all of us. But, as Karen's story reminds us, it's sometimes difficult for us to see the tough spots that others are facing.
The first lesson I learned is that when I am in a tough spot, I need to just go ahead and stick my thumb out.
The second lesson I learned is to keep my eye out for others. Try to look at life from their perspective, not mine. And, be ready to reach out to others.
Life is not meant to be lived alone but rather in community with others. To be frank, as an ASP'er, I often tend to approach the issues that my students are having from my vantage point, usually with the idea that a particular academic study tip might be of help. But, I am often too quick to the draw with suggestions such that I miss seeing what is really going on. That's because I am too quick to talk instead of listen. But, in my experience, most of the time, so-called academic issues are not academic at all. They are life issues instead. And, life issues requires me to open up, to be vulnerable to others, and to live within the perspective of others (and not just myself). In short, being an ASP'er requires me to live life in "being" with others. I think that is what it means to not just be an ASP'er but truly a human being too. (Scott Johns).
P.S. Thanks Karen for making a mark that will live with me forever!
Sunday, June 9, 2019
Oklahoma suffered the worst loss in Women's College World Series Championship history last Monday night. The worst part was OU's expectations going into the series were sky high. They only lost 2 games all year. They had a 41-game winning streak, the longest single season streak ever. The team was top 5 in every major statistical category. Some commentators thought this could be an all-time great team. UCLA then beat them by 13 runs. One possible response would be to give up on game 2 the following night. In the first inning of game 2, UCLA hit 2 more home runs. Everyone thought another rout was on, but then OU played with every ounce of grit they could muster. They lost in the bottom of the last inning, but not before tying the game with a 2 out home run in the top of the inning. Even in defeat, Coach Gasso said game 2 was one of the most impressive performances due to the circumstances. Players said they flushed the defeat and fought the next game. Law students need a similar mentality.
Spring semester grades will roll out any moment. Some students will feel major defeat. Defeat they never experienced before, or at least not before 1st semester grades released. The rout could be on. Getting down and resigning to continued struggles or frustration is a natural and easy response. Our students have high expectations, so they could get especially down.
The OU response is informative. Flushing the bad experience may be the best way to help our students. Flushing it doesn't mean ignore everything that happened. Students should still analyze study habits, determine what happened in particular classes, and make adjustments. OU adjusted their hitting and pitching strategy for game 2. Ignoring the result isn't the answer. Coach Gasso talked about how they trusted the process. Encouraging students to make adjustments and trust the process is critical. I meet with students every semester that second guess everything. They wonder if they should have studied differently or completed a different practice question. Second guessing doesn't help. They have to trust the process. Help students work through a good plan and keep working with them to trust it.
Difficult results are right around the corner. Helping students flush those results and figure out the changes to fight next semester is the goal. The summer may not be the perfect time to reach out and meet with students, but we also can't wait until the defeat is completely gone. Help students use the experience to fight through next semester.
Tuesday, June 4, 2019
Yesterday, the quiz show Jeopardy! enjoyed its highest ratings in more than 14 years, <spoiler> on the day that 32-game winner James Holzhauer lost to librarian Emma Boettcher and fell just short of breaking the all-time record for most money won during regular play. (Sadly, James walked away with only $2,464,216.) My friends in the trivia community have been watching James's exploits with various mixtures of admiration, envy, bemusement, and exasperation. The latter two emotions have been prompted not by James himself, but by the sense-making reactions of casual viewers and the media to his success, and then to his defeat.
James racked up an intimidating number of high-scoring games -- including all of the top-ten highest-scoring games of all time -- and he sometimes won by six-figure margins. To a lot of pundits, these overwhelming victories suggested a new and singular player: either someone with unmatched, superhuman genius, or someone who had come up with a novel strategy that had "broken" the game forever. From the perspective of a lot of fans at home, this made sense. How else could someone achieve such never-before-seen results without some sort of mystical secret ingredient?
But to a coterie of former players and dedicated aficionados, there was nothing mysterious or unduplicable about James's style of play. He is a tremendous player, to be sure, certainly among the best. But the skills he brought to the game are pretty much the same skills other great players have exhibited before. He knows a lot of trivia; he is very adept at using the signaling device to snatch the opportunity to answer first; he understands the optimal strategies for choosing clues and making bets. His historically high scores are due mainly to a gutsy willingness to risk losing all or most of his pot by making big bets that, when successful, have left him with insurmountable leads. In the past, even the strongest players played more conservatively, hedging their bets so a wrong answer wouldn't take them out of the running. But James is a professional gambler, and he decided to maximize his return by maximizing his risk. This was a choice, not an aptitude, and anyone playing against him would have the capacity to make the same choice.
In fact, in yesterday's game, Emma did just that, making her own big bets to take a lead that James could not overcome. When the game hinged on one final question -- one that all three contestants would have the chance to answer, and on which each would have to make a wager -- Emma, in the lead, bet most of her accumulated winnings. James, close behind in second place, did something the audience had never seen him do before -- he bet only a tiny fraction of his pot, not even enough to catch up to Emma's pre-final score. Across the country, Twitterers and newspaper columnists alike responded incredulously. He wasn't even trying! they wrote. He's throwing the game on purpose! Commentators tried to make sense of the motivation behind such uncharacteristically tame behavior as James's desire to go home to be with his young daughter or his unwillingness to destroy the previous all-time record, out of respect to the record-holder, Ken Jennings.
But, again, to those who have played the game, there was nothing inconsistent or irrational about James's small bet. If you're in second place going into the final question, and you have more than half of the leader's score, then the leader is virtually always going to bet enough so that, if she answers correctly, her score will be more than twice your pre-final score. Even if you bet everything you have from second place, if the leader gets the final question right, you cannot catch her. There's nothing you can do to win if the leader gets the final question right -- so you need to think about how to maximize your chances of winning if she gets it wrong. And if she gets it wrong, she loses the amount that she bet -- often, an amount that is big enough to drop her score below your pre-final score. In such a case, if you want to make sure that you will win if the leader answers incorrectly -- whether or not you answer correctly yourself -- then you want to make a bet small enough to stay ahead of the leader's final score if she gets the last question wrong. And that is why James bet small at the end. He was still playing to win.
I'm saying all of this not to minimize the accomplishments of a truly great Jeopardy! player, and not even primarily to teach people sound game strategies. What I'm hoping I've done is illustrate how the natural human inclination towards sense-making can easily lead to misjudgments and misinterpretations, especially when people know something well enough for it to seem familiar, but not truly intimately. Sense-making is the act of coming up with plausible rationalizations for why things are the way they are. It is not necessarily a bad tendency -- it is, after all, how scientific inquiry begins. But "plausible rationalizations", while comforting, are often inaccurate, and relying on them uncritically can be dangerous.
Our students and recent graduates preparing for the bar exam are just now in that space where they've seen enough of the structure and content of the bar exam for them to seem familiar, but not enough of them to really intimately how to do well on it. As they take practice tests and observe their fellow preparers and hear stories about people who performed well or poorly in the past, they might run into some of the same issues with sense-making that I described in everyday Jeopardy! viewers:
- Misjudging the ratio of cause to effect -- People are naturally impressed by outcomes, and when causes are not well understood, there is sometimes an assumption that big differences in outcomes can only be explained by big differences in causes. Many viewers saw James's high scores, nearly twice as high as previous records, and assumed that he was twice as smart or twice as quick as anyone who had played before him. In reality, he was probably only slightly more skillful than most of the folks he played against, but the nature of the game is such that, once a player gains a small advantage in scoring, he can exploit and multiply that advantage enormously. In a similar way, bar studiers who see big differences between themselves and their classmates, or who see only small improvements in their own performance over time, might not be familiar enough with the task of bar preparation to recognize the true magnitude of the causes of those differences. They might assume that small improvements (or plateaus) indicate that they have not learned much, when in fact they've made a great deal of progress and are nearing a tipping point of improvement. They might assume that they could never get scores as high as some classmates', because they are just not smart enough or don't have time to study as much as they'd need to, when in fact in absolute terms they might only need to improve, say, recall by ten percent. (Or the mistake could be in the other direction -- for example, assuming that adding fifteen minutes of flash card study every day will double their MBE score.) Over time and with practice and feedback, they should get better at making these judgments, but this early in the summer, we should be generous with lending some perspective to their rationalizations.
- Tendency to search for a single overarching cause -- Systems are complicated, and humans like simplicity. There is something comforting and manageable about identifying one thing -- like a super big brain or a revolutionary game strategy -- that totally explains how to achieve a particular outcome. Thus, we see graduates who insist that the key to doing well on the bar is religiously answering a certain number of MBE questions each night, or memorizing the contents of a particular outline (especially one that someone who passed the bar before them has endorsed). The truth is that the bar exam is multimodal and designed to test multiple skills and multiple dimensions of understanding. There is no single overarching cause of success on the bar, no matter how comforting that would be, and helping students to recognize early on the rich multiple approaches to success will help them proceed more realistically towards their goals.
- Tendency to attribute unexpected observations to new causes -- At a primal level, there is something unsettling about the unexpected, and one sense-making reflex is to assume that anything we haven't seen before must be a manifestation of some new element. James's unexpectedly small bet was completely explainable within the schema he used to make his earlier large bets, as applied to a new set of conditions, but viewers unfamiliar with that schema assumed that the small bet indicated a complete change in goals and strategies. In the same way, a student who sees an unexpected drop in practice test scores one week might tell themselves that it's because the testing room has changed or the weather is hotter or the lecturer that week is not as good. But the reality might simply be that the method of study the student had been using for the previous few weeks, which was fine when they had only covered three or four subjects, is now just not able to help the student handle the burden of six or seven subject's worth of materials.
Of course, it is sometimes true that new observations are attributable to new causes. The reason sense-making can be dangerous for students is not because every plausible rationalization is wrong, but because, without support, students may not be able to tell the difference between sound and unsound rationalizations. The students most likely to succeed on the bar, just like the contestants most likely to win on a game show, are those who learn enough before the big day about the challenge they face to be able to actually make good sense of what they are doing.
Thursday, May 30, 2019
Last week at the annual Association of Academic Support Educators (AASE) Conference, Professor Paula Manning shared an analogy about learning that gripped my mind and heart.
You see, as Professor Manning reminded us, working out to get in shape is tough work. Building muscles, well, takes daily pain. It requires us to push ourselves, to lift beyond what we think we can, to walk further than we think we can, and to run harder than we think we can. And, it requires us to work out nearly everyday. Moreover, as Professor Manning related, the next day after a heavy workout can feel just downright aching. "Oh do those muscles hurt." But, we don't say to ourselves: "Wow, that hurt; I'm not going to do that again." No, instead, we say to ourselves: "That was a really great workout; I'm building muscle." In short, we are thankful for the temporary pain because we know that it will benefit us in the future.
But, when it comes to learning, as Professor Manning reflected upon, we often tend to not view the agonizing daily work of learning as beneficial in the long term. Rather, if you are like me, I tend to avoid the hard sort of learning tasks, such as retrieval practice and interleaving practice, for tasks which, to be frank, aren't really learning tasks at all...because they aren't hard at all (such as re-reading outlines or highlighting notes, etc.). But, if you and I aren't engaged in difficult learning tasks, then we aren't really learning, just like we aren't really building muscles if we just walk through the motions of exercise.
So, for those of you just beginning to embark on preparing for your bar exam this summer, just like building muscles, learning requires building your mind to be adept at legal problem-solving by practicing countless multiple-choice and essay problems on a daily basis. In short, the key to passing your bar exam is not what you do on bar exam day; rather, it's in your daily practice today that makes all the difference for your tomorrows.
As such, instead of focusing most of your energies on watching bar review lectures, reading outlines, and taking lecture notes, spend most of your learning in problem-solving because that's what you will be tested on this summer. Big picture wise, for the next six weeks or so, half of your time should be spent in bar review lectures, etc., and the other half should be spent working through practice problems to learn the law. So, good luck in working out this summer! (Scott Johns).
Wednesday, May 29, 2019
Years ago, as part of an effort to address bar passage issues at my school, some well-meaning professors suggested having a remedial course for lower-performing law students. In broad-brush terms, the centerpiece of the proposal was to require students to begin each class, starting from the very first day of the semester, with a timed 30-minute essay question. After students finished the timed exam, the remainder of the class period would be devoted to the instructor reviewing the question and explaining what students should have written in their answers. Merely by dint of forcing students to write essay exam answers over and over, the theory went, they would do better on law school and bar exams. But the proposed class structure neatly met the clichéd definition of insanity, by requiring students to do the same thing over and over and expecting a different result just by discussing what they should have done after the fact. Fortunately, the proposal never gained traction.
This summer and fall, I'm privileged to be involved with a CLEO program for incoming law students that takes the opposite approach. The Pre-Law Summer Institute, CLEO's familiar and long-standing residential program designed to prepare diverse participants for law school, now is preceded by a 30-hour online program, Developing Law School Literacies, devoted to providing instructional intervention from the start. Designed by Penn State education professor (emerita) Dorothy Evensen and funded by a grant from LSAC, the program leans on research about reading skills conducted by academic support educators such as Rebecca Flanagan and Jane Grisé and uses pedagogy based on sociocultural theory to provide intervention from the start. Rather than trying to do tasks on their own, students in this immersion program have frequent, intensive small-group meetings with academic support professors who act as instructional mediators. By explicitly focusing the students on using the tools given for effective case reading and briefing, and by verbalizing reasoning processes, the instructional mediators help students collaborate to competently complete a legal task from the very start. Each meeting focuses on a different aspect of case reading and briefing, such as the facts, the reasoning, and the rule.
I am especially excited that this program strongly emphasizes pre-reading, which in my experience is critical to active engagement with a text. I additionally hope that my CLIC group in the fall will provide a critical mass of 1Ls experienced and enthusiastic about wrestling with cases rather than searching for a rule and moving on. Helping students get things right from the start is a very ASP-ish approach -- empowering, effective, and humanizing.
Tuesday, May 14, 2019
This week, most of my 3L students are taking their last final exams. On Sunday they will graduate, and within a week or so, they will begin preparing to take the bar examination. Twenty years ago, this meant a return to the lecture hall for eight weeks of intensive lectures, surrounded by my closest classmates and a couple hundred other recent graduates. Today, the rise of online courses and live streaming means it is possible to complete an entire bar preparation course without getting out of bed, or at least without leaving one's home. It may be hard in the face of such convenience, but it is important to remind out graduating 3Ls of the substantial benefits of human contact.
One of the first things I tell my incoming 1L students is, "The law is a social profession." Successful practitioners, I explain, know the value of hashing out ideas and strategies with colleagues, and they develop networks of other lawyers to whom they can turn to make (or receive) referrals or to ask for guidance outside of their own areas of expertise. I tell my students this partly to help them to see the benefits of conferring with their own classmates and of taking advantage of mentoring and networking opportunities. But I also tell them because I know that a significant portion of the students in each incoming class needs this kind of encouragement, because they do not reflexively reach out to others for support and information. This tendency is explained in part by their natural inclinations; according to Eva Wisnik, president of Wisnik Career Enterprises, about 60 percent of those who become lawyers are introverts.
By their 3L year, many students, including some of those more introverted ones, have perceived the value of collaborative work, as in study groups and trial teams. Even so, the ten weeks or so between graduation and the bar exam pose new challenges. Some students, tired of the law school grind, envision a comparatively more manageable summer, one in which they can watch videos and undertake exercises online at their convenience instead of on a set schedule. Others may underestimate the time and attention demanded by the bar exam and conclude that the effort of traveling to campus, particularly on a set schedule, is not worth it. Under these circumstances, it may take extra persuasive effort to convince newly minted graduates that there are benefits to seeking out the company of other new graduates.
Still, there definitely are benefits. Full participation in bar preparation courses can be easier to achieve when the courses are seen as group activities in which groups of students commit to watching videos and working on exercises together (and to hold each other accountable for missed work). Group study and review provides additional opportunities for feedback and clarification. And when bar preparation becomes a stressful, tedious, and/or exhausting chore, as it often does halfway through the summer, commiseration can inspire tenacity.
How do you get soon-to-be ex-students to take advantage of these benefits by making particular efforts to associate with their peers, even when the apparently easier route would be to go solo? There are three things to keep in mind:
- Start early. Don't wait until graduation day is within reach to begin encouraging students to think of ways to work together during bar preparation. Social activities are easier to accept when they are perceived as social norms -- that is, just the way people expect to do things. Pointing out the social aspects of legal practice from the first year is one way to begin. Another way of normalizing the expectation that students will make efforts to work together during bar preparation is to encourage recent alumni who have done this successfully to share their experiences with friends from later classes.
- Make it easy. Bar study is difficult and consuming. Having to make special efforts to collaborate may seem like too much, to those overwhelmed by course expectations. Anything a school can do to lower the threshold of energy or attention required to collaborate can help. Provide dedicated space on campus so that bar studiers can easily find each other. Set up channels of communication early and keep students informed of resources and opportunities to gather, and look for ways to connect such opportunities to activities already on students' radar screens (such as live video programs sponsored by bar preparation companies).
- Add value. Finding ways to provide additional benefits to your alumni can change their calculation of whether or not it is worth it to them to step away from solitude and join their classmates, even if only occasionally. Offering small incentives, like free coffee and snacks or access to classroom space, can make getting together more inviting. More ambitious incentives might include providing supplemental live workshops on particular test-taking skills or subject matter areas, which can simultaneously draw students from their isolation and prompt interaction and planning with other participants.
At the end of the day, success on the bar exam does depend on individual effort. But in the face of innate introversion and technological isolation, we can help our students to recognize, once again, that individual effort can be promoted by social cooperation.
Thursday, May 9, 2019
In light of the rough and tumble bar passage declines over the past half-dozen years of so, numerous blogs and articles have appeared, trying to shed light on what factor or factors might be at play, running the gamut from changes in the bar exam test instrument, changes in law school admissions, changes in law school curriculum, etc. In addition, the academic support world has righty focused attention on how students learn (and how we can better teach, assist, coach, counsel, and educate our students to "learn to learn"). Indeed, I often prowl the internet on the lookout for research articles exploring potential relationships among the social (belonging), the emotional (grit, resiliency, mindset) and the cognitive in relationship to improving student learning.
Nevertheless, with so much riding on what is really happening to our students in their law school learning and bar preparation experiences, I am a little leery about much of the research because, to be frank, I think learning is, well, much more complicated than some statistical experiments might suggest.
Take one popular issue...growth mindset. Studies appear to demonstrate that a growth mindset correlates with improved test scores in comparison to a fixed mindset. But, as statisticians worth their salt will tell you, correlation does not mean causation. Indeed, it maybe that we ought not focus on developing positive mindsets but instead help our students learn to learn to solve legal problem and then, along the way, their mindsets change. It's the "chicken and the egg" problem, which comes first. Indeed, there is still much to learn about the emotional and its relationship with learning.
Take another popular issue...apparent declines, at least with some segments of bar takers - in LSAT scores. Many argue that such declines in LSAT scores are indeed the culprit with respect to declines in bar exam outcomes. But, to the extent LSAT might be a factor, by most accounts, its power is very limited in producing bar exam results because other variables, such as law school GPA are much more robust. In short, LSAT might be part of the story...but it is not the story, which is to say that it is not truly the culprit. Indeed, I tend to run and hide from articles or blogs in which one factor is highlighted to the exclusion of all else. Life just isn't that simple, just as learning is not either.
So, as academic support professionals indebted to researchers on learning, particular cognitive scientists and behaviorists, here are a few thoughts - taking from a recent article in Nature magazine - that might be helpful in evaluating to what extent research findings might in fact be beneficial in improving the law school educational experience for our students.
- First, be on the lookout for publication bias. Check to see who has funded the research project. Who gains from this research?
- Second, watch out for positive statistical results with low statistical power. Power is just a fancy word for effect or impact. If research results indicate that there is a positive statistical relationship between two variables of interest, say LSAT scores and bar exam scores, but the effect or impact is low, then there must be other latent factors at play that are even more powerful. So, be curious about what might be left unsaid when research results suggest little statistical power.
- Third, be on the guard for research results that just seem stranger than the truth. They might be true but take a closer look at the underlying statistical analysis to make sure that the researchers were using sound statistical tests. You see, each statistical test has various assumptions with respect to the data that must be met, and each statistical test has a purpose. But, in hopes of publishing, and having accumulated a massive data set, there's a temptation to keep looking for a statistical analysis that produces a positive statistical result even when the most relevant test for the particular experiment uncovers no statistically meaningful result. Good researchers will stop at that point. However, with nothing left to publish, some will keep at it until they find a statistical test, even if it is not the correct fit, that produces a statistical result. As a funny example, columnist Dorothy Bishop in Nature remarks about a research article in which the scientists deliberately keep at it until they found a statistical analysis that produced a positive statistical result, namely, that listening to the Beatles doesn't just make one feel younger...but makes one actually younger in age.
- Fourth, do some research on the researchers to see if the research hypothesis was formed on the fly or whether it was developed in connection with the dataset. In other words, its tempting to poke around the data looking for possible connections to explore and then trying to connect the dots to form a hypothesis, but the best research uses the data to test hypothesis, not develop post-hoc hypothesis.
Here's a link to the Nature magazine article to provide more background about how to evaluate research articles: https://www.nature.com. (Scott Johns).
Sunday, April 28, 2019
I love playing golf, and any time I can play, I make an effort. However, I am an average golfer at best. I tend to make the same mistakes time after time. I say to myself before starting the round, I will (insert new swing thought or strategy). Once the round starts, I revert back to my old routine and play about the same that I always play. Not a recipe for improvement, and many students fall into the same trap.
Law school is busy. I know most of you are screaming at the screen “tell me something I didn’t know Captain Obvious.” Being busy can lead to repetitive conduct, which is sometimes bad habits. Busy can be from too many student organizations, family obligations, work, or fun activities, but the effect is similar. Busy can lead to buying someone else’s outline, not completing practice questions, not seeking feedback, or any combination of bad study skills. Outlines that aren’t complete until finals week won’t be useful for exams. Practice questions the night before an exam don’t allow an opportunity to seek feedback. Try to make this exam period different.
Most people understand the need to improve studying. Some of you may have read this blog earlier in the semester and decided to have better study skills. The semester started and the best intentions faded. Similar to when I revert to my old routine, some students will as well. While the semester is almost over, there is still time to change finals preparation. Here are my suggestions for preparing better for finals:
- Write down what you plan to complete. Be specific with days and tasks. Make sure to add in practice questions and meetings with professors.
- Monitor and check your plan every day at lunch. Prioritize the remaining tasks for the day. Enjoy lunch without thinking about studying, but then focus again on the remaining tasks. Make sure practice questions and meetings are priorities.
- Check progress at the end of the day. Determine if unfinished tasks should be moved to the next day or not completed at all.
- Finish by looking over or creating a plan for the next day.
- Be flexible and adjust as needed.
Self-monitoring and adjusting is critical when time is limited during finals weeks. Efficiency is paramount. Continually assess and plan to accomplish more over the next few weeks. Good luck on finals.
Friday, April 26, 2019
Myra Orlen was kind enough to put together a recap of the NY ASP workshop. Her report is below.
Kudos to Kris Franklin of the NYLS and Rebecca Flanagan of UMass Law School for organizing a wonderful workshop at NYLS on April 12, 2019.
The morning offered excellent presentations – most centering on providing ASP and Bar programs to part-time students.
The New York Workshop offers a unique opportunity for ASP’ers to select a topic that they want to learn more about and offer to lead a discussion on that topic. The afternoon sessions offered a mix of focused discussions and more traditional presentations. All were excellent!
The morning sessions focused on assisting part-time law students:
ASP’ers from Pace Law School – Danielle Kocal, Stephanie Desiato, Stephen Iannacone, and Kerriann Stout shared ideas about helping part-time students maximize their time by thinking about life in terms of buckets: work; family; and school. Part-time students can benefit by using a planner and filling each bucket at the beginning of the week.
ASP’ers from the CUNY School of Law addressed Time Management – inside and outside the Academic and Bar Support Classroom. Most striking in the CUNY presentation was the ratio of ASP staff to students – in both the full-time and part-time programs. CUNY has a very well-resourced program. Ninety percent of students participate in CUNY’s voluntary program that stands as a model for those ASP’ers attending the workshop. CUNY staffers provide in-person and on-line programming. ASP staff sit in on one-L doctrinal courses and run ASP sessions that cover skills such as doctrinal review, case reading/briefing, note taking, practice exams, and answering hypos. The CUNY presenters included Haley Meade, Laura Mott, Asima Chaudhary, Nate Broughty, and Allie Robbins.
Reichi Lee of Golden Gate University School of Law spoke on using online/hybrid programs to support part-time students. GGU has a 60-student part-time program. Students are on campus three nights a week. GGU maintains an e-learning on-line website. The e-learning website contains workshops that are accessible to students.
Kandace Kukas of Northeastern University School of Law discussed coaching part-time students through the bar, including having frank conversations about whether students are ready for the challenge. Factors to consider are work and life schedules, commitments, and whether they will be able to devote the necessary time to prepare for the bar exam. Kandace suggested meeting with part-time students early, by their second-to-last year, and at the beginning of their final year. The key is to establish the trust necessary for honest dialogue with part-time students. Topics to be discussed include planning, time to devote to bar preparation, work time – can students take time off from work – or will students quit work. It is important to check in with students during their final semester and as bar applications are due. Kandace also stressed that it is important to coach students that taking the bar exam unprepared hurts students and their school. Students who get raw scores of 80/90 on full-length practice exams should strongly consider delaying taking the bar exam. Attendees at the workshop agreed that failing the bar exam is a devastating blow.
Shane Dizon of Brooklyn Law School lead attendees in an exercise to consider whether law schools should require or recommend upper-division bar course mandates for evening students.
Rebecca Flanagan of the University of Massachusetts School of Law presented on “Them Digital Natives! Gen Z and Technology Usage.” Rebecca has continued her research on who our law students are – generationally. Current students can be viewed as Digital Natives – information has always been available to these digital natives. For Digital Natives, information has always been available and readily consumable. But these Digital Natives do not know everything about technology. They know the social aspects, but do not know how to use digital tools. They are not skilled at interacting with each other without a technology as a mediating force and can struggle with interpersonal communications.
The Afternoon Sessions:
As the afternoon sessions began, Kris Franklin sent around a pad and asked those attending the workshop to contribute a “what I wish I knew when I began my work in ASP.” That list has been shared on the ASP list serve and this blog.
Eileen Pizzurro of Rutgers Law School lead a discussion on Orientation and ASP.
Chris Payne-Tsoupros of the UDC/David A. Clarke School of Law lead a discussion on Enhancing Student Engagement in Summer Programming.
Nicole Lefton, C. Benji Louis, and Cara Caporale of Hofstra, Maurice A. Deane School of Law, lead a discussion on Reinforcing Executive Function Skills. In this session, we learned that our executive function is plastic and improvable and learned about techniques to incorporate executive functioning and metacognition into academic success and bar programming.
Stephen Horowitz, of St. John’s University School of Law, presented on “1.5 Gen. Students and “Sound Right” vs. Read-Right Grammar Strategies.” In this presentation, we learned techniques to use with students who came to the U.S. in their teens or earlier or for undergrad. They seem fluent in English, but “quirks” arise in written English. They learned English by ear and know what sounds right. One technique addressed was the use of iweb corpus as to word choice.
Kris Franklin of New York Law School, presented on “Framing Legal Rules Helpfully.” In her presentation, Kris Franklin used an IRAC exercise to show that framing legal rules helps to accurately spot issues. If a student has not accurately framed the rule, the student will have difficulty successfully addressing the whole problem contained in an IRAC hypothetical.
Susan Landrum, of St. John’s University School of Law, lead the final discussion on “Self-care: Reducing Burnout When Working with Stressed-Out Students.” The last session was a discussion of self-care for ASP’ers. “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” This discussion was a great way to end the workshop. Whether it’s setting a time each day for a walk or for meditating, ASP’ers experience high burnout; we cannot give everyone all of our time. The workshop ended with what all of us do for ourselves. This writer takes lessons in landscape painting.
As usual, after the workshop ended, we went to a local establishment and continued to socialize. Also as usual, the New York Academic Success workshop did not disappoint. I end where I began, kudos to Kris Franklin and Rebecca Flanagan!
Thursday, April 25, 2019
Sometimes, okay, oftentimes, I feel like a turtle. Yes, I have feet (and arms?) and a nice study neck. But, mostly, as an academic support educator, I often feel like a gigantic "paper weight," living under a big shell, lumbering along without seemingly making much of a difference. Of course, that's not true at all, because, in the world of academic support, the big differences are not in our programs or our pizzazz but in the individual lives that we so often touch, inspire, motivate, and uplift (and the students that touch, inspire, motivate, and uplift us too).
Nevertheless, I've decided to take a very little tiny step - in sticking my neck out beyond my shell - to proactively involve my colleagues in our work (and myself in their work too). I'm going to invite my friends to join me at next month's Academic Support Conference, hosted by Seattle University, from May 21 to May 23, 2019. Association of Academic Support Educators Conference In fact, I'm going to talk it up - big time - with my staff and faculty colleagues. Frankly, it's time for me to live adventurously, to stretch myself, to live boldly in community with my colleagues Consequently, I'm inviting all of my law school faculty and staff colleagues to join with me at the upcoming national academic support conference. And, as a preview, I'm going to send them the conference schedule along with a few tantalizing morsels about what's on the agenda, such as:
• Can Law Schools Have It All: ASP as a Checkbox or Mechanism for Change
DeShun Harris, Camesha Little &Yolonda Sewell
• Using Data to Encourage Student Engagement
Kevin Sherrill & Kate Bolus
• How Dreamers Dream of Becoming A Lawyer: Where DACA and Bar Pass Meet
Micah J. Yarbrough
• Best Practices for Creating an Inclusive Classroom: Case Study Veterans and Non-Traditional Students
Jane Bloom Grise
• Building Teams for Student Success
Kent D. Lollis, Russell McClain & Laurie Zimet
• Planting Seeds: Using Academic Support Skill Building and Language across the Curriculum
Marcia Goldsmith & Antonia Miceli
• An Introduction to Expert Learning (and teaching) for Law Students)
• What does it mean to teach legal reasoning
• Introduction to the Science of Learning
Louis Schulze & Jamie Kleppetsch
• Evolution of an Academic Support Program
• Next Generation Data Analytics and Individualized Intervention for Bar Takers
Mike Barry, Zoe Niesel & Isabel F. Peres
So, please join me in inviting your law school colleagues too! The more the merrier, as they say! And, I look forward to seeing you at next month's conference in Seattle (and I hope to introduce you to some of my many legal writing, career counseling, student affairs, clinical, and doctrinal colleagues)! (Scott Johns).
Wednesday, April 24, 2019
The dog really did eat my homework. To be more precise, when I left my desk to fix a cup of tea, my four-month old puppy tore into my outline with joyous, tail-wagging abandon. Those pages that didn't turn into blobs of slobbery mush were ripped to shreds. I panicked, of course. Based on the nonchalant manner in which the professor had conducted the class, I had assumed the exam would be a policy-discussion cakewalk. Too late I realized that while classes were casual, the professor's exams were rigorous. My case briefs were chicken-scratch; my class notes, almost worthless. And the outline the dog destroyed? Well, it wasn't exactly "my" outline; it was a photocopy of a friend's outline because I'd been "too busy" to create my own. And since I had borrowed it only three days before the exam, in those days before e-mail attachments made routine information-sharing easy, I didn't feel like I could count on my friend's good graces to give up her original for the several hours it would take me to copy it again. I had an emergency on my hands.
To be sure, life has its share of genuine emergencies, the gut-wrenching, out-of-the-blue occurrences that shake our world to its foundations. And when these happen the best thing is to let someone at the law school know as soon as you can. But many, perhaps most, of the emergencies we encounter in the law school context, whether as students or instructors, stem from the combination of unexpected circumstances plus our own lack of foresight. We can mitigate the effect of these circumstances by prudent practices. Perhaps you've heard the acronym PPPPPP -- Proper Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance. Proper prior planning can indeed help weather most law school exigencies.
Computer mishaps are nowadays probably the most common law school emergencies. The hard drive crashes, the computer is dropped, the wifi network goes down, printers jam, and suddenly we lose precious work product or can't access needed materials. Consistently creating backups and having alternatives are the keys to mitigating any computer problem.
Using a cloud storage and file synchronization service like Dropbox is the easiest way to provide consistent backups, but because even the best systems fail occasionally, it's wise to periodically check that backups are actually being made. Those reluctant to trust documents to the cloud can effectively back up with encrypted thumb drives or external hard drives. In time-crunch situations like putting the finishing touches on a brief, even e-mailing critical documents to yourself works. When using physical backups, it's prudent to use multiple devices in different locations and to rotate them: for example, you can keep one encrypted thumb drive in your backpack, one in your vehicle, and one at home.
Just as important as backing up current documents is saving versions of your documents through time. Most of us have had the experience of either accidentally deleting a large chunk of material from a document or deliberately cutting out a sections of what seems like extraneous material, only to realize later we wanted the section back. So it's a good practice to save documents under a new name at least daily by adding the date or a sequential number so you can retrieve mistakenly deleted material from an earlier version of the document. At this time in the semester, for example, many students are filtering their outlines down to the essentials. When you use your capsule outline in tackling practice problems, you may find that you were over-enthusiastic in pruning rule statements or even left an important concept entirely out of your capsule outline. Having your earlier, more expansive outline to draw from can save you hours of work.
A good way to mitigate emergencies is to have alternatives in mind given the certain knowledge that things don't always work as they should. Are old exams easily accessible on the web? Figure that the school's internet may go down, and download them to your own computer so they are available when you need them. Does everyone in the law school use the same two printers when legal writing assignments are due? Chances are that your legal writing faculty does not accept "the printer jammed" as an excuse for late papers. Scope out alternatives across campus, or print out your near-perfect brief at home so you can have something to turn in on time even your last minute perfect brief gets stuck in the law school printer queue. Is arriving on time critical for a meeting, exam, or interview? Leave home early enough so you can cadge a ride if your car breaks down or stay calm in the midst of a traffic jam.
Prevention, of course, is the best cure. Learning and reviewing day by day, week by week, practicing problems, diligently doing interim assignments, building and refining your own outlines over time -- keeping a steady schedule of good habits can put you in a place where a total computer melt-down has limited effect because you already have have learned and practiced the material throughout the semester. Otherwise, you just have to hope the dog doesn't sneak into your study.
Thursday, April 18, 2019
Perhaps you've heard the phrase "Too big to fail." Well, that might be true, at least according to some, with respect to some business enterprises in the midst of the last recession.
But, at least from my point of view, that saying is not true at all with respect to student study tools and outlines. In my experience, too big of an outline can lead to less than stellar final exam results.
Here's why...There's a learning concept called "useful forgetfulness."
As I understand the educational science behind useful forgetfulness, it is in the midst of the filtering process - in which we decide to trim, shorter, collapse, and simplify our notes and outlines - that best promotes efficacious learning because the decision to leave something out of our outline means that we have made a proactive decision about its value. In short, the process of sorting the important legal principles from the not-so-important leads to active and enriching learning.
Nevertheless, for most of us, we are sorely afraid about leaving anything out of our outlines because we often lack confidence that we can make such filtering choices about what is important versus what is not important. Consequently, we often end up with massive 50 plus page outlines in which we know very little because we have not made hard reflective decisions to prioritize the important. So, here's a tip to help with trimming your outline down to a workable size to best enhance your learning.
First, grab a piece of paper and hand-write or type out, using both sides of the paper, the most important things from your outline. If you think a rule might be important, don't put it in your outline yet because you can always add to your study tool later. Instead, only put the rule down in your mini-study tool if the legal principle immediately jumps out to you as critically important.
Second, take your mini-study tool on a test flight. Here's how. Grab hold of a few essay problems or multiple-choice questions and see if you have enough on your "one-pager" outline to solve the problems. If a rule is missing, just add it. And, as you practice more hypothetical problems in preparation for your final exams, feel free to add more rules as needed. And, there's more great news. In the process of seeing a rule that might be missing from your mini-study tool, you'll know that rule down "cold" because you will have seen it applied in context. So, feel free to have less in your outlines because, with respect to study tools, less can indeed be more! (Scott Johns).
Wednesday, April 17, 2019
In the busy-ness of the end of the term, it's important for all of us -- faculty, staff, and students -- to stick to the basics. And the most basic of all basics is to get sufficient sleep.
Let's just talk about the brain. Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky, of Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers fame (and also author of the lesser-known but magnificent A Primate's Memoir), posits that sleep helps cognition in three major ways. First, it restores energy. The brain, it turns out, is an energy hog. While it comprises only about 2% of the body's weight, it uses about 20% of the body's energy, with two-thirds of that energy going to firing neutrons. Wonder why you feel so tired after intensive thinking? -- you are actually churning through enormous amounts of energy. This energy is restored in slow wave sleep. Second, the REM sleep in which dreaming occurs consolidates memory. High levels of the class of hormones known as glucocorticoids elevate stress and disrupt cognition. Glucocorticoid levels, however, plummet during sleep, especially REM sleep. So cognition can be enhanced simply allowing the brain to work its way through learned material when these hormone levels are at their lowest, by getting a good night's sleep. Because REM sleep consolidates memory so well, those who study, sleep overnight, and take a test the next afternoon do significantly better than those who study the morning before a test. Finally, REM sleep improves assessment and judgment, especially in complex circumstances, perhaps by exercising lesser-used neural pathways during those wild and crazy dreams. This allows the brain to establish wide networks of connections instead of simple one-lane pathways, leading to deeper, more nuanced thinking. Indeed, Berkeley neuroscientist Matthew Walker suggests that the most significant cognitive benefit of sleep lies not in strengthening the memory of specific items but in assimilating small bits of knowledge into large-scale schema.
More energy for the brain to work, better memory, and better ability to put things into a larger perspective. Sounds like a winning combination for everyone. Let's ditch the late nights and catch some Z's.
Tuesday, April 16, 2019
This time of year sneaks up on us like the holidays in December. It seems like only yesterday we were welcoming students back for spring semester. We blink, and then poof! Final exams are less than three weeks away. And before they start, we have so much to take care of. Drafting final exams, for one thing. But, at the same time, staying on top of our current classes -- in particular, at least in my case, pushing feedback on written assignments out to students so they can make use of it as they prepare for finals. Plus the approaching end of the semester often means a traffic jam of administrative work, as committees and working groups hasten to complete projects before a big chunk of their members leave for sabbaticals, holidays, or other teaching gigs over the summer.
When it gets crazy busy like this, it is important to set aside at least a measure of our thought and energy for that portion of our student population that might otherwise get lost in the background noise. Sure, part of what makes us so busy are the students we've developed relationships with -- those who regularly seek us out because of anxiety or confusion or a habit of pursuing every advantage -- and part of it may be required meetings with students on academic probation. We'll see those folks without much extra effort on our parts. But there are other students who could use our help who might not put themselves on our radar screens. Maybe they are shy; maybe they are overconfident; maybe they are just underestimating how much they have to do to get ready for the approaching finals. Maybe they feel so busy that they can't make time for us.
These are often students, not currently in academic difficulty, for whom a little support, guidance, or intervention will have a far more significant positive effect this week than it would have if it were delivered when the student showed up at the threshold to our office, panicking, a few days before finals. So, even though we are busy, making the effort to identify and check in with these students now makes good cost/benefit sense.
If you have not already done so, consider taking some time over the next few days to:
- Go through your calendar or appointment records from the fall and early spring and make note of any students who have sought help in the past, but from whom you have not heard for a while. Send them quick e-mails, asking them how they are doing and inviting them to drop by or make an appointment if they'd like to talk about preparing for the end of the semester.
- Check in with faculty (especially those teaching 1L courses) to ask if there are any students they have concerns about whom they haven't already referred to you. At this point, spring midterms are probably all completely graded, and those professors may have information they didn't have at the start of the semester.
- Remind the students (again, especially 1L students) in class or via social media or your school's information portal how close they are to the end of the semester, how busy your office gets at this time of year, and how wise it is to come to see you sooner rather than later if they have any concerns.
When we are this busy and things are moving towards a close so quickly, reaching out to students in the grey area can demand a bit of mindfulness. But even one fruitful meeting with a student now might be more effective than a flurry of desperate conferences the week before finals. That would be time well spent.
Monday, April 8, 2019
Students telling me they listen to audiobooks, youtube, and outlines increased the last few years. I completely understand the urge. Commute times are long in many metro areas. The time seems wasted if not listening to something impactful. I listen to books every day that relate to learning and motivation. I listened to bar outlines on CDs, which were not mp3s, on my commute during bar prep. However, there are problems with relying exclusively on audio materials.
I read an article a month or two ago that indicated audiobooks don’t provide structure when only listening. I experienced this first-hand recently. The book I am listening to right now has a specific structure that is similar to law school outlines. There are a handful of main points, and within each main point, there are subsets of information. However, I don’t remember the structure at all. I can’t piece together how the information fits. I remember parts from the book with tips and information about being more productive, but I can’t recreate the main points just from listening. Listening and driving (or doing anything else) makes it difficult to create schema.
Cognitive schema and mental models are critical for law school. Understanding the big picture and how concepts relate to each other is the foundation for analyzing new legal fact patterns. Without the steps of the analysis, answers will miss sub-issues or concepts professors allocate points to. Missing the structure is missing the foundation to legal analysis.
The problem is exacerbated by our own beliefs. Some students believe they should only study using their preferred learning style, and if they identify as auditory learners, they may listen to outlines or books without doing much else. Listening to books can also provide a false sense of confidence. I heard information from the audiobook, and I can even recite some of the productivity tips. I have a false sense of true understanding. Spending time working through the material with a clear structure is critical to organize the information.
I can’t write this whole post from an audiobooks bad perspective though. I do enjoy listening to books on my drive, and as I have written before, I incorporate information from those books into my classes. I think audiobooks or listening to outlines can be helpful. The key is to use them as a supplement to structural learning. Creating an outline, flowchart, or other studying device that represents the steps in the analysis creates the schema or mental model for legal analysis. Listening to information can then be beneficial by thinking about where the information fits into that schema. Using different tools to complement each other will work best preparing for finals.
Thursday, April 4, 2019
I asked my classes this question today: "How did you learn to ride a bike?"
The students then turned to their small groups and the class lit up with stories and smiles and anecdotes as they shared their memories about learning to ride bikes. Here are some of the things I heard:
• I started out with training wheels.
• No one helped me so I decided to try riding on the grass so that I wouldn't get hurt when I fell.
• I just kept getting back up, one fall after another and one bruise after another.
• Without my knowledge, someone gave me a big push and away I went!
As a class, here's what we realized about learning. Not one of us learned to ride a bike by reading about riding a bike, or watching You Tube videos about bike riding, or creating a study tool on bike riding. No. Instead, to a "T," all my students said that they learned to ride bikes, well, by learning to ride bikes. And, most of us had help along the way.
The same is true with learning the law. We don't really learn the law by reading about the law. Instead, we learn the law by problem-solving with the law. But, far too many students - understandably - don't feel ready to practice final exam problems because they feel like they don't know enough law. So, here's some tips to get you learning by doing in preparation for your final exams.
Start with training wheels and practice on the grass.
Here's what I mean.
Instead of trying to test yourself through past exam problems, open up your notes, outlines, and casebook and work through problems as best you can, untimed, with the goal of learning the law through past exam problems.
Just like learning to ride a bike, you'll experience a lot of cuts and bruises along the way as you review your answers. But, you'll get better and soon you'll be able to ride without your training wheels (notes). And, you might start doing some tricks, too, like jumping off the curb, something that a few days or weeks previously was terrifyingly trepidatious. You see, the key to tackling your fears about taking final exams is to take final exams before you take final exams. So, as you prepare for your exams this spring, make it your aim to practice final exams, slowly and open book. One pedal at a time. (Scott Johns).
Tuesday, April 2, 2019
A blank piece of paper has so much potential. It can be used to display one's ingenuity. It can be a medium for communication between two people, or among thousands. It can record data and history and memory, to be used by people born long after the recorder is dead. And yet, under certain circumstances, our stationery friend can seem to turn on us. When we are asked to answer an inscrutable question, the oppressive blankness of an empty sheet can be smothering. When we think that our reputation, our livelihood, our entire future depends on scratching the right symbols in the right order, the page can seem like a minefield of hidden threats.
When I was a kid, television seemed to be entering its golden age of public service announcements, and to me it seemed the most common subject was fire. Fire was our friend, we were told, making food safe and houses warm; but we always needed to be aware of what to do if it grew dangerous. And what we needed to know was that our natural inclinations were usually wrong. Foe example, even though we knew that water was the opposite of fire, if something caught fire in the kitchen, then we were not supposed to throw water on it, because it was probably a grease or electrical fire, and water would just make it worse. If our whole house caught fire (say, because we threw water on a kitchen fire), then we weren't supposed to hide in a nice, safe closet, because then we'd be trapped and the firefighters would never find us. If we caught fire, then we weren't supposed to run, trying to find some water to jump into. That, we were told, would just light us up like a Roman candle. Instead, we had to fight every instinct and stop, drop to the ground, and roll around politely.
What I could not understand as a child was that these PSAs really had two purposes. One was simply educational, teaching us that behaviors that made perfectly good sense in one context (dousing fire, hiding from danger, fleeing danger) might actually expose us to additional harm in a different context. They were maladaptive behaviors. Sea turtle hatchings naturally paddle towards a bright light, which helps insure they reach the ocean when the brightest object in the night is the moon reflecting off the water, but which will insure they remain stranded on land when the brightest object is the patio light behind a beach house. Infantry charging a defensive position en masse often led to an advance when the defense was armed with swords, but always led to a slaughter when the defense was armed with entrenched machine guns. The ways to counter maladaptive behaviors are either to return to the original situation (turn of the patio light) or to replace the old behavior with a new one (attack with tanks and aircraft). When Ronald McDonald sang, "Stop, drop, and roll!", he was teaching children a new behavior to replace the old maladaptive behavior.
But even the dimmest of my childhood friends got the gist of Ronald's commands after the third or fourth viewing. Why were we hearing these messages so frequently, from so many different sources? That went to the second purpose of the PSAs. Education is a good start, a necessary start, but the problem is that being on fire, or at least near fire, is an inherently stressful situation. And psychologists know that "Under stress, we regress." That is, under difficulty situations like panic or sensory overload or fear of consequences, humans naturally fall back on older patterned behavior. Most drivers, for instance, know intellectually that if their car loses traction in a skid, they should pump the brakes and steer into the skid to regain control. But the first time they actually hit a skid, most drivers stand on that brake pedal. Only if they live someplace wacky with snow, like Buffalo, do they get enough practice with the skid to develop the new adaptive behavior.
Even television executives were able to recognize that it would be unethical to light kids on fire over and over again until they learned to stop, drop, and roll. So they did the next best thing: they repeated the message over and over again, and encouraged children to try practicing the moves even when they weren't alight, to ingrain the new behavior as much as possible. The more familiar a behavior became, through repetition and feedback, the less likely a person would be to regress away from it under the actual stress of combustion.
At this time of year, I am seeing work from a lot of students who seem to be regressing under stress: 1L students using tactics in their spring semester midterms that appear to be drawn from their most basic legal writing classes, or from college composition classes; 3L students trying to mechanically apply CREAC format to early MEE and MPT practice questions. Even when we know we have shown these students the more advanced strategies they should be using as they progress through their development as attorneys, we have to keep in mind that that blank piece of paper or computer screen can just as easily be a threat as a blessing. Under the stress of self-doubt, or of novelty, or of high ambition, or future consequences -- sometimes of all of these at once -- the amiably clean page can transform into an incandescent hazard. Repetition and feedback are important not just to help our students improve their use of the more advanced strategies they need, but also to make them comfortable and familiar enough to be able to use those strategies at all.
Thursday, March 28, 2019
Perhaps you are like me (or your students). As I confessed to my own students in class today, I spent three years in law school never making eye contact with professors. I was just too scared to be called on. I didn't feel smart enough (and I certainly never really understand the professors' questions.). So, I hid...for three years.
That experience left me feeling lonely and isolated, as not part of the profession. Looking back, I realize now that most of my fellow students felt the same. Oh how I wish that I had opened up, just been a bit human instead of machine-like, and shared from the heart. But, to be honest, I wasn't willing to reveal my deep-felt fears. Consequently, I now try to share with my students about my own experiences as a law student and what I've learned in order to better help them.
That brings me to a thought. In my early days as an academic support professional (ASP), I spent much of my time focused on teaching skills (reading, case briefing, preparing for class, taking notes, time management skills, synthesizing course materials into outlines or study tools, and exam writing, etc.). I still teach those skills, but my focus is much broader now because the skills by themselves do not make for learning. Rather, it seems to me that there is a social/emotional component to learned that is equally important. And, the research seems to back up my hypothesis.
In particular, as recently reported by Dr. Denise Pope, a researcher and cofounder of Challenge Success at Stanford University, it seems that student engagement is the most important factor correlated to academic success, future job satisfaction, and overall well-being. Saturday Essay, Wall Street Journal, March 22, 2019. According to Dr. Pope: "The students who benefit most from college, including first-generation and traditionally underserved students, are those who are most engaged in academic life and their campus communities, taking full advantage of the college’s opportunities and resources. Numerous studies attest to the benefits of engaged learning, including better course grades and higher levels of subject-matter competence, curiosity and initiative." Id.
So, what is student engagement? In short, according to studies by Gallup-Purdue as reported by Dr. Pope, there are several key experiences of engagement that can make a lifetime of difference for our students. Here's the list, as published in Dr. Pope's essay:
"• Taking a course with a professor who makes learning exciting
• Working with professors who care about students personally
• Finding a mentor who encourages students to pursue personal goals
• Working on a project across several semesters
• Participating in an internship that applies classroom learning
• Being active in extracurricular activities". Id.
Nevertheless, as Dr. Pope relates, few students report experiencing that sort of engagement with only 27 percent of students experiencing strong support from professors who cared about them and only 22 percent having a mentor to encourage them. In other words, most college students, in my own words, feel disconnected and disembodied from school. That was certainly me throughout much of law school. Nevertheless, there was one professor, later in my law school studies, who took an interest in me. That professor ended up writing my letter of recommendation for my first job as a lawyer - a law clerk in court. In other words, looking back, I made it through law school because someone believed in me...even when I didn't believe in myself.
That gets me thinking about our roles as academic support professionals. Much of learning can seem mechanical (case briefing, memorization, IRAC, etc.), but the stuff that sticks only sticks when it's socially experienced in an emotionally-positive and engaged academic community. So, as we build our programs, I try to remember my purpose is not to create an award winning program but rather to help people believe in themselves as learners and experience the wonderful thrill of being part of something that is greater than themselves. At least, that's my ambition, one student at a time. (Scott Johns).
Wednesday, March 27, 2019
Several years back, our school's Career Development Office brought in Kimm Walton (of Guerrilla Tactics for Getting the Legal Job of Your Dreams fame) as a guest speaker. I vividly remember the reaction after her talk. As students filed out, they were buzzing excitedly. "It's nice to know I can get a job even though I'm nowhere near the top of the class." "I'm going to try talking with people I meet like she suggests." "I think I'll join a section of the bar after all: it seems a good way to connect with lawyers." "I'm not going to worry about on-campus interviews: it seems like I can find a firm that's more in line with what I want to do." Walton's presentation could be boiled down to a simple message: law students could create their own employment opportunities by figuring out their own interests, looking for positions to fulfill their interests, and talking to people. That was it -- know yourself, do your homework, and connect (dare I say "network"?). It will come as no surprise that our career development office constantly conveyed the same message through presentations, written materials, career counseling meetings, and informal interactions. But it took bringing in an outside expert to make that message convincing and compelling.
While informally chatting in the hallway with some 3Ls last week, I inadvertently became an outside expert for our school's bar prep course. One student fretted, "I wish I had known the doctrinal law subjects we would cover in advance so I could have reviewed them during winter break. I did really poorly on the first few tests because I didn't understand Sales well enough." "How well do you understand it now?" I asked. "I've got it nailed. After I got those questions wrong, I went back and worked my way through the outlines and did more problems, and now I'm on top of it." When I explained the concept of using testing as a mechanism that increases engagement and learning, the student "got it" and felt more positive about the course. I knew the instructors explained this repeatedly to the bar prep class but somehow their explanations washed over the student without making an impression. My position as an "outsider" made it easier for the student to understand s/he was learning through the process of writing and reviewing exam answers.
More often than I care to think, students will happily report that they have changed their approach to law school based on something they learned by visiting a web site or talking with a lawyer. When we're lucky, what they have discovered is a differently-worded repeat of messages we work hard to convey throughout law school -- typically practices such as starting to outline early in the semester, reviewing notes after class, talking with their professors after class, getting regular exercise, or setting aside personal time each week for rejuvenation. When we're unlucky, the outside expert will transform their law school experience for the worse by suggesting they stop briefing, stop reading cases, or study "efficiently" by limiting their review of each subject to a three-day clump before the final exam (yes, I've heard a very vocal, passionate speaker espouse this approach to 1Ls).
It's a constant challenge to figure out how to manage the "outside expert" phenomenon to our students' advantage, especially since the outside experts with the greatest influence seem to be those the students find on their own. Ideally, we'd all have budgets that would allow us to bring in dynamic outside speakers to inspire and enthuse our students with positive messages. Certainly it's important to ally with doctrinal and legal writing instructors, law librarians, and upper-division students so our messages will complement and not contradict each other. At my law school, I'm considering a few modest steps: conveying pithy academic messages (perhaps credited to an outsider?) to our law school's digital signage board to take advantage of a more visual medium; and using a discussion board or other sharing mechanism in our Skills Lab for 1Ls to share what they've learned from the web so that their discoveries can benefit from open discussion. Perhaps the most important lesson for me personally is to set aside my ego. While I may be bemused by a student who credits the web for the discovery that it's helpful to practice writing answers to hypotheticals throughout the semester, what ultimately matters is what the student learns and practices, not who the student perceives as the expert.
Tuesday, March 19, 2019
One of the most stimulating -- though, at times, overwhelming -- aspects of working in Academic Success is the necessity of performing in all the rings under the law school circus tent. In the same day, we can be teaching substantive law, providing feedback to help improve a student's writing and legal analysis, coaching another student on skills like time management or effective study, and counseling other students who are anxious, unmotivated, discouraged, or overconfident. To me, the counseling portion seems to be the most draining. Even when it is not taking up the greater part of my week -- and that is not always the case -- working with students' emotions, their self-awareness, their conceptions of what they are capable of, and their unrecognized assumptions requires high levels of energy and attentiveness. Anything that might make that part of the job easier without shortchanging my students would be gratefully welcomed.
To that end, I've been reading an interesting article called Wise Interventions: Psychological Remedies for Social and Personal Problems, written by the psychologists Gregory M. Walton and Timothy D. Wilson (Psychological Review (2018), 125(5), pp. 617-655). The authors explain that much of what either restrains or enhances our achievements does so because of how we perceive it, ourselves, and/or our place in the world. For example, a student who perceives her professor's probing Socratic questioning as demonstrating confidence in the student may learn more, and feel more confident about what they have retained, than another student who perceives the professor's intense questioning as disdain or ridicule. Much depends on the subjective meaning that a person has assigned to himself ("I am clever/I am stupid/I am not good at math"), to his environment ("The professor doesn't like me/This subject is useless in the real world/That law firm only hires students in the top 5%" ), and to the interactions between the two ("I always screw up on multiple-choice questions/There's nobody in this class who would be willing to share notes with me/If I go to office hours the professor will think I can't handle the material.") The article points out that many of the techniques that have been demonstrated to produce lasting behavioral change with comparatively little effort on the part of coaches or intervenors do so because they help to change ineffective subjective meanings that the student had used previously into meanings that are naturally more likely to produce good results. For example, incoming African American college students participated in a one-hour discussion section at the start of the school year, in which stories told by former students were used to convey the idea that it is normal to feel, at first, that you "don't belong" in college, and that after a while that feeling goes away. Participating students had higher grades over the next three years than did similar students who did not join the discussion session. Walton and Wilson call these techniques "wise interventions" because those who used them are aware of ("wise to") the maladaptive meanings that some subjects have adopted, and therefore can more successfully change those meanings.
This is a dense and rich article, one I will have to return to a few times here, but today I wanted to point out three of the five general principles the authors suggest characterize a "wise intervention". These three principles are all about how to effectively change maladaptive assigned meanings, and I think they can help us in Academic Support as we try to find new ways to help our students make the most of themselves and their environments.
The first principle is that in order to effectively alter ineffective perceptions, the explanations we offer in exchange have to be detailed and specific. It was not enough, for example, to say to incoming college students, "College is tough on everyone. You'll get over it." Instead, researchers used the detailed stories of former students to illustrate the specific feelings that incoming students often experience, and the journey that those students went through, so that the incoming students could more clearly relate to and remember those stories when they encountered similar feelings. Similarly, in law school, it may not be enough just to tell 1L students that law school is going to be harder than any educational experience they've had in the past. Instead, we need to tell our own stories, and the stories of other law students and alumni, to better illustrate some of the specific obstacles that were faced and then overcome. Having those details to recall can help insure that 1L students will interpret their setbacks and difficulties as part of the usual law student experience.
Another principle is that, once we help students to generate more useful interpretations of themselves and their environments, these interpretations can lead to further recursive change in the future. A student introduced to the concept of the "growth mindset", for instance, may at first only accept its existence in a certain context, like the ability to memorize content. However, as the student experiences success in that context, it becomes more likely that she will start to apply the growth mindset concept in other realms, such as making oral presentations or writing effectively under time pressure. This is one of the chief benefits of a wise intervention: because of the possibility of recursive change, a comparatively small effort on the part of a counselor or coach can produce a lifetime of benefits.
However, the possibility of such recursion depends in part on a recognition of a third principle: the fact that the meanings that people assign to themselves and to their worlds all operate within complex systems of past experiences, present conditions, and future expectations. In practical terms, this means that merely changing a student's meaning-making is not likely, by itself, to take root and produce extensive future benefits; there must also be some kind of change to the system in which the student operates. It is not enough, for example, to get students to see that they have the analytical tools they need to respond properly to multiple-choice questions, and that such questions are not simply an opaque collection of "tricks", unless we also provide those students will access to practice questions upon which to apply their new view of the genre, along with answer explanations so the students will be able to confirm that the analytical approach is indeed the most effective. Changing your students' interpretation of themselves or of the law school environment should always be either in response to, or accompanied by, some kind of practical change to the rest of the system in which they operate, in order to give the students the opportunity to test and cultivate their new understandings.
This last bit is the part I want to incorporate more into my own teaching and advising. Whenever something seems to click for a student and they seem to recognize a possible new way of interpreting the world, that's a spark. Academic success depends not just upon generating such sparks, but also upon providing kindling so that the spark doesn't go out.