Thursday, June 25, 2020
Hat Tip to Adjunct Prof. Alan Blakley....
In light of the ongoing pandemic, here's a free online program created by Harvard Law School for possible consideration and/or adoption by law schools as we move towards the fall start for entering law students. According to the introductory video, Zero-L is a free online program focused on helping entering law students develop confidence and competence in thinking like law students: https://online.law.harvard.edu. Specifically, Zero-L indicates that it is designed as an "onramp" for law school students, regardless of background and experience. For more details, please see the syllabus, available at the following link: https://online.law.harvard.edu/Zero-L_HLS_Course_Syllabus.pdf.
Wednesday, June 10, 2020
I keep getting asked about memorization for the bar exam. Specifically, “How on earth am I supposed to memorize all of this?” and “Do you have any tips on memorization?”
So, here we go!
First of all, memorization is a bad word. I hate it. You want to remember, or recall, but not memorize. Why do I make a big deal about this? Well, for a couple reasons.
First, our brain is awful at memorization. Briefly, we have short term memory, long term memory, and memory retrieval. Short term memory can also be called working memory. It’s like a short picture that only lasts minutes. Next is long term memory, where memories are stored. And finally, memory retrieval, which is what you are concerned with for the bar exam. This is also the most difficult to achieve. So, your aim isn’t really to “memorize”, but to remember and recall.
Also, if you focus on memorization, instead of learning, you will get overwhelmed and stressed. So, reframe the idea in your mind for more success.
So, what CAN you do?
The power of Story and Emotion
Memory is often tied to stories, and strong emotions. This is why our autobiographical information is easy to recall. We might smell a certain food, and fondly remember a lovely family celebration we had as a child. These memories are typically vivid and strong. That’s because we process them as stories, not facts. If you are at a party, you don’t focus on individual details to remember, like the color of the walls, or the music playing, and consciously try to memorize it. You remember it because it’s happening to you, it’s a story. In addition, you are more likely to have a vivid memory of that party if you are feeling a strong emotion, usually intense happiness. (Carey, 2014) or (Tyng, Amin, Saad, & Malik, 2017)
So, how do you make this work for bar review? The act of studying doesn’t make for a good story, and you aren’t likely to feel very strong emotions. Maybe frustration, or stress, but those actual have a counterproductive impact on memory. So, it’s up to you to manufacture stories and happiness. Don’t just stare at outlines, or black letter law. Do more and more practice questions, which are stories. Or, even better, make up new hypotheticals of your own, the more ridiculous the better. If you’ve seen me lecture on any bar topic, you know I love crazy stories. I’m sure my students often roll their eyes, and wonder why I’m being ridiculous. But it’s to help with memory. The more absurd or ridiculous my examples, the more likely you are to remember the law.
Also, manufacture happiness, as much as you can. Studies have shown that test subjects that are placed in a room with simple smiling faces do better on memory. So, surround yourself with happy photos or pictures of your pets. Call one another on zoom and make up ridiculous hypotheticals until you are all laughing.
Speaking of stories, practice! Each MBE fact pattern, and each essay hypothetical, are stories! So, not only will practice make you better at tackling the essays or MBE questions, but practice gives your brain
stories to hold on to. The examples will help your memory! If you are trying to memorize the rule for parol evidence, doing 10 MBE questions, and really learning from each question, will serve you better than reviewing your outline over and over again.
In cognitive psychology, chunking is a process by which individual pieces of an information set are broken down and then grouped together in a meaningful whole. The word chunking comes from a 1956 paper by George A. Miller, "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information". This was because the brain can typically only remember 7-8 items at once.
So, what does chunking information mean for you? Well, let’s think of a grocery list.i
So, you have to buy the following:
You might want to chunk by meal. For example, Bread goes with turkey and cheese, and maybe tomato. Milk goes with Cereal, and maybe those go together with orange juice. As I’ve listed it, the items are random, so there is no way to remember them. Or there is, but it’s very difficult. But grouping by the meals will help your memory.
Alternatively, you can group by where the items are in the store. It is likely that the orange juice and milk are together, and the so are the bread and cereal, and the turkey and cheese.
So, the first step in chunking is to think about how you will need to use the information. This is one reasons I place practice so highly. When you go to memorize the law, you can’t memorize it in a vacuum. You have to think about how you will be using it, and then chunk from there.
Our brain learns more effectively if we space out information. So, this is more support for my theory that breaks are magic! Think of it like this, if you are building a brick wall, you need to let the motor in between the bricks dry before you stack too high. Similarly, you let one coat of paint dry before you put on another. You get the idea.
So, while studying for the bar, space out your studying. While it might feel like you don’t have time, you need the space to solidify your knowledge.
Take breaks! I wrote an entire blog about this last week. But your brain can only process and remember so much at once. Essentially, if you are reading 50 pages of outline, without a break, you are only likely to remember the first and last few pages. That’s a waste of time! Take frequent breaks, and break up what you do. The more active you are, the better.
Write an essay with open notes. Do a set of 5 MBE questions, and then review the applicable law. Mix up subjects. All of that will help with memory.
General Mental Health
Finally, I mentioned before that if you are frustrated or stressed, that doesn’t help with memory. That means you have to take care of yourself mentally while you are studying. This is going to vary for everyone, but make your mental health a priority. And if you feel yourself getting frustrated or overwhelmed, see above and take a break!
Finally, remember that your aim is to learn, not merely memorize! Also, this is just meant to be a primer, and is already too long for a blog post. There is so much more to be said about various memory techniques.
Carey, B. (2014). How We Learn: The Suprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens. New York: Random House.
Tyng, C. M., Amin, H. U., Saad, M. N., & Malik, A. S. (2017). The Influences of Emotion on Learning and Memory. Frong Psychology.
i I completely took this idea from Paula Manning at the 2015 AASE Conference in Chicago, and have been using it ever since!
Thursday, May 28, 2020
That might be an overreach. But not by much. I only witnessed - at the most - 3 different flowers along the nearby hiking trail. Another hiker, who I met along the way, exploded with joy that she had spotted 44 different flowers along the same identical path, many of which were rarely seen during the short Colorado spring season. Same path; different eyes.
That experience left me wondering what else I am missing in this journey of life. Much, I suspect. Especially in these times with much of my face hidden behind a bandana. You see, I had a different purpose in mind on the hiking trail. And that resulted in a different pace and a much different outcome.
My fellow hiker's words hit home with respect to bar prep. Much of the colloquial wisdom is to practice testing yourself, constantly, as you prepare for your bar exam. Watch the clock, and my oh my, certainly don't take a timeout to research a bit of law when you are stumped. But, if in your bar prep you are driven by working the clock, you'll miss much. And what you miss is the opportunity to learn to improve critical reading and problem-solving skills because developing those skills takes lots of time and concentration - just like my fellow hiker spotting 44 flowers in beautiful bloom along the trail.
Let me share a secret. Rare is it that people run out of time on the bar exam. Oh it happens. But it's not because they didn't practice with the clock. Rather, it's often because the gambled with proven strategies to tackle their bar exams. They grabbed hold of the essays and then spent precious time looking for their favorites. Or, they hit the multiple-choice bubbling along the way while leaving many answer choices blank, with a long list of questions that they'd like to come back to, in the event that they have more time left at the end. On the bar exam, you don't have time to look at questions twice (or even more). Rather, just solve them one-at-a-time as they appear in the materials.
I know, you're saying, "Well, how am I going to get faster if I don't practice with the clock?" I'm not saying never practice with the clock, but the time to do so is much later, mostly only with mock bar exams, and mostly only in the last two weeks or so. In my experience, if you work on getting faster, you'll be super-fast but also often super-wrong because you haven't worked on seeing the patterns and observing the commas, the phrases, and the many nuances that are the heart of doing well on the bar exams.
Let me make it concrete. I have never seen a person fail the bar exam because they didn't know enough law or weren't really speedy enough. Rather, when people do not pass the bar exam, they tend to write about issues that weren't asked by the problems. That's because they worked mostly for speed through as many problems with goal of constantly testing themselves. "Am I passing yet? Is that good enough? I've got to get up that trail, so to speak, as fast as possible."
Instead, let go of the clock. Spend time in the midst of the problems. Question the questions. Puzzle over them. Ponder and probe the language, the phraseology, the paragraph breaks, and the format of the questions. In short, for the first six weeks of bar prep, practicing problems to learn with just an occasional check-in mock bar exam to see how you are doing. That way you'll be sure to see what's hidden in plain sight. And, that's the key to doing well on the bar exam. To locate and expose, what one of my recent students brilliantly called the "undertones" of the problems...that are really in plain sight...if only we take the time to learn to see.
(Scott Johns - University of Denver).
Thursday, May 7, 2020
I once had a teacher tell me to never read good books. Never ever. And why not?
Because if I spent my time reading good books (or doing good things), then I wouldn't have time left to read the really great books (or do the really great things of life).
That's a lesson that has never left my side.
In bar prep, I'm convinced that too many are trying to do too much, and, in the process of doing good tasks, they aren't doing the great things that are really important for success on the bar exam. Let me be frank. You don't have time in bar prep to do good things. But, you have plenty of time to do the really great things, the things that produce fruitful learning.
With that in mind, here's a few tips:
- Do less reading and more pondering the law, how it works or doesn't, and what it means to you as a person.
- Do less note-taking and more puzzling through problems to learn the law.
- Do less testing and more practicing, feeling free to work problems over slowly, reading them out loud if you'd like, as you develop confidence and competence in your own voice as an expert problem-solver.
That's just a few suggestions.
But, rather than hear it from me, a teacher, I thought I'd share the wisdom of a recent successful bar-taker in that person's own words. After all, they say that a picture is worth a thousand words (but the wise words from the heart & mind of a recent bar taker -- who wants to share with YOU what she/he learned through re-taking the bar exam -- is worth a priceless fortune).
Advice for First-Time Bar Takers:
- Practice way more than you think! If you are wondering whether you should watch a lecture or do a practice question, do the practice question.
- Let go of memorizing everything. It is impossible. Learn what your weak areas are and spend more time with those subjects.
- You will feel like you know nothing until approximately the last week of bar prep. Somehow, magically, it does come together. I promise.
- Do all the bar prep practice tests.
- Think really hard about who you want to study with. This is not the time to do something different from how you handled law school.
- Come up with a plan and stick to it. The bar prep calendar is really helpful for this. Decide how many practice questions you want to do everyday and do it. But if you are starting to burn out, be OK with taking breaks. It's a marathon!
Advice for Fresh Start Re-Takers:
- First, I am so sorry that you have been dealt this card. There is no question that it hurts. Take care of yourself and do things that make you happy.
- As you begin planning your next round of bar prep, make sure to work with the law school to identify the weak aspects of your exam answers. This will help define ways you can “work smarter” instead of “work harder.”
- Also work with the law school to identify new ways to study. It might be changing up your study tool or how you review your answers. For me, studying ALONE the second round vastly improved my scores. I think studying alone boosted my confidence because it required me to look up answers to my own mistakes. I also stopped comparing myself to friends.
- Ditch the bar prep lectures. Use that time to practice WAY MORE MBE and MEE practice questions. I probably tripled the amount of practice questions I did during my second round of bar prep.
- Log your progress. I was way more intentional about compiling lists of rules I kept missing on MBE questions. This helped me to keep track of weak areas so I could spend more time learning the law in specific subjects.
- Spend timing thinking about any testing anxiety you might have. Adding mindfulness meditations to my study plan helped a ton!
That brings me back to the start of this little essay. How do you know what are the really great books to read (or the great things to do)? That's were wisdom comes in. Reach out to a person you trust, on your faculty or staff or from a colleague or mentor who knows you as a person from head to toe. The advice that I've shared in this blog is from such a person, who, although he/she doesn't know you, knows you, because she/he has cared enough to share with you the lessons learned through the process. So, you have a friend who is rooting for you (and that includes me too!).
Sunday, April 12, 2020
Everyone is dealing with a new normal during the crisis. The world faces significant challenges, and I do not want to ignore the very real struggles others are going through. My family and I are blessed to be healthy during the crisis. For us, the new normal includes no live sports. That is small compared to other's struggles, but I spend significant quality time with my boys playing on baseball fields and watching spring football. Since we have seen many of the replayed sports airing right now, we are watching some re-runs of American Ninja Warrior for the first time. I feel like the show is a good analogy for law students' upcoming final exams.
Traditional sports have clear rules, objectives, and expectations. Football games will include kickoffs, runs, passes, and field goals. Basketball games will have a player attempting to put a round ball in a slightly larger round hoop. Anyone can train to throw to a running receiver or take jump shots. The expectations of the games are relatively predictable. American Ninja Warrior is different. Contestants know their strength, flexibility, coordination, and endurance will be tested. They can watch previous seasons to understand the possible obstacles. However, every new seasons brings a new course with new challenges. Contestants can train generally, but they can't train for the very specific challenge that will be in front of them. This year, that happened to law students.
Virtually all law school final exams this year will be open book. Most states implemented stay-at-home orders requiring schools to shut down for the semester. Shut down schools mean students will take finals at home with access to every material in the house. Examsoft may shut off the internet, but it doesn't close casebooks or printed outlines. Every student will have access to the rules for the final. Open book finals occur sporadically in law school, so many students have not experienced this type of exam. The general training in each course and legal analysis will help with the final, but this is a new test for most students. Students were only recently aware that is the new normal for finals.
Open book finals are the equivalent of a trap game (the easy opponent all the players overlook on the schedule). Students have their book and outline at their disposal, so students believe the exam should be easy. Some students won't prepare as well, and will end up performing below expectations. Don't fall victim to this mentality. One reality is that if students have access to all the rules, the professors will not allocate as many points to knowing the law. Even more points than normal will be allocated to application. Knowing open book finals are different will help create a plan for those exams.
I suggest a few strategies for open book finals:
- Prepare as if the final is closed book. The best piece of advice is to be prepared for a closed book final. I encourage everyone to make an outline, review the outline, test knowledge of the outline, practice essays, etc. just like a regular final exam.
- Print an outline (if possible) and tab it. Rummaging through a casebook won't help. The casebooks doesn't have concise rule statements. An outline is critical, and then, create tabs to quickly find the rules.
- Practice writing essays. I know I give this advice for all finals, but practice with feedback is always critical.
- Still write down the rules. This may seem contrary to the statement in the last paragraph, but still write in the IRAC format (or whatever format your professor prefers). The professor may not allocate many points to rules, but there are probably some points. Not only that, but the IRAC format is a way to ensure you do good application in the analysis section. I emphasize to my students that IRAC isn't a magic pill that rains points. IRAC is a method to systematically go through a problem discussing rules with specific facts applied to the rule. If the rule isn't there, students sometimes forget to apply facts to that element/step/etc.
- Follow the timing of the exam. I give this general piece of advice for open book finals, and it may not apply right now. However, I always tell students to take note of the time for each question and follow it. This is advice I give for closed book exams as well, but some students become too focused on getting everything perfect on open book finals. They end up spending too much time in an outline and don't finish the test.
Many students have not practiced for open book exams and others become overconfident. You can overcome this new obstacle with the right training and application on test day. You are ready for this. Now, practice and execute.
Sunday, April 5, 2020
Law school and the bar exam require immense mental toughness during regular preparation periods. Online learning combined with the stress from uncertainty magnifies that difficulty. Dr. Travis Bradberry wrote an article for Success magazine in 2016 describing 15 qualities mentally tough people exhibit. The list includes:
- Emotional Intelligence
- Neutralizing toxic people
- Embracing change
- Saying no
- Fear leads to regret
- Embracing failure
- Not dwelling on mistakes
- Others won't limit joy
- Won't limit the joy of others
- Get enough sleep
- Limit caffeine
- Relentlessly positive
All those qualities may not apply to law school or the current situation, but many of us could benefit from doing more of a few of them. Most of us should be more confident, say no more, embrace failure, not dwell on mistakes, exercise, get sleep, forgive, and stay positive. Check out the article for advice in each one of these areas. Most of us are trying to do much more now than a couple months ago. Be reasonable and take steps to stay mentally fresh.
Sunday, March 29, 2020
I know the transition to online learning is tough. The obstacles are different for each person, and the online format is more difficult to engage. My advice to all students relies on 2 major themes, planning and engagement. Planning is similar to the advice I give throughout the year, but planning for online learning is a little more difficult especially with additional responsibilities for many law students. Evaluating whether the plan works and what adjustments to make is critical. Engagement focuses on doing specific actions to ensure you are engaged in every lecture.
Planning and engagement come in many forms. Numerous sources of information flooded the market lately. Use the advice that will help you plan and engage. The 2 articles I liked recently are The National Jurist's Coronavirus Survival Guide and The Law School Playbook's 30 Day Challenge. Don't try to dramatically change how you study. Pick a couple tips that will improve your planning and engagement.
Don't try every resource you find. Find what works for you, and give the last month of class your best effort. Everyone knows this is a difficult time. All you can do is put in your best effort. Everyone's best right now will be different based on circumstances, so focus on doing what you can in your circumstances to succeed.
Sunday, March 22, 2020
Dave Johnson bellowed "and down the stretch they come" during the Kentucky Derby from 1978-2017. I watched the Derby with my grandparents for years, so every time something is nearing a finish line, I always think of that line. That line also makes me think of another sports cliché I love, which is to finish strong. The current changes to online learning may have distracted many from the reality that the semester is in the final turn, and we are about to be in the stretch run.
The end of the semester is only a few short weeks away. My school is coming back from Spring Break this week, and finals begin at the beginning of May. Some schools will have a reading period, so many places only have 3-4 weeks of instruction left. Finals are closer than most think.
With finals so close, I encourage everyone to begin testing knowledge and receiving feedback. If finals start in 5 weeks, then everyone can get feedback on 3-4 practice problems in each subject. Try to complete 3-4 problems a week. Pick the most likely tested topics in each of your classes, starting with the material early in the semester, and write an answer in timed conditions. Send your answer to your professor or Academic Support person. The goal is to both work on essay writing and knowledge of the material. Do that every week through the end of the semester.
Distractions abound in the world right now. Most of them are very serious and need attention. Everything changing makes it easy to forget critical components for finals preparation. Don't forget to continue to prepare for finals because they will be here in just a few furlongs.
Thursday, March 19, 2020
Some people wonder if "e-learning" is real. I poked around the internet and it looks like there are plenty of studies on both sides of the coin.
But I have to say from firsthand personal experience that I know that e-learning is real...and that it works. Here's the details (but please don't tell anyone because I'm embarrassed to tell the story):
Prior to my start in academic support, as a practicing attorney, I had a video-conference hearing in a courtroom in Colorado. I liked to be in the courtroom early, so, as I sat in the courtroom awaiting the judge, I noticed that the opposing party and her counsel were not present.
At that point, the judge came in, and, with the hearing set to momentarily start, the judge asked the courtroom clerk on the video-conference to go out and look for the opposing party and counsel. Before waiting for the clerk's response, I bolted upright and blurted out loud, "I'll go look for them. They might just be in the waiting room."
At that, the judge remarked: "Mr. Johns, you do know that Salt Lake City is a good 500 miles away from Denver, and that, while appreciating your willingness to help today, it might just be a touch too much to drive to the courthouse in Utah before the close of today's court session."
We all had a good chuckle, and I was mighty glad that no one but the judge (and the courtroom clerks in Denver and Salt Lake City) knew about my impulsive offer to leap to help.
Here's what I learned.
You see, even though we were having a video-conference courtroom hearing, it was as real as life to me. So real that I completely forgot about the geographical expanse - not to mention the massive Rocky Mountain ranges - that separated me from the opposing party and counsel on the other side of the case.
So is "e-learning" real learning?
Well, it sure can be. But it all depends on our willingness to perceive it as such, to make it work as well or even better than in-person learning, to actually be in the moment relating with our students in order to reach them wherever they are.
In my opinion, learning is a relational social experience. But, that doesn't mean that we need to be physically present in the same classroom with our students. Indeed, as I learned through my experience in "online" litigation, what happens online can be just as powerful as what happens in the presence of each other.
P.S. Please keep this story just between you and me!
P.S.S. Still doubting the efficacy of e-learning? Here's a quick blurb from a Penn State blog about one student's perspective on using zoom this week:
"Someone in my bio class with more than 300 students accidentally started talking about the professor, not realizing her microphone was on, so that made things a bit awkward. The chat feature is enjoyable. I have seen conversations ranging from Jesus to nicotine. I also received an email from my English professor reminding us to wear clothes. Of course Zoom isn’t ideal, but it is pretty effective given the circumstances." C. Nersten, Reviews: Zoom Classes, Onward State Blog, https://onwardstate.com/2020/03/17/os-reviews-zoom-classes/
...Reading between the lines, e-learning can be very effective, but it takes careful planning and curating by us, just like regular classes do...
Friday, March 13, 2020
The vast majority of law schools are transitioning to online environments for the foreseeable future. Online learning presents unique challenges for both faculty and students. Students must find ways engage in the virtual interactions, which can be difficult when sitting behind a screen. Natalie Rodriguez from Southwestern Law School sent her students the below email to help them stay engaged and learn efficiently over the next few weeks.
"As we go through this transition together, I would like to provide you with some guidance on how to set yourself up for success with online classes. Some of you already have experience with online classes, but for some of us, this format is new. Either way, we will all need to lean into our self-directed learning skills - students and faculty alike. Luckily, many of the same habits that served you well for traditional classroom learning will also serve you well with online learning. . . .
You are still in school
This is more of a reminder for your friends and family than it is for you. For those that live with others, they may be tempted to expect more from you since you are not going to campus. Remind them that you are still in school and have the same academic commitments you previously had.
Keep a schedule
That you are not physically in a classroom does not change the amount of time it takes to do well in law school. You will still “attend” just as many class time hours and will still need to devote as many hours outside of class time (per ABA Standards, 2 hours outside of class for every hour in class). The only difference some of you may see is if you had a long commute. If that is the case, think back to all those times you thought to yourself, “If I only had more time I could get in more outlining and practice.” Now you do, so use it productively. Time management is still an important skill, whether the class is online or on-campus.
With online learning, potential distractions are everywhere – on your computer and even around you. Some of you have made the choice to not use a laptop during class time. This new format will require you to use a laptop or some other device to access class lecture. Using laptops comes with its own set of temptations. Then there is your personal space. After all, a pile of dirty dishes is never as tempting as when you have important work to complete. For internet distractions, consider installing online tools for better attention and focus. Around your home, set up a space you will use for “attending” class. Keep it organized and to the extent you can, keep it separate from common areas in the home. Sitting with a wall directly behind you is less distracting for the other participants. Remember, professors and peers alike will be able to see what is behind you.
Stay focused and engaged during class lectures
This can be a bit more challenging because there is more distance between you and your professor. There is also a lack of eye contact. Minimizing distractions will help (see above), but you will need to prepare yourself to follow along with the lecture. Taking breaks between classes to move around also helps. Use the opportunities presented by your professor to answer questions. Take class notes just as you would if you were sitting in a classroom. In other words, treat it as much as possible as if you were in class with the professor in front and surrounded by your classmates. Practicing active participation and holding yourself accountable for your own success during this time will help you stay on track.
Some tips for using Zoom
Here are some best practice tips for participating in a Zoom class:
- Consider using good on-line etiquette. Do not eat during class lecture and be mindful of your attire. In addition, everyone will be able to see your facial expressions, even those who ordinarily would be sitting behind you in class.
- Mute your mic when you are not talking. This will lead to a better audio experience for all participants.
- Pay attention to the chat feature on the right hand side of the screen. Your professor may pose questions there for you to answer.
- In case I have not emphasized this enough, everything the camera can capture will be on display for all participants to see. Make sure they are seeing what you want them to see, or more importantly, not seeing what you would not want anyone to see.
- In a traditional classroom setting, I can often tell if a student seems confused by material and will make an effort to reach out to the student. Over Zoom, it is difficult to pick up on these same non-verbal cues. Make sure you reach out to your professors for help if you need it."
Friday, March 6, 2020
The best laid plans are mere dreams without actions. Recent research emphasizes the component of success. Raul Ruiz's article noted that Dr. Duckworth and others admit that passion is not as valuable as perseverance for grit. I understand the sentiment and tend to agree that perseverance is more important than passion. However, I do think passion can help someone persevere. The data may not show a correlation, but I talk to 1Ls and bar students about why they chose to attend law school. The reasons can, and should, provide the foundation for continued perseverance. While thinking about this topic, I saw an article this week on Success Insider about turning passion into execution. I encourage everyone to read and pass along the 15 tips in the article to get students to persevere and complete more work in law school and during bar preparation.
You can access the article here.
Thursday, March 5, 2020
Every once in awhile I have a "aha" moment. I stumbled into this one, and I'm not the same because of it.
As background, a student reached after having failed the MPRE on multiple tries despite having watched commercial bar review lectures, creating personal study tools, and working lots and lots of practice questions.
I was so impressed with the student's preparatory efforts. The student had created spectacular blackletter study tools. The student knew the law backwards and forwards and could retrieve rules in a flash. And yet, the student missed question after question despite lots of practice in working through and analyzing problems.
That's when it came to me.
My student had learned the law - cold - but was still missing questions because the student had not learned the culture of how the law was tested. Based on my student's prior experiences as an attorney, I asked how my student had learned to solve legal problems as an attorney. My student explained that the key was in learning the culture of how the law applied to client problems.
Likewise, I suggested that perhaps the key to success on the MPRE lies in learning the legal culture of the MPRE. With this thought in mind, my student focused preparation efforts anew on learning MPRE culture rather than MPRE law. And guess what? The student passed the MPRE with flying colors!
Based on this admittedly anecdotal experience, my sense is that many students do not pass the MPRE because they focus on learning the wrong thing. They try to learn the law without learning the socio-legal context of how the law applies - the culture of the law.
With this thought in mind, I now suggest to students that they work through practice problems as armchair legal sociologists to learn the culture of what is being tested. In short, in my opinion, the MPRE doesn't really test the law as much as it tests the legal culture of the law. (Scott Johns).
Tuesday, March 3, 2020
Human beings -- of which law students are a subset -- are notoriously unreliable when trying to figure out what to worry about.
This is not to say that we cannot recognize potential threats in a general way; only that, because of the way we are hard-wired to process threats, we sometimes overestimate certain threats, which in turn can cause us to underestimate, or even overlook, other threats. An article in The Washington Post several weeks ago explained why the public and the media seemed to be more panicky about the new coronavirus than about other looming threats. The article did not suggest that the virus is not dangerous or shouldn't be taken seriously, but it did try to explain why it has been featured so prominently in public discourse, when other greater and more palpable threats to health, like influenza or poor nutrition, barely merited discussion. Among the reasons for this amplification of attention:
- "We instinctively worry more about new risks than familiar ones" -- perhaps in part because we worry more about things we cannot control, and things that seem new and mysterious also seem more out of our control.
- We worry more about things that remind us of other things that frighten us -- the way a new global pandemic might remind us of The Plague or any of a dozen science-fiction movies -- because that fear is more readily elicited.
- We tend to pay more attention to threats that other people are talking about, because we are social animals and we assume there is a reason that other people are anxious.
Again, the point of the article was not to suggest that the new virus did not merit any concern. It was merely trying to explain why, for example, people who were blasé about obtaining a flu shot might be terrified of a disease that (at the time) hadn't even reached their hemisphere yet.
In a similar way, law students can sometimes be hyperaware of the existence of a particular threat to their performance, but might devote so much attention to it that they neglect or even overlook other concerns that, in reality, might have a bigger impact on their grades and other outcomes. They might pay a lot of attention to the risks of failing at new tasks -- like writing case briefs or mastering IRAC format -- simply because they are new and mysterious, and perhaps at the expense of addressing more familiar and pervasive concerns like grammar or logical reasoning. Students who are afraid of, say, public speaking might devote inordinate attention to being prepared to recite case details if they are cold-called in class -- as if the professor were planning to determine that student's grade for the course based on one recitation -- and in the process those students may not have the time or energy to try to extrapolate deeper implications from the case or to fit it into a larger picture. And if it seems like the rest of the class is saying that a particular resource or exercise is the key to acing a certain class, how many students are going to be able to resist the call of that bandwagon, even if a different resource might be more effective for them?
The things our students worry about, they are probably justified in worrying about them. But sometimes the way they worry about them might draw their attention from other threats to their performance that deserve more emphasis, more consideration, and more action.
Sunday, March 1, 2020
The NFL is masterful at marketing and engaging the 24/7 news cycle. For years, former college football players gathered in Indianapolis for a condensed NFL combine, which is a workout for teams to evaluate incoming players. The NFL turned the combine into a week long TV event at the end of February to grab headlines. The tactic is working. Analysts, experts, armchair quarterbacks, and everyone in between comment on a 300 pound offensive lineman's ability to sprint 40 yards. The hype is so large that some analysts argue the combine is being overly scrutinized. An offensive lineman will never sprint 40 yards down the field. Why does that measurement along with a quarterback's hand size and a punter's bench press matter when playing football?
A few years ago, Orlando Brown performed extremely poorly in nearly every drill. He won numerous accolades in college, but he was drafted later due to his combine performance. Now, he is a critical starter for the extremely successful Baltimore Ravens. The combine assessment cost him millions of dollars, and that assessment isn't what he does on a daily basis. The counter example is John Ross. Ross ran 40 yards in 4.22 seconds, a record at the combine. He was drafted extremely high and has been a disappointment in the NFL. The assessment poorly predicted his ability because straight-line running isn't sufficient for playing football.
I believe some of our classes in law school are similar to the NFL combine. Students read cases and try to prepare for every question the professor may ask. Immediately before class, they re-read the cases. Particular students will then sound amazing in class by knowing all the information about a case. I have heard students even say they spent significant time outside class pulling the full case from Lexis or Westlaw to read everything about it. Some students perceive the fact heavy recitations as the best students in class. Due to oral questioning in front of others, the perception can snowball to others focusing only on the cases.
The focus on the cases leads to final exam preparation problems. The amount of time spent on perfecting cases could be spent on practice and understanding instead. Also, students construct outlines that are chronological lists of cases because reading and class discussion focused on what a particular case said. I have numerous meetings each semester where students tell me the intricacies of a case, but the student can't explain the process for analyzing the doctrine on a final exam.
The true assessment of skills and the grade will come from the final exam. The best way to prepare is to know what is necessary for the final and work backwards. If the final includes a long story with a question asking what Torts occurred, then knowing the intricacies of a case is only helpful in addition to knowing the steps in the analysis. Obviously, students should read every page of an assignment and brief every case. However, I encourage students to focus on what matters in the end. After reading for a class, ask the following questions:
- How does this case (or cases) fit with the previous cases in the class?
- Is the case (or cases) consistent with the previous reading?
- Which step in the analysis does this case describe?
- Is this a new concept?
- Does the case also define, explain, or illustrate a small piece of a rule?
- How does the case help clarify when this doctrine is at issue?
- How will this help me analyze a problem on the final exam?
The questions are good for after class as well. Students should combine reading and class notes either the night after class or the next day. When combining, ask the same questions.
Law school final exams may not test the same skills as some professors expect in class. Classes focus on understanding small parts, while finals require knowing the big picture. Knowing cases is similar to breaking 40 yard dash records. It is an amazing skill and can be a good foundation for success, but cases (and running) alone will not be sufficient for good legal analysis.
Wednesday, February 26, 2020
This week we, as in the legal community, are in the midst of the February Bar Exam. For many taking the Feb exam, this can mean that they weren't successful in July. This isn't always the case, there are plenty reasons to take the bar exam in Feb for the first time. However, working with repeaters has made me reflect quite a bit on growth mindset and the importance of grit.
Grit is defined, by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, as "firmness of mind or spirit, unyielding courage in the face of hardship." Growth mindset is a frame of mind, a belief system we adopt to process incoming information. People with a growth mindset look at challenges and change as a motivator to increase effort and leaning. Most experts agree that grit and growth mindset are the most important factors in success.
Let's start with Grit. An entire book on grit was written by Angela Duckworth. (See her website for information on her book, as well as her grit scale - https://angeladuckworth.com/) Angela Duckworth is a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and founder and CEO of Character Lab. She started studying why certain people succeed, and others don't. She began at West Point Military Academy, studying why some complete the "Beast Barracks", essentially a boot camp, while others drop out. Given that to get into West Point, there was a certain similarity of background, in term of grades, extracurricular, etc. she set out to see if she could predict who would make it, and who wouldn't. It turns out they couldn't predict this based on grades, or background, but could base it on a grit scale that Prof. Duckworth created. The grittier the West Point cadet, the more likely they would complete the "Beast Barracks". She later expanded on her studies and found that the grittier you were, the more likely you were to complete a graduate degree. She further expanded this to other professions, Olympians, etc, and found that generally, the more grit you had, the more like you were to succeed.
This applies to law school, the bar exam, and the practice of law. Grittier people get back up. They fail, but they learn from that failure and try again. And sometimes try over and over again. However, the key is always learning WHY you failed. This brings me to growth mindset. Dr. Carol Dweck coined the terms "fixed mindset" and "growth mindset." These terms describe the underlying beliefs we have about learning and intelligence.
Professor Dweck explain why a fixed mindset can negatively impact all aspects of your life, but especially your learning:
"Believing that your qualities are carved in stone creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character, well then you'd better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn't do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics.
I've seen so many people with this one consuming goal of proving themselves in [a learning setting], in their careers, and in their relationships. Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character. Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser?
But when you start viewing things as mutable, the situation gives way to the bigger picture.
This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments, everyone can change and grow through application and experience.
This is important because it can actually change what you strive for and what you see as success. By changing the definition, significance, and impact of failure, you change the deepest meaning of effort."
In short, if you focus on learning for learning's sake, and not the end result, like grades or the bar exam, you will get more out of your effort! As a law student, focus on learning the law, and learning to be the best lawyer you can, will help you be more successful. (Here is the website on mindset, where you can take a quiz to find out where you are on the mindset scale, and learn more about the years of research done by Prof. Dweck - https://www.mindsetworks.com/science/)
Grit and growth mindset also take practice. Those that are grittier know that they have to put in the time and effort, that no one is just a "natural" - there is always behind the scenes work. Again, this also takes serious self reflection to learn from each failure, and to learn from each success. If you are a law student, assess your exams. Learn to assess your practice hypotheticals. Reflect on how you can improve. If you are studying for the bar, learn to track MBE questions and learn from each practice essay. If you are a practicing lawyer, learn from each and everything you do, whether it ended in a win or a loss. There is always room for improvement, and that is what makes successful people successful.
I don't think lawyers, as a profession, talk enough about our failures, or ways we can improve. Therefore, the messaging doesn't get passed down to students. But we have to make it the norm to fail, and get back up again. That needs to be part of our culture.
It should also be noted that I'm biased, because as I'm writing this I'm working on an entire CALI lesson on growth mindset and grit for law students, so if you are a student, look for that soon, and if you are a professor, feel free to pass it along to your students. In that lesson, I encourage students to reflect on failures, and what they learned. I encourage you all to share your failures, and how you bounced back, with your students.
Stay gritty! (Melissa Hale)
Tuesday, February 25, 2020
For the first time in eleven years, the February bar examination starts on Mardi Gras. For those celebrating the first day of Carnival, today will be a joyous and hopeful celebration, followed tomorrow by a weeks-long period of disciplined self-denial; for those taking the bar exam, today marks the culmination of a weeks-long period of disciplined self-denial, to be followed tomorrow by a joyous and hopeful celebration. To both krewes I say: Laissez les bon temps rouler!
Meanwhile, those of us in Academic Support engaged in less elevated pursuits are already making efforts and plans to help the next set of examinees get ready for the July administration of the bar examination. As we communicate with our current 3L students to lay the foundation for their prep work over the summer, it is not a bad idea to consider Shrove Tuesday and some of the value of celebration and ceremony in general. Holidays like Mardi Gras and festivities like weddings are not merely commemorations of momentous occasions, nor excuses for fun and excess. They also serve as cultural and psychological turning points, signaling for participants the seriousness of the transition they are about to make. (“Carnival” is, after all, derived from a Latin phrase for “remove meat” or “farewell to meat” – we associate the term with fun, but it really means preparing to sacrifice.) The grandiosity and tradition of such celebrations convey weighty significance, and their communal nature impress upon participants that they have both support from and responsibility towards a society – that they are not just taking this on alone. When effective, these implications encourage celebrants to take on their new situation immediately and wholeheartedly, and the (often subconscious) gravity impressed upon them by the jubilee can give them the perseverance not to abandon it when times are hard. Wedding ceremonies help couples take the hard work of being married seriously, even when they want to walk away. Mardi Gras helps observants stick to their resolutions of Lenten sacrifice, even when led into temptation.
Graduation is already a significant celebration in the minds of our law students, and we can use the weight and jubilation already associated with it to the advantage of our future bar examinees. A little additional messaging, suggesting that commencement is not just the start of their professional lives but also a milestone that marks the transition to a new mode of intensity, can help students see graduation day (even if only subconsciously) as a ceremony that signals their immediate and wholehearted commitment to bar study, and one that lends them additional perseverance throughout the months of May, June, and July. Be overt, be enthusiastic, and remind them that they will celebrating and then sacrificing together. There is power in a party, and we can put it to use.
Thursday, February 20, 2020
We've been told that seeing is believing but I suspect that most of us don't really think that's quite true, at least when it comes to our own cognitive biases.
After all, we are trained attorneys, steeped in expertise in evaluating evidence carefully and thoughtfully. We don't rush into conclusions. We sort, we deduce, we reflect. At least that's what I used to think...until I got caught by one of my own students.
Here's what happened.
We were talking about cognition, and one of my students - a former teacher - asked me if I wouldn't mind taking part in a little experiment about thinking - a mathematics experiment. I was so excited because I'm a mathematician by professional training. I was ready for the test, or so I thought.
Step by step, my student became my teacher, asking me the following questions in front of about 90 of my students:
Prof. Johns, what's 1000 + 1000? Good.
Now, add 50. Good.
Now, add 40. Perfect.
Now, add 10.
What's that give you? ______.
I blurted out, as proudly and as loudly as I could...3000...and I was completely wrong and utterly embarrassed (since the correct answer is 2100).
Here's what happened: My thinking got in my way because I wasn't really thinking but acting like I was thinking, which is what I think cognitive bias might come down to.
Try this out with your own students. Ask them to work through this little math problem, out loud, one calculation at a time, as a class.
[Note: At first, few will participate by calculating answers, after all, because most are scared of math, so start the whole problem over until all are participating by speaking - out loud - the answers to each step of the math problem.]
What's 1000 plus 1000? _____
Plut 50? ______
Plus 40? ______
Plus 10? ______
Most, just like me, will blurt out 3000. And that's a problem - as attorneys and as law students - because that means that the first impulses of our minds are often wrong, whether we are working through multiple-choice questions, sketching out possible issues as we read through an essay question, or probing problems that we might need to address to help our clients.
So if you have a chance to try out this little experiment with your students, please let me know what you learn. And, let me know what your students say that they've learned from this experiment. If your students are at all like me, this little experiment will not just open up their minds but also their eyes too. And that's something worth seeing.
Thursday, February 13, 2020
Let me ask you a couple of questions posed by a recent article (illustrating how easily our minds can mislead us). M. Statman, Mental Mistakes, WSJ (Feb 9, 2020).
First, do you consider yourself an above average driver?
Second, do you consider yourself an above average juggler?
Most of us answer the first question: "Yes, of course I'm an above average driver." In contrast, most of us answer the second question: "No, absolutely not. Why, I can't even juggle so I'm definitely below average." But context matters in determining whether our answers to these questions are accurate. Id.
Let me explain.
Take driving. Most of us think that we are at least average drivers (and most likely above average) because we drove today and didn't (hopefully) have an accident. But most drivers are just like us. They didn't have accidents either. Id. Consequently, at least half of us have to be below average and the other half above average. And, because we haven't yet explored any factual evidence in order to accurately gauge our driving abilities (such as accident records, traffic tickets, etc), we are often mistaken about our driving abilities.
Now let's take juggling. Most of us can't juggle at all, and, because that includes virtually all people, we are probably at least average jugglers (and maybe even better than average jugglers!). Id. You see, evidence matters in judging accurately. Id.
Likewise, with respect to learning, most of us think that we are at least above average with respect to easy tasks (like driving) but below average with respect to the hard tasks of learning (like juggling). However, without concrete facts to evaluate our learning, we are likely wrong. And that's a problem because if we don't know what we know and what we need to know we can't improve our learning...at all. Indeed, that's why learning can be so difficult. We tend to get stuck within our minds, our own framework, seeing what we want to see rather than what is really true about our learning.
So, as you evaluate your own learning, step back. Ask yourself how do I know what I think I know. Challenge yourself to see from the perspective of others so that you don't miss out on wonderful opportunities to improve your learning. Be honest but not harsh. Focus on identifying ways to improve.
If you're not sure how to go about self-reflective learning, here's a quick suggestion:
Take for example an essay answer that you've written.
First, find, identify, and explain one thing that in your writing that is outstanding (and why).
Second, find, identify, and explain one way to improve your writing (and why that would be beneficial).
Indeed, towards the end of most meetings with students, rather than telling my students to do "this or that," I ask them to tell me what they've learned about themselves from talking together and what can they do to improve their own learning. And, I don't stop with just one answer. I keep on asking until we have at last three concrete action items, all of which sprung out from them rather than me. That's because the most memorable learning happens in "aha" moments, when we see what we didn't see before. And, after all, isn't that the essence of learning...seeing anew with free eyes to boot.
Tuesday, February 11, 2020
The year: 334 B.C.
The place: The ancient Phrygian city of Gordium
The tale you are about to read is as true as it can be:
Hephaestion: Hey, Seleucus! You just missed all the fun! Alex here just fulfilled another ancient prophecy!
Alexander the Great (shrugging): Don’t listen to Heph. It was no big deal.
Seleucus: “No big deal”? And a shrug? That’s what you said after you razed the city of Thebes. “Eh, no biggie.” Just another complete victory and total annihilation. Whatever. So what was it this time?
Hephaestion: Get this: There was this ox-cart in town tied to a post –
Seleucus: And Alex chopped it into kindling, burned it to ashes, then scattered the ashes to the four winds?
Alexander the Great: Gee, thanks, Seleucus, you make me sound like some kind of rampaging destroyer.
Seleucus: Well, you are conquering the known world. There’s bound to be a certain amount of destruction involved.
Alexander the Great: It’s not all destruction. Sometimes there’s creativity involved.
Seleucus: Yeah, like creating widows.
Hephaestion: As I was saying: there’s this ox-cart tied to a post by this knot. Been there hundreds of years, and no one’s ever been able to untie the knot. If you saw the knot, you’d understand why: totally complicated, gnarled and tangled, just a huge total mess.
Seleucus: Like Hephaestion’s tent.
Hephaestion: I’m ignoring you. This knot was tied by Midas—
Seleucus: Hold up, you mean King Midas? You mean everything-he-touched-turned-to-gold Midas? The guy who starved to death because every grape and loaf of bread he picked up turned to gold before he could eat it?
Alexander the Great: Yeah, I always wondered about that. Why didn’t he just have servants drop the food into his open mouth?
Seleucus: That’s what I like about you, Alex; always thinking outside the box.
Hephaestion: Yes, it was that Midas. See? Big names. No ordinary knot here. And there’s this prophecy, too: Whoever unties this knot is destined to be the ruler of all Asia.
Seleucus: I see where you’re going with this. Alex had to have a go at it, didn’t he?
Alexander the Great: Well, if you counted the number of turns visible around the rim of the knot, you could tell that—
Hephaestion: I’ll say he had a go! He scrunched up his Macedonian eyes, looked at it for a minute like it contained the secrets of the universe, and said, “I know how to take care of this!”
Seleucus: Did you? I’m impressed.
Hephaestion: He whipped out his sword, and snap! Cut right through that sucker!
Seleucus: You did? I’m not impressed.
Hephaestion: Oh, go suck a pomegranate. Alex dismantled that puppy! That knot is no more. And that means that Alex = ruler of all Asia. And what did you accomplish this morning, Seleucus? Clean your tent?
Seleucus: Yes, I did. But I’ll tell you what I didn’t do – I didn’t cheat. Which is what Alex did do.
Alexander the Great: Wait, Seleucus, you don’t understand—
Seleucus: No, Alex, I don’t understand. The prophecy said “whoever unties the knot”. I don’t understand how chopping it to pieces counts as “untying” it. When I untie my sandals do I pop a blade into them?
Alexander the Great: Look, I needed to use my sword—
Seleucus: Did you? Did you really? I’ve been seeing this trend in you for the last few years, Alex: when in doubt, wipe it out! Rivals to the throne – gone. Vanquished armies – eliminated. And now this knot – oh, let me just slice the cord in twain – problem solved! Well, you know what, Alex? That’s just cheating. Eliminating a problem is not the same as solving it. “Thinking outside the box” does not mean you just move yourself into a different box.
Hephaestion: Hey, step off, Seluke! You don’t know what you’re talking about.
Seleucus: Don’t I? Look, this time it’s just a damn knot, and knowing Alex the press will probably eat this up. They’ll be writing about it for at least 2,354 years – “And then Alexander the Great cut the Gordian Knot, and found a solution where no one else could!” But Alex is trying to rule the whole world, Heph, and this attitude of destroy/eliminate/repeat is going to be the end of him. If he doesn’t learn how to actually solve these “unsolvable” problems, then what’s he going to do when he encounters one he can’t get rid of?
Alexander the Great: Seleucus, I hear what you’re saying, and I appreciate it. But Heph is right – you didn’t hear the whole story. I didn’t simply chop the Gordian Knot into pieces, although I bet you’re right about that being how the press will report it. Quick and brutal gets people’s attention, but even I know that slow and elegant is often more effective. With the knot, I simply noticed that it could never be untied so long as the two ends of the rope remained spliced together, so I pulled out my sword and trimmed the splices. That left me with the two original ends of the rope – just like the two ends of your sandal laces. Once those were freed, I could actually start to work on the knot, like no one had done over the last, what, three hundred years? Duh. It took me a couple of hours, but eventually I was able to work the knot loose.
Alexander the Great: I think there’s a difference between changing the conditions to make them workable and completely blowing the problem up.
Hephaestion: Is that all you can say? “Oh. Yeah.” You called out the future ruler of all Asia by mistake and can’t even apologize?
Seleucus: Ah, Alex, I’m sorry. You know I was just worried about you.
Alexander the Great: I know. But I think I’m going to have to have you and your entire bloodline executed now, and your ashes — how did he put it?
Hephaestion: “Scattered to the four winds,” I think he said.
Alexander the Great: Yeah, that was it. I like that — little pieces of burnt-up Seleucus, and his kids, drifting south on a zephyr.
Alexander the Great: I’m just kiddin’, Seleucus. I know you care. Later, dude. Heph, let’s you and I go clean your tent.
Sunday, February 9, 2020
So how can we avoid having a student’s working memory become compromised? There are a lot of different methods for doing so.
Practice Really Does Make Perfect
If we want to get better at anything, we have to practice it. A lot. This isn’t a novel idea, most of us know this instinctually or through our experiences. Malcolm Gladwell makes a very compelling argument in his book Outliers that in order to become an expert in any field or task, you must put in approximately 10,000 hours of practice. For example, Tiger Woods needed 10,000 hours of practice before he became a top-flight golfer, and he had amassed that mount of practice at a fairly young age because he had been trained since the age of 2 to play golf. By the time The Beatles had any real success, they had played 1200 times over a period of a few years, playing up to 8 hours at a time.
Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom became one of the largest and most powerful law firms in the world because its founders practiced hostile takeover law for decades before hostile takeovers became common – and being a master in that area of law became insanely valuable. That amount of practice shouldn’t be required to avoid the choke on a law school exam, but practice is certainly going to help.
So what might a student do in order to be better on pressure-packed law school exams, or even the bar exam? Take lots of pressure packed exams of course! Faculty can’t replicate the pressure of a bar exam perfectly, but they can put the students under pressure as often as possible. For example, one thing we do is have students take lots of timed, in class, for-credit examinations throughout certain courses. Students are subjected to the pressure of doing well to pass their course, the pressure of performing with their classmates around, the pressure of the clock ticking, not to mention the simple pressure placed upon themselves to perform as best they can. This training can greatly improve results, and might actually change the physical wiring of student’s brains.
Practice and experience can actually change the structure and function of people’s brains. London cabbies, who must navigate the city from memory all day, have enlarged hippocampus, the part of the brain that deals with navigation and recollection of driving routes. Individuals trained in juggling have increased brain mass in the areas of the brain that understand motion. Musicians, who must have superior control of both hands and be able to coordinate them in complex manners, have enlarged corpus callosum. The corpus callosum is the connection between the two halves of the brain that allows for the two halves to communicate with each other – an essential function for a musician who needs their hands to work together.
This makes sense when you think about our bodies’ ability to adapt to what we throw at them. I may not be able to go out and run a marathon tomorrow, but if I take the time to train my body to be able to do something like that, then it can be done. Likewise, practice under pressure can train our brains to manage pressure and stress much more efficiently. It can teach us to handle the pressure and allow our working memory to function at its highest level.
Practice has another terrific benefit for our working memories. Through practice, mental processes can be automated. Take for example a child learning how to tie their shoes. When the child is first learning this process, it requires most of their working memory to tie that shoelace – they have to focus on the process that was recently taught to them and make sure they are executing the steps properly. After lots of practice, however, the same child can carry on a conversation or perform some other mental task at the same time they tie their shoes. Why? Because they have automated the process of tying their shoes, thus freeing up their working memory for other tasks. Another way to look at it: the process for tying shoelaces has moved from the child’s working memory into procedural memory.
The same process can happen for students in law school. This is why we teach and drill our students on the proper use of IRAC throughout law school, for example. Through long periods of practice, the process of structuring an essay around an IRAC format can become automated. It becomes something the student doesn’t have to think about; they just do it as they have done a hundred times before. That frees up the student’s working memory to focus on handling their facts and doing good analysis.
Another example comes during bar exam preparation. We always teach our students to have rule statements memorized for as many different issues as possible. That way, when that particular issue shows up on the bar exam, the student has that rule statement in their procedural memory ready to go. They don’t have to think about it, they just write. Again, working memory is freed to focus on other things.
Practice is something that many of us already know is very effective in helping students achieve on exams. The rest of the suggested methods for dealing with difficult and stressful exams may not be as apparent to many.
Preparation and Confidence
A related concept to practice is preparation. The concepts are related, yet differ in important aspects. Practicing is when you actually do the task you are ultimately hoping to accomplish – for example, practice exams to get ready for the real exam. Preparation is different – this is the studying required to have the baseline knowledge required to perform well on the exam.
The need for preparation is obvious – if we need to prepare for an exam on ancient Greek history, we must study ancient Greek history, as well as write practice exams. But there is an added benefit to preparation, and it is confidence. When you know that you have thoroughly reviewed all required materials, you can answer questions about that material with more confidence. There are no surprises, and nothing rattles you because you have seen it all before – in both your preparation and your practice.
Famous trial attorney David Boies perfectly demonstrates how important preparation can be. He describes his preparation as such:
“When we showed up for the opening statement, I had read every single exhibit we had marked before we marked it. I had read every single deposition excerpt that we had marked for offering into evidence before we had marked it. I had read every single deposition line they had offered.” Such preparation required reading thousands of pages of documents, something most lawyers don’t do in preparation for trial because of the massive resources required to do so. “There are no surprises for me, but you can’t imagine how few people that’s true for” he says. “There is no way most lawyers do that.”
This preparation gives Boies a major advantage. He knows all of the material so well that he can remain focused on the story he wants to tell – not on reacting to what the other side might be saying. “When I get up there, I have the confidence of knowing what the total evidence record is, and I know how far I can push it and how far I can’t. I know what the limits are, and that’s the way you maintain your credibility.” And it is this credibility that wins him major cases, such as the antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft in the late 1990’s. “Most good lawyers lose credibility in a trial not because they intentionally mislead but because they make a statement that they believe is true at the time and it is not.”
Preparation can then clear your working memory to focus on the task at hand. In Boies’ case, he is never caught off-guard by anything during a trial, as happens to so many attorneys. He has seen everything before, and as he says “there are no surprises.” He can focus on his story, on his goals, and not get distracted.
For even more practical advice on this topic, see the Fall 2018 issue of the learning curve on ssrn. That issue includes additional information on overcoming negative stereotypes, journaling, and meditation to improve exam performance.
(Kevin Sherrill - Guest Blogger).
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Paul Sullivan, Clutch: Excel Under Pressure, Portfolio/Penguin Publishing, 2010.
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Gerardo Ramirez and Sian Beilock, Writing About Testing Worries Boosts Exam Performance in the Classroom, Science Magazine, January 14, 2011 (Vol 331).
Daniel T. Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School?, Jossey-BassPublishing, 2009.
S.J. Spencer and C.M. Steele and D.M. Quinn, “Stereotype threat and women’s math performance.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35 (1999).
Matt Scott, Olympics: Korean Double Medalist Expelled for Drug Use, The Guardian, Retrieved on October 25, 2013 from http://www.theguardian.com/sport/2008/aug/15/olympics2008.drugsinsport
Malcolm Gladwell, The Art of Failure, The New Yorker, August 21 & 28, 2000.
Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers.