Tuesday, October 15, 2019

One Way to Examine the Educational Experience

I have been reading about the concept of "community of inquiry", a model that attempts to explain how, in a variety of contexts, groups of individuals work together to share and develop knowledge.  The concept originated as a philosophical explanation of the process of scientific inquiry, but has come to be applied in other areas, including education.  One of the foundational premises that distinguishes the community of inquiry model from more traditional epistemological theories is that knowledge should not be conceived of as fixed and absolute truth that can be discerned by any single rational observer, but instead as a contingent and potentially fluid understanding of truth that depends upon common agreement in a social context for its legitimacy.  It is not hard to see the value of such a premise in learning and teaching the law.

Community of inquiry is too rich and intricate a concept to be explicated entirely in a single blog post.  However, one aspect of community of interest theory, as applied to education, is easy to grasp, and potentially a helpful way to examine the robustness of a course, workshop, or other legal educational experience. 

In this schema, a meaningful and effective educational experience depends on three interdependent elements:

  • Social presence: This is the ability of those in the community of interest to perceive others, and to be perceived themselves, as real individuals in that community.  This facilitates interaction and collaboration.  Notably, this concept arose early in consideration of online learning platforms, where social presence may not arise naturally.  At the same time, even in live classrooms, factors such as a teacher's openness and receptivity, opportunities for students to be heard, and activities and platforms through which students can work together can all enhance social presence.
  • Cognitive presence: This is the extent to which the necessary "raw materials" are available and accessible for members of the community to use to construct and confirm meaning and thus to develop their own knowledge.  These raw materials include reading materials, lectures, experimentation, feedback, and the like -- much of what traditional models of education consider to be the greater part of education.
  • Teaching presence: In the law school context, teaching presence usually refers to the carrying out of two essential functions by the professor or lecturer: first, the design of the educational experience, including the selection of content and activities; and second, the facilitation of that educational experience, meaning the real-time execution of those activities and provision of assessment arising from them.

In the broadest terms possible, these three presences correspond to the people who will learn, the stuff they are supposed to learn, and the teacher who will help them learn it.  What I think is useful about this model is that it suggests1 that we can look at pairs of these elements to help us determine how to improve three sometimes noticeably troublesome aspects of the learning experience: climate in the classroom, productivity of discourse, and transmission of content.

  • Climate in the classroom is defined by the intersection of teaching presence and social presence.  Thus, problems with climate (inattention, unruliness, anxiety, competition, etc.) can be addressed by considering changes not just to how the teacher is leading the class (teaching presence), but also to the structures that facilitate social participation.
  • Productivity of discourse is defined by the intersection of social presence and cognitive presence.  Here, then, the sense that students are not making the best use of their opportunities to interact with the teacher and with each other can be addressed by considering changes not just to the structures that facilitate social participation, but also to the raw materials that are available and accessible to the students to use for discourse.
  • Transmission of content is defined by the interaction of cognitive presence and social presence.  If students do not seem to be absorbing enough of the information provided in class for them to be able to build upon what they already know to construct new meaning, this can be addressed by considering changes not just to the raw materials that are available and accessible, but also to how the teacher is leading the class.

There is a lot more to explore in the community of inquiry model; this handy and practical way to think about possible ways to improve classroom experience seemed like a good place to start.

[Bill MacDonald]

1 See https://coi.athabascau.ca/coi-model/; http://cde.athabascau.ca/coi_site/documents/Garrison_Anderson_Archer_Critical_Inquiry_model.pdf

 

October 15, 2019 in Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 14, 2019

Are We Hiding the Ball?

Consider the disturbing possibility that in law there is no ball or that, if there is one, no one has a really good account of what it looks like. – Pierre Schlag

The Socratic method is an iconic hallmark of legal education. Even in the face of evolving pedagogy, the Socratic method continues to be regarded as an excellent instructional tool that develops important skills and teaches students to think quickly. Yet, the Socratic method remains one of the most widely used, and possibly equally misused, tools relied upon by law faculty.

Taken to extremes, some scholars espouse the position that Socratic-style teaching should deliberately induce confusion in learners. Professor Rick Hills distinguishes “hopeless confusion” from “productive confusion” the latter in which the instructor “helps the student recognize that the way out of confusion is through focused thought and problem solving, by providing necessary information and suggesting strategies when appropriate.”1 Regardless of the distinction, students are likely to interpret instructor-induced confusion as withholding essential information or “hiding the ball.”

In his article by the same title, Pierre Schlag identifies the ironic significance of the “hiding the ball” metaphor: instead of promoting curiosity in new law students, it seduces their attention away from fundamental inquiry into law. Law students seem to prefer direct instruction that identifies the general rules and their distinctions. Professors commonly refer to this instructive style as “bar review.” Professor Hills recounted, [e]very once in a while, I engage in this “bar review” style lecturing just to make it easier. When I do, my [course evaluations] predictably tick up.2

Hills’ example begs the question to what extent should student preferences be considered in establishing legal education norms. In the face of changing enrollment demographics and declining bar passage, would being more direct with learning deliverables produce more practice ready graduates, or would it dilute the quality of legal education as we know it? Washburn Law Professor Jeffrey Jackson says that the Socratic method should not be the sole means for teaching law, but it can be a complementary tool to other methods of teaching, like Legal Writing and Analysis. By using a combination of teaching methods that provide a variety of approaches, the learning experience of law students can be greatly enhanced.3 Professor Jackson’s model allows for the type of multi-modal instruction that today’s law students deserve. 

1  Roderick M. Hills, Jr., William T. Comfort III Professor of Law, New York University School of Law, In defense of hiding the ball in law school classes: Does being confused help you learn stuff?

2 Pierre Schlag, Hiding the Ball, 71 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 1681 (1996). 

3 Jeffrey D. Jackson, Socrates and Langdell In Legal Writing: Is the Socratic Method a Proper Tool for Legal Writing Courses?, 43 Cal. W. L. Rev. 267 (2007).

(Marsha Griggs)

October 14, 2019 in Learning Styles, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

The Calm Before the Storm

One of my favorite seasons of the academic year runs between the last week of September and Halloween.  In terms of academic meteorology, conditions are ideal for the formation of manageable disturbances, especially among first-year students: after a warming period of several weeks, they become a bit unsettled due to some mid-term squalls, but they retain a great deal of stored energy and begin to show signs of increasing organization, giving them plenty of room to develop before being overtaken by the late fall gloom that presages the tempest of finals.  

Most of the students who breeze into my office at this time possess the three things I value most in my advisees: the motivation to try to improve their legal writing and/or analysis, the belief that they actually can improve, and the time to devote to that improvement.  Earlier in the year, they may have more time but, without having received any feedback on their work, less motivation to improve.  Come November, with finals looming, they may have motivation to spare, but a dearth of time, and, in some cases, a stunted belief in their own ability to improve.  But right now, a lot of students have that ideal blend of motivation, belief, and time.

The more I have worked with students, the more I have come to see that the most important characteristic of time is not quantity but distribution.  It is usually more helpful for me to meet with a student for 30 minutes every week than for 60 or even 90 minutes every two weeks.  The quicker, more frequent meetings not only help the student feel more connected.  Shorter meetings also force us to focus our work on one or two main skills each week.  With more time, it might be tempting to try to cover every weakness in a student's repertoire -- active reading, organization of information, grammar, argument structure, analytical content, judgment, persuasive diction, etc. -- but this can be overwhelming.  A student trying to improve in a dozen areas at once may not make progress in any of them.  It is too much to think about, and there may be little sense of prioritization.

But when a student walks away from a discussion of their work with one or two clear messages about how to improve in one or two specific tasks, that makes their job for the week focused and manageable.  And if that's why they focus on in their homework between meetings, then we can start the next meeting by looking for the improvement in those areas, and then follow up by addressing one or two new areas for improvement that can build upon the previous week.  Timely feedback on, and immediate use of, the skills that a student works on is the best way to both hone and retain those skills.  Thus, with appropriate exercises to complete between meetings, a student can make and preserve more progress in two hours of meeting time spread out over four weekly meetings than in two or even three hours of meeting time split between one meeting in week one and a follow-up meeting in week four.

After Halloween, the demands of writing assignments due, the stress of upcoming finals, and the interruptions of the holidays make it a lot more difficult to arrange these kinds of punchy weekly meetings.  Now is the time to encourage your students to take advantage of the calm before the academic storm.

[Bill MacDonald]

October 8, 2019 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Study Tips - General, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, September 30, 2019

Back to Basics - Part II

Titles are granted, positions are given, but it’s respect that earns you credibility. - Lolly Daskal

This is the second in a series of weekly blog posts addressing the basics of effective teaching. Last week, I addressed the importance of knowing your audience, whether from the podium of a classroom or on a larger stage. It is equally important to establish your credibility in the classroom in a manner that fosters learning and builds student rapport.

A teacher is viewed as the subject matter expert in the classroom, whether the audience is a class of third-graders, or third-year law students battling Secured Transactions. But, deference to one’s subject matter expertise can be extinguished with the speed of a hand raise.  How we answer questions, or if we answer them at all, matters. Authority is not credibility. While authority may be bestowed or presumed, credibility is earned - one interaction after another. True expertise is evidenced by our ability to field and answer questions, and it can be wholly undermined by our failure or refusal to do the same.

Recent experiences have, for me, sounded the call for a return to the basics of quality teaching. To ensure that our students are well-prepared to pass state bar exams, academic support professors try to develop and maintain subject matter expertise in legal licensure exams. Yet, to my great shock and frustration, the well-reasoned questions of scholars soldiering in the trenches of bar prep have been dismissed and derided by those at the helm of bar examination. When questioned about exam scaling and essay equating, I’ve heard psychometric experts say you’ll just have to trust us. Which begs my point: expertise without earned credibility hobbles the vital relationship between those who have information and those with whom the information needs to be shared.

In legal analysis and bar essay writing, we tell students to use the facts. We teach them to not assume that the grader knows the facts. Effective teachers and presenters, likewise, do not assume that the audience has the facts. Under no circumstance will good teachers be dismissive of student questions. Strong teachers are not afraid to be questioned about the factual basis for their research and conclusions. In fact, they welcome a circumstance for intellectual challenge; they are fulfilled by the opportunity to teach, explain, and enlighten.

As law professors we are shepherding the next generation into the legal profession. Just as we would never silence the earnest question of a student in our class, we must speak persistence to power and not allow our own questions to go unanswered. When laws, policies, Restatements, changes to testing protocols, and impediments to educational access are proposed, we must take audience with those empowered to enact change. We must seek clarity and reason, because we cannot effectively teach that which we do not ourselves understand.

(Marsha Griggs)

September 30, 2019 in Bar Exam Issues, Bar Exam Preparation, Bar Exams, Professionalism, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Let Me Use Words You Can Understand

Last year, one of my international students brought to me a response she had written to a mid-tern exam question.  She was wholly perplexed, because the professor had given her a low score on this particular response, and yet, even in looking at the notes the professor had written on her paper, she could not fathom where she had gone wrong.  Bizarrely, the more the two of us discussed her essay, the more confused I became about why she had written what she had written.  Finally, and wholly by accident, I stumbled across the source of the trouble.  At one point the exam question referred to someone being "served", and my student had not recognized this usage as being connected with "service of process".  The latter term she understood, but she read the off-hand and abbreviated statement that "X was served" as some form of hospitality, not legal action. ("Have some tea!") This was partly because English was her second language, and undoubtedly also partly because she did not grow up watching movie and TV shows in which frumpy anonymous operatives walk up to the protagonists, slap envelopes against their chests, and say, "You've been served!"  For much of our discussion, it had not even occurred to me that this could be a source of confusion, and of course there was no way the student could have known it herself.  

I thought about this episode last week, when I was attending a conference hosted by the NCBE, in which some of the presenters were discussing the ongoing evolution of the development of MBE and MEE questions.  Part of that evolution includes the elimination, or at least minimization, of the use of terms whose meaning was not tied to the practice of law and might not be recognized by all of the examinees.  An example given involved a torts question involving a car that had been damaged in a collision.  In the original question, the defendant was identified as "Union Pacific", and it was apparent that the rest of the question was written with the assumption that examinees would recognize Union Pacific as a company that operated railroads, and that therefore the collision under consideration was between a car and a locomotive.  The newer, improved version of the question simply referred to the defendant as "a railroad company", thus providing the information needed for proper analysis to all examinees.

Discussion at that point livened up a bit, as presenters and participants brainstormed about other terminology that question writers should considered changing in order to make their questions more accessible.  These tended to fall into a few categories:

  • References to people, businesses, locations -- generally, things that could be identified with proper nouns -- that might be recognized by some people (but not all people) as possessing some characteristic relevant to the legal analysis.  For example, a question that named Gregory Hines as a plaintiff in a case in which his feet were injured might reflect the expectation that examinees would recognize Hines was famously a dancer, and that therefore a foot injury might generate greater damages to him than to an average person.  A question that mentions "Reno" might rest on the assumption that everyone knows Reno is in Nevada and gambling is legal there.  
  • References to technology, fads, or news items from two or more decades ago that most of us who were alive and adult at that time would instantly recognize, but the significance of which might be totally lost on people currently in their 20s.  A question that depends on the operation of an answering machine or the effect of a slap bracelet may only be accessible to a portion of the testing population.
  • Specialized terms for everyday objects that nevertheless are not commonly used in conversation.  A question that depends on knowing the difference between a banister and a balustrade, or between a lintel and a gable, is probably going to lose a portion of the examinees.  

It can be hard, when writing exam questions or practice questions, to resist the temptation to make a clever reference or to give examinees the chance for a moment of recognition.  But our tests are not supposed to be tests of any vocabulary but legal vocabulary.  If an examinee misses the opportunity to demonstrate that he knows the appropriate rule, and can apply it skillful to relevant facts, because he did not have access to the full meaning of the fact pattern so that he could recognize the issue that leads to that rule, then the examinee has been unfairly denied a chance to shine.

[Bill MacDonald]

September 24, 2019 in Advice, Bar Exam Issues, Diversity Issues, Exams - Theory, Professionalism, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, September 23, 2019

Back to Basics

The most important knowledge teachers need to do good work is a knowledge of how students are experiencing learning and perceiving their teacher’s actions.  ~ Steven Brookfield

I love innovative pedagogy. Tools like mind maps, retrieval practice, spaced repetition, and self-directed leaning strategies have been game changers in higher education. I am always looking for ways to enhance and improve my teaching. But innovation is an enhancement to, and not a replacement for, the most basic tenets of quality classroom teaching. In this series of weekly blog posts, I will address teaching basics that are the telltale traits of effective teachers.

  1. Know your audience

We cannot afford to make assumptions about the knowledge or background of the students in our classes. Recently, I attended a conference planned for academic support and bar prep professionals. The first few hours of the conference were devoted almost entirely to explaining basic components of the bar exam. I concluded that the presenters either underestimated the skill and experience of the audience or failed to tailor a previously used presentation for the present audience. My perception of audience reaction to the content and delivery was a combination of polite appreciation, genuine curiosity, and suppressed rage. As audience participants, we have both the luxury and opportunity to make critical assessments of the projected and realized learning outcomes. But a seat on the other side of the podium also yields an enlightened perspective on effective learning strategies.

Rather than disconnect myself entirely from the redundancy of the content presented, I used the time to introspectively examine whether I had made the same mistakes. To my deep chagrin, I had. Insert hand raise emoji. I teach an early bar prep course, enrollment in which is restricted to students in their final year of law school. Because I cannot cover all the bar exam subjects in the time allotted for class, I select a few subjects. Routinely included in my course coverage are Property, Torts, Evidence, and Criminal Law. Although I intentionally include required courses, and stray away from electives that not all students will have taken, I failed to thoroughly research my audience this semester. In so doing, I did not discover, until after class had begun, that two students in my class had not yet completed the required course in Evidence.

One student was concurrently enrolled in Evidence and my course, the other had decided to wait until next semester to complete their requirements. I gut-wrenched at the thought of their polite, yet passive, frustration with me as I assigned practice questions testing hearsay  - a topic with which they had no prior exposure. Of course, there are many law schools who do not require coursework in Evidence, and a corresponding number of students who learn/study the evidentiary rules for the first time during bar prep. Pedagogically, however, had I taken the time (actually a lot of time) to review the transcripts of the students enrolled in my class, I could have scheduled assignments that equally serve and challenge them all. Even though time consuming, doing my homework on my audience is just as important as being well studied in the subject matter that I teach. Suddenly my frustration with another’s seeming underestimation of my knowledge base was supplanted with embarrassment by my own overestimation of my students’.

(Marsha Griggs)

September 23, 2019 in Advice, Bar Exam Preparation, Learning Styles, Meetings, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Feeling vs. Reality

Multiple golf instructors told me over the years that "feel isn't real."  The idea is what we think we are doing is not what our body is actually doing.  A common instructional tool with golf is for a student to over-emphasize or exaggerate a new move in the swing to get a better feel.  Our students are experiencing a similar phenomenon.

The Legal Skills Prof. Blog had a post last week about a new Harvard study relating to students perceptions of their learning.  Not shockingly, students felt better with passive teaching but performed worse on subsequent exams.  I encourage everyone to read the blog post here.  I plan to send it to my students as well.  As an Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice told a few of us recently, "if it isn't hard, it isn't worth doing."

(Steven Foster)

September 21, 2019 in Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

To Serve Law Students

I was in my office, polishing that day's lecture for my 1L class, when the alien appeared soundlessly outside my door, as tall and dazzling as the ones I had seen on the news.  They had been on Earth for two weeks now, appearing one by one or in small groups -- at the United Nations, in research laboratories, in churches and legislatures and boardrooms and newsrooms -- each time sharing a book, or a piece of art, or a technological contraption, describing briefly the gift they were giving, and then disappearing has suddenly as they had come.  The world's armies and scientists had confirmed that a huge spacecraft was parked at the L4 point in the moon's orbit, and it was presumed that was the aliens' home base.  But no one knew how they were coming down to the planet.  Or why, precisely.

My alien was huge -- as he stepped into my office, he had to bend forward stiffly to fit through the door frame, and even then his broad shoulders brushed the door jambs on each side.  It was like watching a rockslide.  But once inside, he lifted his craggy head and smiled.  With his chalky skin, and an enormous row of teeth that shimmered like the effervescent material of his robes, he looked like a James Bond villain who had repented and joined a Las Vegas monastery.

"You teach," he said, in a deep stony voice that seemed to simultaneously ask and answer the question.  I nodded dumbly.  He then pulled from a fold of his robes what looked like a dark packet of some kind, and held it out to me.  As I took it, I realized it was a book, hand bound in rich Corinthian leather, with words embossed in silver across the front: TO SERVE LAW STUDENTS.

"What is this?" I said aloud, not to the alien but to myself.  I looked up at him, and with a nod he let me know that it was permissible to open the book.  I ran my hand over the cover -- I had never felt a volume so warm, so soothing, like a puppy's belly -- and I lifted the book to look at the words inside.  Then I felt the strangest sensation.  The characters on the page made no sense at all to me; they might have been Cyrillic or katakana or Ge'ez jumbled together for all I knew.  But somehow, touching that warm cover, I knew what the text meant.  I knew what I was meant to do -- that afternoon, in class, with the entire 1L class before me. I would --

A sudden high-pitched gasp interrupted my reverie, and I reflexively slammed the book shut.  In the hallway, eyes agape, stood my student assistant, Patty.  She looked from my alien to  me and back again, not sure what she should do next.  Before I could say either "Run!" or "Come in!", the alien resolved the situation.  He growled, "Teach, you," and then vanished.  It was like a light bulb burning out -- a brief flare, and then instantly the room seemed darkened by his absence.  But he left the book.

Patty ran in.  "Professor MacDonald, was that an alien?  What did it leave you?"  She came around to my side of the desk, like a referee repositioning herself, so she could read the cover.

"It says, 'TO SERVE LAW STUDENTS,'" I pointed out.  "That's what I do.  I think it's a gift to help me do more for my students."  I flipped open the book, turning the pages without touching the cover.  "The language -- well, it all looks like gibberish to me.  But the book . . . spoke to me somehow.  I'm taking it with me to class this afternoon."

Patty's brow wrinkled.  "I can't read any of this, but it looks like it might be some kind of code."  She pulled out her phone.  "Can I scan the pages?  Maybe I can figure out what it says."

I nodded, and Patty snapped images of the two visible pages.  I turned the rest of the pages slowly, giving her time to capture the entire text.  It didn't take long.  The pages were large and the font small, so there were only about forty pages total.  Patty never touched the cover, so I don't think she "felt" the meaning of the book the way I did.  But I thought that might be better -- perhaps, uninfluenced by that perception, she might be able to come up with a more precise, more literal translation of the text.  I told her of my intention to bring the text to my 1L class that afternoon, and Patty, who enjoyed British crossword puzzles, happily left to try to crack the code.

Two hours later, I was standing at the podium at the front of our largest classroom, getting ready to teach the entire class of first-year law students.  Since the start of the school year, I had been introducing them to the particular challenges and expectations of law school, with the goal of making sure that each of them would be fully prepared by the end of the semester for the final exams that would determine their GPAs, and perhaps their fates.  Mine was the only class in which every 1L student was enrolled.  This was a boon, because it gave me the chance to introduce Academic Success and the resources available there to all of our students.  It gave me an opportunity to lay for every student the groundwork for successful performance, no matter how much familiarity they had had upon matriculation with the practice of law, law school, or even just basic sound study habits.  But it was also a challenge, because it meant holding the attention of, and delivering value to, 150+ students with different aptitudes, different levels of familiarity or experience, and different degrees of confidence in their abilities.  I would lose some of those students if I moved too quickly, and I would lose some of those students if I moved too slowly, and I wasn't sure there was a pace that would keep everyone engaged.

But today!  Today I had the book, and it was telling me how TO SERVE LAW STUDENTS, and as the second hand swept around the face of the clock at the back of the room, bringing us closer and closer to the official start of class, I began to salivate with anticipation.  I knew this would be . . . delicious.

The hand crossed the 11, and as it neared the 12, I opened my mouth and took a full breath.  Gripping the book, I prepared to begin.  But just as the red hand reached its zenith, a door at the back of the room slammed open, and Patty stumbled in, breathless and wild-eyed, clutching a batch of paper in one hand.  Every head in the room swiveled to look at her, but she looked past them all.  Her eyes found me at the podium, where I had instinctively pulled the book to my chest, and she called out.  "Professor MacDonald, put it down!  You can't use that book!  IT'S A COOKBOOK!"

There was a jittery fluttering, like the sound of 150 startled sparrows, as the students all turned their heads back to me.

"Um, not exactly," I said.  "It's more like a menu."

The sparrows rustled uneasily, as if they were about to fly.

"But look," I continued, turning to the students, "you're not on the menu.  It's a menu for you.  Look, all teachers know a bunch of recipes that we can use to help this student construct a useful case brief or to help that student learn to support her analysis with facts.  And if I'm working one-on-one with a student, or working with a small group of students who are all craving the same helping, it's great to be able to focus on a particular recipe.  But with a big group like this, I have to do more than just work through one recipe at a time.  The students who have already mastered that recipe, who've had their fill of that dish, will stop paying attention.  Sure, there are some basic recipes I have to make sure everyone knows, because maybe there are some students who thought they had learned it already, but they are actually missing some ingredients.  Or maybe they just never learned it.  But to keep everyone else in the class engaged, I have to put those recipes in the context of the wider menu.  Are there variations that people can try once they've mastered the basic recipe?  Maybe variations for particular occasions or circumstances?  Are there more advanced recipes that build on the basic recipe?  I can't teach these all in this class, but I can let you all know they exist."

The students relaxed, nestling in their seats.

"In a big class like this, it helps to move back and forth between the recipes and the menu.  To make sure everyone knows how to do certain things, but also to remind people that there are always more recipes to learn if they feel they've already mastered the basics."

"Ohhhhh." It was Patty, in the back of the room, examining the papers in her hand.  "I see where I went wrong.  A menu, not a cookbook!  And yet--"

There was a flash, and then the alien was there in the back of the room, standing next to Patty.  Over the excited murmuring of the class, I heard his gravelly voice say to Patty, "You clever.  Only human to decode Kanamit script.  Come to our ship.  We would like to toast you."  He offered her his hand.  She reached up to take it.

Before I could warn her, there was a flash, and they were both gone.

[Bill MacDonald]

September 10, 2019 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Miscellany, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

When Efficiency Isn't Efficient

I've spent an inordinate amount of time in the past week creating files on all our 1Ls.  One by one, I open a document, type in the student's name (always with the preferred name taking precedence over the legal name), paste in two or more means of contact, crop a copy of the official photograph (and some casual photographs if those are available) to best show the face, then add information I garner from Admissions spreadsheets, Orientation, and chats with the students or information gleaned from other professors. 

It's not an efficient process, and I often wonder if my time might be better spent. But I always go back to this process because it helps me know our students better. For several years, my assistant created these files; I could pull a file up at any time, familiarize myself with the basic information it contained, meet with the student, then add notes from the meeting for my later use. On the surface, it seemed like a far better system. But I found that having ready-made files, with standard information inserted by someone else and myself a passive consumer, meant that I really didn't have any insight into the students I was trying to assist. So I returned to the old process that allows me to build up a picture like putting together a mosaic, tiny piece by tiny piece, each jagged little piece chosen to contribute to the whole. Once I've created a file in this way, I feel like I know the student. While my prosopagnosia means I may not be able to recognize them until they introduce themselves, I can work with them because of the time I've spent building a picture of their backgrounds and interests and passions.

Since effective time management is a key to thriving in law school, it's common for students to feel that reducing effort creates efficiencies. So after creating case briefs in Word or in OneNote (or copying case briefs from another source), they paste the briefs into larger catch-all "outlines." Unsophisticated students will create an "outline" consisting of case brief after case brief, while students who've heard they should organize outlines by rules instead of cases put in the effort to rearrange the case brief so the rule comes first, one rule per case. When time comes to consolidate outlines, they cut out the paragraphs containing case facts and reasoning, efficiently leaving only scores of rules and case names. It's all done as speedily as possible, with the verbiage from the initial case brief remaining unexamined and unchanged since the words were first written down, although moved from document to document. 

It's rare for such "efficiency" to result in deep learning. Indeed, deep learning is messy, involving cross-outs, deletions, insertions, rewording, struggle, rewriting synthesized rules that encompass multiple cases, rethinking structure, and often starting from scratch multiple times. Independently writing multiple documents from scratch -- case briefs, case charts, summaries, hypos, and outlines -- can seem like a colossal waste of time. But the messy, inefficient process of forcing yourself to think through and re-examine a matter multiple times from multiple angles usually results in much greater understanding and an ability to use rather than merely regurgitate law. Sometimes being inefficient is the most efficient way to learn.

(Nancy Luebbert)

September 4, 2019 in Study Tips - General, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Does the Early Bird Get the Worm?

Everyone knows the saying the early bird gets the worm.  I remember hearing it throughout my childhood.  I understand the idea that getting an early start to the day.  However, does getting up early really matter?  I think I can spend just as much time, or more, than anyone else while still starting later?  Are worms really a finite commodity where the second, third, or 10am riser won't get breakfast?  I firmly believe the saying is pure propaganda by corporate elites to squeeze even more out of workers (firmly may be a stretch).  

Robin Sharma advocates that everyone should wake up at 5am.  His newest book is The 5am Club, and he argues the first hour of the day using his 20/20/20 formula will dramatically increase productivity.  The formula includes 20 minutes of exercise, 20 minutes of reflecting, and 20 minutes of learning.  Sounds great, but I think I can do the same thing at 8am.  Scott Bedgood at Success Magazine tends to agree with me.  He was skeptical, but as a journalist, he was willing to put the formula to the test.  Read Scott's article about his experience.

In the end, Scott does think the 5am hour leads to more productivity.  2 people may not be enough to convince me.  I think I will do more research before my 5am start, but the idea of more productivity is appealing.  I will pass it along to my students though.

(Steven Foster)

August 31, 2019 in Encouragement & Inspiration, Study Tips - General, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, August 18, 2019

ASP Podcasts

I enjoy listening to books or material while driving.  Music is nice, and a good break for some, but I don't need to listen to music often.  My commute is about 30 minutes, which I believe can help me learn.  Some of our students have longer commutes and feel the same way.  Halle Hara put together a good resource that could help those students.  Her new website lawschoolplaybook.com has numerous podcasts on critical law school skills.

I always warn my students that listening to material cannot be the exclusive way to absorb information.  I don't absorb as much as I should when driving and listening to a book.  However, listening to these podcasts could reinforce skills we are all teaching.  I plan to see if I could integrate them into my D2L course as an additional quick assignment.

From my brief glance, I like the topics.  We are spending significant time this year on reading comprehension.  The podcast section of the site has 10 episodes on reading cases alone.  I know my students need that information.

I am glad to see another one of our colleagues producing material that has the potential to help our students.  Keep up the good work.

(Steven Foster)

August 18, 2019 in Study Tips - General, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, August 17, 2019

WCCASP Accepting Proposals

The West Coast Consortium of Academic Support Professionals is hosting their 8th Annual Conference on November 1st in Las Vegas.  The theme is Technology and Data Assisted Academic Support Programming.  They are accepting proposals through September 23rd.  I attached an image of the flyer they sent out below.

WCCASP

August 17, 2019 in Program Evaluation, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, August 15, 2019

What I Wished I Had Known When I First Started in Academic Support...

I love to talk, yap, and chat.  The more the better.  And, that's a problem.  A very big problem, at least with respect to my work as an academic support professional (ASP).  I'll explain, but first, a bit of a story to set the stage...

As mentioned in a recent blog entitled Obstacles or Opportunities, I'm on the slow mend after an accident this summer, in which I fractured my back.  Since the accident, I am mostly using a walker to navigate the world upright, step by step, as the fractures heal.

Not long ago, my spouse took me to the public library (in addition to talking, I love to read!).  It started out as a perfect day, with me hobbling straight ahead, walker in action - right up to the newly released books.  I felt like I was in a heavenly garden, with rows and rows of new books.  

Now, before I move on, you've heard of the saying that "you can't judge a book but its cover." Well, as a bit of background, I'm not allowed to "BLT" right now (with my upper-body brace trying to restrain my back from further injury).  That means no bending, lifting, or twisting (not that I could twist at my age even if I wanted to).  

But, the books that were most shiny to me were "bottom shelvers." Nothing was in arm's reach without offending the entire medical community...by bending, lifting, and twisting, too.  Immobilized, I gave up on books that day because, even though the covers looked enticing on those bottom shelves, I couldn't be sure that the titles were indeed profitable since I couldn't poke around the table of contents, the forward, and a few pages in-between.  I left empty handed because I don't get books based solely on the covers.

That brings me back to the world of academic support.  You see, when I first began serving as an academic support person, I set out to read all of the books and the literature, or at least as much as I could, to figure out how to best teach our students the necessary skills to be successful as learners.  Things like reading, note-taking, participating in classroom discussions, time management, creating study tools or outlines, and exam reading, analysis, and writing.  But, to be frank, I didn't learn what I now consider the most important skill at all, until - unfortunately - many years (and students) had past.  In short, I didn't learn to be a listener first and foremost.  In fact, rather than really listening to my students, I was quick to the draw to provide suggestions for them to implement, assuming that I knew the source of the problems or issues that my students were facing.  I wanted to be a source of wisdom rather than what is really wise, listening first before speaking.  How did I realize the errors of my ways?  Well, it happened due to the fortuitous circumstance of getting to know and work a bit with Dr. Martha (Marty) Peters, Ph.D., Emerita Professor of Law from Elon University.  

Dr. Peters would meet - one by one - with students struggling with multiple-choice analysis.  Rather than handing out sage advice (after all, she has a Ph.D. in educational psychology!), Dr. Peters would instead ask students to work through each question that they missed -  slowly - reading and navigating and pondering the problem to see if there might be anything at all, any patterns or words or pauses that might have helped them reach the correct answer.  Then, Dr. Peters would move on to the next question missed.  And, the next question, and then...the next question, etc.  She remained completely silent.  Observing. Hearing. Listening. Watching.  Finally, towards the end of one hour counseling sessions, Dr. Peters simply asked students what suggestions they might have for themselves in order to more successfully analyze multiple-choice questions next time.  In short, she asks students to share what they had learned.  The anecdotal results were simply miraculous.

First, students felt empowered; sorrowful countenances started to be reshaped as possibilities of hope and a future in law.  I know that it sounds a little (okay...a lot) dramatic, but it was unbelievably apparent as students started to actually believe that they could be law school learners, that they could help shape their destinies, that they might actually belong in law school as part of the learning community and future attorneys.  That's because it was they themselves who came up with the answers and the solutions to their learning conundrums (rather than the experts).  In short, students started to become experts in their own learning.  

Second, most students quickly realized that their analytical problems were not with the multiple-choice problems themselves or with the law but rather related to reading.  For the most part, they were missing clues, often because they didn't think that they could actually successfully solve the problems.  Rather than misreading problems and legal materials, students started to develop both their confidence and their competence as critical legal readers.  For helpful critical reading tips, see Jane B. Grisé, Critical Reading for Success in Law School and Beyond (West Academic 2017); see also, Jane B. Grisé, Teaching First-Year Students to Read so Critical that They Discover a "Mistake" in the Judicial Opinion, The Learning Curve (Summer 2014) (available at: https://uknowledge.uky.edu).

Third, in the next batch of multiple-choice problems later that week, scores skyrocketed.  No exaggeration!  Here's why.  Before, many students were answering problems that were in their heads but those weren't really the problems on the practice sets or the exams.  In other words, students were often solving problems that didn't exist.  Now, they were poking and prodding and probing the fact problems and the issues carefully with confident "critical reading eyes," evaluating words and phrases and debating their meaning and possible legal import.  

After working with Dr. Peters for a few days, I realized the most important lesson of my ASP life.  It sort of leaped out of my heart and into my mind.  Scott: "Talk less; listen more!"  Now, before I start to hand out suggestions and advice, I try to ask my students first what suggestions they might have to improve their own learning.  In short, I try not to judge my students by what I think might be their problems and issues but I rather try to let my students co-create with me a learning atmosphere in which to  empower and liberate them...to be the true experts for their own learning.  So, next time you see me, please stop me from talking so much!  It's really quite a problem for me.  

(Scott Johns)

August 15, 2019 in Advice, Encouragement & Inspiration, Learning Styles, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Maintaining Meaning in Law School

Many people have heard of the term "cognitive dissonance" -- the discomfort experienced by humans when they receive new information that contradicts an existing belief or system of beliefs.  Mild cognitive dissonance, caused by information that only diverges slightly from what was previously believed, might prompt people to adopt the new information and change their belief systems.  Paradoxically, though, intense cognitive dissonance, caused by information that emphatically contradicts previous beliefs, can cause people to cling more tightly to their existing beliefs, even if an objective observer might conclude that the new information invalidates the old belief.  This is because the human mind often values consistency and reliability more than it values objective "truth".  Thus, die-hard fans of a sports team that comes in dead last in its league might insist with renewed vigor that their team is great ("Wait 'til next year!"), or strong supporters of a political candidate embroiled in scandal might argue that there was a misunderstanding or that stories about the scandal were merely ersatz reporting.  This understanding of cognitive dissonance can help teachers understand why some students might rebel against some lessons -- it would simply be too wrenching to change one's worldview, when disbelief is so much easier.

I recently encountered a seemingly-related theory that addresses these reactions more holistically, and in a way that I think can help Academic Support professionals work with their students.  The Meaning Maintenance Model (or MMM) is described by Steven J. Heine, Travis Proulx, and Kathleen D. Vohs in Personality and Social Psychology Review, 2006, Vol. 10, No.2, 88-110.  This model proposes that people have a pervasive need to establish a sense of meaning in their lives -- "meaning" being broadly defined as the set of mental relationships that a person uses to organize their perceptions of the world.  This seems analogous to the belief system described above.  Meaning is how we understand the world to work.  MMM suggests that when the meaning that a person has built up over time is threatened by challenging new information, the person will seek to compensate by assigning or creating additional meaning to their lives, thus maintaining an overall sense of meaning.  For example, someone whose sense of meaning is based in part on a devout religious understanding of how the world works might respond to a threat to that understanding (like an unexpected and seemingly unfair death of a close relative that shakes their belief in a loving creator) by seeking more meaning, or more validation of the meaning that already exists for them, in their religious beliefs.  They might pray more often or look for new, previously hidden meaning in scripture.

So far, that kind of reaction sounds very much like a response described under the cognitive dissonance model.  Where MMM differs is in the suggestion that it is not so much the specific belief system that matters so much to an individual as it is the overall level of meaning the individual feels they have attained.  Thus, if one's belief system or sense of how the world works (e.g., meaning) is shaken in one realm (say, their sports team comes in dead last), another way that that person might compensate psychologically is by enhancing her sense of meaning in an entirely different realm (say, by mastering a new skill like baking bread).  In fact, suggests MMM, one might even pre-emptively mitigate the shock of encountering challenging information by developing a new sense of meaning in a different realm in advance of the shock.  In other words, someone who masters the art of baking bread from scratch might be less likely to be upset by seeing their favorite team come in last when that happens later, because they have already made new connections about how the world of baking works that will compensate for the recognized loss of understanding how their sports team performs.  

This can be directly relevant to helping law students navigate their first year, or their bar review period, or any time of transition during which the knowledge they had taken for granted is going to be challenged and perhaps even invalidated altogether.  Think of the confident English major who is told by his legal writing professor that his legal writing is not up to snuff, or the idealist forced to contend with the fact that the law sometimes compromises on justice or truth in order to promote goals like consistency and efficiency.  In each case, their sense of meaning, their understanding of how the world works, is diminished.  Cognitive dissonance theory tells us those students might be inclined to rebel against their new teachings, insisting that they are better writers without IRAC or that compromise is immoral. MMM suggests that this may happen, but also that there is a way to forestall it: by helping the student develop a stronger sense of meaning in other realms -- either while they are wrestling with the new contradictory information, or even in advance of this -- you may help them maintain a comfortable level of meaning overall, so that the student can afford to surrender some of the meaning they had previously built up surrounding their writing skills or the hazards of compromise.  Two ways to help a student develop a stronger sense of meaning are (1) help them to develop new skills or knowledge in a particular realm, while helping them to recognize this development through praise and specific feedback, and (2) get them to use previously developed skills or knowledge in a new context -- again, while helping them to see what they are doing -- so that they build new constructs of meaning around those skills and knowledge.

In other words, one way to inoculate students against the urge to fight against new teachings that threaten their senses of what they "know" or how they feel about themselves is to focus their attention on something else they are learning that is not so threatening, and to help them see what they have learned there.  A student who refuses to use their legal writing professor's required format -- or has trouble even recognizing that they are not doing so -- might be helped by urging them to see all that they have learned about tort law, for example.  If law students inherently want to maintain their perceived level of understanding of how the world works -- their sense of meaning -- even while their law professors are trying to tear down their layperson's sense of the meanings of fairness, analysis, persuasiveness, etc., then perhaps we should try to help them enhance the other components of their sense of meaning.

[Bill MacDonald]

August 6, 2019 in Encouragement & Inspiration, Miscellany, Science, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The Same Thing, Only Different

Next week, of course, is when the next bar examination will be administered.  But, for me, next week is also the first week of introductory classes for some of our incoming 1L students.  The semester does not officially begin until the end of August, but like many law schools, mine offers a special program to students who want to learn something about the American legal system and law school expectations before substantive classes begin.  So next week is going to be a little strange for me -- sort of like missing the wedding of one of my children because I will be busy attending the birth of another.

What strikes me now, as it did last year at this time, and as I suspect it will every year at this time, is how things feel simultaneously the same and different from years past.  There's an almost nostalgic sense of repetition. On Monday, I'll meet my first batch of eager, naive new students, enthusiastic to argue for justice, and perplexed by the density and obliquity of case law and lectures.  On Tuesday, I let go of the graduates I worked with all summer, and some for the previous two years, and they have to pass their most demanding test on their own.  These changes are as reliable as the seasons.  At the same time, when I look back to where I was last year, and consider what I thought I knew then about teaching and supporting all these students and alumni, I feel like I'm on a different planet entirely.  I'm questioning assumptions I once took for granted.  I'm noticing trends and relationships that were camouflaged before.  I am alternately worried and comforted by circumstances that previously had seemed either mundane or invisible to me -- things like students' financial situations or their relationships to other students.

It's a minor paradox of teaching: our goal, year in and year out, is to help make sure that our students learn a certain portion of a nearly fixed chunk of the universe. In law school, it's about reading a case, fashioning a sound legal argument, memorizing important rules, managing one's time and attention, and developing sound judgment.  The things we want our students to learn change glacially, and therefore imperceptibly.  What we wanted our students to learn this year is substantially identical to what we wanted them to learn last year, and to what we will want them to learn next year.  And this reliability is one of the anchors of both legal academia and legal practice.

But as individual teachers, the things we want to learn ourselves change substantially from year to year.  There are some things we wanted to understand -- say, the statistical relationships between first-year performance and eventual bar passage -- that we investigate, and we uncover, and we take that knowledge and run with it, because now it's not something to discover, it's something to use.  There are other things like new learning theories or suspicions about our students' law school experience that we thought might be important or useful, and we look into them, and they turn out to be negligible.  And there is always something new -- some fresh line of inquiry to follow, some previously overlooked problem to be solved, some new mountain to be climbed that we couldn't even see until we had gotten to the top of the previous mountain.  

It's always true, but to me it seems most true at this time of year.  We are always trying to learn different new skills and knowledge to help our students learn the same old skills and knowledge.  I see my 1L students coming in, and I want them to learn everything my most successful graduates have learned to achieve that success, and yet it seems like conveying those things in exactly the same way would be a dereliction of duty.  We want our students to be the fittest, so they have the best chance of survival, but in a way we are the ones doing the evolving.

[Bill MacDonald]

July 23, 2019 in Encouragement & Inspiration, Miscellany, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Starting with Stories

Like my colleagues, I am thinking ahead to the new school year even as my attention is consumed by those preparing for the bar exam three weeks from now.  Last year at this time I was thinking mainly about scheduling and content and skills development, and how to tweak and rearrange my classes and workshops to make them more effective.  This year, I find myself thinking at least as much about stories as about skills.

Part of this cogitation is driven by my conversations of late with students dealing with varying degrees of anxiety about the bar exam.  I ask them how they are doing and what has led them to whatever position they currently find themselves in, and their narratives fall broadly into two categories.  Some students tell me kinetic stories about what work they have done, what challenges they have faced, and what strategies they have employed.  They may not have conquered every problem that has come up -- in fact, that's usually why they are talking to me -- but they still see themselves as the protagonists who are driving their stories and pursuing some kind of prize.  Other students, even some with objectively similar obstacles, tell their stories in a different way.  They are still the centers of their own stories, but things keep happening to them (poor performance on a practice test, illness, misunderstanding, etc.), and they are just doing what they can to cope.  These latter folks are not doomed, by any means; they are, in fact, often quite capable.  But they do seem to feel more anxiety and doubt than the more protagonistic students.  So part of what I am wondering is whether it might be possible to cultivate that sense of protagonism by using language that highlights one's sense of agency and potency, from the very start of law school.  Perhaps by using less language about "what will happen" and "what you will encounter", and more language about "what you will learn to do" and "how others have overcome difficulties", I can shift students' perspectives in a more empowering direction.

Another aspect of storytelling that has become clearly significant over the past year is how students perceive their stories in relation to their law school -- their fellow students, their class as an entity, their professors, their administration, and their alumni community.  At the start of my 3L pre-bar prep course this spring, I felt it was very important to intentionally and repeatedly talk about our class as a team.  We were there to support each other, I said, because we had common goals as individuals and as a group.  Each student wanted to pass the bar exam in July -- that much they knew going into the class -- but, I pointed out, each student should also want to see everyone else in the class pass, too.  Teamwork might mean going a little further to help our classmates in a pinch, but it also means we've got a bunch of other people in our corner, willing to do the same for us.  The faculty, the administration, and the alumni want to see them succeed, too, because their success makes everybody look better, and because we've invested so much energy and faith in them.  And if the class does notably well as a group on the bar exam, their pass rate becomes public information that makes them all look like part of a stellar crop of new lawyers.

At times I felt almost like a goofy cheerleader telling this story, and encouraging my students to tell that story about themselves as a team.  But it seems to have paid off.  This summer we are seeing notably higher rates of participation and completion of assignments in summer bar prep courses.  Recent graduates are spending more time together, on and off campus, and I've been talking to far more of them in my office and on the phone than last summer.  Just telling a story of teamwork isn't enough -- the school has also had to walk the walk, by providing additional resources and guidance to students -- but it is clear that intensifying our characterization of getting ready for the bar as a communal effort has had a positive effect.

This is another thing I am wondering about, as I move forward with plans to work with our new incoming students.  How can I tell that story of the law school as a team in a way that will stick with these new students for three intensive years?  Is there a way to cultivate that story in the face of the known competition for grades in the first year?  Is there a way to keep that story from becoming trite and from being tattered by cynicism?  I think there must be.  It's not just the telling of the story that makes it work; it's also acting the story out, and making it seem real because it could be real.

So, while I will be working on better ways to improve students' analytical and time management skills this fall, I will also be thinking about better ways to tell them stories -- about themselves as individuals and as part of this new community -- that they can believe in.  Stories that they will want to carry on telling themselves.

[Bill MacDonald]

July 9, 2019 in Bar Exam Preparation, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Miscellany, Orientation, Stress & Anxiety, Study Tips - General, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Technology and Legal Education Webinars

This summer, the AALS Section on Technology, Law & Legal Education is presenting a series of webinars on technology and legal education. Now I look forward to every Wednesday, wondering what I will learn each week. Sessions range widely, from  hackathons and biotech to formative assessment and access to justice using technology.  You can watch past webinars on demand and sign up for forthcoming live webinars by visiting the Section's web page. While I have learned fascinating things from each webinar, I found two webinars touching on IT security and law students to be especially compelling.

As a population our law students are far less technologically savvy than we would expect, according to Cumberland Law's Grace Simms, in an a wide-ranging presentation on "Teaching Tech to Law Students." Two of the most obvious shortfalls are failing to appreciate how social media can affect their personal marketing & job prospects, and failing to grasp the importance of security measures and backups. The back-up problem rings especially true in my experience. For example, although our students have free access to OneDrive and receive back-up reminders from a variety of media, invariably every semester at least one student experiences a major meltdown when upon realizing, only after their computer self-destructs (whether from a hard drive crash, an unfortunate drop in the parking lot, or simply wearing out from obsolescence), that they have not backed up their legal writing projects, case briefs, and outlines. Far less critical, but a time-waster day after day, is the fact that many students have only the most superficial understanding of the capabilities of word processing programs: this not only makes day-by-day writing a more laborious process but also can cause many finished pieces to look amateurish. Inspired by Professor Simms's presentation, I'll be tweaking lesson plans in my fall Skills Lab to include micro-practice sessions on doing backups, creating quick access toolbars, assigning keystrokes in Word, and other simple technology to enhance the daily tasks of law student life. 

Lincoln Memorial's Sydney Beckham, himself a former hacker, delved deeper into security threats and safety measures in "Hacked! An Examination of Cyber-Threats and Techniques to Thwart Them." The bad news is one out of every three Americans is affected by a cyber-threat every year. The good news, since 95% of security breaches are caused or exacerbated by human error, is that most cyber-threats can be prevented or mitigated by taking prudent, and often amazingly simple, security measures. While many institutions must take sophisticated measures like two-factor authentication, most individuals can protect themselves with relatively simple practices such as:

  • Backing up important data using thumb drives, external hard drives, or cloud storage
  • Setting antivirus protection for automatic updates
  • Updating operating systems frequently
  • Covering the webcam when not needed for active use 
  • Using a microphone lock on phones and computer when not needed for active use 
  • Using strong passwords and usernames, and not sharing them between accounts 
  • Using the cellular hotspot provided by a personal cell phone rather than public wifi when sending personal information in a public place
  • Limiting social media posting of information that might be used for security questions

A compelling point was the need to constantly reinforce IT security messages through live interaction with law students. Like Professor Simms, Professor Beckham stressed that many law students are not aware of IT security issues and solutions. Information sent through e-mails and video sources, he suggested, is overwhelmingly ignored. To be effective, information should be conveyed live and in person. Moreover, to pack the most punch, it shouldn't be conveyed only during Orientation: rather, repeated live messaging by different faculty and staff is the best way of helping law students to become security aware. It sounds like a good idea to add a question about backups and security to my checklist for meeting individually with students.  (Nancy Luebbert)

July 3, 2019 in Professionalism, Teaching Tips, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Law Finds a Way

In Michael Crichton's book The Lost World, his sequel to Jurassic Park, the scientist Ian Malcolm observes that the velociraptors -- pack-oriented hunting dinosaurs that have been brought back from extinction through genetic engineering -- behave unexpectedly viciously towards each other.  Ordinarily, pack animals would work under some kind of social structure, as, for example, when wolves are led by a single alpha male, disadvantaging other males but minimizing conflict and maximizing cooperation among the pack as a whole.  But in the book, the velociraptors are depicted as combative and treacherous, attacking each other at the slightest provocation or opportunity. 

Malcolm realizes that even though the DNA used to recreate these creatures captured perfectly the information needed to duplicate the originals physically, there had been no means by which the scientists could have reproduced the social structure that the original animals had developed and passed along over uncounted millennia.  Without that information inherited from previous generations, the cloned velociraptors could only work out their own "culture" by trial and error -- mostly maladaptive, destructive error.  They might well destroy themselves as a species all over again, just because they had had no chance to observe and learn from those who had come before them.

Every year, we are midwives to a new brood of legal hatchlings, law school graduates who must face the professional equivalent of nature red in tooth and claw: the bar examination.  In the majority of cases, this is not an iterative, developmental experience.  Most attorneys take the bar exam once and never have to apply its lessons again.  But the lessons are real and valuable.

Some of those lessons are relatively easily compiled and organized, so that they can be provided/sold to future graduates through various forms of mass marketing: bar review courses that offer exhaustive compendia of necessary legal rules and concepts, or books that provide tips about studying, memorizing, essay writing, or time management.  These can be quite helpful, and they provide a very large portion of the information that determines most applicant's behavior as they prepare for, and then take, the bar examination.   

Still, for the most part, this information goes only to the development of the individual's fitness for the exam.  Each individual applicant acquires certain needed components -- some knowledge, some judgment, some skills -- in the same way that an individual velociraptor can develop pointed teeth, sharp claws, and a muscular tail.  And these components may serve that applicant well on the exam.

What about the social aspect?  I see my students this summer gathering to watch lectures together.  I hear about them supporting each other when they are confused or frustrated.  I know they are pushing each other to stay on track in their study progress.  They tell me about meeting up off campus or trading thoughts by phone or online.  I know that, for my school at least, something is different this summer: the students are more communicative with me, they are completing more of their assigned work on time, and they are sharing more notes and resources with each other.  This isn't something they've read in a book or took down in a lecture.  It is the social structure of this class of legal hatchlings, developing in a healthy way.

It may only be an incremental change, increasing engagement or completion or quality by a few percentage points.  But such changes, over time, is the definition of evolution.  But it can only happen if we have some way of passing it along, some analogue of DNA that transmits the essence of this slightly modified social structure along to the next generation of hatchlings.

In a way, one aspect of our existence as Academic Success vectors is to carry this information, as best we can, from class to class, like plasmids shuttling genetic material from one bacterium to another.  We can tell next year's graduates what this year's graduates did, ask them to trust us and to try the same strategies.  To the extent they do trust us, and to the extent that we know and can articulate the changes to the social structure, this can be helpful.

We can also ask our alumni to transmit directly, inviting them to return to the classroom next year and to share their experiences with the following class.  I did this twice this past spring semester, and my students seemed very responsive, asking lots of questions to help them suss out what to expect in the summer.  Later this month, I plan to record some video of students engaged in studying, or willing to open up after a lecture or an exercise, so that my future students can get a better idea of how these students worked alongside each other.

It is great to seem some improvement in outcomes for our students, and often we can point to better development of individual skills as a contributor to this improvement.  But just because changes to the social component of performance might be more difficult to isolate and package doesn't mean we should let them slip away from year to year, with just the hope that they might be recreated from scratch each time.  Some information is transmitted via nucleotides; some information, via letters and numbers; but some can only be passed along, by explanation and example, from one society to its successor.

[Bill MacDonald]

July 2, 2019 in Bar Exam Issues, Bar Exam Preparation, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Science, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 17, 2019

ASP Behind a Mask

Mask: n. a covering for all or part of the face that protects, hides, or decorates the person wearing it. – Cambridge English Dictionary

It is a common practice for high-stakes gamblers, also called “sharks”, to use a trusted acquaintance when placing a bet to keep the identity of the shark gambler unknown and preserve the odds. By concealing one’s identity, an actor may control or influence audience perception. Academic Support professionals influence the perception and actions of the students we serve. ASP behind a mask allows us to fulfill our mission of student service and advancement. Behind a mask our message is not altered or concealed, only the messenger is.

My real-life experience behind the mask looks like this. For weeks, I preached and pushed a certain commercial tool to my bar takers. I negotiated a substantial discount for their purchase. I offered weekly incentives, provided demonstrations, and all but swore a blood oath that this tool would increase their chances of passing the bar. Crickets. I asked a recent bar taker to share her experience with the tool. She made one social media post that echoed verbatim my message. Within minutes of the post, I received multiple inquiries about the tool and sign-up confirmations.

Today’s law student does not respond to the pedagogy of the past. We may tell our students what is best for them academically and make recommendations for learning tools to support their development. And we may be right. But until our students “hear us” and find credible our advice and recommendations, our words fall hallow. We can strategically use the peer learning model and employ student tutors, fellows, and former students to promote our messages by sharing what has worked for them to positively influence the actions of current students.

(Marsha Griggs)

June 17, 2019 in Advice, Bar Exam Issues, Bar Exam Preparation, Encouragement & Inspiration, Learning Styles, Miscellany, Teaching Tips, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 3, 2019

The Compliment of Criticism

Don't let compliments get to your head and don't let criticism get to your heart. -- Lysa TerKeurst

The other day we held a bar workshop at my school. At the end of the session we collected evaluation forms from the students. I could hardly wait until the students were all out of the room to look at their written comments. A colleague and I sat at the edges of our seats to read what the students wrote about “our” workshop. As we thumbed through the evaluation forms, we read an abundance of smile-generating comments like: Good, Good, Excellent, Learned something new, Would recommend this session to others, and Glad I came. But our smiles askewed when we reached the one comment that read this session was longer than I expected and the presentation was poor.

Of the many laudatory comments, only one offered anything other than praise. And yet that one evaluation form is all that we focused on for the rest of the afternoon. My colleague and I became defensive and responded to the anonymous feedback as if talking to the student who submitted it. I suspect that our reaction was not atypical in the academic support teaching profession. We probably reacted in the same manner that many professors do as we review our course evaluation forms, student emails, or other summative feedback. We focus almost blindly on what someone did not like at the expense of commentary reflecting the effectiveness of our teaching and service.

So many of us in academic support or other teaching professions may put too much weight on the criticism and not enough weight on the compliments. Perhaps it is because we invest so much in the success of our students and the excellency of our programs that we forget the role that criticism can play in our own professional development. As this summer’s bar prep gets rolling full throttle, I’ve made a promise to myself to not let my view of the forest be impeded by one tall tree. While I am providing my students with daily affirmations, I pledge to affirm and nurture myself and my wellbeing. In doing so, I will be better able to service my family and my students who depend on me.  As you read your course evaluations and performance reviews this summer, challenge yourselves to take criticism with a grain of salt (or a bottle of wine) and be thankful for the wonderful learning opportunity that the feedback provides.

(Marsha Griggs)

June 3, 2019 in Advice, Bar Exam Preparation, Encouragement & Inspiration, Miscellany, Program Evaluation, Stress & Anxiety, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)