Saturday, November 30, 2019
Over the past couple months, Scott Fruehwald and the team at the Legal Skills Prof Blog tackled different neuromyths that permeate legal education. I previously passed along one of the articles, but I thought I would compile a longer list for everyone's reading pleasure. I may have missed one, but here are the ones I have saved. Enjoy the reading.
Monday, November 18, 2019
You must not know ‘bout me. – Beyonce
Popular or “pop” culture is the aggregate of people’s beliefs and attitudes. More narrowly, pop culture” refers to the media of popular culture—movies and television shows as well as music, computer games, stage plays, novels, and the like. Pop culture influences all walks of daily life from social interactions and religious expression, to legal trends and classroom teaching. In a discussion of legal ethics in popular culture, one author suggests that the effectiveness of pop cultural works depends strongly on the imaginative identification of the audience with their heroes.1
When law students engage with pop culture products, the result is quite different from what occurs in other undergraduate or graduate courses.2 Since the early years of my teaching career, I have used pop culture references in my classroom to enhance my teaching and to make learning relatable to my students. To keep my references current and effective, I’ve had to add social media, hashtags, Insta®, Finsta, Netflix, shipping, shaming, and an uncountable number of terms to use and avoid, to my lexicon. In an attempt to connect with my students, I never hesitate to ask for explanation, demonstration, or example, when they use or present new terms or make what appears to be generally accepted reference to a pop figure. Each year in the classroom, I’ve learned – without judgment – something new that has served the greater purpose of understanding the mindset and frame of reference of the students whom we prepare to enter the legal profession.
Open mind notwithstanding, even I was not prepared for what happened in class last week. Brace yourselves. This news will not be easy to digest. A student did not know who Beyonce was. I found myself responding with an audible gasp when the student, commenting on a PowerPoint slide with an inserted photo of Queen Bey, said is that a picture of someone we are supposed to know?
I had long since replaced my references to 8-track tapes, the Sony Walkman®, Peyton Place, public pay phones, and phone numbers like Davis 8-4476 in my lectures. But this? How could anyone walking the earth today not know who Beyonce is? I feared that the utter lack of recognition could stir the Beyhive, and possibly devalue my communicative currency.
As I came to my senses from the sheer shock of it all, I remembered these wise words: the most important focus is on how students are experiencing learning and perceiving the teacher’s actions. As a corrective measure, I’ll get myself in formation and add this experience as another installment to my post about knowing your audience, as a reminder that an example, a visual aid, a personal or pop culture reference is only as effective as the perception of the audience.
1William H. Simon, Moral Pluck: Legal Ethics in Popular Culture, 101 Col. L. Rev. 421, 440 (2001).
2Michael Asimow, The Mirror and the Lamp: The Law and Popular Culture Seminar, 68 Journal of Legal Education 115-116 (2018).
Sunday, November 17, 2019
Pay for play is a big topic in college sports right now. The NCAA vaguely capitulated to some form of monetizing likeness for college athletes, but they haven't established the rules governing the situation. Very few people believe the new rules will be much better than the current encyclopedia of regulations. However, performance incentives seem to be right around the corner. Players are about to have an incentive to perform better to sale more jerseys and get advertising deals. Will the incentives work?
This post will not be about the NCAA proclamation, even though I could write a law review article on my views of college athlete compensation. The incentive discussion is interesting to me for bar prep. All bar review companies provide a fundamental statistic about bar preparation that we already knew. The more students study, the more likely they pass the exam. The question then becomes, what is the best way to encourage them to study. One thought is to pay them. Would it work?
I don't have a definitive answer to whether that strategy will work. I understand the logic that if doing the homework is what matters, then paying someone to do the homework should lead to passing. Many parents pay kids to take out the trash or for good grades, so why not pay bar takers to do homework. Unfortunately, my anecdotal experience runs counter to what seems logical. I offered incentives, bar review scholarships, iPads, etc., to attend a bar prep program. Over a few years, prize winners had the worst pass rate of any demographic at the law school. The statistic was so bad, I stopped incentivizing attendance. I still didn't have the science based answer though.
Recently during a discussion about improving bar pass rates, Mike Sims of BARBRI told me to watch Daniel Pink's Ted Talk. You can watch it here. Pink collected numerous research studies and wrote a book about motivation. His argument is individuals must have internal motivation to do creative tasks. If/then rewards are a terrible way to motivate someone for these creative tasks. The research he cites indicates if/then rewards not only demotivate people for continued hard work after the incentive expires, the reward also leads to worse performance. The talk is about 20 minutes. I then downloaded and listened to his audiobook Drive. He expands on that topic, and my experience tends to follow his findings. Incentives and rewards haven't worked for me.
The even better news is that Pink gives the solution to building internal motivation. He argues individuals should get autonomy. The autonomy concept seems to compliment self-regulated learning practices. The book is interesting. I highly recommend it.
As we embark on the February bar prep season (yes it is really here), I encourage everyone to work with students to help him/her establish their own purpose for passing the bar. Internal motivation is the hardest to build, but it is also the foundation for the resiliency needed for success.
Thursday, November 7, 2019
It's quite common for most of us learn to prepare for final exams...by, unfortunately, not actually preparing for final exams.
If you're like me, I just never quite feel like I know enough law to start practicing problems.
But if we wait until we feel like we know enough, we'll run smack out of time to practice exams because most of our time will be spent instead on creating and reviewing our study tools (rather than using our study tools to help us navigate through "test flights" of practice final exam problems).
And that's a problem because professors don't test on the quality of your outlines but rather on whether you can use the law in your study tools to solve legal problems.
But that's great news because...
Solving legal problems is a skill that you can learn through practice! [Like any skill, it just takes pondering, puzzling, and practicing through lots of simulated exam problems to develop expertise as a legal problem-solver.] So, this harvest season as you turn towards final exam preparations, focus much of your learning on working through practice final exam problems.
As such, the best source of practice exam problems is to ask your professor for sample exam problems. If none (or only a few available), feel free to ask your professor and academic support department if they can suggest additional practice problems. Finally, if you still can't find practice problems, feel free to work through past bar exam essays. To get started, here's some links for some nifty old bar exam essays, organized by subject, complete with hypothetical scenarios and analysis:
Thursday, October 31, 2019
Thanks to the work of social psychologists Gregory Walton (Stanford) and Timothy Wilson (Univ. of Virginia), here's a wonderful searchable database of research articles about interventions to concretely improve learning, life, and community.
And there's more great news...
It's a free! In fact, it's one of my go-to sources as I look for ways to enhance student learning.
Sunday, October 27, 2019
The Legal Skills Prof. Blog had 2 excellent posts last week regarding metacognition. The posts discuss different commonly held myths by students and faculty that have detrimental effects on learning. My experience is not only do these myths exist, but the hardest thing to overcome is the entrenched nature of the beliefs. As the posts suggest, students tend to continually slide into comfort over scientifically proven methods. I highly encourage reading the 2 posts.
Tuesday, October 15, 2019
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.
Monday, October 14, 2019
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).
Tuesday, October 8, 2019
One of my favorite seasons of the academic year runs between the last week of September and Halloween. In terms of academic meteorology, conditions are ideal for the formation of manageable disturbances, especially among first-year students: after a warming period of several weeks, they become a bit unsettled due to some mid-term squalls, but they retain a great deal of stored energy and begin to show signs of increasing organization, giving them plenty of room to develop before being overtaken by the late fall gloom that presages the tempest of finals.
Most of the students who breeze into my office at this time possess the three things I value most in my advisees: the motivation to try to improve their legal writing and/or analysis, the belief that they actually can improve, and the time to devote to that improvement. Earlier in the year, they may have more time but, without having received any feedback on their work, less motivation to improve. Come November, with finals looming, they may have motivation to spare, but a dearth of time, and, in some cases, a stunted belief in their own ability to improve. But right now, a lot of students have that ideal blend of motivation, belief, and time.
The more I have worked with students, the more I have come to see that the most important characteristic of time is not quantity but distribution. It is usually more helpful for me to meet with a student for 30 minutes every week than for 60 or even 90 minutes every two weeks. The quicker, more frequent meetings not only help the student feel more connected. Shorter meetings also force us to focus our work on one or two main skills each week. With more time, it might be tempting to try to cover every weakness in a student's repertoire -- active reading, organization of information, grammar, argument structure, analytical content, judgment, persuasive diction, etc. -- but this can be overwhelming. A student trying to improve in a dozen areas at once may not make progress in any of them. It is too much to think about, and there may be little sense of prioritization.
But when a student walks away from a discussion of their work with one or two clear messages about how to improve in one or two specific tasks, that makes their job for the week focused and manageable. And if that's why they focus on in their homework between meetings, then we can start the next meeting by looking for the improvement in those areas, and then follow up by addressing one or two new areas for improvement that can build upon the previous week. Timely feedback on, and immediate use of, the skills that a student works on is the best way to both hone and retain those skills. Thus, with appropriate exercises to complete between meetings, a student can make and preserve more progress in two hours of meeting time spread out over four weekly meetings than in two or even three hours of meeting time split between one meeting in week one and a follow-up meeting in week four.
After Halloween, the demands of writing assignments due, the stress of upcoming finals, and the interruptions of the holidays make it a lot more difficult to arrange these kinds of punchy weekly meetings. Now is the time to encourage your students to take advantage of the calm before the academic storm.
Monday, September 30, 2019
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.
Tuesday, September 24, 2019
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.
Monday, September 23, 2019
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.
- 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’.
Saturday, September 21, 2019
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."
Tuesday, September 10, 2019
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.
Wednesday, September 4, 2019
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.
Saturday, August 31, 2019
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.
Sunday, August 18, 2019
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.
Saturday, August 17, 2019
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.
Thursday, August 15, 2019
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.
Tuesday, August 6, 2019
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.