Tuesday, October 16, 2018
Final exams. Olympic competition. Oral argument. Job interviews. The bar examination. These are all high-stakes experiences, often competitive, in which successful outcomes depend on strong performance. As discussed last week, in such situations the human brain can adopt different chemical and behavioral states, depending on whether the situation is perceived as a threat or as a challenge. In a threat situation, the brain becomes hyper-alert to danger and error, processes information more deliberately, and shies away from risk. In a challenge situation, the brain pays less attention to detail, processes information in a more relaxed and automatic way, and is open to taking risks that have sufficient promise of reward. How can we use our knowledge of these two mental states, not just to understand our students better, but also to help them do better?
Let's start by noting that the brain can enter these different states at different times even if it is undertaking the exact same activity. A baseball player might step up to the plate in the third inning and see his task -- to try to get a hit -- as a challenge, and the same player could step to the same plate, even holding the same baseball bat, in the ninth inning and see it as a threat. So it's not the task itself that determines our mental state. It's the surrounding circumstances. Early in the game, when the outcome is still up in the air, a player may be "gain-oriented", focusing on accruing advantages (in this case, runs), and his brain will be in challenge mode. In the last inning, though, if his team has a slim lead, that same player could shift his focus and become "prevention-oriented", focusing on maintaining his team's lead by not making mistakes of which the other team might take advantage. In that case, his brain will be in threat mode.
In the same way, our students can undertake the same activity -- issue spotting, say, or answering multiple-choice questions -- at different times, and might find themselves in either challenge mode or threat mode. This is a good thing, a useful thing. After all, human brains evolved to be capable of these two modes, so each mode ought to have some beneficial qualities.
As Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman point out in Top Dog, in an academic setting there can be an optimal sequencing to these modes. Students perform best if they start their semester working in challenge mode and end it working in threat mode.
This makes sense in a general way. At the beginning of a course, students don't know much about the subject, and their goal should be to try to gain knowledge and skill as quickly as possible. A gain orientation is associated with challenge mode -- the brain plays hunches and takes educated guesses, because the risk (primarily, to grades) is low but the potential reward (flashes of insight) is high. Towards the end of the course, though, risk increases, as the student faces more heavily weighted final exams. At the same time, rewards are lessened, since (ideally) the student has already internalized most of the material and is not likely to learn a great deal more. On a final exam, a student is more likely to be in threat mode -- pondering the answer more slowly and cautiously, less inclined to make risky arguments, perhaps even debating word choice as he tries to recall the exact wording of a rule.
If a student is well-prepared for the final exam, proceeding cautiously with their mind in threat mode may be quite favorable. It can encourage methodical analysis, and help the student avoid unnecessary errors. However, there are two potential issues to consider.
First, as alluded to above, there are two sources of risk and reward in law school. One is the knowledge and understanding of the subject matter, and the other is the final grade in the class. A student who downplays either source is at a disadvantage. Reminding students to pay attention to learning the rules and how to use them, and to developing their test-taking skills at the same time, is part of what Academic Success is about. Being able to describe these abilities as complementary sources of risk and reward may provide us with another way of doing that.
Second, while being in threat mode may help a student avoid errors, they still may not perform well if they only enter threat mode for the first time in the final exam. Since threat mode slows analysis and limits the options the brain is willing to consider, it can change the way people behave during exams. We have doubtless all had students who felt confident in a subject all semester and then did poorly on their final, later explaining that they thought of some of the correct responses but abandoned them because they were afraid they might be wrong, and that they spent so much time working on the first half of the exam that they didn't have time to complete the second half. While there are several plausible explanations for such mistakes, one possibility for them to consider is that they had never practiced answering questions in that course in threat mode. If all of their practice was under the speedier, more relaxed challenge mode, then they had never really practiced under exam conditions.
Ideally, humans would have a switch we could activate to shift from challenge mode to threat mode and back. But, while we don't, it is nevertheless possible for professors to influence students and help shift them into threat mode. As Bronson and Merryman explain, teachers can affect their students' brains just by changing the way they present their examinations. If students are given a test and told that they will receive a certain number of points for every correct answer, then they focus more on the idea of gaining points, which encourages a gain orientation and thus a challenge mode. If, on the other hand, students are given a test and told that their scores start at 100 and that they will lose a certain number of points for every correct answer, then they focus more on not losing points, which encourages a prevention orientation and a threat mode. Even though mathematically the two scoring systems were identical, the differences in presentation caused measurable differences in performance.
Thus, one way to encourage our students to practice for final exams (and oral arguments, bar exams, etc.) in threat mode is to explain, in advance, that you will be scoring their practice work by subtracting points from a pre-determined maximum score. Conversely, students who fall into threat mode too early in the semester, perhaps because they are disproportionately worried about grade risk, might be coaxed towards challenge mode by being given exercises for which they will receive a certain number of points for every plausible point or argument. Even though the tasks the students are undertaking remain the same, we can help their brains approach them differently.
Monday, October 15, 2018
The National Academies recently released an update to their previous book How People Learn. The original book from 1999 provided critical findings on what factors affect learning in the classroom. Many of the new ideas in law schools have parallels in the book. New research since 1999 necessitated an update, so they produced a new report.
The update expands on a few ideas from the first book. The report still encourages “student centered learning,” and it discusses the cultural contexts to learning. However, the recent technology invasion changed our current students. The new book addresses some of the technology issues when teaching.
Chapter 6 focuses on student motivation. The book addresses student self-efficacy, intrinsic motivation, goals, and the influence of teachers on those factors. Culture and influence also have effects on motivation. Motivation is a huge problem with some law students. Many of us believe our students would perform better with just a little more hard work. The key is figuring out how to get them to do more work. This information could be helpful for encouraging more work.
I haven’t read the new report yet, but the information looks promising. I encounter problems with technology and motivation every bar prep period. Similar to many of you, we have many students right around the cut score every exam period. Any information that can help us gain a few points could make a huge impact.
The one glaring problem is the report isn’t specific to law school. It is largely for primary and secondary education. As Rebecca Flanagan discussed at SWCASP last year, learning theories based on research on children may not have the same effects on adults. Adult learning may require changes to our techniques. The report is probably still a good resource for new ideas, but the ideas may not work the same with adults.
The Education Week article referencing the report is here. You can get a free copy of the new report here. While long, I hope to pull good information from the report throughout the semester. Even our smallest ideas can help students.
Monday, October 8, 2018
Sputnik changed teaching forever. Falling behind the Soviet Union in the race to space caused people throughout the US to evaluate how we were teaching science and math. Numerous theories ignited thought, and many individuals wanted the US to be the world leader in technology. Unfortunately, we never fully realized our potential. The US continually lags behind on the international math exams, and we are at fault.
Japan is widely seen as the technology innovator. They continually score higher than all the other counties on the international math exam. They use a unique form of teaching focusing on one problem, but the hardest aspect to swallow is Japan’s success is primarily built on the US theories developed after Sputnik. The US failed to deploy the new theories throughout the country. Japan capitalized on Americans’ work to produce a technologically advanced society. Sputnik changed teaching, but unfortunately, the changes happened in Japan. Now, we need to look to them to train our teachers.
Elizabeth Green describes the American failure and Japanese success in an article in the New York Times Magazine. The Japanese practice of jugyokenkyu, translated lesson study, could help law schools improve. Jugyokenkyu is when “[a] teacher first plans lessons, then teaches in front of an audience of students and other teachers along with at least one university observer. Then the observers talk with the teacher about what has just taken place. Each public lesson poses a hypothesis, a new idea about how to help children learn. And each discussion offers a chance to determine whether it worked.” Jugyokenkyu approaches teaching as a collaborative effort with feedback.
Obviously, law schools don’t need specifics for teaching math. However, numerous reports, recommendations, and standards haven’t changed legal education. Maybe it is time for law schools to embrace jugyokenkyu.
The foundation for jugyokenkyu is deliberate preparation with goals; performance for students and colleagues; and feedback from experts. In ASP, we know that process works. We tell students to take practice exams, seek feedback, and make changes for the next exam. In LRW, professors tell students to put down papers for a few days because individuals tend to read over errors in his/her own work. If those are true for our students, then those statements are true for us. We need feedback from someone who understands teaching law students to know whether our methods are working. We will miss our own mistakes just like reading over an error in a brief. We need deliberate practice with feedback as much as students.
The amazing transformation of Japanese math teaching is the anomaly, but we should attempt to follow that trend in legal education. Theories, ideas, and published articles didn’t change America after Sputnik, so continuing that failed practice won’t change legal education. I know I am saying this in a blog. However, let’s consider how we can take steps to make lasting improvements to help our students.
My first suggestion is work within our own law schools. Find a group of individual professors who are determined to help students learn better. Start small with each person in the group deliberately planning a lesson. The rest of the group observes the lesson, or someone can record the class for observation. Everyone should then meet and talk about the lesson. If each person in the group does that twice during a semester, the evaluation and critiques would help everyone.
My next suggestion is to work with ASPers at other schools. I know the quickest response to the last suggestion is “no one at my school would do that.” While I believe there are at least a couple professors who want to improve teaching at every school, inter-school feedback can work. We could create a TWEN page or page on the AASE site where we post videos of our teaching. Others within the community could then watch and provide feedback.
ASPers posting lectures would provide an additional benefit for the annual conference. We could see others’ lectures we hear about at AASE. Some of the presentations always talk about how he/she teaches students a particular concept. If that lecture was already posted, we could watch the lecture prior to the presentation and have a deeper discussion of teaching. We could also have round table feedback sessions on teaching from lectures posted. As we change our area, we could talk about it in our law schools to get other professors on board. We can spread jugyokenkyu throughout law schools.
We continually hear that legal education needs to change. Similar to k-12 education, entities demand we use better practices. Demands generally don’t lead to widespread change. Feedback from experts, who are our colleagues, is how Japan became the best country for math in the world. We should try a model that works instead of continually following the same failed practice.
Tuesday, October 2, 2018
One thing that distinguishes law school culture from that of many other professional schools is the high percentage of people in student services who already possess the degree most of their students are trying to obtain. I have never done an exhaustive analysis (but woo hoo! Research opportunity!), but in my personal experience the majority of people working in law schools in the areas of Academic Support or Career Services are law school graduates, and so are a fair number of people working in areas like Admissions and Libraries. A quick dive into the Internet suggests that medical schools and business schools do not hire their own graduates for student services at nearly the same frequency. In fact, when I checked out the staff of five med school Academic Support units and five law school Academic Support units, no one in the med school units possessed an M.D., but each member of the law school units possessed a J.D.
There are no doubt many forces pushing towards this odd result for law schools. One that is practically taken for granted is the idea that someone who already possesses a J.D. is far better positioned than anyone else to really understand what new J.D. students are actually going through. Part of this assumption is perfectly practical: people who already have their law degree have presumably already learned all the elements unique to the practice of law. We can “think like a lawyer”; we can wield IRAC without effort; we understand federalism and common law and stare decisis and all the idiosyncrasies that our students have to contend with while navigating the rigors of study, time management, and exams. This is not to say that non-lawyers couldn’t provide wonderful support to law students. There is just a general belief that lawyers have a head start on understanding the context into which everything fits.
At the same time, law school alumni are apt to think that they can understand what law students are going through because the alumni were students once, too. We remember the dread of our first cold call in class; we remember plodding through civil procedure and constitutional law; we remember trying to juggle classes and law review and OCI all at the same time. Like military veterans of different eras, maybe we didn’t fight on the same battlefield, but our students don’t have to tell us what it’s like, man. We know.
Except . . . we don’t always know. We know a lot of things, to be sure; for me, not a day goes by that I don’t relate some student’s challenge to one of my experiences in law school. Education is always a boon. But the longer I do this work, the more I find that I have to work to find out what my students’ present experience is really like. This is in part because law school is always changing and evolving. Each class’s relationship to electronic research, for example, is just a little bit different from that of the previous class. Economics change, student populations change, hot button issues change. But these big changes, I think we do a fairly good job of staying on top of. In fact, sometimes it seems Academic Support is ahead of the curve, and can help bring other members of the law school community – for example, those whose specialties do not change much from year to year – up to speed on them.
What I really find myself having to pay more attention to each semester is my students’ day-to-day realities. Some of the mistakes I made when I first started providing academic support came about because I was taking a “one-size-fits-all” approach, and only with experience did I realize that it was really more like “one-size-fits-me”. I was teaching to my experience in law school.
Now, I am no longer satisfied knowing what classes my 1L students are taking each semester – I need to ask their individual professors for their syllabi, so I can know what topics they are hearing about each week, so I don’t assume that their Torts professor started off, like mine, with intentional torts, and therefore so I don’t pose a hypothetical that half my class can’t answer. I try to participate in student club events, like fundraisers or dinners, so I can hear about mundane practical issues – things like parking and child care and the timing of holidays – that I never thought about in school, but some of my students have to. I talk to other faculty and staff to find out the schedule of moot court and mediation competitions, visits from employers, and off-campus learning opportunities – stuff I was not particularly interested in myself when I was in law school – so I can better understand why a particular student might be coming to talk to me about a certain writing or time management issue. I seek opportunities to listen to students who come from different locations, cultures, and economic circumstances, so I can be aware of what going to law school now is like for them.
Being a lawyer means having been a law student, and having been a law student can be a tremendous advantage when your job is to help other law students. But having been a law student does not mean you have been all law students.
Monday, October 1, 2018
The book Building a Better Teacher confronts the myth of natural born teachers. Some early researchers in the academy thought some teachers just had “it”, and poor performing teachers lacked innate ability. The book proceeds to explain how teaching is like any other skill and can be improved. Our students need to understand that not only is teaching them a skill, taking our exams and demonstrating legal analysis is a skill to hone as well.
Most of us talk ad nauseam about growth mindset to our students, and many of them understand the basic idea. They can logically understand throwing a baseball can be improved and working out builds muscles. However, too many students forget that logic when thinking about cognition and her/his law school experience. I hear students say “I am just a bad test taker” or “I can’t do multiple choice questions” every week. Law school grade curves perpetuate this internal dialogue, and unfortunately, we don’t get to help as many students because of these thoughts. Our communication with students needs to bridge the gap and help students understand cognition and legal analysis is a skill.
One of the steps from ASPers is to communicate previous success stories. We can illustrate improvement with before and after practice problems where a student took a test, received feedback, and improved with the next practice problem. Personalized stories either from us or former students can help stimulate growth. We don’t want to promise results, but hearing about other students overcoming a bad exam or LSAT can plant the seed that improvement is possible.
For students, you all should start treating legal analysis and cognition as a lump of clay. Left alone, the clay will stay the same shape and end up less useful than if molded. Molding clay into a pot takes time, effort, and precision. Every touch impacts the whole pot. Practice problems with feedback produce the same effects. Timing a question, spotting issues, writing the answer, and seeking feedback will not only help learn the law but also determine where to improve. Your legal analysis shape changes a little. More practice with feedback molds legal analysis even more and starts to produce the desired pot.
Legal analysis develops every day from now until retirement. Every brief, motion, or argument changes the advocate’s skill. Don’t let your legal analysis clay stay stagnate during a semester. Start now writing out at least 1 essay answer each week. Seek feedback to mold your skill, and then, take another question. Issue spot and outline a couple more essays in each subject. With approximately 8 weeks left for most students, practice now can have remarkable impacts on exam performance.
Nothing in the law is static, including our legal analysis skills. All of us in ASP should continually communicate how improvement is possible, and students need to start molding their professional skills now with practice and feedback.
Tuesday, September 18, 2018
There is nothing like undertaking a new exploit to help you establish an affinity with the 1L law students with whom you are working. Enlisting as a contributing editor to the Law School Academic Support Blog, for example, has for me provoked the mix of hopeful excitement and mystified apprehension that used to be just a fuzzy memory from my own first year of law school. Will I impress people favorably? Will I put my foot in my mouth? Suddenly I feel a fresh sense of empathy with the incoming class.
And this makes sense! How else would anybody feel upon realizing that they have voluntarily taken on a future of writing dozens or hundreds of essays in which they are expected to take a stance and justify it with a combination of facts, logic, judgment, history, inference, speculation, and the occasional appeal to emotion, and then presenting these essays to readers who are knowledgeable attorneys with high standards? Whether you are a law student or a law blog author, this can be an intimidating position.
Okay, I’m exaggerating. I am excited to have joined the Law School Academic Success Blog team, notwithstanding any qualms about performing on a new stage. But I have been reminded of my first few weeks in law school, and even a brief flash of empathy with our new law students has some value. It can build rapport. It can also help us find ways to exploit our own experiences for our students’ benefit.
In this case, as I considered writing for this blog, I realized that the greatest source of uncertainty, and thus anxiety, was not knowing the expectations of my readers. What topics do you want to read about? What kind of tone do you prefer? There is not much I can do to answer those questions, other than to write and wait for reaction. But it does not have to be that way for our students.
An issue I see commonly in 1L writing, particularly in the first semester, is a misapprehension of the expectations of the person grading the writing. Some students rely mistakenly on crafting the kind of intricate prose for which they received high grades in the past. Others, in lieu of legal analysis, reflexively regurgitate the rules, case names, and historical details they have memorized. Sometimes students overemphasize something they have learned in law school -- IRAC format, for example -- and apply it indiscriminately, without prioritizing the most relevant issues. These errors are not always the result of not grasping their professors’ expectations, but sometimes they are, and when they are, it can be frustrating for a student not to realize their lapse until after they receive a disappointing grade that might have been avoided.
For this reason, when I am working with 1L students, I try to convey a blend of messages about what they should be striving for. While I aim to be clear with students about the importance of developing skills such as clear analysis and precision, I also insert explicit messages about how law professors, in general, often have expectations of student performance that differ from those of students’ previous teachers. Yes, professors expect their students to know the rules discussed in class, but they also expect students to use those rules as tools, and to exercise judgment in choosing which tools to use, and how to use them. They expect students to make choices about what they discuss, and at how much depth. Moreover, different professors may have different expectations with respect to these choices, and students can learn to glean these individual preferences by paying attention to what each professor emphasizes in class and by talking with the professors and their teaching assistants.
Of course, many law students figure out the importance of their audience’s expectations naturally. But there is a subset of students who seem most comfortable approaching academic performance as an objective, quantitative measure of how much they know. Helping them to see early on that, in most cases, their academic performance in law school will be judged by qualitative standards that are shaped to some degree by their teachers’ subjective expectations can hasten those students’ movement out of their comfort zone and into a realm in which they make prudent decisions about what issues to address, which facts and rules to use, and which outcomes are most likely. Encouraging students to consider their readers’ expectations can help them to see that their job as law students, both in class and beyond, is not merely to memorize and recite, but to learn how to engage in discourse as part of a larger legal community. (Bill MacDonald)
Monday, September 17, 2018
“If you build it, he will come,” is a line from great American folklore, or just an 80’s sports movie. Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams heard one of the classic sports movie lines of all time. Kevin’s character builds a baseball field, and players from the past (ghosts) come play ball. He didn’t invite or encourage any of the players. They just showed up.
Many ASPers, including myself early on, have a Field of Dreams mentality for programs and workshops. We build the most innovative workshop with great pedagogy. We advertise a little so students know about it, and then, we expect everyone to show up. Sometimes that works, but many times, the students who need the workshop the most aren’t in the room. We then reevaluate to determine the best way to get at-risk students in the room.
As an early ASPer, my next idea was to bribe students to show up. I thought if I raffle a nice item off to students who attended most of the bar review workshops, students who needed it would show up. I was right. Over the next few years, I raffled iPads, full bar review scholarships, apple TVs, and other new tech on the market. Students who needed help showed up more. I started reaching more students, but a huge problem arose. Over 75% of the raffle winners failed the bar exam. The winner seemed to be cursed with a new gadget and no bar license. Bribes produced my basic goal, but the bribes did not produce the ultimate goal of helping students succeed.
I stopped incentives a few years after offering them. Law school budgets grew tighter. I changed my program with more for-credit offerings, so I wasn’t incentivizing attendance any more. I always wondered if the incentives really failed or if the low pass rate was a coincidence since my sample size was small. I didn’t think free items could possibly hurt someone’s chance of passing the bar.
Helping Children Succeed by Paul Tough provided a small glimpse into what may have occurred with my incentives. Tough cites Roland Friar’s research where he paid kids to do educationally beneficial activities like reading books. Friar concluded after 4 years that incentives didn’t change long-term student behavior or improve test scores. Jonathan Guryan paid students to read books over one summer. After the program, most students’ reading comprehension levels stayed the same. Students who were high achievers prior to the study saw moderate increases in comprehension, but the most at-risk students didn’t improve. The incentives failed to produce long-term educational improvement for Friar and Guryan.
The findings sound eerily familiar to my experience. Students who needed it showed up, but they didn’t end up improving very much. Most of my award winners failed the bar. Tough would probably argue that while students are exposed to the material, the lack of motivation to do the tasks originally makes long term improvement unlikely. Once the incentives cease, students stop working. In the studies he cites, some students even adopted the mindset that work must be rewarded or the work wasn’t worth completing. The reward system didn’t work.
I watched that happen to my students numerous times. The incentives or drawings stopped, so they stopped attending additional workshops. They didn’t pay as much attention as they should have during the workshops, and many times, those students didn’t complete the work required for the bar. Unfortunately, the incentives I tried did not lead to lasting improvement.
Simon Sinek’s marketing perspective may have an additional answer to the incentive puzzle. He discusses why companies need a “why” to inspire employees and build brand loyalty with customers. He argues that constant discounts and coupons can get some short term sales, but customers don’t become loyal enough to wait numerous hours for a brand new phone that is full of glitches due to discounts. Discounts lead to commodification, and customers don’t become brand loyal to basic commodities. Once the discounts end, customers find a new product.
Providing incentives for our programs can have the same commodification problem. I believe the key to success in ASP is not getting students into workshops. The key to success is getting students to take our workshops home to use on their own time. What students do when we aren’t looking has the biggest impact on his/her chance of success. Students won’t be loyal to our program, vision, or idea if they are showing up for a t-shirt. They won’t follow our lead if the only reason for showing up is winning an iPad. Incentives run the risk of making our program a commodity, and students won’t do the work outside the classroom that is necessary if our program is a commodity.
Incentives may not always be bad. Incentives to fill out surveys or complete simple tasks may not risk the same problems as the studies. Providing food prior to an event can build relationships among the students. If the incentive isn’t attempting a long-term behavior change, then the incentive is probably fine.
The studies were also conducted on school age children, so the applicability to adult learners may be limited. Comparing these results to incentive studies for employees could help. Some incentive studies for employees produced better results.
Raffles and drawings with great prizes seems like a great idea. I thought the same thing and gave away thousands of dollars of items. In my experience, the incentives didn’t work. The recent research seems to indicate long-term improvement requires more internal motivation that cannot be achieved by paying someone to study.
Tuesday, August 28, 2018
This week is what the undergraduate community at my university affectionately calls “syllabus week"--that is, five glorious days where each professor reviews his/her expectations for the course, and does not address any substantive (read, "testable") material. In law school, however, we all know that classwork actually begins on (or, more likely, even before) the first day of school. But, in honor of “syllabus week,” I thought it would be helpful to revisit what makes a great syllabus.
First, include all of the mandatory information, per university or law school policy. This might include your contact information, statements on diversity and inclusion, weather cancellation policies, and accessibility services.
Next, address frequently asked questions in a FAQs section, including responses to:
What should I do if I’m going to be late or absent?
Do I really need the newest edition of the textbook?
I am petrified about being called on in class. Any suggestions?
What’s your grading policy on late assignments?
Is this subject tested on the bar exam?
What supplemental study resource(s) do you recommend for this course?
Where do I go if I’m having difficulty understanding the course material?
When are your office hours? Do I need an appointment?
How do I enroll in TWEN or register for CALI Lessons (if used in the course)?
Then, set reasonable expectations for reading assignments. (This is usually the hardest step!) According to the advice I received at the “AALS Workshops for New Law School Teachers” event (a.k.a baby teacher school), law professors should assign no more than 25 pages of reading per class hour. Most professors, however, can only cover about 15 pages of material per hour when working with first-year students or dense material. If you’re having trouble figuring out how much material you should cover in a course, consider contacting the textbook’s author or publisher. Most authors and publishers have several different sample syllabi, depending on credit allocation and number of class meeting times.
Also, take Professor James McGrath's suggestion and incorporate formative assessment activities directly into the syllabus to hold yourself and the students accountable. For example, perhaps every third class you set aside a few minutes for some multiple-choice questions. Or, alternatively, you may want to reserve the last two minutes of each class for students to write down their big takeaway from day’s lecture.
After the substance is on paper, consider revamping the format to include an infographic, like this one:
If you're looking for even more suggestions, check out these links:
Finally, if you don’t teach a course of your own, consider offering to help your colleagues improve their syllabi. While a syllabus can be a very personal thing, you still might be able to offer some “best practices” tips from the academic support community. (Kirsha Trychta)
Monday, August 27, 2018
I am currently listening to Bob Goff’s book Everybody Always, and I began to feel somewhat convicted with my own actions towards my students. His book encourages people to love everyone always, and that love, instead of criticism or correction, is what individuals need. Sounds like an uplifting message, which it generally is, until the book hit me hard in the first 7 minutes.
The idea sounds simple and great. I agree that we should love everyone. What struck me was when he said he wasn’t doing a good job of loving everyone. He helped out neighbors, co-workers, friends, and anyone he knew. Loving those people is easy though. He realized he was avoiding people that were “hard to understand or looked different than [him].” Hard to understand people sometimes “creeped” him out, so he avoided them. However, he soon realized loving them first was most important. Engaging people different from him was not easy, but that difficulty is why showing them love was important.
After hearing the first 10 minutes, I started thinking about my law students. I am not “creeped” out by any of them, but some of them are difficult to reach. Many of us talk about the hardest students to get into our office are the ones who need help the most. I find that statement to be partially true. I have many students who need help that show up to my office consistently. They are the ones that are easiest to help. They are willing to put in the effort to improve. I constantly send them additional practice questions, set up meetings, and review their outlines. Talking to them around campus is easy. They are the ones it is easy to love.
My concern is I don’t reach out enough to the students who need it that aren’t showing up. Similar to many of you, my schedule is packed. I have more meetings and classes than hours in the day. When students don’t respond to my initial few attempts for practice or feedback, I may not seek them out as much. They are the ones that Bob would define as difficult to love. His advice would be to continually seek them. The difficult to reach students are the ones we can have the biggest impact on.
We all have a huge impact in our students’ lives. We help many struggling students. The question we may need to ask is are we having an impact on students who are difficult to reach? Would one more email get the student in our office? Could a simple hello or wave in the hall make a difference? Continually seeking out students who aren’t showing up makes a difference. They may not show up until the summer before the bar exam or may never show up, but reaching out to show support may be all they need to continue on their journey because they feel our love.
Wednesday, August 22, 2018
When I was growing up, the Random House Unabridged Dictionary held the place of honor in our home. Lying resplendent on a huge dictionary stand, it invited a curious child to spend hours poring over exotic new words and exclaiming over the origin of familiar words. Even many decades later, it is a treat to cap off a pleasant evening by perusing my dictionary to contemplate words and their etymology.
Thus is was that, several years ago, I learned that "parson" -- that lovely and rather antiquated term for a Protestant minister -- derived from the Middle English persone for "person." Intrigued, I did a little digging. Not surprisingly, some explanations for why a minister / priest / vicar / curate / rector (choose your favorite term) would be referred to as a "person" were lengthy, theological, and dull. But I stumbled across one article that resonated with me. The parson's calling, this interpretation suggested, was indeed to just be -- a person. In a society where people were defined by pedigree, social rank, and how they made a living, the parson's role was to be a person to everyone in the parish, high or low, rich or poor. Performing rites like baptism, weddings, and funerals was really just a way of being a person in relationship with others -- welcoming the birth of a child, celebrating the ties of love and family, and mourning with the bereaved. The hallmarks of a parson, this article concluded, were listening much, grounding advice in the individual's particular circumstances, and always treating others as individuals worthy of respect.
I long ago lost this article about the parson as a professional "person," but it influenced and still guides the way I approach the profession of academic support. I believe our highest and best calling as ASPers is to be a "parson" -- that is, to give primary emphasis to being a person in relationship to our students. As ASPers, we have the training, education, and experience to help our students succeed. But as Steven Foster pointed out last week, we can share our expertise best if we establish a relationship with our students first.
Moreover, we are often most effective when, by deep listening, we give students leave to follow their own best instincts rather than trudging along doing what they have convinced themselves they "should" do. I think, for example, of the times struggling students have confided they are having trouble concentrating because a loved one is dying several hundred miles away. Sometimes the best response is, "Don't you want to go home to be with your family? I can help arrange things with your professors." Given permission to honor their responsibilities as human beings, when they return to school they are then ready to concentrate and learn.
Listening much, grounding advice in the individual's particular circumstances, and always treating others as individuals worthy of respect are the hallmarks of an academic support professional -- the "parson" of the law school. (Nancy Luebbert)
Monday, August 20, 2018
Scrolling through social media the last 2 weeks has been a blast. Friends from across the country are taking awesome back to school pictures and posting them. Some are even comparing previous years’ pictures to show everyone growing up. Joy, excitement, and nerves can be seen on all the kids’ faces. The pictures document the beginning of another awesome year.
Taking a current “snapshot” and looking back is great to gain perspective for students and faculty. As a student, consider what you thought of law school last year at this time, and if you are a 3L, what you thought about law school before it started. You may not feel good looking in the future at the bar exam and searching for employment. However, consider your legal analysis skills now compared to a year ago. Are you better? Most likely yes, and that is the goal. Try to get a little better every day. The cumulative impact over a year makes a huge difference.
Academic Support Professionals should do the same thing. The harder bar exam and law school budgets deficits make looking in the future daunting. However, most of you are performing better and offering more to your students than before. Consider your program this year compared to last year. Is it more robust? Will it attempt to reach more students? My guess is of course it will. If you worked in ASP 5 or more years, compare your program now to over 5 years ago. Is it better? Of course it is. Small adjustments and programs over time will help more students.
Pastor Steven Furtick has a great quote about the problems of social media. He says we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel. We will always lose that comparison. Law schools have a similar trap.
Students and professors make illogical comparisons. Students compare grades, study habits, jobs, and extra-curricular activities with what other students say (or post online). They then worry about not doing enough in each area even though no student is perfect in all the areas. Class ranks perpetuate this phenomenon, and the rise of social media probably causes even more comparisons.
Academic Support Professors do the same thing. We go to conferences and see great ideas and programs. We then think our program isn’t as good because we don’t do everything. Many of us construct a mythical program in our heads with all the good ideas, and then, we wish we could be that mythical program. Good news, just because someone has a great idea doesn’t mean everything they do is perfect. They also may not be doing other programs you are doing. Everyone and every school is different. Do what is best for your program and your students.
The mythical student or mythical ASP program doesn’t exist. We will always lose the comparison with perfection. The goal is to continue to get better. Take your back to school snapshot and find the growth from last year. Ask yourself, “am I better today than yesterday, last month, and last year?” The answer is most likely yes, so keep up the progress and have a great year!
Saturday, August 18, 2018
An interesting post on Inside Higher Ed by Jay Sterling Silver (St. Thomas Law) arguing that professors who factor class attendance, participation in/preparation for class, and extra credit in their grading are not being fair to students in this age of outcomes assessment. The link to the post is below. (Amy Jarmon)
Monday, August 13, 2018
Visions of beaches and long hours interning are winding down. Some students have fun stories from study abroad or travel during the summer. Others experienced an epiphany during a summer clerkship. Unless your students took summer school, that means we didn’t interact with them on a regular basis the last 3 months. Summer is fresh on their minds, while our advice from last year is ancient history. Now is the time to reconnect.
Recent memories tend to be the strongest. The problem with our students’ most recent experiences may be advice from well-meaning attorneys that may not be the best educational strategy. Students look up to attorneys since they are practicing, so we should combat that advice as soon as possible.
I believe the best way to overcome the ill-informed advice is start early meeting with students. However, getting students into the office is always difficult. Many times, the best way to encourage those meetings will be to reestablish our relationship with students in their domain.
I have not found widespread success just emailing students to have them come in. Some definitely come in for help, but many tell me they will setup a meeting when they need it, which is always too late in the semester. I have significantly more success when I walk through the café where they study. Talk to students about the summer, classes, and anything else going on. I suggest they come in and then I follow up with the email. The relationship and connection tends to encourage more students to come in earlier.
Every school will be different for connecting with students. We have a café where students study and eat. It is easy to walk through there to talk to students. Many of our study rooms have glass fronts, so I can walk through the building talking to students in their study rooms. I attended student organization meetings in the past to reconnect with students. My normal goal isn’t to set a meeting on the spot. The goal is to continue to build a relationship that leads to more interaction.
Summer myths abound. Now is a good time to start connecting with students to dispel the shortcuts they think they found over the summer.
Saturday, August 11, 2018
Education Week posted this week about a new analysis of 10 studies dealing with growth mindset interventions for those age 7 to adulthood. The analysis suggested that teaching students how their brains change over time may help them understand that intelligence is not static but can be developed. The Canadian research noted increases in motivation, academic achievement, and brain activity. The link to the post is Education Week, and the correct link for the new study is Trends in Neuroscience and Education. The results of this Canadian research are contrary to a previous U.S. study (mentioned in the post) that found growth mindset interventions were not effective and that some earlier studies had not followed best practices: Science Daily. (Amy Jarmon)
Tuesday, August 7, 2018
I attended the Southeastern Association of Law Schools (SEALS) Conference earlier this week. On Monday, August 6, 2018, the conference schedule included two bar preparation strategy sessions. Here are my takeaways from those two sessions.
The first session was a panel discussion entitled "Bar Preparation Strategies for Law Professors and Academic Support Program."
Professor James McGrath of Texas A&M University School of Law used an IF-AT quiz to frame his discussion about how spaced repetition and self-efficacy are essential components to bar exam success. Next, Professor Kirsha Trychta of West Virginia University College of Law introduced ways to mobilize students, faculty, and staff to become soldiers in both academic support and bar preparation efforts. The session concluded with Professor Patrick Gould of Appalachian School of Law demonstrating how to methodically work through a MBE practice problem and how to spot legal issues. Professor Melissa Essary of Campbell University's Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law expertly moderated the program.
After the panel presentation, attendees engaged in a lively round-table discussion focused on "Strategies for Bar Preparation and Success."
Each participant had 10-12 minutes to discuss a bar preparation related issue or topic that was of interest to them. More than 30 discussants attended the session, including academic support and bar preparation professors, commercial course providers, and deans. (The session was standing room only!) Of those in attendance, roughly half of the group raised discussion topics. While the full agenda—including the presenters’ school affiliation, contact information, and formal presentation title—is available here (Download BAR PASSAGE SPEAKER SCHEDULE Revised 3), I’ve set forth a brief summary below. If a discussion item sounds interesting to you, I encourage you to reach out to the presenter. Every presenter warmly invited questions and comments.
Bob Keuhn is authoring a research paper on the results of a recent large-scale empirical study, where he found little evidence that clinical or experiential coursework helps students pass the bar exam, contrary to popular belief.
James McGrath offered five quick tips for improving classroom teaching, including adding formative assessment activities directly on the course syllabus so that quizzes and reflection exercises become an essential and routine component of the course.
Michael Barry & Zoe Niesel outlined how they “went big” and dared to “be bold” overhauling and expanding their ASP program. They proactively asked for input from faculty, the advancement (i.e. fundraising) department, career services, and others before moving forward.
Benjamin Madison focused on self-directed learning, and emphasized the importance of incorporation skills building, especially in the first-year, to help students become better self-directed learners. He recommended Dean Michael Hunter Schwartz’s book as a jumpstart.
Ron Rychlak shared his experience with bar passage efforts at two (very) different law schools: Ole’ Miss and Ava Maria. He tinkered with requiring more bar-tested electives, increasing the probation cut-off GPA, and adding more academic support style-courses in the first two years.
Antonia Miceli redesigned her third-year bar course from an “opt in” (i.e. invitation to enroll) to an “opt out” model. All students in the bottom third of the class are now automatically enrolled, and the student must proactively petition to opt out of the course—which has positively increased her overall enrollment.
Debra Moss Vollweiler has spent the last few years as a member of a Florida bar passage focus group, and is now advancing the 3-Ms model: master in 1L, manipulate in 2L, and memorize in 3L. The 3M model aligns with her law school’s newly revised learning outcomes.
Cassie Christopher debuted her online 3-credit, graded, MBE course, which is open to all graduating students. Students watch an online video created by in-house doctrinal faculty, read the required textbook, complete practice MBEs, and engage in a discussion board each week.
Kirsha Trychta asked for attendees’ input on ways to mobilize the entire faculty in bar preparation. Discussants suggested incorporating the MPT into a clinical course, asking faculty to guest lecture, making a practice essay and MBE database on TWEN, inviting outside third-party speakers, and involving the assessment committee in programmatic decision making.
Rob McFarland highlighted a recent (and controversial) conversation online, directed at law school hopefuls, about whether an LSAT score accurately predicts bar passage success.
Laurie Zimet proposed that law schools should (1) educate the entire law school community about the bar exam and invite each person to contribute where they could, and (2) provide an opportunity for students to diagnosis weaknesses, with sufficient time for remediation.
Melissa Essary designed a new course—in just a few months—which offered academic credit for a graded, in-house faculty taught, one semester, flipped classroom MBE bar preparation course, supplemented by Barbri videos and materials.
Patrick Gould, the session’s moderator, concluded by thanking Russel Weaver for hosting us, and encouraging everyone to brainstorm about what we can do next year to make the event even better.
Well done, team!
Tuesday, July 31, 2018
Now that the bar exam is over, it's time to turn our attention to the incoming first-year students. Orientation is right around the corner. I have roughly 50 minutes to speak with the students during orientation about academic support programming. I used to give a lecture style overview and then distribute some handouts. The students politely listened, but few left the session enthused about the Academic Excellence Center. For the last few years, however, I've used the IF-AT lottery scratcher quizzes during orientation, with much success. Now, after adopting the scratcher quizzes, students routinely queue up to chat with me after the session. Here are the details.
1. What's an IF-AT Quiz?
According to the creator's website, the "Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique, also known as the IF-AT, is an exciting and revolutionary new testing system that transforms traditional multiple-choice testing into an interactive learning opportunity for students and a more informative assessment opportunity for teachers." In more direct terms, it's a small card that looks like a lottery scratcher. The correct answer has a star (*) underneath, while the wrong answers are blank. Students can take a guess from the four options. If they are correct, they'll see a star and get full credit for the question. If they are wrong, then they'll see a blank space, and have the opportunity to select again from the three remaining responses.
You can buy the scratchers online. The smallest box available for purchase is a 10-question, 4 answer choice batch of 500 scracthers at a cost of $90 plus $15 shipping and handling. You can also get longer and more complex quiz formats at a slightly higher price. I only use about 20 scratchers at orientation for an incoming class of 100 students. So, for just $115, I now have enough scratchers to last me for my entire ASP career (assuming that I'm only using the scratchers at orientation).
2. What kind of questions do you put on the orientation quiz?
I draft a 10-question quiz with both facts that I want the students to know about the Academic Excellence Center and academic support tips that are helpful during the first two weeks of school. The current version of the quiz includes questions like:
-- Before joining WVU Law, Professor Trychta worked as: (a) a family law attorney, (b) a judicial law clerk, (c) a federal prosecutor, or (d) a professional writer.
-- Dean’s Fellows are: (a) students on full academic scholarship, (b) select high-performing upper level students who apply to work as paid tutors, (c) the student who earned the highest grade in a particular course, or (d) volunteer upper-level students who serve as “big brothers” and “big sisters.”
-- Professor Trychta is available to meet with students: (a) on a first come, first serve, walk-in basis anytime; (b) on a first come, first serve, walk-in basis during posted office hours; (c) with or without an appointment at any time; or (d) by appointment only.
-- There are 13 subjects on the essay section of the Uniform Bar Exam (or West Virginia bar exam). How many of those subjects are required at WVU Law? (a) 7, (b) 9, (c) 11, or (d) 13.
-- The biggest challenge for most first-year law students is: (a) understanding the reading assignments, (b) balancing time commitments (a.k.a. time management), (c) getting “cold called” in class, or (d) learning the legal vocabulary.
-- Which is a true statement? (a) Professor Trychta once walked 125 miles in 4 days. (b) Law students should practice multitasking while in law school, because it is valuable skill for young lawyers. (c) Because of the volume of material discussed, your computer is a must-have in the classroom to take notes. (d) For the best results when studying, read the material over and over again until you know it cold.
-- How many hours per week should a law student anticipate studying outside of class? (a) 17-34 hours per week, (b) 34-51 hours per week, (c) 51-68 hours per week, or (d) there is no magic number.
-- During the fall semester, the Writing Center will periodically offer writing workshops on which day of the week? (a) Monday, (b) Tuesday, (c) Wednesday, or (d) Thursday.
Each question is designed to invite conversation among the students and between the students and myself.
3. How do you administer the quiz?
I hand out a copy of the quiz to every student. I then give each student about 3-5 minutes to look over the quiz individually and to mark their preliminary guesses. Next, I put the students in small groups and distribute the IF-AT scratcher. I tell them that they must work together to select the best answer, as a group. Students are told that the group with the highest score will receive a small prize. Groups earn 3 points if they select the correct answer on their first try, 2 points for a second choice, 1 point for a third choice, and no points if the correct answer is the only answer remaining from the four original choices. The maximum scores is 30 points.
After each group has a chance to complete their card, I review the answers with everyone. The quiz review component goes quickly because the students already know the right answer (from completing the scratcher) and have already discussed the pros/cons of the other answer choices. I'm simply reinforcing what they discovered for themselves earlier in the session.
4. What if you don't have a designated timeslot during orientation?
For this upcoming year, in an effort to better streamline the overloaded orientation agenda, I agreed to move my ASP session to one of the catered lunch breaks. It's now a working luncheon. I plan to place copies of the quiz on the round lunch tables prior to the students arrival. Once everyone is seated with their meals, I'll explain the rules to the game. The students can then eat and chat about the quiz, in a relaxed setting. I fully expect that the lunch table layout will actually foster and aid the group project, not hinder it. I also plan to walk around the room and introduce myself to the lunch tables. By the time I say hello to each table, it will be time to tally up the points and declare a winner.
So, if you don't currently have a designated time slot, and the students have a catered lunch break, I recommend asking if you can turn the lunch into a working ASP lunch.
Monday, July 30, 2018
One student leaves and the next student comes in. The first thing he/she says is an excuse why they don't have the practice problem done or didn't turn in homework. The professor at the desk proceeds to scold the student for not meeting expectations or doing the necessary work to succeed. Silently, the professor already thinks the student will not make it to 2L year. The meeting is over and the next student comes in. Too many meetings with struggling students follow that pattern with some professors.
Unfortunately, I fall into the trap of not listening to the reason or failing to dig deeper. Most of us have more meetings than time and have already gone the extra mile (or 2) for the entire law school. The additional effort to understand students who continuously fail to complete the work is difficult. However, we may want to look deeper into the reason for some student's actions.
Kyle Redford in an Education Week article encouraged teachers to use Compassionate Curiosity to understand behavior in students. The article is intended for classroom teachers, but the strategy is applicable to law students as well. He states "Compassion asks teachers to pause before assuming we know what was behind a student's rude or hurtful remark, disruptive behavior, or poorly executed or missing work. It shifts us out of the role of judge and into the role of investigator - a caring one." That line struck a cord with me because too often, I think I judge the reason instead of trying to care about the student in a way to understand the action. Read the rest of the article here.
We all understand numerous factors play a role in student success from family situations to mental health. The article is specific to potential problems of a 5th grader who looks after his/her siblings. We have students every year who still look after siblings as law students, and some of them look after parents. Starting from a place of compassion can build trust and help students succeed. Students still need to meet expectations and complete the work, but compassion can help us lead the students to a good plan for success. I hope to start from compassion more this year.
Monday, July 23, 2018
July is almost over. The hard work over the summer comes to an end, which means, it is time to ramp up for the fall semester! As one chapter closes, I will usher in a new 1L class and begin bar prep with the rising 3Ls. I must have ignored the post from a few weeks ago about taking a break.
The last few days have not felt like the end of summer in Oklahoma with a triple digit heat index every day, but I consider the bar exam the end of summer. I will teach legal analysis to all the entering 1Ls and also a year-long bar prep class to rising 3Ls. This will be my 4th year teaching legal analysis and my 10th year teaching a version of the 3L bar class. After that many years, the easy route is to pull last year’s syllabi, change the dates, and post it for students. However, I encourage everyone to consider adding something new.
Adding new items to a course or program seems daunting. There are always more pieces than originally considered. Between meetings, normal preparations, and taking a breath before the semester begins, adding something new seems difficult. I have a couple suggestions that may help all of us do a little more this year.
- Schedule time for new ideas. We implore our students to schedule everything. I encourage all of us to do the same. Block out 30 minutes to an hour each day prior to school beginning. Use that time to implement 1-2 new ideas.
- Look back through AASE materials. The great ideas from AASE get lost in the summer shuffle sometimes. Make a deliberate effort to look at those materials for new ideas.
- Check your sticky notes. This may be more for me, but when I think of new ideas, I write them down on sticky notes on my desk. Looking through those may jog your memory of what to do. I also write down activities that didn’t work as well or slight modifications needed for class. Keeping a running list is helpful because remembering the next year is difficult.
- Choose something small. You don’t have to transform your class, workshops, or department in 1 semester. Most of us tell students to get gradually better through practice. 1% better every day makes a huge different in the long run. The same is true for our courses and workshops. A little better each time will make a huge impact.
The last few weeks before classes begin is normally a mad dash to get everything ready. Try to spend a little time adding a few new ideas to make the coming year just a little better. Enjoy the next few weeks.
Sunday, July 22, 2018
Periodically the ASP Listserv hosts questions from law schools that are considering having an ASP course. Sometimes the questions focus on courses for first-year students; sometimes upper-division students are the focus. A wonderful resource as you work on your academic success course is Kris Franklin's Strategies and Techniques for Teaching Academic Success Classes (Wolters Kluwer, 2015). Kris Franklin is well-known in the ASP community and serves as Professor of Law, Director of Academic Initiatives, and Co-Director of the Initiative for Excellence in Law Teaching at New York Law School.
This short and readable volume will guide you from "soup to nuts" in the design process for your course. The book clearly recognizes that there is no "one size fits all" and looks at issues to consider and potential topics and skills to incorporate. The volume includes eight main parts: Type of Course, Materials and Texts, Beginning Your Course, Teaching Legal Reasoning, Academic Skills, Developing Teaching and Learning Exercises, Feedback and Grading, and Wrapping up Your Course.
Although the book is designed to be used in tandem with Strategies and Techniques of Law School Teaching by Howard E. Katz and Kevin Francis O'Neill, it is a very useful stand alone volume. A selected bibliography and an appendix of sample course sequences add to its value. (Amy Jarmon)
Saturday, July 21, 2018
Hat tip to Jennifer Cooper (Tulane Law School teacher in the MJ Labor & Employment Law program) for reminding ASP listserv readers about the white paper from the Working Group for Distance Learning in Legal Education. The white paper is hosted by CALI as an ebook at https://www.cali.org/books/distance-learning-legal-education-design-delivery-and-recommended-practices.