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.
Tuesday, July 23, 2019
Next week, of course, is when the next bar examination will be administered. But, for me, next week is also the first week of introductory classes for some of our incoming 1L students. The semester does not officially begin until the end of August, but like many law schools, mine offers a special program to students who want to learn something about the American legal system and law school expectations before substantive classes begin. So next week is going to be a little strange for me -- sort of like missing the wedding of one of my children because I will be busy attending the birth of another.
What strikes me now, as it did last year at this time, and as I suspect it will every year at this time, is how things feel simultaneously the same and different from years past. There's an almost nostalgic sense of repetition. On Monday, I'll meet my first batch of eager, naive new students, enthusiastic to argue for justice, and perplexed by the density and obliquity of case law and lectures. On Tuesday, I let go of the graduates I worked with all summer, and some for the previous two years, and they have to pass their most demanding test on their own. These changes are as reliable as the seasons. At the same time, when I look back to where I was last year, and consider what I thought I knew then about teaching and supporting all these students and alumni, I feel like I'm on a different planet entirely. I'm questioning assumptions I once took for granted. I'm noticing trends and relationships that were camouflaged before. I am alternately worried and comforted by circumstances that previously had seemed either mundane or invisible to me -- things like students' financial situations or their relationships to other students.
It's a minor paradox of teaching: our goal, year in and year out, is to help make sure that our students learn a certain portion of a nearly fixed chunk of the universe. In law school, it's about reading a case, fashioning a sound legal argument, memorizing important rules, managing one's time and attention, and developing sound judgment. The things we want our students to learn change glacially, and therefore imperceptibly. What we wanted our students to learn this year is substantially identical to what we wanted them to learn last year, and to what we will want them to learn next year. And this reliability is one of the anchors of both legal academia and legal practice.
But as individual teachers, the things we want to learn ourselves change substantially from year to year. There are some things we wanted to understand -- say, the statistical relationships between first-year performance and eventual bar passage -- that we investigate, and we uncover, and we take that knowledge and run with it, because now it's not something to discover, it's something to use. There are other things like new learning theories or suspicions about our students' law school experience that we thought might be important or useful, and we look into them, and they turn out to be negligible. And there is always something new -- some fresh line of inquiry to follow, some previously overlooked problem to be solved, some new mountain to be climbed that we couldn't even see until we had gotten to the top of the previous mountain.
It's always true, but to me it seems most true at this time of year. We are always trying to learn different new skills and knowledge to help our students learn the same old skills and knowledge. I see my 1L students coming in, and I want them to learn everything my most successful graduates have learned to achieve that success, and yet it seems like conveying those things in exactly the same way would be a dereliction of duty. We want our students to be the fittest, so they have the best chance of survival, but in a way we are the ones doing the evolving.
Tuesday, July 9, 2019
Like my colleagues, I am thinking ahead to the new school year even as my attention is consumed by those preparing for the bar exam three weeks from now. Last year at this time I was thinking mainly about scheduling and content and skills development, and how to tweak and rearrange my classes and workshops to make them more effective. This year, I find myself thinking at least as much about stories as about skills.
Part of this cogitation is driven by my conversations of late with students dealing with varying degrees of anxiety about the bar exam. I ask them how they are doing and what has led them to whatever position they currently find themselves in, and their narratives fall broadly into two categories. Some students tell me kinetic stories about what work they have done, what challenges they have faced, and what strategies they have employed. They may not have conquered every problem that has come up -- in fact, that's usually why they are talking to me -- but they still see themselves as the protagonists who are driving their stories and pursuing some kind of prize. Other students, even some with objectively similar obstacles, tell their stories in a different way. They are still the centers of their own stories, but things keep happening to them (poor performance on a practice test, illness, misunderstanding, etc.), and they are just doing what they can to cope. These latter folks are not doomed, by any means; they are, in fact, often quite capable. But they do seem to feel more anxiety and doubt than the more protagonistic students. So part of what I am wondering is whether it might be possible to cultivate that sense of protagonism by using language that highlights one's sense of agency and potency, from the very start of law school. Perhaps by using less language about "what will happen" and "what you will encounter", and more language about "what you will learn to do" and "how others have overcome difficulties", I can shift students' perspectives in a more empowering direction.
Another aspect of storytelling that has become clearly significant over the past year is how students perceive their stories in relation to their law school -- their fellow students, their class as an entity, their professors, their administration, and their alumni community. At the start of my 3L pre-bar prep course this spring, I felt it was very important to intentionally and repeatedly talk about our class as a team. We were there to support each other, I said, because we had common goals as individuals and as a group. Each student wanted to pass the bar exam in July -- that much they knew going into the class -- but, I pointed out, each student should also want to see everyone else in the class pass, too. Teamwork might mean going a little further to help our classmates in a pinch, but it also means we've got a bunch of other people in our corner, willing to do the same for us. The faculty, the administration, and the alumni want to see them succeed, too, because their success makes everybody look better, and because we've invested so much energy and faith in them. And if the class does notably well as a group on the bar exam, their pass rate becomes public information that makes them all look like part of a stellar crop of new lawyers.
At times I felt almost like a goofy cheerleader telling this story, and encouraging my students to tell that story about themselves as a team. But it seems to have paid off. This summer we are seeing notably higher rates of participation and completion of assignments in summer bar prep courses. Recent graduates are spending more time together, on and off campus, and I've been talking to far more of them in my office and on the phone than last summer. Just telling a story of teamwork isn't enough -- the school has also had to walk the walk, by providing additional resources and guidance to students -- but it is clear that intensifying our characterization of getting ready for the bar as a communal effort has had a positive effect.
This is another thing I am wondering about, as I move forward with plans to work with our new incoming students. How can I tell that story of the law school as a team in a way that will stick with these new students for three intensive years? Is there a way to cultivate that story in the face of the known competition for grades in the first year? Is there a way to keep that story from becoming trite and from being tattered by cynicism? I think there must be. It's not just the telling of the story that makes it work; it's also acting the story out, and making it seem real because it could be real.
So, while I will be working on better ways to improve students' analytical and time management skills this fall, I will also be thinking about better ways to tell them stories -- about themselves as individuals and as part of this new community -- that they can believe in. Stories that they will want to carry on telling themselves.
Wednesday, July 3, 2019
This summer, the AALS Section on Technology, Law & Legal Education is presenting a series of webinars on technology and legal education. Now I look forward to every Wednesday, wondering what I will learn each week. Sessions range widely, from hackathons and biotech to formative assessment and access to justice using technology. You can watch past webinars on demand and sign up for forthcoming live webinars by visiting the Section's web page. While I have learned fascinating things from each webinar, I found two webinars touching on IT security and law students to be especially compelling.
As a population our law students are far less technologically savvy than we would expect, according to Cumberland Law's Grace Simms, in an a wide-ranging presentation on "Teaching Tech to Law Students." Two of the most obvious shortfalls are failing to appreciate how social media can affect their personal marketing & job prospects, and failing to grasp the importance of security measures and backups. The back-up problem rings especially true in my experience. For example, although our students have free access to OneDrive and receive back-up reminders from a variety of media, invariably every semester at least one student experiences a major meltdown when upon realizing, only after their computer self-destructs (whether from a hard drive crash, an unfortunate drop in the parking lot, or simply wearing out from obsolescence), that they have not backed up their legal writing projects, case briefs, and outlines. Far less critical, but a time-waster day after day, is the fact that many students have only the most superficial understanding of the capabilities of word processing programs: this not only makes day-by-day writing a more laborious process but also can cause many finished pieces to look amateurish. Inspired by Professor Simms's presentation, I'll be tweaking lesson plans in my fall Skills Lab to include micro-practice sessions on doing backups, creating quick access toolbars, assigning keystrokes in Word, and other simple technology to enhance the daily tasks of law student life.
Lincoln Memorial's Sydney Beckham, himself a former hacker, delved deeper into security threats and safety measures in "Hacked! An Examination of Cyber-Threats and Techniques to Thwart Them." The bad news is one out of every three Americans is affected by a cyber-threat every year. The good news, since 95% of security breaches are caused or exacerbated by human error, is that most cyber-threats can be prevented or mitigated by taking prudent, and often amazingly simple, security measures. While many institutions must take sophisticated measures like two-factor authentication, most individuals can protect themselves with relatively simple practices such as:
- Backing up important data using thumb drives, external hard drives, or cloud storage
- Setting antivirus protection for automatic updates
- Updating operating systems frequently
- Covering the webcam when not needed for active use
- Using a microphone lock on phones and computer when not needed for active use
- Using strong passwords and usernames, and not sharing them between accounts
- Using the cellular hotspot provided by a personal cell phone rather than public wifi when sending personal information in a public place
- Limiting social media posting of information that might be used for security questions
A compelling point was the need to constantly reinforce IT security messages through live interaction with law students. Like Professor Simms, Professor Beckham stressed that many law students are not aware of IT security issues and solutions. Information sent through e-mails and video sources, he suggested, is overwhelmingly ignored. To be effective, information should be conveyed live and in person. Moreover, to pack the most punch, it shouldn't be conveyed only during Orientation: rather, repeated live messaging by different faculty and staff is the best way of helping law students to become security aware. It sounds like a good idea to add a question about backups and security to my checklist for meeting individually with students. (Nancy Luebbert)
Tuesday, July 2, 2019
In Michael Crichton's book The Lost World, his sequel to Jurassic Park, the scientist Ian Malcolm observes that the velociraptors -- pack-oriented hunting dinosaurs that have been brought back from extinction through genetic engineering -- behave unexpectedly viciously towards each other. Ordinarily, pack animals would work under some kind of social structure, as, for example, when wolves are led by a single alpha male, disadvantaging other males but minimizing conflict and maximizing cooperation among the pack as a whole. But in the book, the velociraptors are depicted as combative and treacherous, attacking each other at the slightest provocation or opportunity.
Malcolm realizes that even though the DNA used to recreate these creatures captured perfectly the information needed to duplicate the originals physically, there had been no means by which the scientists could have reproduced the social structure that the original animals had developed and passed along over uncounted millennia. Without that information inherited from previous generations, the cloned velociraptors could only work out their own "culture" by trial and error -- mostly maladaptive, destructive error. They might well destroy themselves as a species all over again, just because they had had no chance to observe and learn from those who had come before them.
Every year, we are midwives to a new brood of legal hatchlings, law school graduates who must face the professional equivalent of nature red in tooth and claw: the bar examination. In the majority of cases, this is not an iterative, developmental experience. Most attorneys take the bar exam once and never have to apply its lessons again. But the lessons are real and valuable.
Some of those lessons are relatively easily compiled and organized, so that they can be provided/sold to future graduates through various forms of mass marketing: bar review courses that offer exhaustive compendia of necessary legal rules and concepts, or books that provide tips about studying, memorizing, essay writing, or time management. These can be quite helpful, and they provide a very large portion of the information that determines most applicant's behavior as they prepare for, and then take, the bar examination.
Still, for the most part, this information goes only to the development of the individual's fitness for the exam. Each individual applicant acquires certain needed components -- some knowledge, some judgment, some skills -- in the same way that an individual velociraptor can develop pointed teeth, sharp claws, and a muscular tail. And these components may serve that applicant well on the exam.
What about the social aspect? I see my students this summer gathering to watch lectures together. I hear about them supporting each other when they are confused or frustrated. I know they are pushing each other to stay on track in their study progress. They tell me about meeting up off campus or trading thoughts by phone or online. I know that, for my school at least, something is different this summer: the students are more communicative with me, they are completing more of their assigned work on time, and they are sharing more notes and resources with each other. This isn't something they've read in a book or took down in a lecture. It is the social structure of this class of legal hatchlings, developing in a healthy way.
It may only be an incremental change, increasing engagement or completion or quality by a few percentage points. But such changes, over time, is the definition of evolution. But it can only happen if we have some way of passing it along, some analogue of DNA that transmits the essence of this slightly modified social structure along to the next generation of hatchlings.
In a way, one aspect of our existence as Academic Success vectors is to carry this information, as best we can, from class to class, like plasmids shuttling genetic material from one bacterium to another. We can tell next year's graduates what this year's graduates did, ask them to trust us and to try the same strategies. To the extent they do trust us, and to the extent that we know and can articulate the changes to the social structure, this can be helpful.
We can also ask our alumni to transmit directly, inviting them to return to the classroom next year and to share their experiences with the following class. I did this twice this past spring semester, and my students seemed very responsive, asking lots of questions to help them suss out what to expect in the summer. Later this month, I plan to record some video of students engaged in studying, or willing to open up after a lecture or an exercise, so that my future students can get a better idea of how these students worked alongside each other.
It is great to seem some improvement in outcomes for our students, and often we can point to better development of individual skills as a contributor to this improvement. But just because changes to the social component of performance might be more difficult to isolate and package doesn't mean we should let them slip away from year to year, with just the hope that they might be recreated from scratch each time. Some information is transmitted via nucleotides; some information, via letters and numbers; but some can only be passed along, by explanation and example, from one society to its successor.
Monday, June 17, 2019
Mask: n. a covering for all or part of the face that protects, hides, or decorates the person wearing it. – Cambridge English Dictionary
It is a common practice for high-stakes gamblers, also called “sharks”, to use a trusted acquaintance when placing a bet to keep the identity of the shark gambler unknown and preserve the odds. By concealing one’s identity, an actor may control or influence audience perception. Academic Support professionals influence the perception and actions of the students we serve. ASP behind a mask allows us to fulfill our mission of student service and advancement. Behind a mask our message is not altered or concealed, only the messenger is.
My real-life experience behind the mask looks like this. For weeks, I preached and pushed a certain commercial tool to my bar takers. I negotiated a substantial discount for their purchase. I offered weekly incentives, provided demonstrations, and all but swore a blood oath that this tool would increase their chances of passing the bar. Crickets. I asked a recent bar taker to share her experience with the tool. She made one social media post that echoed verbatim my message. Within minutes of the post, I received multiple inquiries about the tool and sign-up confirmations.
Today’s law student does not respond to the pedagogy of the past. We may tell our students what is best for them academically and make recommendations for learning tools to support their development. And we may be right. But until our students “hear us” and find credible our advice and recommendations, our words fall hallow. We can strategically use the peer learning model and employ student tutors, fellows, and former students to promote our messages by sharing what has worked for them to positively influence the actions of current students.
Monday, June 3, 2019
Don't let compliments get to your head and don't let criticism get to your heart. -- Lysa TerKeurst
The other day we held a bar workshop at my school. At the end of the session we collected evaluation forms from the students. I could hardly wait until the students were all out of the room to look at their written comments. A colleague and I sat at the edges of our seats to read what the students wrote about “our” workshop. As we thumbed through the evaluation forms, we read an abundance of smile-generating comments like: Good, Good, Excellent, Learned something new, Would recommend this session to others, and Glad I came. But our smiles askewed when we reached the one comment that read this session was longer than I expected and the presentation was poor.
Of the many laudatory comments, only one offered anything other than praise. And yet that one evaluation form is all that we focused on for the rest of the afternoon. My colleague and I became defensive and responded to the anonymous feedback as if talking to the student who submitted it. I suspect that our reaction was not atypical in the academic support teaching profession. We probably reacted in the same manner that many professors do as we review our course evaluation forms, student emails, or other summative feedback. We focus almost blindly on what someone did not like at the expense of commentary reflecting the effectiveness of our teaching and service.
So many of us in academic support or other teaching professions may put too much weight on the criticism and not enough weight on the compliments. Perhaps it is because we invest so much in the success of our students and the excellency of our programs that we forget the role that criticism can play in our own professional development. As this summer’s bar prep gets rolling full throttle, I’ve made a promise to myself to not let my view of the forest be impeded by one tall tree. While I am providing my students with daily affirmations, I pledge to affirm and nurture myself and my wellbeing. In doing so, I will be better able to service my family and my students who depend on me. As you read your course evaluations and performance reviews this summer, challenge yourselves to take criticism with a grain of salt (or a bottle of wine) and be thankful for the wonderful learning opportunity that the feedback provides.
Wednesday, May 29, 2019
Years ago, as part of an effort to address bar passage issues at my school, some well-meaning professors suggested having a remedial course for lower-performing law students. In broad-brush terms, the centerpiece of the proposal was to require students to begin each class, starting from the very first day of the semester, with a timed 30-minute essay question. After students finished the timed exam, the remainder of the class period would be devoted to the instructor reviewing the question and explaining what students should have written in their answers. Merely by dint of forcing students to write essay exam answers over and over, the theory went, they would do better on law school and bar exams. But the proposed class structure neatly met the clichéd definition of insanity, by requiring students to do the same thing over and over and expecting a different result just by discussing what they should have done after the fact. Fortunately, the proposal never gained traction.
This summer and fall, I'm privileged to be involved with a CLEO program for incoming law students that takes the opposite approach. The Pre-Law Summer Institute, CLEO's familiar and long-standing residential program designed to prepare diverse participants for law school, now is preceded by a 30-hour online program, Developing Law School Literacies, devoted to providing instructional intervention from the start. Designed by Penn State education professor (emerita) Dorothy Evensen and funded by a grant from LSAC, the program leans on research about reading skills conducted by academic support educators such as Rebecca Flanagan and Jane Grisé and uses pedagogy based on sociocultural theory to provide intervention from the start. Rather than trying to do tasks on their own, students in this immersion program have frequent, intensive small-group meetings with academic support professors who act as instructional mediators. By explicitly focusing the students on using the tools given for effective case reading and briefing, and by verbalizing reasoning processes, the instructional mediators help students collaborate to competently complete a legal task from the very start. Each meeting focuses on a different aspect of case reading and briefing, such as the facts, the reasoning, and the rule.
I am especially excited that this program strongly emphasizes pre-reading, which in my experience is critical to active engagement with a text. I additionally hope that my CLIC group in the fall will provide a critical mass of 1Ls experienced and enthusiastic about wrestling with cases rather than searching for a rule and moving on. Helping students get things right from the start is a very ASP-ish approach -- empowering, effective, and humanizing.
Sunday, May 26, 2019
AASE was a huge success again. Seattle University did an amazing job hosting the event. Isabel Freitas Peres and the team at Seattle provided great spaces to enjoy the presentations, and I definitely enjoyed the food variety throughout the week.
The presenters did a great job last week. I could tell they spent significant time preparing and provided great insights for everyone. I wanted to pass along summaries of a few presentations I attended. I encourage everyone to go to the AASE TWEN page and download the materials or contact presenters for their information. Obviously, I couldn't make it to all the presentations. Below are just a few of the ones I attended.
Rory Bahadur's IRAC presentation was outstanding. I love Rory's energy when he presents, and this presentation was very practical. He provided 3 specific IRAC exercises to use in the classroom. The time required for each exercise ranged from 10 to 40 minutes. They are easy to use, already made for you, and require students to do the majority of the work in class. I suggest contacting him or going to the TWEN page to find the 3 exercises.
Scott Johns, Denise DeForest, and Christopher Engle-Newman's bar workshop lesson in a box provided a good foundation for any summer bar workshop. Similar to Rory, I wish I could recreate Scott's energy in the classroom. They did an excellent job of both simulating the workshop and explaining why they incorporated each component. Their workshops include an introduction with a bar exam tip, retrieval practice from previous workshops, and a schema for the current subject. The schema section for Con Law was great because Scott drew on the whiteboard while explaining very basic structure. Workshops then move to MBE questions to teach strategy and the law. They normally go through an essay prompt as well before finishing with takeaways from the workshop. The setup used learning science in every step and was very well planned.
The initial plenary session with Dean Mike Barry, Zoe Niesel, and Isabel Peres was insightful. Dean Barry explained statistics and modeling better than I had seen before, and he explained how to use the statistics. The individual student information looks helpful when trying to counsel students during summer bar prep. Zoe and Isabel discussed how to use the statistics when creating or modifying programming. One big takeaway is none of us need to understand how to run the statistics. We can partner with analysts on our main campus, bar review companies, or hire someone.
Lastly, I encourage everyone to get information from Kris Franklin and Paula Manning. They discussed preparing both students and professors for individual student meetings. Part of the problem is everyone has different (and probably unreasonable) expectations walking into student meetings. We can train both students and faculty how to utilize individual student meetings better, which then leads to more improvement in the long run.
There were many excellent presentations at AASE. I did not see all of them, so I encourage everyone to look through the program and contact presenters for information or materials. I can't wait for next year in D.C.
Saturday, May 18, 2019
Many of us believe students enter law school with poor study habits. Students don't know how to learn the volumes of material needed for the final exam. The discussion is progressing to how to teach students how to learn. I wanted to pass along a blog post from the Legal Skills blog that found an article on teaching Metacognition in the first year.
The article will be in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Legal Education. I can't wait to read it.
Sunday, May 5, 2019
I encountered an exciting challenge the last 3 Aprils. The Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon is at the end of each April, and OCU sponsored a relay team each of the last 3 years. I joyfully volunteered to participate with coworkers for such a meaningful event for our community. My excitement came with some trepidation. I played sports as a kid, but I never participated in running events. Running was the necessary evil to playing anything. To my surprise, I embraced the challenged and enjoyed the races. I noted last year in a post the purpose for running helps motivate, but I also enjoyed the alleged health benefits.
This year's experience helped me understand my upper level students more. My first year, I worried I wouldn't make it the full 5k. I imagined getting past the halfway point and collapsing from a combination of exhaustion and cramps. The fear propelled me to train consistently for 8 straight weeks. I ran my first 5k in 29 minutes, which was faster than I could imagine. Adrenaline and training led to my best performance. Last year, the team moved me to the 10k leg. Again, I thought I would fall apart after 5k. I trained hard, and in training, my body hurt after 5k each time. I couldn't run/jog/speed walk the entire 10k. Once again, I exceeded my expectations running the 10k in 1 hour and 5 minutes. I started getting confident that I was a decent runner.
This year was much different. The team needed me to run the 5k leg again. I ran 5k reasonably well before and wasn't worried about it. My training was terrible as a result of that confidence. I trained more in the first month 2 years ago than I did all of 2019. I planned the race day poorly. I wasn't able to run/jog/speed walk the whole 5k. I slow walked a couple times to catch my breath. I thought I would collapse at the end from exhaustion. My time ended up between 31 and 32 minutes. Official results online (which my apple watch slightly disagrees with) indicate my pace was 9:30 per mile. If I can do everything wrong and still run under 32 minutes, why train constantly for 8-10 weeks? Is 3 minutes on race day worth hours of preparation that could be used relaxing, playing with kids, research, playing golf, or any other task?
Students make similar choices for classes in spite of all the advice we give them. In my experience, first semester students tend to train like I did my first year. Some of them go overboard, but many students feel like they put in significant effort. Their effort may be misguided or lacked feedback, but their perception is they studied enough to succeed similar to previous educational experiences. Half of all students are in the bottom half of the class, and that reality hits many students hard after grades. Some of them respond by studying a little less the next semester. As they enter 2L year, some will have jobs that cause them to study less. Many students feel they learn more in their jobs, and their ultimate goal is to become a successful attorney. Studying decreases again. Unfortunately, the consequence of studying a little less isn't normally a large decrease in grades. Bs turn into B minuses. Grades don't appear much different, and time is spent on tasks that seem more important. This experience is an over-generalization, but I see it happen to large groups of students every year, especially 2Ls and 3Ls whose job prospects don't hinge on grades.
My competitive nature does make me want to save 3 minutes, or even more, but I understand the logical choices students make. Time is a finite resource. Students feel pressure to get jobs and gain experience. Student groups, simulation classes, and other extracurricular activities are more fun than completing a Secured Transactions practice question. I experienced more fun coaching little league baseball than running, which is one of many excuses for training less. ASPers task is to find ways to help students overcome studying apathy.
The first tip to help students overcome apathy is to know the students. I can't give one approach to motivate every student. Each student's motivation is different. For me, appealing to my competitive nature would help. Setting up a challenge to complete a certain number of practice questions by a particular date would help. For other students, interaction with classmates working together may work. Some students won't want to let a professor down, so the accountability of a weekly meeting will increase work. The key is to know students individually to understand what will motivate them.
The second thing we need to do is emphasize the importance of class to change students' cost benefit analysis. The problem with my analogy above is running has no impact on my everyday life (outside those alleged health benefits). 3 minutes has no real impact other than the joy of beating a personal best. Different grades and understanding material does have a real impact on students' lives and ability to become a lawyer. We should start messaging from the first day of orientation that studying and learning, whether grades follow, impacts whether someone will pass the bar exam. Cassie Christopher's article correlating certain classes at Texas Tech with scores on the Texas bar is a good illustration for students that the C they received in Secured Trans may not impact where they work, but the lack of knowledge may be 5-10 points on the bar exam. I follow up any discussion of points with anecdotes of students who didn't pass the exam by less than 5 points. Telling students once won't be enough. Constant messaging with the importance of classes even beyond the bar exam could improve motivation.
Lastly, individual work with students should start small. Overwhelming students with massive changes can also skew the cost benefit analysis. Meetings with small changes and feedback makes improvement seem manageable. I won't go from running 0-1 time a week to 4 times a week. I know it won't happen. Students won't add in daily hypos if they aren't completing any now. They need manageable changes.
Most of us do everything we can to encourage students to be more productive, but understanding their logical analysis can help us motivate them to change. Seeing their cost benefit analysis is our first step to empathizing and helping students succeed.
Tuesday, April 30, 2019
There are some weeks when I'm pretty sure that no one else at my law school talks more than I do. Given that law schools are full of lawyers, this is a pretty audacious claim. But two or three times each semester, I encounter a perfect storm of ASP responsibilities -- I have classes to teach, I meet with the students from those classes for one-on-one discussions, I participate in administrative meetings, and I have drop-in visits from or appointments with other students seeking individual counseling -- and my entire work week, from morning to night, is chockablock with lectures and chats and debates and advising. Usually, by Tuesday afternoon, I can feel my vocal cords growing fatigued and irritated. I have discovered that if I just try to soldier on, then before the week is out, those little laryngeal muscles will seize up like an old pick-up truck engine, and suddenly I will be flapping my jaw uselessly, with nothing but a breathy wheeze coming out.
It is very hard to explain to a student how to think like a lawyer when you sound like a strangled serpent.
The fact is that teachers of all kinds are among those most at risk for developing voice problems. This might in part be because they work in schools, which are really just giant Petri dishes for the cultivation of upper respiratory infections. But the biggest threat to our voices could merely be overuse. Vocal cords are really just small, thin muscles, and we make them work to produce sound by forcing air between them until they vibrate audibly. Every syllable we utter arises from a bit of violence we do to our selves. Too much violence can damage the vocal cords, sometimes even permanently.
So it makes sense to try to find ways to treat our vocal cords more kindly. There are many things you can do to ease the strain you impose on your voice box. Some might become permanent habits; others you can use when you start to feel a little raspy, or maybe even just before a garrulously busy week starts:
- Keep your vocal cords moist. When vocal cords become dehydrated, they are more easily irritated. So drink plenty of water -- keep a cup or bottle on hand in the office or wherever you might expect to have to speak at any length. Also, certain chemicals, like alcohol, caffeine, and some cold medicines, can dry out your vocal cords. All things in moderation, generally, of course, but when you know you've got a talk-heavy week coming up, you might want to take a pass on coffee in the morning and wine in the evening. (Or vice versa, for that matter.)
- Avoid irritants. The effects of too much talking can be intensified by agents that make the vocal cords more sensitive. Cigarette smoke, both first- and second-hand, is an obvious example. But in addition to thinking about what you breathe, you should also consider what you eat. Aromatic and spicy foods carry the risks not only of irritating the throat on the way down, but also causing stomach upset and reflux that might also irritate the throat on the way out. Of course, food is not supposed to go down the windpipe, so direct irritation of the vocal cords is less common (though possible). A bigger issue is irritation of the throat above the larynx, which can lead to coughing, which directly assaults the vocal cords. Similarly, it is a good idea to avoid milk and dairy products, not because they are directly harmful, but because they can coat the throat, prompting you to try to clear it, which can also irritate the vocal cords. (If you ever feel the urge to clear your throat with a rumbling bark, hold off, and instead see if you can clear the irritation by opening your mouth wide and alternately breathing deeply through your nose and then exhaling, steadily and forcefully but not explosively, through your mouth, making the "h" sound as you do.) Of course, try not to get sick, too, because illness can be an irritant.
- Rest your vocal cords. It is often right to remain silent, but during busy times, it may not always be possible. Still, what you do outside the office can help rest your voice as well. When work is vocally busy, try to avoid scheduling other responsibilities that might require extensive speaking. Get rest at home -- minimize conversation and get good sleep. In the long term, regular exercise can help develop stamina, even in the vocal cords, so that you can talk longer before your throat starts to feel irritated.
- Soothe your throat. Along with having water at hand, keep some cough drops, mints, or even certain fruits at hand. Eating or sucking on these will stimulate the production of saliva, which keeps the vocal cords moist. Also, consider drinking herbal teas with soothing ingredients like chamomile or slippery elm bark. Traditional Medicinals "Throat Coat" is a pleasant choice.
- Use healthy speaking techniques. Since in many cases we are not going to be able to avoid frequent speaking, it's a good idea to learn how to speak in the least irritating way for your vocal cords. Sit up straight and don't slouch; good posture opens up the airway and relieves pressure on the larynx. Avoid yelling, and avoid whispering -- both put unnecessary stress on your vocal cords. Instead, try always to speak in a conversational tone of voice, but try to take deep breaths and to exhale using your diaphragm and your chest to produce sound, not just your throat. This takes some of the strain off your vocal cords. Finally, if you do lecture, don't eschew the use of a microphone, when available. Yes, your stentorian voice can reach the back of the lecture hall, but you may pay for it later when you are trying to reach to person seated across the desk.
Friday, April 26, 2019
Myra Orlen was kind enough to put together a recap of the NY ASP workshop. Her report is below.
Kudos to Kris Franklin of the NYLS and Rebecca Flanagan of UMass Law School for organizing a wonderful workshop at NYLS on April 12, 2019.
The morning offered excellent presentations – most centering on providing ASP and Bar programs to part-time students.
The New York Workshop offers a unique opportunity for ASP’ers to select a topic that they want to learn more about and offer to lead a discussion on that topic. The afternoon sessions offered a mix of focused discussions and more traditional presentations. All were excellent!
The morning sessions focused on assisting part-time law students:
ASP’ers from Pace Law School – Danielle Kocal, Stephanie Desiato, Stephen Iannacone, and Kerriann Stout shared ideas about helping part-time students maximize their time by thinking about life in terms of buckets: work; family; and school. Part-time students can benefit by using a planner and filling each bucket at the beginning of the week.
ASP’ers from the CUNY School of Law addressed Time Management – inside and outside the Academic and Bar Support Classroom. Most striking in the CUNY presentation was the ratio of ASP staff to students – in both the full-time and part-time programs. CUNY has a very well-resourced program. Ninety percent of students participate in CUNY’s voluntary program that stands as a model for those ASP’ers attending the workshop. CUNY staffers provide in-person and on-line programming. ASP staff sit in on one-L doctrinal courses and run ASP sessions that cover skills such as doctrinal review, case reading/briefing, note taking, practice exams, and answering hypos. The CUNY presenters included Haley Meade, Laura Mott, Asima Chaudhary, Nate Broughty, and Allie Robbins.
Reichi Lee of Golden Gate University School of Law spoke on using online/hybrid programs to support part-time students. GGU has a 60-student part-time program. Students are on campus three nights a week. GGU maintains an e-learning on-line website. The e-learning website contains workshops that are accessible to students.
Kandace Kukas of Northeastern University School of Law discussed coaching part-time students through the bar, including having frank conversations about whether students are ready for the challenge. Factors to consider are work and life schedules, commitments, and whether they will be able to devote the necessary time to prepare for the bar exam. Kandace suggested meeting with part-time students early, by their second-to-last year, and at the beginning of their final year. The key is to establish the trust necessary for honest dialogue with part-time students. Topics to be discussed include planning, time to devote to bar preparation, work time – can students take time off from work – or will students quit work. It is important to check in with students during their final semester and as bar applications are due. Kandace also stressed that it is important to coach students that taking the bar exam unprepared hurts students and their school. Students who get raw scores of 80/90 on full-length practice exams should strongly consider delaying taking the bar exam. Attendees at the workshop agreed that failing the bar exam is a devastating blow.
Shane Dizon of Brooklyn Law School lead attendees in an exercise to consider whether law schools should require or recommend upper-division bar course mandates for evening students.
Rebecca Flanagan of the University of Massachusetts School of Law presented on “Them Digital Natives! Gen Z and Technology Usage.” Rebecca has continued her research on who our law students are – generationally. Current students can be viewed as Digital Natives – information has always been available to these digital natives. For Digital Natives, information has always been available and readily consumable. But these Digital Natives do not know everything about technology. They know the social aspects, but do not know how to use digital tools. They are not skilled at interacting with each other without a technology as a mediating force and can struggle with interpersonal communications.
The Afternoon Sessions:
As the afternoon sessions began, Kris Franklin sent around a pad and asked those attending the workshop to contribute a “what I wish I knew when I began my work in ASP.” That list has been shared on the ASP list serve and this blog.
Eileen Pizzurro of Rutgers Law School lead a discussion on Orientation and ASP.
Chris Payne-Tsoupros of the UDC/David A. Clarke School of Law lead a discussion on Enhancing Student Engagement in Summer Programming.
Nicole Lefton, C. Benji Louis, and Cara Caporale of Hofstra, Maurice A. Deane School of Law, lead a discussion on Reinforcing Executive Function Skills. In this session, we learned that our executive function is plastic and improvable and learned about techniques to incorporate executive functioning and metacognition into academic success and bar programming.
Stephen Horowitz, of St. John’s University School of Law, presented on “1.5 Gen. Students and “Sound Right” vs. Read-Right Grammar Strategies.” In this presentation, we learned techniques to use with students who came to the U.S. in their teens or earlier or for undergrad. They seem fluent in English, but “quirks” arise in written English. They learned English by ear and know what sounds right. One technique addressed was the use of iweb corpus as to word choice.
Kris Franklin of New York Law School, presented on “Framing Legal Rules Helpfully.” In her presentation, Kris Franklin used an IRAC exercise to show that framing legal rules helps to accurately spot issues. If a student has not accurately framed the rule, the student will have difficulty successfully addressing the whole problem contained in an IRAC hypothetical.
Susan Landrum, of St. John’s University School of Law, lead the final discussion on “Self-care: Reducing Burnout When Working with Stressed-Out Students.” The last session was a discussion of self-care for ASP’ers. “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” This discussion was a great way to end the workshop. Whether it’s setting a time each day for a walk or for meditating, ASP’ers experience high burnout; we cannot give everyone all of our time. The workshop ended with what all of us do for ourselves. This writer takes lessons in landscape painting.
As usual, after the workshop ended, we went to a local establishment and continued to socialize. Also as usual, the New York Academic Success workshop did not disappoint. I end where I began, kudos to Kris Franklin and Rebecca Flanagan!
Thursday, April 25, 2019
Sometimes, okay, oftentimes, I feel like a turtle. Yes, I have feet (and arms?) and a nice study neck. But, mostly, as an academic support educator, I often feel like a gigantic "paper weight," living under a big shell, lumbering along without seemingly making much of a difference. Of course, that's not true at all, because, in the world of academic support, the big differences are not in our programs or our pizzazz but in the individual lives that we so often touch, inspire, motivate, and uplift (and the students that touch, inspire, motivate, and uplift us too).
Nevertheless, I've decided to take a very little tiny step - in sticking my neck out beyond my shell - to proactively involve my colleagues in our work (and myself in their work too). I'm going to invite my friends to join me at next month's Academic Support Conference, hosted by Seattle University, from May 21 to May 23, 2019. Association of Academic Support Educators Conference In fact, I'm going to talk it up - big time - with my staff and faculty colleagues. Frankly, it's time for me to live adventurously, to stretch myself, to live boldly in community with my colleagues Consequently, I'm inviting all of my law school faculty and staff colleagues to join with me at the upcoming national academic support conference. And, as a preview, I'm going to send them the conference schedule along with a few tantalizing morsels about what's on the agenda, such as:
• Can Law Schools Have It All: ASP as a Checkbox or Mechanism for Change
DeShun Harris, Camesha Little &Yolonda Sewell
• Using Data to Encourage Student Engagement
Kevin Sherrill & Kate Bolus
• How Dreamers Dream of Becoming A Lawyer: Where DACA and Bar Pass Meet
Micah J. Yarbrough
• Best Practices for Creating an Inclusive Classroom: Case Study Veterans and Non-Traditional Students
Jane Bloom Grise
• Building Teams for Student Success
Kent D. Lollis, Russell McClain & Laurie Zimet
• Planting Seeds: Using Academic Support Skill Building and Language across the Curriculum
Marcia Goldsmith & Antonia Miceli
• An Introduction to Expert Learning (and teaching) for Law Students)
• What does it mean to teach legal reasoning
• Introduction to the Science of Learning
Louis Schulze & Jamie Kleppetsch
• Evolution of an Academic Support Program
• Next Generation Data Analytics and Individualized Intervention for Bar Takers
Mike Barry, Zoe Niesel & Isabel F. Peres
So, please join me in inviting your law school colleagues too! The more the merrier, as they say! And, I look forward to seeing you at next month's conference in Seattle (and I hope to introduce you to some of my many legal writing, career counseling, student affairs, clinical, and doctrinal colleagues)! (Scott Johns).
Sunday, April 21, 2019
The NY Regional ASP Workshop is a leader for many reasons. If my history is correct (which it may not be), NY was the first of the regional ASP workshops. I remember asking Kris how it started and for any advice in starting one in the southwest, and she said to just do it (which we did). This year, they had another great idea to collect thoughts on what ASPers wish they had known when they started. With Kris' permission, I combined her emails and posted the responses below so we can forward the information to new people in the community each year. Here is the list they created:
- There is a big and supportive academic support community. Use it!
- You are valuable. You bring knowledge and expertise that students—especially contemporary students—need to not only succeed in law school, but in the practice of law. Don’t underestimate the impact you have on students, whether or not you see an immediate outcome.
- No two students are the same. It’s fun to try to figure out each one, and to create an individualized solution and plan with him/her.
- Don’t try to do everything at once when building new programming—choose one thing at a time; focus and develop it, and then add more. Meet 1-on-1 with faculty to learn more about students and about faculty concerns about your students.
- Don’t shy away from hard conversations with both students and Sometimes you are the one who can see the realities of a situation, and your opinion is important. And one they need to hear.
- Realize exactly how time-consuming ASP is and how hard it is to get to the point of having individual trust and a personal relationship with every student. But just know that the payoff of getting a phone call (not an email) from a student saying “THANK YOU, I PASSED THE BAR” is so incredibly rewarding.
- I wish I had a better understanding of the politics of legal education in general and as it relates to ASP in particular. As a new person, it’s important to learn some of the history without taking on battles that belong to others. Give yourself space to listen and learn, but be a neutral observer for as long as you can until you get a sense of the politics and can begin to develop your own vision.
- Don’t remain in the ASP silo—make faculty allies! But do learn from all the ASPers who came before you. Read, read, read.
- Know the budget! I wish I knew more about resource allocation.
- Help students place class exercises in context. Meet with 1L professors, sit in on their classes, and develop an understanding of when they are doing and why. Where needed, translate for students so they can grasp what they are being asked to do and why.
- I wish I’d known how much patience, stamina, and support from my family and partner I would need for this work, even more than I expected. And I wish I had known how much technology can bolster information transmission and learning.
- Don’t let your students’ issues become your issues.
- Don’t give away your skills, value and expertise. Ask for status, security, and money. Really.
- That doing ASP work can be even more rewarding if you’re doing it at a school that has a mission you feel inspired by and aligned with.
- Students in a panic are usually looking for a strong voice pointing out a clear path. Don’t be afraid to tell them the work they have to do.
- Students feel so much more overwhelmed and intimidated about managing their time than I would have guessed!
- Don’t underestimate the power of anxiety and lack of confidence in undermining student success.
- Without failure there is no learning. Share your own humanity and failure. Students see you as human, fallible, and successful.
- You will burn out if you try to bring the “magic” to every student. Don’t neglect your own soul. HOLD BOUNDARIES, respect yourself, respect your students.
- Never forget the importance of building relationships and culture with your students. Your upper-class peer models are extremely valuable and get you insights on your students’ experiences that you will never have on your own. (And seeing them is another reminder that you can, indeed already have, made a difference.)
- “It takes a village” really applies in ASP. I was expecting more of a competitive attitude, and I pleasantly surprised to find out how willing other ASPers were to share their strategies. Ask others what they are doing, what has worked, and what flopped—they will tell you!
Tuesday, April 2, 2019
A blank piece of paper has so much potential. It can be used to display one's ingenuity. It can be a medium for communication between two people, or among thousands. It can record data and history and memory, to be used by people born long after the recorder is dead. And yet, under certain circumstances, our stationery friend can seem to turn on us. When we are asked to answer an inscrutable question, the oppressive blankness of an empty sheet can be smothering. When we think that our reputation, our livelihood, our entire future depends on scratching the right symbols in the right order, the page can seem like a minefield of hidden threats.
When I was a kid, television seemed to be entering its golden age of public service announcements, and to me it seemed the most common subject was fire. Fire was our friend, we were told, making food safe and houses warm; but we always needed to be aware of what to do if it grew dangerous. And what we needed to know was that our natural inclinations were usually wrong. Foe example, even though we knew that water was the opposite of fire, if something caught fire in the kitchen, then we were not supposed to throw water on it, because it was probably a grease or electrical fire, and water would just make it worse. If our whole house caught fire (say, because we threw water on a kitchen fire), then we weren't supposed to hide in a nice, safe closet, because then we'd be trapped and the firefighters would never find us. If we caught fire, then we weren't supposed to run, trying to find some water to jump into. That, we were told, would just light us up like a Roman candle. Instead, we had to fight every instinct and stop, drop to the ground, and roll around politely.
What I could not understand as a child was that these PSAs really had two purposes. One was simply educational, teaching us that behaviors that made perfectly good sense in one context (dousing fire, hiding from danger, fleeing danger) might actually expose us to additional harm in a different context. They were maladaptive behaviors. Sea turtle hatchings naturally paddle towards a bright light, which helps insure they reach the ocean when the brightest object in the night is the moon reflecting off the water, but which will insure they remain stranded on land when the brightest object is the patio light behind a beach house. Infantry charging a defensive position en masse often led to an advance when the defense was armed with swords, but always led to a slaughter when the defense was armed with entrenched machine guns. The ways to counter maladaptive behaviors are either to return to the original situation (turn of the patio light) or to replace the old behavior with a new one (attack with tanks and aircraft). When Ronald McDonald sang, "Stop, drop, and roll!", he was teaching children a new behavior to replace the old maladaptive behavior.
But even the dimmest of my childhood friends got the gist of Ronald's commands after the third or fourth viewing. Why were we hearing these messages so frequently, from so many different sources? That went to the second purpose of the PSAs. Education is a good start, a necessary start, but the problem is that being on fire, or at least near fire, is an inherently stressful situation. And psychologists know that "Under stress, we regress." That is, under difficulty situations like panic or sensory overload or fear of consequences, humans naturally fall back on older patterned behavior. Most drivers, for instance, know intellectually that if their car loses traction in a skid, they should pump the brakes and steer into the skid to regain control. But the first time they actually hit a skid, most drivers stand on that brake pedal. Only if they live someplace wacky with snow, like Buffalo, do they get enough practice with the skid to develop the new adaptive behavior.
Even television executives were able to recognize that it would be unethical to light kids on fire over and over again until they learned to stop, drop, and roll. So they did the next best thing: they repeated the message over and over again, and encouraged children to try practicing the moves even when they weren't alight, to ingrain the new behavior as much as possible. The more familiar a behavior became, through repetition and feedback, the less likely a person would be to regress away from it under the actual stress of combustion.
At this time of year, I am seeing work from a lot of students who seem to be regressing under stress: 1L students using tactics in their spring semester midterms that appear to be drawn from their most basic legal writing classes, or from college composition classes; 3L students trying to mechanically apply CREAC format to early MEE and MPT practice questions. Even when we know we have shown these students the more advanced strategies they should be using as they progress through their development as attorneys, we have to keep in mind that that blank piece of paper or computer screen can just as easily be a threat as a blessing. Under the stress of self-doubt, or of novelty, or of high ambition, or future consequences -- sometimes of all of these at once -- the amiably clean page can transform into an incandescent hazard. Repetition and feedback are important not just to help our students improve their use of the more advanced strategies they need, but also to make them comfortable and familiar enough to be able to use those strategies at all.
Wednesday, March 27, 2019
Several years back, our school's Career Development Office brought in Kimm Walton (of Guerrilla Tactics for Getting the Legal Job of Your Dreams fame) as a guest speaker. I vividly remember the reaction after her talk. As students filed out, they were buzzing excitedly. "It's nice to know I can get a job even though I'm nowhere near the top of the class." "I'm going to try talking with people I meet like she suggests." "I think I'll join a section of the bar after all: it seems a good way to connect with lawyers." "I'm not going to worry about on-campus interviews: it seems like I can find a firm that's more in line with what I want to do." Walton's presentation could be boiled down to a simple message: law students could create their own employment opportunities by figuring out their own interests, looking for positions to fulfill their interests, and talking to people. That was it -- know yourself, do your homework, and connect (dare I say "network"?). It will come as no surprise that our career development office constantly conveyed the same message through presentations, written materials, career counseling meetings, and informal interactions. But it took bringing in an outside expert to make that message convincing and compelling.
While informally chatting in the hallway with some 3Ls last week, I inadvertently became an outside expert for our school's bar prep course. One student fretted, "I wish I had known the doctrinal law subjects we would cover in advance so I could have reviewed them during winter break. I did really poorly on the first few tests because I didn't understand Sales well enough." "How well do you understand it now?" I asked. "I've got it nailed. After I got those questions wrong, I went back and worked my way through the outlines and did more problems, and now I'm on top of it." When I explained the concept of using testing as a mechanism that increases engagement and learning, the student "got it" and felt more positive about the course. I knew the instructors explained this repeatedly to the bar prep class but somehow their explanations washed over the student without making an impression. My position as an "outsider" made it easier for the student to understand s/he was learning through the process of writing and reviewing exam answers.
More often than I care to think, students will happily report that they have changed their approach to law school based on something they learned by visiting a web site or talking with a lawyer. When we're lucky, what they have discovered is a differently-worded repeat of messages we work hard to convey throughout law school -- typically practices such as starting to outline early in the semester, reviewing notes after class, talking with their professors after class, getting regular exercise, or setting aside personal time each week for rejuvenation. When we're unlucky, the outside expert will transform their law school experience for the worse by suggesting they stop briefing, stop reading cases, or study "efficiently" by limiting their review of each subject to a three-day clump before the final exam (yes, I've heard a very vocal, passionate speaker espouse this approach to 1Ls).
It's a constant challenge to figure out how to manage the "outside expert" phenomenon to our students' advantage, especially since the outside experts with the greatest influence seem to be those the students find on their own. Ideally, we'd all have budgets that would allow us to bring in dynamic outside speakers to inspire and enthuse our students with positive messages. Certainly it's important to ally with doctrinal and legal writing instructors, law librarians, and upper-division students so our messages will complement and not contradict each other. At my law school, I'm considering a few modest steps: conveying pithy academic messages (perhaps credited to an outsider?) to our law school's digital signage board to take advantage of a more visual medium; and using a discussion board or other sharing mechanism in our Skills Lab for 1Ls to share what they've learned from the web so that their discoveries can benefit from open discussion. Perhaps the most important lesson for me personally is to set aside my ego. While I may be bemused by a student who credits the web for the discovery that it's helpful to practice writing answers to hypotheticals throughout the semester, what ultimately matters is what the student learns and practices, not who the student perceives as the expert.
Monday, March 25, 2019
Researchers using advanced technology discover more about how we learn all the time, and non-stop communication disseminates the information almost immediately. ASP conferences are rich with presentations of new understandings of how to study. The new research and the ability for all of us to access it invites integration to our programs and communication to our students. Is it possible to over rely on new theories to our students’ detriment?
I wrote a blog post last year within the first couple months of contributing discussing how I conveyed learning theories to my students and my thoughts on how the communication would help them learn. The feedback from students and my experience teaching the course a few times demonstrated to me the message may not be sinking in.
Understanding and communicating learning theory to our students shouldn’t be detrimental, but I encourage everyone to use moderation. Just like most things in life (carbs, chocolate, Netflix, Facebook), too much can cause problems, except the chocolate of course. I more than doubled my understanding of how we learn in the last couple years, and I probably overshared the information to students. I thought students wanted to understand why I recommended certain actions, so I assigned articles about the different concepts. The response was almost universal disdain, which was a little surprising. To be fair, a few articles were extremely long, but most of them were only a few pages.
I experienced a phenomenon we already knew, and I should have approached the solution slightly different. In general, people believe they know how to study and learn. Students believe if they were successful in the past, what he/she did was correct. Trying to tell law students in their first semester prior to grades coming out that what they did in the past to achieve A’s wouldn’t work did not cause students to follow my advice. Providing the research to back up my recommendations only frustrated students because they didn’t want additional reading because they already believed they knew the best way to study for them.
If students are resisting, then is communicating the information a waste of time or even detrimental? I believe the answer is still a clear no. My class probably moved too far away from the practical into the justification and theory discussion. Students want what will help them now. Study techniques won’t impact grades tomorrow, but we can integrate interleaving, spaced repetition, testing effect, self-regulated learning, and any other research without over-emphasizing the theory behind the recommendation. We can also integrate activities into our classes using those theories without explicitly justifying the activity. Our approach will make the difference.
In academic support and education in general, many discussions revolve around outcomes. What do we want our students to know or do when they leave the classroom? I would argue we want our students to use proper study habits based on the theories throughout law school, not just understand the concepts. Demonstrating how to study and walking students through the process will most likely produce that outcome more than students merely understanding the why behind the study technique. When students start to question recommendations, then we can refer students to resources or provide supplemental material. I found a handful of really short youtube videos that explain concepts much better than long articles. Even those are still too much if students don’t need the additional information. We can also focus on fewer techniques. Instead of trying to make our students perfect learners, we can strive to make them better learners. Small incremental changes for them can have a lasting impact.
Students in our classrooms are faced with information overload. They have access to more information than ever before, and they encounter new legal information daily. Adding to the deluge of information may not be our best approach. Practical application is what I plan to strive for going forward.
Wednesday, March 20, 2019
A wide range of advising formats satisfy ABA Standard 309 requirements that a law school provide academic advising that "communicates effectively the school’s academic standards and graduation requirements, and  provides guidance on course selection." In some schools every faculty member has assigned advisees and guides them through all their choices for three years, minutely checking that they have met degree requirements and are prepared for the bar exam and their chosen area of practice. Other schools have a more laissez-faire system: after a few informational meetings students are given the tools they need to meet degree requirements and set loose on their own to seek guidance. Student Services or Academic Support offices sometimes handle the degree requirements portion of advising, drawing in clinical, writing, and doctrinal faculty primarily in a mentoring role. As a person who has coordinated a relatively formal 1L advising program for the past few years, I've heard considerable angst about advising. "I don't know what to do!" is a common refrain from senior and junior faculty alike. These suggestions are applicable to faculty performing the wide range of advising functions.
Understand your advising function. Ask the person who gave you the advising assignment and insist on clarity. Some advisors assigned at Orientation are meant primarily to be a human face and contact for new, bewildered 1Ls. Advisors assigned midway through 1L year may serve mostly as mentors for advisees who have expressed an interest in a particular area of law. Do you advise students only during 1L year, or throughout their three or four years of law school? Are you expected to lift registration holds? To advise students holistically about careers, bar passage, courses, and degree requirements? To focus on your areas of experience and subject-matter expertise? Are there unspoken expectations such as inviting advisees to your home for dinner? Once you know the expectations, you can work more effectively with your advisees.
Do your homework. Your advisees are expected to be familiar with a wide variety of materials such as graduation worksheets, catalogs, course selection guides, and student handbooks. You should be, too, even if your advising role is limited to mentorship. At least once a year, review the print and web materials relevant to your school's requirements and curriculum. For instance, while you need not know the details of all the certificate programs your school offers, you should have some knowledge of what programs exist and where to find more information. Likewise, familiarize yourself with key people within your school and their areas of expertise. The expert on the bar admissions process, for example, might be the registrar at one school and the academic support director at another. It goes without saying, but don't overlook the expertise of staff as well as faculty and administration.
Start by connecting to your advisee as a person, not by plunging into course offerings, doctrinal law, or career goals. Ask about what's important to them. Many students think they must immediately express an interest in a particular area of law, and they may be embarrassed if they haven't settled on one. Reassure them that they don't have to make those choices immediately. Some students already have a good idea of the practice they want after law school (prosecutor? family firm? general counsel?); when they do, advising is admittedly easier. But if not, ask questions to unearth what is most meaningful for them. For example, some students might want to focus their law school experience on ways they can help immigrant communities. Others may be looking for any position with enough flexibility that they can always attend their kid's soccer games. Others may be place-bound, whether from desire or necessity.
Encourage students to focus on intrinsic motivations. As Lawrence Krieger writes in The Hidden Sources of Law School Stress,
[A] primary focus on external rewards and results, including affluence, fame, and power, is unfulfilling. These values are seductive -- they create a nice picture of life but they are actually correlated with relative unhappiness. Instead, people who have a more "intrinsic," personal/interpersonal focus -- on personal growth, close relationships, helping others, or improving their community -- turn out to be significantly happier and more satisfied with their lives.
Suggesting possibilities and alternatives, while tying these possibilities to their values and goals, is the single most important service you can provide as an advisor. A good phrase is "Have you ever thought about . . . ?"
For example, the student who is place-bound in a small-town area might lean towards a typical small firm practice specializing in a few areas like family law and estate planning. But with the great strides in technology, a boutique practice might be in order, or acting as a contract attorney, or half a dozen other alternatives. Students whose impetus is to help immigrant communities may initially think only of practicing immigration law; you can broaden their horizons by suggesting that small business practice, bankruptcy, criminal law, or elder law could be equally valuable practices in helping these communities. Once students understand the multiplicity of options, they are more receptive to suggestions about the variety of courses, externships, clinics, and other experiences that can help them flourish.
When you discuss academic and practice alternatives (such as certificate programs, externships, clinics, moot court, and law journals), do so in the context of possibilities and alternatives. Be enthusiastic and informative, certainly, about your own courses and field -- if not you, who? -- but your primary advising purpose is not to be a shill for your own interests, but a mentor helping the student start the practice of law on a solid foundation.
Emphasize the long view. Extraordinary opportunities often carry short-term costs: a life-changing externship might require separating from loved ones for some weeks; an apposite course by a demanding professor could carry the risk of a dip in GPA. Here's where the credibility you have built with advisees can really pay off. Acknowledge their concerns, but point out what will have the greatest payoff over the long term.
Never undermine students' choices. Students value your opinions, so it hits them hard if your explicit and implicit messages that "real lawyers" follow a particular path (judicial clerkships, BigLaw, litigation, etc.) suggest that their own choices are second-best or even illegitimate. No field of law and no career path is beneath even the most talented student. While top students have a wealth of opportunities, they should not be browbeat into thinking certain fields are beneath them.
Connect. You have a valuable web of connections inside and outside the law school. Help your advisees tap into this network by referring them to others with knowledge and experience. As a practical matter, don't count on memory -- before advisees leave your office, make sure either you or they have written down not only the names of your referrals but also why you are referring them.
Respect the validity of other advising viewpoints. Students will discuss their future plans with many lawyers, both in and out of the law school. Because we as lawyers have different backgrounds, experiences, values, and areas of expertise, we as advisors will have different viewpoints, and inevitably some of these will clash. Students will notice the areas of disagreement, so it's vital for us to acknowledge the validity of other viewpoints even as we advocate our own. This is a great way to model the professionalism and civility we espouse.