Archive for the 'Prescriptions for Improving Legal Education' Category

Jun 04 2009

Three Things I Learned Writing a Book about How to Succeed in Law School—Part III

1L of a Ride: A Well-Traveled Professor’s Roadmap to Success in the First Year of Law School This is the third and final installment of guest posts derived from my recent book: 1L of a Ride: A Well-Traveled Professor’s Roadmap to Success in the First Year of Law School (Thomson West 2009). Part I addressed psychological distress in law students. Part II explored the perilous second semester. This post discusses academic research that provides answers to a hodgepodge of important/interesting questions about legal education and success in law school.

III. Surprising Empirical Answers to Law School Questions You May have Wondered About

Scores of studies have been conducted about law students, legal education, and teaching and learning in general, yet this research data is often overlooked in giving advice to law students.

Did you know that the LSAT is not nearly as strong of a success predictor as most people assume? That students who sit in the front of classrooms get higher grades than those who sit in back? That women participate in law school class discussion at lower rates than men? That, contrary to student belief, the brain cannot multitask in class without one of the tasks suffering? That the conventional wisdom to not change initial answers to multiple-choice questions is completely backwards? Read on. (As with my other posts, I’ve omitted the citations, but can provide them on request.)

LSAT Correlation to First-Year Grades. Most law school applicants and students are aware that the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) is the most heavily weighted factor influencing law school admissions. I’ve served on admissions committees at three different law schools. At each school, I’ve protested while seeing students with undergraduate GPAs barely above a 2.0 get admitted because of a good LSAT score, while students who have proved themselves through four years of college with outstanding GPAs get rejected because of average LSAT scores.

Validity studies do show a positive correlation between LSAT scores and first-year grades, but the correlation is not nearly as strong as most law students believe. Correlation is measured by a coefficient for which 1.00 represents a perfect correlation and zero shows no correlation beyond one attributable to random chance. In 2005, the Law School Admission Council, the good folks that administer the LSAT, conducted a validity study using data from 181 law schools.

The median correlation between LSAT scores and first-year grades was only .34. The correlation varied wildly among schools, from a high of .56 (reasonably strong correlation) to a low of .04 (virtually no correlation). The correlation was higher when LSAT scores were considered together with undergraduate GPAs, ranging from .24 to .65, with a median correlation of .46.

So take heart. While the LSAT does measure several important abilities―primarily the abilities to engage and manage complex text―your LSAT score does not predetermine your fate. Like all law profs, I’ve seen students with low LSAT scores excel and students with chart-topping scores flunk out.

Seat Location as Tied to Academic Performance. I always encourage law students to sit in the front of the classroom, convinced it enhances their law school experience. Now I have some research to back up my recommendation. Non-law school educators have conducted a variety of studies on the relationship of seat choice to student personality type and academic performance. They support one proposition quite clearly: students who choose to sit in the front of the room are disproportionately better students. They have higher GPAs, participate more frequently in class, and receive better grades in the course. One study, for example, found that students sitting in the front received higher percentages of As and students sitting in the back received higher percentages of Ds and Fs.

Several studies have linked this better performance to personality differences between students who choose to sit in front and those who choose the back. In other words, with regard to the cause and effect relationship between seat selection and academic performance, research suggests that students who sit in front by choice do better because better students choose to sit in front. But at least one study suggests that sitting in the front is actually causally related to better academic performance.

Don’t be a backburner! Grab a seat near the front in all your classes.

Class Participation Rates between Men and Women. Unsurprising to anyone who has been involved in legal education for any period of time, several surveys show that female students voluntarily participate much less frequently in law school classes than male students (although my Torts class this past year was a notable exception). For example, a survey of students at the University of California at Berkeley found that a majority of women, and also persons of color, never asked questions or otherwise voluntarily participated in class, while almost two-thirds of white male students reported doing both. The survey is dated, but the results are consistent with current experience.

Reasons offered by scholars as to why the Socratic method negatively impacts women include increased feelings of alienation and fear, the adversarial and competitive nature of the method, sexist conduct by certain male professors, an interest in protecting the sanctity and integrity of one’s beliefs, less willingness to engage in grandstanding, a lower interest in dominating class discussion, and—I love this one because it’s so true—better recognition by women than men of the limits of one’s knowledge. In short, male students, as a group, are more willing to engage in the adversarial, competitive “sport” of the Socratic method than women. As noted, the same surveys show that minority students also participate at lower rates.

This data is important because class participation carries several benefits with it, some tangible and some intangible: (1) Active student participation in class discussions adds to the energy level and sense of community in the classroom, making for a more lively and memorable experience for everyone; (2) You will better remember the classes in which you participate and feel more satisfaction about your law school experience; (3) Participating sharpens your oral communication and group speaking skills, essential abilities for all lawyers; (4) Your professors want to get to know you, but with so many students, we can=t realistically accomplish that unless you speak up from time to time; (5) It is an established fact of legal education that if you volunteer even once in a while, you will get called on less often when you are not volunteering; (6) Finally, many professors raise grades for class participation.

Multitasking with Computers in Class. The use of computers in law school classrooms is quite controversial among law professors, with some professors banning them and others threatening to do so. Profs Kibosh Students’ Laptops blared a headline in the American Bar Association Journal. The Washington Post published an op-ed piece by a Georgetown law professor advocating a classroom computer ban. Every time I think the great law school computer debate is about to die down, some prof will stir it up again on the lawprof listserv, igniting yet another torrent of email on the subject.

A primary concern professors have with computers is that too many students check out of the class discussion to web-browse, check email, send instant messages, etc. Gen Y and Millennial students respond that they are so skilled at multitasking that they really can learn law and check sports scores at the same time.

Is it true? Research suggests the answer is “no,” or at least “not as effectively.” Studies regarding the ability of the brain to engage in simultaneous tasks show “almost without exception” that the performance of one or both tasks directly suffers.

In one study, researchers tracked the wireless computer activity of students during class. Not surprisingly, the study showed students used their computers for a wide range of functions unrelated to the class, such as email and web-browsing. The researchers then divided a class into two groups. Prior to a lecture, one group was told to use their computers as usual, while the other was asked to close their computers. Afterwards, the researchers gave the students a surprise test. The students who used their laptops during the lecture performed significantly poorer on the test. Two months later the researchers replicated the test by switching the two groups of students and got the same results.

Another study suggested that even if multitasking does not necessarily decrease the overall ability to learn, it negatively affects the kind of learning used to acquire new concepts and information and to engage in deep analysis—learning abilities that are critical to law students. Researchers did MRI brain imaging of fourteen twenty-somethings engaged in dual-task learning. The brain imaging showed that multitaskers engaged in “habit learning” rather than “declarative learning.” Habit learning relies on a portion of the brain used for repetitive skills, whereas declarative learning involves a portion of the brain used for storing and recalling information. Basically, the researchers concluded that even though people can learn while multitasking, they can’t learn the material as well or be able to adapt it to changing conditions.

Even if you’re adept at multitasking, the research suggests you can’t do all the tasks well because of the brain’s limited processing ability. So if your professor is defining the Rule Against Perpetuities at the same moment you’re updating your Facebook status, something has to give.

Changing Answers on Multiple-Choice Questions. Ever since I was in elementary school, teachers have admonished not to change initial answers to multiple-choice questions because it’s more likely you will change an answer from right to wrong than from wrong to right. Well, guess what? The advice is completely backwards. Study after study, some of them dating back to the 1920s, consistently show that changing multiple-choice answers is more likely to increase—not decrease—test scores. An example: a study of upper-level accounting students showed that 95 percent of the students changed answers on their multiple-choice examinations (changing a total of 5.6 percent of the answers). Fifty-six percent of the answers were changed from wrong to right, while only 21 percent were changed from right to wrong. The remaining 23 percent were changed from one wrong answer to another wrong answer. These results are consistent with other studies.

Conclusion. Thanks to the CELL blog editors for giving me the opportunity to share some of the things I learned in writing my book about first-year law school success.  It’s been fun!

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Mar 10 2009

Three Things I Learned Writing a Book about How to Succeed in Law School—Part II

1L of a RideThis is Part II of my guest posting derived from my recent book: 1L of a Ride: A Well-Traveled Professor’s Roadmap to Success in the First Year of Law School (Thomson West 2009). Part I related to psychological distress in law students. This installment explores “The Perilous Second Semester”

II. The Perilous Second Semester

In a way I kind of feel as though the first semester was like me going into a burning building to pull somebody out of the fire. I wanted to go and was happy to do it, and after coming out I was glad I did it, but felt like I wouldn’t want to do it again. Now for the next semester I feel as though there is somebody else in the house and the fire has gotten worse. I groan and make myself go in again, and part of me wants to go back in, but in the back of my mind I’m aware of how tired I am from the first time and am a little more worried about whether or not I will get out of the building alive this time.

1L’s comment about starting the second semester

I’ve been teaching law for what seems like an eternity and, yet, until writing 1L of a Ride, had never given serious consideration to the second semester of law school as an entity of independent significance. Studying and surveying students at the University of Memphis brought home the realization that the second semester is, in fact, one of the most daunting challenges in all of law school, as reflected by the quotation above. How students respond to it is a crucial determinant of their long-term success. This is the juncture where students seem to make judgments and decisions about themselves and law school that play a large role in determining and defining their ultimate “law school selves.”

For the past couple of years, I’ve polled my Torts students at the start of the second semester with this online question:

What is your dominant feeling as you begin the second semester?

  • Excited
  • Tired
  • Bored
  • Depressed
  • Rested and ready

The most common answers by far are “Tired” and “Depressed.” Recently, I probed more deeply into student sentiments about starting the second semester. Just before classes began, I asked a section of Torts students to comment on, among other things, their state of mind and motivation and happiness levels in comparison to the first semester. The responses showed that, while some students feel better off in the second semester, a significant number are less happy and less motivated. I received several responses resembling this one:

  1. State of mind: Unhappy and sullen.
  2. Motivation level: Much less motivated—I’m already convinced I failed out of school, so the last thing I want to do is continue to work hard.
  3. Happiness level: The same amount of light unhappiness, but it’s for different reasons. In the beginning it was fear and anxiety. Now I just feel defeated.

At first blush, it seems counterintuitive that many law students find the second semester more difficult and dispiriting than the first. With three months experience under their belts, one might think the second semester would be a “been there, done that” relative breeze. Students know how to read and brief cases, outline courses, and take law school exams. They’ve made good friends, the physical surroundings are familiar, and they’ve discovered that the Socratic method and the law profs who administer it aren’t as bad as the horror stories they heard before starting law school.

The Pitfalls of the Second Semester

While the above are all real advantages, the second semester carries with it a whole new set of challenges. I list and briefly describe them below. The book expands on them and offers ways for students to address them.

Ignorance can be bliss. The uncertainty of the first semester is a substantial cause of strain on 1Ls, but unveiling law school can be problematic as well. In the second semester uncertainty about law school is replaced by a disquieting certainty that it can be an exhausting, onerous drudge. As one student put it: “Now I know exactly what I’m walking into. First semester there was a bit of excited anticipation, etc. Now I know I’ll be in the library for the next four months.”

The thrill is gone. Students arrive at law school brimming with anticipation and energy. Seeing and feeling it is one of the great joys of being a 1L law teacher. But like romances that lose their dizzying effects when the newness wears off, law school becomes more of a chore than an adventure after the ebullience of the first semester subsides. In the words of bluesman B.B. King, “the thrill is gone.”

The double-edged grade blade. Depending how they turn out, first-semester grades can be either a major boost or impediment to starting the second semester. Most students begin law school with at least some hope of finishing near the top of their class, but, of course, the mathematical reality is that only 10 percent of students finish in the top 10 percent. Ninety percent don’t.

For those who performed well, first-semester grades can infuse new energy and confidence. But for every student whose confidence gets a jolt from grades, three or four others get their egos electrocuted. High expectations, previous educational success, mandatory grading curves, and an abundance of talented people create a perfect storm for dashed hopes. The storm is unleashed the moment first-semester grades are released.

Getting back in the groove. After going and going like the battery bunny on meth for three months, students finish that last exam of the first semester and everything suddenly stops. Many students don’t know what to do with themselves during the holiday break. They’re not used to having so much free time. Many report that they can’t enjoy the break at the beginning because they feel guilty about not studying. Then, just about the time they readjust to an unstructured lifestyle full of leisure time, it’s time to get back to the grind. One of my survey questions was: “The hardest thing for me about starting the second semester is [fill in the blank].” Getting back into the groove was the most common answer.

Increased competitiveness. To the extent competitiveness is a problem in law school, students tell me it gets worse in the second semester. I think much of it relates back to that first set of grades having been issued. In the first semester, everyone is in the same boat, struggling to stay afloat. The shared experience creates a communal bond. But once first semester grades have been issued, there seems to be a feeling—both among some high achievers and some lower-than-hoped-for achievers—of “Hey, you’re in that boat and I’m in this boat.”

Enhanced workload. Depending on the law school, a major cause of second-semester stress is an increased workload. Some schools (like the University of Memphis) add an extra course in the second semester. Some professors move at a quicker pace in the second semester, which means more material and longer reading assignments. And then, of course, there’s the appellate brief and oral argument, one of the heaviest burdens of 1L existence.

Second-guessing life as a lawyer. One obstacle some students face is larger than the second semester and even law school itself. It’s the global issue of wondering whether one made the right choice in sacrificing everything (e.g., time, effort, financial resources, relationships, other opportunities) to come to law school. Should I be here? Is this what I really want to do with my life? In the first semester, students are struggling just to keep up, giving them little time to ponder the long-term wisdom of their career choice. In the second semester, nagging doubts kept at bay in the first semester start to creep into consciousness.

Financial issues. Many students get panicky, or at least very concerned, about financial issues in the second semester. Students often arrive having saved enough money to get them through the first semester only to realize they need to start borrowing more heavily starting in the second semester. Debt load, in turn, takes on greater prominence as a source of anxiety as students begin to realize that the lawyer salary data they read about prior to attending law school—and which, unfortunately, draws many students to law school—is skewed. Those $160,000 starting salaries and lavish annual bonuses splashed across the media go to only a small percentage of top-performing students who land jobs at large law firms in big cities. To make matters worse, these days students are barraged with reports about many of those highly paid associates being laid off as a consequence of the weak economy.

Summer job anxiety. Students feel tremendous pressure in the second semester to land summer clerkships at law firms. In many cases, this pressure arises from pressing financial needs, but it also stems from an expectation that getting summer legal jobs is something 1Ls are supposed to do. Depending on the city and job market, obtaining a summer association position at a law firm may be in unconquerable obstacle for a 1L, especially for those who aren’t in the top of their class.

Becoming aware of these second-semester issues has made me be a better advisor/mentor to my students. I never used to mention any of these issues to my students. Most of them never even occurred to me. Now I talk about each of them at some point during the second semester. The discussions don’t eliminate my students’ stress or worries, but they do seem to help relieve them.

For further discussions about the book click here.

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Jan 24 2009

Three Things I Learned Writing a Book about How to Succeed in Law School — Part I

1L of a Ride: A Well-Traveled Professor’s Roadmap to Success in the First Year of Law School                Thanks to Steve for giving me this opportunity to get the word out about my new book—1L of a Ride: A Well-Traveled Professor’s Roadmap to Success in the First Year of Law School (Thomson West 2009) (420 pages)—while also sharing some things I learned while writing it . This post about psychological distress in law students is the first of three guest posts.  My book is branded as “a candid step-by-step roadmap to both academic and emotional success in law school’s crucial first year.”  Parts of what follow are modified excerpts from Chapter 18—“Maintaining Well-Being.”

Part I: Psychological Distress in Law Students

               Our students are struggling. As a former law student and veteran law teacher, I knew, of course, that first-year law students are under stress.  But until researching the book, I had no idea of the depth or extent of their suffering. I discovered that studies have long shown that law students suffer disproportionately from stress, anxiety, and depression. Data from as far back as 1957 show that psychological distress in law students significantly outpaces not only the general population, but other graduate student populations, including medical students.

               A 1980s study of University of Arizona law and medical students found that law students scored significantly higher than both the general population and medical students in nearly every category of psychological dysfunction measured, including anxiety, depression, feelings of inadequacy and inferiority, hostility, and obsessive-compulsiveness. (Citations omitted to avoid cluttering up this post, but are available on request.) Continue Reading »

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Nov 19 2008

Whither Clinical Education?

Clinical Education, RIP. I hope that this hypothetical epitaph spurs clinicians to re-imagine an educational methodology that seems to have seriously lost its way. Most clinical courses fail to enhance students’ lawyering skills in any significant way. The reason is that clinicians focus courses on narrow types of legal problems rather than on skills chosen because they are complex and therefore worthy of analysis and training in law school. Most “innovative” clinical courses consist only of pouring the same wine into differently shaped bottles, as clinicians apply the same methodology to different types of legal problems. Not surprisingly, clinicians continue to grapple with security-of-employment issues.

The rudderless nature of clinical legal education is nowhere more apparent than in clinicians’ choices of conference topics. (Unlike other AALS sections, clinicians have persuaded the AALS that they are entitled to a conference or workshop every year.) You might think that since clinical education focuses on legal problems of the poor and disenfranchised, conferences would customarily be devoted to scholarship concerning structural problems that plague our system of justice and distribution of legal services. But this is decidedly not what happens. Continue Reading »

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Oct 19 2008

The Future of the Law Book?

After attending a very interesting conference on the future of the law book, several thoughts come to mind:

1. Law books aren’t doomed, but there is a lot of pressure for change.
2. Talking about law books is really an opening for talking about almost all of legal education.
3. There is a whole new and evolving e-world out there. Readers, such as the Kindle,can readily replace the printed page and the heavy case books we carry around.
4. The generation “born digital” has a whole different take on materials, and the future looks bright for increasing electronic forms of material.
5. A goal of using technology is not simply to replace books with electronic gadgets, but to increase the mobility of learning (see Pod Casts and TWEN) and the utility of a legal education. (The gadgets, and the new vocabulary that accompanies them, however, sure are fun.)

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Jun 20 2008

Teaching by Showing Good Stuff

Ok, guilty as charged – it is really easy to critique others’ performances. When a student speaks in class, or writes out analysis, my default is to look for what is missing or ineffective – for ways to improve the student’s work. We do this a lot in law school. But what if we shifted this approach?

My bet is that world-class athletes don’t get better by watching novices do their sport, or by watching others mess up. Sure, they probably review and critique their own performance, and then watch as many outstanding athletes as they can. If I am a mediocre golfer, wouldn’t it be better for me to watch Tiger Woods play than to critique someone at my level?

No question that developing a critical and analytical eye is crucial to improve performance. But perhaps we need to balance this approach with emphasizing good examples and noticing what people are doing right. A clinical colleague tells me about lots of videos that can be used to teach clinical skills. But most of these movies show bad examples. Turns out, it is hard to find good examples. As my colleague pointed out, it is really scary to put yourself out there as a good example. What if people disagreed? What if colleagues and students found flaws in your performance?

This brings up a question. If we the educators have a hard time putting together a video or sample document, how hard it is for the student? Perhaps we might need to adjust our expectations a tad.

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Mar 24 2008

Prescriptions for Improving Legal Education

This blog may be the first of a few reactions to Prof. John Sonsteng’s essay, “A Legal Education Renaissance: A Practical Approach for the Twenty-First Century” (34 William Mitchell Law Review 303-472 (2007)).

The essay’s thesis is that our current method of educating future lawyers is old and wheezy. (It states that it’s older than blue jeans, so perhaps Prof. Sonsteng peeked into one of my dresser drawers.) However, his “Renaissance” primarily recounts the decades-old writings of educational theorists who promoted experiential learning, and collects together already-existing “innovative” law school course and programs.

We should applaud Prof. Sonsteng for encouraging continued curricular reform (or at least a dialogue about the need for curricular reform). But, despite its epic length and paradigm-shifting title, I don’t think anything here is the legal education equivalent of the apple falling on Newton’s head, Madame Curie discovering penecillin in a bit of mold, or Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel. I don’t think anything in the essay will prompt law school deans to heed its call for each law school to spend the next 17 years developing and continously revising ots own new curriculum. (And why should each law school have to do this for itself anyway? Not very efficient!)

Enough generalities, here are three specific concerns.

1. In the very first paragraph, the essay states that law schools should promise their students that upon graduation they will be prepared to practice law. If law schools do make that promise, many of their students may indeed practice law immediately upon graduation- as plaintiffs in a breach of contract action. Consider the myriads of ways in which law school graduates use their law degrees. Even those who could be said to be practicing law do very different things. So how can law schools promise that their students will be prepared to “practice law.” And at what level of practice? The essay cites studies showing that lawyers think they improve with experience– so to what level of expertise does the promise pertain? And why should law schools make that promise? Many students come to law school with no desire to practice law; should they be shunted elsewhere? To where– all law schools are to make the same promise? So right off the bat, the essay’s premise troubles me.

2. Even at its general level, the essay has a number of inconsistencies. Here’s one. Law schools should promise students that they will be prepared to practice law when they graduate. Fine, for the sake of argument. But the practice of law is often stressful, right? So why should stress-reduction be an important aspect of law school reform? (p. 339) Maybe law schools should promise to prepare graduates only for low-stress types of law practice?

3. The essay naively accepts the stated benefits of innovatiion at face value. For example, the essay points out that Syracuse offers a General Counsel Transition Course, that among other things teaches “decision-making, problem-solving, management of issues, common sense…” Without in any way criticizing this course, I think it’s fair to wonder whether it accomplishes its goals to such an extent that graduates are prepared to step in as corporate counsel upon graduation.

So after all these years in law teaching, I’m just another incrementalist? Rats!

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Mar 11 2008

When the Ball Stops Bouncing (Or: How Law School Sucks The Qi Right Out of You)

Unlike most law school students, I truly reveled in my 1L year and became, to my own utter shock and amusement, something akin to the class clown. It was nothing unusual to see me stroll in wearing pink pinstriped Chuck Taylors with my best suit while playing the air guitar to some 80’s rock tune on my iPod; nor to hear me crack the class jokes or laugh myself into tears at some unintended double-entendre regarding how the ripeness doctrine seeks to prevent premature adjudication in interstate intercourse. Most notably, however, was the sound of a bouncing racquetball that followed me wherever I went, joyfully announcing my presence to professors and students alike. In short, I was just darn happy to be alive and learning law.

But somewhere in the course of my 2L year (through which I am still struggling), and completely without noticing when or why or how, I realized something had changed. I didn’t wear the Chucks anymore. I didn’t wear the “Pure Genius” tee-shirt (circa WalMart 2007) under my best blazer. I didn’t crack the class jokes. My iPod droned out ballads that wondered where all the good times had gone. And I never, EVER bounced my ball.

What happened??? All these realizations hit me one day quite out of the blue, and I had no answer to “why”. I realized my visits to my favorite faculty member(s), which were once exuberant outpourings of witty bliss, had become sessions at the guidance counselor’s office, filled with heavy sighs and pleas for aspirin to kill a chronic headache. I realized my classes, which once had thrilled me with their sheer intellectual challenges, were now pure drudgery. And I realized I just wasn’t having any fun any more, concurrently wondering what the point was in continuing…

And that’s what law school does to you: it sucks the qi (the life force inherent in all things, for those of you unfamiliar with the brilliance of my past posts) right out of you. And it sucks the qi right out of everyone around you, too, so there’s no one objective left to tell you, “Hey! You there with the ball: BOUNCE IT!”

But perhaps it doesn’t have to. Perhaps law school, like Seuss’s Christmas, could mean “a little bit more.” Perhaps activities like the Evidence Academy Awards from the previous post or our own SBA Gag Awards could become school traditions just as important as the Book Awards, and maybe, if they did, they could lift the gloom a little. Maybe our professors – now largely immune to the perils of law student life – could see our unusual gloom and point it out, assuring us law school is a whole lot better for those who enjoy it. And maybe we, the students, in striving to be those self-regulated learner types (also blogged about earlier) prone to self-assessment, could take a moment or two more than we normally do to ask questions more important than how we could improve our latest memo; but rather to ask whether we’re still the people we started out as in this legal journey and, if not, whether the change has been for the better.

In the meantime, to those of you who own Chuck Taylors (students and professor alike), I say: wear them. To those of you with pithy tee-shirts: by all means, combine them with your best suit jacket. To ye class clowns: some jokes are too good to go un-heckled, so heckle on. To those of you prone to unabashedly playing air guitar to 80’s hair bands in the hallways: rock on. And, most importantly, to those of you who carry racquetballs with you: BOUNCE ON!

Your qi may very well depend on it…

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Feb 25 2008

Training reflective, self-regulated learners

Monday, February 25, 2008, 06:06 PM –
Posted by Michael Hunter Schwartz

Law professors often say their goal is to produce lifelong, reflective, “self-regulated” learners. And I had a friend, who used to be in charge of training associates for the now-defunct Brobeck law firm who used to say that he wished law schools would produce the kinds of lawyers who “know when they don’t know.” I have always assumed that he figured this skill set would help the law firm save on malpractice claims . . .

But, what do these terms mean? And how do we help our students become such learners? My next two entries will focus on training law students to be expert, self-regulated learners. In this entry, I will describe the characteristics of expert self-regulated learners and provide some evidence that law students can be so trained. In my entry next week, I will discuss what law professors can do to help their students develop these skills.

The Qualities of Expert, Self-Regulated Learners

The experts assert that teachers know expert self-regulated learners when they see them. According to these scholars, an expert, self-regulated learner has the following qualities:

— They are in control of their learning process;
— They understand that failure and struggle are a part of the
learning process for any challenging skill;
— They seek help when they need it and give help when they can;
— They seek opportunities for practice and feedback (whereas
novice self-regulated learners avoid practice and feedback);
— They are problem finders and problem solvers;
— They are constantly reflecting on their learning process both
while it’s ongoing (so they can adapt on the fly) and after
it’s over (to look for ways to learn better on the next,
similar task);
— They focus on mastery, rather than grades;
— They are planful– assessing each learning task and deciding
the best strategies for accomplishing the task; and
— Self-aware, knowing their preferred learning style, knowing
where they best study, and knowing when and for how long to
take study breaks to maximize their focus.

Do you have any students who have many of these qualities or are you such a student?

The experts view self-regulated learning as a cycle consisting of three phases. The first phase is a planning phase in which students assess the learning task, set mastery learning goals and decide upon a set of strategies for accomplishing their goal. The middle phase involves implementing these strategies. The key to success in this phase is called “self-monitoring.” Expert, self-regulated learners constantly self-monitor to determine whether they understand what they are studying and whether they are mentally focusing on the task. If you have ever read something for an hour only to discover that you recall little of what you just read, you know what I mean about the importance of self-monitoring for focused attention. In the final phase, expert learners reflect on the just-completed process. They take in whatever feedback they can get, attributing successes to personal qualities, persistence and strategy choice and failures to insufficient persistence or erroneous strategy choice. most importantly, they plan how they will learn better in the future.

Evidence of the Effectiveness of Training Students to Self-Regulate

Both the University of Michigan and the University of Texas (as well as a large number of community colleges) have successfully created such curricula. My own experiences in creating such curricula at three different law schools are consistent. At one law school, academic attrition went from 18.5% to 6%. At another, attrition went down by 50%. In a study I conducted several years ago, students in an experimental group of students trained to be self-regulated learners, who had weaker entrance credentials (in terms of LSAT scores and in terms of self-regulated learning skills) than a control group of students, not only became more effective at self-regulating their learning, but also achieved higher first year grades.

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Feb 23 2008

The Great & Mighty Oz (or: The Rationale Behind Your Course)

I tried a little experiment the other day in one of my favorite classes: I asked my professor her rationale behind the way in which the course topics had been ordered. She responded, “There isn’t one; I just made it up.”

Relax! She was kidding.

She openly and honestly explained why the course was ordered the way it was, acknowledging the order may seem counterintuitive, but explaining why it’s really quite logical. She also acknowledged areas that could have been ordered in some other way and told us candidly she made the call because the call needed to be made, but that didn’t mean this way was either the correct nor the only way it could have been done.

And I thought, “My God, Toto, look! A question … an answer … a rationale!!!”

In all honesty, I asked this professor such a question because I knew I would (1) get an answer; and (2) get an honest answer that actually made a modicum of sense. Also, I had a theory of my own for the rationale behind the order of the course and my ego was eager to be proven right. (Ego padded? Check.)

But I use this as an example of a larger, more important point: assuming your class understands your rationale for why you’re doing what you’re doing (or not doing) and the order in which you’re doing it is a dangerous game. Of course you, the professor, know your subject inside out and upside down, and it’s understandable to take a lot for granted. But for the other 100 or so people in the room with you at any given time, EVERYTHING is totally new. EVERYTHING. The book, the syllabus, the course, the order of the course: it’s all a total mystery. You cannot possibly over-explain your rationale; but it seems a lot of professors err on the side of not explaining it at all (which is kinda funny given the demand on the students to constantly answer the question, “Why??”).

Not using the book in the order in which it was written? WHY??

Course ordered in a counterintuitive way? WHY??

Repeating material that you’ve already covered? WHY??

Skipping material you never covered? WHY??

Chapter 8 isn’t going to be on the exam? WHY??

None of this makes any sense whatsoever? WHY??

If these questions go unanswered, the risk is that your students will start filling in the blanks themselves. “Professor X is now teaching what we’ve already learned b/c he thinks we’re all idiots.” “Professor Y is skipping chapter 8 because not even he understands it, and that is really scary considering he’s the professor.” “Professor Z has no idea what he’s doing and that’s why we’re skipping all over the place in the book.”

Acquiescing to those kinds of answers being supplied in lieu of a rationale from you usually leads to a serious disconnect between the students and the professors. Students WANT to respect your expertise and defer to your wisdom, but if those kinds of blanks remain empty, your students will more likely write you off completely and just ignore you.

And that? Is bad.

But all is not lost. Like the story I cite above, I’m happy to report that more of my professors than not supply their classes with all the needed rationales right up front to avoid the gloom and doom alternatives (or at least supply them when asked). When a shift is made mid-course (e.g. we really aren’t getting it and we need to backtrack), most of them explain why they’re going backwards, skipping around, or what have you. And when things don’t make sense but will eventually, they explain that, too (over and over again because you know we never believe you when you say that). And it’s not surprising that these professors constantly make the “Favorites” list among the students.

So if you want to make the “Favorites” list (and I know you do because, of the many things law school lacks, egoism is not one of them), then remember that your course rationales are much like the Great and Mighty Oz: short, bald and ugly though they may be, they still accomplish more good when taken out from behind the curtain.

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