January 2016 Idea
By Tonya Kowalski, Washburn University School of Law
Today’s law students have more information about study habits than ever before. They have access to a great array of books on law student success, and most law schools provide some exam and study training through academic support. Yet even for diligent students, transferring that general advice into each new course remains a challenge. Legal educators can help to train students in good work habits by incorporating weekly goals in the syllabus, and by occasionally discussing them in class. Weekly goals work well not only in skills classes with large assignments, but also in traditional, exam-only courses.
First, in courses with projects or papers, students are hungry for information about how best to get started, how to identify material from class that is relevant to the project, and even how past training, such as previous legal writing instruction, can be adapted to the assignment. For example, in my legal writing course, we’ve just started work on a new appellate brief problem, but the case file is voluminous and will take weeks to digest. Some students had already assumed that they should not try to begin researching or writing until they fully understood the entire file. In the assignment calendar and in class, we spent a few moments discussing strategies for immediately researching and writing about the general rules for the claim involved. Most days, we don’t have time to discuss these goals in class, but they are there in writing from the very beginning of the semester. For example, this week’s goals were written in the syllabus as follows:
- Familiarize yourself with the legal rules for Issue I by reading secondary sources. While you are reading, open a document folder and start lightly drafting a rule synthesis. Include rough citations with pinpoints.
- Buy a binder and use it to begin your litigation folder (research, notes, and pertinent parts of the case file).
Second, for those courses that do not involve papers or projects, students can benefit from weekly advice in the syllabus on outlining and other exam preparation. For example, students often do not understand how classroom hypotheticals relate to exam preparation. A tip on the weekly course schedule can encourage students to incorporate classroom hypos into their outlines and to use them to write mock exam questions. In another example, students often do not immediately notice that the cases in the book are selected to present a spectrum of viewpoints on each topic. A weekly hint and could suggest that students draw a spectrum and place all the cases along a spectrum of legal outcomes or approaches.
Greater transparency about course design and study skills can help students to avoid the trial-and-error method of learning how to become better students. One simple way to do so is to create weekly goals or provide weekly study tips on a document students must read every week: the course’s calendar of readings and assignments. This type of coaching is not “spoon-feeding”; instead, it cues opportunities to make connections and engage more deeply with the material.