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Skills-Focused Exam Prep Exercise

Skills-Focused Exam Prep Exercise

By Jeremiah A. Ho, University of Massachusetts School of Law

Yes, it is again that time of the semester again. The post-Thanksgiving emotional climb of test anxiety is upon us much like the Christmas music that has begun to trail us at retail stores.  I can see that anxiety in the eyes of my first-year students coloring their expressions when I greet them in the hallway or stare at their faces in the lecture hall.  Once November hits and the days start to get shorter, the inevitable fear of exams loom.

For many of them, the fear of exams is really about not having any confident direction or know-how in terms of preparing and taking law school exams.  That’s natural for new first-years.  What I’ve uncovered over the years is that a simple conversation with students is very helpful to allow students who are new to law school testing to get a handle on how to perform well on first semester finals.  I call this my yearly exam pep-talk.

What has been even more helpful prior to having my pep-talk is to give my first-years an exam-writing exercise that doesn’t focus on whether they are substantively correct on the material, but focuses on the skills of exam writing itself.  Then afterwards I have the talk about exam taking.  I tried this exercise recently with high satisfaction and success.  My theory is that after having an exercise that only focused on exam-taking allowed us to have an even fuller discussion of exam writing and solidified much of the truth about that process in order to dispel the fear of finals—the fear of some sort of unknown, in other words.

Here’s what I did:

(1) I gave a one-issue hypothetical fact pattern in class that covered a recent doctrine we recently taught in class.  Through class dialogue and discussion, I tested the students on their substantive application of that fact pattern.  I made sure to go the rule and the most correct response, working out the substantive answer together in class so that we’re all on the same page.

(2) Then I requested that they each take the same fact pattern home and write a one-issue IRAC response that reflected what we’ve already worked out for this fact pattern.

(3) At the next class, they returned with their written IRAC responses.  I passed a rubric for that response.  However, the rubric only measured their ability to write an organized IRAC essay—measuring for characteristics such as organization, IRAC structure, clarity, and grammar/syntax.  I made students turn to a partner, exchange fact patterns, and grade their partner’s response using this skills rubric.

My intent was that if the substantive issues had been clarified previously, the students were then able to focus on the how-to of writing exams when they wrote the one-issue IRAC at home.  For instance, they were now better able to focus on strategy and making effective choices in organizing an IRAC during the exam session.  Then grading each other’s responses with my skills rubric made it easier for them to understanding my thought process as the grader.

Doing this before my exam pep-talk helped them have better questions to ask me when I took the time to talk to them about exams.  What resulted was more effective focus and questioning regarding the skills part of their answers rather than the substantive aspects.  It led to a much better and more constructive conversation about exam taking that I had ever had.

Notes on Supporting Non-Millennial Law Students

Notes on Supporting Non-Millennial Law Students

By Jeremiah A. Ho, University of Massachusetts School of Law

Usually about this time in June—during the early-to-middle weeks of the summer break—is when I do an assessment of my teaching from the past academic year.  By now, all of my final exams have been scored for a while and grades have been submitted.  Students are gone off for their summer jobs and internships.  A sense of quiet resides within the faculty hallways and invites contemplation.  For me, it’s a great time look back because the distance from finals grading has dissipated any visceral feelings—positive or negative—that might have otherwise influenced a look-back at my teaching.  I want any assessment to be as honest and objective as possible.

In looking back this particular year, I note the presence of a few more non-traditional, older law students in my first-year courses than usual.  Because of their increased presence, the challenge of trying to support them was thrust upon me from fall to spring.  Of late, I have seen many great pieces in current law teaching literature focused on teaching law students from the millennial generation.  However, when curiosity got the best of me and I searched for current articles on teaching and supporting law students outside of the millennial generation, I found some statistical knowledge, but not very much constructive observations or information.  For those likeminded folks who have also wondered how to better teach and support our older, non-millennial law students, I have a few observations from my own experiences this year.

  1. Non-millennial law students are not a homogeneous group. Just because they are beyond the current mainstream generation of law students in age, does not mean that they resemble each other either.  Many of my non-millennial law students varied in age and background from each other as well.  As a reflection of that variation, they brought to the student body many differences in socio-economic status, career backgrounds and goals, and life experiences.  For me, as the instructor, this variation also meant trying to use different strategies to make them feel included in the dialogue in the classroom—often relying on their practical experiences before law school to invite conversation.  For instance, in Contracts, cases dealing with homebuying or employment relationships often allowed my non-millennial law students who own property or have had working experiences to engage in the material from a more practical way and offer insight.
  1. Non-millennial law students often prepare differently for classes than younger law students. One very observable characteristic between my millennial and non-millennial law students has been in their method of preparation.  Whereas my millennial law students will often find something in their case reading is relevant only because it’s relatable at the time to a concept that we were readily and simultaneously learning in the course, my non-millennial law students will try to broaden what is relevant and significant by asking themselves, “Do I need to know this just in case?”  This difference translates into their preparation for my classes and final examination.  While I have to sustain relevancy for my millennial law students, I have to show my non-millennial law students what material or information might be extraneous.
  1. Some non-millennial law students tend to become important emotional pillars in the student body. Because of their life and career experiences prior to law school, my non-millennial law students often become role models in extra-curricular positions or become sources of emotional support to their millennial counterparts in the first year.  This occurrence often does put added stress to their own studies and time management.  As the professor, I often will remind my non-millennial law students to take a moment and assess what they can or cannot take on—especially for those students who might also have an active family life or work responsibilities outside of law school.
  1. Non-millennial law students learn just as quickly and as readily as millennials. I have no quantitative or qualitative statistics here.  This observation is just anecdotal.  However, I have witnessed the successes of many non-millennial students in my various classes, which gives me confidence in making this statement.  I do concede that success could be attributed to the amount or type of preparation that non-millennial students put forth rather than natural ability.  But I stand by this assertion, nonetheless.  It is an observation that counters biases against any societal perceptions of “handicaps” to learning as an older law student.
  1. Non-millennial law students bring a contextualized experience to the dialogue of the classroom. Often, this observation is touted as a reason to welcome the admission of older law students in law student body.  It adds to the diversity of the student population and can be seen as generating different viewpoints in class dialogue.  That is true to some extent.  However, I have noticed that sometimes the prior work, life, or industry experiences outside of law school can also impair ways to see the other side of a situation—especially if they have had some extensive work experience in something related to my course.  So I often will spend time in the classroom welcoming their viewpoints but also de-contextualizing them by countering with hypotheticals that might get them to see other possible sides of an issue.

These points above are generalized observations and not all non-millennial law students exhibit these traits.  However, I hope my descriptive observations here give some guidance and food for thought to other law teachers out there who are interested in making sure non-millennial law students succeed just as well as their millennial peers.

 

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