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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Practice & Failure as Keys To Success

By Kevin Sherrill

There was a very interesting article published recently in the New York Times titled "Why Flunking Exams Is Actually a Good Thing."  The main idea of the article is that students learn better when they take exams, fail them, review their mistakes and the underlying material, and then get tested on that material again later on in a different manner.  Students learn the material much better in this format than the tradition lecture-study-exam format.

This makes sense to myself and my colleagues.  We know from experience that students learn better when they practice - meaning they practice the thing they are going to be asked to do.  A common example is driving a car.  You can spend hours reading about how to drive a car in a book or manual, and this may make you somewhat better at it when you do actually attempt to drive.  But you will not know how to actually drive until you try it.  So you are much better off reading a little about how to drive, trying it, making a few mistakes, reading about how to fix those mistakes, and then trying again.  You have gained experience actually driving along the way, and learned from that experience.

The same thing applies to law school.  You can read and study all you want about negligence, let’s say.  And that will help you on the final exam, for sure.  But you have not practiced how to do the actual task you are going to be asked to do on the exam - write an essay about it.  Until you do that, you are unprepared.

The most common complaint we get about his approach is that students don't like to write the essays until they have the law down, even memorized.  They don't like to be uncomfortable, and they don't like to fail.  Understandable, but as the study points out, you are cheating yourself if you follow this approach.

To overcome this, you have to have a little grit.  You have to understand, as Angela Duckworth puts it so well, that failure is not a permanent condition.  You have to understand that the first time you do anything, you are not going to be good at it.  You also have to understand that as with almost anything in the world, the more you do it, the better you get at it.

So get comfortable with failure.  Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.  And understand that you WILL get better if you do so, and in turn you WILL perform better on your exams.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

How Diet & Nutrition Can Make You Smarter

By Kevin Sherrill

We all know the feeling.  Sometimes, your mind feels agile and aware, ready to handle complex issues and problems.  Other times, we feel sluggish, unfocused, our thinking is not quite clear.  It turns out, what you ate probably has a lot to do with how you are feeling and how your brain is working.

What I will attempt to address here is what kinds of foods or nutrients might help your brain work at a higher level, and what kinds of things you might want to avoid.  This is not intended to be an all-encompassing study, rather a quick and dirty guide to get you started.

What You Should Be Eating

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

In addition to the general health benefits associated with "healthy" omega-3 fats, the brain uses these fatty acids as a fuel source.  Omega-3 fatty acids have been associated with better cognitive performance, while a lack of these fatty acids can lead to anxiety and depression.  

Where to get them:  Salmon and sardines are the best sources of omega-3's.  For vegans, things get pretty difficult as animal sources are the best.  However, some omega-3's are present in walnuts, flax seeds, hemp seeds, and chia seeds.

B Vitamins

There are a number of B vitamins, but the most important appear to be vitamins B6, B12 and folate, with vitamins B1 and B2 also worth mentioning.  This study shows that higher blood levels of these vitamins were associated with higher cognitive function.

Where to get them:  When it comes to B12, vegans are again a bit out of luck - B12 is mainly found in animal products, like meat (especially liver), seafood, eggs, milk and cheese.  B6 and folate, however, are mainly found in non-animal sources, especially leafy greens, citrus, peas, potatoes, bananas, chickpeas and oatmeal.


Tyrosine is a very interesting amino acid, especially for those of us involved in higher education, because it has been shown to reduce the effects of stress on cognitive performance.  So for someone who might be studying for the bar exam, entrance exam, or just working in a stressful environment, tyrosine could be a great ally.

Where to get it:  Tyrosine is best obtained through a supplement, like this one that I personally take when needed.


Curcumin is perhaps one of the most powerful and interesting natural compounds on earth.  Curcumin is a component of tumeric, which is the spice used in curry.  Curcumin has a host of health benefits, really well summarized here.  Curcumin, among other things, has been shown to be a powerful ant-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, and has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer.  Not bad!  Best of all, for our purposes here, it has been shown to lead to improved brain function.

Where to get it:  You could eat a ton of curry with tumeric it in, but it would be very hard to get the quantities of curcumin needed.  Your best bet is to get it through a supplement, like this one.


It should not come as a surprise to many of us that caffeine can be a performance enhancer for your brain.  It enhances our ability to focus in the short term and affects a broad range of cognitive parameters.  However, there is also evidence that caffeine can help commit information to memory.  As with most things in life, however, moderation is the key.  A single 12oz cup of coffee appears to be about the right amount of caffeine to help memory.

Where to get it:  Purely for the caffeine content, any source is fine.  However, there are some additional benefits to getting your caffeine from either tea or coffee - namely the flavanoid content and lack of sugar.

Other Considerations

  • Eating a good breakfast has a positive effect on brain function, but a large lunch tends to make you tired.  
  • Getting some vitamin D helps, and the best way to do that is to get outside and get some sun exposure.  A brisk midday walk or run can help you get the sun exposure, while also taking advantage of the cognitive benefits of exercise (a subject worthy of a post in itself, but here is an introduction).  
  • Avoid sugar.  It is bad in essentially every sense for your body, but it can particularly affect your memory.  
  • Trans fats have a negative impact on cognitive performance.  Combine this fact with the previous bullet point, and a morning donut might be the worst thing for your brain.  
There you have it!

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

What Happens to Law School Graduates who Fail the Bar Exam

So you go to law school, graduate, and take the bar exam.  Unfortunately, you fail the exam and cannot practice law.  What happens then?  Well, this article examines that question, and the results aren't all that promising for those who fail.

Before we detail some of the consequences of failing the bar exam, let's mention that failing is not the end of the world.  Plenty of successful people have failed the bar exam - Hillary Clinton, California Governor Jerry Brown and the former Dean of Stanford Law School among them.  Many students go on to find successful careers in business after failing - or not even taking - the exam as well.

However, those who fail, as compared to their counterparts who pass:

  • Make less money - both in the short and long term
  • Are less satisfied with their jobs 
  • Have less stable jobs 
  • Are more likely to get divorced
  • Are less likely to get married
  • Are less likely to have kids
Now I don't think all of these consequences should be 100% attributed to failing the exam itself.  Those who do not pass in general do not have the same work ethics as those who do pass.  That would explain both why the fail and why they end up not being quite as successful in life.  

At the same time, I don't think anyone would disagree with the fact that there are dire consequences to failing the exam, both the first time and ultimately.

So study hard, pass the first time, and enjoy your success!

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Why You Should Be Taking Your Class Notes By Hand

When I started law school, one bit of advice I was given was to take my notes by hand, with a pen and paper, and not on my laptop.  It was explained to me that this method would help me learn the material much better than the alternative.  As it turns out, this advice given to me by a law school professor was entirely correct.

The main reason why handwritten notes are effective may be obvious to some.  Students tend to get distracted when they have their laptop in front of them.  They check their email, Facebook, baseball scores, TMZ - anything that might distract them from say, a discussion of the rule again perpetuities.  Taking notes by hand eliminates those distractions, assuming you aren't checking your cellphone instead.  These distractions have been proven to hinder learning over and over again.

However, a new study finds that the advantages to taking notes by hand do not end there.  In fact, taking notes on paper helps students learn more factual information and especially helps them learn conceptual information.

Student's tend to take notes verbatim when they are doing so on a laptop.  Because they can record more information on a laptop than on paper, they tend to write exactly what their professor is saying without thinking about it.  Hand writers, on the other hand, have to think about what is being said, and record it in their own words because they simply cannot keep up otherwise.  This processing of information in the student's brain helps students understand and retain what they hear.

Laptop adherents might be saying, if I can type faster than I can write, I can create a better record and have something solid to study later on.  Logical, but it doesn't work that way.  The study compared pen-and-paper note takers and laptop note takers after they had been given a chance to study their notes before an exam.  Longhand note takers still significantly outscored those who had taken notes on a laptop, even after this opportunity to study.

So no matter how you look at it, note taking by hand is far better than taking notes on a laptop.  And if you are reading this in class right now, you are doing it wrong.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Read This! How "Typical" Learning Styles are a Myth

We have all heard about how some people are visual learners, or auditory learners.  The problem is, it's not true.  Today's article touches on why that is the case, and also on what are some true learning styles.  There are 3 types of learners:

  • surface learners, who do as little as possible to get by;
  • strategic learners, who aim for top grades rather than true understanding; and
  • deep learners, who leave college with a real, rich education.
When it comes to law school and the bar exam, it is most definitely the deep learners who perform well.  What does it mean to be a deep learner, and what can you do to become one?  This related article can give you some insight on that topic.