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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Dealing with Test Anxiety, Part 2 - The Role of Practice

By Kevin Sherrill

This is the second part in the series dealing with test anxiety. The first part, found here, talked about why people fail under pressure. Now we start to look at what we can do about text anxiety and performance under pressure. We begin with the role of practice.


What We Can Do


So how can we avoid having a student’s working memory become compromised? There are a lot of different methods for doing so.

Practice Really Does Make Perfect

If we want to get better at anything, we have to practice it. A lot. This isn’t a novel idea, most of us know this instinctually or through our experiences. Malcolm Gladwell makes a very compelling argument in his book Outliers that in order to become an expert in any field or task, you must put in approximately 10,000 hours of practice. For example, Tiger Woods needed 10,000 hours of practice before he became a top-flight golfer, and he had amassed that mount of practice at a fairly young age because he had been trained since the age of 2 to play golf. By the time The Beatles had any real success, they had played 1200 times over a period of a few years, playing up to 8 hours at a time.

Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom became one of the largest and most powerful law firms in the world because its founders practiced hostile takeover law for decades before hostile takeovers became common – and being a master in that area of law became insanely valuable. That amount of practice shouldn’t be required to avoid the choke on a law school exam, but practice is certainly going to help.

So what might a student do in order to better on pressure-packed law school exams, or even the bar exam? Take lots of pressure packed exams of course! Faculty can’t replicate the pressure of a bar exam perfectly, but they can put the students under pressure as often as possible. For example, one thing we do is have students take lots of timed, in class, for-credit examinations throughout certain courses. Students are subjected to the pressure of doing well to pass their course, the pressure of performing with their classmates around, the pressure of the clock ticking, not to mention the simple pressure placed upon themselves to perform as best they can. This training can greatly improve results, and might actually change the physical wiring of student’s brains.

Practice and experience can actually change the structure and function of people’s brains. London cabbies, who must navigate the city from memory all day, have enlarged hippocampus, the part of the brain that deals with navigation and recollection of driving routes. Individuals trained in juggling have increased brain mass in the areas of the brain that understand motion. Musicians, who must have superior control of both hands and be able to coordinate them in complex manners, have enlarged corpus callosum. The corpus callosum is the connection between the two halves of the brain that allows for the two halves to communicate with each other – an essential function for a musician who needs their hands to work together.

This makes sense when you think about our bodies’ ability to adapt to what we throw at them. I may not be able to go out and run a marathon tomorrow, but if I take the time to train my body to be able to do something like that, then it can be done. Likewise, practice under pressure can train our brains to manage pressure and stress much more efficiently. It can teach us to handle the pressure and allow our working memory to function at its highest level.

Practice has another terrific benefit for our working memories. Through practice, mental processes can be automated. Take for example a child learning how to tie their shoes. When the child is first learning this process, it requires most of their working memory to tie that shoelace – they have to focus on the process that was recently taught to them and make sure they are executing the steps properly. After lots of practice, however, the same child can carry on a conversation or perform some other mental task at the same time they tie their shoes. Why? Because they have automated the process of tying their shoes, thus freeing up their working memory for other tasks. Another way to look at it: the process for tying shoelaces has moved from the child’s working memory into procedural memory.

The same process can happen for students in law school. This is why we teach and drill our students on the proper use of IRAC throughout law school, for example. Through long periods of practice, the process of structuring an essay around an IRAC format can become automated. It becomes something the student doesn’t have to think about; they just do it as they have done a hundred times before. That frees up the student’s working memory to focus on handling their facts and doing good analysis.

Another example comes during bar exam preparation. We always teach our students to have rule statements memorized for as many different issues as possible. That way, when that particular issue shows up on the bar exam, the student has that rule statement in their procedural memory ready to go. They don’t have to think about it, they just write. Again, working memory is freed to focus on other things.

Practice is something that many of us already know is very effective in helping students achieve on exams. The rest of the suggested methods for dealing with difficult and stressful exams may not be as apparent to many.

Preparation and Confidence


A related concept to practice is preparation. The concepts are related, yet differ in important aspects. Practicing is when you actually do the task you are ultimately hoping to accomplish – for example, practice exams to get ready for the real exam. Preparation is different – this is the studying required to have the baseline knowledge required to perform well on the exam.

The need for preparation is obvious – if we need to prepare for an exam on ancient Greek history, we must study ancient Greek history, as well as write practice exams. But there is an added benefit to preparation, and it is confidence. When you know that you have thoroughly reviewed all required materials, you can answer questions about that material with more confidence. There are no surprises, and nothing rattles you because you have seen it all before – in both your preparation and your practice.

Famous trial attorney David Boies perfectly demonstrates how important preparation can be. He describes his preparation as such:

“When we showed up for the opening statement, I had read every single exhibit we had marked before we marked it. I had read every single deposition excerpt that we had marked for offering into evidence before we had marked it. I had read every single deposition line they had offered.” Such preparation required reading thousands of pages of documents, something most lawyers don’t so in preparation for trial because of the massive resources required to do so. “There are no surprises for me, but you can’t imagine how few people that’s true for” he says. “There is no way most lawyers do that.”

This preparation gives Boies a major advantage. He knows all of the material so well that he can remain focused on the story he wants to tell – not on reacting to what the other side might be saying. “When I get up there, I have the confidence of knowing what the total evidence record is, and I know how far I can push it and how far I can’t. I know what the limits are, and that’s the way you maintain your credibility.” And it is this credibility that wins him major cases, such as the antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft in the late 1990’s. “Most good lawyers lose credibility in a trial not because they intentionally mislead but because they make a statement that they believe is true at the time and it is not.”

Preparation can then clear your working memory to focus on the task at hand. In Boies’ case, he is never caught off-guard by anything during a trial, as happens to so many attorneys. He has seen everything before, and as he says “there are no surprises.” He can focus on his story, on his goals, and not get distracted.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Dealing with Test Anxiety, Part 1 - Why We "Choke"

By Kevin Sherrill


Do you have problems with test anxiety? Would you like to perform your best on your law school exams, or in any high-pressure situation? Well then I have something for you. 
 
Last year I gave a presentation on how to deal with performance anxiety. It was based on the paper that I am going to post here in several parts. This first part is the much shorter section on why people fail in pressure situations. Subsequent sections will deal with what we can do about these anxieties.


Enjoy, I hope it can help, and even be a little entertaining!



The Art of Being Clutch: How to Perform Your Best on Exams and Avoid the Choke 


It was my junior year in high school. I had been playing golf for a few years now, but I was playing in my first real competition of consequence. I was playing in the qualifying tournament to make the varsity golf squad at my high school. If I finished in the top three, I would make the team. If I didn’t, I would have to try and qualify again months down the road.

Despite it being my first real tournament, I played well. I suppose I went in thinking I wouldn’t have a chance, that the players who had made the team before would do the same now. But after making a birdie on the 8th hole of the 9-hole competition, I found myself 2 strokes ahead for the final spot.

I saw my next closest competitor as I was leaving the 8th hole green. He said something to the effect of “OK, let’s see what you got.” It finally hit me that I had a real chance to make the team. As I teed up on the ninth hole, a par 3, I was nervous. Real nervous. Lining the left side of the fairway was a giant net that separated the course from the neighboring driving range. I looked at that and thought, OK, just don’t hit it over there. My first tee shot was pulled way left, out of bounds into the bordering driving range. My second attempt landed in just about the same spot. With my chances of making the team nearly gone, and thus the pressure off, my third try landed safely on the green. I made my put, and took my score of 8, and left the green. I wasn’t disappointed, I was mad. Mad that I had let my chance get away.

So why did I choke when the pressure was on? What could I have done differently? Most importantly, what can I learn from this incident that might help myself, and others, perform at their best when the pressure is on? In particular, is there anything students can do to insure peak performance on law school exams or the bar exam? While this is a very complicated issue, there are some very simple techniques and solutions that may be utilized.

Why we Choke


Working memory is the essential key to most cognitive functions, and a law school exam or bar exam is no exception. Working memory is what we use to analyze information, evaluate potential outcomes, and eventually solve problems. It is also where our “internal monologue” takes place, and where our worries and stresses reside.

We also might draw information from our procedural or long term, memory. This is where we store the things we have “committed to memory.”

The problem arises when a student’s working memory is compromised. There are numerous ways this can happen. For example, if a student is aware of a certain stereotype, it can bring down their performance. How? By just being aware of the stereotype, a certain portion of the student’s working memory is occupied by that awareness, and possibly worry. By reducing working memory, the exam becomes more difficult than it should be.

This is a greatly simplified explanation of why students choke, but essentially students fail to perform their best when their working memory is compromised. This is exactly what happened to me in my golf tournament. I played great when there was no pressure, when my working memory was solely focused on my play. When I began to worry about whether I would make the team, whether I would be able to continue my great play, that occupied a certain portion of my working memory, and I was done.

Another, much more famous example of how compromised working memory can affect performance, and the ability to be clutch, is Tiger Woods. As many people know, Woods is perhaps the greatest golfer of all time. More than just being great at the game of his choosing however, Woods was beyond clutch, pulling out his best performances when it counted the most. This clutch ability was best on display during the 2008 U.S. Open, which Woods won in a playoff after playing 91 total holes. Woods won this tournament despite having a knee injury so serious that it required reconstructive surgery, and would keep Woods out of competition for months. “He beat everybody on one leg,” competitor Kenny Perry would say after the tournament.

Soon after this triumph, everything fell apart for Woods. A well-publicized scandal regarding Wood’s private life hit the media. Woods had to deal with the public humiliation, but also lost endorsement deals and eventually faced a divorce from his wife. Woods has not won a major championship tournament since the scandal. In fact, in 2009, Woods choked for the first time in his professional career. Woods led on the final day of the 2009 PGA Championship tournament, yet lost the tournament to little-know Y.E. Yang. This was the first time Woods ever lost a major championship tournament after holding a lead on the final day of play.

This need for total focus and a lack of distractions is not just apparent in sports. David Boies is one of the greatest trial attorneys in the country. He attributes much of his success to his massive amount of preparation (discussed later on), but also (relatedly) on his ability to focus. In defending a $4.2 billion lawsuit against his client, he continually remained focused on the task at hand. In the years leading up to the trial, between $75 and $150 million in legal fees were racked up. Each day in court cost the parties $300,000 in legal fees alone, and the trial lasted almost a month. Not to mention there was $4.2 billion on the line at trial.

Through it all, Boies remained focused. “If you think in those terms, it can be disabling,” he said. “You’ve got to try AIG against SICO just the way you would try a $100,000 case and not a $4.2 billion case, because the principles are the same.” With that said, Boies was totally focused on the task at hand – being prepared for trial. He cancelled his yearly cycling trip to Europe, something he had only done once in 20 years. Leading up to the trial, he only socialized with lawyers on his team or the opposing team – he didn’t want to be distracted from the case for even a minute. In trial, He never thinks about how the trial is going, and never about what is at stake. He focuses only on the moment. How is the evidence coming in? Is the argument he is making working? Is it believable? Is what the other side saying believable? If not, how can he point that out. How the trial is going as a whole “is totally irrelevant.” And this is the key to being clutch – focus on the task at hand, and don’t worry about anything else that may be going on. 

Looking at it from our simplified perspective, Woods lost his ability to be clutch because he was distracted. His focus was gone, his working memory was compromised with doubt, guilt, remorse, and a feeling of being overly self-conscience. These were foreign concepts to the “old” Woods. Boies, on the other hand, always remained focused, prepared and ready. Likewise, a student’s focus and working memory can be compromised by feelings of inadequacy, doubt, unpreparedness, and any number of other thoughts. How can we avoid this?

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

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

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.

Caffeine

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.