Tag Archives: Socratic method

6 Ways that Law School is Different than Undergrad

Most students find the transition from undergraduate student to law student challenging because law school is unlike anything they have previously experienced. Today, I want to talk about some of the ways that law school is different than undergrad. In all, there are 6 major differences related to your academic success as a law student.

1. Your law professor is not just going to stand up in front of the class and lecture while you take notes. It’s rare that law professors lecture to their classes. Instead, most law school classes do not. Instead, many use Socratic method—the professor asks you questions about the assigned cases, and you must be prepared to answer. Many of the questions are in the form of hypotheticals that require you to think about what you have read and apply it to new fact patterns. There’s a lot to be learned in class, but you must be an active participant in the learning process. Even if you aren’t the one the professor is calling on, you need to be thinking through what your answers to the questions would be, and identifying the things you don’t understand and need to explore further.

2. Reading 20 pages may take 3 hours, not 30 minutes. In fact, during your first several weeks of law school, it may take even longer to complete your reading! One reason for this difference is that the language of law is different from that of other disciplines, and it takes a while to learn it. You will have to look up a lot of words and phrases in your Black’s Law Dictionary, and many cases may take three (or even more) reads before you understand the important stuff. You cannot skim what you read in law school; instead, you must think about the meaning behind everything that you read to make sure that you understand enough to be able to answer those questions during class and apply what you are learning to solve new legal problems.

3. Many course grades in law school are based upon a single assignment or exam. Unlike undergraduate courses, where you often have multiple midterm exams, quizzes, graded homework assignments, or individual lab assignment grades, many law school grades are based upon a single exam! What is the potential problem with this? If you do not adopt other methods for self-assessment of your understanding of course materials, you may not realize that you don’t understand until you’ve already received your final grade. This is one reason why students find law school so stressful. But if you pay attention to the strategies I discuss in this blog, you will develop tools for self-assessment that help you take control over your learning process and reduce those feelings of stress.

4. In law school, you are in charge of your own learning. For the most part, if you are not called on during class, no one will know if you don’t do the reading on any given day. In many cases, if you skip class no one will follow up to make sure you are OK or if you have caught up on the material. No one forces you to review material after class is over, and your professors won’t follow up to make sure that you are outlining course materials in preparation for final exams. Instead, it will be up to you to motivate yourself and remain disciplined in your approach to your studies and classes. If you don’t, you will find yourself in academic danger by the end of the course. If you slack off for a few weeks during the semester, you may never get caught back up again—and that is your responsibility, no one else’s.

5. In law school, professional expectations begin the first day of Orientation. These expectations actually contribute to your academic success, but they also contribute to your professional reputation as a future lawyer. What am I talking about here? As a law student, you are expected to be timely (both in terms of your presence and completion of assignments), prepared for class, willing to contribute to class discussions, and respectful (even when you disagree with someone else). In reality, these are not necessarily different expectations than existed in your undergraduate classes, but the consequences of not meeting those expectations can be much greater in law school.

6. Everyone is smart, and they are used to getting good grades. People who choose to go to law school have usually been pretty successful in undergrad. The result: law schools are filled with smart students who are accustomed to getting good grades. Many students find it hard to adjust to this difference, as they go from being praised by their undergraduate professors, earning the top grades, and generally being successful in everything they do, to being the “average” student in law school. Moreover, many law schools have mandatory grade distributions, which means that only a small percentage of each class will earn an A for the course. Your identity as a successful may be challenged by this new environment, and it may take some time to figure out who you are as a law student and future lawyer.

Although these six differences mean that the first weeks and months of law school are a challenging transition period, there are things that you can do to take control of your learning process in this new environment and set yourself up for academic and professional success. In the next several weeks, I’ll be posting more articles about what new students can expect in their first several weeks in law school, as well as strategies for success.

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Filed under General, Grades, Pre-Law

Socratic Method Survival Guide

Today’s post is about how to survive—and even thrive—in a Socratic Method classroom. One of the most stressful parts of the first several weeks of law school is that many of your professors will use Socratic Method. If you’re an introvert, you may find that it’s even harder to make that feeling of dread go away. When a professor uses Socratic Method, the student is in the spotlight. You can’t always predict what the professor is going to ask you (or when you will be called on!), and, if you are a new law student, you are still trying to figure out what is expected of you and may feel a bit overwhelmed by everything that you have to learn.

Here are some keys to surviving (and growing from) the Socratic Method:

Prepare: In some ways this is the obvious one, but it’s really important and worth repeating. Preparation is the foundation to all success in law school. You have to consistently do the reading, brief the cases, and review your case briefs and class notes if you want to be successful at anything in law school, including the Socratic Method. It will be almost impossible to answer the professor’s question without putting in the hard work first.

Listen: Another key to tackling Socratic Method is active listening. It can be easy to tune out what is going on when your professor is focusing his or her attention on someone else. Often professors will transfer a line of questioning from one student to the next. If you are listening closely to the dialogue that preceded yours, you will often have a better context for the questions you will face.

It is also important to listen carefully to what your professor asks you, and how he or she responds to your answers. Sometimes we tune people out once we think we know where they are going with their questions—we start thinking about our answers instead. It’s important to make sure that you hear the professor’s full question though so that you can respond to exactly what has been asked. Especially as a new law student, you will most likely not predict where the professor is going with the questioning if you do not focus on what is being said.

Engage: Not only should you listen to the questions your professor is asking of other students, but you should actively engage with those questions. Ask yourself what your response would be to the questions that the professor is asking and compare your answers to the other students’ answers. Not only will engaging help you to understand the context of the questions if you are called on next, it is also a great way of practicing Socratic Method without being the student on the “hot seat.”

Anticipate: Part of what students find so stressful about Socratic Method is the fear of the unknown. Especially as a new law student, it often seems impossible to predict what your professor might ask you about what you’ve read. Although you may not know exactly what your professor will ask you, there are things that you can do to anticipate at least some of the possible questions. First, many professors will ask questions about specific parts of the cases you have read, and creating a good case brief for each case will help you to anticipate and answer those types of questions. Second, when you have read multiple cases that relate to the same legal issue, a professor might ask you questions about that relationship. If you think about those relationships before you come to class, you will be better prepared to answer those types of questions. Third, the notes after cases often set up additional hypotheticals—professors will often use those hypotheticals, or other similar hypotheticals, as an inspiration for Socratic Method questioning. Work through the hypotheticals from your assigned reading in advance, and you will be better able to anticipate possible questions in class.

Review: Not all questions come from the current day’s assigned reading—sometimes professors will ask you to consider how a case from today’s assignment relates to or compares to something that you read a week (or a month) before. As you read for each class, ask yourself if there are any aspects from that reading that relate to previous cases that you’ve read. If you identify anything, make a note of it in the margin of your case brief so that you are prepared if the professor asks this type of question. Even if the professor doesn’t ask, the time spent reviewing in this way will not be a waste—identifying these types of relationships will help you to organize course materials for your outlines and exams.

Simulate: Finally, for students who get really stressed about being called upon and having to speak in class, it can help to simulate the Socratic Method experience outside of class. This is where having a study partner can really come in handy. After you both have read for class and created your case briefs, you can take turns quizzing each other as if you were the professor. Sometimes the experience of having to give your answers aloud to someone else, even if it doesn’t involve the same pressure that you feel in the classroom, can help you get used to being put on the spot and speaking confidently about what you have studied.

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What to Include in Your Law School Notes

Yesterday, we explored some basic strategies to taking effective notes in law school. Sometimes law students have a hard time determining what they should include in their class notes. Today, I will focus specifically on what good notes include. Although what you should take notes of can differ depending on the subject and the professor, here are some good general strategies for taking notes in your law school classes.

First, pay attention to what the professor says in class. If a professor says that something is important, you want to make a note of that. If the professor states that there is a 3-part test for some legal concept, make sure that you write down what those 3 steps are. If the professor talks about overarching themes or compares two cases to each other, note that as well. In other words, your best guide for what you should be taking notes about, what is important from assigned readings, and what might be tested on the exam is your professor. This is one reason why taking good notes in law school is so important. Students who take few if any notes won’t have this important information later when they start synthesizing course materials and studying for exams. In contrast, students who create a transcript of what happens in class won’t be able to differentiate between important information and unimportant information.

Second, remember that in the long term what the professor says in class is much more important than what your fellow students say. Sometimes students struggle with how to take notes when the professor uses Socratic Method. When taking notes in this situation, focus your notes on what the professor has asked and what the hypotheticals are about. Keep in mind that student answers may not always be accurate and on-point. Depending on what is going on in class, the professor may not take the time to point out a student’s inaccurate statements and provide the correct answer. There is also another benefit to this approach—rather than transcribing the student’s response to the professor’s questions, you can be engaged in that discussion yourself. Follow along mentally with the discussion, answering the questions in your head and comparing your answers to the other student’s answers. Make note of things that you can’t answer on your own, so that you can go back and review that material later.

Third, make careful note of any hypotheticals. Professors use hypotheticals as a way of helping students learn the nuances of the law. Maybe you have read two cases that illustrate differences in how courts resolve a legal issue. The professor may use additional hypotheticals, involving the same legal issue but different facts, to help the class better understand how courts apply the law to resolve that particular legal issue. Law school exams are based around hypothetical situations, and the more practice you have with them, the more comfortable you will be in applying law from cases to new hypotheticals when it’s time to take your exams.

Finally, sometimes professors begin class by summarizing what was covered in previous class sessions, or they may spend a little time creating a context for the current day’s reading assignment. Professors also may summarize important points from class materials at the end of class. Make sure that you take notes from these summaries, as they provide additional insight into what your professor views as important.

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Introduction to Socratic Method for New Law Students

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Last week we explored some ways that law school is different than undergrad. In that post, I explained that what happens in the law school classroom can be different than a new student’s previous learning experiences. Today, I want to talk more about Socratic Method, one of the most common (and most feared!) approaches to teaching in law school.

So what is so different about Socratic Method? In most undergraduate classes, here’s what happens: The professor stands in front of the class and lectures. He may use powerpoint slides to keep the lecture focused and provide important information for students, or maybe he writes ideas on a blackboard or whiteboard. Most students sit in their seats and take notes, either by hand or on a computer. A few students may be texting, talking to a classmate, or reading the school newspaper. If a student has a question, she may raise her hand to get the professor’s attention. In most classes, students don’t face much pressure to absorb assigned readings before coming to class; the classroom is not a stressful environment until it’s time to take an exam.

This type of description does not apply to most law school classes. Instead of lecturing, the law professor often will use Socratic Method. Students complete assigned readings before coming to each class. Once class begins, the law professor asks students questions about the law, and the students answer. Often, the professor asks students to apply what they have learned from one case to a new hypothetical situation. This question and answer process creates a dialogue about the law at issue in that particular class. So why is this approach so scary and stressful for law students?

First, many professors who use Socratic Method “cold call” on students. A cold call is where the student does not know in advance that she will be on the hot seat. The professor calls on students in a random order, and you must be prepared to answer any question if your name is called. This can be stressful for students who are shy and do not feel comfortable speaking in front of the class. If you didn’t understand that day’s reading assignment, you may particularly dread being called on by the professor. On the flip side, being called on can build your confidence as you learn to articulate your understanding of the law, and it can help you to develop strategies to manage your fear of public speaking. It also makes students feel more accountable for the reading, as you never know when you may be called on and need to come to class prepared.

Second, Socratic Method does not necessarily create bright-line answers to legal questions. A professor who uses Socratic Method may not resolve legal issues or tell students what the “right answer” is at the end of class. In fact, sometimes students feel more confused by the class dialogue than they did going into class that day. Although students may find this approach frustrating, it helps them to understand that the answers to legal questions often depend on specific factual circumstances. As you continue to process the course materials and think about what was discussed during class, you will begin to synthesize that information and create your own understanding of the law.

Third, some students feel humiliated if they don’t know the answer to the professor’s questions. There is nothing worse than that feeling of dread and humiliation when you are called upon and don’t know the answer to the professor’s questions. You may be accused of not doing the reading, or the professor may be able to talk you in circles because you don’t have confidence in your answers. Every law student has had those days when, even if she has read the assigned reading three or four times, she just doesn’t quite understand the material yet. Having the professor call on you can be stressful in those circumstances.

Fourth, students often don’t know how to take good notes in classes that use Socratic Method. How do you keep from creating a transcript of what happens in class and instead focus on distilling the important information out of a class discussion? This is something that is difficult to do at first, and the uncertainty can leave students either writing way too much down or missing important information from class.

Law students can find classes taught by Socratic Method stressful, but there are things that you can do to reduce the stress and get the most out of this type of learning experience. Stay tuned over the next several weeks as I talk more about this topic and other topics for new and returning law students!

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