Listening check-up for first-semester law students

Every fall, every entering class of 1Ls faces a “paradox of comprehension,” writes Kris Franklin of New York Law School (here).  These brand-new law students have neither a framework for understanding legal concepts nor a solid legal vocabulary. Yet they have to somehow learn the law. As Franklin asks, “How do [they] enter this apparently closed circle?”

Open and Closed by Clearly Ambiguous
Courtesy Flickr/Open and Closed by Clearly Ambiguous

Listening is particularly challenging for listeners with no framework for the concepts or even the particular words used to express those concepts. To quote Terrill Pollman of UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law, “It’s like learning to speak Chinese by being dropped from an airplane in the middle of China.”

Now that first-year law students have had about six to eight weeks of this disorienting experience, it’s a good time to reflect on the listening and learning experience so far.  “How can I know whether I am listening effectively?” the mid-fall-semester 1L rightfully asks. Evaluating your own listening is difficult in any context, but here are a few thoughts. Evaluating what works and what doesn’t work can help lead to a more effective rest of the semester.

1. Self-evaluate what you are doing in class.

If you find yourself looking at unrelated Internet sites during slow moments in class, what you are doing is not working.

2. Talk to a friend about what you just got out of class.

Pick one particular class and discuss it in depth with someone. Go over what you heard and took away from what the professor said and what discussion revealed. Revisit what was said, and what you think the professor meant, in as much detail as you can.

3. Visit the professor during office hours.

Explain that you would like to check how well you are doing at listening to class sessions. Offer to restate your understanding of some segment of the class, such as one case discussed during a class session. You may not want to present this discussion as a blanket request to go over an entire class session again. The professor may be more amenable to the conversation if you frame the discussion with a more specific question and show what you are thinking about the material.

4. Look at your notes and maybe a classmate’s too.

After class one day, compare what you just experienced to what you wrote down. Expert note-taking advice often suggests not recording everything the speaker is saying, but rather working to process and prioritize the information as take notes. That is fine if you know what you’re doing. But at the beginning of law school (as well as at the beginning of any new course) you may find it more useful to err on the side of recording more of what’s happening. Consider also comparing notes—literally—with a classmate. What did each of you take away from class? What are the strengths and weaknesses of your note-taking systems?  And what are the differences in what each of you picked up from the experience? Seeing someone else’s approach to the same task can help you customize what works for you.

5. Evaluate how much you are just “letting go.”

Also make sure your notes don’t commit the sin of omission. What if you don’t understand something the professor is saying, or the point of a long Socratic back-and-forth with a classmate on call?  If you take no notes because of the confusion, then that material may be lost forever. Write down some snippets as well as a notation that you are confused and need to study this in more depth.

6. Try a practice exam question or two.

Apart from any formal practice exam your law school may offer or require, you can evaluate your listening by taking a practice exam on your own. If available, one of your professor’s own exams will work best. Practicing the traditional way by answering the question under normal time constraints will certainly help you. You might also want to try a practice question by specifically focusing on your listening. Look at the exam question, take a few moments to think, and write down what major issues it seems to cover. Do not look at your notes yet. Instead, thoroughly scan your memory for what the professor—as well as classmates—said about these issues in class. Try to remember speech snippets and even jokes and nonverbal behavior during the dialog. After priming your brain this way, work on answering the question in writing. You probably would not take an actual exam this way, but it could be helpful for keeping your classroom memories fresh, thinking broadly about themes in the class, and not getting too tied to your notes as having “the” answer.

7. Listen to a podcast recording of class or record a class, if possible.

Recoding and re-listening to every class may not be feasible. But going back over a recorded class session and studying your notes from the first time around may help you to catch nuances of the particular class that you missed. It may also help you catch nuances of what is happening in class more generally: is the professor criticizing the result or reasoning in a case? Is the professor comparing and contrasting two approaches to the same case? What are the hypotheticals that the professor lays out, and are they explored to their fullest or left unresolved for possible future analysis—say, on an exam.

8. Rest your ears and listen to nature.

If you pop in the earbuds right after class, you may be depriving your brain of the chance to process and file what you just heard in class. Yes, music and speech are different and perhaps do not compete in the brain, but still:  Try giving your listening circuits more time to work on what you have learned in class.

You may also benefit from spending time in nature. Spending a bit of time away from a computer—instead seeing, hearing, and even smelling the natural world—can reduce stress and boost creativity.

Many thanks to Professor Terrill Pollman for helpful feedback on this article.

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