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By: Lesley Neff (Guest Blogger)

Greetings, TPS readers, and welcome to your Wednesday! We’re happy to have you! Today, we’re bringing an experienced, paralegal educator to the TPS floor. Lesley is here to share some insight regarding work ethic, both, in the classroom, and in life. You don’t want to miss this one!

Students frequently ask me how to get better grades on exams and papers. To get better grades, students need to, more importantly, know how to improve study habits and analytical skills, as well as get a stronger overall grasp of the concepts. I tell them to read more carefully and identify their most effective learning style and put it to use. I tell them to study stronger. They always respond, vehemently, that they do read and study. Well, they think they do. But, they don’t. Not even close.

During graduate school, I was engaged to a man who had full custody of two small children. I worked full time at a law firm and worked weekends at a restaurant/bar. I was taking classes and working on a thesis. There were many nights that I did not go to bed until 3:00 a.m.-only to be back up at 6:00 a.m. to go to work. Some nights, I didn’t go to bed at all. I didn’t go to bed, because I didn’t have my work done.

There are only so many hours in one day, and there is a growing population of students who work and raise families while completing a degree. This is hard. This is admirable. I know, because I did it. However, this is no excuse to sell oneself short by taking the easy route by skimming material, as opposed to dissecting it for a broader understanding of concepts, analysis and application.

Passive reading, or skimming, as I call it, is perfectly fine in many environments, such as poolside on vacation, but the classroom calls for active reading skills. Passive reading is what I do with a Glamour or Fitness magazine or the newspaper while watching television. In a college environment, it is important to be an active reader in order to excel in coursework.

At a local university, I was lecturing about rhetorical awareness. I could tell everyone was frantically scribbling down every word out of my mouth. I asked if they read the chapters. The room turned quiet. I eventually received the vast majority reply of, “kind of.” Kind of? What does that even mean? I asked why they would ever kind of read something. They said they liked my notes better. Of course, they did; my notes allowed them to skim the chapters-not actively read and put the forth the required time and effort. I am not sure when kind of reading became kind of okay.

One lone student raised her hand during that discussion, claiming she preferred to read the book. I asked if she would grade my lecture based on how precise I was to the reading. She agreed. Lecture ended. I asked for me grade, and she said a B. I was partially disappointed, as we all want that A. I asked her why I received the B. She said, “because you weren’t perfect.” She was right. Aside from realizing that I needed to brush up on my lecture skills, she helped me prove my point. That one student got the most out of lecture, because she was an active reader, an active listener and understood what it meant to study strong. Her grades held up as proof.

These students happened to be early 20somethings in an undergraduate, business writing course, but the value of reading is an important lesson in any environment. Being an active reader is even more crucial in a legal environment where missing details and making careless errors is not acceptable. In fact, it could get you fired. Paralegals must have a keen eye for detail and demonstrate extraordinary organizational skills. Missing a crucial error in a deposition summary could be very damaging. A one word typo in a settlement agreement could lead to losing thousands, even millions. Missing discovery by the deadline could prove fatal-to the case and your career. Misinterpreting a page of a medical record or failing to take the extra step to look up a foreign term could cost a client everything. In the classroom, there is room for error-not in the real world. In fact, some mistakes cannot be fixed in the legal environment-mistakes that can cause an employee to be shown the door in a bad economy.

Active reading can help get us in the habit of being careful, cautious and well informed, alleviating the potential of one of these career ending mistakes. Active reading should include highlighting, note taking, rereading certain passages for clarity, and looking up words for a more complete meaning and understanding. In my classroom, students are expected to actively read the textbook, lecture notes, handouts, and any supplemental materials provided.

Those who read actively are, more or less, forced to spend more hours studying. Reading assignments and paper assignments are often rushed through without adequate time or effort. Material should be read multiple times; paper assignments should be proofread, revised and edited. Students should produce multiple drafts before submitting work, just as paralegals need to dissect a file multiple times to make sure there is no missing discovery or missed deadlines.

This takes time. Sitting down for an hour before bed, passively reading multiple chapters in one setting and slopping out an essay is never going to cut it. Professors should expect more; students should want to produce more. Employers will demand more or find someone else who will produce to their level of expectation.

Active reading is just the first step in the study stronger process. Students have different learning styles. Instructors have different teaching styles. I am a visual learner; therefore, I tend to use visuals, diagrams and samples when teaching. I am also a hands-on learner, and I think the best way is to just sit down and do it. This may be difficult for students who are not visual or kinesthetic learners. Students should identify their learning style(s) and adapt to that style. This takes time, self evaluation and extra effort.

This burden is on the student. It is not on the instructor nor will it be on an employer. Students are to adapt to the professor, as an employee adapts to an employer. If one is lucky, he/she may find a professor or an employer who will compromise and meet half way, though this cannot be assumed or expected.

If one is an Aural learner and needs to hear something in order to absorb it, maybe over and over again, then that student should be taping lectures. Skipping class for this student should not be an option, as one must to be physically present to hear what is happening in the classroom. Students and instructors should refer to the following website for a questionnaire on learning styles: http://www.vark-learn.com/english/index.asp.

Students who work toward these goals should end up with improved grades; however, thinking back to my student in business writing, I am also not sure when an A came to mean anything less than perfect. My student was right. An A grade is extraordinary. To give out As like candy has decreased the honor of the A grade. It has made it mediocre to us all. I believe that a C grade is a good grade. To earn an A, one should be required to go above and beyond every expectation, every day, every time.

I am not saying students shouldn’t care about their grades; they should. However, they should care more about what they actually learn in the process. If students’ focus shifts to really putting forth the extra effort to learn, think independently, read critically, analyze, work collaboratively and understand concepts, the good grades will follow. That is what will impress an employer-not whether Johnny got an A- or a B+. In fact, I do not think attorneys ask for transcripts, but they sure will ask for a resignation if these real life skills are lacking. Curriculum should be difficult. It should be challenging, so students actually walk away with a secure career–not just a student loan.

Lesley Neff is the Director of Educational Services, in Marian’s Adult Programs, at Marian University in Indianapolis, Indiana.  She handles academic issues, supervises the faculty, addresses classroom issues, serves as academic liaison between MAP and traditional programs, develops and revises curriculum and teaches in the newly developed paralegal studies degree program. Lesley graduated with a B.A. from Purdue in Political Science and English.  After spending many years working in the legal field, she pursued a career change and completed an M.A. in English Literature at Butler University.  She has taught at several area universities, including Marian, in both the traditional program and MAP, Ivy Tech and IUPUI. 

Do you ever kind of read? Did you in school? If so, has it ever gotten you into trouble? We’ve gotta say Lesley’s assessment regarding A and C grades sure does make a lot of sense. If you have any thoughts you’d like to share on this fascinating topic, just hit that comment button, and tell us all about it!

We’ll see on Fun Friday, TPS readers! Until then, do your best to honorably guard those esquires, and keep a smile on your paralegal faces!