By Sarah J. Schendel
When I decided to go to law school, it was partially because I wanted a profession where I was “always learning.” After 3 years of law school and a few years of practice I remember thinking: when does the learning stop? When will I just know everything?
Law is a rewarding field because it offers endless opportunities for growth – new laws, new clients, new challenges every day. But, as law students know, growth opportunities are not always easy, and are often humbling. They can be made even more difficult when students hear ideas like “self-regulated” or “self-directed” learning, and think this means they have to do it all on their own. But being “self-regulated” doesn’t mean sitting alone with your case books: what makes a student ‘self-regulated’ “is not their reliance on socially isolated methods of learning, but rather their personal initiative, perseverance, and adaptive skill.”
Being a smart student means knowing when – and how – to ask for help.
As a professor in the law school’s Academic Support Program, my job is to work with students to make the most of their abilities. I often meet with students who express confusion with one of their classes, but are struggling with how to get clarity. Which of the dozens of books on the topic do they turn to? How do they go to a professor for help, when they don’t even know what to ask?
Here are 6 steps to getting the help you need, the smart way:
- Ask yourself. Before you ask someone else a question – ask yourself! When you reach the end of a case and see what the judge(s) decided, stop and ask yourself “Why?” Why did they reach that decision? Is there a way they could’ve reached a different decision? Reading is only the first step – asking questions about the reading leads to understanding.
- Learn to notice the “kinda.” You read for class and kinda get it. You go to class and kinda get it. That’s not enough! Be honest, and notice when your understanding is at the “kinda” level and – this part is important – make a note of it.
- Make time for the questions. Set aside a chunk of time in your schedule (I recommend Fridays) to go over your notes and investigate any concept you only “kinda” got. Don’t simply re-read your notes – focus on one idea that you’re struggling with, and spend an hour or two deepening your understanding.
- Talk about it. Try explaining a concept you’ve learned recently to someone not in law school. See what questions they ask you, and whether you’re able to answer them. If not, that may be a question to look into further.
- Avoid yes or no questions. Once you’ve taken these steps, it might be time to go to a professor or TA to learn more. Try to avoid yes or no questions. Instead, think about questions that start with “why” or “how.” For instance, instead of asking whether intent is required for a certain tort, ask how someone’s age or mental capacity might impact their ability to formulate intent.
- Prepare. Before you meet with professors, think about what you need help with. I know that “Everything!” might feel like the most honest answer, but try to narrow it down. Explain your understanding of a topic to them and see if you are correct. Tell them how you think two cases interact, and get their feedback on your analysis. In addition to creating a more fruitful conversation, this also shows the professors that you are doing the work.
Asking questions is the key to learning. If you’re stuck, come talk to us at ASP. We will work with you to figure out how you got confused, and where to find some answers. You’ll never know everything – but you can learn how to find anything out.
 (emphasis added) Barry J. Zimmerman, “Becoming a Self-Regulated Learner: An Overview,” Theory Into Practice, Volume 41, Number 2, Spring 2002.
Sarah J. Schendel is an Assistant Professor of Academic Support at Suffolk University Law School.