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Battling Law Students' Fixed Mindset

Many students show up to law school with fixed mindsets--the belief that each person is born with a particular intellectual ability and that they there is little to nothing one can do to surpass that innate intellectual level.  A large proportion of law students were classified as smart early on in their learning experiences and have been academically successful their entire educational careers.  Many faculty members had a similar experience as they advanced from primary school to secondary school to undergrad and finally to law school--where most continued to succeed academically.

For some law students, however, law school is the first time in their lives that they have struggled to succeed immediately.  This can have a disastrous result, because those with fixed mindsets have a tendency to equate mistakes with failure.  These students then have a tendency to avoid challenging themselves, to ignore constructive criticism, and to give up or not try.[1]  In their minds, they are just not smart enough to succeed at this new endeavor.

Contrast this with growth mindset--the idea that one can change one's intellectual ability with effort and effective learning strategies.  Students with growth mindset are more likely to embrace challenges and try harder to achieve mastery of material.[2]  So how can we cultivate growth mindset in our law students?

In the law school environment, many students receive their first feedback on their abilities in this challenging new discipline during their first years skill courses.  These classes are generally the first in which students receive graded assignments, and so can have a significant impact on how students are going to progress through the remainder of their law school careers.  If students have a fixed mindset and do not immediately receive high scores, it may negatively effect the remainder of their legal education.  As such, those providing feedback early in students' law school careers have a responsibility to do so with growth mindset in mind.

One easy way to do this is to be upfront about these courses as being ones in which students can and will improve over time and with continued practice.  In her book, Teach Students How to Learn, Saundra Yancy McGuire describes a 2013 study by Yeager et al. in which teachers provided feedback on student essays along with a note that read, "I have high standards but I believe you have the potential to meet them, so I am providing this critical feedback to help you meet those standards." Eighty percent of the students who received this note opted to revise their essays, while only 39% of those receiving only the feedback--or, perhaps in their eyes, criticism--chose to do so. [3]

Our syllabi in Legal Research and Writing courses in particular should be clear that the skills students are learning require continual practice throughout their law school careers.  While students certainly have varying degrees of success from the first assignment, no student is a perfect legal writer, researcher, or analyzer from the start.  We need to verbalize this to our students from day one, explaining that there are strategies that can help them continue to improve and encourage them along the way.  Tell stories about a previous student who practiced and became an excellent researcher or writer to inspire belief.  Help students think about other challenges they have overcome.  For example, maybe a particular student was an athlete and had to practice a particular skill to master it.  Ensure that assignments you create build skills gradually; students will feel motivated by an earlier success when they later encounter a more challenge legal issue to research.

All of these strategies will help your students evolve from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset--which might actually be the most important change we can help our students make as "[r]egardless of the truth about intelligence, beliefs about intelligence have been repeatedly demonstrated to have an enormous effect on performance."[4]  In other words, if our students think they are capable of building their intellect through hard work and continued practice, they are more likely to do so.

[1] Saundra Yancy McGuire with Stephanie McGuire, Teach Students How to Learn: Strategies You Can Incorporate Into Any Course to Improve Metacognition, Study Skills, and Motivation 61 (2015).

[2] Id.

[3] Id. at 64.

[4] Id. at 60 (emphasis in original).

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