Skip to main content

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).

Popular posts from this blog

Letter to A First-Time (Legal Research) Instructor

Dear Friend,

Seven years ago this week, I was prepping madly to teach my first legal research class.  Three months earlier, I'd been a law student myself.  To say that I was nervous is an understatement; mildly terrified was probably a more apt description.  The truth is I didn't really know what I was getting myself into, but I knew that I wanted to teach legal research differently than I had been taught legal research, where at best it was viewed as a skill less important than everything else being taught at law school and at worst an afterthought, a skill that students should be able to do with very little training. 

There are many points I wish I knew then that I know now and that's what I want to share with you today. 


First and foremost, students will forgive many imperfections in the classroom if they know you care about their learning.  At the start of every semester, I re-read Kent Syverud's "Taking Students Seriously: A Guide for New Law Teachers,"…

16x16 Challenge, or How A Tweet Resulted in Building a Community of Law Librarians Thinking & Writing About Teaching

Twitter is a space in which I've made connections with so many Law Librarians and many others within legal academia--and strengthened connections with others--and learned so much from and been inspired by colleagues across the country.

This past weekend, Emily Barney, Technology Training & Marketing Librarian at Chicago-Kent College of Law, was live-tweeting a panel from the WP Campus (Where WordPress Meets Higher Education) Conference called "The Infamous 9x9x25 Challenge," by Todd Conaway, from the University of Washington--Bothell. Started in 2013 at a community college in Arizona, faculty members were challenged to write 25 sentences a week for 9 weeks about teaching and learning. It gave faculty members the chance to reflect on what they do, share experiences and ideas, and see what their colleagues are up to over the course of the semester. And the challenge has spread in various iterations to college campuses across the United States.

This seemed like a wonder…

Why Experts Can Struggle to Teach Novices

This week in our Slack group on teaching, there was an interesting discussion about expertise and the amount of time needed to prep for instruction. I mentioned something that I recalled reading: that experts can be less effective in teaching novices because often the expert skips cognitive steps that the novice learner needs to understand.  I thought I'd dig into this a little more today on the blog.

The fact is novices and experts learn very differently.  The major reason for this is that experts not only know a lot about their chosen discipline, but they understand how that discipline is organized. As such, what has a clear structure to the expert is a jumbled set of unorganized information to the novice.  The information presented to novices "are more or less random data points."[1]  In contrast, when the expert learns something new in her area of expertise, she just plugs it into the knowledge structure that already exists in her long-term memory. Because the new in…

Rethinking Formative Assessment

We've seen an increased significance placed on formative assessment in the legal academy. Standard 314 of the ABA Standards requires that law schools use both formative and summative assessment methods in their curriculum. Its rational for doing so is "to measure and improve student learning and provide meaningful feedback to students." The ABA defines formative assessment methods as "measurements at different points during a particular course or at different points over the span of a student's education that provide meaningful feedback to improve student learning."

Those of us in the legal research instruction business are no strangers to formative assessment. We are leaders in this in the law school curriculum, with rarely a class going by in which students do not practice their skills. Lately, though, I've been wondering whether I'm going about formative assessment in the way that will best provide meaningful feedback to students. In the mandator…

Elaborative Interrogation in the Legal Research Classroom

One type of activity legal skills professors can incorporate into their classrooms is elaboration. As described by Yana Weinstein and Megan Sumeracki in Understanding How We Learn: A Visual Guide, "[e]laboration describes the process of adding features to one's memories."[1]  It helps with organization of information within the knowledge structures in one's minds, making it easier to retrieve this information later. But what activities will help students to add features to their memories?

Weinstein and Sumeracki recommend three elaboration techniques that can all be applied to the legal research classroom: elaborative interrogation, concrete examples, and dual coding.[2] Studies of each has shown improvement in student learning and long-term retention. Today, we're going to look specifically elaborative interrogation.

With elaborative interrogation, students ask themselves questions about the reason and way things work.[3]  While it's easy to presume law stud…