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Research Instruction and Resilience

Law students can quickly become frustrated when they struggle with legal research--perhaps due to the fact that one of the narratives they tell about research is that it's easy. This may be especially true for students suffering from a fixed mindset

Students need help building resilience to overcome this frustration and to be able to accept critical feedback.  Legal research instructors can help students overcome these struggles and stay engaged in their intellectual growth by taking concrete steps to build their resilience.  In fact, most research courses are well-positioned to help students grapple with failure because most already include multiple assessments that will give students room to practice and develop their skills throughout the semester. These multiple opportunities for performance allow us to observe and point out our students' growth.

In her recent article, Framing Failure in the Legal Classroom: Techniques for Encouraging Growth and Resilience, Professor Kaci Bishop provides several ideas that could easily be adapted into the legal research classroom. As a skills course, where the entire goal is students' improvement over the course of the semester or year, professors can consider replacing a grade from an earlier assignment with a later assignment.[1]  This avoids the problem of doing ungraded assignments, which can sometimes cause students to take the assessment less seriously, but gives students room to practice without the fear that one misstep on an early assignment will have a massive effect on their performance in the course as a whole. It also solidifies for the student that their research class is about learning and growing; perfection at the beginning of the semester isn't possible or expected.

Professor Bishop also notes that acknowledging failure as a critical part of the learning process can create a safe space where students feel comfortable to acknowledge and share their failure.[2] Legal research instructors should explain to their classes that the assignments are meant to make students struggle and ultimately grow, highlighting the importance of growth mindset.  This means that research assignments need to be difficult enough to challenge students.  Treasure hunt exercises that too easily lead students through their assignments may give students the false impression that research problems always have an easily-followed path. Assignments that challenge give students the opportunity to reflect on their performance and consider how they might adapt next time.

Finally, Professor Bishop provides some helpful tips on constructing feedback that can be easily applied to legal research courses. She notes, "[f]or students to feel safe trying new skills, arguments, or ways of thinking, even when those skills, arguments, and thinking are imperfect, we have a duty to help them see that these trials and errors are indeed praiseworthy."[3] Legal research professors should use language in class and in written feedback that recognizes and praises students' efforts and improvement over the course of the semester.  For example, Professor Bishop highlights the power of the word "yet" and its ability to show the instructor's belief that the student will inevitably improve with practice and effort.[4]

These are only a few of Professor Bishop's excellent suggestions on building resilience. Many more can be found in her article and can easily be applied to legal research instruction. I highly recommend taking a look at the full piece and consider how her recommendations can be used in your own courses.

[1] Kaci Bishop, Framing Failure in the Legal Classroom: Techniques for Encouraging Growth and Resilience, 70 Ark. L. Rev. 959, 986 (2018).

[2] Id. at 987.

[3] Id. at 994 (emphasis added).

[4] Id. at 997.

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