Skip to main content

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.

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,"…

Helping With Student Focus & Motivation in the Remote Classroom, Part 3: Limiting New Technologies to Reduce Extrinsic Cognitive Load

A librarian colleague used to say to me, "Technology is great until it's not." This couldn't be more true in the classroom.  As many of us prepare for a fall entirely or partially online, there's a rush to familiarize ourselves with lots of new educational technology to teach our classes. There's this sense that if you're not using the best and newest ed tech in your class, you're doing something wrong.

Fortunately, the science doesn't back this up.  Using too many different types of technology can be a contributing factor to cognitive overload in students. Cognitive load is a term cognitive psychologists use to describe the mental challenge that the limitations of working memory puts on a student's learning.[1] Basically, working memory is extremely limited in both time and duration. Humans can only hold on to between four and nine "chunks" of information at any given time,[2] and can only hold on to new information in their working…

Helping with Student Focus & Motivation in the Remote Classroom, Part 4: Building An Online Teaching Presence

I've written before about how important it is to show students you care about their learning and about them as humans, in part summarizing Kent Syverud's excellent piece, "Taking Students Seriously: A Guide for New Law Teachers. It is harder to show students that you care about them in a remote environment than when you see them in a physical classroom every day, where you can smile at them, easily ask them how they're doing as they enter the room or when you run into them in the classroom, or notice through their body language if they are having a hard time and reach out. But we know that showing we care matters; our students try harder and engage more when they feel like their learning matters to their instructor. It takes more intention to show you care about students in the online classroom, but it's imperative that we find ways to show we do.

So what are some ways that we can show students we care in the remote learning environment?
The first is to build a te…

Helping with Student Focus & Motivation in the Remote Classroom, Part 1: Considering Serial Position Effect

One of the issues I'm most concerned about in teaching online is keeping the attention of my students.  Many students this spring have reported difficulties with motivation and staying focused during their remote learning experiences.  Over the next few weeks, I plan to write about some of the strategies legal research instructors can consider to help their students stay focused and motivated in the classroom.

Today, we're going to kick off that project by writing about serial position effect.  Serial position effect is the simple principle that most people will remember the information at the beginning and end of a list or lecture, and forget most other items that come in the middle.[1]  The obvious implication for teaching, then, is that the points we teach at the beginning and end of a class session are the ones students are most likely to remember, and therefore we should emphasize our most important concepts during those most impactful time frames.  We must design our cla…

Helping with Student Focus & Motivation in the Remote Classroom, Part 2: Prioritizing Transparency

One factor leading to decreased focus and motivation in online classes is the uncertainty many students feel in the virtual environment.  This uncertainty can arise from students never having taken an online class before, from having distractions at home that they don't have in their in-person classes, or from using technology with which they're not familiar.  This uncertainty can lead to students disengaging with the class, as they feel disconnected from the content, their instructor, and their classmates.

To support students undergoing this uncertainty and help them stay engaged, provide as much clarity as possible.  Being clear about expectations will help students gain some balance in an uncomfortable situation.  There are a number of ways we can help students minimize their discomfort--from making sure online class modules are standardized in their format within the learning management system to designing a syllabus with well-structured, clear course requirements.  One me…