Preview: What Faculty Members Can Do to Humanize Legal Education and Improve Law Student Performance

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This blog is currently at the stage of identifying and defining the problem of why law students and lawyers do not thrive with respect to several indicia.  But before this all becomes too morose, I want to cut to the chase and preview some of the very exciting and encouraging research that has been done on potential solutions to this problem.

As mentioned in the “About” section, the impetus for this blog was a presentation by Prof. Plarry Krieger at the June 2009 LSAC conference for those of us involved in the field of academic achivement.  Information about Prof. Krieger’s involvement in the movement can be found here.

Prior to this conference, I was not aware of the movement to humanize legal education and the unique way it looks at the intersection of personal thriving and professional performance.  There are many participants in this movement, and many resources out there, which I intend to address as fully as possible in future posts.

Prof. Krieger was kind enough to share with me the powerpoint he presented at the conference, and I would like to summarize some of the main conclusions and contentions here:

(1) The premise that law students are not thriving—that they do not have a “natural experience of generally positive mood, meaning, and optimal performance”—is supported in large part by ABA-sponsored and other studies showing significantly higher rates of depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, interpersonal sensitivity, anxiety, etc., among law students and lawyers versus the general population.

(2) The next question, then, is what are the sources of thriving, and why do they appear suppressed in the law student population?  These sources of thriving correlate to universal psychological needs of humans:

Autonomy/Authenticity: the ability to make preferred choices; to make choices based on one’s true values and interests; to express a true self; to maintain one’s integrity.

Relatedness: feeling well-connected to others generally; a feeling of closeness and intimacy with important others.

Competence: feeling capable; mastering challenges; succeeding at difficult tasks.

Self-Esteem: having a sense of self-respect; believing one has positive qualities.

(3) The supposition, supported by empirical research, is that when these basic needs are satisfied, individuals thrive, and they display a greater sense of well-being, integrity and high performance.

Stated another way, and a way that is very important to what we do here in the Academic Achievement Program here at DU, when even a small number of professors consciously support the above needs, even students with “low indicators” (low LSAT scores and/or GPAs) can perform better than predicted in law school, on the bar exam, and beyond.  Thus, these ideas represent an extremely powerful tool for the work we do as educators.

There is much, much more to be said on these points, but I offer this as a preview of the hopeful side of the movement to humanize legal education.  I also offer this with the caveat that this represents my interpretation of the gist of Prof. Krieger’s presentation at the conference, and I am open to correction, supplementation, etc.

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3 responses to “Preview: What Faculty Members Can Do to Humanize Legal Education and Improve Law Student Performance

  1. I 100% agree that getting individual positive feedback outside of the hated curve is beneficial. I consistently score high on grades and yet getting the grade back is not very satisfying. You are marked against 75 other people and the grade depends solely on how well you know the material in relation to the rest of your class. It provides no insight on what I know well and where I require more guidance. Personal contact with a professor or professional who can provide performance feedback and context for the rules that we learn is the best way to feel more at ease with one’s individual knowledge in my opinion.

  2. The fact that some law students do not have a “natural experience of generally positive mood, meaning, and optimal performance” is no understatement. It’s all a matter of perspective though. If a student perceives her “thriving” as entirely contingent on her final exam grades, her experience might very well be lacking in the sources of thriving that you mention. However, a good professor should be able to cultivate these psychological factors. As a 2L currently, I can reflect upon the nuances of our in-class discussions, the personal experiences that were related by the professor, and conversations with fellow students that ultimately painted a picture of general content and fulfillment. Sure, tests and grades were stressed over, but what I remember mostly and what I did that makes me feel as though I am law student were pursuits outside the traditional results-oriented paradigm. I suppose the trick is “thriving” in both worlds.

    • Hi Andy – great comment; thank you. You point to an issue that will be a subject of future posts: namely, the relationship between intrinsic and extrinsic values. Things like grades, class rank, and a high salary are referred to as extrinsic values and Prof. Krieger finds that pursuing these as ends in themselves is less motivating, less likely to produce good performance, and less likely to fulfill our basic needs. Intrinsic values like a sense of accomplishment, pride in learning, and a sense of mastery are generally more motivating, result in better performance and more fulfillment. It sounds like you have managed to focus on intrinsic values which is fantastic. And it also sounds like you have received support and guidance from faculty members in doing so. Ultimately, I think we want a learning environment that is supportive in this fashion.

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