What Students Can Do to Help Themselves; What Professors Can Do to Help Their Students

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“Stress” = primarily images of white men and women in office settings clutching their brains. Ultimately, the head explodes.

Today I want to spend more time discussing the insights from Prof. Larry Krieger’s booklet, “The Hidden Sources of Law School Stress.”  It is an incredibly helpful resource in the battle to manage and reduce our overall levels of stress—primarily because it offers a different way of thinking about and analyzing the sources of stress in our education and career.  For this reason, I would argue that it is a good resource for law students and practicing lawyers alike.

A primary focus for Krieger is the undeniable and unavoidable impact of the heavy law school workload.

Krieger asserts that the heavy workload associated with law school is not necessarily a source of unhealthy stress in and of itself.  Rather, it is the combination of a heavy workload and certain attitudes that generates unhealthy, unmanageable levels of stress.  Namely: an attitude that it is acceptable—even desirable—for work to interfere with basic self-care (adequate rest, nutrition, physical activity, and connectivity to others) and an attitude that prioritizes external academic status—grades, your GPA and class rank—over the intrinsic value of the learning process.

These observations point to concrete action that students can take on behalf of their own well-being:

First, to be vigilant in maintaining your physical and mental health—it will ultimately make you more effective in your studies, not less.

Second, to focus your energies on the learning process and learning well; this is your goal as a student.  All indications are that students who focus on the learning process rather than outcomes . . . achieve better outcomes.  (Neat, isn’t it?)

What is important about this framework for understanding law school stress is that it distinguishes between external factors over which students have little control—the size of their workload—and internal factors over which they do have control—their attitudes and choices about how to respond to that workload.

In this way, the framework supports a sense of agency over one’s educational experience—a sense that is noticeably absent in my conversations with many students.

These observations also point to ways in which law school faculty can support student well-being, and thereby support student performance:

We can focus our students on the difference between effective time management versus simply working harder or working longer hours.

We can explicitly encourage students to prioritize self-care.  As educators, we all know that students require a basic platform of physical and mental health to perform at the high end of their abilities.

We can be more transparent regarding our expectations for performance.  This goes to both the question of what we are expecting them to learn substantively and grading expectations.  In my view, we should be testing them on their ability to learn and analyze—not on their ability to figure out what they are supposed to be learning.

We can encourage students to examine and understand how they learn and study best, and in this way to take greater ownership over their learning.

We can encourage active learning, requiring students to affirmatively demonstrate their understanding of the materials prior to the final exam and allowing them to practice and receive feedback on the analytical and writing skills that are critical to their success in school and in their careers.

Finally, we can let go of our own attachment to the idea that pervasive stress is a necessary and even admirable aspect of our profession.

I feel very strongly that none of these practices is inimical to a rigorous educational experience.  Quite the opposite: I think these practices encourage our students to learn more, to perform closer to the top of their abilities, and to focus their learning efforts on the substance of the law, rather than the anxiety of figuring out law school.  The latter efforts are, in my view, wasted energy that could be better spent elsewhere.

Much of this conversation leads to an inevitable discussion of grading practices and the dreaded law school curve.

I need to make a disclaimer here, which is that, while I hope to dialogue more with my colleagues at DU about issues of pedagogy, my comments about teaching techniques are not directed at them.  Indeed, I have much work to do in terms of observing and understanding our teaching practices here.  More than anything, my views are informed by my own experience as a student over a decade ago, and my observation of my own challenges as an educator.  Specifically: the question of how I can prepare my students to be excellent by the standards of their chosen career and provide a humane educational experience at the same time.

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