Monday, February 5, 2018
While I don’t consider myself old, I am starting to tell stories about “the good ole’ days.” Days where I was taught to ride a bike by being pushed down the street and then my uncle let go. I crashed, got up, probably cried about not wanting to continue, and then was forced to get back on for the next attempt. My mom recalls that she was taught to swim by being thrown in a lake and told to swim back to survive. Those are terrible parenting strategies (and probably exaggerations), but I do find myself telling my kids “we don’t say I can’t in this house” right before a huge meltdown struggle. A key message was to overcome obstacles.
Now is the time in both bar prep and the semester where I see students psychologically disadvantaging themselves with the wrong perspective. Bar takers are struggling with recent simulated MBE results. My last semester 3Ls are struggling through their MBE homework. The pain of multiple choice is high right now. Many students will shy away from more work that illustrates they are not doing well.
Despite the current despair, my hope is everyone possesses a get back on the bike attitude, even if they are wailing. Unfortunately, I am concerned we (including myself) are not teaching perseverance as well at all levels of education. I fear our students aren't getting back on the bike due to their perspective of their own ability.
Students constantly receive messages from society, law school, and peers about their ability. If students don’t receive instruction on how to overcome those obstacles before law school, schools should start overtly teaching how to overcome very real obstacles. Some law schools’ demographics include students who constantly receive messages that they are not good at certain types of questions. Research is clear that girls at young ages are as capable, if not better, at math than boys. As kids grow up, societal messages and images tell young women they are not good at math. This results, along with many other factors, with less women in STEM fields. Many of our students experience the same phenomenon. Schools with lower credentials have a student body who were told by the LSAT that they aren’t good at multiple choice tests, and many of those students were subsequently told by some law schools, through rejection letters, that they weren’t good enough on multiple choice tests to attend. Limited options to unranked law schools sends messages of inferiority before students are even in chairs.
Students of historically marginalized groups attending those schools face even greater challenges. Stereotype threat, not seeing many peers like themselves, and discovering statistics about group performance sends additional messages of limited chances of success. The explosion of easily accessible information through social media and the internet only exacerbates this problem.
My anecdotal perspective is that some students receiving these messages are ill-equipped to navigate the negative environment, which in many ways is not students’ fault. Between helicopter parenting and YMCA sports (only half-joking), some law students haven't faced real challenges or losing before law school. They haven't been exposed to the need for a Growth Mindset. I always talk about improvement and the goal is to get better, but anecdotally, I have heard more students say they aren’t good at multiple choice questions over the last few years. I try to tell students about a growth mindset, but I don’t think it registers to them that saying they are bad at a certain type of question is a form of the fixed mindset. The confirmation of certain classes from law school make overcoming this idea difficult.
Overcoming failures is critical to success in law school, the bar exam, and the practice of law. Not only do we need students to acquire persistence for success now, we are doing a disservice to them if we let them practice law without the ability to handle defeat. I am committing to be more overt about my messaging on improvement and growth mindset. I specifically tell students the statement “I am bad at multiple choice questions” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and hurts their scores. I plan to continually talk about the obstacles in practice and how to learn to handle them now. I will show them how they improve and how improvement is the goal. I want my students to enter the profession with the ability to continue to advocate for their client in spite of continuously losing motions. Hopefully those skills will help them be more professional lawyers.