Monday, July 30, 2012

The Pygmalion Effect and the Bottom Quarter of the Law School Class

A couple of days ago, one of my co-bloggers posted an inspiring story on the Pygmalion effect and a world-class athlete.   Does the Pygmalion effect apply to law students?  Do our students live up to and down to our expectations?

Many educators think the answer is yes.  Professors Jay Feinberg and Marc Feldman have argued, "[w]hat is primarily missing in legal school is an educational environment that provides students with resources and the situations with which they can best learn. When given appropriate instruction, nearly all law students can achieve mastery–not merely competence–of the skills of the novice lawyer."  Similarly, Professor Hillary Burgess has asserted, "By incorporating efficient and innovative teaching methods in law school, professors can teach more doctrine and more skills in the same amount of time."

So, how do we  help all our students achieve mastery?  Geoff Colvin is a strong proponent of the idea that effort is more important than talent.  (Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else (2008)).  Colvin and many other education reformers believe that students fail because they don't use the proper learning methods and expend the necessary effort to achieve mastery of a subject.  As Professor Diane Halpern has remarked, "[i]t is important to separate the disposition or willingness to think critically from the ability to think critically. Some people may have excellent critical-thinking skills and may recognize when the skills are needed, but they also may choose not to engage in the effortful process of using them. This is the distinction between what people can do and what they actually do in real-world contexts."

What students need to succeed in law school are self-efficacy, engagement, deliberate practice, and reflection.  Self-efficacy relates most to the Pygmalion effect.  Self-efficacy involves four factors: (1) the student's current skill level, (2) the extent to which the student has witnessed modeling from peers and teachers, (3) verbal persuasion regarding the difficulty of the task, and (4) the student's current psychological state.  Of these, having a positive attitude and confidence in one’s self makes a student a better learner, and teachers can affect this confidence.

Daniel Kahneman has developed the idea of the "engaged" thinker. He writes, "[t]hose who avoid the sin of intellectual sloth could be called "engaged.’ They are more alert, more intellectually active, less willing to be satisfied with superficially attractive answers, more skeptical about their intuitions." In contrast, lazy thinkers are characterized by "a reluctance to invest more effort than is strictly necessary."  Simply stated, students can not attain mastery unles they become engaged learners because learning involves careful focus and considerable effort.

Being a successful student requires deliberate practice. Education researchers have identified two types of practice: practice to automaticity and deliberate practice. With the usual type of practice, a student practices a skill to attain automaticity, after which the skill can be executed with little effort.  On the other hand, "individuals engaged in deliberate practice tend to resist automaticity," and they "strive to continuously achieve mastery of increasingly higher levels of performance through the acquisition of more complex and refined cognitive mechanisms." (Robert J. Marzano, Becoming a Reflective Teacher 1 (2012)).  Deliberate learners focus on the "not yet attained and challenging tasks beyond their current level of performance. . ." (K. Anders Ericsson et. al., Giftedness and Evidence for Reproducibly Superior Performance: An Account Based on the Expert Performance Framework (2007)).  As Corie Rosen and Hillary Burgess have stated, "only through deliberate practice, that process of doing, erring, feedback, and incorporating that feedback into subsequent efforts, will students become better learners, stronger performers, and, ultimately, experts in the field."

Finally, an important part of being a success student is being a reflective learner.  Reflective learners relate what they are learning to what they have learned in the past.  Reflective learners question what they are learning and consider alternatives.  Reflective learners think about what they have learned.   Finally, reflective learners are constantly evaluating their learning processes to see if they can do better.

In sum, by using recent educational scholarship we can help our students do better.  We should set high expectations, and we should try to reach all our students.  It will take a lot of effort on the part of both law teachers and their students, but it can be done.

For more details, see my article How to Become an Expert Law Teacher by Understanding the Neurobiology of Learning.

(Scott Fruehwald)

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