Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A tougher grading curve can teach law students resilience

Partially in response to this article that called for law profs to eliminate all C grades because they purportedly cause students to suffer psychological harm, Dan Bowlinga workplace consultant,  visiting scholar at U. Penn and senior lecturer at Duke Law School, says that adopting a tougher grading curve can instead teach students resilience which, in turn, will lead to greater psychological well-being.  Mr. Bowling relies on the work of happiness guru Dr. Martin Seligman for his hypothesis.  From the Careerist column at Lawjobs.com.

Don't Coddle Law Students!

Researchers on resilience and post-traumatic stress have demonstrated there is a bell curve distribution among those who undergo an event they find traumatic. Some suffer mightily and never recover; others—the majority—bounce back after a while. And a certain percentage thrive in the aftermath of trauma. As famed psychologist Martin Seligman likes to note, there is empirical support for the old saying “that which does not kill me makes me stronger.” In my experience, law students are no different.

Is there anything law schools can do to help students bounce back more quickly in law school—yes, become happier—regardless of their 1L grades? Here are three ideas:

 1. Start resilience training in the first year.  Resilience skills can be trained, as the U.S. Army is showing with the assistance of trainers from the University of Pennsylvania. Law schools should invest in upfront psychological training of entering students to better insulate them from the emotional shocks sure to come. Teach students to bounce back, fast.

 2. Focus on student strengths.  Following that initial training, schools should continue to work with students in a formal, structured manner to help them develop strengths awareness and alignment. We are happiest and most productive when we are aware of our strengths and use them in our lives and jobs, as decades of Gallup surveying has shown. Students thirst for this sort of material. My course at Duke Law School (“Well-Being and the Practice of Law”)  fills up within the first hours of registration every year—in no small part because of its strengths-based focus.

 3. Toughen up the grade curve.  You heard me right. Toughen up but standardize grade curves across faculties and between schools to the extent possible. Level the playing field. It isn’t the presence of C’s that is ruining things for the bottom half of the class; it is the almost random way they are assigned among professors and schools.

We have the finest law schools in the world and produce its finest lawyers. The practice of law is tough and demanding, and our training of practitioners must be the same. Keep the C’s. Tough and demanding, however, does not require slavish devotion to a hundred-old pedagogical model that is psychologically damaging to many. A few modest changes and innovations can make a world of difference.

You can continue reading Mr. Bowling's thoughts here.

My opinion?  There's no way law schools are going to do this in the near term, if at all.  The overwhelming trend in higher education over the past few decades is one of incremental increases to students' GPA.  And Law schools in particular have followed suit. Today, given the precipitous drop in law school applications nationwide, most schools are under intense pressure to retain, and not upset, the students they've got.



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