Sunday, July 26, 2015

More From Deborah Jo Merritt: Can We Close the Racial Grade Gap?

Last week, Deborah Jo Merritt argued that there is a white bias in law school grading.  This week, she considers how to close the racial grade gap.  (here)

I have argued for several years that the best way to help minority students is to employ better teaching methods based on general legal education research.  (e.g., here)  Professor Merritt agrees: "Many of the ideas offered by Steele, Darling-Hammond, Holmquist, and Fruehwald rest on principles of good teaching."

She cautions that helping minority students improve will not be easy: "These approaches, as well as others mentioned in the articles at the beginning of this post, are worth trying in the classroom. I think, though, that it will be much harder than most white professors imagine to remove the clouds of stereotype threat."

She discusses an example of this difficulty: "White students showed little variation in how they responded to three types of feedback: (1) 'unbuffered' feedback in which they received mostly critical comments and corrections on their essays; (2) 'positive' feedback in which these comments were prefaced by a paragraph of the 'overall nice job; kind; and (3) 'wise' feedback in which the professor noted that he had applied a particularly high standard to the essay but believed the student could meet that standard through revision. All three of these feedback forms provided similar motivation to white students.

For Black students, however, the type of feedback generated significantly different results. The unbuffered feedback produced mistrust and little motivation; the Black students believed that the reader had stereotyped them as poor performers. Feedback prefaced by a positive comment was better; Black students were more likely to trust the feedback and feel motivated to improve. The wise feedback, however, was best of all. When students felt that a professor recognized their individual talent, and was willing to help them develop that talent, they responded enthusiastically.

Some researchers refer to this as the “Stand and Deliver” phenomenon, named for the story of a high school teacher who inspired his underprivileged Mexican-American students to learn calculus. Professors who set high standards, while conveying sincere signals that minority students can meet those standards, can close enormous achievement gaps."

Professor Merritt is correct that law professors need to think about their students' psychological makeups as part of their teaching approach.  I think this applies to all students who suffer from fixed mindsets.  (See Carol S. Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2006))  We can no longer rely on teaching methods developed in the nineteenth century for a specific group of students.  Instead, we need to apply the discoveries of general education research to legal education.

(Scott Fruehwald)

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