Tuesday, May 31, 2022

How Law Professors Can Help Their Students Overcome Pandemic Learning Damage

A few days ago, the New York Times published an article about college students "not being OK" two years into the pandemic (here).  Brian Leiter did a follow-up on his blog, asking for comments from higher ed professors.  (here)  Most of the commenters agreed that students were having significant problems with wellness and motivation.  Many noted that the quality of work had dropped precipitously.  Here are a few excerpts:

"It's the worst I've ever seen. Among my intro students, roughly a third either failed or had to be convinced to withdraw. They just don't do the work, despite both lenient deadlines and my being practically begging them to turn things in. And the mindlessness has increased exponentially. By 'mindlessness' I have in mind not stupidity, but just a refusal to think in any form."

"I am certain there is an increase in mental and emotional health issues among the students. I strongly suspect that this doesn't explain all of it, though. There seems also to have a been a cultural shift that explains some of this. I've found it increasingly difficult to teach well under these conditions, and anecdotally I know a lot of teachers who agree. I don't really know what to do."

"More and more, students simply neglect to do their work, with no explanation. There is far more absenteeism, and while cheating has always been an issue, students are far more blatant about it than I can ever remember. The administration and counseling department look with increasing disapproval on any sorts of deadlines for work or firm behavioral expectations. You rarely hear anyone suggest that teaching students to meet deadlines and establishing uniform expectations for student behavior might actually help them feel 'okay.'"

"Yes, the students were just as described last year. But, to echo what others above have already said, I have seen trends moving pretty steadily in this direction for about a decade now, little by little."

"Unfortunately, the reaction of many deans and professors to the pandemic has apparently been to make the standards even _more_ lax than they already were when this was going on. I have to wonder how much of that explains the drop to even further lows."

"The other thing I think I've been seeing, and this is in line with Justin's comment above, is that not only is cheating rampant, but it no longer, for many students, has anything like a moral valence. My students cheerfully tell me that they cheat in other classes, and some have even told me that they cheat in my class (seriously!)."

"I have to say that in 2018 I was truly shocked to find what I found where I had been hired as a postdoc. . . .  It was the oddest atmosphere--almost like a sleep-away camp or something. It just didn't at all feel the way a serious university community should. A number of the comments in this thread highlight what made me feel the way I did then, and evidently it has only worsened. "

Law students share these problems, and law professors need to deal with them.  We can't just ignore the situation and hope someone else will handle it.  We must deal with this problem in every class, with every student.

Wellness practice is a large part of the potential solution.  But, there are other things that professors must look at, including teaching metacognition, developing motivation, creating growth mindsets, and producing self-regulated learners.

1.  Metacognition:  Metacognition is thinking about thinking.  It allows students to control their own learning.  It “includes both knowledge of one’s knowledge, processes, cognitive and affective states, and the ability to consciously and deliberately monitor and regulate one’s knowledge, process, cognitive and affective states.”  (citations omitted; see below)

Notably, researchers believe that metacognitive skills are mainly learned, rather than innate; metacognition is programable general architecture. Most students do not acquire metacognitive skills on their own. Rather, they require a “coach” to develop expertise.

2.  Motivation:  Motivation is “the personal investment that an individual has in reaching a desired state or outcome.” Motivation drives the effort needed for learning. “Motivation is the fuel to learn.” Moreover, working memory allocation is directed by motivation. In short, motivation is an “academic enabler.”

There are two types of motivators for learning: cognitive motivators and emotional motivators. Cognitive motivators include “needs for the self, for recognition, achievement, esteem, respect, and confidence.” Because motivation is goal-directed, setting goals is the most important cognitive motivator.

What teachers need to instill in students to create motivation is learning goals (“goals directed at learning new knowledge or mastering a task or problem”; also referred to as “mastery goals”). With learning goals, students concentrate on competence and the inherent facets of a task, learning for learning’s sake, interest, challenge, and curiosity. Students with learning goals “are more likely to adopt study strategies that result in deeper understanding, to seek help when needed, to persist when faced with difficulty, and to seek out and feel comfortable with challenging tasks.”

"Three factors affect whether goals are motivating: 1) the subjective value of the goal, 2) the expectation for successful achievement of the goal (“expectancies”), and 3) whether the environment is supportive or unsupportive (“the environmental context”)." Professors can increase student motivation by 1) helping them create the subjective value of the goal, 2) helping them create the expectation for successful achievement of the goal, and 3) creating a positive learning environment.

3.  The Growth Mindset: A major impediment preventing students from succeeding in law school is that they often have the mindset that intelligence is fixed–that humans are born with a level of intelligence that is unchangeable during their lifetimes. If intelligence is unchangeable, why should I work hard? Recent research has shown that the fixed mindset is not correct, but that with hard work and the proper approach a normal student can increase their intelligence (fluid or malleable intelligence). As a leading expert in this field has stated, “[t]he view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life.” One scholar has defined the growth mindset as being “based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts.” Law teachers must help their students overcome the fixed mindset.

Students who believe that intelligence is malleable get higher grades than those who don’t, so teachers must convince their students that the right kind of hard work pays off. As one scholar has declared, “[m]indsets are beliefs. They’re powerful beliefs, but they’re just something in your mind, and you can change your mind.” The major way of teaching students that intelligence is fluid is to address their beliefs directly. First, “[j]ust by knowing about the two mindsets you can think about reacting in a new way.” Another technique is to praise their effort rather than their ability. As one author has stated, “[p]raising process rather than ability ends the unspoken message that intelligence is not under the student’s control.” Another way to help students understand that intelligence is malleable is to use as examples famous scientists, athletes, authors, and entertainers who have succeed through hard work. Moreover, the professor needs to convince students that failure is part of learning–that even the greatest scientists failed before they achieved success.

4.  Self-Regulated Learning:  Self-regulated learners “are intrinsically motivated, self-directing, self-monitoring, and self-evaluating.” “Self-regulation is a self-directive process and set of behaviors whereby learners transform their mental abilities into skills and habits through a developmental process that emerges from guided practice and feedback.” Self-regulated learners “recognize when a skill is needed and [they have] the willingness to apply it.” Similarly, self-regulated learners know themselves. They are inquisitive, open to new ideas, and take risks. They do not settle for the first answer, but always consider alternatives. They admit when they are confused, and they try to clear up their confusion before going on. Most importantly, self-regulated learners have learning strategies, and they focus more on the mastery of learning rather than on external factors.

Few students come to law school as self-regulated learners. Professor Lemnson has pointed out that most students consider learning as something that happens to them through lectures and superficial readings. Passive observers do not make effective learners. The human mind is not a sponge.

Self-regulated learning consists of three parts: forethought, performance, and reflection. Each part encompasses detailed subparts.  Self- regulated learning requires 1) strategic knowledge, 2) knowledge about cognitive tasks, and 3) self-knowledge.  Self-testing is a key technique of self-regulated learners. Similarly, having students create concept maps or mind maps enhances self-regulation. Other techniques include think-alouds, reflection (with journaling), metacognitive questions, and evaluation.

Professors should give students self-regulated questions at the end of a course. These questions can include “how could I have prepared for class better?”, “how could I have studied for this class better?”, “how could I have gotten a better grade on the exam?” (This is especially important for first-year law students who should be absorbing new learning techniques.)

The above is as much as I can squeeze into a post.  I go into detail with all these techniques in How to Grow A Lawyer: A Guide for Law Schools, Law Professors, and Law Students (2018).  The above quotes are from this book.

(Scott Fruehwald)

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/legal_skills/2022/05/student-wellness-and-motivation-in-the-pandemic.html

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