Intelligence: Stagnant or Malleable? Exploring Formative Assessment

Formative assessment isn’t just a new requirement handed down by the ABA, it is also a helpful tool to maximize students’ motivation and professors’ learning. Students who are highly motivated to learn, learn more and perform better when their knowledge is tested. But what motivates students to learn? Many believe that extrinsic rewards – like grades or prestigious jobs – motivate students to learn. But decades of research by Stanford professor, Carol Dweck, and other psychologists, has shown that extrinsic rewards are insufficient motivators. Instead, professors can foster more robust learning by introducing students to and reinforcing a growth mindset.

Dweck discovered that students’ implicit beliefs about intelligence drive their reactions to feedback, goal orientation, effort and persistence, profoundly affecting their learning. Students who believe that intelligence is a fixed trait, that it remains fairly stable over the course of one’s lifetime, behave in maladaptive ways when faced with academic difficulty or setbacks. These students are said to have a fixed mindset. On the other hand, students who believe that intelligence is malleable, that people can significantly increase their intelligence, welcome feedback that will help them learn. They also take on more challenging work and persist through difficult intellectual challenges. In study after study, students with a growth mindset out-perform students with a fixed mindset when they face difficult problems.

Although many students enter law school with a fixed mindset, students’ mindsets can change. Researchers change students’ mindsets by merely having them read a chapter on how intelligence can grow, just like a muscle, when students effortfully engage their brains. Teachers and coaches play a key role in shaping students’ beliefs about intelligence. Professors who reinforce the notion that every student can get much better at the skills they need to perform well in law school – and in the legal profession – can make a significant impact on students’ lifelong motivation to learn.

Formative assessments inform both the professor and the student about the student’s learning. Ongoing formative assessments should be low stakes, i.e., low or no point value, and high reward, i.e., accurate for demonstrating where a student’s skill level currently is and how he or she might improve. In other words, formative assessments help professors understand where students are in the learning process, how much more they need to learn, and how they can close that gap. As Dweck has said, formative assessment is about “telling the truth about current achievement and then, together, doing something about it, helping [the student] become smarter.”

Formative assessments help students develop a growth mindset and increase motivation because they focus on the learning process rather than the result. Formative assessment also educates professors, often requiring them to teach more explicitly the skills they are assessing and provide students with targeted feedback and strategies designed to help them master those skills. It gives students an honest evaluation tied to specific learning outcomes for a deeper understanding or a better performance. It also forces professors to grapple with the material they are teaching in a more concrete and systematic way.

Try some low stakes formative assessments in your next class. For example, at the end of a class, have the students answer three questions on an index card and turn it in: 1) One thing I learned in class today; 2) One thing I still have questions about; 3) Where will I use what I learned? This will give you an idea of how you can help students better understand the material and how it fits into their long-term goals. In our clinic, we often use art as a formative assessment. For example, when we teach students the procedural rules they will need to know when reviewing their clients’ files, we provide students with the pretrial procedure statutes and have them draw the process as they understand it. They share their drawings with the group, and we critique them. Do the drawings accurately reflect the rules? Do they leave anything out? Why does it matter?

Essentially, formative assessment is meant to educate the student and the professor about what the student currently understands and how the professor can help improve student learning. It also creates an ideal opportunity to increase student motivation by reinforcing a growth mindset – that students will get smarter and more skilled if they put forth effort with the right strategies to increase learning.


One Response

  1. Formative assessment also helps the teacher improve their teaching. Good teachers have a growth mindset as well! 😉

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