Fostering Student Success: Part I Challenges Posed by Changing Times and Changing Culture

The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author.

By Sara J. Berman, Director of Academic and Bar Success Programs at the AccessLex Institute’s Center for Legal Education Excellence; SSRN author page https://ssrn.com/author=2846291

Law school culture is shifting; the days of the hundred percent final exam are giving way to a culture that emphasizes routine midterms, quizzes, polling, and other formative assessment.  This is in part because of ABA requirements under Standard 314[1] and in part because of the now ample evidence that wise feedback helps law students succeed.[2], [3], [4]  

The shift toward integration of more thoughtful feedback into the curriculum dovetails with a movement of many of today’s leading legal educators to encourage growth mindsets.[5] But voices urging adoption of such positive mindsets ring hollow when set into a greater legal education backdrop that still too often fosters a fixed mindset.  Students who “get it” right away are handsomely rewarded, with the most prestigious jobs,[6] law review, and other opportunities. Those who persevere and overcome struggles are barely acknowledged or, more often, stigmatized because of their early low performance –some never regaining full confidence, even if they later dramatically improve. 

Empirical studies confirm that 1L GPA often correlates with bar passage.[7] Acknowledging high performers is appropriate, even laudable; but should we continue to perpetuate a zero-sum environment where initially-lower performers are not encouraged to improve in consistent and meaningful ways? Are we even aware of the extent to which our system expressly and impliedly communicates to certain students that they are “fated” to fail?  Let’s become collectively more aware and pilot studies to determine whether different faculty and institutional responses to 1L grades might alter what appears to be a “failure trajectory” for lower-performing students. Let’s find ways to truly encourage grit, rather than just giving it lip service all the while rewarding only those who catch on most quickly.  Let’s create a system that “normalizes struggle,” as Professor Christopher argues,[8] and celebrates learning from early mistakes. 

Much learning occurs after 1L. We must study how much more learning might take place if we rewarded, valued, and encouraged law students who engage in continuous improvement and, by graduation, become far more skilled, experienced, and knowledgeable than their first-year grades would indicate. This is not to suggest an “A for effort” or “everyone gets a trophy.” Rather, this is a call for pilot programs and careful study of how initially-lower-performing law students would fare (on the bar exam and in practice) if given true and un-stigmatized opportunities to improve, and be rewarded for improving, during law school.  Such opportunities may come in the form of the suggestions noted in Part II of this post, and by seeding the law school curriculum with formative assessment and thoughtful feedback.

Employers will surely still find ways to determine which graduates are the best fits for which jobs. In the meantime, we are wasting precious resources trying to get lower-performing students to thrive in cultures that do not encourage them to do the extra work required to outperform their early indicators.  Let’s at least study how bar passage (not to mention, job satisfaction and dedicated commitment to using the rule of law to make the world a better place) might improve if law school culture stressed deep, slow, and steady learning, and truly rewarded persistence, resilience, and continuous improvement.

Part II of this post explores some of the many possibilities for “simple” changes that might help advance the ongoing culture shift toward a true growth mindset.  Stay tuned!


[1] Section of Legal Educ. and Admissions to the Bar, Am. Bar Ass’n, ABA Standards and Rules of Procedure for Approval of Law Schools § 314 (2019),https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/publications/misc/legal_education/Standards/2017-2018ABAStandardsforApprovalofLawSchools/2017_2018_standards_chapter3.authcheckdam.pdf.

[2] Paula J. Manning, Understanding the Impact of Inadequate Feedback: A Means to Reduce Law Student Psychological Distress, Increase Motivation, and Improve Learning Outcomes, 43 Cumb. L. Rev. 225 (2012).

[3] Daniel Schwarcz & Dion Farganis, The Impact of Individualized Feedback on Law Student Performance, 67 J. Legal Educ. 139 (2017).

[4] Carol Springer Sargent & Andrea A. Curcio, Empirical Evidence That Formative Assessments Improve Final Exams, 61 J. Legal Educ. 379, 405 (2012).

[5] The concept of a growth mindset was developed by psychologist Carol Dweck and popularized in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2006); see also Sarah J. Adams-Schoen, Of Old Dogs and New Tricks—Can Law Schools Really Fix Students’ Fixed Mindsets?, 19 Legal Writing: J. Legal Writing Inst. 3, 48 (2014); Kaci Bishop, Framing Failure in the Legal Classroom: Techniques for Encouraging Growth and Resilience, 70 Ark. L. Rev. 959, 1006 (2018); Eduardo Briceño & Dawn Young, A Growth Mindset for Law School Success Before the Bar Blog (September 12, 2017); Olympia Duhart, Growing Grit in the LRW Classroom: Practices that Promote Passion and Perseverance (2019) (on file with the author).

[6] See Roger C. Cramton, The Current State of the Law Curriculum, 32 J. Legal Educ. 321, 335 (1982) (arguing that “[f]irst-year grades control the distribution of goodies: honors, law review, job placement, and, because of the importance placed on these matters by the law school culture, even the student’s sense of personal worth.”)

[7] Amy Farley et al., Law Student Success and Supports: Examining Bar Passage and Factors That Contribute to Student Performance (2018) (on file with the author).

[8] Catherine Martin Christopher’s recent article, Normalizing Struggle, Ark. L. Rev. (forthcoming 2019) provides many possibilities for precisely these different sorts of responses and actions.

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