Active Retrieval Practice: Known to Improve Learning but Underappreciated?

Exam time has arrived in law schools.  Students who want to excel on exams (and later, as attorneys) would do well to try out active retrieval practice.  To understand the value of retrieval practice, some brief discussion of well-established cognitive science is necessary.  Learning involves (1) taking knowledge into short-term working memory, and then (2) moving it from working memory to long-term memory by actively using the knowledge.[1]  In their excellent book, Teaching Law by Design, Dean Michael Hunter Schwartz, Professor Sophie Sparrow, and Professor Gerald Hess explain this process of storing learning in cognitive schema.[2]  They liken schemata to a “folder system[] provided for users of computer operating systems.”[3]  As they observe, however, storing knowledge “isn’t enough.  To analyze a problem, students must recall (“retrieve”) what they have learned and use that learning . . . .”[4] 

Research on cognition demonstrates that meaningful learning in any discipline requires the learner to perform some form of active retrieval exercises to be able to use the knowledge in analyzing and solving problems.   Active retrieval methods are ways in which the learner recalls knowledge and uses the recalled knowledge to solve problems or answer questions.[5]  Recalling for mere “knowledge checks,” sometimes called rote learning, is not effective.[6]   In the law school arena, a student can recite a memorized rule but not be able to apply it to fact patterns in a way that shows understanding.   Effective retrieval-based learning activities require the student to solve problems or to answer questions.  By doing so, the learner strengthens her understanding  of, and ability to recall, the knowledge.[7]  In law school, mid-term exams require students to recall information at least in mid-semester.  The problem there is that neuroscience shows a marked forgetting curve: if learning is not retrieved within a few days of its being stored, the knowledge is lost and must be relearned.[8]  Indeed, retrieving and using the knowledge are the critical parts of developing meaningful learning. 

               Spurred by the adoption of ABA Standard 314, my colleagues and I have been giving mid-term exams and using a variety of interim assessments designed to have students to recall information from previous classes. I regularly have a mid-term that includes multiple-choice, essays, or both.  The exams are graded and students receive a model answer. I discuss with students the answers to the assessments and common mistakes (e.g., failing to state rules accurately, insufficient application of facts in supporting one’s analysis).   The exam and follow-up discussions achieve the goal of providing the “meaningful feedback” that ABA Standard 314 seeks.   The mid-term is also summative. My experience is that many students do not take a practice, ungraded mid-term seriously. Having the exam count, but not so much as to prevent a student from recovering from a poor exam, helps to ensure that students prepare for and spend time on the mid-term.

               Another way that I have incorporated active recall practice is by using multiple-choice polling questions.  In the first class after we finish a course segment, we begin the class with multiple-choice questions that students answer by polling.    I ensure participation by recording the polling, by student, and including their responses (or lack thereof) as a class-participation part of the grade.  In answering the questions through polling, students must recall knowledge to analyze the question and reach a conclusion.   For example, after completing the study of removal jurisdiction and procedures, I use a series of multiple-choice polling questions that explore the many nuances of removal.   These sessions provide “meaningful feedback” to both students and to me.   If everyone misses a question, you can be sure I go back to discuss the area.  I also encourage anyone who missed a question in these polling sessions to meet with me after reviewing the topic addressed by the question.

               I urge students not to rely solely on the mid-term and the polling sessions as a means of ensuring they have learned material well.  Instead, I highly recommend preparing answers to essays under timed conditions.  At times I provide a model answer after they practice an essay. I also invite students to meet with me to go over their answers.   In these discussions, I almost always find some area in which a student has a mistaken understanding of a rule or concept.  If we did not uncover that misunderstanding, a student could repeatedly recall a flawed rule or approach.  Hence, I appreciate more than ever the wisdom of Standard 314’s emphasis on formative assessment.   After resolving any misunderstandings, I encourage a student to rewrite an answer.  That allows the student to revisit the topic and solidify her understanding.  Indeed, the act of writing itself helps students to embed the rules and concepts more firmly in their memory.[9] 

               What is true for law school is also true for the Bar Exam.   Last summer Sara Berman and I created a podcast for the ABA on practicing tests (essays, Multistate Performance Tests [MPTs], etc.) as some of the most effective ways to prepare for a state’s Bar Exam.[10]  Ideally, a student learns everything she needs to know in law school Bar review is just that–review.  More often, Bar applicants have a vague recollection of rules and concepts from their time in law school.  In other words, Bar applicants often find themselves relearning rules and concepts.  In so doing, they will learn more effectively by practicing an essay or MPT answer and by submitting these answers for grading to their Bar Preparation company and the faculty at their law school who help Bar applicants.  In doing these exercises, they benefit for at least two reasons.  First, it will identify areas in which the applicant’s knowledge of rules and concepts is so weak that she cannot answer a question.   Knowing that, the applicant can review that area and know that she needs to do so.  Second, exercises such as practice essay answers will require applicants to recall the rules they do know and apply them.  The more they do so, the more likely they are to remember them on the Bar. 

               Repeated, active retrieval practice is one of the best ways to learn to perform on exams or in law practice.  Yet, despite the data showing its effectiveness, such practices are not the norm in higher education.[11]  The practice is likely not the norm in law schools.   Standard 314 ought to help to some extent increase active retrieval before the end of the law school semester.  Yet, at present students are not spending their time as wisely as they could. Instead of preparing detailed outlines, and memorizing rules or flash cards, they would learn more from methods that require them to recall and apply legal rules and analysis.   Indeed, one might say this fact is one of the best kept secrets in law school. Perhaps it is time to let this secret out.


[1] Michael Hunter Schwartz, Sophie Sparrow & Gerald Hess, Teaching Law by Design 4­–7 (Carolina Academic Press 2009).

[2] Id.

[3] Id. at 5–6.

[4] Id. at 6.

[5] Jeffrey D. Karpicke, A Powerful Way to Improve Learning and Memory: Practicing Retrieval Enhances Long-Term, Meaningful Learning, American Psychological Association (2016), available at https://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2016/06/learning-memory (last checked Dec. 6, 2019).

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Louis N. Schulze, Jr., Using Science to Build Better Learners: One School’s Successful Efforts to Raise its Bar Passage Rates in an Era of Decline, 68 J. Legal Educ. 230, 245 (Winter 2019).

[9] Bryan Goodwyn, The Magic of Writing Stuff Down, 75 Educational Leadership 78–79 (April 2019).

[10] Sara Berman and Ben Madison, Practice Makes Passing, Episode 6 of American Bar Associations Path to Law Student Well-Being Podcast series, available at  https://www.spreaker.com/show/path-to-law-student-well-being  (June 22, 2019).

[11] According to Dr. Karpicke, college students likewise use rote learning methods more than they use active retrieval exercises.  See Karpicke, supra note 5.

World Mental Health Day and Multicultural Awareness

October 10th is World Mental Health Day, instituted by the WHO to raise “awareness of mental health issues around the world” and mobilize “efforts in support of mental health.”  Many members of our profession, are challenged by depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders.  In 2016, the ABA created the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being partly in response to the increased ubiquity and pressure of the digital age.

The ubiquity of email, text and other technological advances, all of which make the advent of the fax machine feel downright quaint, have only exacerbated our legal responsibilities. The pressure is constant. And in the midst of taking care of everyone else, we all too frequently ignore our own stressors and health in the process.  Over time, the subtle adverse effects go unnoticed and mask the existing crisis …..

The Task Force was conceptualized and initiated by the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP), the National Organization of Bar Counsel (NOBC), and the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers (APRL). In August 2017, the Task Force released The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change (Wellness Study).  Many state bar associations – such as New York’s – highlighted the need for lawyer health. 

Law students, too, are subject to similar ubiquitous demands of the digital age while competing, learning, interning, seeking permanent employment, representing clients under supervision, and, for many, accruing debt. My law school, like many others, takes seriously the need to educate and support law students’ well-being and has been fortunate to receive funding from a loyal alum and board member for a Wellness Initiative. This week our Dean of Students and her office have planned a series of educational and supportive events.

Mental Health Week

Another project run by students partnered with alums helps with the economic stress of having to purchase professional clothing and suits. And our Center for Excellence in Law teaching sites provide links to self-help apps for students .

This focus on well being is not simply an administrative task. It is incumbent upon law teachers to discuss these subjects in doctrinal classes, seminars and experiential learning courses while mainstreaming ethics, professional identity and multicultural awareness into the curriculum.  Wellness intersects with several of my law school’s learning outcomes  for JD students. In particular, wellness and mindfulness are important tools in mitigating implicit bias and facilitating students ability to

Demonstrate an awareness and understanding of the knowledge, skills, and values necessary to be competent and effective lawyers in a multicultural world. (Albany Law JD Learning Outcome #6)

I experimented with linking the two in class this week. I started the class by reminding students that it was Mental Health Awareness week and the reading a poem by Mary Oliver to get them to slow down.  We also meditated for about 1 minute and 30 seconds by placing a raisin on our tongue and using that time to “Uni-task” by just focusing on the  smell, taste, feel and effects of saliva on the raisin.

We discussed vicarious trauma, implicit bias and how it affects Science.  For homework students had taken implicit association tests,   acquired some new cultural knowledge, read about transgender killings and viewed Hidden Injustice: Bias on the Bench.”  We then discussed how Implicit Bias might work against victims/survivors of domestic violence or privilege abusers which led into discussions of voir dire and Batson.  Students expressed surprise that judges cared about Implicit Bias and that NYS now requires a 1 credit CLE in Diversity and Inclusion. 

We ended class with discussing how to mitigate our own implicit biases.  This is where well-being and mindfulness come in:

  1. Reflection is a tool for mitigating bias. Emphasizing the importance of reflection as a life-long lawyer habit is something we teachers can embrace. Thus mindfulness is not only an important part of well-being, it is a tool to become a more competent lawyer.
  2. When we are tired and exhausted, we are more apt to rely on unconscious patterns, which swings the door wide open to implicit bias reactions and away from thoughtful and considered responses.

The students appeared to understand the connection and to acknowledge its potential. In the final moments of class, I led the students in a LION yoga pose. This was a real treat for me.  As the days get shorter and mid-semester stress hits, there is nothing better than seeing law students laugh at themselves (and me) as they loosen up their tight facial and jaw muscles.

How are you honoring Mental Health Awareness Week at your school or organization?  Do you see the link between mitigating bias and wellness/mindfulness?

Building A Solid Foundation Before Week 1

By Louis Jim, Assistant Professor, Albany Law School

One year ago, I began teaching Introduction to Lawyering, which is the required 1L course on legal analysis, communication, and research at Albany Law School. The textbook I used, like many “legal writing” textbooks, provided information about the types of legal authorities (primary or secondary) and weight of those authorities (mandatory or persuasive). And any textbook about legal authorities would, of course, also provide information about this nation’s three-tiered court structure. In class, I discussed those concepts, showed flow charts illustrating the structure, and distributed a map of the circuit courts of appeals. But I failed to assess whether my students truly understood the significance of the three-tiered structure and how that significance related to their other first-year classes.

This past summer, I attended the AALS New Law Teachers Workshop, where a number of presenters inspired me to think about new methods to assess whether my students understand the foundational needed to succeed in the first year and beyond. In response, I made two significant changes to my course design this semester. First, I required my students to complete weekly reflections in the last ten minutes of our Friday class.[1] The students must tell me two things they learned in my class and two things they want to learn more about in class. Students may then leave comments or ask questions on any topic even if the comments or questions are not related to law school.

Second, rather than simply discussing court structure with them, I created an in-class activity to assess whether students understood the significance of that structure. The students completed this activity at our first Friday session, which was the last day of their first week of law school. I rewrote a hypothetical that was originally written by my colleague at Albany Law School, David Walker, Assistant Professor and Director of the Schaffer Law Library, for a quiz in his advanced legal research class. A copy of the hypothetical can be found here:

The students spent the first ten to fifteen minutes of class reading the hypothetical. I then asked a series of multiple choice and short answer questions using Poll Everywhere based off the hypothetical. A copy of those questions can be found here:

I provided a link to the webpage where students would respond the poll’s questions, and students answered the questions using their laptops. Their anonymous responses were displayed on the large monitors at the front of the classroom. As we worked through the questions and hypothetical, I defined common terms that students would encounter in the cases they read for their doctrinal classes (e.g., motion, ruling, opinion, holding, judgment, etc.). I also distributed an outline that allowed the students to write the definitions and take other notes. A copy of that outline can be found here:

I hid the responses until at least three-quarters of the class had responded as I did not want a student’s response to be influenced by their classmates’ responses. By displaying their answers anonymously, every student could participate without fear of embarrassment, a fear prevalent in the first few weeks of law school. By using Poll Everywhere, the students who did not choose the right answer also saw that they were not alone. For each question, we also discussed each of the answer choices and why a particular choice was correct and the other ones were incorrect. Because everyone had to answer the questions, everyone—and not just the victim of the cold call—stayed engaged.

Because we completed this activity on the first Friday that we met, the students also completed their first reflection on that day. One student had commented in her reflection that she wished that we had completed that activity before the first week of classes began because it gave her a better understanding of the assigned case law in her doctrinal classes. I met with this student that following Monday, and she said she had a better understanding of her Week 2 reading assignments in her doctrinal classes after having completed the activity. Another student added that the activity filled many gaps in his understanding of the material in his doctrinal classes. Later that week, another student told me in person that she also wished we had completed the activity before the first week of classes.

As attorneys and/or professors, we often take for granted our understanding of the hierarchy of authority of the court system and our understanding of the terminology common in case law. Those just starting law school, however, may have never read a case before. But more often than not, the new law students’ first law school assignment requires them to read a case (likely more than one) and be prepared to discuss the case (or cases) on the first day of class. Those readings contain terms and concepts that new law students may have heard on television or read in a newspaper, but most new law students lack an understanding of how those terms and those concepts relate to the substantive law. Students may then feel discouraged in the first week because they don’t understand the concepts that seasoned attorneys take for granted. Although law students should and must develop skills in synthesizing rules and applying them, as educators, we must provide a solid foundation so that students can start developing those skills. With that in mind, next year, I hope to complete this activity even earlier so that students begin Week 1 with a solid foundation.


[1] This semester, I teach two sections of Lawyering, and each section meets once on Wednesday and once on Friday. On weeks in which we don’t have time to complete the weekly reflection in class, the reflection becomes an optional assignment that students can email to me. Much to my surprise and delight, some students completed the optional reflections too.

Getting to Know Your Students

By Sandra Simpson, Gonzaga University School of Law

This post can be found on the “Law Teaching” section of the Institute for Law Teaching and Learning website.

“I had some time today to post a blog post with a teaching idea on getting to know your students and starting to build a learning community in your classroom.  At the beginning of the semester, I sent my students a “Getting to Know You” form which contained the following questions:

  1. Tell me anything you would like me to know about you.
  2. How comfortable are you with writing and research? Please give me as much information as you can so I can gauge your experience.
  3. Why did you decide to go to law school?
  4. Why did you choose Gonzaga?
  5. What study methods work best for you?
  6. How do you learn best in the classroom?
  7. Think of your favorite teacher; what qualities made that teacher your favorite?
  8. Think of your least favorite teacher; what qualities made that teacher your least favorite?

These simple questions gave me insights into who is sitting in front of me.  I stapled a picture to each of their information sheets so that I could put a face to the information.  I am only one week into the semester but the information has already helped me.  For instance, when I am forming working groups for the day, I was able to pair students who are comfortable with writing and research with students who are less sure.  Also, knowing what study methods work for the students in front of me, helps me shape how I teach each group of students.  Because each group of students is so different, it is good to have information about those students rather than creating lesson plans without that information.”

Thank you to Sandra Simpson for allowing us to re-blog this!

Fostering Student Success: Part II -Possible Actionable Steps to Encourage Growth Mindsets

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

As was detailed in Part I of this post on Fostering Student Success, we must meaningfully reward those who do the hard work and actually end up achieving the requisite skills and doctrine mastery at some point (any point!) before graduation. Those who take a bit longer to catch on must be given true opportunities to improve so that they see struggling to learn as evidence of powerful grit and a stepping stone to a lifetime as a successful professional, rather than a predictor of future failure.  Below are a number of possible actionable steps we might consider piloting and studying.

First, we might encourage growth mindsets by listing grades as AGP (annual grade points) rather than cumulative GPA (grade point average). Every year would provide a new, level playing field for students, and, employers would readily see whose grades increased, and by how much each year. (Note: Scholarship comprehensively critiquing grading and class ranking systems dates back some time. [1] The suggestions here simply point to “low-hanging fruit” interventions.) A natural criticism of this approach is that first-year courses tend to be required and are thus an apples-to-apples comparison, while upper-division courses vary widely and often have looser grading policies. Too many 2L students who see Cs turn to Bs falsely attribute this “improvement” to their own effort when grade increases actually stem from “easier” courses and/or more lenient grading.  Nonetheless, there could be a great psychological benefit to having a “clean slate” each year, with new opportunities in 2L and 3L to be at the top of the class. Prestigious and financially generous awards could be given to students whose GPAs have increased the most from the first year to the third year. And, employers could still see grades in particular courses and full transcripts as desired.

Second, we could study the effect of eliminating class ranking altogether. Justified, as is GPA, by the “needs” of employers, class ranking also fosters a fixed mindset, competitively boxing students into “winners” (those at the top of the class) and “losers” –those at the bottom who  may internalize defeat and, far too often, treat low ranking as a predictor of bar exam failure (which in turn may become a self-fulfilling prophecy).[2] Are class rankings necessary? What pedagogical purpose do they serve? Some medical schools are moving to a pass/fail model[3] with less emphasis on relative rank.[4] This appears to be reducing some of the stress associated with mental health challenges in these similarly high-pressured graduate programs[5] without affecting academic performance or accomplishment.[6] Some (mostly elite) law schools do not rank students. Should others experiment as well?  The main advantage appears to be providing a triage system for potential employers, (e.g. “We only hire from the top 25% of the class.”). Yet recent studies[7] show that what many legal employers want in new lawyers includes so-called “soft skills,” not measured by grades or class rankings.[8]  If this is the case, might we better serve employers’ needs by creating rubrics to measure professionalism and practical lawyering skills?  Highlighting how much a student’s grades have improved from 1L to graduation could help employers measure resiliency, while actually encouraging improvement by stemming some of the “why bother” mentality of those who turn off after receiving low 1L grades.  

Third, let us endorse studies that pilot tests of non-cognitive skills, such as those LSAC is undertaking and those inspired by the Shultz and Zedeck studies.[9] And let us support and laud efforts to showcase (in part for potential employers) the wide range of student skills on display in lawyering competitions.[10]

Fourth, let us identify and study other creative ways to assist employers while breaking vicious, defeatism cycles that thrive in our current system. I have long encouraged graduating classes with the aspirational challenge of 100% bar passage, reminding them that while class ranking forced some to the top and others to the bottom, every graduate can pass the bar exam first time around.  (Recall the old joke: “Question: What do you call the person who was last in his class in medical school? Answer: Doctor!”).  I also urge law graduates to help each other –with a “rising tide lifts all boats” philosophy and with the learning science-backed truth that teaching another is often the best way to learn.

Fifth, we might pilot the administration of comprehensive exams at the end of each year of law school.  These would encourage students to review and be re-tested on key subjects, “building mental muscle” over time so that they learn to master materials they may only have understood superficially when first exposed.  Awards could be given to every student who achieved high scores on these “comps,” rewarding those who caught on later as well as those who caught on initially.

Sixth, we could develop a national pre-bar exam (what I call the “NPBE”), similar to the PSAT, which would allow 2L law students a high-stakes “practice exam” which schools could use as a diagnostic and formative assessment so that law graduates do not have to fail the bar exam in order to realize how much improvement they really need to pass, in skills, substance, time management, mindset, and more.[11] Like the PSAT with its National Merit Scholar incentives, the NPBE could award scholarships to those with low 1L grades who overcome challenges and perform exceptionally well on the NPBE.

Perfect pass rates are not impossible on the law school side (though I understand limitations that may result from certain jurisdictions’ cut scores), especially when considering cumulative rather than first-time bar passage, per the new ABA Standard 316.[12]  But widespread student success requires more than mouthing “grit” and “persistence” mantras.  We must actively foster institution-wide expression of and action supporting the belief that every student who is not academically dismissed can pass the bar exam.  We must equip all students who graduate from ABA law schools to pass the bar first time around.  And, if we truly hope to so equip our law students, their self-perceptions simply may not be allowed to become fixed after first semester grades. 


[1] Barbara Glesner Fines, Competition and the Curve, 65 UMKC L. Rev 879 (1997); Jay M. Feinman, Law School Grading, 65 UMKC L. Rev. 647, 656 (1997); Jerry R. Foxhoven, Beyond Grading: Assessing Student Readiness to Practice Law, 16 Clinical L. Rev. 335 (2009); Heather D. Baum, Inward Bound: An Exploration of Character Development in Law School, 39 UALR L. Rev. 25 (2016).

[2] Query whether research presented at AALS (January 2018) by Professor Robert R. Kuehn (Washington University in St. Louis) suggests this, given results of students with identical entering LSAT scores failing the bar where they were at the bottom of the class and passing where they were at the top of the class.

[3] Casey B. White and Joseph C. Fantone, Pass–fail Grading: Laying the Foundation for Self-Regulated Learning, 15 Advances in Health Sci. Educ. 469 (2010).

[4] John P. Bent et al., Otolaryngology Resident Selection: Do Rank Lists Matter? 144 Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery 537 (2011).

[5] Daniel E. Rohe et al., The Benefits of Pass-Fail Grading on Stress, Mood, and Group Cohesion in Medical Students, 81 Mayo Clinic Proc. 1443 (2006); see also Robert A. Bloodgood et al., A Change to Pass/Fail Grading in the First Two Years at One Medical School Results in Improved Psychological Well-Being, 84 Acad. Med. 655 (2009); Francis Deng and Austin Wesevich, Pass-fail is here to stay in medical schools. And that’s a good thing, KevinMD.com (Aug. 3, 2016).

[6] B. Ange et al., Differences in Medical Students’ Academic Performance between a Pass/Fail and Tiered Grading System, 111 S. Med. J. 683 (2018).

[7] Alli Gerkman & Logan Cornett, Foundations for Practice: The Whole Lawyer and the Character Quotient, AccessLex Inst. Res. Paper Series No. 16-04 (2016).

[8] Bryant G. Garth, Notes on the Future of the Legal Profession in the United States: The Key Roles of Corporate Law Firms and Urban Law Schools, 65 Buff L. Rev. 287 (2017).

[9] Marjorie M. Shultz & Sheldon Zedeck, Predicting Lawyer Effectiveness: A New Assessment for Use in Law School Admission Decisions, CELS 2009 4th Ann. Conf. on Empirical Legal Stud. Paper (2009).

[10] Sherry Y. English, Cincinnati Law hosts nation’s first, only law student case competition, UC News (Jan. 10, 2019),https://www.uc.edu/news/articles/2019/01/n2059715.html.

[11]As I often say, would anyone mount a Broadway show without a dress rehearsal? Do athletes compete in the Olympics without high-profile pre-competition practice?  No!  Yet we wait until after law school and generally outsource to bar reviews the only sort of organized practice runs for the highest stakes law exam of all.

[12] Two Indiana law schools soar on ultimate bar passage rate, Ind. Law. (April 22, 2019),https://www.theindianalawyer.com/articles/50047-two-indiana-law-schools-soar-on-ultimate-bar-passage-rate.

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.

Fear of Public Speaking

When I first started law school, I had one thing on my mind: getting called on in class. Like many students, the fear of public speaking was a constant battle. Despite preparing for class the night before and the morning of, the second I walked into the classroom, my brain shut off. My anxiety about “looking stupid” or “giving a wrong answer” was getting in the way of my learning experience. I know there are many students like me that are fighting this battle too, but can you do to get better and calm that anxiety?

An article called “Are you a lawyer with public speaking anxiety? You are not alone” was published on the ABA Journal website, which I found to be personally helpful. The author, Heidi Brown, talks about being a litigator for 20 years and being absolutely terrified of public speaking. What I loved about this article was the advice she gave:

  1. “Ditch the Clichés”

She starts off by advising individuals to feel comfortable in rejecting those messages that say “just get over it” or “simply overprepare, overprepare, and fake it”. This advice may work for some, but it certainly doesn’t work for all, especially when if you’re like me, you’re sending yourself all kinds of negative messages such as “they’ll think you’re not smart” or “they’re going to judge you later.” “Instead, to amplify our advocacy voices, we must invest in both mental and physical reflection and then convert our enhanced self-knowledge into conscious action.”

The next step suggested is to identify potential original sources of those negative messages. Heidi points out that this isn’t a “blame game,” but rather a way to recognize the harmful messages that may have entered our brains long ago. It’s important to realize that these messages are no longer applicable to our current lives as students and lawyers.

Heidi encourages us to find other moments in our lives where we feel empowerment and use that to inspire us during those scary public speaking moments. Using these moments, we can turn that “they’ll think I’m stupid” into “they’ll see how prepared I am.”

  • “Getting Physical”

A huge part of public speaking is not only your mental state, but your body language. There’s a TED talk by Amy Cuddy (the video is actually directly on the article page) that I highly suggest you watch. A professor sent this out before we had our oral arguments last year and it really helped me when it was time to face one of my biggest fears of 1L.

Heidi reflects on how she would make herself feel smaller as if to hide her “weakness.” I, too, found that I tried protect myself in the same way to hide the embarrassing anxiety and overheating that took over my body when I had to speak in front of my class. Now, Heidi has a checklist she uses and ensures that she opens herself up as soon as she starts to feel that anxiety rushing in. Most importantly (I think), is she remembers to breathe! I’m definitely trying to utilize these tips and the ones from Amy Cuddy’s TED talk.

I would also just like to add that there’s a great non-profit organization called Toast Masters with clubs located all over the world. These are clubs that get together and help individuals work on public speaking and leadership skills. See the video on their website for an overview of exactly how this program works and how to get involved.

If you’re really struggling with speaking up, remember that there are a ton of resources available. The internet has a lot of tips, but don’t be afraid to seek counseling or speak to someone who has to do public speaking every day (like professors!).

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