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Martin, A; Rand, K --- "The future's so bright, I gotta wear shades: law school through the lens of hope" [2011] LegEdDig 7; (2011) 19(1) Legal Education Digest 23

The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades: law school through the lens of hope

A Martin and K Rand

Duquesne Law Review, Vol. 48, No. 2, Spring 2010, pp203-232

In the Carnegie Foundation’s recent report about legal education, Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Profession of Law, the authors stated, ‘Critics of the legal profession, both from within and without, have pointed to a great profession suffering from varying degrees of confusion and demoralisation. A reawakening of professional élan must include, in an important way, revitalising legal preparation’. They urged legal educators to begin this revitalization and reawakening in the law school environment. One important way that legal educators can accomplish these goals is by engendering hope in their students.

Hope and optimism, both members of the positive psychology family, are personality traits that have been shown to confer performance and adjustment benefits in stressful situations. Given this prior research, we conducted a study to measure first-semester law students’ levels of hope and optimism to determine their influence, if any, on law student performance and wellbeing. Consistent with other research, our study suggests that hope predicts both academic performance and psychological well-being in the first semester of law school.

Although research has shown that law students begin their first year of law school with normal or even higher levels of well-being than undergraduate comparison groups, research has also shown that these levels significantly decline over the course of the first year. Indeed, studies have shown that law school is a ‘breeding ground’ for depression, anxiety, and other stress-related illnesses.

Further, research has suggested that, unfortunately, these problems do not end when law students graduate. According to one study, out of 104 professions, lawyers have the highest rate of depression, suffering at a rate four times the general population. Other studies have shown that lawyers have higher rates of anxiety than the general population and greater frequency of substance abuse.

In light of these findings, a movement to humanise legal education, led by Florida State University College of Law Professor Lawrence Krieger, is afoot. One of its main goals is to improve law students’ well-being while in school, which may ultimately lead to better well-being when they become lawyers.

Positive psychology is the scientific study of human strengths and their influences on performance and well-being. Two members of the positive psychology family are hope and optimism; both personality traits have been shown to predict performance and adjustment benefits, even in stressful circumstances.

Hope theory was created by Dr. Snyder. It ‘is a cognitive model of human motivation,’ which explains ‘goal-related thinking.’ In his theory, Dr. Snyder describes three interrelated components of hope: goals, pathways thinking, and agentic thinking.

Goals are ‘the endpoints or anchors’. They represent mental targets that guide human behaviours. Pathways thinking is a person’s perceived ability to produce ways to reach a goal. The more strategies a person can generate, the stronger that person’s pathways thinking is. Agentic thinking ‘is the motivational component to propel people along their imagined routes to goals.’ It relates to ‘willpower’ or determination. According to Dr. Snyder’s hope theory, pathways thinking and agentic thinking ‘enhance each other in that they are continually affecting and being affected by each other as the goal pursuit process unfolds’. In addition, they are both affected by emotions, which provide useful feedback about the progress of a particular goal pursuit. ‘[T]he unimpeded pursuit of goals should produce positive emotions, whereas goal barriers may yield negative feelings.’

Optimism is defined as a ‘generalised outcome expectancy’. Relating to undergraduate school, greater optimism has been shown to predict better academic performance. In law school, however, research has suggested that the opposite is true – greater pessimism has been shown to predict better academic performance. If pessimism is defined as ‘prudence’ or a ‘healthy scepticism’, however, as the researchers in the University of Virginia School of Law study defined it, these results seem to make some sense. To succeed, law students need to consider all sides of an argument and question outcomes, for example.

It should be noted that hope and optimism, although related, are considered distinct areas of positive psychology. Hope is more strongly related to expectations for outcomes within a person’s control, whereas optimism is more strongly related to expectations outside of a person’s control. For example, a student can be hopeful about getting good grades, an outcome within a student’s control based on study habits and the like; in contrast, a student can only be optimistic that it will not rain on graduation, an event over which the student has no control.

Our study was conducted to answer two questions: (1) whether hope and optimism predict academic performance in law school above and beyond Law School Admission Test (LSAT) scores and undergraduate grade point averages (GPAs); and (2) whether hope and optimism predict psychological well-being in law school.

At the beginning of Fall 2007, we solicited all entering first-year law students, both full and part time, at Indiana University School of Law – Indianapolis, to participate in the study during their first semester. Our recruitment efforts yielded a sample size of 86/300 first-year law students, or 28.67 per cent of the first-year class. Participants were asked to complete online surveys at the beginning and end of the semester.

Based on the demographic information reported by our participants, we determined that the mean age of our sample was 26.33 years, which was not significantly different from the mean age of the entire first-year class of 26.00 years. The ethnic composition of our sample was 81.4 per cent Caucasian, 4.7 per cent African American, 3.5per cent Asian American, and 2.3 per cent Hispanic Americans. The remaining participants identified their race as ‘other’ (1.2 per cent) or failed to indicate their race (7 per cent). This ethnic composition closely corresponded with ethnic composition of the overall first-year class, which was 78 per cent Caucasian. As for gender, the sample was 62.8 per cent female, but the entire first-year class was only 47 per cent female.

Related to our sample’s academic representation, the entire first-year class had a mean undergraduate GPA of 3.47 and a mean LSAT score of 153.80. Our sample had a mean undergraduate GPA of 3.49 and a mean LSAT score of 155.99. The mean undergraduate GPA for our sample was not significantly different from the mean undergraduate GPA for the entire class. The mean LSAT score for our sample, however, was slightly higher, statistically, than the mean LSAT score for the entire first-year class.

In our surveys, we used psychological assessments that measured our sample’s level of hope, optimism, and life satisfaction. We measured hope and optimism at the beginning of the semester, and life satisfaction at the end of the semester, just before finals.

To measure hope, we used the Adult Hope Scale, which is a twelve-item measure. Four items measure agentic thinking (e.g., ‘I energetically pursue my goals’); four items measure pathways thinking (e.g., ‘I can think of many ways to get out of a jam’); and four items are fillers. Respondents are asked to rate the extent of their agreement with the items on a scale from 1 (definitely false) to 8 (definitely true).

To measure optimism, we used the Life Orientation Test – Revised, which consists of ten items: six items measure optimism (e.g., In uncertain times, I usually expect the best), and four items are fillers. Respondents are asked to rate the extent of their agreement with the items on a scale from 0 (strongly disagree) to 4 (strongly agree).

We measured psychological well-being using the Satisfaction with Life Scale, which is a five-item test (e.g., ‘The conditions of my life are excellent’). Respondents are asked to rate the extent of their agreement with the items on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree).

In our study, hope, optimism, undergraduate GPAs, and LSAT scores were modelled as predictors; first semester law school GPA and life satisfaction were modelled as criterion variables. (1) LSAT score was not a significant predictor (NP) of first semester law school GPA (b =.13); (2) Undergraduate GPA was the strongest predictor of first-semester law school GPA (b = .38); (3) Hope was the second strongest predictor of first-semester law school GPA (b =.25); (4) Optimism was not a significant predictor (NP) of first-semester law school GPA (b = -.07); and (5) Hope (b =.39) and optimism (b = .38) were significant predictors of life satisfaction.

The study only sampled a portion of the first-year class, which raises the question of whether our sample is representative of the entire class. Comparisons between the sample and the first-year class, however, showed that several important characteristics were similar, including undergraduate GPA, age, and ethnic composition. On the other hand, our sample had a disproportionate number of female participants and slightly higher LSAT scores than those of the entire first-year class. The fact that we found several significant relationships, even with the modest sample size, however, increases our confidence that these relationships are real and meaningful. A further limitation is that we only followed these students in their first semester of law school. Because first semester is particularly stressful, though, these results may be especially pertinent. Indeed, research has suggested that general expectancies, such as hope and optimism, may have their greatest influence in new and uncertain situations.

Focusing on academic achievement, in a six-year longitudinal study, Dr Snyder and colleagues found that hope predicted higher graduation rates and higher undergraduate GPAs, even above and beyond the levels predicted by intelligence. High-hope students were more engaged in learning and employed less disengaged coping with academic stressors. Disengaged coping involves attempts to escape the academic stressor, such as skipping class, drinking alcohol, or taking drugs. Instead, high-hope students tend to use engaged coping strategies that are problem focused and deal directly with the stressor, such as studying for an exam or working on a paper.

High-hope students also tend to stay focused on their goals and think ‘on task.’ High-hope students are, therefore, ‘far less likely to become distracted by self-deprecatory thinking and counterproductive negative emotions.’ Conversely, because low-hope students are often plagued by these self-defeating thoughts, they have difficulty studying. Moreover, even if they are able to study, they often have difficulty demonstrating knowledge on an exam because they tend to be more focused on thoughts about failing rather than on the exam questions. Low-hope students also tend to have more test anxiety. In addition to self-defeating thoughts, a main factor contributing to low-hope students’ test anxiety is their failure to use information about not reaching a goal in an adaptive manner. Because low-hope students often continue to stick with one test-taking strategy, even after failure, for example, their anxiety remains with every test. ‘High-hope students, however, use information about not reaching their goals as diagnostic feedback to search for other feasible approaches.’ Thus, high-hope students, upon failing an exam, change strategies for the next exam, resulting in less test anxiety. In fact, ‘the high-hope student sees tests, in general, and specific examinations, in particular, as challenges to be conquered’.

Another interesting difference between high-hope and low-hope students is how they set their goals. High-hope students tend to set their goals based on prior performances, stretching to reach the next, slightly more difficult standard. In contrast, low-hope students are not as attuned to their internal goals and, instead, focus more on what other students are doing academically, adopting performance rather than learning goals.

In the longitudinal study, Dr. Snyder and colleagues also determined that high-hope students are better at breaking down a larger goal into smaller, sequential steps and setting markers to track their progress toward reaching that goal. Conversely, ‘low-hope students tend to adopt “all at once goals” that are too big, overwhelming, and anxiety producing’.

Finally, research has shown that high-hope students tend to be highly motivated. This motivation stems from a pattern of successfully meeting their past educational goals. ‘All of these energy production and sustenance characteristics of high-hope students are reinforced by internal, agentic self-talk statements, such as ‘I will get this done!’ and ‘Keep going!’

Hope theory further postulates that a teacher can play an important role in encouraging students in the pursuit of their classroom goals. In fact, research has shown that ‘virtually all students raise their hope levels when taking part in school hope programs’.

Thus, legal educators can play an important role in maintaining and creating hope in law students by enhancing the components of hope: goals, pathways thinking, and agentic thinking.

For hope to thrive, law students must first learn to set appropriate goals. Legal educators can help students (1) formulate learning rather than performance goals, (2) set more concrete rather than abstract goals, and (3) set approach rather than avoidance goals.

Hope theory proposes that students’ levels of hope direct them to choose either learning or performance goals. ‘Learning goals reflect a desire to learn new skills and to master new tasks. Students who choose this type of goal are actively engaged in their own learning. . .’ Conversely, ‘those who exhibit a helpless response when confronted with challenges are interested primarily in performance goals or low-effort goals that enable them to look good and be assured of success.’ Those students who select performance goals are more likely to take easier classes, for example. Research has shown that high-hope students tend to choose learning instead of performance goals.

Legal educators can help all students select learning goals. Legal writing professors can encourage students to focus on learning how to organise using IRAC (learning goal) rather than on obtaining an A in legal writing (performance goal). For example, after returning papers, it is better to focus in-class discussions on common organisational problems (encouraging learning goals) rather than on the distribution of grades on the papers (encouraging performance goals).

Of course, legal education inherently encourages performance goals in one significant way. Forced grade distributions, which rank-order student performances, encourage performance rather than learning goals. Although forced grade distributions may always be present, to a certain extent, in legal education, educators can still explicitly encourage students to pursue worthy learning goals while in law school – regardless of their ranking. Students can learn a great deal about lawyering by participating in clinics, law journals, moot court programs, pro bono programs, externship programs, student government, and community service. Legal educators can do a better job of encouraging all law students to adopt learning goals related to these activities, regardless of the students’ rankings and beyond any superficial benefits these activities may provide for their resumes.

‘Getting good grades’ is not a productive goal for students because it is too abstract. Abstract goals are less desirable because a student has a difficult time knowing when such a goal is met and because they are generally harder to achieve than more concrete goals. Instead, it is better to encourage students to set more concrete goals, such as to work on a contracts outline every Saturday or to work on a legal writing paper for two hours every other day. Students will know when these types of goals have been met and will experience a sense of success after meeting them.

It is important to encourage students ‘to establish approach goals in which they try to move toward getting something accomplished’ instead of avoidance goals ‘in which students try to prevent something from happening.’

Hope correlates positively with perceptions of control. Indeed, high-hope students are aware of their goals and believe that they are in control of how to attain them because of their high pathways thinking. Further, research has shown that having greater control, even while experiencing highly stressful situations, results in less deleterious health consequences. Thus, legal educators should try to provide more, or at least maintain the perception of more, student autonomy. Some examples are to let students choose the day upon which they will be ‘on call,’ to let them choose between taking an in-class or take-home exam, to let them create an exam question, to let them choose for which client they will argue in moot court, to let them help design the course, and even to let them choose one or more classes in their first year. By increasing student autonomy, even minimally, legal educators encourage hopeful thinking.

‘Perhaps the most common strategy for enhancing pathways thinking is to help students to break down large goals into smaller sub goals. The idea of such ‘stepping’ is to take a long-range goal and separate it into steps that are undertaken in a logical, one-at-a-time sequence’.

Low-hope students have difficulty in stepping; instead, they try to meet a goal all at once, which causes anxiety and feelings of being overwhelmed. ‘Stepping’ can be learned, however.

While teaching the learning process, it is also important to stress that there are preferred and alternate strategies for reaching any desired goal or sub goal. Students need to learn that if one pathway does not work, they have alternate strategies to try. Further, ‘it is crucial for the production of future pathways, as well as for the maintenance of [agentic thinking], that the student learns not to attribute a blockage to his or her lack of talent.’ Instead, a blockage should be considered merely information that a particular strategy does not work.

High-hope students use feedback as information to help them find alternative strategies for reaching their academic goals, thereby enhancing pathways thinking. They may also use feedback to help them set clear markers for reaching their academic goals. In contrast, those students who view grades as pure evaluation or judgment tend to adopt performance goals, a trait of low-hope students. To encourage hopeful thinking for all students, legal educators need to help them understand grading as performance feedback.

In addition, to be effective, feedback needs to be respectful, constructive, and depersonalised. Thus, even if a student is struggling, feedback should be respectful and constructive, addressing both successes and weaknesses. Further, depersonalising feedback encourages students to believe, like high-hope students do, that any failure was the result of an unworkable strategy rather than a lack of talent on their part.

Agentic thinking is ‘mental willpower’. High-hope students have a ‘can do’ attitude, and are highly motivated and energetic. Legal educators can help teach agentic thinking by modelling and encouraging it in several ways: encourage healthy habits, teach students to talk to themselves in a positive voice, encourage students with stories of hope, and display enthusiasm in teaching.

To maintain or help build high levels of energy, which is a trait of high-hope students, students need to ‘[f]ocus on [their] physical health, including diet, sleep, physical exercise, and avoiding damaging substances (e.g., caffeine-laden products, cigarettes, alcohol).’ Legal educators can encourage students to focus on these physical needs. For example, during a review session, legal educators may want to remind students about the importance of getting enough sleep and eating well before the exam.

Another way to model agentic thinking is to teach with a positive voice, thereby teaching students to talk to themselves in the same positive voice. From the legal educator’s perspective, encouragement is the key.

Another form of encouragement that legal educators can use is to tell stories of hope. ‘Hopeful children often draw upon their own memories of positive experiences to keep them buoyant during difficult times’. Analogising to legal education, law students would benefit from hearing hopeful stories about others who have overcome adversity. Perhaps it is a story about a former student who is a well-respected lawyer or jurist even though he or she did not ‘ace’ law school.

Research has also suggested that well-being predicts responsible, pro-social behaviour. Thus, law student well-being is in the best interests of students, educators, legal employers, and, ultimately, the public at large. Although implementing these principles may not be easy, revitalising legal education by instilling hope is worth the investment.

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