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Townes, M et al --- "Changing our thinking: empirical research on law student wellbeing, thinking styles and the law curriculum" [2012] LegEdDig 10; (2012) 20(1) Legal Education Digest 34

Changing our thinking: empirical research on law student wellbeing, thinking styles and the law curriculum

M T O’Brien, S Tang and K Hall

Legal Education Review, Vol. 21, No. 2, 2011, pp 149–182.

News of the Brain and Mind Research Institute’s (‘BMRI’) research on lawyer and law student depression hit Australian legal educators hard. No longer could we shrug off law student distress as primarily an American problem. The problem is ours too, facing us every day in our classrooms.

On the other hand, when the BMRI research was published, the ANU College of Law had already implemented a first-year mentoring program; counselling was readily available in the University Counselling Services; our sub-dean was sensitive to issues of psychological distress; and our staff members were encouraged to refer students to seek help as needed.

In 2009–10 we undertook to find out whether students at the ANU College of Law exhibited elevated indicators of psychological distress after one year of law school and, if so, whether particular aspects of the law school curriculum could be identified as impacting negatively on student wellbeing. Our goal was to examine and document the level of student distress and to begin to explore the relationship between student wellbeing and the legal curriculum. In 2011, we followed up our surveys with a student–faculty dialogue retreat that sought to illuminate the causes of student distress and to engage both students and faculty in the process of generating ideas for curricular reform. The results of the surveys and the retreat confirm that, during the first year of law school, many students experience psychological struggles and changes in their thinking styles, self-concept and sense of wellbeing; and that these changes may be related to identifiable aspects of the law school experience.

Our goals in surveying law students were three-fold. We sought to: (1) document the level of symptoms of psychological distress among first-year law students; (2) discover whether levels of student distress and/or thinking styles changed during the first year of law school; and (3) begin to illuminate the causes of distress.

In documenting the level of student distress, this work also sought to complement the BMRI report, which surveyed law students, medical students and practising lawyers, and concluded that law students in Australia ‘exhibit higher levels of psychological distress and depression than do community members of a similar age and sex’.

Studies conducted in the United States have suggested that students begin to suffer depressive illness within months of beginning law school. We therefore chose to study first-year law students at the beginning and end of the first year of law study in order to obtain legal education’s ‘before’ and ‘after’ snapshots.

In order to get a snapshot of student thinking styles and wellbeing, we conducted time-limited surveys of all students (subject to informed and voluntary participation) enrolled in a compulsory first year course. Our earliest survey, conducted in October 2009, involved students who were approaching the completion of their first year of law school (‘Cohort 1’). Two hundred and fourteen students completed the survey.

The second survey group provided us with an opportunity to get a ‘before’ and ‘after’ (one year of) legal education snapshot. This new cohort of 174 first-year students was surveyed in their second week of classes in February 2010 (‘Cohort 2a’). We surveyed these students again near the end of their first year of law school in September–October 2010, with 81 students participating (‘Cohort 2b’).

In all three surveys, students completed an anonymous online survey that included demographic information, questions relating to career preferences, reasons for attending law school, and their expectations of or actual experience of law school. Each survey also included three psychometric instruments: the Rational-Experiential Inventory (‘REI’); the 21-item version of the Depression Anxiety Stress Scale (‘DASS-21’); and the Satisfaction with Life Scale (‘SWLS’).

It is important to point out that both the rational and experiential modes of thought are effective in different ways. The labels also refer to the process of thinking, rather than its outcomes. The quick and emotion-driven nature of the experiential system in no way makes it ‘irrational’ in the common meaning of the word; nor does the rational system imply that this is a way of thinking which always produces the optimal (in classical economic terms) result after exhaustive calculations.

The two modes operate simultaneously, although there are differences in a person’s relative preference for one system over the other. The REI measures these differences as a relatively stable personality construct. The Rational Thinking scale in the REI measures an individual’s overall ability and tendency to think logically and analytically, while the Experiential Thinking scale relates to a person’s overall ability and preference to incorporate intuitive impressions and feelings into their thinking.

The second measure we employed was the DASS-21, which contains three subscales designed to measure the number and severity of symptoms indicative of depression, anxiety (specifically physiological or subjective fear-related symptoms and situational anxiety) and stress (specifically tension, over-arousal and difficulty meeting taxing life demands).

The third measure, the SWLS, is a brief (five-question) but well-validated instrument that provides a global measure of subjective satisfaction with life.

A total of 389 students from Cohorts 1 and 2 validly completed the online questionnaires.

There were no statistically significant differences on any of the measures between the two end-of-year survey groups (Cohort 1 and Cohort 2b). As our methodology was non-longitudinal, this allowed for the three surveys to be collapsed into two groups – a beginning-of-year group and an end-of-year group – for the purpose of further analyses below. No significant gender or age differences were found in the DASS-21 subscale results.

As expected, results on the SWLS (a wellbeing measure) were generally the reverse of the results on the DASS-21 (a measure of psychological distress/dysfunction). The vast majority of students had an average, high or very high score in both beginning and end-of-year surveys, indicating that, on average, students at both the beginning and end of their first year of law study were satisfied with their own lives. There was, however, a shift in scores over the course of the year that showed a relative decline in life satisfaction.

Turning to the REI, there were also significant differences in the rational thinking and experiential thinking scores between the beginning- and end-of-year groups. Scores on the rational thinking scale were significantly higher in the end-of-year group than in the beginning-of-year group (mean = 3.79 versus mean = 3.27). The opposite finding was observed with the experiential thinking scale: scores were significantly lower on the end-of-year group compared with students beginning their law studies (mean = 3.32 versus mean = 3.86).

Finally, examining the relationship between the REI and DASS21 depression subscale provides some insights into how thinking styles might be related to psychological wellbeing in the first year of law school. A linear regression showed that a combination of the survey time (beginning-of-year versus end-of-year), rational thinking and experiential thinking provided a good prediction model for depression scores. Experiential thinking was the strongest predictor within this model, suggesting that, on the whole, a higher propensity towards experiential thinking was associated with lower levels of depressive symptoms. However, this relationship is complex and must be considered with reference to the different groups.

The main findings of our surveys in relation to the REI and its implications for wellbeing can be summarised as follows: (1) End-of-year law students showed a greater propensity towards rational thinking than beginning-of-year students; (2) End-of-year law students were less oriented towards experiential thinking than beginning-of-year students; (3) A rational thinking style was a better predictor, than an experiential thinking style, of student reports of positive anticipated and actual law school experience; and (4) However, a propensity towards experiential thinking is a stronger overall predictor of lower levels of depressive symptoms. Less experiential-thinking students showed a statistically significant heightened level of depressive symptoms in the end-of-year group.

On the DASS-21 subscales, our results found that the depression scale showed the most significant change between the beginning and the end of the year. This was reflected not only in changes in the mean subscale score but also in the different patterns in the distribution along the severity spectrum. We infer that it is likely that, over the first year of law school, a sizeable proportion of students who started off with a normal level of depressive symptoms ended the year with symptoms in the moderate or higher range.

Perhaps the most remarkable result of our surveys was the relationship between thinking styles and increased symptoms of depression. In our surveys, the less-experiential thinking students reported higher levels of depressive symptoms at the end of the year, while more experiential-thinking students had similar levels compared with beginning-of-year students. This result is surprising, in part, because rational thinking – not experiential thinking – is generally considered to be protective against depression. Nevertheless, our results indicate that the level of rational thinking in our end-of-year cohorts was not a strong predictor of the level of depressive symptoms. Rather, it was a high level of experiential thinking that seemed to have some protective effect on the end-of-year cohorts.

At the same time, our REI results show that thinking styles appear to change over the first year of law school.

Of course, we have to be cautious about our results, even on top of our caveats about causation and correlation. Although we were, on the whole, satisfied with the representativeness of our sample, there was some decrease in participation rates over time. Further research is needed to understand how the law school environment interacts with students’ thinking styles.

Our data strongly suggest that we cannot rule out the hypothesis that law study has a negative impact on wellbeing that begins in the first year. By the end of the first year of study, law students had significantly more symptoms of depression and stress and were more rational and less experiential in their thinking than students at the beginning of their law studies. Further follow-up research is needed to explore how law school contributes to these changes.

To follow up on the results of our surveys, we conducted a student–faculty dialogue retreat. The retreat aimed to provide a forum to explore law student wellbeing in a more contextualised and qualitative way than was possible in surveys. A dialogue retreat provided a forum for students and faculty members to identify what they perceived to be the factors in the curriculum, pedagogy, ethos and atmosphere of the law school that might contribute to student distress and changes in thinking styles.

More importantly, however, the dialogue was designed to provide an opportunity for students and faculty members to collaborate and to articulate ideas for curricular reform.

Dialogue is a flexible format for deliberation and discussion that can be adapted in a variety of ways to provide an integrative understanding of real-world problems and/or provide a process for finding and implementing solutions.

Our process engaged 18 students and 10 faculty members in a dialogue that began on a Friday evening, 11 March 2011, and concluded on Sunday morning, 13 March 2011.

We anticipated that the process of self-selection was likely to yield a group of students who were not suffering from high levels of psychological distress at the time of the retreat. We did not expect the participants to have an identical profile to the survey cohorts and did not repeat the surveys with the participant groups.

Our dialogue program was multi-staged, beginning with time to allow the participants to get to know each other and to establish the right tone or ethos for the program.

All sessions would involve an invitation – rather than a compulsion – to speak and participate. Engagement in the dialogue was to be undertaken in a positive spirit of caring for each other and the law school community.

Following the dialogue, the researchers met to compare notes and to review the participants’ written comments, the photographs of the whiteboard lists and the posters that were created during the retreat.

The first dialogue session broke the participants into groups of four to five and asked each group to (1) allow some thinking time first; (2) allow each participant (both faculty and students) to tell a story from their own law school experience; and (3) construct a group narrative putting together all of the stories, using paper, pens, crayons, cut and paste, and so on. These visual depictions of the group narratives were then shared in a large group session.

The stories that emerged from this session were primarily transformation narratives, with themes that centred on the process of change; the impact of law school on identity and self-concept; the difference in the nature of the work from what they had done previously; and changed social circumstances.

The second session dialogue was a large group dialogue dedicated to re-telling and re-imagining the law school experience the way the participant would have liked it to be. This session also asked each participant to name the one thing they would most like to have changed. In responding to this question, participants not only reflected on their own stories but began generating reform ideas.

In contrast to the first-session narratives, which focused primarily on individual transformation journeys, this dialogue session quickly became focused on the law school community and the law school classroom.

With regard to the content (as opposed to classroom climate or assessment regimes), there was a consensus that law study could be made more interesting and contextual. Some participants re-imagined the law school as a place that would do more to engage with the political and practical side of law.

Meanwhile, throughout this session of the dialogue, it was apparent that student participants were interested and sometimes surprised to discover that faculty participants generally shared their vision of an ideal law school and were open to, or already understood, the students’ perspectives.

The third session included both small-group and full-group dialogue/discussion allowing students and faculty members to think broadly and to raise any concerns they had about the law school experience. In this session, we asked the groups specifically to tell us what kind of person their legal education encouraged them to become. We asked them to tell us what impact law school had on them.

Most prominently, participants described law school as making them more rational, objectifying, analytical and logical. This was seen positively as providing a structure for problem-solving. On the other hand, this kind of thinking was also portrayed negatively as inviting them to ‘look at every issue as a legal issue’, ‘forget the human beings involved’, and ‘look for loopholes and negatives’.

The next most common theme was that law school made them more competitive, adversarial, arrogant and elitist. There was a sense that students were encouraged to think that legal study is more difficult and important than other fields, leading them to disrespect or undervalue other fields or their other studies.

The third theme that emerged was that law school engendered feelings of isolation, disconnection and intolerance. Feelings of self-doubt, lack of certainty about the material and the assessments, and humiliation in class led these participants to express their view that law school had made them more insecure.

The final session of the day was focused on presenting ideas for specific curricular reforms.

The vast majority of proposals for reform fell into two categories: (1) relating to guidance, feedback and transparency; and (2) relating to community connection. A smaller number of reform proposals addressed student autonomy.

The most prominent theme among the proposals related to improved guidance, feedback and transparency. We group these three ideas together because we view them all as impacting on student self-concept and sense of efficacy.

The second most prominent theme in the proposals related to students’ connections with each other and the community. These proposals included an injunction to ‘[s]top enforcing elitism!’ and to provide more opportunities for collaborative and group work. Proposals included lowering class sizes to allow more time for discussion; and/or lengthening tutorial times for the same purpose.

Both staff and student participants expressed a desire for greater staff–student interaction or connection.

A third category of proposals related to student autonomy. Proposals suggested allowing student participation in course design and abolishing the ‘Priestley 11’ required curriculum.

In the morning, a final session provided feedback to the participants and allowed for final thoughts and input.

Particularly notable was the student appreciation of having an opportunity to get to know some of the staff members.

The results of the dialogue session generally reinforce the findings of our surveys. According to student accounts, law school study pushes them to become more rational, adversarial, competitive and isolated.

The dialogue also brought to the forefront another important aspect of student wellbeing that was not fully explored in our surveys. For many participants, law school lowered self-opinion and sense of efficacy. Students attributed their greater sense of insecurity to a number of factors, including being away from home, being part of a cohort of high achievers, lacking guidance, receiving negative feedback, and competing in a perceived adversarial context that made it more difficult for them to relate to other students.

Our work confirms that, even in a law school where formal mentoring programs are in place and where resources for student counselling are readily available, law students suffer symptoms of psychological distress at levels higher than their peers in the general public.

The dialogue retreat highlighted our participants’ sense that law school changed them in important ways, making them more rational, analytical, competitive and adversarial. Law school also promoted feelings of insecurity, inefficacy and isolation. These feelings may be intimately connected with the increased symptoms of depression and stress that students experience by the end of the first year of law school. The salience of these feelings is reflected in the proposals for reform.

Finally, we suggest that legal educators must do more research to understand the multi-faceted impact of law study and must engage in a thorough examination of their programs. Law school is necessarily, to some extent, a difficult journey. There are very real challenges inherent in the rigorous academic process required to prepare students for a learned profession. It is not acceptable, however, for law school to graduate ‘broken’ individuals – insecure, isolated and psychologically distressed. Legal educators must reform their programs in ways that allow each student’s journey to be a ‘hero’s journey’ – that is, one that empowers the hero to ‘transform the world as the hero has been transformed’.

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