Review: Understanding the Impact of Inadequate Feedback

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Paula J. Manning, Understanding the Impact of Inadequate Feedback: A Means to Reduce Law Student Psychological Distress, Increase Motivation, and Improve Learning Outcomes, 43 Cumberland Law Review 325 (2012) [Read fulltext at SSRN]

“Law students report lower self-esteem and life satisfaction than students enrolled in other graduate programs, including medicine, and they are far more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and stress.” This problem does not end with law school, however, “the legal profession is plagued by higher than average rates of depression and substance abuse, as well as lower job and life satisfaction than other professions.” Despite these known facts, legal education has proposed very few solutions to dealing with law student psychological distress. The article posits an answer to why there have been no solutions to this matter: prior to 2011, law school applications remained quite stable with a large group of willing participants. Now that applications are down across the country, coupled with pressure from the ABA for law schools to make changes to their curricula, the article proposes that this might be an excellent time to look at changing education to lower law student’s psychological stress.

The article starts by discussing the effects of self-determination on learning, engagement, and motivation. It identifies three basic psychological needs necessary to ensure our students’ well-being and ability to thrive: autonomy (students’ inner endorsements of actions and behaviors), competence (students’ feeling both able to be effective and having the opportunity to maintain and enhance competence), and relatedness (students’ feeling connected and important to the teacher). Curriculum and feedback aimed at these three needs has the potential to “alleviate or at least reduce the negative effects of legal education on law student well-being and motivation and the associated effects that appear to extend beyond graduation into the profession.”

The article continues by explaining how to support self-determined learning through feedback. Essentially, feedback should: “(1) us[e] non-controlling, informational language; (2) provid[e] rationales; and (3) [affirm] competency. The article explains the harm in using large Xs and No!s as well as constantly putting the word “why” on a student’s paper. These methods do not support a student’s self-determined learning because the feedback does not support competency or provide rationales. Further, the article urges the assessor to provide “specific, sincere, and credible praise” which goes beyond “good.” The feedback suggested in the article allows the student to choose how to proceed rather than being controlled by the teacher as to how to proceed, thereby supporting autonomy. Good feedback then has the power to “minimize or even alleviate the negative psychological effects legal education has on law students.”

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