We have been working on improving the experience of our students at Pitt Law. We began by asking our students questions through surveys in order to understand their experiences through their own perspectives. Using this understanding, we are designing, implementing, and evaluating targeted, tailored, well-timed interactive activities to foster greater psychological resilience and engagement in our students, as well as informing faculty and administrators about the psychological factors that impact student success and well-being.
We use the framing of “mindsets” broadly to guide our work with students and faculty. Mindset is a psychological term that refers to the set of rules and heuristics that we use to make meaning of the events in our lives, and our place in the world. A well-known example of this work, pioneered by Dr. Carol Dweck, is focused on the mindsets of intelligence. Dweck’s work has shown that people will tend to harbor perceptions that intelligence is either an innate and fixed personal quality (known as fixed mindset), or as a set of malleable qualities that can be strengthened (known as a growth mindset). However, mindsets can be expanded to capture any set of attributional patterns that consistently impact the meaning that students infer from their experiences, which consequently also impacts their level of engagement.
The secret to designing an effective program is to first identify the areas of greatest potential student concerns. As such, the process of identifying these concerns becomes part of the solution. That is, the deep work that goes into understanding the student experience is the basis for any subsequent work with students, faculty, and administrators.
As an illustration of this process at Pitt Law, for several years in a row, we have surveyed our incoming first-year law students at orientation to get a sense of how they were feeling about law school at that moment. The survey has indicated that in the initial weeks of school, our students express a high degree of uncertainty about their performance potential and whether they belong in law school. At the end of the year last year, we examined these same students’ performances, considering whether their perceptions, as they began law school, correlated with their performance during the year.
Our initial survey contained questions designed to help students begin to process their feelings and think through their mindsets. This, in itself, was a kind of intervention. We conducted focus groups and further surveys with first-year students. We also conducted focus groups with our second and third-year teaching assistants to gain an understanding of what their first-year experiences of law school were like. We learned during those focus groups that our second- and third-year students were struggling with some of the same issues as our first-year students, along with other issues such as questions around professional identity and future employment. We also learned that just giving these students a chance to talk about their worries and experiences, and to be listened to by engaged faculty members, was helpful to them.