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Friday, January 30, 2015

In Defense of Students, OR: Student “Quality,” Student Engagement, Incentives, and the Fundamental Attribution Error

This is probably my last non-game theory post, and I haven’t picked any really good fights all month! That clearly won’t do.

Jon Hanson, my beloved former torts professor at HLS, has this big project that he calls “situationism,” which is essentially about highlighting the ways that people’s behavior is less caused by their individual dispositions and more about the circumstances they find themselves in. Many psychologists call the opposite tendency the “fundamental attribution error"---the tendency to make, essentially, self-serving attributions of agency. (My successes are all about how awesome I am and how hard I work, and my failures are all about the environment! Your successes are all about the environment, and your failures are about your personal deficiencies!)

Last month, there was a long discussion on this blog about the way in which students allegedly have “become worse” since the economic collapse, essentially because so few jobs = so few people wanting to go to law school = lowered admissions standards across the board = prawfessors at every level observing dumber or lazier or less well-prepared (the most charitable claim in that thread!) students. I confess, that post and the comment thread that followed really cheeved me off. Even though many of us are skeptical of the worth of standardized testing, can highlight all kinds of biases in things like the LSAT, we still seem to think that lowered LSAT scores equals a meaningful drop in competence, and that we can observe this with classroom results.

I, as you might imagine, am highly skeptical about that that hypothesis. Can we be Hansonian situationists about it? Suppose we look for an alternative hypothesis to explain observed declines in classroom results (both exam performance and in-class discussion) as attributable less to personal qualities of the students and more to the situation our students find themselves in. Well, here’s one idea. Students are less engaged/it takes more work on our part to interest them in our courses, because they see them as less meaningful to their long-term well-being. And they see them as less meaningful to their long-term well-being because the job market has been terrible, and so they have lowered expectations for a fulfilling and successful career in which they are to use the knowledge we provide to them. Moreover, because it’s so much harder for them to get a job than it used to be, they prefer receiving information that is directly relevant to getting jobs (“what’s the rule! how do I get a good grade and pass the bar exam!”), and disprefer having their and effort time taken up by information that is less relevant (“what are the policy considerations here! what’s the deep jurisprudential theory in play!”).

It’s about situational incentives. When you have to hustle your butt off to get a decent job, you don’t have the luxury of thinking about “making connections between the various doctrines, engaging in deeper-level thinking, and applying the legal rules to new scenarios in creative ways.” Unfortunately, that’s what we law professors tend to care about most, and what we (rightly) tend to associate with the kind of skill development that will serve lawyers well throughout their whole careers. But in a terrible job market, our students have good, rational, reason to care less about their whole careers and more about getting that first job and paying off the student loans. Not because they’re dumber, lazier, or less well prepared (and even if I'm wrong, shouldn't we pretend that I'm right, because aren't our students more likely to respond well if we have high expectations for them and respect their ability and motivations?). Because the economic environment they find themselves in gives them reason to discount their career futures, and reason to invest more in short-term needs. (This leads to an empirical hypothesis.  Schools with better job placement rates should have better scores on the Law School Survey of Student Engagement, after controlling for LSAT and UGPA. Memo to Indiana folks: run this regression!  Or give me the data, and I'll run it!)

So our job is to find a way to make it rational for them to be willing to invest in the “deeper-level thinking” that they will need to learn in the long term, in a way that will also benefit them for the short term job market. Such a strategy has the potential to improve student engagement, and, thereby, student performance, and thereby, make their lives as well as ours better.

Concrete plans? I don’t have many yet, but it seems to me that we need to at least entertain the idea that we have to do better on the job front to do better on the classroom front; that “deeper-level thinking” cannot be carried out when you’re worried about where the rent money will come from a couple years down the line; and that we have to sell “deeper-level thinking” not just to students but also to the people who employ them. 

Posted by Paul Gowder on January 30, 2015 at 11:09 AM in Life of Law Schools, Teaching Law | Permalink


Students don't do much deeper-level thinking because they're so rarely asked to do it.

In a typical 100 person 1L lecture, an individual student will be called on to speak maybe only 1 day of class. Possibly 2. The only other time he'll be asked to engage in any sort of thinking is on the final (assuming there are no other assignments, as is often the case). So when and how is a student supposed to develop this skill?

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | Jan 30, 2015 7:42:34 PM

Obviously there are some design questions that will have to be worked out if these data ends up in my hands/someone else wants to do it, but offhand they don't deem insurmountable. Just shooting from the hip here, employment rates are really just a proxy for how students feel about their prospects, so, I'd probably be inclined to use year N-1 employment outcomes (or maybe the mean of the previous several years) as a better proxy for how students feel about their job prospects in year N anyway. Which would also deal with these causal direction issues. (At least as a first pass. There are always complexities in this kind of model design. I worry that this strategy might rely too strong assumptions about the independence of different years' employment outcomes & engagement. But not sure. As a hip-shot blog comment answer, it'll do.)

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Jan 30, 2015 4:08:33 PM

I don't understand how your empirical hypothesis works. The assumption seems to be (correct me if I'm wrong) that the sort of behavior scored as higher engagement is different than (and in competition with) the behavior that leads to employment, so if students are spending more time looking for jobs, engagement will be lower. You predict that if employment prospects are already bright, the pressure to spend time looking for jobs will abate, and there'll be more time for engagement. But your assumption might be wrong: engagement might be the kind of behavior that leads to employment. Or it might be that your assumption is right, but that the reason why employment prospects in a particular setting are bright is because students are consistently spending their time job-seeking, not engaging. Given all that, I can't imagine how you'll run your test or interpret the results.

Posted by: Comment2 | Jan 30, 2015 3:04:32 PM

Also, I'm serious---are any survey of student engagement folks reading this? There is so so so much that could be done with all that aggregate data. Let's make the dataset sit up and woof.

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Jan 30, 2015 1:33:47 PM

Yeah, that seems like a good start to me, NALP.

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Jan 30, 2015 1:30:00 PM

In law school, I cared deeply about engaging deeply in class discussions and making connections between the various doctrines at play, and concerned myself as much with the history of the rules' evolution as I did with their current incarnations. This has carried over and served me very well, I think, in my practice. I'm always ready for the 3rd degree during oral arguments, and I can separate noise from relevant facts, law, and nuances with as much ease as I can ride a bike. And it shows in the results I get for my clients.

All that said, if I could re-do school now, I'd brush that habit to the side and focus on things like cite-checking and participation in special interest student groups. Why? Because in the job market, no one really cares half as much about my legal smarts as they do about whether I served on a law review, joined my school's "____ Law Society," or interned at _____ federal agency. GPA is certainly a factor, but I hardly think my engagement and scholarly approach to the course material had much to do with that. And besides, it really didn't matter much after the first semester.

My advice: If you want your students to engage, then reward deep engagement. Your ability to do so on their grades is limited by anonymous grading, of course. Instead, I recommend going the extra mile for those students in other ways. For example, if Bob really blows you away in class discussions, suggest an employment opportunity that seems apt for his skill set, and put in a brief call to the hiring manager on Bob's behalf. Your students know which professors do this sort of thing, and it shows.

Posted by: Not a Law Prof | Jan 30, 2015 1:14:08 PM

It appears that, to rise to the top of your profession, it is important that you profess Roman Catholicism or Judaism. Being Protestant, Evangelical, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Mormon or, g-d forbid, Atheist, won't do, in spite of your brilliance or competence in science, math or economics, which don't enter into SCOTUS deliberations in any case.

Posted by: Jimbino | Jan 30, 2015 11:29:13 AM

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