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January 4, 2012

"Hope — but not blind optimism — helps boost law school performance"

The title of this post is the headline of this interesting new piece from The National Law Journal.  It begins this way:

Which new law students will perform the best academically during their first semester and be the most satisfied with their lives? Those who are realistically hopeful, according to research into the way hope and optimism affect law student performance.

A study published in the December edition of the Journal of Research in Personality, and featured last year in the Duquesne Law Review, concluded that students who came to campus with high levels of hope got better grades and were more satisfied with their lives after completing their first semester, which tends to be the most stressful.

The researchers distinguished hope from optimism, high levels of which boosted life satisfaction but not first semester grades. "Optimism is the expectation that the future will be good, regardless of how this happens," said Kevin Rand, an assistant professor of psychology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. "Hope is the expectation about things you have actual control over."

Rand conducted the research with Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law clinical associate professor Allison Martin and psychology graduate student Amanda Shea. The team launched the project in part because of the reputation law school has for exacting a high toll on students' mental health, Rand said.

"We know that graduate education can be stressful, but the existing research shows that there is actually something worse about law school," he said. "It's uniquely bad. We wanted to see who comes through that toxic environment unscathed."

The researchers asked 86 members of the incoming class at McKinney in 2007 a series of questions about their levels of hope and optimism. They also examined participants' undergraduate grade-point averages and Law School Admission Test scores.

The team then surveyed the participants after four months in law school and collected their first semester grades, performing a statistical analysis to determine how the factors related to each other. "I was a little surprised — having gone through the law school process myself — that the LSAT scores were not as correlated to the first semester grades," said Martin. "Hope was a better predictor of academic success in our study."

High rates of hope correlated to higher law school GPAs, as did higher undergraduate GPAs. There was no significant relationship between high levels of optimism and law school grades. However, higher levels of both optimism and hope predicted psychological well-being and life satisfaction among the survey participants.

The researchers cited previous studies on hope and achievement in higher education to help explain the results. Students with high levels of hope had greater graduation rates and GPAs, were more engaged in learning and were better equipped to deal with academic stresses. They tended to be better at staying on task, setting goals based on previous performance and keeping motivated.

By contrast, students with low levels of hope tend to focus more on performance than on learning, Martin said. They have so much anxiety about failing tests that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Previous research into optimism and undergraduate students' academic performance found a positive correlation between the two, but research specific to law school has found that pessimism, or a "healthy skepticism," actually predicted academic success.

Should I be optimistic or hopeful that this new research will help future law student?

Posted by DAB

January 4, 2012 in Serving students | Permalink


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This is helpful. I'm just starting to get my first semester law school grades back, and after seeing that I did fine, I feel I could have benefited from cultivating the sense of hope that came to me in a few of the more serene moments of the semester (on a relative scale from worried to terrified). It's easy to get discouraged, for example, when you're walking out of the library at 8pm past hordes of classmates prepared to burn the midnight oil over the same material you just packed up for the night. When I felt discouraged, I felt hopeless. And those hopeless moments put me in a frustrated, survival-mode orientation towards my work. Since my state of mind when I read a case has a huge impact on how well I understand it a day later when I'm in lecture, I think my performance suffered from those hopeless moods.

I think hope will be a useful tool in maintaining healthy, productive expectations in stressful times. Hope-fully I can parlay this insight into a 4.4 average next semester--but I think that might just be optimistic.

Posted by: Josh MacLeod | Jan 5, 2012 12:57:50 PM

It can only help future law students at the expense of others. That's the unfortunate reality of the curve, and of an economy with one job for every two graduates. It is impossible to help everybody at once, you can only help some gain an advantage over their classmates.

Posted by: Steven | Jan 10, 2012 6:55:39 AM

good post!Law Schooled is an open forum for students to discuss legal education and law school reform. This blog and network aims to include all members of the law school community in a substantive discussion about how students can play a role in shaping the future of legal education.

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