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GENERATION Z GOES TO LAW SCHOOL: TEACHING AND REACHING LAW STUDENTS IN THE POST-MILLENNIAL GENERATION
41 U. Ark. Little Rock L. Rev. 29 (2018). Republished with permission*.
Laura Graham, Director of Legal Analysis, Writing, and Research and Professor of Legal Writing, Wake Forest University School of Law
Excerpt: Abstract from SSRN and Part 5: Reaching and Teaching Generation Z Law Students [Footnotes omitted; they can be found in the original via the link above.]
In 2017, law schools welcomed the first members of Generation Z to their halls. While Generation Z students (born between 1995 and 2010) share some commonalities with their predecessors, the Millennials, they have a distinct peer personality that has been shaped by the culture and events of their youth. This Article begins with the premise that legal educators would benefit from learning what makes Generation Z students “tick,” so that we can partner with them more effectively as they prepare to enter the legal profession.
This Article begins by reviewing the basic principles and inherent limitations of generational theory, as a backdrop against which to view Generation Z. The Article then summarizes what research has revealed thus far about Generation Z’s peer personality, focusing on four traits: they are diverse, financially conservative, insecure and anxious, and growing up more slowly than previous generations.
This Article then examines three learning characteristics of Generation Z students that have direct implications for legal educators: they are saturated with technology, they are weaker than their predecessor generations in critical reading, thinking, and writing, and they prefer to work alone rather than in collaborative settings.
Finally, this Article suggests concrete strategies for legal educators to address the challenges presented by Generation Z students, focusing on five areas: (1) more instruction in critical reading; (2) more writing opportunities across the law school curriculum; (3) more thoughtful (and perhaps more sparing) use of technology in the classroom; (4) more careful attention to how and when we use collaborative learning techniques; and (5) more emphasis on encouraging mindfulness and wellness in our students.
REACHING AND TEACHING GENERATION Z LAW STUDENTS
The arrival of Generation Z in law schools is not a reason for panic. Rather, it calls for a comprehensive yet measured evaluation of whether, and to what extent, legal educators need to adjust established methods of educating previous generations of law students to fit the peer personality and learning characteristics of Gen Z. This part of the article suggests five areas in which such adjustments are warranted—emphasizing critical reading, encouraging writing across the curriculum, using technology thoughtfully in the classroom, assigning collaborative work carefully, and promoting student wellness more intentionally—and collects some of the current wisdom regarding what such adjustments might entail.
A. Incorporate Critical Reading Instruction in Every Law School Course
Perhaps the most transformative effort we can make to help Gen Z students succeed in law school is to teach them to be expert legal readers. Law school teachers know that close, active reading is the foundation to building competency in understanding legal rules, explaining legal principles, identifying issues, solving problems, and advocating persuasively. But, as noted in Part IV of this article, Gen Z students come to law school classrooms with two particular barriers to their reading success: (1) lack of practice in reading complex or lengthy pieces of writing and (2) over-reliance on technology. Studies show that many novice law students have “deep insecurity and anxiety” about reading.
Yet many law professors overestimate students’ reading ability; “they assume that students’ post-college literacy skills include the ability to read and comprehend complex legal opinions” and “view their roles as refining— rather than introducing—these skills.” To meet the educational needs of Gen Z, law professors must abandon this assumption, and, in the same way that educators have focused on writing across the curriculum to address deficiencies in students’ writing skills, they must incorporate reading across the curriculum to address deficiencies in students’ reading skills.
Experts in legal reading have suggested many concrete strategies for building critical reading skills in new law students; here I list some of the most common strategies.
First, law professors should scaffold reading assignments so that students can adapt gradually to the rigor of close, active reading. Just as a novice runner is unprepared for a marathon, many novice Gen Z law students are unprepared for lengthy reading assignments at the beginning of their courses. By starting them out with short reading assignments, and then gradually increasing the amount of reading, professors increase the likelihood that students will develop the habit of reading slowly and deeply, rather than reading quickly or skimming (or “power-browsing”).
Second, professors should be explicit about the relevance of the text to the subject being taught and its relationship with past and future readings. Law professors cannot rely solely on information in their syllabi or textual cues in their casebooks to do this “connecting”; students likely attend more closely to professors’ oral instruction than they do to information presented passively in a syllabus or a table of contents in a casebook. And it takes only a moment at the end of class for professors to tell students why they are assigning a certain portion of text and where that text fits into the bigger picture.
Third, professors should demonstrate how students should approach assigned material. Especially at the beginning of the semester, professors should share with their students how they recommend that students should approach reading and dissecting cases and statutes. Professors can walk through cases with students, showing them the strategies that they use, as expert legal readers, to maximize both reading efficiency and reading comprehension. Such modeling could take many forms: professors might distribute a case with sample annotations (or a case brief) and discuss how they went about making notes on the case; they might guide students through the process of creating a visual such as a case chart, showing them along the way how to distill and record critical information from the cases; professors might even simply read through a case out loud, helping students see how each paragraph connects to the legal issue treated in the case. A Gen Z student who sees critical reading modeled by each of her professors will recognize that expert legal readers do not approach reading assignments without a method, and she will see that the method may vary from one subject to another and from one kind of authority to another.
Fourth, professors should give students opportunities to practice reading both in print and online. Professors should teach students to be active readers, interacting with the text whether it is in print or online. In general, it is easier for students to learn to read interactively when they are reading in print, where they can highlight, make annotations, and mark up the text in ways that suit their learning preferences. Professors should consider providing hard copies of any materials they assign that are not in their students’ textbooks, at least in the early going, so that they can practice interacting with the text in these ways. If students are assigned reading that must be completed online, professors should show them techniques they can use on their laptops to interact with the text, such as colored highlighting, using flashing text, altering the fonts, enclosing text in boxes, adding margin comments, and so on. Professors can even tap into Gen Z students’ technological savvy by taking class time to allow them to teach each other about online interactive reading strategies.
It is no longer sufficient to expect that critical reading skills can be taught in legal writing classes or academic success programs, as has been the default at many schools for quite some time. Rather, all faculty must commit to teaching these skills across all courses and all three years of law school. Fortunately, there is a growing body of scholarly work in this area that can assist professors in this effort. For example, Professor Jane Bloom Grise’s 2017 article, Critical Reading Instruction: The Road to Successful Legal Writing Skills, describes her process of developing critical reading instruction materials for each of three stages: before reading, during reading, and after reading. And Professor Ruth Ann McKinney’s excellent book, Reading Like a Lawyer, contains specific exercises that students can work through to become faster legal readers without sacrificing their comprehension of the material. Given the fundamental importance of critical reading to the work of law students (and lawyers), surely it is worth sacrificing some of professors’ valuable class time to strengthen students’ proficiency in this skill.
B. Commit to Giving Students Opportunities to Write Across the Curriculum
Not only is reading across the curriculum essential to Gen Z law students’ success; writing across the curriculum is equally essential. As noted above, Gen Z students have not grown up having the kind of rigorous writing experiences in their secondary and post-secondary education that many of their law professors had; indeed, if law professors have lamented the poor writing skills of Millennials, that lament will likely get louder as Gen Z students arrive. Yet, as is the case with critical reading, critical writing is a foundational skill for the work of a lawyer. Thus, teaching critical writing across the curriculum must be a top priority for legal educators moving forward.
Writing across the curriculum (WAC) is not a new concept, of course; educators have long been advocating it as a way to improve student learning in many educational contexts. Yet in many law schools, writing instruction is still viewed primarily as the job of legal writing professors, rather than as the collective responsibility of all law school faculty across all aspects of students’ law school experience. This remains true despite more than a decade of overtures by legal writing faculty to casebook faculty inviting collaboration in developing an integrated approach to teaching legal writing. This siloed approach to teaching writing skills must give way to a more comprehensive approach if professors are to teach Gen Z students to be excellent legal writers
In adopting WAC, law schools can draw from a variety of approaches that have proved successful at peer institutions in recent years. Here, I describe some of these approaches.
First, every law school course should include at least one substantial writing exercise (other than a final exam) on which students receive timely feedback. While this approach may cause some faculty to chafe at a perceived intrusion upon their academic freedom, it is workable as long as “faculty members [have] wide discretion in the timing and substance of the WAC assignments for their particular courses.” The required writing exercise could be as simple as an IRAC-type analytical exercise or a practice exam question; or it could be more complex, such as a memo, brief, client letter, contract clause, complaint, motion, or other document that mirrors what a new lawyer might be asked to do in the substantive area the class covers.
Second, professors should ask students to write reflective pieces throughout the semester. While journaling and other exploratory writing practices have become common in clinics and other experiential learning courses, there are compelling reasons to use them throughout the law school curriculum. First, they help students see that writing is “a conduit to absorbing, understanding, and seeing multiple dimensions of subjects”—a view of writing that should enhance their written work in every course. Second, in a doctrinal course, reflective writing exercises provide opportunities for students to assess how well they have comprehended the doctrinal law, legal issues, and ethical responsibilities inherent in that course. Specifically, professors can ask students to keep journals or diaries: (1) “to articulate doctrinal understandings or to develop illustrative scenarios to make sure they understand a point of law”; (2) to describe how particular readings or class discussions impacted their perception of the substantive area; and (3) to organize and revise information gleaned through class discussion. Professors can ask students to write a poem about a particular case, or a blog post describing the impact of a recent case on a particular substantive area; the possibilities are many.
Contrary to what many doctrinal professors believe, these exploratory writings are “not vague or abstract or sterile—they are detailed, contextualized, and concrete. When students are asked to write poems, essays, or op eds, their writing becomes animated, thoughtful, nuanced, and engaged.” Narrative writing “draw[s] on larger values that animate law, such as questions of responsibility, equity and policy that might otherwise go unasked and unnoticed” and “encourages exploration of the creative dimensions of a lawyer’s work.” For professors who are concerned that exploratory writing will undermine students’ efforts to learn the formal structures of professional legal writing, some reflections could take the form of more traditional genres such as judicial opinions or interoffice memos. Affording students these kinds of writing opportunities helps familiarize them with the discourse structures of these genres without the added “cognitive burdens” that come with the typical legal writing assignment.
Third, professors can incorporate Multistate Practice Tests (MPTs) and bar exam essays into their class curriculum. As more states adopt the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE), law professors have a perfect opportunity to promote WAC while also giving students much-needed practice on bar exam skills. In particular, professors can require students to complete MPTs, a key component of the UBE.
According to the website of the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBEX),
The MPT is designed to test an examinee’s ability to use fundamental lawyering skills in a realistic situation and complete a task that a beginning lawyer should be able to accomplish. The MPT is not a test of substantive knowledge. Rather, it is designed to evaluate certain fundamental skills lawyers are expected to demonstrate regardless of the area of law in which the skills are applied The MPT requires examinees to (1) sort detailed factual materials and separate relevant from irrelevant facts; (2) analyze statutory, case, and administrative materials for applicable principles of law; (3) apply the relevant law to the relevant facts in a manner likely to resolve a client’s problem; (4) identify and resolve ethical dilemmas, when present; (5) communicate effectively in writing; and (6) complete a lawyering task within time constraints. These skills are tested by requiring examinees to perform one or more of a variety of lawyering tasks.
Examinees receive a task memo, a case file, and library of authorities, and they have ninety minutes to complete the writing task, which might be “a memorandum to a supervising attorney, a letter to a client, a persuasive memorandum or brief, a statement of facts, a contract provision, a will, a counseling plan, a proposal for settlement or agreement, a discovery plan, a witness examination plan, or a closing argument.”
Although the MPT is not designed to test substantive knowledge, professors can easily adapt the format of MPTs into writing exercises that reinforce core concepts while giving students practice in critical reading, thinking, and writing. The NCBEX maintains a bank of previous MPT questions that professors can access, and professors can also convert their own materials into MPT-style assignments. For first-year law students, the ninety-minute time frame may be too short to allow for meaningful work; but by the second and third years, students should be approaching the point that they can work within a shorter time frame, and they will reap the benefits of being required to do so when they later begin their formal bar prep.
Of course, any effort to incorporate WAC into a school’s curriculum comes at a cost. Giving students a meaningful writing assignment requires significant planning and preparation of materials; it may also require allocating class time to explain the assignment, to have students complete the assignment, and/or to go over the students’ work on the assignment. And it can also require spending hours outside of class reading and commenting on students’ work. Indeed, this last requirement is perhaps the main reason faculty members object to including more writing assignments in their courses. But there are many ways professors can minimize the “interruptions” and “burdens” associated with including writing as a course component
First, while providing individual written feedback on each student’s work is invaluable, not every writing assignment must be “graded” in this way. Feedback can be delivered to the class as a whole, either orally or in writing, and where it is appropriate, annotated sample answers can be shared with students. Second, writing assignments can be designed to require only a short-written product, reducing the amount of time professors must spend evaluating them. Third, professors can reuse writing assignments, especially ungraded ones, and can share successful assignments with other professors, reducing the amount of time required to plan and prepare materials.
In sum, regardless of what form the exposure takes, Gen Z students, perhaps more than their predecessor generations, need constant exposure to writing opportunities, and those opportunities need to be carefully scaffolded, both within individual courses and across all courses. Making this happen for Gen Z students will help them become comfortable with the idea of writing as a professional skill that they must develop well, and it will enhance their intellectual readiness for practice; after all, “writing is thinking on paper.”
C. Use Technology Thoughtfully and Perhaps More Sparingly
A third major area of focus in preparing to educate Gen Z law students must be the way professors use technology in the classroom. I am not a curmudgeon when it comes to technology; I realize that today’s law students will need to master certain technologies as they prepare to enter the profession. For example, no law student’s education would be complete without instruction in using legal research platforms like Westlaw, Lexis, and Bloomberg. And it seems wise to introduce our students to certain technologies designed for (or particularly well-suited to) law practice, such as e-discovery tools, document-review programs, and cloud computing. Many law schools have begun to add courses in the law and technology area, and this is as it should be. In fact, it is as it must be; in 2012, a Comment to Rule 1.1 of the Model Rules of Professional Responsibility was amended to advise that lawyers “should keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology.”
But adding courses on law and technology is not the same thing as bringing more technology into the law school classroom; while the former is now a best practice, the latter may not always be. As explained above, Gen Z students’ constant use of technology is causing a cognitive overload that impairs their ability to pay attention, their working memory, and their higher- level thought processes. So, creating lesson plans that rely more heavily on technology, just to cater to Gen Z students’ status as digital natives, is counter- productive. Rather, “[t]o maximize our effectiveness as teachers . . . the most successful strategy is a hybrid approach that combines the best of established classroom practices with new technologies that fill a niche better than existing options.”
Practically speaking, what might this hybrid approach to teaching with technology look like in the Gen Z era? A number of law professors have recently considered this question and have made concrete recommendations, some of which I will outline briefly.
First, laptop use in class should be limited to activities in which the professor is having students use their laptops as part of an in-class exercise or is otherwise actively managing their use. Research indicates that when it comes to taking notes, writing them by hand promotes learning better than typing them on a laptop. Studies show that the physical act of writing things down enhances memory and that students who take notes by hand have better comprehension and recall than laptop users. Moreover, as noted above, Gen Z students may find it difficult to concentrate on the class discussion when there are so many other things they can attend to—checking email, skimming Twitter, tracking an Amazon order, etc.—on the screen right in front of them. In a compelling 2016 article, Professor James Levy posits that learning science makes a limited-use, carefully monitored laptop policy “the only policy that strikes the right balance between the value laptops have as an interactive learning tool and our evolutionary programming, which makes it nearly impossible for the caveman brain to resist the distractions they cause.”
Second, visual technologies like PowerPoint should be used only when they can adequately communicate course material “in all its complexity and nuance” better than non-visual alternatives. A well-chosen, meaningful visual can often work as a chunking technique that helps students process a large amount of information that would otherwise overwhelm their working memory, and it can also deepen students’ understanding by serving as a reference point to anchor further discussion at a later point. So, PowerPoint need not be jettisoned upon the arrival of Gen Z students. But their short attention span makes it essential that when creating PowerPoints, professors limit the special effects (sounds and animations) to those that relate directly to the content of the slides. Otherwise, professors are creating needless distractions that students cannot ignore, and perhaps more significantly, they are overwhelming students’ working memory such that the underlying point is lost. For the same reasons, professors should avoid creating slides that contain too much text; otherwise, students’ working memories will be impaired when they try to read the words to themselves while also listening to professors’ explanation—just the type of “multitasking” that is really “task- switching.” As Professor Levy aptly notes, professors should not “overlook the whiteboard” as a better alternative to PowerPoint in many instances; “using the whiteboard more closely follows the natural rhythm of a conversation between teacher and students.”
Third, in classroom situations where critical reading is required, professors should emphasize reading in print as an alternative to reading on screens. Increasingly, research is confirming anecdotal evidence that “print is more compatible with the higher-ordered, critical thinking and reading skills we teach in law school.” Professor Levy describes several of these studies, including one showing that “students reading print outperform those reading screens on tests that measure both comprehension and retention”; one showing that print is a “more immersive experience” compared to screens and e-reading devices; and one showing that students reading screens may be less likely to finish the material and, if they do finish it, they are less likely to re-read it. This is not to say that professors should never ask students to read something on screens; rather, they should be conscious of when they do so, reserving that reading technique for relatively straightforward material that does not require a high level of attention to comprehend and absorb.
Fourth, professors should avoid “entertaining students with fun media tools, e.g. YouTube clips, music, and photos” unless they are directly and specifically related to the concept being taught. Otherwise, these “fun tools” simply consume precious working memory and distract students from learning.
Fifth, professors should provide opportunities for students to receive individual feedback on their work in face-to-face meetings, not just electronically. Many law professors—even those who are “digital immigrants”—have transitioned to grading and commenting on students’ work electronically, and there is no doubt that e-commenting has attractive benefits, not the least of which is that it can be a big time-saver. And Gen Z students are no doubt well-acquainted with digital feedback, having received it frequently in middle school, high school, and college. But as previously described in this article, Gen Z students say that they desire more face-to-face communication, even though they may not be very skilled at it. Law professors can capitalize on this desire by setting aside some time for one-on-one, face-to-face conferences that provide much needed interpersonal interaction and also teach Gen Z students how to receive constructive criticism well. (Remember, Gen Z students are often resistant to criticism and prefer to receive feedback in five-minute doses.) Of course, professors need not abandon digital feedback altogether; indeed, there may be instances where it makes perfect sense to deliver feedback using one of the many available digital platforms. I am suggesting only that the peer personality of Gen Z students has primed them perfectly for reaping the benefits of occasional in- person conferencing.
Finally, professors should deliberately schedule time away from technology for their students. Studies show that Gen Z students “already know there is a problem with screen addiction, and many of them want relief.” Law school classrooms can be a place where students find that relief, even if only occasionally. Since many of the skills law students need to develop— critical reading, analytical precision, and sound written communication, to name just a few—can be taught without using technology, as described above, creating lesson plans that do not require its use ought to be a regular practice. Professors can make this easier for themselves and for their students by deliberately explaining to them the science that supports “unplugging” and showing how it will benefit them.
The chief takeaway from the literature on technology and learning— including Gen Z law students’ learning—is that “[m]edia and technology must be our tools, not our masters.” As Professor Levy sums it up in his excellent 2016 article on using technology in the law school classroom, “[C]lassroom practices informed by an understanding of how the brain learns will always be more successful than approaches based on observations about students’ changing technology habits [T]he fundamentals of teaching students to be good critical thinkers have not changed much at all over time.”
D. Plan Collaborative Work Carefully
In the last decade, as Millennials occupied most of the seats in law school classrooms, legal educators have sought to capitalize on Millennials’ preference for a collaborative learning environment. Group work has long been part of the fabric of Millennials’ education and “is routinely understood as one of the most effective learning methods based on the principles that learning is ‘inherently social’ and ‘an active process.”‘In law schools, collaborative learning has long been a part of clinical programs, and now, it has become more commonplace in traditional doctrinal classes as well. Many law professors put students in pairs or groups for class presentations, drafting exercises, peer editing, and a host of other teaching and learning activities.
In particular, Team-Based Learning (TBL) is used by a growing number of law school teachers. In TBL,
the professor’s role is to plan the course, including creating assignments to enable students to prepare for class, constructing assessments, and designing individual classes. During class, instead of taking center stage and having students focus primarily on the professor, professors guide and facilitate students working together to apply course material.
TBL groups typically consist of permanent teams of five to seven students, ideally “as heterogeneous as possible.” Advocates of TBL point to its many benefits, including promoting student achievement through deeper understanding of the law; teaching students to work collaboratively as part of a team, an essential professional skill; and promoting the integration of knowledge, skills, and values learning.
Most of our Millennial law students are comfortable in the collaborative setting, making it natural for law professors to embrace TBL and other less structured group work. But as noted above, the new generation of law students—Gen Z—does not share the Millennials’ preference for collaborative work. Gen Z students are competitive and independent; they “do not want to depend on other people to get their work done,” and they prefer to work alone and “be judged on their own merits rather than those of their team.”
So, how should law professors approach the idea of collaborative learning in classrooms composed of both Millennial and Gen Z students? Must professors abandon TBL and other collaborative learning approaches just as they have become comfortable with them? The better answer seems to be no; given that collaboration will be expected of Gen Z law graduates when they enter the professional world (where many of their colleagues and superiors will be Gen Xers and Millennials), legal educators would be unwise to eliminate collaborative learning simply to cater to the preferences of Gen Z.
Moreover, according to Seemiller and Grace, Gen Z students are open to group work on a task; but they want (and need) adequate time to work on the task solo first. This suggests that group work (and even more formal approaches like TBL) can be used effectively, but perhaps not exclusively and perhaps with some adjustments to increase Gen Z students’ comfort level with working together.
Tim Carter, in an article describing best practices for teaching Gen Z members who plan to enter the teaching profession, describes what a classroom might look like when the learning environment is “blended” to benefit Gen Z students:
For example, a classroom might involve students working independently along the perimeters with their mobile 1:1 device. They could then move into small group settings to share what was gained independently and to discuss various factors that might benefit the group and identify shortfalls of information or skills. The teacher might have an area available where s/he can meet with students individually or in small groups to discuss the information and to query students concerning their understanding or ability pertaining to the knowledge or skill being developed. This environment would involve interaction with multiple resources independently and socially.
And the practice of blending individual learning time with group learning time is not only conducive to Gen Z students’ learning; it also sends a message to all students, of whatever generation, that the professor “values the students who use deliberation, contemplation and quiet reflection— characteristics of many successful, and often introverted, leaders—as much as the student who routinely contributes to the class with reliable, quick participation.”
In her recent article, Creating Space for Silence in Law School Collaboration, Rachel Camp suggests four group techniques that law professors can employ to promote collaboration while respecting a variety of learning perspectives; these techniques seem particularly appropriate for law school classrooms where some (or even most) of the students belong to Gen Z and prefer to work independently.
First, Camp advocates “brainwriting”—a “written brainstorming process” that allows each student to write his or her ideas on paper before sharing them orally in a group setting. After students are assigned to a group for a particular task, the professor provides each student with a “brainwriting template” in grid format; at the top is a space to write the problem the group is being asked to consider, and the grid has a row for each group participant and columns for their ideas. Each participant is then given a set amount of time to generate written options for solving the problem and to record them on the template; once time is called, participants pass their templates to the person on their right. Each participant then views the ideas written by others and builds on those or adds his or her own. The process concludes when each student has his or her own template back; at that point, when each individual participant is primed to share, the group has an oral conversation “about the specific ideas that emerged during the writing process and which ideas are worth exploring further.”
Second, Camp advocates “chalk talks” that, despite their name, do not require chalkboards. For the chalk talk Camp describes in her article, she asked students to email her a short statement describing an assumption they had at the beginning of the semester that was challenged by their clinical experience. She chose excerpts from several statements that seemed to reflect common themes and reproduced each of them on a separate piece of easel paper and taped the easel papers to the wall of her seminar room. She gave each student a different colored marker and gave the students approximately twenty minutes to walk around the room, read each excerpt, and write any reactions to either the excerpt or to other students’ comments. Thus, the chalk talk is a “silent conversation; talking is not permitted while students are reading, reflecting on, and reacting to the excerpts. The end result is what one might expect following an oral conversation—support for some ideas; generation of new ideas; and disagreement about others.”
Third, Camp advocates “nominal group techniques” (NGT)—a five-step process that “facilitates interaction, but after incorporating intentional silence.” In the NGT process, (1) the professor identifies a problem for participants to consider; (2) each participant silently writes down ideas for a set amount of time; (3) in groups, participants share their ideas in a round- robin format, and a group member or the professor captures them on the board or collects and distributes the ideas later; (4) the class discusses each of the ideas (or a select few ideas they want to learn more about); and (5) participants vote on and rank the ideas and either continue to discuss the best ideas or move forward with the top-ranked idea.
Fourth, Camp advocates “cyberstorming and other forms of electronic brainstorming.” For example, one member of a group might brainstorm and record her thoughts about a particular problem or question and send them by email to another group member, who then adds his ideas and emails a third group member, and so on. Camp posits that “electronic groups have been proved to generate better results than oral, interactive groups.”
Whether legal educators use Camp’s ideas or adapt some of their own tried and true collaboration strategies, their goal should be to encourage collaboration but in a very intentional way that allows Gen Z students to also have some time for the independent thinking and working they seem to prefer. Achieving this goal may require law professors to spend time specifically training students on how to work in teams or groups. For example, one group of law professors who routinely employ teamwork in their courses has instituted “Saturday teamwork training” sessions early in their courses; during these sessions, they “do team-building exercises, conduct conflict resolution exercises, teach teamwork theory, and have students write their team charters.” The professors report that this training is effective because it allows them to “teach the teamwork stages before the students experience them and to discuss the qualities required for effective teamwork.”
E. Create Opportunities for Students to Practice Mindfulness and Educate Them About Good Self-Care
Finally, and perhaps most critically, law schools must prepare to help Gen Z students maintain their physical, mental, and emotional health in the high-stress environment of law school. As we have seen, Gen Z students report unheard-of levels of anxiety, depression, and loneliness, all of which could be barriers to their law school learning and to their professional growth. Removing these barriers will require a multi-faceted approach that requires the participation of administrators, faculty, the students themselves, and the practicing bar.
One facet of this approach is making use of resources that are already available at law schools (and at the universities where many law schools are situated). At law schools affiliated with universities, Gen Z students who are able to recognize their own physical, mental, and emotional difficulties should be encouraged to seek out their universities’ student health centers and counseling centers, where trained professionals can work with them on a regular basis to teach them coping strategies. These same professionals should be enlisted to train law school administrators and faculty to recognize symptoms of depression, anxiety, and addiction in law students and to provide them with protocols for ensuring that students seek help. At law schools that do not have such resources available, serving Gen Z students may necessitate hiring a full-time staff member (or several) whose sole responsibility is helping students connect with health care professionals in the community who can offer them treatment and counseling.
A second facet of the approach to addressing Gen Z law students’ wellbeing is incorporating opportunities to practice mindfulness throughout their law school experience. Mindfulness has been defined in a number of ways. One definition is “present awareness”—that is, “an experiential practice and a way of being more attuned and responsive to present moment concerns.” Another definition is “a moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience without judgment.” Mindfulness as it is practiced today “represents a Western secularized version” of ancient meditation practices. These practices “‘center on learning to stay focused on our breathing and, when distracted, acknowledging the distraction and redirecting our attention back to the breathing in a nonjudgmental way.’ If one learns how to do this with her breathing, she then can keep her attention on any other specific object.”
Mindfulness in legal education has been a topic of growing interest for several years. Mindfulness practices have been proven to “reduce stress, improve physical and mental health, increase attention and focus, and even improve academic performance.” The first two of these effects are much needed in the legal profession; as the ABA has recognized, many lawyers struggle with drinking, depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and general unwellness, and these problems often first begin to manifest in law school.
This will almost certainly be true for Gen Z students; as explored above, they have grown up in a world where news accounts of tragic events are pushed at them over their smartphones 24/7; where their parents have endeavored to shelter them from failure and from uncomfortable new ideas; and where tech addiction often causes them to be lonely, sleep deprived, and depressed.
Teaching mindfulness practices to Gen Z students holds promise as a strategy for helping them manage these stressors, to be sure, but it also holds promise as a way to combat the attention deficit that many Gen Z students bring to law school with them as a result of “multimedia multitasking.” Mindfulness “helps increase a person’s ability to pay attention to attention, to ‘notice that you are not noticing what you should’ and then to correct one’s focus.” Put another way, mindfulness training allows students to practice concentrating, which helps them “refine [their] capacity to focus and maintain attention on an object,” which in turn causes “corresponding changes to the brain regions associated with attention.”And significantly for Gen Z students, mindfulness training has been shown to permit people to “switch between objects of attention more fluidly.”If professors design their courses in a way that minimizes students’ need to multitask (task-switch) and reduces their temptation to do so, as suggested above, and professors intentionally help students enhance their ability to attend to their learning by incorporating mindfulness training into Gen Z students’ educational experience, professors will enable them to achieve greater success (and greater satisfaction) as they navigate the stressful environment of law school.
A small number of law schools now offer formal mindfulness courses, some for credit, and a larger number teach mindfulness in less formal, non-credit formats. Some law professors now begin class with short mindfulness exercises, and traditional courses such as negotiation, dispute resolution, and professional responsibility are being redesigned to include mindfulness components. For example, at the University of Dayton School of Law, students can take a two-credit course, Sustaining Practices for the Legal Profession, described as follows:
This course provides an overview of the ways mindfulness meditation and other contemplative practices are being integrated into the legal profession. Students will develop their own contemplative practice and participate in exercises to develop the skills of concentrating without distraction, listening, developing empathy, emotional regulation, reflection and self-critique. Through readings and discussion, students will explore the relationship between these skills and the traditional legal practice skills, conflict resolution, creative problem-solving, social justice, professionalism and ethics, and dispute resolution. Students will also read current scholarship related to law student and lawyer distress and wellbeing, neuroscience and meditation, and the growing role of the contemplative practices in the legal profession.
And at Wake Forest University School of Law, students can take a one- credit course, Mindfulness for Lawyers, designed to “introduce students to the practice of meditation and explore the ways that contemplative practices can help to develop skills that are directly relevant to the work of a lawyer.” The classes are “enriched by presentations from lawyers, physicians, psychologists and others who have integrated the meditative perspective with their law practice” and “from neuroscientists who have studied the effects of contemplative practices on our brains, or minds.”
There is a wealth of information available to administrators and professors who wish to incorporate mindfulness training at their law schools, and a detailed discussion of best practices is beyond the scope of this article. Here, I intend simply to suggest that the arrival of Gen Z students at law schools presents a golden opportunity for professors to explore how to harness the power of mindfulness training to help Gen Z students manage their anxiety and fear and develop better attention and memory skills.
And there is one other facet of the approach to fostering wellness in Gen Z students that merits a brief mention: law schools must become “safe spaces”—but not necessarily in the sense that Gen Z students have come to use the term. How law schools should respond to the “safe spaces” movement described above is an interesting question that must be left for exploration in another article. Here, I would advocate another kind of “safe space” within law schools—the space for students to fail safely. As noted above, the parents of Gen Z students, commonly known as co-pilot parents, have worked to protect them from failure at all costs, even in their college years. This sets Gen Z law students up for great distress and unhappiness when they experience the inevitable failures—small and large—that are inherent in the process of legal education. Law schools thus must think proactively about how to train Gen Z students to re-think their conceptions of failure.
In her recent article, Framing Failure in the Legal Classroom: Techniques for Encouraging Growth and Resilience, Professor Kaci Bishop makes a compelling case for embracing “failure pedagogy” in law schools. Professor Bishop defines failure as “whatever feels like failure to the person experiencing it”—it might be failing a course, but it might also be failing to understand an assigned reading, or failing to give a correct response to a professor’s question in class, or failing to receive the praise for their legal writing that they have always received for their prior writing. Students’ fear of failing in these ways can paralyze them and hinder their learning and can even persist into their professional lives, where it may jeopardize their ability to represent their clients zealously and creatively.
Professor Bishop argues that law schools should “reinforce a growth mindset and help students embrace failure for the powerful learning tool it is.” She encourages professors to “foster failure” in classrooms rather than “leaving it to fester” and suggests a number of strategies for doing so. First, she recommends that professors “let students know explicitly that we have high expectations for them and their work and that we expect them to make mistakes.” For example, professors who regularly use the Socratic method should explain to students that they want them to struggle with puzzling through the questions asked, because that struggle helps them develop their critical legal thinking skills. Second, Professor Bishop suggests that legal educators should help contextualize failure by “helping students understand that not all failures are equal.”
Some failures are praiseworthy, not blameworthy, and we should want to encourage these praiseworthy failures in our classroom. Many of our students would be relieved to be exposed to the spectrum of failure and to be explicitly encouraged to engage in these praiseworthy and intelligent failures. By contextualizing some kinds of failure as praiseworthy, we can encourage our students to take risks in their thinking, ask questions, try out different hypotheses about the reasoning or holding in a case, and push the bounds of their understanding of the law.
Third, Professor Bishop recommends that professors provide students with feedback—both oral and written—in a way that encourages a growth mindset. She advocates using “growth language”; for example, the word yet (as in, “While you understood one part of the court’s rationale, you have yet to account for some of the court’s reasoning”) is powerful because it “emphasizes the incremental theory of intelligence.” Similarly, the word and is powerful as a “growth-laden substitute” for the more negative word but (as in, “You’ve expressed this idea clearly in class, and now you need to work on communicating it clearly in writing.”).
Gen Z law students may tend to resist criticism, but receiving critical feedback is essential to their learning. Gen Z law students may be unaccustomed to failure, but that failure is a powerful learning tool if students experience it in a “safe space.” Novice Gen Z students will more easily acquire the critical thinking, reading, and writing skills they lack if professors promote the growth mindset by giving them permission to fail, and they will develop the resilience and confidence they will need later to succeed in the profession.
*Permission is hereby granted to Slaw.ca for use of Laura P. Graham, Generation Z Goes to Law School, 41 U. Ark. Little Rock L. Rev. 29 (2018).
University of Arkansas at Little Rock Law Review
By: Michael J Berry