Mid-terms Matter

It’s mid-term season. While we all have elections on our minds, many of our students are thinking about mid-term exams. Mid-terms have become more popular as formative assessment in law schools increases. Mid-terms can be an effective, somewhat low-stakes experience that closely mirrors the experience of the final exam. That’s important because many of our first-year students have never faced the kind of exams we traditionally give in the law school setting. And research shows that students turn in better performances when they practice for high-stakes exams under similar conditions.

It’s possible that students don’t like the added stress that mid-terms bring, and it’s equally as possible that professors dislike the stress of delivering valuable but often hard-to-swallow feedback about their students’ performance.

Law schools, by design, are competitive. Therefore, assume that students will be using their mid-term results to judge themselves. This crucial time in a student’s first semester calls for evidence-based feedback.

Decades of research demonstrates that at least half of our students will become demotivated when faced with a disappointing result. That’s because they believe that just one exam is a judgment on their intelligence—how much they currently have and how much they can expect to have in the future. These students have what researchers call a fixed mindset. When these students ace their first exam, they go forward feeling confident in their performance and their ability to continue their success with the same amount of effort. When these students are not as successful on their first exam, they tend to believe that they just don’t have what it takes to be a high performer. They often disengage and under-perform because they believe the die has already been cast.

Fortunately, not all students see exam results the same way. For students with a growth mindset, the mid-term is not a judgment of what kind of law students they are, how intelligent they are, or how well they can expect to do in law school. The exam result is exactly what it’s meant to be—a way to gauge their current performance and rethink their learning strategies. These students believe that intelligence grows through effort and effective strategies. They will see your feedback, good or bad, as helpful information that will prepare them for a better performance on the final exam.

The good news is that students’ mindsets change based on the information they receive through teachers, coaches, and their environment. So what messages should faculty give students as they assess the mid-terms? Students should understand the purposes of taking a mid-term are to learn: (1) whether they are using the right strategies, (2) whether they have put forth enough effort, and (3) how they can change course in order to grow their intelligence before the final exam. Professors who share stories of their own struggles and their strategies to overcome them create a classroom where learning thrives. When professors show how they developed effective strategies in learning, they invite students to do the same. Students will more likely accept the feedback with gratitude and use the feedback in the way it was intended, to increase their learning and develop strategies for demonstrating their knowledge when the stakes are much higher.

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