Improving law school feedback: Dropping the sandwich

Over the last few weeks, some fascinating articles about feedback for law students have appeared in my inbox. But they seemed to be inconsistent.

The first was this short but engaging post from February on the ‘feedback sandwich’ by Carrie Sperling over on the Best Practices for Legal Education blog. You are probably familiar with the feedback sandwich – the approach to feedback that sandwiches any negative feedback between two pieces of good feedback. I have even used it as a way of scaffolding law students into giving feedback to one another, both as a way of encouraging supportive professional behaviour as well as compelling them to provide something other than just ‘Yeah, I thought it was good’.

But there are problems with adopting this model as a ‘go-to’ approach to feedback as law teachers. I admit I tend to use it in formative assessment, like exercises in tutorials where law teachers might be inclined to give feedback ‘from the hip’. But if the purpose of feedback on that assessment is to indicate to the student how they can improve, obscuring the path to improvement behind some poorly cultivated praise is likely to make the process harder. Law students might focus on the positives and ignore the opportunity to improve their performance. Alternatively, if law teachers use it too often, it can condition law students to an ‘Uh oh, what did I do wrong?’ response every time their law teacher gives positive reinforcement.

While I was reading this blog post, the Institute for Law Teaching and Learning published a review of an upcoming article in the Arkansas Law Review by Catherine Christopher at Texas Tech Law School entitled Normalizing Struggle – available in preprint at SSRN.

‘You’re not dumb: you’re new’

Christopher proposes an approach to working with law students that acknowledges that law school is hard, and the process of developing the skills to be a good lawyer is a struggle. In her article, Christopher says that one of her mantras, and something she says to all first-year students, is ‘You’re not dumb: you’re new’. She argues that ‘law students are increasingly underprepared for the academic expectations of law school, through no fault of their own’.

Law school is a struggle. But if law school – and legal practice – were a case of ‘if-then’ logic gates or ‘insert tab A into slot B’ instructions that lead to pre-determined answers, it becomes a mechanical process. One of my mantras for first-year law students is ‘You are learning to be lawyers, not mechanics’.

But if law teachers abandon the positive ‘bread’ in the feedback sandwich, how do they provide a supportive learning environment?

The answer is at the intersection of the two.

Learning is never a passive transfer of information from law teacher to law student. I have written before about learning as a constructive process. Law students need to engage with new information. To try it out. Test it. Practice with it, rather than memorising it. That is a difficult process – but one that law teachers are the best placed to help with.

New Mindset New Results

In a longer article, Sperling and her co-author Susan Shapcott argue that one of the challenges for law teachers is to foster a ‘growth mindset’ in law students. In short, a growth mindset is the idea that intelligence and ability are not fixed, but are malleable. Sperling and Shapcott explain that one of the reasons that some law students react poorly to negative feedback is that they see it as failure – they perceive their abilities are fixed and negative feedback reinforces their shortcomings. Students who react positively to feedback, on the other hand, see the opportunity to improve, develop and grow.

By providing feedback to law students about where they currently stand, where they need to be and then show them how to get there, law teachers can encourage the approach that there is a path to improving performance.

There is no reason why law teachers shouldn’t acknowledge that the process of improvement is a struggle and does require the active involvement of the student. Providing constructive and clear feedback is, in itself, a way of acknowledging and offer support through that process.