Ann Sinsheimer, Principal Investigator
At the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, Professor Ann Sinsheimer, along with her Legal Writing colleagues Professors Jacqui Lipton, Andrele St. Val, and former colleague Leigh Coogan, have been using the concept of mindset as a way to understand their students’ experiences and improve those experiences. Drawing on the expertise of Dr. Omid Fotuhi, a psychologist at the Learning Research and Development Center, they are designing, implementing and evaluating targeted interventions to help their students adapt to the common social and academic challenges they face in their first year and beyond. With the support of the Provost’s initiatives such as the Forge Your Own Path Grant, these educators are learning how to provide supportive learning environments that foster psychological resilience, a secure sense of belonging, and clarity of purpose.
In the early stages of the project, they focused on capturing a more robust understanding of the student experience and mindsets of their first-year students at Pitt Law. They used a variety of methods to inform themselves, including surveying the incoming first-year students during orientation and holding focus groups with first-years and upper-level law students. Students reported experiencing questions and uncertainty around belonging, worrying about their choice of legal career, viewing failure as a sign of weakness, and feeling sensitive to critical feedback. They also expressed sentiments displaying “pluralistic ignorance”—an experience similar to imposter syndrome which leaves them feeling like they are the only ones struggling.
The project team has used this information about student experience to design a series of interventions, which are intended to help students reframe their experiences so that they can perform at their maximum potential. These interventions have taken several forms, including face-to-face conversations, in-depth questionnaires, and the involvement of student mentors, upper-level students who faced and overcame various obstacles in their first-year of law school.
Their work has been made more challenging by the pandemic, but the project has enabled a glimpse of what life is like for their students in the current online environment. The same structures they established pre-pandemic to communicate with their students about Pitt Law have allowed them to understand how their students are coping with the pandemic. Importantly, the project has allowed these educators to intervene at points throughout the year in an effort to help their students to adapt to this time of tremendous global uncertainty. They are identifying concrete ways of improving their students’ experiences: helping them perform optimally, translate their efforts into achievement, and meet their goals in law school.