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Teaching for anxiety

Student hiding behind a tall pile of books

In a 2017 mental health survey of the Faculty of Law, 89% of students reported having experienced psychological and physical symptoms of anxiety in the preceding three months. The 2017 survey identifies a lack of clearly communicated expectations and lack of detailed, constructive feedback as contributing to the mental health situation in the Faculty of Law.  

Other authors have suggested that the epidemic of stress and anxiety amongst law students is due a shift to “survival mode” that happens in law school, as well as a lack of productive role models in the context of law school stress. Tutorial Leaders (TLs) for the first-year Integration Workshop are well placed to help first-year students adapt to the demands of law school.

As a TL, I have been struck by the extent to which students express anxiety in the questions they ask. They worry about learning quickly enough and in the right way; they worry about getting the right answer and getting good grades. They are eager to be told the magic formula for how to succeed in law school, and it sometimes seems that the process of learning itself is a source of anxiety. In response to these anxieties, I have understood that a large part of my role is to help students learn how to identify questions that will help them direct their own learning.

A few times in my teaching, I have not known the answer to a student’s question. In these moments, I have helped the student to formulate a precise research question and then opened the relevant legal database on the screen to walk them through how they would find the answer to their own question. Even if I don’t know what we will find in our search, I think it is helpful for the students to feel equipped to answer their own questions, rather than feeling dependent on being given the answer.

Indeed, first-year students are asked in their courses to practice skills they don’t yet possess. Frank Wu, a professor of law at UC Hastings, observes that this disquiet comes from the transition students make from previous academic experiences, where nearly any well-supported opinion is accepted, to the context of law where there are objective reasoning mechanisms employed to reach a legal outcome.

It is important that TLs help equip first-year students with the skills to keep their schoolwork in perspective, ask for help when needed, and keep grades in perspective. Jennifer Jolly-Ryan, a professor of law at Northern Kentucky University, suggests that these strategies, and a number of others, allow law professors to use teaching methods to equip students to manage anxiety.

Much has been written on the epidemic of mental health challenges amongst law students and legal professionals, and many resources exist to aid them, but very little has been written on the role that an instructor of law can play in combatting this epidemic. A pilot project at Yale and Stanford Law Schools experimented with teaching first-year law students cognitive behavioural therapy skills to manage anxiety. The project had positive results, but the pedagogy was offered separately from the students’ normal law classes, not integrated into them.

Given the need to integrate a sensitivity to anxiety further into our teaching methods, how can we best equip students to resist and manage the structural causes of anxiety they face in law school? In my effort to be a supportive and productive resource for my students, I have found that, whatever the answer, it begins with honesty, frankness, and a willingness to be vulnerable ourselves.

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