21 September 2018

Outreach, Distress and Hegemony

'Should You Bother Reaching Out? Performance Effects of Early Direct Outreach to Low-Performing Students' by David Siegel in (2017) 94(3) University of Detroit Mercy Law Review 427-438 asks
Do early alerts to students at-risk in a law school course affect their performance? Increased use of formative assessments throughout higher education, and now their required use in legal education, permits identification of students whose performance suggests they are at-risk early in a course. In legal education, formative assessments must “measure and improve student learning and provide meaningful feedback to students,” and recent research suggests individualized feedback to law students can improve students’ overall performance. Outside law schools, higher education has increasingly used early alert systems to identify and reach out to at-risk students, but their utility at improving performance is still in question. 
Beyond simply giving formative assessments with feedback, can faculty affect student performance by making individualized outreach with an early alert? I hypothesized that an early alert, through direct, personalized email outreach to low-performing students, followed by a one-on-one meeting, would improve their overall grade in the course as compared to that of students who did not receive the alert and were performing at similar levels at the same stage of the class. This paper reports the results of that experiment, conducted over two successive academic years. A quasi-experimental design was used that targeted students who performed in the lowest quintile on the first of five multiple-choice tests, with students who scored very slightly better on the first test as a control group. All students received elaborate feedback electronically within twenty-four to forty-eight hours. Performance effects were assessed by comparison of these two groups’ final course grades, which revealed no statistically significant difference between them. The implications for combining early alerts with formative assessments are discussed.
Siegel concludes
Does early, individualized, outreach to low-performing students affect their final grades? Based on two years of data from this small sample, there is no statistically significant difference between the final course grades of initially lowperforming students to whom outreach was made and those to whom it was not. Although the quiz performance paths of students who received the intervention and the control varied, there was no statistically significant difference between their final course grades in either year. 
There are several limitations to this study. First, test subjects were not randomly selected for the intervention. Second, these are very small data sets, and may well simply reflect a small numbers problem. Third, because the intervention and control groups were selected based on their performance on the first quiz, they may or may not have been representative of low-performing students in general (both groups’ average course grades were well below the class average). Fourth, the experiment compared outreach, not feedback, to students. Although the outreach involved individualized emails and, to some extent, conversation and review of each student’s quiz performance, the feedback was largely in the explanations to the multiple-choice questions, and my own discussion with the students. My feedback may simply not have been effective at correcting students’ misunderstanding or developing their knowledge. 
Should early alerts be continued? Other studies which have found no performance effect of early alerts suggest they may have other benefits. While it is difficult to imagine a negative impact of providing them, they may not merit increased use without more study of the effectiveness of different types of feedback once the early alert has made the connection with the low-performing student.
'Why Prescriptive Legal Education Demands Critical Perspectives' by Simon Rice in Kevin Lindgren, Fran├žois Kunc and Michael Coper (eds), The Future Of Australian Legal Education: A Collection (Lawbook, 2018) 217-228 comments
The idea of private legal practice pervades law schools and legal education, determining content and method, reflecting what Professor Nussbaum has called ‘the subservient origins’ of legal education. The pervasiveness of private legal practice in legal education fails both to prepare students for the diversity of legal practice, and to serve the interests of justice. If law graduates are to be ready for the wide variety of places they may take their legal knowledge, and seek to do justice, the method of delivering the prescribe curriculum must break away from the implicit strictures of that narrow focus, and teach law in its larger social context, through explicit and extensive use of theory.
'Perceptions of psychological well-being in UK law academics' by J. Clare Wilson and Caroline Strevens in (2018) 52(3) The Law Teacher 335-349 comments
This study provides evidence that changing and increasing expectations of university, of students, and of academics of themselves have had an impact upon the perceptions of well-being in the law teachers who responded to this survey. A total of 185 UK law teachers completed a large survey which included demographic questions (age, academic qualifications, and experience), four questionnaires and a series of open-ended questions. Although most reported depression, anxiety and stress levels within the normal range, those who reported high stress levels were significantly more likely to report lower hope scores and higher obstruction of values scores as well as significantly less environmental mastery and self-acceptance. The results reported here indicate the importance of autonomy to law teachers. It is suggested that this is an issue that requires further investigation because of the potential for levels of psychological distress to increase.
The authors argue
Student mental health and well-being has become a growing concern in the UK, and, in particular, concern for law students was raised when Australian and American research demonstrated abnormally high stress levels in this group. Baron made a plea for Australian law schools to consider law academics. She suggested that “we need to start taking the well-being of law staff seriously if we are interested in the health and well-being of the legal profession more generally”. 
However, little research to date has explored the expectations of academic staff in dealing with stressed students or the implications for their own well-being. This paper argues that, if universities are to support students and academics, it is crucial to understand how staff understand and manage their own psychological well-being. 
Academic staff are a surprisingly under-researched group. A European survey by Teichler and Hohle indicated that British academics were the least satisfied with their jobs compared with their European counterparts despite being relatively highly paid (although well-being per se was not explored in this study). Kwiek and Antonowicz, reporting on this data, suggested that the marked and continual change in higher education across Europe over the last 20 years may help explain it. They cite the five drivers from Enders and de Weert as:
       massification of higher education, expansion of research, growing emphasis on the societal relevance of higher educational and research, globalisation and internationalisation and marketization policies and practices, and managerialism. 
The picture in the UK is most concerning: 61% senior and 56% junior academics in the UK see their job as a source of strain. 
In a report that covered only the UK, Kinman and Wray  reported that “On all but one of the Health and Safety Executive stressor categories, [respondents] in higher education reported lower well-being than the average for those working in the target group industries (including education)”. The changes in working context that impinge on academic well-being have been evaluated by Kinman8 and have led to a call for more research to inform implementation of strategic interventions for the sector. 
More recently a research report, published by Student Minds using a qualitative research methodology, looked at the role of academics in responding to student mental health issues. The report by Hughes, Panjwani, Tulcidas and Byrom, entitled “Student Mental Health: The Role and Experience of Academics” (herein The Student Mental Health Report) did not directly address the well-being of academics but made a number of recommendations to improve support for students and staff by, amongst others issues, clarification of the pastoral care role of the academic. 
For the purposes of the present paper, psychological well-being will be explored and will be taken to include general psychological well-being, living according to one’s values, hope, depression, anxiety and stress. 
First, one of the most robust models of psychological well-being was developed by Ryff in 1989. This model has been widely used and validated. This model has six factors.10 A questionnaire was developed to measure psychological well-being with the six factors represented by six subscales on the questionnaire. The first factor is autonomy, which explored self-determination (for example, a high score suggests that one is an independent thinker, whereas a low score may indicate more conformity to social situations). The second factor is environmental mastery, which explores the ability to manage environments according to one’s needs and values (for example, a high score may indicate a sense of mastery over opportunities and situations whereas a low score may indicate difficulty coping with daily demands and feeling out of control in relation to external demands). The third factor is personal growth, which is enjoying new experiences that are of challenge (e.g., a high score may indicate the participant enjoys learning and developing their self-knowledge whereas a low score suggests personal stagnation). The fourth factor is positive relations with others, which is enjoying connecting with other people (e.g., a high score may indicate warm and satisfying relationships with others whereas a low score may indicate isolation). The fifth factor is purpose in life, which focuses on having goals and plans for the future (a high scorer is likely to be very goal directed, and moving in a meaningful direction whereas a low scorer may lack a sense of direction). The final factor is self-acceptance, which focuses on liking the self (e.g., a high scorer can acknowledge both their good and bad qualities and feel good about themselves overall whereas a low scorer would rather be someone else). This model and scale has been widely used and validated. 
Second, an awareness of one’s values helps one maintain mental health. For example, Krieger argued that the pressures to succeed which occur at law schools tended to direct students away from positive personal (intrinsic) values and towards more external recognition, and rewards. This movement away from intrinsic values is strongly related to a loss of well-being and life satisfaction. Indeed, Deci and Ryan found that students who pursue extrinsic values such as image, money, and fame demonstrated poorer psychological well-being compared to those who pursue intrinsic values such as personal growth. This is due in part to pursuing (extrinsic) values that were beyond personal control. The present study explores values from the perspective of either progressing towards one’s values or feeling obstructed in achieving one’s values (that is, not making progress towards personal values) rather than in specific values per se. 
The third aspect is hope. Snyder, Irving and Anderson defined hope as “a positive motivational state that is based on an interactively derived sense of successful (a) agency (goal-directed energy) and (b) pathways (planning to meet goals)”. Hope can provide a model for understanding and explaining cognitive approaches to motivation and goal setting. Martin and Rand referring to Snyder and others note the following characteristics that tend to be found in people who have hope. First, hope has been shown to positively correlate “with self-esteem, perceived problem-solving abilities, perceptions of control, and positive affect”. 
Second, High-hope persons tend to experience better mental health. Third, people with hope have greater pain tolerance, and recover better from illness and injury. Fourth, hope has also correlated positively with social competence and social awareness. 
Fourth, the three main areas of mental health that relate to aversive experiences explored in the current paper are depression, anxiety and stress. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-V) defines the category of Major Depressive Disorder as where the following symptoms are present more often than not over a prolonged period of time: fatigue, sleep disturbances, inability to concentrate, and physical restlessness, amongst others. However, generally the public defines any prolonged period of low mood as depression. 
Anxiety is often seen as excessive, uncontrollable worrying about aspects of life. It falls within a group of disorders defined in the DSM-V as: Anxiety Disorders; ObsessiveCompulsive and Related Disorders; and Trauma- and Stressor-Related Disorders. 
Stress (as opposed to anxiety) is usually defined as a specific reaction to an event (stressor) in the environment. For example, one may be anxious about the future and stressed about completing a grant application on time. Stress and anxiety can lead to social withdrawal, irritableness, fatigue and low self-esteem, as well as physical reactions, for example, an increased risk of heart disease and maladaptive behavioural responses such as increased smoking or drinking, or extreme weight loss or gain. In the workplace, “burnout” is considered to be a response to chronic stress. The scale used to explore these is the Depression, Anxiety and Stress Scale, which was designed to measure these three factors in non-clinical populations as well as use to screen clinical populations. 
All of these factors were explored together to get a broad understanding of overall well-being. Further, a number of open-ended questions were designed to ascertain the participants’ understanding of their own and their students’ well-being. Thus, the current research had three main objectives: first, to detail law teachers’ overall psychological well-being; second, to explore how they experience and maintain their own well-being; third, to explore how they may seek to maintain the psychological wellbeing of their students. Consequently the online survey consisted of five main sections: the Psychological Well-being Scale; the Depression, Anxiety and Stress Scale – DASS-21; the Valuing Questionnaire; the Adult Hope Scale; and the open-ended questions.