Learning Curve

Choose Your Own Academic Adventure: The Impact of Autonomy in Academic Support

Halle Butler Hara

Professor and Director of Academic Success
Capital University Law School

Originally Published in The Learning Curve, Winter/Spring 2019

Citation: Halle Butler Hara, Choose Your Own Academic Adventure: The Impact of Autonomy in Academic Support, The Learning Curve (Winter/Spring 2019)

In the late 1970s, Edward Packard created a unique literary experience that allowed the reader to sit in the driver’s seat of the story, making choices about the main character’s actions to shape the plot’s outcome.  These wildly popular books, known as Choose Your Own Adventure, are lauded for capturing young readers’ attention by harnessing their innate creativity.  This interactive genre has stood the test of time and even expanded, now appearing in grown-up titles such as My Lady’s Choosing, an interactive romance novel, and interactive YouTube videos that allow viewers to choose the course of action.

This non-linear and collaborative way of learning is in stark contrast to the historic first-year law school curriculum and perhaps the law school curriculum in general.  If I think back to my experience as a first-year law student, I took a set of prescribed courses, learned using the Socratic method, and had one exam at the end of the semester to showcase my knowledge.  To perform well, I used unguided trial and error to unlock the secrets of this one-size-fits-all environment.  Since then, legal education has progressed. We now embrace an increasingly student-centered approach and use metacognitive strategies to bolster student performance.  However, as a group, we are reluctant to relinquish control over students and pressure them to behave in a certain way to ensure their success.  After all, they don’t know what they need to do to pass the bar exam, we do.

This fixed mindset overlooks the impactful changes that can be derived from offering choices.  In Learning to Choose, Choosing to Learn:  The Key to Student Motivation and Achievement, Mike Anderson explains that, even in the youngest students, educational choices can have a beneficial impact on memory, prompt self-initiated revision and editing, and result in better organization.  Grit, he explains, is likewise impacted by connecting diligent “work and interest,” as opposed to “compliance under duress.”

The studies conducted by Lawrence Krieger and Kenneth Sheldon support that choice positively impacts law students’ motivation and satisfaction.  The studies likewise show that greater perceived autonomy predicted a higher grade point average and improved bar exam results.  Thus, our desire to universally control and direct students’ behavior, particularly within the rigid first-year curriculum, may be doing more harm than good.  If, as Daniel H. Pink says, “control leads to compliance” and “autonomy leads to engagement,” our students are better served if we resist the urge to guide their every move.

As academic support professionals, we generally greet first-year law students in the fall with a series of one-size-fits-all workshops offered at just the right time in the semester. In the beginning, we teach how to read and brief cases, and we explain effective note-taking methods for law school.  After students have learned a certain amount of doctrinal ​material, we discuss course summaries and, toward the end of the semester, we address exams.  Although we may offer varied techniques in workshops by, for example, introducing the concept of a mind map instead of an outline or using CREAC instead of IRAC, the message is clear:  there is just one path that leads to law school success.

What if, instead, we allow students a guided but independent approach that permits them to discover their own weaknesses and endeavor to improve them on their own time?  As academic support professionals, we have inherent flexibility in what we teach and how we teach it.  If our end goal is to produce empowered individuals who think critically, introducing greater autonomy requires consideration.  The good news is that we do not need to overhaul the first-year curriculum or revamp an entire law school course to realize the value of student autonomy.  This is the premise underlying James M. Lang’s Small Teaching—we can create positive change through “small but powerful” modifications to our instructional practices.

Consider, for example, academic coaching that introduces effective learning techniques, allows students to try a skill, and encourages self-reflection so that students can identify their own strengths and weaknesses in a supportive environment. Completion of a questionnaire and a goal exercise with individualized feedback can set the stage for the students’ own selection of academic support activities that empower them to improve.  From there, students can engage in diverse work through exercises they select to best serve their individual needs.

  • If students are concerned that their study techniques are generally ineffective, they can opt to complete a self-regulated learner worksheet which discusses spaced repetition, interleaving, and forced recall and causes them to consider whether their current approach utilizes a combination of those methods.
  • Students looking to improve their exam-writing skills can select from exercises that demonstrate effective techniques, allow the students to try those techniques using practice problems, and prompt them to engage in self-evaluation for improvement of their performance.
  • Students can make the most of their mid-terms by completing a guided self-evaluation that prompts them to design and articulate a plan for moving forward.
  • Students desiring to sharpen their writing skills can select an editing exercise that allows for recognition and correction of grammatical errors and the elimination of unnecessary words.
  • Students struggling with multiple-choice questions can select an exercise that sets forth multiple-choice strategies and guides them through questions that prompt articulation of why one answer is correct and the others are incorrect.
  • If students are struggling with self-efficacy, they can select an activity that prompts them to write about their worries and develop a mantra they can repeat in times of stress.

Allowing students to select from these types of activities undoubtedly involves an increased commitment from the instructor because the loop can and should be closed with individualized feedback.  If resources for individualized feedback are limited, a combination of workshops and exercises can be utilized to move away from the one-size-fits-all approach to academic support.  In either case, transferring the responsibility for learning from the instructor to the students alters the students’ energy toward their academic support experience.  Just as Choose Your Own Adventure books prompted reluctant readers to devour the written word, allowing law students autonomy can shift their vision of academic support from something being forced upon them to something they are opting to do.  As an added benefit, the learn-by-doing approach rooted in John Dewey’s theory of education is credited with improving students’ problem-solving skills. By inspiring students to become better learners on their own terms based on their own work, we are sending a very different message:  there are numerous paths to success in law school and it is up to them to choose their own academic adventure.

Emily Grant, Helicopter Professors, 53 GONZ. L. REV. 1 (2017).
James M. Lang, Small Teaching:  Everyday Lessons From the Science of Learning 5 (2016).
Only a Teacher (Schoolhouse Pioneers): John Dewey (1859-1952),
https://www.pbs.org/onlyateacher/john.html (lasted visited Dec. 3, 2018).
Kennon M. Sheldon and Lawrence S. Krieger, Understanding the Negative Effects of Legal Education on Law Students: A Longitudinal Test of Self-Determination Theory, 33 PERSONALITY AND SOC. PSYCHOL. BULL. 883–97 (2007).

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