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GUEST POST: Charting the Course: The Science of Law School Success


Dr. Brett Brosseit
Director and Assistant Professor of Advanced Critical Thinking
Virtually every aspiring law student asks the same fundamental questions: Am I prepared for this? Can I do it? Will I make a good attorney? These are appropriate questions, particularly in light of recent large-scale research studies indicating that many of today’s college graduates may lack proficiency in the foundational critical thinking skills required to succeed and excel in the study and practice of law.  These findings have sent shockwaves through the academy, calling into question the value and efficacy of higher education, particularly when it comes to equipping graduates with the advanced reasoning and problem-solving skills most in demand in the 21st Century.  As these students enter law school, the legal academy faces intense scrutiny for failure to adopt valid empirically based teaching approaches and demonstrate adequate educational results, prompting the American Bar Association to exercise its regulatory authority to mandate that law schools must now demonstrate learning outcomes.

Dr. Brett Brosseit, Director and Assistant Professor of Advanced Critical Thinking at the Ave Maria School of Law in Naples, Florida, seeks to change the equation so that law students can pursue their chosen profession with skill and confidence.  According to scholars familiar with the state of legal education, traditional law school academic support programs cannot address the widespread fundamental deficits in critical thinking among incoming students, and a scarcity of research has left the legal academy calling for empirical guidance to inform cohesive approaches to the systemic challenges it faces.  In light of this, for the better part of the last decade, Dr. Brosseit has dedicated his career to researching empirically based methods of accelerating the development of critical thinking skills in law students. Dr. Brosseit draws from the strongest lines of research in the learning sciences, including adult education, psychology, neuroscience, and sociology, to inform innovative new approaches to the current challenges facing legal education.  His results appear promising.
“The good news,” says Dr. Brosseit, “is that critical thinking skills can be developed, although little research exists on the formation of thinking skills in law students.” As he explains, however, “students are unlikely to fully develop the key intellectual skills associated with top success in legal studies and practice in the absence of focused instruction and deliberate practice.” 

Dr. Brosseit recently conducted a grounded theory research study to formulate a comprehensive model of the development of critical thinking in law students. The resulting Critical Thinking in Law Students (CTLS) model provides the legal academy with empirical guidance to formulate new strategies to improve learning outcomes and comply with regulatory mandates, while also offering the broader academy insight into the intricate combination of factors that affect the ability of higher education institutions to provide their students with effective education for the development of higher order thinking skills. The CTLS model takes into account the dynamics that impede the development of strong critical thinking skills in law students and identifies the key factors that, when addressed by law schools at an institutional level, contribute to the optimization of students’ performance. 

“By incorporating the most promising evidence-based approaches from various disciplines,” Dr. Brosseit notes, “professors can help law students optimize their intellectual and professional performance for superior results, similar to the way that skilled coaches help Olympic athletes attain peak performance.” As a result, many of Dr. Brosseit’s students develop a “confidence born of competence” that stems from the ability to accurately self-assess their own legal learning and problem-solving skills and make effective strategic decisions to overcome barriers to success and advance toward expert-level performance.  Scientists call this type of skill “metacognition,” and research indicates that differences in learners’ levels of performance are more strongly related to differences in their metacognitive abilities than to differences in their intellectual abilities, giving those with advanced metacognitive training a distinct advantage in competitive academic and professional environments.

As a pioneer in the science of legal learning, Dr. Brosseit puts his research findings into practice and constantly assesses and refines his teaching strategies for optimum results. To obtain the most accurate outcome information possible, Dr. Brosseit gathers and compares different types of assessment data on his programs, an approach known as triangulation. Dr. Brosseit tests his students for various constructs, such as metacognition, before and after their coursework to acquire statistical data. He then compares this data to the outcomes students report in detailed surveys, and he carefully analyzes the individual statements they provide to gain a clearer understanding of their intellectual development and level of mastery of key legal learning and problem-solving skills. He uses this information to help individual students, to further refine his teaching strategies, and to zero in on fruitful new areas of inquiry for his research.

The formulation of a comprehensive model of the development of critical thinking in law students, and the establishment of an evidence-based curriculum for the optimization of law students’ critical thinking with measurable results, take on increased significance in light of the recent changes in the ABA standards that require law schools to demonstrate learning outcomes.  While the results of Dr. Brosseit’s CTLS model and critical thinking program are indeed encouraging, he emphasizes that researchers are just beginning to scratch the surface of understanding how advances in the learning sciences can accelerate the development of students’ legal learning and problem-solving skills. It is vitally important that legal educators and researchers aggressively pursue this line of inquiry for the benefit of individual students, and society as a whole,” Dr. Brosseit urges. “Lawyers play a critical role in maintaining social justice around the globe, and a strong legal education system helps protect the rights and liberties of future generations.” As Dr. Brosseit explains, “the capacity of today’s law school graduates to address the problems of an increasingly complex and rapidly evolving world serves as a bellwether for the future health and prosperity of democratic society.”

~ Dr. Brett Brosseit

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