In the 2021-22 academic year, headlines were full of alarming warnings about student engagement. In the wake of the Covid pandemic students were falling behind, students were having trouble focusing, and students were dropping out. The articles under the headlines lamented a general malaise that made it difficult for teachers to forge meaningful connections with their students. Professors reported that students seemed less willing to participate in class discussions and struggled to submit assignments on time. Sometimes students failed to show up for class at all. This kind of disengagement was a problem that seemed to pervade the education system, from elementary school on up. Unfortunately, law school students generally were no exception.
With the Covid crisis moving toward an endemic phase, many law professors are determined to ensure that the perceived epidemic of student disengagement that emerged in its wake doesn’t become similarly entrenched. Incorporating student intention-setting practices into the first-year legal writing curriculum may be a relatively simple way to guard against that possibility. By encouraging students to set and evaluate their own intentions with respect to their coursework, professors can connect with students as unique individuals who bring to the classroom their own sets of personal experiences and challenges. Particularly in the first-year legal research and writing classroom, professors can use intention-setting practices from the first days of class to shift the traditional top-down classroom dynamics that may leave some students feeling overwhelmed or disengaged.
As used in this essay, the idea of intention setting is a form of mindfulness training that has two different, but related, meanings. The first category, which I’ll call alignment intention setting, is a fairly structured concept connected to a traditional classroom practice of goal setting and attainment. It’s a practice designed to bridge the gap that can emerge between students’ best intentions and their actions. In the first-year legal writing classroom, alignment intention setting should require students to come up with an autonomous plan with respect to a specific task or assignment, using a method that incorporates four discrete components. First, students should identify a specific and personal goal or set of goals connected to the assignment. Second, being mindful of their personal circumstances, strengths, and weaknesses, students should articulate possible barriers to achieving those goals. Third, students should create for themselves a plan to dismantle those anticipated barriers. Fourth, students should honestly assess their own success when the task period ends.
The second version, which I’ll call centered intention setting, is a helpful tool to layer into more structured alignment intention-setting practices. Centered intention setting encourages students to identify a personal value or aspiration to connect to their actions with respect to a task. It is a mindfulness practice that spurs a person to commit to a way of being with their work. For example, centered intention setting could involve a student’s articulation of an intention to participate courageously in classroom discussions, to approach a new skill with patience, or to be fully present each time they sit down to work on a given assignment. Centered intention setting helps students focus on their personal approach to the learning process, instead of a specific result.
A. Why Incorporate Intention Setting?
In thinking through challenges related to student disengagement, it’s important to consider how the top-down structure baked into the traditional first-year legal writing curriculum might exacerbate some students’ sense of disconnection. First-year legal writing courses often require students to submit multiple building blocks leading up to graded written assignments. In the build-up to each of these assignments, the professor probably will convey an expected timeline, telling students when and how they should be preparing each step leading to the final submission. In response to initial drafts, the professor typically provides detailed appraisals describing what the student must change about the document to meet the professor’s expectations, with prescriptions for how the student should make those changes. After a final submission, students can expect yet another unilateral, top-down critique in which the professor explains how the student met or fell short of the professor’s expectations. This cycle repeats multiple times over the course of the first year.
Although top-down professor feedback is an indispensable component in student learning in the legal writing classroom, there is a tension between students’ need (and likely desire) for that critique and its potentially alienating nature. Specifically, in a classroom setting where students are constantly internalizing and reacting to unilateral, top-down feedback, without engaging in active, independent self-evaluation, they may find themselves feeling deflated by a sense that they will never meet all of the professor’s expectations. In fact, “research suggests that students have more restrictive engagement, lower positive emotion and intrinsic motivation, lower self-esteem, and higher anxiety when the environment is controlling rather than autonomy-supportive.” Because the first-year learning curve is especially steep, new law students may be particularly vulnerable to the sense of disconnection that a year-long cycle of unilateral, top-down feedback can engender.
Incorporating intention-setting practices into the curriculum from the first weeks of the 1L year is a way to engage students by encouraging them to work toward defining and meeting their own subjective expectations for what they want to accomplish with an assignment, not just constantly reacting to their professor’s instructions. When done well, alignment intention setting will help students define their own goals with specificity, but more importantly, it will ensure that they have a plan to match their actions with those goals. It’s one thing to specify what the student wants to get out of an assignment. It’s another to incorporate practices that help law students remove barriers to success once the demands of first-year studies fully set in. The suggestions in the section that follows may help professors partner with their students to make specific progress toward student-set goals and to help students gain the motivation that flows from greater autonomy and self-awareness.
Similarly, centered intention setting is an uncomplicated way for professors to help students create mindfulness with respect to how they, as individual people, want to show up for their work. An intention that helps students focus on a way of being or a mindset that they can bring to a specific task is empowering specifically because it is not something that will be measured or judged. Instead, centered intention setting creates a tether that students can use to reconnect with their work and to recalibrate their focus without fear of criticism when a task becomes difficult. This form of intention setting can be incorporated as a stand-alone tool or can be layered together with alignment intention setting to encourage resilience and engagement as a student works through specific tasks.
B. How to Incorporate Student Intention-Setting in the 1L Legal Writing Curriculum
How can legal writing professors translate what might seem like amorphous intention-setting concepts into a meaningful practice or set of practices? What follows are some simple ideas for building intention-setting into the first-year legal writing curriculum.
1. Alignment Intention-Setting for Better Time Management
Time management may be the most obvious category in which student intention and actions frequently fail to align. On the first day of class, most students truly intend to work ahead of deadlines, give themselves ample time to complete projects, and avoid procrastination. But then the realities of the first-year schedule set in, or life otherwise interferes (especially in the Covid era), and they find themselves getting off track. Professor-designed assignment timelines certainly can help students plan their time, but what they can’t do is account for individual students’ schedules, life circumstances, and personalities. Students who find themselves missing their professor’s targets and falling further behind each week can experience a sense of futility that undermines their engagement.
To change that dynamic, the professor might implement a weekly alignment intention-setting practice focused specifically on time management. For example, every Monday leading up to an assignment deadline the professor can remind the students about the range of tasks they should accomplish leading up to the due date. The professor can then set aside a few minutes to allow students to log their intentions in four steps.
First, ask the students to create a list of tasks that they expect to accomplish by class time on the following Monday.
Second, have the students mindfully assess their schedules and work habits and be honest about possible barriers to completing those tasks in the week ahead.
Next, ask the students to write down a specific plan to surmount the identified obstacles. For example, they can commit to a set of study hours, identify locations where they work most efficiently, or pledge to seek out help if a lack of understanding is interfering with their progress.
Finally, on the following Monday, ask the students to revisit the intentions they set for themselves from the week before and honestly assess how the week went. Did they adhere to their intentions? If so, how can they recreate that success in the week to come? If not, how can they strengthen or change their plan to better implement their intention going forward?
Because legal writing students must manage their time carefully throughout the first year, the professor can encourage them to keep their time management alignment intentions in a single document or chart that they can reflect back on periodically to monitor their commitment and progress. An alignment intention-setting chart might look something like this:
The combination of logging, tracking, and reflecting on time management intentions will increase student self-awareness around patterns of delay. By encouraging mindfulness around time management, this weekly practice may help students engage more consistently with their assignments and avoid the kind of procrastination that so frequently threatens first-year students’ success in their legal writing courses.
2. Combined Centered and Alignment Intention-Setting in Connection with Redrafting Assignments
The point in the semester when 1L students receive their first assignment feedback is a vulnerable moment. Even analytical legal writing feels inherently personal to the author, and fielding constructive criticism can make even the best students feel defensive or insecure. Especially where the students must redraft and submit multiple versions of an assignment, the goal should be to prime the students’ mindset to be open to critique and to help them articulate a plan to implement the suggested changes effectively. That creates a clear opportunity to incorporate intention-setting practices.
Centered intention setting is a simple way to encourage students to approach their professor’s feedback with a positive mindset. In the class before returning an assignment, the professor can provide class-wide feedback and ask students to be mindful of their personal reactions to that general feedback. Using that awareness, students should set an intention for how they will receive the professor’s critique of their individual work. Again, this form of intention setting isn’t about goal achievement, but rather it’s about creating a mindset that will help guide the students’ approach to their rewrite.
Additionally, in the first class after students have had the opportunity to digest their individual feedback, the professor can set aside a few minutes for alignment intention setting with respect to the redrafting process.
First, ask the students to write down one or two core takeaways from the professor’s critique reflecting where the students must spend the most energy and attention as they begin to revise. For example, based on the professor’s feedback, a student might decide to rework the organization for an entire section or to create more robust rule applications throughout their document.
Next, ask the students to write down obstacles they anticipate facing as they try to make those changes. For example, a student might identify that they are lacking sufficient sources to support a conclusory analysis or admit that they really don’t have a clear understanding of how a relevant legal rule works.
Third, encourage the students to come up with their own plan to overcome those obstacles. The student with insufficient sources might commit to watching a class recording on electronic research to improve their search process. The student with an understanding gap might pledge to attend office hours with a list of specific questions to talk through with the professor until the rule becomes clear.
Finally, with ample time left before the rewrite is due, ask the students to evaluate whether they’re meeting their own expectations with respect to the revision process. If so, how can they apply that success to another area of the rewrite? If not, how can they change their plan to resolve the problem? Have they committed to their centered intention to inform the revision process?
Integrating the centered and alignment intention setting practices makes the revision process less about simply reacting to a professor’s instructions and more about empowering students to connect with the rewrite by focusing on their own expectations for themselves.
3. Centered Intention Setting When Introducing New Skills
Over the course of their first year, legal writing students typically acquire a litany of new skills, including learning how to, for example: read legal sources critically and efficiently, identify legal rules and relevant facts from caselaw, organize a legal analysis using some version of the IRAC paradigm, and navigate electronic research databases to find relevant sources. The introduction of each new skill is a good entry point for centered intention setting.
On the day a new skill is introduced, the professor might set aside three minutes at the end of class to ask students to write down a centered intention for the time they will spend on their own practicing that skill. For example, after a first lesson in using Boolean search terms to conduct legal research, the professor might ask the students to take a moment to mindfully assess their reaction to the lesson and their perception of their ability to implement the new skill on their own. The students can use that awareness to set an intention to approach the skill with a specific mindset, such as creativity, or patience, or persistence. The professor can remind students that the new skill will take time to develop and that the centered intention should be something the students can use to refocus themselves when they feel their skill acquisition getting off-track. Staying mindful with respect to that intention can help ease frustration by keeping the students’ attention on their intended way of engaging with the new learning process. By shifting the focus from outcome to process, the centered intention may improve student resilience and engagement in the face of a difficult new task.
4. Alignment Intention Setting for Writing Mechanics
Because legal writing professors are usually able to diagnose a student’s particular struggles with writing mechanics fairly early in the year, this category presents another great opportunity for personalized alignment intention setting. For example, the professor may notice that a student’s first assignment is riddled with passive voice that bogs down the analysis. In an individual conference with that student, the professor can help the student engage in alignment intention setting tailored to that specific problem.
Using the suggested four-step method, during the conference the student could set an intention, such as learning to recognize passive voice on her own, substituting more active verbs whenever possible. Next, the professor should ask the student to consider the barriers. Perhaps there’s a lack of real understanding of what makes a verb passive, and the student keeps making the same mistakes despite trying to avoid them. Then the professor can work with the student to plan a tailored solution. Perhaps the student will bring a paragraph to the professor or a writing specialist each week for individualized coaching on making passive verbs active. Maybe the student will simply plan to proofread each time she works on a paragraph rather than saving the proofreading for the last minute when her attention will be strained. Finally, ask the student to set aside time before the next draft is due to evaluate whether she successfully cut down on passive voice and to make a new plan if she is still struggling. In these ways, alignment intention setting may help free a student who has been stuck with a habitual mechanics problem by creating mindfulness around those patterns and setting a course for change.
It’s unlikely that there is any singular solution for the problem of student disengagement that has gained so much attention because of the Covid pandemic. It’s a problem that will require multiple creative solutions. Incorporating student intention-setting practices into the traditional first-year legal writing curriculum is an uncomplicated way to gain ground in the effort.
Using intention setting as an engagement tool has many benefits. First, it’s easy to implement. All it takes is a few minutes of class on a weekly basis to establish a consistent practice. Moreover, these practices can be adjusted to accommodate almost any aspect of the curriculum, from time management to specific skill acquisition. Additionally, intention-setting practices can reduce students’ myopic focus on living up to a professor’s expectations and increase their sense of ownership in their goals for themselves. Intention setting can be a great tool for office hours and conferences, allowing more meaningful conversations about how the professor can support an individual student’s path to success. Finally, these practices can help students identify the habits that work for them, constantly making adjustments that create better accountability with respect to their own learning goals.
Perhaps most importantly, incorporating alignment intention-setting practices can help professors connect with students by demonstrating that they view their students as whole people with unique circumstances that may make certain tasks especially difficult. Moreover, folding centered intention setting into the curriculum can offer a counterpoint to the new law student’s preoccupation with results, reminding them that it’s sometimes okay to focus less on outcomes and more on their own experience of the work. Incorporating this practice is a way for legal writing professors to show their first-year students that they value the students’ process, not just their results.
In all these ways, incorporating intention-setting practices may help first-year students take better ownership of their work, engage in mindful self-evaluation, and feel confident that their professor supports them as unique individual learners. Those benefits can help forge better student engagement in the first-year legal research and writing curriculum.
See, e.g., Jonathan Malesic, My College Students Are Not Ok, N.Y. Times, May 13, 2022; Beth McMurtrie, A ‘Stunning’ Level of Student Disconnection, Chron. of Higher Educ., April 5, 2022.
See Kalyn Beisha, Melanie Asmar & Lori Higgins, ‘I Still Just Worry’: Three Teachers on Covid’s Long Shadow Over American Schools, N.Y. Times, March 19, 2022; Sara Weissman, A Massive Disruption, A Range of Student Reactions, Inside Higher Ed, Feb. 2, 2022 (“Some forms of student engagement declined notably at most institutions, more so for first-year students than seniors, particularly modes of engagement that typically involve a face-to-face component, such as collaborative learning and interactions between professors and students.”).
Meera E. Deo, Jacquelyn Petzold & Chad Christensen, LSSSE 2021 Annual Survey Results: The Covid Crisis in Legal Education at 7-8, 11, 15 (noting a slight drop in positive student relationships with faculty and peers, decreased opportunities for students to talk with faculty members, mental exhaustion among students, and a sense among a majority of students that Covid interfered with their ability to succeed).
In the past decade, many law schools have incorporated mindfulness courses or integrated mindfulness work into existing courses, recognizing the benefits that mindfulness practices can have on law students’ focus and communication. See Katerina P. Lewinbuk, Lawyer Heal Thy Self: Incorporating Mindfulness Into Legal Education & Profession, 40 J. Legal Prof. 1, 3 n.18, n.19 (2015); Nathalie Martin, Think Like a (Mindful) Lawyer: Incorporating Mindfulness, Professional Identity, and Emotional Intelligence Into the First Year Law Curriculum, 36 U. Ark. Little Rock L. Rev. 413, 414 n.6 (2014).
Goal setting and intention setting are sometimes described interchangeably, but as used here, intention setting is the broader of the two concepts, representing the combination of a goal the student can plan to achieve, a plan to help the student reach the objective, and a method for self-evaluation and accountability. See Steven E. Ekeberg & Mark E. Tubbs, The Role of Intentions in Work Motivation: Implications for Goal-Setting Theory and Research, 16 Acad. of Mgmt. Rev. 180, 181 (1991) . In that way, the intention-setting idea “represent[s] both means and end.” Id. at 181.
There are myriad approaches and theories related to goal setting, tracking, and achievement. The approach described here is meant to help first-year law students focus on process and mindful self-evaluation to promote engagement with the legal research and writing curriculum.
This idea is similar to a form of intention setting that is familiar to some practitioners of meditation and yoga. In those contexts, intention setting can be a powerful tool for connecting practitioner to practice, helping create a sense of focus that aligns the practitioner’s thoughts with the body’s actions. See Lo Styx, Why We Set Intentions in Yoga and Meditation Practice, Very Well Mind (Oct. 19, 2021), https://www.verywellmind.com/why-we-set-intentions-in-yoga-and-meditation-practice-5205511 [https://perma.cc/3T6G-29J7].
See Taylor Hausburg & Zachary Herrmann, Intention-Setting in the Classroom, Edutopia, Nov. 12, 2019.
In setting an intention,
[y]ou may or may not achieve your goals, but following intentions such as being kind or calm or courageous can lead to more satisfaction and a greater sense of meaning. Deliberately setting an intention helps us to conduct ourselves in a manner that is consistent with our values and that fosters skillful behavior. In other words, it encourages us to deliberately create the quality of our moment-to-moment experience, rather than to rely heavily on habits.
Leonard L. Riskin & Rachel Wohl, Mindfulness in the Heat of Conflict: Taking Stock, 20 Harv. Negot. L. Rev. 121, 147–48 (2015).
Eunjin Seo, Erika A. Patall, Marlone D. Henderson & Rebecca R. Steingut, The Effects of Goal Origin and Implementation Intentions on Goal Commitment, Effort, and Performance, 86 J. of Experimental Educ. 386, 388 (2018).
See id. (In a review of two studies involving implementation intentions, described as “plans for when, where, and how to achieve a goal,” the authors noted that it is “critical . . . to target self-regulation to promote self-set goal achievement” through “[i]nterventions such as providing students with opportunities to practice self-control by monitoring the process of goal pursuit . . . teaching students to view self-control as an unlimited capacity . . . or encouraging students to set specific action plans.” (internal citations omitted)).
See id. at 398 (“[T]he current research demonstrates that when autonomous goals . . . are coupled with implementation intentions, they facilitate goal progress. Without implementation intentions, despite all their benefits for psychological functioning, self-set goals may not effectively yield successful goal pursuit and performance.”).
Mindfulness-based interventions and practices have been shown to improve “concentration, focus, and organization” among college students and are thought to “attenuate stress and anxiety while improving focus and awareness.” Mandy D. Bamber & Joanne Kraenzle Schneider, College Students’ Perceptions of Mindfulness-Based Interventions: A Narrative Review of the Qualitative Research, 41 Current Psych. 667, 667, 673 (2022).
“Mindfulness enables students to acquire the skills essential to practicing law, including increasing focus without distraction, empathizing with clients and colleagues, listening with open-mindedness and patience, creative problem-solving, productive communication, and properly dealing with conflict, all while engaging in honest and fearless self-awareness and aligning the practice of law with personal values.” Lewinbuk, supra note 5, at 2-3.
Because intention-setting logs will inevitably result in students recording information about their personal lives, the best practice here may be to have students keep these logs as their own private self-assessment tools rather than turning them in for their professors’ review. Cf. Martin, supra note 5, at 435.
“The more we and our students can slow down enough to notice and become aware of our own thoughts, feelings, and reactions to whatever is taking place in the present moment, the more we can make intentional choices, both in the immediate situation and in the bigger picture of our professional development.” Susan L. Brooks, Fostering Wholehearted Lawyers: Practical Guidance for Supporting Law Students’ Professional Identity Formation, 14 St. Thomas L. J. 412, 427 (2018).
Themes for the kind of “mindful engagement” that centered intention setting embodies could include “presence, staying open and curious, cultivating the ability to question our own assumptions and see a situation from multiple perspectives, being willing to examine our judgments, implicit biases, and blind spots, developing a greater ability to sit with discomfort and uncertainty, and maintaining balance and well-being.” Susan L. Brooks, Mindful Engagement and Relational Lawyering, 48 Sw. U. L. Rev. 267, 281–82 (2019).