A study published in the December edition of the Journal of Research in Personality, and featured last year in the Duquesne Law Review, concluded that students who came to campus with high levels of hope got better grades and were more satisfied with their lives after completing their first semester, which tends to be the most stressful.
The researchers distinguished hope from optimism, high levels of which boosted life satisfaction but not first semester grades.
“Optimism is the expectation that the future will be good, regardless of how this happens,” said Kevin Rand, an assistant professor of psychology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. “Hope is the expectation about things you have actual control over.”
Rand conducted the research with Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law clinical associate professor Allison Martin and psychology graduate student Amanda Shea. The team launched the project in part because of the reputation law school has for exacting a high toll on students’ mental health, Rand said.
“We know that graduate education can be stressful, but the existing research shows that there is actually something worse about law school,” he said. “It’s uniquely bad. We wanted to see who comes through that toxic environment unscathed.”
The researchers asked 86 members of the incoming class at McKinney in 2007 a series of questions about their levels of hope and optimism. They also examined participants’ undergraduate grade-point averages and Law School Admission Test scores.
The team then surveyed the participants after four months in law school and collected their first semester grades, performing a statistical analysis to determine how the factors related to each other.
“I was a little surprised — having gone through the law school process myself — that the LSAT scores were not as correlated to the first semester grades,” said Martin. “Hope was a better predictor of academic success in our study.”
High rates of hope correlated to higher law school GPAs, as did higher undergraduate GPAs. There was no significant relationship between high levels of optimism and law school grades. However, higher levels of both optimism and hope predicted psychological well-being and life satisfaction among the survey participants.
The researchers cited previous studies on hope and achievement in higher education to help explain the results. Students with high levels of hope had greater graduation rates and GPAs, were more engaged in learning and were better equipped to deal with academic stresses. They tended to be better at staying on task, setting goals based on previous performance and keeping motivated.
By contrast, students with low levels of hope tend to focus more on performance than on learning, Martin said. They have so much anxiety about failing tests that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Previous research into optimism and undergraduate students’ academic performance found a positive correlation between the two, but research specific to law school has found that pessimism, or a “healthy skepticism,” actually predicted academic success.
Rand noted that the survey participants at McKinney registered hope and optimism levels on par with those of the average college student at the start of his or her first semester, but those levels dropped to below the average by the end of the semester.
“It certainly got worse over time,” he said. “At the end of the first semester, everybody feels beat down.”
Martin said that she immediately began to recognize the behavior of her first-year law students as she started researching what is known as hope theory.
“The first semester is scary. You don’t know what to expect, and you take a final exam at the end of the semester and that’s your grade. You have to live with that,” she said. But if students are alerted to the positive correlation between high hope and better grades, “they can actually engender hope in themselves.”
For example, students can approach a long-term goal by setting smaller, achievable sub-goals that build upon each other and help prevent them from feeling overwhelmed, she said.
The researchers noted that their initial survey group was fairly small and skewed slightly toward women. They have already conducted similar surveys at five additional law schools around the country and are analyzing the data. They plan to conduct a year-long survey of next year’s incoming class at McKinney.
Contact Karen Sloan at firstname.lastname@example.org.