Teaching independent learning skills in the first year: A positive psychology strategy for promoting law student well-being

Rachael Field, James Duffy, Anna Huggins


Empirical evidence in Australia and overseas has established that in many university disciplines, students begin to experience elevated levels of psychological distress in their first year of study. There is now a considerable body of empirical data that establishes that this is a significant problem for law students. Psychological distress may hamper a law student’s capacity to learn successfully, and certainly hinders their ability to thrive in the tertiary environment. We know from Self-Determination Theory (SDT), a conceptual branch of positive psychology, that supporting students’ autonomy in turn supports their well-being. This article seeks to connect the literature on law student well-being and independent learning using Self-Determination Theory (SDT) as the theoretical bridge. We argue that deliberate instruction in the development of independent learning skills in the first year curriculum is autonomy supportive. It can therefore lay the foundation for academic and personal success at university, and may be a protective factor against decline in law student psychological well-being


Australian higher education, legal education, student well-being, Self- Determination Theory, independent learning

Full Text:



Ashford, S., & Cummings, L. (1983). Feedback as an individual resource: Personal strategies of creating information. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 32, 370-398.

Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF). (2013). AQF specification for the Bachelor Degree, (2nd ed.). Retrieved from http://www.aqf.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/10AQF_Bachelor-Degree.pdf

Black, A., & Deci, E. (2000). The effects of student self-regulation and instructor autonomy support on learning in a college-level natural science course: A self-determination theory perspective. Science Education, 84, 740-756.

Boekaerts, M. (1997). Self-regulated learning: a new concept embraced by researchers, policy makers, educators, teachers and students. Learning and Instruction, 7(2), 161-186.

Bradley, D., Noonan, P., Nugent, H., & Scales, B. (2008). Review of Australian Higher Education: Final report. Retrieved from http://www.voced.edu.au/content/ngv%3A32134

Centre for Studies in Higher Education (CSHE). (2011). National Summit on Tertiary Student Mental Health, August 4-5, 2011, Melbourne. Retrieved from www.cshe.unimelb.edu.au

Cranney, J., Andrews, A., & Morris, S. (2012). Curriculum renewal to build student resilience and success. OLT Grant. Retrieved from http://www.olt.gov.au/project-curriculum-renewal-build-student-resilience-and-success-phase-1-2012

Cubukcu, F. (2009). Learner autonomy, self regulation and metacognition. International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education, 2(1), 53-64.

Damon, W., & Phelps, E. (1989) Critical distinctions among three approaches to peer education, International Journal of Educational Research, 13(1), 9-19.

Deci, E.L., & Ryan, R.M. (Eds.). (2002). Handbook of self-determination research. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.

Field, R. (2014). Stimulating strategic change in legal education to address high levels of psychological distress in law students. ALTC Teaching Fellowship Final Report. Retrieved from http://www.olt.gov.au/resource-promoting-law-student-well-being-through-curriculum

Field, R., Duffy, J., & Huggins, A. (2014a). Independent learning skills, Self-determination theory and psychological well-being: Strategies for supporting the first year university experience. Paper presented at the International First Year in Higher Education Conference, July 6-9, 2014, Darwin.

Field, R., Duffy, J. & Huggins, A. (2014b). Lawyering and positive professional identities. Chatswood, Australia: LexisNexis Butterworths.

Hunter Schwartz, M. (2008). Expert learning for law students (2nd ed.). Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.

Hunter Schwartz, M., Sparrow, S. & Hess, G. (2009) Teaching law by design: Engaging students from the syllabus to the final exam. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.

Huggins, A. (2012). Autonomy supportive curriculum design: A salient factor in promoting law students' wellbeing. University of New South Wales Law Journal, 35(3), 683-716.

Kift, S., & Field, R. (2009). Intentional first year curriculum design as a means of facilitating student engagement: Some exemplars. Paper presented to the 12th Pacific Rim First Year in Higher Education Conference, 29 June - 1 July 2009, Townsville, Queensland.

Krieger, L. (2011). The most ethical of people, the least ethical of people: Proposing self-determination theory to measure professional character formation. University of St. Thomas Law Journal, 8, 168-193.

Larcombe, W. (2014). Not only law students: High levels of psychological distress in a large university sample. Paper presented at the 2014 National Wellness for Law Forum, 6-7 February, Queensland University of Technology, Queensland.

Larcombe, W., Tumbaga, L., Malkin, I., Nicholson, P., & Tokatlidis, O. (2013). Does an improved experience of law school protect students against depression, anxiety and stress? An empirical study of wellbeing and the law school experience of LLB and JD students. Sydney Law Review, 35, 407-432. Retrieved from http://sydney.edu.au/law/slr/slr_35/slr35_2/407_Larcombe.pdf

Leahy, C., Peterson, R.F., Wilson, I.G., Newbury, J., Tonkin, A.L., & Turnbull, D. (2010). Distress levels and self-reported treatment rates for medicine, law, psychology and mechanical engineering students: Cross-sectional study. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 44(7), 608-615.

Manning, P. (2011). Use your words: Providing informational feedback as a means to support self-determination and improve law student outlook and outcomes. Working Paper, Western State College of Law, 1 October 2011. Retrieved from http://ssrn.com/abstract=1967280

Meyer, B., Haywood, N., Sachdev, D. & Faraday, S. (2008). Independent Learning – Literature Review, Research Report DCSF-RR051 (Department for Children Schools and Families).

Niemiec, C. & Ryan, R. (2009). Autonomy, competence, and relatedness in the classroom: Applying Self-Determination Theory to educational practice. Theory and Research in Education, 7(2), 133-144.

Niemiec, C., Ryan, R., & Deci, E. (2010). Self-determination theory and the relation of autonomy to self-regulatory processes and personality development. In R. Hoyle (Ed.). Handbook of Personality and Self-Regulation (pp. 169-191). West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.

Peterson, C. (2006). A primer in positive psychology. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Reeve, J., Deci, E., & Ryan, R. (2004). Self-Determination Theory: A dialectical framework for understanding sociocultural influences on student motivation. In D. McInerney & S. Van Etten (Eds.). Big Theories Revisited (pp. 31-60). Greenwich, CT: Information Age.

Ryan, R., & Deci, E. (2000). Self-Determination Theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development and well-being. American Psychologist 55(1), 68-78.

Ryan, R., & Deci, E. (2008). Self-Determination Theory and the role of basic psychological needs in personality and the organization of behavior. In O.P. John, R.W. Robins & L.A. Pervin (Eds.). Handbook of Personality: Theory and Research (3rd ed., pp. 654-678). New York: Guilford Press.

Seligman, M.E.P., Steen, T.A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410-421. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.60.5.410

Sheldon, K., Williams, G, & Joiner, T. (2003). Self-Determination Theory in the Clinic: Motivating Physical and Mental Health. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Sheldon, K., & Krieger, L. S. (2007). Understanding the negative effects of legal education on law students: A longitudinal test of Self-Determination Theory. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33, 883-897. doi: 10.1177/0146167207301014

Stallman, H. (2010). Psychological distress in university students: A comparison with general population data. Australian Psychologist, 45(4), 286–294.

Stallman, H. (2011). Embedding resilience within the tertiary curriculum: A feasibility study. Higher Education Research & Development, 30(2), 121-133. doi: 10.1080/07294360.2010.509763

Stallman, H. (2012). University counselling services in Australia and New Zealand: Activities, changes, and challenges. Australian Psychologist, 47(4), 249-253. doi: 10.1111/j.1742-9544.2011.00023.x

Su, Y-L., & Reeve, J. (2011). A meta-analysis of the effectiveness of intervention programs designed to support autonomy. Educational Psychology Review, 23, 159-188. doi: 10.1007/s10648-010-9142-7

Townes O’Brien, M., Tang, S., & Hall, K. (2011). No time to lose: Negative impact on law student wellbeing may begin in year one. The International Journal of the First Year in Higher Education, 2(2), 49-60. doi:10.5204/intjfyhe.v2i2.84

University of New South Wales (UNSW) Learning Centre. (2013). First steps: A beginner’s guide to uni. Retrieved from http://www.lc.unsw.edu.au/firststeps/diff_ind.html

University of Queensland Institute for Teaching and Learning Innovation. (2015). About flipped classrooms. Retrieved from http://www.uq.edu.au/tediteach/flipped-classroom/what-is-fc.html

Vansteenkiste, M., Niemiec, C.P., & Soenens, B. 2010. The development of the five mini-theories of Self-Determination Theory. In T.C. Urdan, & S.A. Karabenick (Eds.). The Decade Ahead: Theoretical Perspectives on Motivation and Achievement (pp. 105-166). Bingley, UK: Emerald Group Publishing.

Watson, P., & Field, R. (2011). Promoting student wellbeing and resilience at law school. In S. Kift, J. Cowley, M. Sanson, & P. Watson (Eds), Excellence and innovation in legal education (pp. 389-419). Chatswood, Australia: LexisNexis.

Zimmerman, B.J. (1986). Becoming a self-regulated learner: Which are the key subprocesses? Contemporary Educational Psychology, 11, 307-313

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5204/jld.v8i2.238
Abstract Views:

Article Metrics

Metrics Loading ...

Metrics powered by PLOS ALM


  • There are currently no refbacks.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Contact | Announcements | © Queensland University of Technology | ISSN: 1832-8342