Tuesday, May 21, 2019
Strength in Numbers
Today is the first day of the 7th Annual Association of Academic Support Educators [AASE] National Conference. This year well over 200 law school academic support educators are gathering in Seattle, Washington, to share what we have learned about how to help our students succeed in law school and on the bar examination. For me, it is an enlightening pleasure every year to swap stories and strategies with my brilliant colleagues.
Today's lead-off plenary session, presented by Michael Barry and Zoe Niesel of St. Mary's University School of Law and Isabel F. Peres of Seattle University School of Law, discussed the use of robust data analysis to create predictive models to help identify and calibrate the guidance provided to specific students in preparation for the bar exam. Several other sessions on the agenda this week address the need to use specific, articulable information throughout the process of providing academic support: from laying out detailed strategic plans to assessing student development to predicting bar passage rates. Certainly, like any mature field of study in which reliable and reproducible outcomes are valued, academic success recognizes the importance of definition, measurement, recording, and scrutiny.
Part of me feels there is an irony in this, in that the AASE Conference is also an opportunity to work with and learn from some of the most accomplished veterans in the field, people whose spontaneous intuition often appears to be more perceptive and accurate than a detailed mathematical data analysis. Not only that, there is also a pervasive insistence throughout the Conference on recognizing the ineluctable humanity of each student -- of seeing every one not just as a set of numbers, but as an unpredictable human with immeasurable potential. The numbers might tell us that student X has a 64% chance of passing the bar, but we might nevertheless work with X as if we sense he really has a 90% chance -- and in doing so, might even help X move from 64% to 90%.
The reality, of course, is that there is no contradiction. Experienced and gifted professionals are observant; they work with data they may not even be consciously aware of when they assess a student's strengths and weaknesses. In that context, rigorous scientific analysis can be just as much about confirming the deep knowledge of the veteran as about uncovering previously unsuspected truths. It can also be about articulating facts and relationships observed by others through long experience in ways that make those facts and truths easier to explain to those new to the field.
Thus, our annual conferences are a double celebration of strength in numbers, recognizing not only the value of sharing the wisdom and lore of our most experienced professionals in a group setting, but also the importance of capturing and confirming this wisdom through data that can back up our intuition, guide our choices, and persuade skeptical students and colleagues.