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Why Student Learning Data is Faculty’s Secret Super Power

Image: student learning analyticsImagine if students walked into class each day and you could see a digital box hovering over their heads that told you exactly how much they understood about the topic you planned to discuss. Wow! How would that change your approach to teaching?

It sounds like a superpower, but with student learning data and analytics, this scenario - along with other benefits - can be an everyday occurrence. Yet for a variety of reasons, faculty often are reluctant to take advantage, even when this data is available through a digital learning system or tool they may be using.

This hesitance is understandable. The amount of available data can feel overwhelming, and the whole process may sound like extra work. But what I’ve learned, both through my own experience and in working with faculty in various institutions and content areas, is that the key is finding the right balance that lets you use student learning analytics to provide the greatest benefit to both you and your students. Here, I’ll share my top five pieces of advice for how to do it (and what’s in it for you).

  1. Make the Student Data Work for You

 The best place to start is by identifying which pieces of information are most important to helping you help your students. To determine which information is most critical to student success in your class, invest a little time on the front end analyzing the data as a whole, looking for general patterns of behavior and how those behaviors impact student performance in both positive and negative ways.

The data available may vary depending on what digital learning system you’re using. For example, you may determine that students who do not complete the practice questions in individual lessons perform lower on quizzes or exams than those who do. Or, you might see that students who spend a certain amount of time in a lesson perform better than students who spend less time. Likewise, you may find a correlation between the amount of time students spend repeating quiz questions and their performance on summative assessments such as unit level exams. Once you identify the information having the greatest impact on student performance, spend some time sharing that information with students. Bringing their attention to the impact of certain behaviors on their learning can positively impact the decisions students make and ultimately improve learning in your course.

  1. Maximize Class Time & Your Expertise

Student learning data also can make a positive impact on your day-to-day teaching. Students appreciate faculty who do not waste their time lecturing on subjects they have already mastered. Using the data, you can see how much your students understand a given topic. Instead of lectures that repeat what students already know, you can maximize their time in class - and your own - by spending time on areas where you can see the class is struggling.

What’s more, you can let them know why you’re doing it: "Based upon the performance by the class on the assignment on genetics, I think we need to go over this topic a little more in class. Everyone seems to be struggling with a couple of the concepts, so let's make sure everyone understands." This behavior sends the message to students that faculty care about students' learning, and not just sticking to the course outline and getting through the content.

This same data gives you more freedom to be the expert. Imagine being able to stop and elaborate on a topic your students are struggling to comprehend. This is where your real expertise in the field kicks in as you get to go through the different ways possible to explain the concepts to your students. This is where you find your true joy! You get to share your knowledge about the field with students as opposed to feeling pressured to covering all of the content prior to the next scheduled exam.

If you can see, for example, that students already understand 35% of the content they’ve covered on their own, that is 35% less content you need to spend time on in class. You now have that much extra time to spend teaching topics that your students really need to learn - which can also lead to less time spent in office hours with students who are struggling and you honestly cannot explain why. That’s more time you could be spending on your research, writing the next grant proposal or letter of recommendation, or putting together an active learning assignment for an upcoming class.

  3. More Effectively Apply Active Learning Strategies

Understanding students' level of knowledge and ability also can make it easy to group students for more effective active learning activities. In my class, I start by organizing students into four groups:

Level

Knowledge State

Beginner

No incoming knowledge about the topic or erroneous incoming knowledge about the topic

Developing

Very little incoming knowledge about the topic

Proficient

A solid foundational level of knowledge about the topic

Advanced

An advanced level of knowledge about the topic

 

This approach helps me more effectively organize my students in such a way as to provide the support needed to improve their learning via active learning strategies. How can you then use this information? Here’s a high-level idea of what your approach might look like.

Depending on the size of your groups, you may decide to put students together with one member from each level or to place students at the same level together. I am a fan of students working with others at their own level (for the most part) and tend to develop assignments for them to work actively based on that level (Beginner, Developing, Proficient, Advanced). Using the data, you can place students in these categories at the course level or even at the topic/concept level.

Organizing students in this way allows you to provide active learning activities where students apply what they have been learning to real-life scenarios. You might, for example, give a scenario to solve within their small groups. Those at higher levels can get more difficult scenarios than those at the beginner and developing levels.

You might elect to provide more guidance to the beginner and developing groups of students or even pull the beginner-level students and do a small lecture or walk them through the problem with guided assistance while the other three levels are all working at their own pace. In an online class, you might schedule a time to meet with the students at the beginner level or you might provide the same activity from the face-to-face class but break up the lesson using video clips for guidance.

  1. Build Better Relationships with Your Students

From the examples above, you can see how you will begin to get to know your students at a deeper level - and good instructors get to know their students! If you spend time reviewing your data, your students' behaviors and the impact those behaviors are having on their success, you will feel compelled to connect with students and help them address those factors impeding their success. It will be impossible for you not to get to know your students if you take advantage of the data and use it to improve student success.

When students feel like their instructors care, they enjoy coming to class, feel safe to make mistakes, and are more likely to ask for help early if they need it. Additionally, when students like their instructor, their motivation to perform well in the class increases and they are more open to the feedback provided by the instructor. 

Teddy Roosevelt was once quoted saying, "Children do not care how much you know until they know how much you care." I have been teaching for over 20 years, and with each passing year, showing students that I care is a growing priority - and as it grows, so does the success of my students. It truly only takes one professor, one instructor, one person in the educational path of a student to change the trajectory of that student's life forever. When it comes to identifying the needs of our students, the power of data makes our jobs as educators easier than ever before. 

  1. Assess Learning Outcomes & Identify Curricular Gaps

The ability to assess the effectiveness of a course based upon the achievement of learning outcomes is now supported with discrete evidence directly linked to individual learning objectives. Likewise, any curricular gaps that may exist in a course are easier than ever to identify and quickly amend, allowing for improved courses each semester based on evidence, not assumptions. Continuous improvement in course design is the key to meeting the needs of a growing diverse population of learners and meeting the demands of an ever-changing workforce.

The common thread through all of these benefits is that with data, faculty can work smarter and not harder. You can put more energy toward meeting the individual needs of students versus a mass, one-size-fits-all style of delivery. Use the learning data at your fingertips to help you restructure who's doing all the work:  stop letting students off the hook by allowing them to sit passively in your class while you lecture your heart away. Show them that you care by using the data in a meaningful way and designing learning experiences that ensure that students are achieving the key outcomes of your course.

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