Analytics programs show 'remarkable' results — and it's only the beginning

Purdue's Course Signals program gives students early warnings to keep them on track

Strong students who go to weak high schools enter college less prepared to succeed than their peers who are less talented academically but attend high-performing high schools. 

“They seem to be at an unusual disadvantage,” said Gerry McCartney, system chief information officer and vice president for information technology at Purdue University. Purdue’s Course Signals program has given students, faculty, and administrators more information about student performance since it was piloted during the 2006-07 academic year. Aggregating all of the data from these students and their predecessors creates a useful roadmap showing which course and study strategies work. 

McCartney calls Signals a fairly rudimentary product that is already showing remarkable results with traditionally at-risk students and others. It’s not predictive — it simply flags indicators that have contributed to a student’s failure in the past, giving current students the benefit of an early warning. 

“It’s like sitting next to somebody who has been through the class before,” McCartney said. “They say ‘I’d do that reading if I were you.’”

Signals is one of many types of early warning systems colleges have begun to utilize in the push to improve retention and student success numbers. As states nationwide shift their funding formulas and begin to award education dollars to schools doing more than simply enrolling students, the urge to improve outcomes is not merely altruistic. 

The federal Department of Education, too, is searching for ways to hold higher education institutions accountable for student success. While its planned rating system has been scrapped, the department is still set to release a new tool to help families compare institutions. It will encourage them to consider graduate debt levels, job placement rates, and graduation rates, among other factors. 

In many cases, developing a useful analytics tool is simply a matter of bringing together existing data. Colleges already have learning management systems that track students’ grades, as well as when they sign in and access course materials. They already have data about student demographics in a student information system. Many ask students to use electronic ID cards to access the library and they track which students take advantage of campus tutoring services. Bringing this data together allows for a fairly detailed picture of successful students and their peers who drop out or fail. 

At Purdue, on the semester system, many students don’t get their first grade until week six, seven, or eight. By the time students take action based on a surprisingly bad grade, it could be too late. Signals gives students a green, yellow, or red light based on how they are performing as soon as the end of the second week of the term. For students who are already checked out, seeing that they are in danger of slipping behind doesn’t do much. But for those students who are motivated to succeed, a gentle warning early on in the semester could be a lifesaver.

Steve Tally, senior communications and marketing specialist at Purdue, said the initial five- and six-year raw data about the impact of Signals showed students who took at least two Signals-enabled courses had graduation rates that were 20% higher, though that data has been disputed. Tally said the program is most effective in freshman and sophomore year classes. 

“We’re changing students’ academic behaviors,” Tally said, “which is why the effect is so much stronger after two courses with Signals rather than one.” A second semester with Signals early on in students’ degree programs could set behaviors for the rest of their academic careers.

And, McCartney says there’s much to improve on. He expects data analytics to revolutionize campuses, helping students choose better classes, majors, and even colleges. That will take data sharing across the K-12 and higher education divide, and it could mean helping students make decisions as early as seventh grade. At this point, the impact of programs like Signals is just scratching the surface.

“It could be likened to driving from Boston to Los Angeles,” McCartney said. “We’re still in the outer suburbs of Boston. We’ve hardly got going here at all.”


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