New center aims to improve learning through analytics
Story by Jeff Dodge, Happy Bennett and John Eisele
Imagine if, just two weeks into a college course, faculty could identify the students most likely to struggle academically, and in what areas.
Next, picture the instructor giving those students feedback about their particular learning behaviors and providing them with resources tailored to their needs — resources that can make them more successful learners in all of their coursework.
These are two primary goals of CSU’s new Center for the Analytics of Learning and Teaching, part of an emerging model expected to help retain students and ensure they have a positive college experience.
James Folkestad, a professor in the School of Education and director of C-ALT, wants to help faculty and graduate students across campus improve student success using a variety of approaches to technology and analytics. He has planned a series of workshops starting next month on how faculty can understand student behavior using existing tools in Canvas, CSU’s learning management system. The series kicks off with an introduction to C-ALT at 2 p.m. on Sept. 6 in the TILT Building, Room 104.
Sept. 6: “Introduction to C-ALT Activities and Recap of Summer Analytics Retreat,” 2-3 p.m., TILT Room 104
Sept. 13: “Introduction to Canvas Course and Student Analytics,” 2-4 p.m., Rockwell West (Room 116)
Oct. 4: “Learning Analytics Research Using Canvas Video Log Data: Lessons Learned and Challenges,” 2-3 p.m., TILT Room 104
Oct. 11: “Video Analytics Within Canvas: Current Tools and Future Development,” 2-4 p.m., Rockwell West (Room 116)
Nov. 1: “Learning Analytics Research Using Quiz Log Data: Lessons Learned and Challenges,” 2-3 p.m., TILT Room 104
One C-ALT focus involves moving from the traditional classroom format of a professor lecturing in front of students to offering more learning opportunities in digital spaces.
Canvas tracks students’ online “data trails” and can give faculty clues on their learning behaviors, like how motivated they are or how well they are mastering material. Maybe the time it takes students to answer a question on a quiz can signal a content area they are having difficulty with.
It’s still early in the process, Folkestad said, but by looking at the digital patterns exhibited by students who succeed and those who struggle, C-ALT aims to create a kind of early warning system to help faculty identify opportunities to provide personalized direction for students to succeed sooner.
“We want to do more,” he said. “What do we do when a student is not engaged? Is it financial? Are they homesick? How can we detect learning behaviors or patterns of engagement through homework, assessments or video presentations to form learning and mentoring opportunities?”
Folkestad, who has created videos about the C-ALT effort, acknowledged that a challenging part will be collecting and synthesizing the data. But he added that once one faculty member completes that piece and shares lessons learned with others, instructors will be able to build their own ways to collect data and improve their teaching/learning processes.
A case study in calculus
For instance, in one of the center’s first projects, Folkestad is working with C-ALT Research Fellow and Assistant Professor Mary Pilgrim of the Department of Mathematics and her graduate student Ben Sencindiver to analyze an entry-level Calculus class (Math 160).
CSU research has already demonstrated that calculus courses can be a major hurdle keeping women from entering STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math). What’s more, the percentage of CSU students who withdraw or finish with grades of D or F in Math 160 is higher than the national average for the course.
“If a student never signs in to look at the homework, is that an indicator?” Sencindiver asked. “If they pause a video, does that mean something? Are they trying to learn the material or just trying to get through it?”
Pilgrim said they are still in the data-gathering phase, so identifying the possible red flags is still an open question.
“Do the pauses in a video tell us something or tell us nothing?” she asked. “Can we learn anything from this? Can we predict things for future students? If we can identify certain types of students early on, maybe it can be applied to their other courses.”
There are so many academic resources on campus that students often don’t know where to start or how to ask for help. Instead of offering a list of support services, an instructor could look at a student’s behavior and connect them to personalized assistance.
“This focus on assessment has made me want to be more proactive about giving students the appropriate resource, not just saying, ‘Here’s a bunch of stuff that might help,’” Pilgrim said. “We want to more definitively say, ‘Here’s a resource you should look at.”
Student empowerment, informed consent
Students participate in Pilgrim’s ongoing study voluntarily; they complete consent forms giving C-ALT permission to study their digital patterns. When Folkestad talks about the projects facilitated by C-ALT fellows and their graduate students, he emphasizes the importance of student empowerment.
“We want CSU students to move forward in their lives as enthusiastic, self-regulated learners,” Folkestad said. “Research supports fundamental behaviors about learning and information retention that are beneficial for long-term personal and professional development. We want to educate students about how their brains function — to fine-tune their behavior and strengthen their ability to continually learn.”
Folkestad also said the center’s practices can be applied across disciplines, in all CSU colleges, and is completely faculty-driven. CSU Provost and Executive Vice President Rick Miranda added that the research outcomes will have immediate benefits for CSU students.
“This is work that we all see as very valuable and necessary to advancing our curriculum,” he said. “The opportunity to apply what C-ALT is doing right here at home is worth highlighting.”
More than 30 CSU faculty and graduate students from all eight colleges have joined C-ALT, which is co-housed in the School of Education and The Institute for Teaching and Learning (TILT). C-ALT members meet monthly as a group to share research findings and discuss techniques that they are experimenting with in their classrooms.
‘Room without walls’
Miranda said C-ALT was approved as a center to be an inclusive effort aimed at involving many faculty.
“It’s really a room without walls,” he said.
“Often we get in silos in our realms,” Pilgrim added. “C-ALT has been great at getting people together to provide resources to each other.”
Miranda also said CSU is on the leading edge of something big.
“We’re just in the first inning of using these new tools to advance our understanding of student success and how students learn, intervening when necessary,” Miranda said. “We’re at the start of something that’s going to transform how we teach students.”
For more information, visit alt.colostate.edu.