Active learning tool helps predict student success

By Wendy Chan posted on August 9th, 2016

A resource developed at the University of Michigan can help instructors predict student success based on student behaviour during class. Perry Samson, who developed the resource, visited UBC to discuss how the tool works and its potential for enhancing student learning.

The resource, called LectureTools, is a web-based platform that combines classroom content, learning tools, and resources into a digital learning environment that students can access on their devices. It acts as a central resource hub for class notes and study materials.

“I’m trying to understand what [students] do, when they do it, and how that relates to their grades,” explained Samson, who is a professor in the Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences at the University of Michigan.

LectureTools, which was partly written while Samson was on sabbatical at UBC, aims to create an active learning environment for students while analysing what can enable their success. Through the resource, instructors can create PowerPoint presentations and design in-class activities. Students can pose and answer questions anonymously, bookmark lecture slides, and signal to the instructor where in a lecture they are confused. The resource, which was acquired in 2012 by the educational technology company Echo360, now has three million users.

Samson explained that the tool is a new way for instructors to interact with students. “It allows me to have this interaction with such a large class that I couldn’t have before,” he said. “This has led to a great change in the nature of the class, where you’re basically inviting the students to actively participate in how the class is being conducted.”

By allowing students to anonymously ask questions, Samson found a marked increase in student participation. Before LectureTools was introduced, he found that 41% of males said they were comfortable asking verbal questions, while fewer than 25% of females were comfortable. Samson explained that students, especially those in their first year, often refrain from asking questions for fear of appearing foolish.

Since allowing students to ask questions anonymously, Samson found that female students began posing questions at a much higher rate. Students learning English were also participating more, because they had time to compose and submit questions and responses.

Samson also gave students the flexibility of attending lectures in-class or watching the class remotely.  “Students can be wherever they want to be and still interact with me during class, live,” he explained. They’re seeing class, they take notes, they ask questions, and they can answer my questions wherever they are. The students love this.”

At the same time that LectureTools is creating a better learning experience for students, it is also giving instructors a plethora of data to help identify students at risk of failing a course.

On the first day of class, students consent to have their data analysed. Data about students can be pulled from various sources, including the school’s learning management system and student information system, which may provide information such as the student’s incoming grade point average and how they are doing in other classes.

The systems allows instructors to see whether students attend class — attendance consists of a student logging into the system and doing at least three active things on the site. Instructors can also see if and how students are participating and answering and asking questions.

To further measure how students are performing in class, Samson pointed to the usefulness of formative assessments. Unsurprisingly, Samson found that students who answered questions correctly in class also performed well on exams. “Ask a lot of questions those first two weeks [of class],” he advised. “See who gets it and who doesn’t get it, and that’s going to give you strong evidence about those students you really need to worry about.”

Samson noted that soon the LectureTools system will be able to predict which students will have trouble in the class long before the first exam. His goal now is to expand the system and work with instructors to create analysis tools. In particular, Samson thinks the resource may be valuable for community colleges and smaller schools, where identifying at-risk students early on may ultimately prevent them from dropping out.

“I’ve been teaching at the university for 36 years…and over that time, this is the first time I really know what my students are doing,” Samson said. “In the time that’s coming, we’re going to know so much more about student behaviour in and outside of the class, and we have to use this to help the students.”