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California Association of Private Postsecondary Schools

Purdue U. Software Prompts Students to Study—and Graduate

09/27/2013

The Chronicle of Higher Education.  September 26, 2013.  Just when students thought they were finished with Mom and Dad’s nagging them to do their homework, a piece of software has taken the parents’ place. But this new nagging reminder, called Signals, has given students at Purdue University a boost in graduation rates.

Across the board, since 2007, students enrolled in at least one class with Signals saw a higher graduation rate than did students who were not in classes with the software, according to data from Purdue. Retention rates for those enrolled in classes with the tracking software were also higher than for those in classes without the technology.

Indeed, students who had two or more Signals classes graduated within six years at a rate 21.48 percent higher than students who did not take Signals courses.

Signals, a data-mining and analysis program, keeps track of how students approach class work. Taking in about 20 data points from Blackboard or other course-management systems, such as whether or not a student has completed online reading or watched online lectures, it measures the data against test and assignment grades, and “signals” students how they are doing with green, yellow, or red lights for each course. The signals are scheduled throughout each course by the instructor.

Matt Pistilli, a research scientist for teaching and learning technologies at Purdue, works specifically on student and faculty success. He says students have responded very well to the program.

“In this era of Big Brother, they aren’t concerned that we know all this information about them,” he says. “They want this to help them instead.”

By contract, he says, faculty members have been a little harder to work with. “Like Blackboard or a video conference or other pieces out there, this is just one more thing” they have to deal with, he says. Some faculty members also believe that students “who come to college should be self-motivated self-learners.”

With the software, a professor is able to “see the extent to which students have accessed materials, spent time engaged with the course, or viewed online lectures,” according to Mr. Pistilli. This is not done automatically but instead happens when an individual instructor logs in to see how students are doing.

But at the end of the day, he says, students still have to be motivated enough to take the suggestions provided by Signals.

The data gathered since 2007, he says, confirm what he has heard from students: The software helps them stay on track with their classes.

He says that while the software is being used in about 100 courses this fall, the extraordinary thing is that students take study and work habits influenced or pushed by Signals and apply them to other classes as well.

“What we’re trying to do,” he says, “is facilitate what they have to do to figure it out on their own.”