Midterms and final exams have been a mainstay in higher education for as long as many of us can remember. As class sizes have grown, so has the reliance on large-scale assessments to determine whether or not students are making the grade. The trouble is, when it comes to ensuring more students persist in their studies, this approach is often too little, too late. 

Great teaching is about give and take. It’s about connection and empathy. Fundamentally, it’s the product of using qualitative and quantitative insights to both challenge and support students. Feedback loops are at the center of this process. Unfortunately, high-stakes assessments do a poor job of delivering the signals educators need to help students course correct or provide the encouragement to continue building on their progress. 

Teaching with insight

As institutions grapple with flagging enrollments, helping instructors identify students struggling to understand their coursework, staying engaged or motivated is more important than ever. But to do this, we need to arm faculty with ‘small data’—insights collected and served up in the moment to shape the learning experience, not just over the course of a semester, but as a class unfolds. 

Courseware platforms like Top Hat track everything in real-time, from attendance, polls, quizzes, and homework assignments, to participation in discussions. Each activity generates cues into how well students are progressing, allowing for timely intervention, whether at a class or individual level. 

Technologies like this have allowed educators like Laura Freberg, a professor of psychology at California Polytechnic University, to change her approach to student assessments altogether. 

“I just do weekly quizzes, and that’s all I do now,“ says Freberg. “I don’t have any huge, cumulative monster exam students have to answer. It makes my job a lot easier. And I do think that lowers the pressure.”

Frequent testing is especially effective. Online quizzes provide students and instructors with immediate feedback through features like auto-grading. So instead of waiting days or weeks for results to be compiled using the old Scantron method, learning from what’s working and what isn’t can happen in the moment.

Kathryn Thompson-Laswell, a senior instructor at Kansas State University, has embraced small data to transform her teaching. She uses a mix of activities including low-stakes quizzes and interactive homework assignments. These exercises provide her with an immediate read on which concepts to revisit and who may be in need of extra support. In her estimation, this approach offers a far better gauge of student progress. 

As she acknowledges, “I get more than enough information to assess learning at a meaningful level than I ever could on a multiple-choice exam.” 

Better insights, better feedback

Without regular insights, educators miss opportunities to give students the feedback that can make the difference in whether they persist in their studies, or not. In our Spring 2021 survey of more than 3,000 undergraduates, students who agreed their instructors provide them with timely, helpful feedback were far more likely to say they were motivated in their studies and to say they saw value in their higher education investment. They were also more likely to say they would recommend their institution to a friend or family member considering college. 

Data-driven insights aren’t just useful in spurring academic success. By arming instructors with real-time data, we can create learning experiences where students feel understood and supported. Traditionally, providing mentorship has been difficult to do at scale, particularly in large introductory courses. But technology is making it easier and easier to do exactly this. For example, Top Hat’s Weekly Course Report provides faculty with summarized at-a-glance insights into class and individual performance. Clicking on a student’s name automatically launches an email browser, making it easy for instructors to reach out, whether to suggest they meet for office hours for extra help or provide words of encouragement on a job well done. 

Supporting student wellbeing

Even at the best of times, the transition to higher education is overwhelming for many students. And as the fallout from the pandemic slowly recedes, it’s important to recognize that these are still far from the best of times. Rates of depression and anxiety, already a scourge before the pandemic, have risen steadily. 

The reality is, most freshmen will continue to find themselves in large introductory courses at the very moment they are most vulnerable. Faculty members of course are not counselors. But when it comes to supporting the needs and aspirations of students, their behavior is enormously influential. 

According to our recent survey, students who felt they had at least one instructor who cared about them as a person were far more likely to say they were motivated in their course work than the average. Getting an early read on student sentiments and performance can help educators spot the warning signs of struggle and more easily scale mentorship and support. Are students engaged? Are they progressing? Are they completing assignments? Are they showing strength in a particular area? A more holistic, real-time view of the student journey is a powerful tool in ensuring students get the help they need to stay on track. 

The foundation for improving student outcomes starts with providing the data faculty need to create a more holistic and empathetic learning experience. But data alone is not enough. It must be coupled with feedback and mentorship to create environments where students not only feel listened to but understood and supported. The good news is we now have the tools to give students what they need most of all—the caring, support and human connection to launch and keep them on their academic journey. 

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