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March 16, 2012

Completing assignments and sitting through exams can be stressful. But when it comes to being graded the waiting is often the hardest part. This is perhaps most true at the end of a semester, as students wait for their instructors to reduce months of work into a series of letter grades that will stay on the books forever.

But at Austin Peay State University, students do not have to wait for the end of a semester to learn their grade averages. Thanks to a new technology, pioneered by the university’s provost, they do not even have to wait for the semester to start.

Tristan Denley, the provost, has built software, called Degree Compass, that analyzes an individual student’s academic record, along with the past grades of hundreds of Austin Peay State students in various courses, and predicts how well a particular student is likely to do in a particular course long before the first day of class. (That includes first-year students; the software draws on their high school transcripts and standardized test scores.)

Denley, whose curriculum vitae includes a chairmanship of the mathematics department at the University of Mississippi and “a misspent youth as a programmer,” designed Degree Compass in hope that it would help students at the university graduate promptly. The six-year graduation rate for undergraduates at Austin Peay State is 32 percent, according to the most recent Education Department data.

The Degree Compass software, which the university developed with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, combines the predicted grade score with other factors, including how many unsatisfied degree requirements (both general and major-specific) the course would fulfill for that student. Then it produces a star rating for how well-matched the student is with the course.

Denley compares Degree Compass to the recommendation engines Netflix and Pandora use to suggest movies and music, except that it accounts not only for taste but also prudence. Courses that satisfy multiple major requirements or multiple concentration requirements within a major (in case a student later decides to make a change) get a boost.

The grade prediction engine is only part of Degree Compass’s formula for matching students to courses, Denley says. (He would not give details on how much each factor is weighed; the software is proprietary, and Denley says the university might sell it, either to a vendor or to other colleges, eventually.) The provost says he hopes the inclusion of these other, breadth- and completion-oriented factors makes it clear that Degree Compass is about more than just funneling students into unchallenging courses.

But while it is not the only factor, the prediction engine is Degree Compass’s ace in the hole. In its first trial last fall, Degree Compass was able to able to predict students’ semester grade point average within two hundredths (0.02) of a point.

The tool’s ability to predict student grades in a particular course, while not as precise, was still reasonably accurate, at sixth tenths (0.6) of a point.

Perhaps most significantly, from the increasingly salient perspective of degree completion, Degree Compass managed to predict, with 90 percent accuracy, whether a student would get a grade of ‘C’ or higher in any given course.

So-called “predictive analytics” engines — software designed to give instructors and advisers early warning if a student is not checking into the course page online or exhibiting other types of behavior that correlates with failure in the scheme of a semester — have been around for years. The most well-known may be Course Signals, which SunGard Higher Education (now Datatel+SGHE) bought from Purdue University in 2009. Rio Salado Community College was also an early pioneer of predictive analytics.

But the Course Signals and Rio Salado systems do not raise their alerts until classes have already begun. Degree Compass aims to intervene much earlier: at the end of the previous semester, as students are registering for their courses.

"Advisers aren’t in a good position to know a student’s propensities outside their discipline," says Denley. "And the student might not necessarily know either.”

Students are not required to follow the Degree Compass’s recommendations; faculty see the recommendations prior to meeting with their advisees about course registration, and the verdicts are "part of the advising conversation,” Denley says. But to the extent that degree completion and academic success are goals shared by both the students and the university, the information the software supplies allows for more informed decisions, he says. “We’ve got a pretty strong assurance that we’re able to steer students toward courses they will be successful in,” he says, “better than they’re able to steer themselves.”

Loretta Griffy, an associate math professor who runs the center for teaching and learning at Austin Peay State, says she is not worried that Degree Compass will supplant person-to-person advising relationships. All things considered, Griffy says the software adds valuable information that may help reinforce, and perhaps even refute, an adviser's instincts about what courses a student would be well-advised to take.

But she says faculty advisers must make sure students do not always defer to the wisdom of the software, no matter how sophisticated it is. "We always need to say [these recommendations are] from an enormous amount of data," she says, "but the data is not necessarily you.” Some students might be content, even relieved, to let Degree Compass weigh the options for them. Others might take a weak recommendation as a challenge, Griffy says, and some might end up glad that they did.

While it has not yet made the Degree Compass software commercially available, Austin Peay State is extending its pilot program to Nashville State Community College, Volunteer State Community College and the University of Memphis beginning next fall. A before students begin registering for their fall courses, the Degree Compass interface has been registering 1,400 unique visitors each week.

For the latest technology news and opinion from Inside Higher Ed, follow @IHEtech on Twitter.

 

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