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When is a rich trove of course data too rich? Perhaps when it helps lower an undergraduate’s grade point average a quarter point?

New findings by researchers at Stanford University suggest that academically competitive college students actually perform worse over all when they get access to digital course-planning platforms that show how previous students performed.

In a paper being presented next month at the ACM Conference on Learning at Scale in London, the researchers say they’re not entirely sure what’s at work, but that the effects are noticeable: using the platform corresponded to an average drop of 0.16 units in overall GPA -- enough to move a B-plus grade about half the distance to a B.

Researcher Mitchell L. Stevens, of Stanford Graduate School of Education, invoked an economist’s phrase, calling the effect “nontrivial.” He added that it’s “enough to catch someone’s attention.”

Freshmen and sophomores who used the platform saw the worst declines, at 0.26 units, while juniors and seniors saw their GPAs drop by just 0.09 on average.

Stanford’s Sorathan Chaturapruek, a graduate student in computer science, is the lead author on the study, which finds that the drop isn’t due to students choosing harder courses but to “their behavior within courses.”

Developed by the researchers, the platform gives students information about the distribution of prior students’ grades, the percentage of students who dropped the course or withdrew, the average student evaluation and the number of hours per week students reported spending studying, among other details. It also offers advice from past students to classmates who are considering the course. A few education experts have theorized that sharing such information would have a positive result on learning and course completion.

The researchers found that offering a peek at past students’ grades had the biggest impact on GPA. They also found, by contrast, that showing how much time students spent on the course actually had a positive effect on GPA.

Since the researchers tested the platform at an unnamed, highly selective university, Stevens said it’s safe to assume that the subjects are used to being top performers, with A’s as “common events” in course work.

“So it may be that when you see a grade distribution in which the majority of people who have taken the class get A-plus, A or A-minus,” he said, “it may make students overconfident about the investment of work they need to do well.”

The preponderance of A’s gives them “a sense of false comfort,” he said. “They may somewhat underinvest, under the presumption that they’re going to do OK.”

Stevens said the findings provided clear evidence that the information students have about courses can appreciably influence their behavior. (Note: This paragraph has been updated to better reflect the meaning of the source.)

“Expectations that students have access to academic information is only going up,” he said. Going forward, universities will have to think hard about how the “amount and form in which that information is provided enhances academic endeavor -- or undermines it.”



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