The truth about data and analytics

The driver for many institutions’ use of analytics has been improving retention. The worried well, high achievers looking to improve, may also benefit from monitoring their own performance. But is that a lost opportunity? Can improvement be achieved across the board? UCISA Executive Director, Peter Tinson highlights a different approach.




The recent report from UCISA and Sero HE, The truth about data and analytics notes that institutions’ primary aim of investing in learning analytics is to improve retention. Interventions triggered as a result of students failing to meet prescribed checkpoints lead to a discussion with the student as to the reasons for their lack of engagement and, generally, a subsequent improvement in student performance. But is an interventionist approach the only way? Are there ways to improve the performance of all students rather than focus on those at risk of failing?
Temple University in Philadelphia takes a different approach. Their Fly in 4 programme was devised to improve both retention and the number of students graduating in the minimum four years. The drive for the programme came from the top – Temple’s President wanted an initiative that focused on affordability as a result of on time graduation.
A cross-campus partnership was formed to deliver the initiative including staff from the student admissions, finance, student support, marketing and IT departments. The partnership first considered student behaviours and institutional barriers to progression and on time graduation. This review led to some process improvements and eradication of inconsistencies in the application of policies across the institution. With regard to student behaviour, it was recognised that it was relatively easy for students to drift; those who made a commitment to their studies were more likely to graduate on time.
The result was effectively a contract between the student and the institution. Each student makes a number of commitments to study and check in at key stages. This clearly places a high demand on advising staff and requires an investment in those resources to ensure that the programme is going to be effective. Advising staff were engaged in the programme at an early stage and throughout its development to shape messages and identify strategies to monitor checkpoints. On the other side of the contract, the institution commits to providing the necessary academic programmes and advice and support.
Fly in 4 has been a success with retention rates improving and numbers graduating in four years increasing. The initiative is not compulsory but over 90% of first year students signed up and are achieving demonstrably better results. It caters for all students and not just those at risk of failing or dropping out. The Fly in 4 agreement heightens student awareness of their responsibilities as well as identifying how the University will support them through the process.
Although data underpins the initiative, it is clear that student support is the key element in the programme. Without that support, the initiative would founder and the advising staff were engaged at all stages of the project to help drive success. Senior executive support led to a coordinated programme with the necessary resources for support.
The Truth about data and analytics report identified the need for senior leadership and recognised that the deployment of analytics required much more than deploying a technical solution. The Fly in 4 initiative shows how a data approach, underpinned by strong support, can deliver improvements across the piece.

Key take-outs:

  • Senior executive support is essential in developing data driven approaches to student performance

  • Data driven approaches need to be underpinned by quality support mechanisms

  • A ‘contract’ between the student and the institution improves student understanding of their responsibilities


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The views expressed on UCISA blogs are the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect those of UCISA

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