Conference Blogging! (Redux)

I’m about to head off to another conference and I’ve taken a new approach to my blogging. Rather than my traditional “Pre-load the queue with posts” activity, which tends to feel a little stilted even when I blog other things around it, I’ll be blogging in direct response to the conference and not using my standard posting time.

I’m off to ICER, which is only my second educational research conference, and I’m very excited. It’s a small but highly regarded conference and I’m getting ready for a lot of very smart people to turn their considerably weighty gaze upon the work that I’m presenting. My paper concerns the early detection of at-risk students, based on our analysis of over 200,000 student submissions. In a nutshell, our investigations indicate that paying attention to a student’s initial behaviour gives you some idea of future performance, as you’d expect, but it is the negative (late) behaviour that is the most telling. While there are no astounding revelations in this work, if you’ve read across the area, putting it all together with a large data corpus allows us to approach some myths and gently deflate them.

Our metric is timeliness, or how reliably a student submitted their work on time. Given that late penalties apply (without exception, usually) across the assignments in our school, late submission amounts to an expensive and self-defeating behaviour. We tracked over 1,900 students across all years of the undergraduate program and looked at all of their electronic submissions (all programming code is submitted this way, as are most other assignments.) A lot of the results were not that unexpected – students display hyperbolic temporal discounting, for example – but some things were slightly less expected.

For example, while 39% of my students hand in everything on time, 30% of people who hand in their first assignment late then go on to have a blemish-free future record. However, students who hand up that first assignment late are approximately twice as likely to have problems – which moves this group into a weakly classified at-risk category. Now, I note that this is before any marking has taken place, which means that, if you’re tracking submissions, one very quick and easy way to detect people who might be having problems is to look at the first assignment submission time. This inspection takes about a second and can easily be automated, so it’s a very low burden scheme for picking up people with problems. A personalised response, with constructive feedback or a gentle question, in the zone where the student should have submitted (but didn’t), can be very effective here. You’ll note that I’m working with late submitters not non-submitters. Late submitters are trying to stay engaged but aren’t judging their time or allocating resources well. Non-submitters have decided that effort is no longer worth allocating to this. (One of the things I’m investigating is whether a reminder in the ‘late submission’ area can turn non-submitters into submitters, but this is a long way from any outcomes.)

I should note that the type of assignment work is important here. Computer programs, at least in the assignments that we set, are not just copied in from text. They are not remembering it or demonstrating understanding, they are using the information in new ways to construct solutions to problems. In Bloom’s revised taxonomic terms, this is the “Applying” phase and it requires that the student be sufficiently familiar with the work to be able to understand how to apply it.

Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy

I’m not measuring my students’ timeliness in terms of their ability to show up to a lecture and sleep or to hand up an essay of three paragraphs that barely meets my requirements because it’s been Frankenwritten from a variety of sources. The programming task requires them to look at a problem, design a solution, implement it and then demonstrate that it works. Their code won’t even compile (turn into a form that a machine can execute) unless they understand enough about the programming language and the problem, so this is a very useful indication of how well the student is keeping up with the demands of the course. By focusing on an “Applying” task, we require the student to undertake a task that is going to take time and the way in which they assess this resource and decide on its management tells us a lot about their metacognitive skills, how they are situated in the course and, ultimately, how at-risk they actually are.

Looking at assignment submission patterns is a crude measure, unashamedly, but it’s a cheap measure, as well, with a reasonable degree of accuracy. I can determine, with 100% accuracy, if a student is at-risk by waiting until the end of the course to see if they fail. I have accuracy but no utility, or agency, in this model. I can assume everyone is at risk at the start and then have the inevitable problem of people not identifying themselves as being in this area until it’s too late. By identifying a behaviour that can lead to problems, I can use this as part of my feedback to illustrate a concrete issue that the student needs to address. I now have the statistical evidence to back up why I should invest effort into this approach.

Yes, you get a lot of excuses as to why something happened, but I have derived a great deal of value from asking students questions like “Why did you submit this late?” and then, when they give me their excuse, asking them “How are you going to avoid it next time?” I am no longer surprised at the slightly puzzled look on the student’s face as they realise that this is a valid and necessary question – I’m not interested in punishing them, I want them to not make the same mistake again. How can we do that?

I’ll leave the rest of this discussion for after my talk on Monday.

One Comment on “Conference Blogging! (Redux)”

  1. Nick, there are some interesting statistics in this article. Clearly, higher education is a different world then junior high, but that reliability piece or timeliness overlaps both.

    Take care,



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