How a New Study Could Revolutionize the Use of Data in Higher Education

by | Dec 6, 2018 | Education

Reading Time: 4 minutes

One of the biggest complaints about analytics use in higher education is that schools have tons of data, but they just don’t know how to use it to make decisions to improve students’ experiences. That could be about to change.

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The University of California at Irvine received a million-dollar grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to lead an effort that will track students’ behaviors in order to measure their success. Cal-Irvine will serve as the pilot site of the study, and the information gathered there will inform a national study of several colleges, managed by a consortium at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Researchers are hoping to figure out what practices affect how students learn, grow, and enter the work force. Here’s what they’re doing in their study that sets them apart.


The study is called the Next-Generation Undergraduate Success Measurement Project. It will combine institutional records with survey responses and data from learning management systems. In the first year, the team at Cal-Irvine will gather experts from more than a dozen colleges and universities around the country to figure out the study’s design.

Many past studies have focused on traditional first-time freshmen, which has become less representative of the college experience. This study will examine more than one thousand students at Irvine – 500 freshmen and 500 juniors, as well as an additional 50 freshman-honors students. Among the juniors in the survey are both continuing students and a number of juniors who transferred to Irvine from California’s community colleges.

Not just academics

The study will include the basic data that many universities already track – demographic information, courses, and even assignments that are uploaded to the learning management systems used in the classroom. But a unique part of the survey is it won’t just track how the students perform academically. It will also look at students’ social and personal behaviors to get an idea of a student’s college experience.

The study will measure how a student spends time outside of the classroom, and how that factors into student success. In exchange for a small stipend, a student in the project could get a one-minute survey sent to a smartphone as many as 10 times in a month. The survey would ask who that student is with at that time and what they are doing. The aim of the surveys would be to get a detailed description of what the student body is like as a whole. Are they commuting, as many Irvine students do? Is the majority of time spent with their family? Or are they socializing with classmates, working, or involved in extracurricular activities?

Zeroing in

The major goal of gathering all of this information is to identify the variables that matter in measuring student success. It also aims to more meaningfully use faster methods that measure student success, like learning management systems. Rather than taking that data and individualizing the results to better education for each student immediately, the hope is to improve practices at an institutional level to improve the college experience as a whole.

The approach of taking information from all different aspects is not new – it’s something the administrators of the survey have seen in other industries, like healthcare, for example. But it’s new for higher education. And, they hope, it will become part of what every higher ed organization does when it looks to measure its own students’ success.

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