Remind your students: Time in online classes is a strong predictor of grade

I just ran an analysis of my most recently-taught online course and found (again) reminders that how much time students spend in their online classes corresponds to their grade in the course.

Now, this comes with several caveats:

  1. “How much time spent” isn’t a measure of paying attention. A student could login on, turn on a video lecture, and walk away, resulting in a record of attendance but not much learning (just like they can show up to a face-to-face class but not pay attention). Or they could watch a video, realize they spaced out and watch it again–doubling their “time in class” without doubling the attention given to a lecture.
  2. Students can download something and engage it offline, where time spent attending to it isn’t measured. This could produce a low measure of time spent in class even though students gave a lot of attention to course work.
  3. Likewise, not all coursework for an online class is online. In my senior capstone, students spend relatively little time in the LMS, mostly using it to post drafts and workshop their peers’ research projects. Most of their time was spent in conferences with me or in the field.

But, given the things we can measure, this is a pretty measurable one. And depending on your LMS’s analytics, you might be able to measure total time, time per assignment, total page views, etc.

In my analysis here, I measured page views–how many times a student clicked on an assignment, a video, a discussion board, etc. This analysis came slightly after midterm, at week 9 or at the 60% mark of the semester. Here are my findings:

  • Students earning Cs viewed about half as many pages as students earnings As and Bs. The mode for students earning Cs was about 20% lower than the mode for B students

  • Students earning As and Bs had about the same number of page views, but the mode for B students was about 10% lower than for A students. In other words, spending more time in a class is a great way to move from a C to a B but also a good way to move from a B to an A.

  • The C student with the highest number of page clicks still had fewer page clicks than the average A or B student.

The relationship isn’t perfect; two students earning As had page views that were more in line with C-earning students, and two students with very high page views were earning Bs. But the relationship was still clear: It’s possible to work hard and not earn an A, but it’s unlikely you’d work hard and earn a C.

Now–slightly after midterm, when there is still enough time for students to adopt new habits–is a good time to review your analytics. I share the general patterns with my students. Of course, we tell them in the syllabus and in class that the more time they devote to a class, the more they learn, and the better they perform, but it means more when that claim is backed up by data that includes them and their classmates. (And, obviously, what you share with them has to protect student identity, so this won’t work in a smaller class.)

This is also a good time to connect with students who are putting in a lot of effort but not earning great grades. About 2/3 of the way through the class I’ve profiled here, the students with the highest number of page views had viewed 1646 and 1996 pages–but they were earning high Bs, not As. That tells me that they were viewing a lot of course content–more than anyone else in the class–but not earning the grades that that kind of effort usually led to. These are the students I care most about: the hard-working ones whose work isn’t getting them where they want to go. In these cases, I reach out to students specifically and recognize their efforts and ask how I can help them achieve a higher grade. The email looks something like this:

I see you working so hard in our class. In fact, you are in our online course more than almost anyone else in the class! I’m really proud of your effort, and I want to make sure that it is paying off in terms of your learning and in terms of your grade. Do you feel that the work you are doing is resulting in the grade you want? If not, do you think the breakdown is in what you’re learning or how you are performing on exams? In other words, do you think your grades are showing me what you’ve learned? If there is a gap, let me know and we can brainstorm ways to help you improve your performance so I can better see what you are learning.

You might have noticed that there are no Ds or Fs in this course. That’s not always the case, though Fs are rather unusual, only because I work with students who are not able to pass the class to drop.

But Ds and Fs are relatively rare. And that is because students tend to engage at a high level–and engagement results in learning, which is measured using valid measuring tools (quizzes, discussion boards, etc.) Then those things align–when student effort leads to learning and learning translates into performance–then Ds and Fs become much less common.

And that brings me to the data point that I’m most proud of: To date, the course had 78 pages to view–that’s assignments, required discussion boards, video lectures, exercises, etc. And the average number of views was 522. (The highest page view was 1996 and the lowest was 84.) This means that, on average, for every page there was to view, students viewed nearly 7 pages. Even the lowest scoring student viewed pages an average of 1.1 times.

This doesn’t mean that every student viewed every page, though that data is available too. But, for the most part, they did. Three students (of 46) turned in an assignment late; two of these had a single late assignment and one had submitted three assignments late. Five students had missing assignments.

These good outcomes–ones I’m especially proud of in a general ed class with high enrollment and few majors–is because students are doing the work. The question is: Why?

One way this question is often asked is How can we promote student engagement? I find that that question yields answers that many educators find demeaning, mostly about making classes more entertaining and making readings and lecturers shorter (sometimes good advice but not always). A lot of advice to increase engagement ends up being advice to make ideas easier to digest. But texts are not food. We should think of our course content more like weights and less like nutritional shakes–things students have to engage, not digest, in order to grow.

The good news is that courses where there is high engagement–like the class I’ve described here–are also ones where course content is rich and challenging.

Lincoln the Surveyor | historyonthefox
Above, Lincoln the Surveyor (1937) by Fletcher Ransom shows the future president standing on a snowy hill surveying a town along the Sangamon River. Now might be a good time to survey your own course.

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