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How UC Davis Reaps Personalized Learning's Simple Benefits

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We often hear discussions about the potential of Big Data and complex learning analytics to improve educational outcomes. But the reality is that when it comes to transforming the classroom, often simple and timely feedback is enough to provide real learning improvements.

One of the most notable aspects of the technology used in personalized learning practices is the software’s ability to give immediate and individualized feedback to the students. A less hyped—but often more impactful—feature of these products is that they provide instructors with analytics that enable them to see how the students are doing and adjust their teaching approach accordingly. The value of these analytics varies widely based on a number of factors. But the primary potential value of “personalized learning” products is in the feedback—the analytics—that they provide not only to students, but also to teachers.

In our e-Literate TV series on personalized learning, we heard several first-hand stories about the power of simple and timely feedback. As described in the New York Times, administrators at the University of California, Davis, became interested in redesigning introductory biology and chemistry courses, because most of the 45 percent of students who dropped out of STEM programs did so by the middle of their second year. These students are the ones who typically take large lecture courses.

The team involved in the course-redesign projects wanted students to both receive more individual attention and to take more responsibility for their learning. To accomplish these goals, the team employed personalized learning practices as a way of making room for more active learning in the classroom. Students used software-based homework to experience much of the content that had previously been delivered in lectures. Faculty redesigned their lecture periods to become interactive discussions.

The project to redesign these STEM courses began in 2014, starting with changes to the discussion sections and retraining how teaching assistants work with students. Amanda Fox, a teaching assistant for the “Introduction to Biology” course, shared her perspective with us ( full episode here).

As Fox explains, the discussion sections for the course have been redesigned around the use of Open Learning Initiative (OLI) software out of Carnegie Mellon University. The software automatically grades 15-25 questions from the pre-lab assigned to students each week, freeing up instructors' time to prepare for discussions based on how students answered the questions.

This structure enables three levels of feedback based on formative assessment:

  • Immediate Feedback: The software provides tutoring and “immediate response to whether I push a button” as students work through problems, prior to class.
  • Targeted Lecture and Discussion: The basic analytics showing how students have done on the pre-lab questions allows the TA to target lecture and discussion in a more personal manner—based on what the specific students in that particular section need. “I see the questions that most of my class had a difficulty with, and then I cover that in the next discussion,” Fox says.
  • Guidance: The TA “would go over the answers in discussion.” This occurs both as she leads an interactive discussion with all students in the discussion section and as she provides individual guidance to students who need that help.

The three levels of feedback allowed a much more personalized learning experience. One student we talked to contrasted this active learning style enabled by these feedback loops with a more traditional class.

I mean, it’s just you do have to really pay attention. In some of my other classes where I’m just taking notes, I will write word for word, and I’ll look back, and I’ll have to read what I wrote and study it again.

Another student noted:

I feel like it is a lot more work than just passively sitting there and taking notes, but when I do the drawings or when somebody answers the question, or if I’m discussing something with someone, I feel like I absorb the information better, and it just sticks, and that really helps for the midterms.

The OLI software provides more functionality than those listed above, but during our interviews at UC Davis, TAs and students often mentioned this same principle of how useful simple and timely feedback is to help students learn the concepts behind the Biology and Chemistry courses and not just memorize facts.

When real humans are involved—both students and instructors—data and analytics do not need to be complex to be useful.

Michael Feldstein and Phil Hill are co-publishers of the e-Literate blog, co-producers of e-Literate TV, and Partners at MindWires Consulting.

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