Student engagement predicts final performance ‘within weeks’

Students who up their engagement later on struggle to catch the early starters, says study

October 14, 2020

Undergraduates’ use of online materials and attendance at lectures in their first few weeks of university predict who will perform best at the end of the year, according to a study.

Students who had the highest engagement early on were more likely to get higher marks in year-end assessments than those whose engagement was lower initially but later picked up significantly, the research found.

The findings come from a study of learning analytics data on 1,600 first-year undergraduates at Aston University, which looked at the “digital footprint” the students left throughout the year in areas such as lecture attendance, accessing the virtual learning environment (VLE) and visiting the library.

Comparing this with end-of-year marks, the researchers, also from Aston, found that not only were the top performers generally more engaged throughout the year, but that engagement in the first few weeks was a good predictor of their higher achievement.

For instance, students in the top fifth of those with the most engagement with VLE course materials in the first three weeks ended up with year-end marks that were on average 7.2 percentage points higher than those from the lowest fifth.

The researchers add that this first three weeks of data on engagement is so useful in predicting final performance that it could help to account for more than a quarter of the difference in marks between the top and the bottom fifth of the cohort.

They also found that even students who begin the year in the bottom fifth of students in terms of VLE access but then end up in the highest fifth in the last three teaching weeks achieve an average mark at least 3.4 percentage points lower than other students who also finish the year with the highest engagement.

“In common with previous research…students who obtain the highest marks attend more lectures and use the VLE more over the course of the academic year,” the authors write. “The novel finding of this paper demonstrates that this pattern of behaviour begins early in the academic year and tends to continue throughout it.”

The researchers, who published their findings in the journal Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, add that in their data, engagement measures “explained a greater proportion of variance in attainment” than the social background of students, which they also looked at.

“Overall, these results indicate that targeting interventions based on behaviour rather than demographics should be a successful strategy,” the authors say, noting that “early intervention” was crucial.

Co-author Rob Summers, a postdoctoral research fellow in Aston’s School of Life and Health Sciences, said the study suggested that helping undergraduates to develop study skills – such as note-taking and how to read academic papers – early “could well have beneficial effects which might be reflected in increased lecture attendance and accessing of course materials, and, it is hoped, better marks”.

Liz Moores, professor of learning and teaching at Aston and deputy dean of the institution’s School of Life and Health Sciences, said it was “interesting” that early engagement by students “was not easily replaced later on, although some students did manage to improve their attainment this way”.

“This knowledge will drive our future interventions from the learning analytics system and strengthen our personal tutorial provision,” she said.

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Smart start can predict year-end marks early on

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