Purdue University is using educational technology–and online "signals"–to warn some students that their grades are dropping, offer study-habit suggestions, and provide positive reinforcement to students who are acing quizzes and exams.
When students log into their Blackboard course management accounts this fall, they’ll see frequently updated feedback indicators similar to traffic lights indicating their standing in each class. Each Purdue faculty member using the online system, called Signals–developed at the university and piloted for three semesters before its 2009 launch–will assign red, yellow, or green lights to their students.
Red is reserved for students with low or faltering grades, and warnings include critiques and suggestions from faculty on how a student can improve his or her grades. Yellow lights are for students in the middle of the academic pack, and green lights are encouragement for those at the top of the class.
About 11,000 undergraduates will use the Signals system this fall. The stoplight signals and corresponding tips from professors can also be delivered via eMail, voice mail, or text message. The system helps students and faculty monitor a student’s study behavior by reporting on how often a student reviews online resource material, participates in class-related chats, and communicates with professors and teaching assistants, it was reported.
The Signals system doesn’t wait until midterms to alert students about dangerously low grades, like similar academic warning programs, said Nancy Wilson Head, executive director for information technology in Purdue’s Teaching and Learning Technologies Unit. Students will get their first stoplight updates in the first few weeks of the semester, Wilson Head said, meaning they have a better chance to recover academically before crucial mid-semester tests.
Purdue officials said faculty members who have used Signals often receive thank-you eMails from students grateful for an early heads-up after an early stretch of mediocre or failing grades.
"They don’t feel invisible, even in a very large classroom," Wilson Head said. "They feel like the faculty member really wants to motivate them to improve."
Signals doesn’t just account for grades on homework assignments and exams, campus IT officials said. The program is a data-mining system that examines more than 20 factors that influence student grades, including whether each student is consistently reading online assignments, completing web-based practice tests, and putting in extra time for tutoring sessions and online class discussions with faculty members.
The popularity of Signals has caught higher education’s attention. Wilson Head said other campuses have contacted Purdue’s IT department about using the system, and the technology could be shared with other colleges and universities soon.
Telling students where their grades stand in the first two weeks of a semester has a lasting impact, which could mold conscientious students before they develop poor study habits that could plague them through their undergraduate years.
Kimberly Arnold, Purdue’s educational assessment and evaluation specialist for IT, said using Signals to urge students to attend after-class tutorial sessions with professors and teaching assistants established academic behavior that lasted. Students involved in the Signals pilot program sought "outside assistance at a rate higher than their peers," Arnold said.
Isaiah Johnson, a Purdue sophomore, credited warnings from Signals for helping him bump his grade from a D to a B. The advice included in each Signals update, he said, proved valuable in steadily improving his grade.
"I didn’t know I was doing that [badly] in that class, but I read the messages, and they told me what to do," Johnson said.
Ashley Lambrosa, a Purdue junior majoring in biochemistry, said the Signals updates helped her cope with the fast pace of college life as a freshman, when many students are adjusting to post-high school academics and new surroundings.
"College is not like high school," Lambrosa said. "It moves fast, and if you’re not careful, your grades can slip. Once I started getting the Signals messages, my grades improved. Without that, I probably wouldn’t have gone to the help sessions."