Overwhelming proof? Research shows 3 ways going digital improves student performance

Digital options could provide measurable improvements for students, says research AND students.

Multiple studies reveal that digital learning materials improve college students’ performance, leading to higher exam scores, better grades, and fewer class withdrawals, according to the Association of American Publishers (AAP). Students are also chiming in, saying they agree.

The studies included analyses of digital materials that are available through access codes or software, used with or instead of print textbooks, and which can cost less than traditional materials.

When digital materials offer features such as adaptive quizzes, practices, simulations, or gradebook tools, faculty can customize their lectures based on class progress and materials can be updated when new information is found. Immediate feedback from quizzes and class activities can help students focus on areas in which they might be struggling or falling behind.

1. Improving grades

A study surveying students using Pearson’s digital learning platform for a two-semester Anatomy and Physiology course found that there was a 13 percentage point improvement in students earning an A, B or C for the first semester when using digital materials, compared to students who did not use a digital platform. For the second semester, that increase was 27 percentage points.

(Next page: More studies on digital materials and their impact on students)

A research collaboration between W. W. Norton and Dustin Tingley of the Learning Research Group at Harvard revealed that students using InQuizitive for an Intro to American Government class had an 8.4-point increase when they completed an InQuizitive activity prior to taking a summative quiz. This improvement increased by 13.1 points (more than a letter grade) for students using InQuizitive as part of their course.

A McGraw-Hill Education study of nine instructors across 16 disciplines found that 15 percent more students earned A’s and B’s when using digital materials compared to students who did not use digital course materials.

2. Overall learning improvements

In addition to better grades (32 percent more A’s), independent research indicates that students using Cengage’s MindTap for a History course improved their critical thinking skills more than a comparable group of students that did not use the platform.

Two-thirds of Economics students using MindTap felt the platform helped them go beyond memorization and recall to higher levels of learning.

Macmillan Learning found that 78 percent of the students who used their LaunchPad digital platform during the Fall 2015 semester reported that it helped them improve their knowledge of the course material.

Eighty-six percent of students using Macmillan Learning’s adaptive quizzing tool, Learning Curve, for a Psychology course found that it helped them learn the key concepts and helped them more than studying on their own would have.

3. Students stay in class

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only about 60 percent of students seeking a bachelor’s degree at a four-year institution in Fall 2008 earned one. Digital learning solutions could help address some reasons that students cite for dropping out – workload, preparation for class and lack of advising. The analytics incorporated in digital materials may help instructors easily track performance and identify at-risk students and encourage them to continue with the class.

A McGraw-Hill Education study on the effectiveness of its digital tools found that student retention increased from 70 percent to 90 percent in sections using a digital learning platform versus sections not using a digital platform.

A professor teaching developmental math improved the rate of students passing her class from 56 percent to 88 percent using the personalized learning features in Pearson’s MyMathLab.

WileyPLUS with ORION resulted in better outcomes for students who were not fully engaged in the classroom. Instructors who cite this as a challenge saw an average of a half-grade point increase in student performance.

(Next page: Digital materials grow in use; students weigh in)

Increased use of digital materials

Recent studies from independent research firm Student Monitor have shown that an increasing number of students are using digital learning products, which typically cost half of the price of a printed textbook. Student Monitor reports that in Spring 2016, the share of students purchasing digital course materials for unlimited use increased 63 percent while the number of students renting a digital textbook increased 100 percent , compared to Spring 2015.

[Editor’s note: Some schools have made the jump to free and open digital resources, arguing that even digital access codes and digital materials that are only available through textbook purchases can present costly dilemmas for cash-strapped students. Read more about that here.]

In addition to lower prices and improved grades, students also choose digital because it is more convenient than print books, more environmentally friendly and can often be purchased at the same time as tuition and fees.

Students Weigh In

Students who use digital materials tend to have more favorable opinions of them. When WileyPLUS was introduced to an introductory psychology course at the University of Cincinnati, students who used it found it beneficial – three out of four would opt to use the digital learning tool again in a future course.

In McGraw-Hill Education’s 2016 Digital Study Trends Survey, which includes responses from more than 3,300 U.S. college students in associate’s, bachelor’s, and graduate programs, 81 percent of college students said they find digital learning technologies helpful when it comes to improving their grades and improving efficiency and effectiveness.

What’s more, 69 percent said they believe digital learning technologies help them focus, 82 percent said these tools help them spend more time studying through increased accessibility, and 63 percent said they feel better prepared for class.

Students said the top benefits they receive from digital learning technologies include doing homework (81 percent), preparing for exams (79 percent), collaborating with other students (61 percent), and asking questions in class (52 percent).

When it came to specific digital tools, 66 percent of student surveyed said adaptive learning tools and online quizzes are very or extremely helpful in learning retention; and 89 percent said they agree or strongly agree that digital learning technologies should adapt to a student’s unique way of learning, and that they also should be individualized (80 percent).

However, 79 percent of students said they believe there are still ways instructors could use digital learning technologies to make their education better.

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Laura Ascione

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