Researching research: part 2

Posted: July 20, 2014 in research
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

(This post won’t make a lot of sense unless you read the previous one – Researching research: part 1!)

dropoutsI suggested in the previous post that the research of Jayaprakash et al had confirmed something that we already knew concerning the reasons why some students drop out of college. However, predictive analytics are only part of the story. As the authors of this paper point out, they ‘do not influence course completion and retention rates without being combined with effective intervention strategies aimed at helping at-risk students succeed’. The point of predictive analytics is to facilitate the deployment of effective and appropriate interventions strategies, and to do this sooner than would be possible without the use of the analytics. So, it is to these intervention strategies that I now turn.

Interventions to help at-risk students included the following:

  • Sending students messages to inform them that they are at risk of not completing the course (‘awareness messaging’)
  • Making students more aware of the available academic support services (which could, for example, direct them to a variety of campus-based or online resources)
  • Promoting peer-to-peer engagement (e.g. with an online ‘student lounge’ discussion forum)
  • Providing access to self-assessment tools

The design of these interventions was based on the work that had been done at Purdue, which was, in turn, inspired by the work of Vince Tinto, one of the world’s leading experts on student retention issues.

The work done at Purdue had shown that simple notifications to students that they were at risk could have a significant, and positive, effect on student behaviour. Jayaprakash and the research team took the students who had been identified as at-risk by the analytics and divided them into three groups: the first were issued with ‘awareness messages’, the second were offered a combination of the other three interventions in the bullet point list above, and the third, a control group, had no interventions at all. The results showed that the students who were in treatment groups (of either kind of intervention) showed a statistically significant improvement compared to those who received no treatment at all. However, there seemed to be no difference in the effectiveness of the different kinds of intervention.

So far, so good, but, once again, I was left thinking that I hadn’t really learned very much from all this. But then, in the last five pages, the article suddenly got very interesting. Remember that the primary purpose of this whole research project was to find ways of helping not just at-risk students, but specifically socioeconomically disadvantaged at-risk students (such as those receiving Pell Grants). Accordingly, the researchers then focussed on this group. What did they find?

Once again, interventions proved more effective at raising student scores than no intervention at all. However, the averages of final scores are inevitably affected by drop-out rates (since students who drop out do not have final scores which can be included in the averages). At Purdue, the effect of interventions on drop-out rates had not been found to be significant. Remember that Purdue has a relatively well-off student demographic. However, in this research, which focussed on colleges with a much higher proportion of students on Pell Grants, the picture was very different. Of the Pell Grant students who were identified as at-risk and who were given some kind of treatment, 25.6% withdrew from the course. Of the Pell Grant students who were identified as at-risk but who were not ‘treated’ in any way (i.e. those in the control group), only 14.1% withdrew from the course. I recommend that you read those numbers again!

The research programme had resulted in substantially higher drop-out rates for socioeconomically disadvantaged students – the precise opposite of what it had set out to achieve. Jayaprakash et al devote one page of their article to the ethical issues this raises. They suggest that early intervention, resulting in withdrawal, might actually be to the benefit of some students who were going to fail whatever happened. It is better to get a ‘W’ (withdrawal) grade on your transcript than an ‘F’ (fail), and you may avoid wasting your money at the same time. This may be true, but it would be equally true that not allowing at-risk students (who, of course, are disproportionately from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds) into college at all might also be to their ‘benefit’. The question, though, is: who has the right to make these decisions on behalf of other people?

The authors also acknowledge another ethical problem. The predictive analytics which will prompt the interventions are not 100% accurate. 85% accuracy could be considered a pretty good figure. This means that some students who are not at-risk are labelled as at-risk, and other who are at-risk are not identified. Of these two possibilities, I find the first far more worrying. We are talking about the very real possibility of individual students being pushed into making potentially life-changing decisions on the basis of dodgy analytics. How ethical is that? The authors’ conclusion is that the situation forces them ‘to develop the most accurate predictive models possible, as well as to take steps to reduce the likelihood that any intervention would result in the necessary withdrawal of a student’.

I find this extraordinary. It is premised on the assumption that predictive models can be made much, much more accurate. They seem to be confusing prediction and predeterminism. A predictive model is, by definition, only predictive. There will always be error. How many errors are ethically justifiable? And, the desire to reduce the likelihood of unnecessary withdrawals is a long way from the need to completely eliminate the likelihood of unnecessary withdrawals, which seems to me to be the ethical position. More than anything else in the article, this sentence illustrates that the a priori assumption is that predictive analytics can be a force for good, and that the only real problem is getting the science right. If a number of young lives are screwed up along the way, we can at least say that science is getting better.

In the authors’ final conclusion, they describe the results of their research as ‘promising’. They do not elaborate on who it is promising for. They say that relatively simple intervention strategies can positively impact student learning outcomes, but they could equally well have said that relatively simple intervention strategies can negatively impact learning outcomes. They could have said that predictive analytics and intervention programmes are fine for the well-off, but more problematic for the poor. Remembering once more that the point of the study was to look at the situation of socioeconomically disadvantaged at-risk students, it is striking that there is no mention of this group in the researchers’ eight concluding points. The vast bulk of the paper is devoted to technical descriptions of the design and training of the software; the majority of the conclusions are about the validity of that design and training. The ostensibly intended beneficiaries have got lost somewhere along the way.

How and why is it that a piece of research such as this can so positively slant its results? In the third and final part of this mini-series, I will turn my attention to answering that question.

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Comments
  1. Sometimes I wonder if you can’t really use data analytics to intellectualise the issue.

    I just wonder if this research can analyse the mixed emotions – if you’ve just been told you need to pick things up for some people, even of they do initially improve, ultimately a negative outlook will get the better of them. And, although the research does pick up on how often this happens in economically disadvantaged situations, this also happens with people from other backgrounds.

  2. “A predictive model is, by definition, only predictive. There will always be error.” Yes, and there’s no way you can eliminate error, however good your model. The question then is, surely, what method of predicting failure (or of drop-out) is the most reliable, i.e. what method eliminates the most error? And/or which method can be most easily, quickly, cost-effectively improved? The data-driven method, or the (traditional) method, of teachers regularly making predictions (and communicating them to their students), based on observation of the students’ performance and/or formative tests? My intuition is that – for classes of a manageable size, i.e. not MOOCs) – the traditional method works as well as, if not better, than the purely data-driven method, and may be more amenable to training. Did the folk at Purdue research this, i.e. compare ‘machine-aggregated’ feedback with teacher-generated feedback?

    Either way, in my experience it’s the communicating of the predictions to the learners that is done least well – but this is the weak link that could apply equally to a purely data-driven approach as it could to a teacher-initiated approach.

    • philipjkerr says:

      I’m unaware of any comparison between machine-generated and teacher-generated feedback. I should point out, though, two things. Firstly, because this is research, the feedback had to be standardized, and therefore rather impersonal. Secondly, the system notifies the teachers of which students are at-risk, but the teachers are accorded some responsibility in deciding who gets sent the ‘awareness message’.

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