December 10, 2018

Gamifying Student Data

TL:DR;

  • Personal data-tracking apps nudge adults toward their fitness goals. Could an app motivate students to do better in school?

This post was originally published on Harvard Strategic Data Project’s Impact Stories.

The Challenge: Robust Data Collection with Little Connection to Students

Fresno Unified School District had built a complex data-gathering system for every student in the district. By logging into a data portal, students and families could review individual attendance records, grades, and other information about their performance. However, in a typical month, only about 6 percent of district students logged in to the portal. Most of the available information was never viewed.

The district wanted to put this data to its best use: improving student outcomes. To do that, it needed to accomplish two things: inspire students to log in and look at their data, and ensure that the information they saw would support their success.

Fellow at Harvard’s Strategic Data Project, David Jansen, and his colleagues in Fresno reviewed current research to determine which data points would have the biggest impact on student outcomes, and found that attendance and GPA were powerful predictors of future success. An additional research review found that students responded well to paper-based self-monitoring systems, as a source of motivation to succeed in school.

The Intervention: Gamifying Student Data in a Social Application

The SDP Fellow was inspired by self-quantification tools and applications like FitBit and Runkeeper, which track fitness data, allow users to share their progress through voluntary social connections, and use alerts and badges to nudge desirable behavior. The result was Strides, a personal data-tracking application that published up-to-date student data, created a social network of connected users, and prompted teachers and parents to share updates, survey questions, and encouraging text messages with students.

Strides shows students three data points that Jansen’s research showed were most critical to predicting student success: their attendance record and “streak,” or number of days without absence; their current GPA and record high GPA; and their most recent data portal activity, including a “streak” of days logged in to their portal.

The app was designed with user incentives in mind. Each time a student approaches a new personal best, Strides sends an encouraging alert. They unlock badges or more alerts when breaking a performance record. Student also can engage directly with one another on the app, through network connections that allow them to view one another’s Strides profiles.

The app also encourages interactions between students and adults. Teachers and parents can view information and sent text messages. The app sends parents a prompt when their student has neared or achieved a personal best. And students are encouraged to respond to survey questions that are sent through the app, providing a new source of teacher accountability and feedback.

The Impact: Questions to Consider

Strides was released without fanfare at the start of the 2016-17 school year, and students found it independently and signed up. Within two weeks, one-third of all Fresno high-school students had signed up for the app, and three-quarters of them logged on to their data portal.

The application raises important questions for educators to consider. Does providing students more frequent information about their habits and performance help them do better in school? How might enhanced, informal interactions affect how students and teachers communicate with one another? Are students motivated and achieve more when they see their classmates’ achievements on an app like Strides?

In addition, user data from Strides may reveal which habits and supports are common among successful students. Strides’ user data includes parent and teacher interactions, as well as encouraging activity from the app itself. Over time, reviewing this data (and metadata) can show longitudinal trends and help teachers and parents nudge young students toward the habits and behaviors that will help them through their school years.

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