Tracking progress from afar

Global-Map-Journey-International-Pin-World-Travel-443602 cropStudents studying online, as distance learners, face the challenge of gauging their progress in relation to that of their geographically disparate peers. Furthermore, distance learners are more likely to feel isolated and can become demotivated, which accounts for typically higher levels of withdrawal from online programmes versus those delivered on-campus. The online MSc in Surgical Sciences/Edinburgh Surgical Sciences Qualification (ESSQ) programme, on which I teach, utilises a bespoke virtual learning environment (VLE). Prior to the case study described herein, each different assessment metric was displayed on a different page of the VLE, hence there was nowhere for students to see an overall picture of their progress. In 2014 I created a student dashboard which would allow, firstly, students to monitor their academic progress easily in relation to their peers, and, secondly, staff to better identify students ‘at risk’ and prompt effective interventions.

Since 2014/15, I have used Tableau® visualisation software to create a dashboard which allows multiple data graphics to be displayed on a single page in an effort to minimise thinking and maximise interpretation by students. Included in the dashboard are engagement and assessment metrics readily captured from the VLE. A key feature of the dashboard is the interactive element, whereby a student selects their unique, confidential identification number from a drop-down list, and their data then become highlighted from the rest.

Student feedback has provided a positive endorsement of the dashboard. Over 90% of respondents (n = 66) found the data relating to their engagement in the MSc useful, and 80% perceived the data provision as an element of feedback. The following quote from a first year student illustrates one of the key drivers which led to the creation of the resource:

“Knowing our study patterns in relation to other peers is a very interesting mode to generate motivation and competitiveness in the programme we are attaining.”

The top three adjectives selected by students were “interested”, “motivated”, and “encouraged” when asked to describe how they felt when viewing the dashboard data. Despite several students expressing negative emotions, 100% of respondents indicated that they would like to receive regular updates of the student progress dashboard. The dashboard has also acted as a conversation catalyst between staff and students, whereby students are more likely to engage in dialogue with their tutor following dashboard-prompted e-mails.

Creation of a student progress dashboard is a relatively simple and effective resource to use as a motivational tool in an otherwise disparate group of learners. While such a peer-ranking system may not be appropriate in every setting, all of the students enrolled on the ESSQ programme are trainee surgeons and, by definition, they have entered a very competitive field and are familiar with class-ranking from their undergraduate medical education. That said, it is essential that the release of every dashboard is accompanied by supportive lines of staff communication. I encourage staff on other online programmes to consider dashboards as a helpful approach to student support and guidance.

To read more from Paula on Educational Design and Engagement see these blogs.

For more on online distance learning, see these Teaching Matters blogs:

Enabling equitable access

Online distance learning: assessment approaches

Online distance learning: reflections on practice

Paula Smith

Dr Paula Smith is a Senior Lecturer/Academic eFacilitator in the Deanery of Clinical Sciences, and teaches on the MSc in Surgical Sciences (Edinburgh Surgical Sciences Qualification) and the MSc in Clinical Trials. She has been a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy since 2004, and has recently completed the Edinburgh Teaching Award towards Senior Fellow. Paula has written blogs for the Educational Design and Engagement team.

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