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Purdue early warning system Course Signals wins national award for student retention

Agricultural economics Professor Larry DeBoer may have 500 students, including his online students, in his macroeconomics class.

“Whatever you can do in a big class to promote the small class experience is valuable,” he says.

One way DeBoer has been doing that the last two semesters is by using Purdue’s Course Signals, a system for accurately predicting student success early in a semester that helps instructors put a personal touch on guiding those in danger of failing to help.

Now, Course Signals is being honored as one of the nation’s most innovative campus retention programs. It is one of four winners of the 2012 Lee Noel and Randi Levitz Retention Excellence Awards. Since 1989, the awards have highlighted programs designed to encourage students to succeed and persevere through graduation. Course Signals will be recognized at the National Conference on Student Recruitment, Marketing and Retention Tuesday through Thursday, July 24-26, in Chicago.

“Each year these awards recognize the most successful, state-of-the-art retention programs in use today,” says Tim Culver, vice president of Noel-Levitz, a leading higher education consulting organization that has been working with colleges and universities for 40 years. “The winners demonstrated measurable institutional outcomes, originality and creativity, as well as excellent use of resources and adaptability for use at other institutions.”

Purdue leaders see Course Signals as a tool that can help address growing concerns over time to graduation and the cost of higher education among students, parents, schools themselves, political leaders and society at large.

“Course Signals is now a well-recognized model for how analytics can be applied in higher education, particularly to provide students with early, regular and substantive feedback to increase chances of success in the classroom and of graduating in a timely manner,” says John Campbell, associate vice president for academic technologies at Purdue and the original developer of the Signals system. “Purdue, as a leader in the field, is continuing to refine the technique and to find new ways of applying it.”

Course Signals makes use of the kind of analytics more commonly employed in business circles than in academics. It applies a Purdue-developed predictive algorithm to data mined and aggregated from existing sources, such as student information and course management systems. As early as the second week of a semester, this data mining provides an accurate reading of a student’s academic preparation, engagement in and effort within a course and academic performance at a given point in time.

DeBoer says the variety of data polled by Course Signals, covering not just grades but also student effort, was one thing that attracted him. He also liked the clean, clear way the system gets its performance ratings across to students.

When an instructor runs Course Signals, students are assigned to a risk group and issued a rating using an easily understood traffic signal metaphor – green for high likelihood of success in a course, yellow for potential problems and red for risk of failure. These ratings can appear as early as the second week of a semester, when a student still has plenty of time to improve.

Faculty can then use Course Signals to follow up on the rating with intervention emails, text messages, phone calls or personal contact by instructors or advisors guiding students through a plan for improvement.

Purdue has been using the system since 2007 and it has proven to result in higher grades and an increase in the number of students sticking with classes and staying in school until graduation.

“The Purdue University Course Signals program is a superb example of how campuses can use readily available student data to facilitate meaningful interventions,” says Culver, the Noel-Levitz vice president. “The outcomes, ranging from improved grades to higher retention rates, are very encouraging.”

DeBoer says he thinks the system is particularly valuable for first- and second-year students who may just be beginning to understand the level of effort required to succeed in college. But he says his older students also have told him they find Course Signals worthwhile.

Purdue licensed the technology to SunGard Higher Education (now Ellucian) in 2010 to make Course Signals available on other campuses. In 2011, Course Signals received both an international Campus Technology Innovators Award and a national Digital Education Achievement Award.

Writer: Greg Kline, science and technology writer, Information Technology at Purdue (ITaP), 765-494-8167 (office), 765-426-8545 (mobile), gkline@purdue.edu

Last updated: June 19, 2013