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The Advisor’s Crystal Ball

Who would think a grade in a math class could be used to predict whether a theater major will graduate from college?

That relationship and others like it have been discovered through data analytics, the science of examining data to draw helpful conclusions.

Data analytics helps banks and credit card companies detect fraud and identity theft. It helps e-commerce companies target customers more likely to buy their products. And recently, data analytics has helped higher education institutions, like IUP, use historical data to predict—and influence—students’ future academic success.

Last year, IUP partnered with the Educational Advisory Board, a Washington, DC, consulting firm, to analyze in aggregate all student academic records—every course, grade, and outcome—from 2001 to 2010 and come up with predictors of success for students in each major.

For example, the analytics showed that a biology major who earns a C in General Chemistry 1 has an 80 percent likelihood of graduating.

“It allows us to say, ‘Students who have come in with the same kind of profile as you have, who have done the same kinds of things academically—this is what their path to graduation was,’” said Michele Norwood M’92, IUP’s assistant vice provost for Undergraduate Student Success.

“So it gives us an advising tool, but it also gives us a tool we can use to identify students before they hit academic difficulty.”

IUP is one of five State System schools working with the EAB on similar data-driven projects. Norwood is the coordinator of IUP’s initiative, known as the Student Success Collaborative.

Among the students identified as being at academic risk were undecided majors with grade point averages of 2.25 to 2.80 and 30 to 60 accumulated credits. Norwood said these students have trouble graduating because they get a late start on classes in their major.

Associate and assistant deans began working with that group of students during the spring semester. “We had some conversations with them to help them see why it’s important to declare a major, so we could get them on their path,” Norwood said.

In addition, six pilot teams, one for each academic college, formed last spring to focus on majors in which students take longer than normal to graduate. Those majors were biology, natural sciences, social studies education, theater, management, communications media, and physical education and sport.

As with the undecided majors, the pilot teams identified groups of students meeting criteria that suggested they needed additional help and worked with them during the remainder of the semester.

At times, team members were surprised by the predictors the data identified—particularly in the case of theater. The analytics showed that grades in two math classes, Foundations of Mathematics and Probability and Statistics, were good predictors of whether theater majors would graduate.

“We never would have thought that. I would have said acting would be something that would be a good predictor,” Norwood said. “It’s been very interesting and, I think, eye-opening for the faculty.”

The analytics can also suggest the best time to take a course, depending on how students have performed when taking it earlier or later in their academic careers, such as before or after their first 30 credits.

And while the initiative’s typical success measures focus on graduation and retention rates, the pilot teams sometimes make adjustments based on personal experience.

“The Biology/Pre-med program faculty said, ‘Well, they might be at a 45 percent graduation rate if they get a C in chemistry, but we can tell you right now they’re not going to get into med school unless they’ve earned an A or B,” Norwood said. “So we made those kinds of arbitrary decisions, based on what faculty members know about their programs.”

As the pilot teams refine or plan new strategies over the summer, Norwood will work with departments to identify success markers for the rest of the majors. The goal is to have advising tools in faculty hands by October for the spring 2016 semester.

“The toolkit provides all the go-to information I need to know when a student is going to walk in my door in five minutes,” Norwood said. “I can pull up that screen and know the most important pieces of your academic life as you come in for an advising session.”

If students are struggling or unhappy in their majors, the tool can also be used to help them find a better match.

“It really is an all-inclusive tool,” Norwood said.