Deirdre Lee, Communications Writing Fellow

Last month, institutions belonging to the Sloan Equity and Inclusion in STEM Introductory Courses (SEISMIC) project gathered at the University of Michigan’s Rackham Graduate School to discuss the expansion of the Center for Academic Innovation’s tailoring tool, ECoach, into new STEM courses at their respective institutions.

ECoach is a personalized tool that supports students in large courses, where one-on-one communication between instructors and students is otherwise impossible. 

The tool was developed by Tim McKay, PhD, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Physics, Astronomy, and Education and Associate Dean for undergraduate education in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, and a team of researchers, in collaboration with Academic Innovation.

McKay started the event by providing history and context behind ECoach. He said his motivation behind the development of ECoach was to reach students in introductory chemistry, biology, statistics, and physics courses, which historically have high enrollment numbers.

He said the tool coaches students in a way that’s responsive to their course participation and performance.

“[ECoach] provides students with an individualized interface that is aware of their incoming strengths, weaknesses, attitudes, motivations, and goals,” he said. “It’s always looking at exactly what’s happening, and it does it in a way which is much more tireless than [an instructor].”

McKay described ECoach as a research and practice tool providing expert advice in large course settings. He said researchers can determine how students learn and adapt courses to students’ needs, and practitioners can improve their courses by engaging with students in a personalized way.

“Our goal was to improve performance for all students, to reduce disparities, and to enhance self-efficacy and persistence,” he said.

He concluded his talk by detailing plans to internationally expand ECoach to the National University of Singapore.

Holly Derry, Associate Director of Behavioral Science at Academic Innovation, followed McKay’s opening remarks with an overview of the content within ECoach.

She said the flexibility of the platform allows more autonomy for instructors and less dependency on designers and developers. This flexibility allows instructors to format and queue messages.

“From a content strategy perspective, our core is that we deliver the right message at the right time in the right way,” she said.

After Derry’s talk, the event shifted from learning about ECoach to examples of its use and research at various institutions. 

Maggie Safronova, Associate Director at the Center for Innovative Teaching, Research, and Learning at the University of California, Santa Barbara, spoke about ECoach’s implementation into five different courses at UC Santa Barbara. She said she and other colleagues were thinking about what kind of support their students needed, keeping in mind diverse student backgrounds.

Safronova said they also had to carefully consider the structure of their institution and instructors’ expectations to make ECoach resonate with students and faculty. She said instructors expected students to go to office hours, but that wasn’t happening.

“There was a difference between how the students were perceiving their experience in introductory courses in regard to how they prepare, how they take notes, attendance, and the role of video lecture,” she said.

She said ECoach could bridge this gap between student and faculty interaction by advising students on how to effectively approach content in their course.

Michael Brown, Assistant Professor at the School of Education at Iowa State University, talked about students’ study strategies and how that informed research on ECoach’s design learning and infrastructure.

He said these guiding questions helped him in research:

  • How do instructors cultivate time and the flow of material?
  • How do students experience time?
  • How might that impact their study strategies?

Brown said students who struggled in his course fell into two groups — they either had trouble with time management or trouble with course content. Having this knowledge helped him to tailor messages and provide appropriate resources to address the needs of those groups.

“We have to think creatively about how this data informs the model and what a student’s performance on assessments means for outcomes,” he said.

After the talks finished, Bill Arthur, Lecturer III in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in LSA, Mitchell Dudley, Lecturer IV in the Department of Economics in LSA, and Jon Reid, LSA senior, comprised a panel to describe the impact of ECoach at U-M.

Throughout the conversation, all three placed an emphasis on students not having an awareness of resources available to them in large introductory courses. 

Reid took STATS 250, “Introduction to Statistics and Data Analysis”, which uses ECoach. Traditionally, STATS 250 has been a large course, having an average of more than 1700 students per semester, according to Atlas, another software tool produced by Academic Innovation. He said ECoach sent him personalized feedback with helpful tips and resources that allowed him to change his study tactics.

“You get to plot out what resources you get to use and when you’re going to use them and then you can go back [into ECoach] to hold yourself accountable,” Reid said.

More than 35 faculty attended the event, with nine institutions represented, such as the University of Minnesota, Penn State University, The Ohio State University, and the University of California, Davis.

Chris Masters, PhD, Assistant Dean for Academic Support and Global Programs and Associate Professor in the College of Engineering at Penn State University, said she and a colleague came to the event because they hope to increase the success of first-year engineering students during their transition to Penn State.

“Even though [ECoach] isn’t a course, it seems like it would be an awesome platform to engage students right away when they accept their offer of admission and prepare them to come to college,” she said.

Similar to Masters, Jeanette B. Ruiz, PhD, Lecturer in the Department of Communication at the University of California, Davis, said she chose to attend the event because of her interest in ECoach’s research on how to most effectively reach students.

“I think it’s helpful for several courses that are struggling with trying to figure out why some students are doing really well and some students are not,” Ruiz said. “Right now, the only information we can gather is who they are as students, and I don’t think that’s the full picture.”

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