Electronic coaching program offers students tailored help

Shannon Scheel likes the practice questions that help her prepare for statistics exams.

Jacob Anderson thinks he has an advantage over students in his chemistry class who don’t use the resource, and he takes full advantage of nearly all that it offers.

The resource is E2Coach, a one-of-a-kind program designed to improve student success in large introductory science and math courses in the College of Literature, Science & the Arts. It’s a data-driven and yet personalized program that developers say combines next generation learning analytics with the best of behavioral change theory.

It provides tailored information to students in many forms: messages of encouragement and advice from faculty and peers; sophisticated analyses of current grades and models for improving them; and tools that target troublesome material and offer advice on how students can better understand the concepts presented.

“Hi, Lauren. Welcome Back! We hope you like Biochemistry so far. Once the review material has been covered and the new material begins, you’ll find yourself thinking about biology in a whole new way,” one page reads.

“Although you didn’t do as well as you wanted, there are many opportunities to raise your grade in this class,” a former student named Sheri writes to current physics student Sarah.

In Stats 250, a web page called Get Things Done provides a check list with items that include: come to an Exam 2 review, watch a video, use the online tool to work on HW (homework) 7 questions, and review lecture notes for Exam 2.

“We wanted to customize what we do with students so each one could receive advice, support and feedback that they need,” said Tim McKay, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Physics, professor of astronomy and director of the Honors Program, LSA.

With support from a Next Generation Learning Challenge, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates and William and Flora Hewlett Foundations, McKay and team piloted the program in introductory physics for three semesters before expanding to other curriculum this fall.

They measured outcomes, anecdotally and numerically, and found that students reported finding 2 to 3 things about the program that led to success. Statistical analyses show they also improved performance by two-tenths of a letter grade on a 4-point scale, which McKay says means a student who might have had a B+ got an A-.

“The initial system was very primitive. As we develop it even further, I have great hopes we will see even larger gains,” he said. “I am sure that personalized communication of various kinds will play an important role—a growing role—in education, just as in other areas of our lives.”

In fact, the idea for E2Coach came from a colleague in the School of Public Health. Vic Strecher, professor and director for innovation and social entrepreneurship in SPH, believes that while patients respect physician advice, they are much more likely when faced with a medical issue to heed the counsel of people who have experienced the same situations. Strecher had worked some 20 years with the Centers for Health Communications Research, creating a computer-tailored communication system that collected data then created personalized messages from that information. It had been successfully used to help people control their diabetes, stop smoking, and manage cancer treatments. Strecher was named U-M’s 2010 Distinguished Innovator of the Year for this work.

McKay wanted the same approach to help mentor his physics students and knew that peer messaging was an important part of student success. So he put together a team that could understand exactly what he was after with the program: Kate Miller, an interdisciplinary physics undergraduate student at the time who now teaches science in Arlington, VA; Madeline Huberth, a recent U-M graduate with degrees in both interdisciplinary physics and cello performance; and Jared Tritz, a programmer.

As the group sought input from faculty and studied research on pedagogy, Miller said considerable thought went into “what works and with whom.”

“I was on the education side of things trying to figure out what are good study strategies,” she said. “I think E2Coach reinforces the idea that I can really do this. Physics is hard, so the program asks, ‘are you learning in the best way for you?’”

The program debuted for the 2012 winter semester in four introductory physics courses. A message was sent to all 1,900 students, and about half opted into the system, and those numbers have remained fairly consistent throughout the semesters. This fall, E2Coach was expanded to support students in introductory physics, statistics, chemistry, and biochemistry courses.

Faculty member Brenda Gunderson likes that E2Coach allows her to be in touch with more than half of the 1,700 students in the introductory statistics course she teaches.

“If they could come to my office and sit down and talk with me at different times during the semester, this is what would I say to them,” said Gunderson, lecturer IV in statistics. “This is another way to talk to them that is not global, like CTools, but is more personal.

Gunderson developed the Get Things Done feature because she likes the idea of having a checklist that allows students to know exactly what they need to keep up in the class.

“So we set it up to say, if you want to succeed in the class here are the things we would lay out to have you work on.”

Kenneth Balazovich, lecturer IV in molecular, cellular and developmental biology, was glad to be part of the program for a couple of reasons. The courses he teaches builds on others, and in order to cover all of the material there is no time to backtrack. Perhaps more of concern, there is a national trend of students bowing out of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields because they get overwhelmed right off the bat with the material in required courses.

“We’re trying to use E2Coach to select those students who are struggling a little bit to recall information, who maybe don’t have the study skills they really need to aggregate that material,” Balazovich said. “The goal is to give students a mission—little things they achieve over the course of the term one week at a time. We make this very personal for each student.”

Anderson agreed.

“It really gives you the feeling that you’re not just one of the 300,” the neuroscience major said of his chemistry class.

Scheel, also a neuroscience major, admits she dragged her feet about it but quickly became a believer.

“I find it incredibly useful. I’m really glad I signed up for it.”


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