Better Than Expected: Using Tailored Communication to Optimize Learning

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Arthur F. Thurnau Professor Tim McKay (physics and astronomy), Arthur F. Thurnau Professor David Gerdes (physics) and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor August Evrard (physics and astronomy) won the Provost's Teaching Innovation Prize in 2012 for their project, Better Than Expected: Using Tailored Communication to Optimize Learning.

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Tip Winner: Better Than Expected: Using Tailored Communication to Optimize Learning
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Science, Technology, and Math
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Tim McKay
David Gerdes
August Evrard
August EvrardDavid Gerdes
Tim McKay
E²Coach takes the form of a highly personalized website that delivers complex feedback and encouragement. Advice is tailored to the student’s background, current standing, and progress over the course of the semester, and is also sensitive to the student’s ambitions and identity (elicited by survey at the course’s outset). 
Final grades can be predicted quite well for students embarking upon introductory physics courses due to a 2008 learning analytics project with data on nearly 50,000 U-M students. Of course, some students do better than expected, others worse. Knowing what leads to better- and worse-than-expected outcomes makes it possible, in principle, to individually coach every student toward better-than-expected performance.
Interviews in 2011 with students who received higher- or lower-than-predicted final grades revealed differences in the ways they used physics course resources, responded to challenges, and worked with other students. Further content for tailored communications came from a survey of 78 physics study group leaders. Psychology faculty consultants provided guidance regarding stereotype threat, values affirmation, and the presentation of quantitative feedback to students.
The E²Coach intervention engine is a step toward a future in which rich information about students and their progress through the university is used to optimize their learning.


Student Comments

“E²Coach allows [faculty] to say to every student in the class what we would say if we could sit down with each.”
“I really like how it predicts my final grade for the class. Seeing this is really motivational and helps me get down to studying.”
“I usually read through all of the advice every time I get a notification, and especially before and after exams.” 
“It’s motivating to see how successful students in the past approached the course.”
“One of the most helpful things I got from E²Coach was that you should work and rework problems and make sure you really understand.”
“The development of the E²Coach innovation has been especially valuable for me as I prepare to become a secondary physics teacher. I look forward to adapting the expert advice I’ve gathered at the collegiate level to my high school classroom where I can personally deliver tailored advice to the students who need it most.”
Above photos from left to right:
Tim McKay (Physics and Astronomy)
David Gerdes (Physics)
August Evrard (Physics and Astronomy)
Professors McKay, Gerdes, and Evrard are accepting this award on behalf of the team: E² Coach tailoring designer Kate Miller and technical lead Jared Tritz.