Like life sciences research, teaching generates a lot of data. Just ask Assistant Professor of Teaching Joel Ledford, Department of Plant Biology.
During the fall and winter quarters, Ledford teaches BIS 2C, Introduction to Biology: Biodiversity and the Tree of Life. The class is a behemoth, with around 800 students registering each fall, and Ledford is responsible for ushering each student through biological concepts. But monitoring the progress of 800 formative minds is no easy task. Luckily, Ledford and his colleagues have a solution.
Introducing GradeR, a grade book analytics application designed to work with Canvas, UC Davis’ learning management system. The application works simply. Instructors upload a Canvas grade book to the app, which then generates statistical and visual summaries of their grade book data, allowing them to track individual student and overall class progress.
“It’s a way for instructors to analyze their grade book data, so that it can help them become more reflective teachers,” said Ledford. “So if you teach, like myself, the same class over and over again—if I’m experimenting and trying new strategies then I can see if there’s a measurable effect in student performance.”
Analytics to track student success
Ledford started working on GradeR with Geoff Benn, an academic coordinator in the Department of Plant Biology, close to four years ago. They wanted to figure out how to semi-automate analysis of the BIS 2C grade book. They wrote R programming scripts and utilized the datasets they generated to inform teaching methods for the course.
“It soon became clear that some of the other folks in the College of Biological Sciences were interested in seeing what they could learn from their classes,” said Ledford, who noted that at the time GradeR was only useable by those familiar with the R programming language.
After some developmental fits and starts—the program was initially named GradePal—Ledford and postdoctoral researcher Katherine Ransom, Department of Land, Air and Water Resources, designed GradeR to be layperson-friendly, creating a web-based application available to any instructor using Canvas.
“Right now on Canvas, there’s no way to analyze any kind of performance of students,” said Ledford. “Even something like an average on a test, you can’t do. There’s no graphs or plots or charts that you can make and so this is meant to fill that space.”
“Now, instructors can easily build a quantitative sort of analysis of student performance,” he added.
Getting on the GradeR
GradeR even allows for cross-quarter examination of a class. So Ledford can take his grade book data from the fall 2018 BIS 2C cohort and compare it to the fall 2017 cohort. Summary stats can then be further broken down into different categories, giving instructors snapshots of how students in different colleges, or in different years, or with different majors are performing compared to one another.
According to Ledford, instructors typically gauge the pulse of their classroom based on anecdotes. “We want data-driven teaching as opposed to anecdotal types of evidence, so that’s one I think big advantage of this,” he said.
Ledford has already rolled out the application to some of his colleagues in the Department of Plant Biology, but he’s looking to disseminate it across, and perhaps beyond, campus. Student privacy, he noted, is paramount.
“It’s important that people know that this app uses existing Canvas grade books and it’s your grade book,” he said. “The grade book is your data. We don’t keep, retain, store or transmit any kind of student information.”
Ledford encourages all UC Davis faculty to test GradeR. He and his colleagues are eager for feedback.
“For me, the most important thing is developing a tool to help instructors be more data-driven,” he said. “My ultimate hope would be that it would spur more rigorous questions in education research.”
GradeR is available at https://grader.plb.ucdavis.edu/