Why data is the key to improving your student assessments

All that’s needed is to gain access to that data and listen to what it can tell you.
By: | July 19, 2022
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Kevin Stringfellow

If you’re like most instructors, you’ve found yourself, at some point, delivering a lecture only to notice you don’t have the attention of your class. Students are doodling, looking at their phones, or even falling asleep. These are students you expect to earn lower grades on tests than those who are “present.” However, a student’s attention span is far from the only factor affecting their performance on exams.

For example:

  1. Some students simply can’t grasp the material as it’s taught.
  2. The test questions aren’t reflective of the material presented in class.
  3. Or maybe some information critical to answering questions on a crucial exam was simply not provided, such as a missing handout.

As a former university student assessment facilitator at a prominent medical school, I’ve seen it all—including that last example, where a professor wouldn’t entertain the notion that their inadvertent omission was causing students to fail.

Regardless of the underlying cause of underwhelming performance on student assessment, we must identify and address it. Today educators have a secret weapon that was mostly unavailable even a decade ago: Data. All that’s needed now is to gain access to that data and listen to what it can tell you.

Three C’s for better assessments

The days of simply raising your voice to re-gain a student’s wavering attention—and hoping for absorption of knowledge—are gone. In the application of data, we find a more effective (and more respectful) approach to re-engaging students. Before we examine how to leverage data, we need to look at three aspects of instructor-learner interactions critical for students to master their courses fully: connection, context, and communication.

While most educators intend to include some of these elements, their teaching style may inadvertently change over time, negatively affecting students’ ability to learn. Eventually, they may no longer have the same connection with each student as before. Or, by teaching the same thing repeatedly for years, they may skip or omit key context material still relevant for passing the course without even realizing it.


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That is when self-evaluation goes by the wayside. Why change something that has been working for so long? But evaluating and making meaningful adjustments in these critical areas could boost struggling students’ comprehension, grades, and future success.

Most dedicated, hard-working instructors do recognize making even the slightest adjustments can almost immediately allow more students to learn more effectively and strengthen confidence in their knowledge and skills. That is why creating stronger instructor-student connections, establishing clearer communication, and providing appropriate context are areas where educators can make quick but lasting positive impacts on their students. The return on investment is well worth the time and effort required.

The key is (un)locked in the data

How do we improve the three C’s and thus boost performance on student assessments? We leverage the data that’s now readily available to every instructor. Software can now crunch the numbers from instructors’ grade books—or even better, the data that’s collected by digital assessment tools—to provide detailed reports broken down by:

  • classification
  • majors
  •  demographics
  • scores on other exams and different types of assignments
  • class attendance patterns, and more.

These data reports provide valuable insights into the strengths, weaknesses, learning patterns, and confidence levels of different students. The more data available on various aspects of the students and the tests themselves, the more insightful the analysis.

And the data insights go beyond identifying the needs of individual students or groups of students. They help instructors make meaningful decisions regarding how they teach, assess student performance, and even what kinds of questions to ask. Instructors can see areas where students consistently struggle, allowing them to focus on improving the delivery of knowledge in specific areas. These patterns indicate which students learn (and test) best using which teaching techniques—including visual, audio, written, or hands-on—so instructors can adjust lesson delivery and remedial activities accordingly.

A concrete example of how data helps improve assessments

The goal of leveraging data insights is to make necessary adjustments in our teaching techniques, improve assessment results, and turn a student’s potentially negative educational experience into a positive one.

For example, let’s say you have an average score of 85% in your class. You could assume it means students are scoring well. But looking deeper, you realize some aren’t doing well at all or are only focusing on one area to inflate their overall score.

You look for any common denominators to determine why they didn’t perform as well as their classmates. Each received the same material and attended the same lectures and labs, yet the results varied greatly. What do the data reveal about the communication, connection with students, or context, and ways to help those with poorer scores master the material?

Again, the answer lies in the data.

Yes, in areas where most students struggle, the instructor can focus their attention on adjusting how they deliver the information. For example, even with a decent average of 85%, the data might show that the top scores of a handful of visual learners are masking the mediocre (or even failing) scores of those who prefer audio, reading/written, or hands-on learning. An instructor with this insight can then work on balancing how they deliver the course material so more students can absorb it. Data on individual students can also help the instructor better understand, form a stronger connection with, and personalize the learning plan for each student.

Just think if the professor mentioned earlier had examined the assessment data showing students were failing questions on one specific set of knowledge, not the whole exam? They would know where to look for the reason (the missing handout!), but they’d also be able to present the resurfaced materials in ways that garner the engagement of more students throughout the course. In the end, it leads to improved student assessment translating to career success.

Kevin Stringfellow is the associate director of client solutions at ExamSoft.