Use That LMS! No, Really!: Moving from Lag to Lead Measures in Student Success

Senior Analyst

Top of Mind: Use That LMS
Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes

Your institution has one. A learning management system—or LMS, for short. They’ve become ubiquitous at the higher ed level. Thanks to COVID-19, even primary and secondary schools that didn’t already have one are probably using something, even if it’s just Google Classroom. At its very basic, it’s a glorified website for displaying lecture notes, and I’m afraid many faculty or entire institutions use it for little more. At its best, it’s a powerful data tool institutions can leverage to significantly impact the student success game. Between those two ends of the spectrum, there are plenty of advantages to an LMS, should an institution and its faculty wish to take advantage of all of the features available.

First, let’s acknowledge an important reality. Let’s refer to it as “faculty autonomy” for this discussion. Suppose you’re an ed tech leader, an educational technologist, an instructional designer, or in a similar role. In that case, you’ve undoubtedly felt the tension of knowing what’s possible and helping your faculty understand all the benefits of technology. Some faculty are cutting-edge. They see the potential of technology for teaching and learning and know that they can leverage technology to evaluate students and their own instruction to bring about better student learning outcomes. Some faculty want to be effective, and they care about student outcomes, but they’re either set in their ways or overwhelmed by the thought of doing more with technology. Finally, there are faculty who only want to share their knowledge and have little concern about whether a student learns or stays at the institution in the long run. I’m optimistic that this last group represents a distinct minority.

While some institutions aren’t facing enrollment and budget concerns, most are. These institutions are not only having conversations about attracting more new students but student success and retention are the other critical side of the enrollment coin. For too long, we’ve relied on lag measures for student success, such as midterms, finals, academic appeals, faculty at-risk notifications, etc. And while these lag measures can eventually add up to a picture of an at-risk student, they do little to provide student success staff with real-time lead indicators that a student is struggling and needs immediate support to course-correct and finish the semester strong.

So how can your LMS help you?

First, give your students a reason to be in the LMS daily. I’m not just talking about online classes here. Every modality—such as face-to-face, hybrid, online, and hyflex—needs to use the LMS in some way daily. Every single click and interaction a student has within the LMS is a data point. If a student hasn’t logged in for weeks or has only spent a few minutes in a module, you may have a problem. For some students, these lead measures don’t always predict an issue —many students can walk into a test, perform well, and move on. But many can’t. For students who’ve struggled or will struggle, data points showing even baseline engagement can be helpful for those who are supporting them. Beyond baseline engagement of logins and clicks and time spent on activities, active engagement such as discussions, assignment submissions, and messages between peers and instructors are other important lead measures that can be tracked and used to your advantage.

Next, let’s talk about that grade book. Beyond the advantage to faculty of having more efficient grading procedures, having data available to students and the institution regarding current academic progress in a particular course at all times is an absolute must. Students deserve to know how they’re performing in a class. The days of lining up to see your final grade posted outside the professor’s office are over. Students should never be surprised to find out late in the semester or at the end of the semester that they didn’t perform as well as expected.

Advisors and other student success staff should also be able to see the current academic progress of every student in every class they’re enrolled in. Beyond just ensuring real-time feedback and grades are promptly recorded in the grade book as the semester unfolds, linking assignments and assessments to learning outcomes using the LMS will only further enhance an institution’s ability to internally assess the effectiveness of its academic programs and prove it to accreditors when it comes time to be reaffirmed.

In the earlier days of student success measurement, technology and meaningful integrations between systems, student success, and analytic platforms were primarily focused on pulling academic data from the student system. The problem with that approach was that any academic data extracted from the student system was a lag measure at best. The data point either only provided historical final grade information for prior classes taken or, in the best-case scenario, provided scores on midterm assessments if the institution even conducted that sort of formal formative assessment or recorded it in the student system. When student success hinges on providing real-time support to students who are struggling, these types of lag measures won’t cut it.

What about at-risk reports? Yes, these are great…when they’re used. The obvious drawback of these indicators is that they’re wholly dependent on someone actually doing them. Most faculty mean well and really care about the success of their students, but large class sizes, competing research agendas, “publish or perish” stress, grant writing, and just being human all lead to these well-meaning reports not consistently being filled out if and when faculty notices that a student is struggling. As a former faculty member and dean, I have felt the pressure of trying to keep all of the plates spinning, and as much as I wanted to support students and ensure their success, there were times when a student slipped through the cracks.

I predict that most institutions will begin to make use of student success and analytics platforms within the next five years. These platforms are now starting to incorporate LMS data into their models. And while this is a critical evolution for these systems and the student success practice as a whole, you won’t get the full bang for your buck if you don’t have data in your LMS that can serve as lead measures for student success. Whether you’re making use of the latest and greatest student success platforms now or hope to one day, setting yourself up with lead indicators such as engagement and real-time academic progress will prove vital to giving students just-in-time support that historic lag measures could never have. Making full use of your LMS to drive student success will require an institution-wide commitment, and helping faculty see the value and update their long-standing practices is a large ship that will take effort and time to turn. Don’t wait to have these latest tools available to start the conversation on your campus. Find ways to use your LMS to its fullest and capitalize on lead measure data to help your students succeed today.

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Senior Analyst
As a senior analyst, Dr. Matt Winn focuses his research initiatives on academic administration, LMS, and other teaching and learning technologies. He has led numerous modernization and implementation projects within the SIS, LMS, and CRM landscapes. Passionate about using technology to serve and improve education, he seeks to help institutions integrate disparate systems, create automations, and improve various processes across campus. 

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