How Analytics Changed a University Accounting Course–and Student Behavior

by   |   September 6, 2012 9:17 am   |   2 Comments

University of Maryland Baltimore County campus

Most students at the University of Maryland Baltimore County major in math and related fields. Photo by Howard Sturman.

CATONSVILLE, Md.—It’s 8:38 a.m. on September 4, the day that starts the first full week of classes at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Campus police patiently manage traffic, while students rush to grab a quick breakfast and make it to class. The university’s 10-floor administration building sits in the center of campus, flanked by a mix of birch, oak and holly trees. The campus has the look and feel of a corporate campus, but the brown brick buildings are much earthier. This is definitely a college.

Walk down the sidewalk from the visitors’ parking lot and it’s impossible to miss a tall sign that boasts UMBC’s ranking by U.S. News and World Report as the No. 1 up and coming school in the country. The schools are rated on 16 variables, including academic reputation, graduation rates and financial resources available to students. UMBC has gained notoriety both locally and nationally for its high rate of success graduating minorities. In fact, 60.8 percent of African-American freshmen who started in 2005 graduated in six years, many of them with science and engineering degrees.

UMBC at a Glance

  • Enrollment: 13,500
  • Average SAT: 1,206 (critical reading and mathematics)
  • Faculty: 475 full-time, 291 part-time
  • Staff: 1,186
  • Operating budget: $355 million
  • Research: $83.4 million

The university has earned the “up and coming” distinction three years running, and administration officials say its use of analytics clearly contributed to its stock rising. It also helps that roughly 55 percent of the university’s 13,500 students study science, technology, engineering and math. Analytical thinking is part of the school’s culture, starting at the top.

“Our president, Freeman Hrabowski, is a mathematician and numbers guy,” says Jack Suess, UMBC’s vice president of information technology and CIO. “He just constantly wants us to look at the data so we can track our growth. We also want to understand why students succeed. It’s no different than companies in private industry wanting to know what makes their customers, happy, what keeps them coming back.”

Suess says the college realized it needed some more powerful analytical tools about six or seven years ago. He says every time Hrabowski would ask a question about student performance or the percentage of students UMBC accepted versus those who actually enrolled, the IT staff would come back with a report, but the report would lead to even more questions. Because all the data was stored in disparate systems, there was no easy way to integrate the information. The result was that it could take two to four weeks for the IT staff to get back to the president, which made strategic planning very difficult.

Data-Driven Decisions
To meet the demand for more timely data, the university decided to build a data warehouse by using a Microsoft SQL Server 2008 stack integrated with Blackboard Analytics, an analysis tool offered by the learning management system software maker, says Kevin Joseph, UMBC’s assistant director for business systems. The tool has a self-service component in which students participate online. By collecting data, the tool is designed to track student outcomes, such as grades achieved, courses completed and students’ progress through a particular course.

For the data warehouse, one database server handles online analytical processing. Another Web server manages user requests using Microsoft SQL Server 2008 Reporting Services for parameter-driven reporting and Microsoft ProClarity for more detailed reports. Joseph says the data warehouse is refreshed every night, pulling in data from the university’s PeopleSoft ERP system and student and financial data. UMBC also brings in data from other sources, such as Blackboard Analytics, the university’s residential life system and other small systems across campus.

Using the system, faculty and administrators can now correlate the grades students get in a course with their level of activity in the Blackboard application—and by extension, their engagement in academic work.

John Fritz, assistant vice president for instructional technology, says this is significant because since 2007, students with grades of D or F use Blackboard 40 percent less than other students who get better grades.

Applying Analytics to Change Student Behavior
Fritz cites an example of an accounting professor who grew tired of getting the same questions every year on how to do a pivot table in Excel. So the professor redesigned the course by using the adaptive release function inside of Blackboard.

In adaptive release, the student can’t go on to the next lesson until they complete the initial material. Fritz says the accounting professor found that after implementing this change, students did 15 to 20 percent better on the final exam. And when students from this professor’s class take the upper level accounting course, they earn a half-grade letter higher than students from the other sections.

“While students tend to hate the approach, he gets them through [the course],” Fritz says. “We call this active learning. The students don’t like it as much because they have to be engaged, but there are definite benefits.”

One other real benefit from the integrated system is that students can benchmark their own activity on Blackboard and compare it to how intensely other students in the specific course they are taking use the system. UMBC officials hope when students see how much better their peers who use Blackboard do, they will gravitate to using the system more. Future plans call for benchmarking specific functions in Blackboard, such as how many students use discussion boards or the practice exams.

Fritz says he expects benefits will accrue to the university as professors buy into the approach and use the tools to track student progress—and redesign the way they teach.

While UMBC is analyzing its students’ behavior the way a business might create metrics for its own customers’ interactions, there are important cultural differences. “A university is not like a corporation,” says Michael Dillon, associate vice provost for institutional research. “It’s much less top-down and more shared governance where you need global buy-in.”

Steve Zurier is a freelance writer based in Maryland. He can be reached at and on twitter @szurier.

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  1. PJ91361
    Posted October 21, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    I agree with using the adaptive release function. Unfortunately, students (I was one of them) have so much on their plate these days that they just want to get to the end result. However, the most important lesson and one that is needed in the “real world” is: how do you get to that result. Understanding the process along the way, whether it be learning to design a pivot table, a financial graph or learning a very complicated accounting principle, helps to understand the data that will get you to your end result. That is key because most Managers, Directors, etc want to know more than just the end result. They need to make decisions based on how you got your result. For example, what supporting data did you use and how did you use it, why did you pull certain data and not others. They want to see you thinking about the process and understanding it. The adaptive release function helps the student stop and engage the assignment. Very important.

  2. Posted August 29, 2017 at 6:07 am | Permalink

    Expect more colleges to use analytics to identify why students succeed or fail and use the data to help more students graduate on time

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