Data from learning management systems help improve teaching, say UMBC experts

Systems that store and analyze data about how students are progressing through their coursework can be a powerful source of better decision-making in higher education. That’s the theme of a article featuring a lengthy section on UMBC’s use of the Blackboard learning management and data-analysis system to promote student success.

At UMBC, Blackboard data about student performance are now “across all the colleges and all the key functional offices that are responsible for student success, so they’re all able to get the data they want,”  says Jack Suess, chief information officer and vice president of information technology. Among the findings on teaching and learning that have emerged from Blackboard data-crunching at UMBC are these:

  • students who get a D or an F use Blackboard almost 40 percent less than those who get higher grades
  • heavy Blackboard use among students helps flag innovative teaching
  • one way to improve student performance is through use of a Blackboard feature that lets instructors set preconditions for accessing course materials–passing a quiz, for example
  • differences in the way students perform in courses subsequent to a “gateway” course can help pinpoint teaching practices that are especially effective in that course.

John Fritz, UMBC’s assistant vice president of instructional technology and new media, is a fan of the third tier of learning management systems–the area that includes electronic portfolios and the preconditions for release of new material. That part of the system “sets up a structure for student responsibility and self-awareness” that puts the focus on what students are doing for themselves, a necessary complement to what institutions are doing for students, Fritz believes.

Experts from three universities, including Suess and Fritz, named several best practices for using data from a learning management system. One piece of advise is to drop the term “analytics” in favor of, for instance, the more accessible “intelligence.”

Another best practice, according to Fritz,  is to make initial research projects simple but rigorous.”Start small, where you’re following an unsure hypothesis,” advises Fritz. “Refine your method and bring rigor … then help disseminate those findings.”

Read the full article, “How Data From Your LMS Can Impact Student Success,” at

Image: Student in a UMBC cybersecurity course. Photo by Marlayna Demond ’11 for UMBC.