New learning and teaching method focuses on helping students learn and retain content

Student writer Andrea Day contributed to this story.

Faculty profile images
Left to right: Kelly McKenna, James Folkestad, and Marcia Moraes

The Center for the Analytics of Learning and Teaching in the School of Education at Colorado State University is gaining attention and recognition for “U-Behavior”, its learning and teaching method, and the research it inspires.

U-Behavior focuses on teaching students how to leverage science-based study practices to improve their course performance. The ongoing research is looking into how students continue these study practices and how it impacts content retention between courses.

“The overall goal is to guide students into self-regulated learners, helping them to understand their cognition, and thus preparing themselves to be life-long learners,” said James Folkestad, professor in the School of Education and C-ALT director.

Enhancing the student experience

The U-Behavior method uses retrieval practice activities (RPAs) to reimagine the Canvas quiz. Canvas is a course management system used to manage online learning and universities and schools. Students are taught how to study using RPAs, as well as why they would want to use RPAs as a learning tool, ultimately advancing strategies for long-term learning. Using RPA student data, visual form learning analytics are generated for each individual student. Based on these data points, students are rewarded for their study practices rather than the score they receive on an RPA.

Visual form learning analytics: Graph example of high RPAs

As an interdisciplinary method, U-Behavior has the potential to impact teaching and learning for various subjects and learners. The U-Behavior team is comprised of faculty in education, cognitive psychology, computer science, instructional technology, and microbiology. These team members include:

  • James Folkestad, C-ALT director, professor, School of Education: design-thinking and learning analytics research and development
  • Marcia Moraes, C-ALT post-doctoral fellow, School of Education: leader of C-ALT’s computer science group
  • Kelly McKenna, C-ALT associate director, assistant professor, School of Education: online learning and teaching methods
  • Erica Suchman, Jennifer McLean, Katriana Popichak and Karli Hansen, faculty in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Pathology at CSU: implementing U-Behavior in their courses
  • Matt Rhodes and Anne Cleary, faculty in the Department of Psychology at CSU: improving online teaching modules with cognitive psychology
  • Howard Lewis, Chief Learning Architect at Integrated Performance Solutions and adjunct faculty in School of Education at CSU: creates interactive Shareable-Content-Object-Reference-Model-based learning modules for the method

Importance of visualization and reflection

The U-Behavior method began due to the use of “low-stake quizzes” in classrooms, intended for students to practice and test themselves on content that would be on later exams.

“Being interested in the effect of this high-impact practice, we looked to the literature to find empirical evidence to support these claims, but we found very little evidence that ‘low-stakes quizzing’ itself was effective,” said Folkestad.

“Secondly, we asked CSU instructors using this method how they thought it was going, what they had learned, and what the challenges were. We found that some of our instructors had concerns that their students weren’t using the low-stakes quizzes in the ways that they wanted them to – basically, to practice. For example, in Microbiology, when instructors interacted with students, they found that the students they asked rarely used the quizzes to practice but primarily took the quizzes to earn the points.”

“Faculty had implemented these low-stakes quizzes as a tool for their students to learn, but students were simply completing them for a grade,” adds McKenna.

Based on these initial findings, C-ALT researchers developed the U-Behavior method in an effort to change students’ study habits.

“When we looked at how students were using low-stakes quizzes, we found that their behaviors were driven by the points – they would take the quiz repeatedly until they got the high score and then never return to that quiz again. Based on science, we know that this is not optimal behavior,” said Folkestad.

“The intention was for students to continually integrate these low-states quizzes into their study practice to improve retention and recall,” said McKenna, “but instead, they were simply focused on attaining the high score rather than the long-term learning.”

“It wasn’t until we incorporated direct instruction, the reframing of quizzes as RPAs, visualizations, reflection, and a new reward strategy that we saw significant shifts in practice behaviors,” said Folkestad. “These features make up the current U-Behavior method, but we are not done researching and developing yet. We are now in the process of automating this process, so that we can understand what happens when it is used in larger classes.”

“Part of the issue,” said McKenna, “was how low-stakes quizzes were implemented in the class and how students were incentivized.”

Boosting learning in times of trouble

With the sudden move to Emergency Remote Learning as the delivery method for spring and fall 2020 courses, the U-Behavior method provides an advanced tool for faculty and students adjusting to an online format.

“During this pandemic, faculty have rushed to place their courses online,” said Folkestad. “Many are doing this out of necessity and hoping that it will be short lived. We are hoping that some of these faculty realize the potential for some of these learning management tools to expand their teaching beyond their lecture hall. U-Behavior is a tool that could help faculty see the benefit of hybrid learning; using tools like U-Behavior can provide science-based guidance for students as they work to be better learners, coaching them in practices that have substantial empirical evidence for boosting learning.”

The U-Behavior team “hopes to continue developing long-term, data-driven tools focusing on the student. Currently, the team is developing a tool to analyze discussion forum text as well.

“We think all of these tools can help students retain and elaborate upon and expand their understanding of their learning and learned material,” said Folkestad. “Again, we are taking a design thinking approach to help students advance their skill-set in learning.”

Hoping to expand U-Behavior with Unizin partner schools, the U-Behavior team is developing a framework compatible with the Unizin consortium standards. Unizin is a membership-based organization aimed to improve university learning experiences with online digital teaching and learning resources.

International award

In early June, the Sixth International Conference on Higher Education Advances awarded the “Best Paper Award” to C-ALT for U-Behavior: Visual-Form Learning Analytics to Enhance Teaching and Learning.

The International Conference on HEAd is hosted by Faculty of Business Administration and Management of the Universitat Politècnica de València in Spain. According to the website, the conference “aims to become a forum for researchers and practitioners to exchange ideas, experiences, opinions and research results relating to the preparation of students and the organization of educational systems.”

C-ALT’s paper was one of five nominees, as selected by review scores by conference attendees. Based on nominee presentations and Q&A sessions, the best paper committee selected C-ALT’s paper as the winning paper.

National recognition

Additionally, U-Behavior was recently recognized in the Educause Horizon Report as a leading technology in instructional design.

“Colorado State University’s C-ALT is delivering learning analytics in a new way,” states the Educause Horizon Report. “The U-Behavior tool delivers visual-form learning analytics to the students as a formative assessment strategy. This learner-centered approach helps students reflect on their study behaviors and make changes for better learning.”

In the report, U-Behavior was one of six technologies selected internationally in the category of Evaluation of Instructional Design, Learning Engineering, and UX design. The category highlights upcoming technologies that focus on learning environments centered around the student in both online and on-campus contexts.

“For me, it was awesome to be recognized in a category that focused on the student and recognized our C-ALT group as a high-impact agent of change in the area of student-centered learning and inclusive mindsets,” said Folkestad. “This has been C-ALT’s focus from the beginning – focusing on students as individuals and helping them understand and improve themselves. This is the true essence of the U-Behavior method. We are helping students advance their abilities through the thoughtful and principle-based use of student-use data.”

The Center for the Analytics of Learning and Teaching is a University-level research center housed in the School of Education. The School of Education is part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.