The Greatest Consumer of Student Data Are the Students Themselves

“Data and pizza are the two ultimate motivators for students. They work every time.”    -David Hubalik

Who is the Greatest Consumer of Student Data?

To look at the evolution of video games we can begin to understand how students can and do use data regularly. When video games first came out, they had the building blocks of data use. Take the iconic game Frogger. The game developers created a point scheme and clear goals divided into levels or screens. The achievements were tallied to create a numerical score that represented the player’s achievement. Those scores were measured against each other and compiled into a ‘High Score List.’ The player of this game knew exactly what was expected of them, and the exact level of their own individual achievement was instant and clear.

When you look a few of the many versions of the popular game Castle Wolfenstein, it’s clear that the graphics have changed over time. Yet, during its 15-year-long evolution, much has stayed the same. The player still fights the infamous SS stormtroopers, they still look for treasure, intelligence, and ammunition. The player also still has clear and well-defined objectives and goals with information/data to reflect on their performance and to improve based on what they know about their current performance.

Through this evolution, the data changed as much as the graphics. Where there was once limited data, the user is now ‘well armed’ with information. At the players fingertips are statistics such as percent of treasure of found, villains killed and killed in specific ways. The list of information is long.

Consider another popular game called Halo. My college roommate, Peter and I had a copy and we played it frequently. As much as we enjoyed the game, we also equally enjoyed the data it gave us following play. We often competed to see who could have the most head shots, who could use the least powerful weapon to the greatest outcome and yes, just as in Frogger, we were highly interested in the cumulative score and high scores. Some aspects of gaming still have not changed.

Halo provides rates, ratios, and numerical scores to tell the story of the game just played. One interesting bit of information comes in the form of a rate. ‘Kills to Deaths’ tells the player how many other players they have killed in comparison to how many deaths they have suffered.  

The same can be said for Grand Theft Auto, another popular series. In this series, you can do everything society says you should not do in real life. You can kill without purpose, steal, have sex with strangers and prostitutes, gamble and so on. Yet this game too follows a predictable format. There are clear objectives and data to determine accomplishment. This game, like all others, provides data for the user to reflect on performance and to improve.

Many of our students are in school all day with no concrete, objective or impartial data about themselves to reflect on or to use to improve themselves. Yet, many of them go home and play video games or other activities chalk full with performance information, and they improve each day. Not only can they see this improvement, but they know why and how they improved and how to make further improvement.

I’d like to make the argument that simple, concrete and impartial data will help your students learn. You, the teacher, are not the most powerful consumer of data for change. It’s the student who the data is about that has the most power in consumption.

When you look at who consumes data about our students, it’s adults. Adults close to the student such as teachers who are to make micro-changes to improve the students learning. Also, there are adults further from the student, such as administrators and policy writers, who are to make macro changes to help support student learning. While I agree that these involved adults need data, they are not as powerful a consumer as the child student for whom the data is about.

Imagine the now information-rich environment of a modern treadmill. Imagine that all the distance, heart rate, performance and caloric information about my run at a local gym goes to the gym and not to me. The do try to improve the user experience and they visit with me as they choose to help me understand how I’m doing. But, my jog is completely without information in real time and I cannot retrieve the information without the gym deciding to do so. Sounds pretty insane to have a gym operate this way, but that example is kin to how assessments work between a student and a teacher.

Now imagine a school that operates more like a gym might. The students has some choice and agency as to when and how they take an assessment, pending real need. The student can understand their progress in the assessment in real time as they take it, because the design of the assessment is providing some of that feedback. Immediately following the assessment, a student can see for themself generally how they performed and where their deficiencies are. Students as the consumer of their own data is a far more powerful learning experience than any adults will have away from the classroom time.  

Data Driven Learning

Not only is the student benefiting from the metacognition that data can provide, but data is also very engaging when it is about you. Our culture is full of this from the very real to the not-so-real and we are all engaged. Take for example some real common uses of information for no other purpose than entertainment. Strong people might be tempted to ‘Hit the Bell’ at a carnival and then spend some time getting their palm read, looking for information about their future. This is entertainment and this data frequently exists as entertainment because it’s engaging. Or meaningful fitness data on a FitBit or Apple watch showing almost everything we do down to a granular movement.

Take, for example, another college roommate of mine, Chad. He had all the ingredients to make a college graduate. He had the money and time to focus on his studies, he was intelligent beyond the level of his peers and he was highly social. Also, he truly enjoyed the verbal exchange of ideas, in a way that the college classroom can often offer. He had everything needed for success, yet he routinely skipped classes. This led to lost semesters and finally, he left college without a degree after five years at the same university.

When I look back on the year I spent living with him, it becomes clear to me what happened. He did desire personal and academic growth, but he couldn’t see it happening in school.  When our university provided him with feedback, it was in the form of a letter grade, every semester. The ambiguous and disconnected letter grade. What did an ‘A’ have that a ‘B’ didn’t in terms of his academic growth? How were these classes preparing him for his future? Finally, could anyone quantify for him what exactly it was that he was learning?

Instead of classes, Chad filled much of his time with video games. Among his favorites was a game called Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. Named after the famous skateboarder, this game had seemingly endless possibilities for growth and as all video games, it was constantly providing Chad with data about his progress. Not only did he receive detailed updates after each timed round, but he knew of his specific achievements as they happened. These games provided Chad with what he was looking for every moment he played, while our university was providing bi-annual feedback in the form of a letter grade and a promise that years later, the extent and value of his learning would be realized.

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