Big data can help teachers visualize trends that can improve student performance
For Administrators

Why ‘Big Data’ is Relevant to Classroom Teachers

By Brian Gatens October 9, 2014

Ever-more powerful computers are enabling a society-wide push toward the collection and analysis of all forms of data in every workplace — including classrooms. The result is the rising tide of “big data,” which means collecting facts from a large number of sources, analyzing them with advanced computer software and detecting patterns that can help leaders make better decisions.

Big data can help teachers visualize trends that can improve student performanceTeachers are already working with more detailed data on student performance via standardized tests, but there’s so much more you can do. For example, you can collect information on when students log into a website, how long they remained, what items they worked on and how successful they were at the tasks.

We now know more about our students and their activities, abilities and potential than ever before. Yet many teachers have little experience with big data, so they struggle to bring it to life in the classroom. From the macro to the minor, you can now find yourself swimming (and sometimes drowning) in data about your students. So, what can you do?

Take the lead from your district

Before you jump into looking at student data, talk to your administrator about the work your school or district is already doing to analyze data. States have begun to release more and more student data to districts and schools, and your district has most likely designated a staff member for this analysis.

That office should be arranging for staff members to review and analyze the student, grade level and school data. Some districts with limited resources may be making only a small effort to do this, but regardless of the size of the effort, be sure to follow your district’s lead.

Work with colleagues

Regardless of how big your district’s approach to data is, your principal should be able to provide state-released test and performance data for your students. As with many aspects of your work, collaborating with your colleagues is a solid way to dig deeply into the data to identify the student trends that come out in your classroom.

Many state tests break down student and class performance by individual subtests. This information, when looked at in the big picture, will enable you to really drill into what specific areas your students experienced success or met challenges.

Look beyond test results

Analyzing test scores can help you improve your performance in the class, but it would be a mistake to think test scores are the only relevant data for your classes. Students leave breadcrumbs of data behind all the time in the form of attendance rates, homework completion, behavior reports and class grades.

All districts use student information systems to keep track of diverse data sets that enable teachers to create reports revealing a wide variety of insights. For example, you can request an attendance report for your current students from last year and use that information to reach out to students and their families who have consistent patterns of tardiness and absence. Yes, it’s a small piece of data, but it goes a long way in knowing and helping your students.

Thing about going really big

Part of the big-data trend is playing out in massive nationwide initiatives in which districts work exclusively with data collection and analysis organizations. The efforts coming out of Harvard University at the Strategic Data Project, as part of its Center for Education Policy Research, are quite impressive and include tools, case studies and other applications.

The breadth of Harvard’s work with large districts offers a window into how the collection of hundreds, if not thousands, of data points can be analyzed and used to drive effective changes in classroom practice.

Remember: It is only data

If you listen only to the “data cheerleaders,” you might get the idea that data collection, analysis and application is the silver bullet to improve our schools. This would be folly. Instead, we have to remember that good data when collected over time and analyzed in a systematic way will help to inform decisions about teaching and learning — but it cannot do the deciding.

Yes, the numbers and information can be impressive and lead to multiple “a-ha” moments, but data cannot take over your school’s approach to the human activity of teaching children. So use data deeply and widely, but have it there to support your decision-making, not to do it for you.

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