Improving students’ academic performance – there’s an app for that

A recent article published in International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education makes a case for a multi-functional mobile app as a university learning tool. Using statistical correlational analysis, the authors found significant connections between the app usage and improved student outcomes, such as retention and academic performance.

At a time when students’ demand for personalized education is growing, mobile apps could allow students to engage with course material whenever and wherever they choose. Taking advantage of mobile app technologies in this way could help lecturers reach out to their students and keep them interested in the course content, leading to improved outcomes.

Mobile apps and student engagement

Mobile apps are not uncommon in higher education. A nation-wide recent study into universities’ use of mobile apps found that in 2016 there were 177 Android apps affiliated with Australian universities, averaging at five apps per institution. However, only 20 of these apps were instructional apps, that is, those specifically used for the purposes of teaching and learning.

Evidence-based research indicates that engaged students demonstrate higher rates of retention and are less likely to drop out. We took a quantitative approach to find out how students interacted with a specially-designed mobile learning app and to see whether app engagement correlated with students’ outcomes in the unit.

Drawing on the pedagogy of Testing Effect and Spacing Effect, the app was to prompt students to test their knowledge of the concepts introduced during a course by delivering quizzes directly to the students’ mobile devices at strategic times during the learning process. Push notifications alerted students each time a new quiz became available.

394 students volunteered to test the app. Students were recruited from first-year accounting or science units at Swinburne University of Technology in Semester 2, 2015. Lecturers tailored the content of the app to fit their specific course. Based on student app engagement, various data was collected through the app’s analytics function, such as the speed at which students responded to quiz prompts and the number of attempts it took them to get an answer right.

For each correct answer, students were assigned points which were collected in a digital leaderboard. Digital badges were issued to students for reaching learning milestones. Student app users’ outcomes in the unit were compared with those of students who opted out of using the app and with students enrolled in pre-app intakes.

Improvements in retention and academic performance.

We found that students’ app use correlated positively with their improved retention rates as well as with their academic performance. The strongest correlation was found between students’ performing well in the app with their achieving higher academic grades in the unit. The latter correlation is important as it implies that students’ willingness to use learning apps as part of their study experience and performing highly on the app tasks can serve as a predictor of their future academic success in the unit.

We found that students’ app use correlated positively with their improved retention rates as well as with their academic performance.

The increase of student retention rate may suggest there was indeed some important trigger present for this increase to happen, especially since other variables (teaching staff, curriculum, and assessment types) did not change. Further, increased academic performance strongly suggests there is a potential to go beyond engaging students in the learning activities with the app to boosting their knowledge acquisition, resulting in higher final grades.

Finally, the positive correlation found between students’ scoring highly on the app and achieving higher academic grades is important as it can be used as a measure of internal consistency, suggesting that a subject-integrated app is well-positioned to help guide students towards better learning outcomes.

Co-authors Dan Laurence and Dr Gráinne Oates discuss the app after winning Swinburne University of Technology’s 2015 Vice-Chancellor’s Awards

Limitations and further work

We are aware that observed improvements in students’ outcomes following the implementation of the app can be due to a novelty effect and other factors outside of the study’s immediate remit. Also, our study was set up in a way that allowed students to either opt in or opt out of using the app which may have led to sampling bias, as conscientious students who were open to new experiences may have been more likely to join the experiment.

We also caution that while we did observe a positive correlation between students’ scoring highly on the app and achieving higher academic grades, causal relationship between the two phenomena needs further investigation. Qualitative or mixed methods research may be better positioned to elucidate such causal relationships in the future.

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