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ACT Study Shows how Social and Emotional Learning Skills Predict Student Online Learning Activities

IOWA CITY, Iowa—A new ACT research study released today finds that social and emotional skills, as measured by ACT® Tessera®, directly relate to how students interact with online learning activities and materials, which can be used to predict and improve student educational outcomes.

The study, which ACT conducted in partnership with Blackboard, the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) and VitalSource, sought to understand how social and emotional skills are related to students’ online behaviors and course outcomes within a learning management system (LMS)—an interactive online learning environment—in order to identify ways to help improve student outcomes.

The research found that social and emotional skills have systematic relationships with students’ online learning behaviors within an LMS.

The study involved ACT Tessera, ACT’s assessment system that measures social and emotional learning skills, being administered to 527 UMBC students enrolled in an introduction to chemistry course hosted on Blackboard Learn, the institution’s LMS --prior to the start of the course. Researchers then collected data from Blackboard Data to understand how students performed a variety of learning activities throughout the semester-long course.

“For many years, we’ve been able to predict student grades from LMS data,” said Dr. John Whitmer, lead researcher and senior director of data science and analytics at ACT. “And we also know that social and emotional skills have significant relationships with course grades, but we haven’t understood how the two might be related. This study helps us to understand the deeper constructs that underlie student online behavior, which in turn will allow us to more effectively improve the learning outcomes of those students.”

ACT researchers looked at what kinds of activities students completed within the LMS (e.g. posting on discussion boards, looking at assignments ahead of time, etc.) and used these data to create predictive models to determine course grades. Combining social and emotional skills with these models more accurately predicted course grades than baseline models created from student demographic information and academic experience including current college GPA.

The predictive models equally applied to students independent of gender, ethnicity and first-generation college student status, meaning that no evidence of bias was found. Researchers found a relationship between the social and emotional skills measured by Tessera—such as grit, curiosity and teamwork—and student performance in the course. Grit, which reflects the extent of a student’s actions demonstrating persistence, goal striving, reliability, dependability and attention to detail at school, is known to be associated with academic performance.

“These results are incredibly encouraging for ACT’s work in learning analytics and data science, as they demonstrate how we can predict student outcomes in a valid, reliable and actionable way,” said Alina von Davier, senior vice president of ACTNext, ACT’s innovation arm. “As we deliver on our promise to become a learning, measurement and navigation organization, we will continue to invest in research like this that advances and connects learning analytics techniques with measurement.”

Student use of the Blackboard Learn LMS for the course under study is among the highest on the UMBC campus. UMBC has found use of the LMS to be positively correlated with better course outcomes.

“The ACT study’s focus on social and emotional learning adds an important new dimension to our own understanding of student success at UMBC,” said John Fritz, associate vice president for Instructional Technology at UMBC. “Since 2007, we’ve found students earning a D or F final grade tend to use the campus’ Blackboard LMS about 40 percent less than students earning a C or higher. With the new findings from ACT about student grit and persistence, I think it’s even more reasonable to consider students’ digital footprints as a plausible, actionable proxy for engagement, even earlier in a term.”

“One of the most exciting things about Blackboard Data is that it enables the research community and academics to collaborate in an unprecedented way across shared datasets,” said Rachel Scherer, senior director of analytics at Blackboard. “This study, which involved large datasets formatted for analysis, extends a body of research that can be harnessed to improve academic outcomes for students. We look forward to continuing to partner on projects like this, that make a positive impact in education.”

A further study to replicate this analysis with UMBC students in other courses is currently underway.

View the full ACT research report and a shortened data byte version to learn more.

About ACT
ACT is a mission-driven, nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people achieve education and workplace success. Grounded in 60 years of research, ACT is a trusted leader in college and career readiness solutions. Each year, ACT serves millions of students, job seekers, schools, government agencies and employers in the US and around the world with learning resources, assessments, research and credentials designed to help them succeed from elementary school through career. To learn more, visit www.act.org or find us on Twitter @ACT.

About Blackboard
Blackboard’s mission is to partner with the global education community to enable learner and institutional success, leveraging innovative technologies and services. With an unmatched understanding of the world of the learner, the most comprehensive student-success solutions, and the greatest capacity for innovation, Blackboard is education's partner in change.

About UMBC
UMBC is a leading public research university known for innovative teaching, relevant research across disciplines, and a supportive community that empowers and inspires inquisitive minds. UMBC combines the learning opportunities of a liberal arts college with the creative intensity of a top research university. The University serves 14,000 undergraduate and graduate students, and is one of the country’s most inclusive education communities. U.S. News & World Report has named UMBC a national leader in innovation and undergraduate teaching, as well as social and economic impact.


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About ACT

ACT is a mission-driven, nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people achieve education and workplace success. Grounded in 60 years of research, ACT is a trusted leader in college and career readiness solutions. Each year, ACT serves millions of students, job seekers, schools, government agencies and employers in the US and around the world with learning resources, assessments, research and credentials designed to help them succeed from elementary school through career.

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