The benefits of big data

Published: 19 August 2016

Campus eNews meets the award-winning team who use data to improve the student experience – and results - in Maths & Stats

A team of admin, IT and academic staff have revolutionised how mathematics is taught at the University of Glasgow. Their innovations led to dramatic improvements in student engagement and performance, with no increase in staff workload. Now the School of Mathematics and Statistics (SMS) has won the 2016 Herald Higher Education Award for Innovation Technology Excellence.

Campus eNews spoke with three of the team: Head of School Administration Chanel McIsaac, Head of Level 1 Maths Dr Andrew Wilson, and Head of Level 2 Maths Dr Tara Brendle.

Technology for teaching

Starting in Level 2 in 2013-14 and extending to Level 1 the following year, the team introduced:

  • an online assessment system with automated feedback, directly linked to the ebooks used for teaching and reference materials
  • scanning technology to process written work: staff scan in marked work and the system automatically emails it to the student and records the marks
  • a centralised database to compile marks for all courses and present them for exam boards

The development and maintenance of the new systems are funded jointly by the School and College, with annual costs totalling less than an additional member of staff.

The positive impact of the changes was immediate. After one semester an external examiner noted: "Students are getting timely feedback on their problem solving skills, and staff have more time to concentrate on specific issues. We’re already seeing evidence of enhancements to the student experience, and improvements to their academic standards." Recent analysis confirms the ongoing benefit to the 1,150 pre-Honours maths students: more of them are getting ABC grades, and far fewer E or below.

Barcharts showing the improvements to students' grades after the changes

Just-In-Time Teaching

In 2015-16 the team built on this success by adopting Just-In-Time Teaching (JiTT) methods. Each week, Level 1 and 2 students complete online quizzes to assess their understanding of the advance reading, and teaching staff check the results to identify which areas to focus on in class. As well as helping staff target their teaching, JiTT encourages students to engage with the course materials from the start.

Tara explains: “One of our goals is to train our students so they have an easier time later doing honours work. Through JiTT we’re helping them form good habits, early on, of studying outside class. Maths is such a cumulative subject that you’re doing yourself a disservice if you wait until spring break and then cram for your exams.”

Bar charts showing the increase in independant study

Free ebooks

Maths students are also benefitting from SMS’s negotiations with Cengage, the providers of the online assessment system. Each session, Chanel has driven down the ebook licensing fees to the point where students can now access all the materials they need for Level 1 and 2 for free.

Staff benefits

According to Andrew: “We spread workloads across more people and over more time now, and the balance of work between admin, academic and IT staff has subtely shifted. We use the database we built for all our courses, not just Level 1 and 2. It’s very efficient.”

Tara adds: “JiTT helps us recruit and retain good staff because we’re not sending them out to do the job blindfolded, they’re getting concrete feedback really early on.”

Staff are also excited by the possibilities of the growing database. Andrew says: “The key to good teaching is having an accurate model in your head of where the students are at. Then you know what to say and do, and what exercises to prepare.” The centralised data gives teaching staff that model.

“There are pastoral possibilities too. Having access to the results of continuous assessment gives us all sorts of data on student engagement, and can even prompt Advisers to investigate possible problems. If they notice that a student who’s usually strong has a sudden drop in grades or participation across multiple courses, they know that something might be wrong. We’re looking at ways to automate that to make us more proactive: an algorithm could detect certain behaviours and notify advisers."

What next?

Tara told Campus eNews that, when the team were developing their new systems, “we didn’t speculate about what might work, we looked at the numbers. We did a huge amount of number crunching and looking through exam results to tease out continuous assessment versus other methods.” To inspire future innovations, the team continue to analyse the stream of data. As Tara says: “You can’t argue with bar charts!

“We’re really excited by everything that’s happened, and now we want to develop relationships with our partner Schools to see how we can make this grow and reach a larger body of students.

“Partner Schools were invaluable in getting this started: all the College’s Heads of Level 2 meet for coffee once a semester and just start talking. This is where we figured out ‘Hey, Physics is using this scanning tech, could we adapt what they’ve done?’ Now we want to share our discoveries and best practice.”

Andrew adds: “There’s scope to use more scanning technology for exams but we’re not quite there yet. At the moment we only capture the grand total, but to have the marks for every question would be wonderful. That’d allow us to say ‘They all did really badly on the complex numbers question so we should think about what information they need at which point in their student journey to help with that.’

“Once you’ve got that database, and confidence with that technology, it saves so much time.“


So far SMS’s bold changes have been recognised with three awards: the College of Science & Engineering Teaching Excellence Award 2014, the University Teaching Excellence Award 2015, and now the Herald Higher Education Innovation Technology Excellence Award 2016.

As Chanel says: “It’s a testament to the hard work everyone put in. This project is not a one-off exercise for us; it forms part of how we work on a daily basis. We ask ourselves how could we use new technology and methods to improve student and staff experiences?”

UofG's other Herard HE Award 2016 winners

First published: 19 August 2016

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