By Kevin Cheung, Associate Professor, School of Mathematics and Statistics

Over the years, I have received numerous requests from desperate students asking for a better grade after the final grades were submitted. Almost always, students who made such requests simply didn’t take the term work seriously. I wondered, if the grade was as important to them as they claimed, why hadn’t they tried to work harder early on?

I suppose that having foresight is one thing but acting on it is quite another. As it has been said, “The mind is willing but the body is weak.” For example, most of us know that eating properly and exercising regularly is the key to staying healthy. Yet many of us don’t eat properly or don’t exercise. Some companies have exploited this human weakness and created products such as health apps and fitness bands that monitor physical activities and track health habits. Some apps even allow you to set goals and will help keep you on track. Could something similar be done for education? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a system that allows students to specify a grade that they want in the end and alerts them when they begin to go off track?

At the moment, I am not aware of the existence of a system with such a level of sophistication. One difficulty in developing such a system is that every course is different and so any tracking mechanism will have to be customized to each course. Another difficulty is that a course must be designed in such a way that facilitates this level of monitoring. For instance, no such system can be built if a course has only a final exam and absolutely no term work. In addition, the cost of such a system, assuming that one can be built, likely far exceeds the cost of assigning each student a mentor.

Fortunately, if one is interested in identifying at-risk students, tools already exist. For instance, cuLearn has engagement statistics calculated according to some formula. Students who are at-risk are flagged with a red dot. There are also companies that sell big data solutions to educational institutions for the purpose of improving student retention via comprehensive monitoring. The idea is to spot warning signs early on and to provide timely intervention and assistance to help steer students back on track.

A few terms ago, I tried reaching out to at-risk students by asking them to schedule a meeting with me to discuss their difficulties. Half of the students who made an appointment ended up as no-shows! I have even had one student tell me that he didn’t appreciate my reaching out. As intervention is intrusive, we are faced with the question, “How far should we get in the way of a student’s life?”