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University of Memphis Uses New Tech Tool to Help Students Choose Courses and Majors

For release: February 14, 2012
For press information, contact Curt Guenther, 901-678-2843

College students use tech tools for everything from ordering pizza to playing games. The same technology software will soon beused to help University of Memphis studentsdecide which courses will help them graduate faster, which courses will result in better grades, and even what subject to choose for a major.

The technology, originally developed by Austin Peay State University Provost Tristan Denley, uses data to identify the course requirements for a student’s major, then to find the classes in which the student is most likely to perform well. The tool scans the university’s records to compare the success of similar students taking similar classes – much like online shopping programs recommend products purchased by other customers.

“It helps them make better, more informed choices by using something they’re already familiar with, such as a smart phone or mobile device app,” said Denley. While it doesn’t replace traditional faculty advising, it makes the advising process easier and faster for students and faculty.

Proven effective at Austin Peay, the same technology will soon be in use at the University of Memphis and twoother Tennessee Board of Regents campuses – Nashville State Community College and Volunteer State Community College  – thanks to a grant to the Tennessee Higher Education Commission from Complete College America, in collaboration with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Dr. Shannon Blanton, vice provost for Undergraduate Programs at the U of M, said, "We are very excited about the opportunity to incorporate additional tools into our advising processes and further enhance the  ability of our students to make informed choices about the classes they take and the major they select.  Students have different academic strengths and interests that translate into different patterns of academic success.  The student who excels in his or her journalism class, for example, might have a different set of academic competencies and interests than the student who is highly successful in a chemistry course. This technology will help students to identify the academic areas in which they are most likely to excel and find personal satisfaction.  In turn, we expect that these students will be more likely to complete their degrees."

A portion of the $1 million grant has allowed the software to be adapted for use at the University of Memphis andthe other colleges and to be tested for possible use state-wide.

“We know that the more time it takes students to earn a degree, the less likely they are to successfully complete college,” said TBR Chancellor John Morgan. “Of all the challenges facing students on a regular basis, knowing which courses to take and when to take them should not be one of those challenges. This tool will make it easier for students to plan their course loads and will help improve the advising process.”

The program, called “Degree Compass,” uses predictive analytics through a complex algorithm that pulls data and statistics from the university’s student database.  Denley said that after it accurately predicted a student’s performance to within half a letter grade., it was quickly adopted for use at Austin Peay.

Now Denley and his colleagues are working on a feature to help students choose a major – or find one that better fits their past performance and one that has proven to be a positive choice for other students with similar grades and characteristics.

The new software will be closely tracked to evaluate the impact it has on student performance. According to TBR’s Morgan, the goal is to radically improve student advising and ultimately, college completion rates.

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