Monitoring Students Using WinEcon
Much of the WinEcon literature relates to its use as an interactive learning package, with the emphasis on economics content. In this case study the focus of attention is on the use of WinEcon as a monitoring tool to help monitor and develop vital hidden qualities in first year students such as diligence, self-discipline and independent learning. Whilst successful students (in terms of assessed performance) exhibit a variety of academic and study-related strengths, clearly such hidden qualities also contribute to successful student performance.
The use of WinEcon as a monitoring tool allows one to identify at an early stage those students exhibiting weak independent learning skills. Once these potentially 'poor performers' have been identified, tutors can provide more specific help in subsequent feedback sessions etc. This monitoring capability is particularly useful when teaching introductory economics within a multi-discipline context whereby the student population is very diverse, and often comprises those taking economics for one semester only. Indeed, it is the student monitoring capability rather than the interactive learning facility - important though that is - which is the rationale for using WinEcon at Ulster.
WinEcon at UUJ
In order to create an incentive for students to use WinEcon, each first year student taking the introductory economics module is given a unique username so that they login to a customised WinEcon package that corresponds closely to the lecture content. Students can receive a maximum of 15% (formerly 10%) of total assessment for the module by using WinEcon regularly. Students are advised to access the package for at least one hour per week. Students typically login for 20-minute sessions at times convenient to them. Although students are encouraged to take the self-assessment tests within the package, they can earn the full 15% assessment simply by using WinEcon regularly, regardless of performance in the self-assessed tests. To be rewarded, students must use the package during the twelve-week teaching period, which ends six weeks before the written examination.
Apart from a pre-term special induction session and the first week of term, no further prompting to use WinEcon is given during the teaching period: it is left to students when and how they access the package.
The Monitoring Regime
For each student the customisable version of WinEcon logs details giving the time and duration of use, topics accessed, the scores attained in any self assessed tests taken etc. The logged records are reviewed during week four of the teaching period to identify 'low users' of WinEcon - those who have not accessed the package, or who have spent less than one hour in total over the review period. At the end of week four tutors have an informal discussion with low users, reminding those involved of the potential loss in coursework marks if they continue to ignore WinEcon. Although students give a variety of reasons for their low access rate (loss of username, or a technical hitch when first accessed which put them off trying again etc), one cannot discount the possibility that poor independent learning skills are a contributing factor. The meeting with tutors at the end of week four also provides an opportunity for the students to raise particular difficulties they may be experiencing with the module. Once identified, these students are monitored more closely in subsequent weeks.
Week four is chosen to review the logged data because questionnaire surveys of previous students who had failed the module at the first attempt revealed that this was the median time it took them to lose interest in the module (for various reasons these students had perceived by week four that they were going to fail the module). Despite having difficulty with the module, these students had not approached their tutor or studies adviser and, prior to using WinEcon, there was no mechanism for identifying such students until much later in the teaching period (after a written assignment was submitted etc). In addition, some students failing the module had taken A-level economics (these students tended to have a grade C or less at A-level). These particular students blamed their own lack of study effort for their failure, believing that they could pass on previous, if somewhat limited, knowledge. Once again, using WinEcon as a monitoring aid, this unexpected source of poor performance can be identified relatively early in the teaching period.
Although customising WinEcon and setting up usernames etc takes 1-2 days, the information that is generated from the logged data makes this initial administrative effort worthwhile. It is the experience at Ulster that students who continue to exhibit a low access rate after week four tend to perform badly in the written examination. Thus one can begin to identify potential examination failures earlier rather than later in the teaching period.