Intelligent Degree Planning Systems: Advancements in Personalized Achievability Rating



Sweeney, Mack

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Student retention to successful graduation is an enduring issue in higher education. National statistics indicate most higher education institutions have four-year degree completion rates around 50%, or just half of their student populations. While there are prediction models which illuminate factors that improve chances of student success, research has yet to clearly identify interventions that support course selections on a semester-to-semester basis. In this thesis, we highlight the potential of an ambitious academic advising program to improve student retention and learning outcomes. Given the complex demands of such an advising program, we posit that the development of an intelligent automated advising system is essential to its success. To further this goal, we develop a system to predict students' grades in the courses they will enroll in during the next enrollment term. We take a data-driven approach, learning patterns from historical transcript data coupled with additional information about students, courses, and the instructors teaching them. We explore a variety of classic and state-of-the-art techniques which have proven effective for recommendation tasks in the e-commerce domain. In our experiments, Factorization Machines (FM), Random Forests (RF), and the Personalized Multi-Linear Regression (PLMR) model achieve the lowest prediction error. We introduce a novel feature selection technique that is key to the predictive success and interpretability of the FM. By comparing feature importance across populations and across models, we uncover strong connections between instructor characteristics and student performance. We also discover key differences between transfer and non-transfer students. Ultimately we find that a hybrid FM-RF method can be used to accurately predict grades for both new and returning students taking both newly introduced and well-established courses. Unlike most e-commerce recommendations, academic advising can often have longlasting impacts on the student, on institutions, and on society. National studies show students with a Bachelors degree earn an average of 62% more than those with a high school diploma. Meanwhile, students who start but fail to successfully complete a university degree program represent lost revenue for institutions and generate debt that burdens society; the cumulative losses from dropouts across the United States figure in the billions. In such high-impact advising scenarios, explainability of recommendations becomes essential for their adoption. To address this concern, we explored probabilistic techniques that compete with state-of-the-art methods but yield superior prediction explanations. In particular, we develop a novel method called Profiling Mixtures of Linear Regressions that matches the performance of PLMR. We derive an efficient Gibbs sampling inference algorithm to infer a full posterior distribution for this model. We then demonstrate through a variety of informative visualizations how this posterior distribution can be used to assist advisors in making academic degree planning recommendations that are clear and actionable for advisees. The work in this thesis represents progress towards a truly intelligent degree planning system. Development of such a system holds promise for student degree planning, instructor interventions, and personalized advising, each of which could improve retention and student learning outcomes. Given the billion-dollar nature of the retention problem, successful application of the techniques in this thesis will bring significant gains for individuals, institutions, and society.



Matrix factorization, Grade prediction, Cold-start, Recommender systems, Educational data mining, Performance prediction