Photo John Whitmer, former Learning Analytics and Research Director at Blackboard.

What Instructor and Student Behavior Can Tell Us About the Best Teaching and Learning Strategies


The following article was published on E-Learn Magazine on May 02, 2018 and is based on an interview with Dr. John Whitmer, at the time Director Learning Analytics and Research for  Blackboard Analytics. We are republishing it in its original form. Click here for the Spanish version.

The depth of adoption of educational technologies, combined with new approaches to data storage and analytics, have created a whole new body of research possibilities. Is your institution using these insights to help students?

Do students not understand learning materials or are they not spending enough time on them? What study practices and other behaviors make students successful and which indicate they are likely to fail? What can instructors do to encourage positive student behavior? Finally, how can instructors design their courses and materials in a way that fosters learner engagement? These are some of the questions that educational research is trying to answer based on investigating instructor and student behavior.

The term ‘behavioral science’ is used in reference to multiple disciplines dealing primarily with human action,1 generally concentrating on the patterns of response to external stimuli,2 in contrast to asking people their opinions and positions; It looks more at what people do in situations.

In education, behavioral science is being used to understand which student and instructor behaviors are the most successful, to design better learning materials, to improve curriculum and to determine which teaching strategies and approaches institutions should adopt.

At Blackboard, Dr. John Whitmer, learning analytics and research director, investigates what people actually do when using educational technologies, as opposed to conventional research, which is usually based on surveys or small-scale interviews.

Whitmer’s team investigates how individuals use Blackboard’s digital learning environment, including tools and resources like Blackboard Learn, Collaborate, Ally and SafeAssign, and analyze how the results are related to student achievement.

“The data collected and the new techniques we are developing through learning analytics provide the ability to understand student interaction with learning materials, and then use that to identify engaged versus disengaged students to a scale and a degree that was not previously possible,” says Whitmer.

He is seeing more and more instructors and institutions beginning to take advantage of these new opportunities. “It’s really exciting. We want to make sure that we identify what is truly engaging and that we reflect and represent the best qualities of education through this work. That’s something we are increasingly able to do,” says Whitmer.

Behavioral Science and Educational Research

Learning analytics has opened up a whole field of research that wasn’t available before. New educational technologies now make it possible to record students’ actions at a highly detailed level, which can be helpful to answer several questions regarding student behavior and learning. Qualitative research and quantitative linguistics are also being applied as a way for instructors to obtain deeper insights into the quality and originality of student work and interactions.

First Application: Understanding the Relationship Between Student Behavior and Student Success

Behavioral science is being used today at multiple levels, according to Whitmer, but mostly to look at student behavior and then make comparisons between how students interact and use technologies and the behavior of students who are successful compared to those who are not.

“By doing this, it is possible to create predictive models that indicate students who are likely to be successful or not successful, and provide that information in advance to teachers, advisers, and perhaps to students themselves, so that there’s enough time to do something about it,” says Whitmer.

It also allows instructors to identify whether their courses were designed effectively. For example, if students are spending a large amount of time on one learning resource, does that mean they are learning a lot from it or that they are struggling?

“Looking at the relationship between usage and student success, you can also learn how to improve the course materials themselves, so that all students learn better and struggle less,” says Whitmer.

Second Application: Understanding How Different Materials and Approaches Influence Learning

A second application to behavioral science in education is that institutions are now able to make comparisons between different materials or different approaches in order to have evidence behind the educational strategies they adopt.

“For example, you can provide a specific material in a video format, then in a text format, and see how that relates to both the amount of time students spend on it, as well as how effectively they learn,” explains Whitmer. 

Third Application: Improving Curriculum

Finally, the third application of behavioral science, more closely related to engagement analytics, is improving the curriculum. Looking at how students succeed, don’t succeed, interact, and the degree to which they interact with materials, and then establishing which paths through curriculum are optimal.

“Helping students complete their degree is a major challenge in the United States and in developing countries as well. It’s important that students graduate as easily as possible and that we remove as many of the barriers as we can, and behavioral science can really help determine the best pathways for students to take,” Whitmer explains.

Instructor Behavior

What behaviors are the most important in quality teaching? Reviewing student work and providing frequent, high level feedback is probably the strongest way in which instructors can impact student learning, according to Whitmer. That can be a challenge for instructors with increasingly larger classes and less time, but there are technological resources that can help.

“One of the things that we are trying to do at Blackboard is to increase the time instructors have to provide meaningful feedback, by automating many of the things that take their time right now; For example, counting discussion forums posts and giving students a participation grade in the forums. That’s not a good use of instructor time, it would be better if they were spending their time reading, reviewing, replying student work, and giving a higher level of feedback,” Whitmer explains.

Blackboard is also developing automated feedback mechanisms and instrumentations in Blackboard Learn so that instructors can see whether students are reading their feedback or not.

Another instructor behavior that impacts learning is being present in the online environment by logging in and contacting students frequently. “That sense of instructor presence is very strong and important, and that’s a way in which instructors can immediately have an effect on learning, by showing that they care and that they are concerned about students. If the students know their instructor is online, is watching, and is paying attention to their participation, that gives students a sense that the instructor cares about them, and as a result, that they have a connection and a greater motivation to participate in the class as well,” says Whitmer.

In a broader sense, teaching to students’ abilities, creating effective learning materials and evaluating those materials frequently are other instructor behaviors that are encouraged.

Student Behavior

Is there such a thing as an ideal student behavior? According to Whitmer, that’s hard to determine, and we must keep in mind that behavior varies depending on the student background, prior knowledge, and experience.

If the student has already mastered the material or has an extensive background on the subject, measuring behavior may not be a very good indicator because perhaps that student doesn’t need to spend a lot of time studying.

“But as a general principle, we know that accessing materials early and often is better than accessing materials infrequently and late. This reduces the load and helps students learn more over time,” Whitmer explains.

Interactions among students are also important student behaviors. According to Whitmer, feeling that what you are doing matters and that you are a part of a learning community is often very motivating to students. “Especially for online learning, to have degrees of engagement, connection, and interaction with other students and instructors is important to have a sense of the student social presence in the online environment,” says Whitmer.

Prioritization and time management are also essential behaviors for student success. Technology can lend a hand to students in that matter: Blackboard Learn with the Ultra has an activity stream that provides a prioritization of upcoming tasks and feedback to students so they have to do less of that on their own.

Engaged Versus Disengaged Behavior

There are many ways for students to be engaged and disengaged, according to Whitmer. The time and frequency in which they access the course may be good indicators, but behavioral patterns vary.

“For example, if a student does not login to an online class and does not access the class materials in the first few weeks, it is likely that he or she is disengaged and will not do well in the class. However, a student who logs in early, gets the materials and then does not login again until it is time for the test may be disengaged as well,” says Whitmer.

Another way of assessing engagement is to look at what students are doing in the digital learning environment: Are they performing active or passive activities? “Are students reading other people’s posts, looking at someone’s profile or opening a file? Or are they submitting a homework assignment, doing a practice test, writing a blog post or an email to their instructor?” Whitmer questions. This distinction may be essential for the instructor to understand whether learners are engaged in a way that is productive in their learning or not.

Finally, Whitmer notes that it’s important to distinguish interactions from engagement. For example, the act of a student opening a file is an interaction, but to be engaged implies that the student is having a positive experience.

“You can interact with something a whole bunch of times and not necessarily like it. If you don’t like it, that’s not engaged,” says Whitmer. “We need to move beyond just counting clicks to have a better understanding of the depth of the student experience, and that’s why it’s really important to take multiple methods into account and to look at them with an open eye.”

How to Design a Course that Fosters Engagement and Positive Student Behavior

  1. Provide frequent assessments: Boosts engagement and allows the instructor to identify students who are disengaged as early as possible.
  2. Divide materials into smaller pieces: Makes it easier for students to move forward as they feel a sense of progress.
  3. Apply Universal Design for Learning (UDL): Makes the course accessible and interesting to students with all abilities.
  4. Answer student questions and clarify information online: Encourages interactions and helps students perceive the course as truly useful.
  5. Make your expectations clear: Allows students to know the degree and frequency in which they are expected to interact in an online course.
  6. Provide feedback mechanisms: Lets students know how they’re doing and whether they’re on track.
  7. Encourage experimentation: Helps students develop a growth mindset knowing that it is okay to learn from their mistakes.


Positive Student Behaviors

  • Logging in and accessing course materials early and often
  • Performing active tasks, such as submitting an assignment, or writing a blog post or email
  • Prioritizing activities and tasks
  • Interacting with instructors and peers

Positive Instructor Behaviors

  • Providing quality feedback (and checking to see if students have read it)
  • Being present by logging in and contacting students frequently
  • Answering student questions online (including the easy ones)
  • Creating effective learning materials and evaluating those materials often


1 Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Behavioral Science. Retrieved April 04, 2018, from science.

2 Business Dictionary. (n.d.). What are behavioral sciences? definition and meaning. Retrieved April 04, 2018, from      …

Photos by: AFP John Hefti