What’s in a Stat? Using Data to Impact Small Choices

1 Aug
salutations-chart, from blog.okcupid.com

salutations-chart, from blog.okcupid.com

In a blog post titled, ‘We Experiment on Human Beings,” OKCupid founder Christian Rudder shares how the site manipulated user profiles to gain data on what led to interactions and meaningful conversations on the site.

His post is in reaction to the ruckus over the Facebook emotional contagion study, but I thought it was much more interesting how OKCupid uses it’s data.  Yes, they mine their data for information that will help them make the site more successful (and by extension, profitable) but they also share their information on their blog.  Oktrends is a veritable gold mine of information about our habits, preferences, and our often misguided assumption about what will appeal to a potential mate (or ourselves.)

What’s awesome about their data is that they interpret it for us–so when they share their thousands of data points about what first messages gained the most traction in their post, Exactly What to Say in a First Messagethey get very specific with advice–open with “how’s it goin” or “What’s up,” but not the more formal “Hi” or “Hello.”  Express interest by using the phrases, “I was curious,” or “You mentioned…”  Contrast that with the general advice we often get, like “be casual,” or “show specific interest in the other person.”

Imagine this transferred to other fields.  Let’s take the classroom.  We give feedback to students, but it’s often a general, not-easily-applied kind of message.  For example, “Johnny is not very engaged in his reading.  He needs to focus on his books for longer.”  We have a very general piece of data here–not engaged in reading–that’s sort of equivalent to OKCupid telling users, “you’re not successful at getting dates.”  It’s accurate, but it’s describing a problem, rather than being helpful.  In fact, it’s pretty discouraging to hear.

We could get more specific with our data.  “Johnny reads for an average of 5 minutes before he finds an alternate activity, like going to the drinking fountain or sharpening a pencil.”  But we’ve really just described the problem in more detail, like saying, “people look at your profile on OKCupid an average of 8 seconds before they click away.”

We need some data for when Johnny is successful at engaging in reading to see the difference–or barring that, some data about when other students similar to Johnny are successful.  “Johnny reads for an average of 15 minutes when his book is a series with characters he knows well,” or “Johnny focuses for more than ten minutes at a time when he’s sitting in a favorite spot, facing away from other students so he’s not distracted.”  Suddenly we have some strategies for how to help Johnny, like OKCupid telling us that pictures that show activities spark more meaningful conversations on average than selfies that just focus on a smiling face.

Now imagine we give this information to Johnny, instead of just sharing with parents at conferences or keeping the knowledge tucked in our head.

Johnny, I’ve been marking when you’re reading and when you’re doing a different activity, and I noticed something interesting.  Usually when you’re reading, you read for about 5 minutes before you get distracted.  But sometimes when you read, you can focus for ten or fifteen minutes at a time!  Usually that’s when you’re reading your series books, like Animorphs or The Lightening Thief.  What do you think of that?”

Johnny can make the cognitive leap.  And now he can devise some plans for how to stay engaged more in reading.

Data is a powerful tool for noticing trends, and what works and what doesn’t, but it’s often held by a those in charge.  OKCupid has opened up some of their data to benefit their subscribers, and they’ve made that data specific, comprehensible, and useful.  Too often in education the data is vague (such as “below standard in math” or “5 on the API”) or not shared with the ultimate actors–the students.  If we are really specific about the issue (struggles in reading because doesn’t notice when a vocabulary word is unknown) then we can be very specific about solutions (repeated lessons with short texts working on identifying and attacking unknown words.)

Data can help us to identify problems, but it can also help us to identify solutions.  We can share data with our students, in the form of grades, percentages, or smiley-faces, but the more specific we are with our observations, the more our students can respond with a positive solution to the problem.

 

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