Choosing Classes with a Little Help from Big Data

A new tool lets students view a course’s workload and grade distribution and gives researchers a window into student decision-making.

By Jackie Botts

Illustration: Michele McCammon

Deciding which classes to take is no easy task at a university that offers about 4,000 courses each quarter. But students now have a better idea of what to expect from their courses, thanks to a new platform that harnesses big data to help them explore options.

Launched in August 2016, Carta aggregates information from recent student evaluations and 15 years of registrar records, including each course’s workload and grade distribution. Students can visualize a weekly schedule and compare the intensity of their planned course load with that of previous quarters. More than 90 percent of undergraduates have used Carta since it launched.

Carta isn’t just a nifty tool; it’s also an active research project. Designed by a team of mostly undergraduates with undergraduate users in mind, the platform gives researchers a window into the “black box” of student decision-making “from the first day of freshman quarter to major declaration,” according to Mitchell Stevens, an associate professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education who co-leads the CartaLab. In addition to studying how the platform affects which courses students choose, the lab hopes to look at the way demographic factors such as gender identity and family background affect how students pick courses, majors and, ultimately, careers.

The lab’s research has already led to some surprising insights. Viewing historical grade data on Carta led students to earn slightly lower grades on average, according to a recent study. Researchers hypothesize one possible reason could be that finding out their peers earned mostly As in a particular class may give students a false sense of security, leading them to work less hard than they otherwise might have. Interestingly, viewing data on the intensity of a course’s workload had the opposite effect on students’ grades.

For Stevens, the more information students have when making choices, the better. “Carta is premised on a simple idea that fateful decisions are best informed by the greatest amount of data available,” he says. •


Jackie Botts, ’16, MA ’18, is a former STANFORD editorial intern and a recipient of the James S. Robinson Award for Student Journalists.