The Value of Analyzing Course-Taking Patterns

By: Derek Higgs, MPA, Researcher

April 15, 2020


The analyses of high school course-taking patterns have resulted in game-changing revelations regarding student success and academic evaluation. Every high school course has a measurable impact. For the student, being able to confidently predict how a particular class affects their educational and career goals will allow them to create a lean and customized action plan. For the teacher, knowing the various benefits of each course subject will allow them to improve the educational experience of each classroom based on the specific needs of its students. And for the school administrator, having a clear understanding of the metrics predicting success will allow them to create a curriculum that adequately prepares each student based on his/her future ambitions. 

These predictions are made possible by identifying and analyzing student course-taking patterns. Course-taking patterns are valuable because they are strongly correlated with explaining educational and career performance. For example, by studying course-taking patterns, we are able to measure a strong relationship between a high school science course and a student’s probability of majoring in a STEM or non-STEM field in college. Or, how much additional salary an employee makes because he/she successfully passed an advanced math course during their sophomore year of high school. As a real-world contribution, the analysis of course patterns has been instrumental in the improvement and/or replacement of standardized tests by allowing educators to confidently determine exactly how, when, and why subjects are impacting various student outcomes.

A course-taking pattern is simply defined as the sequential order in which a student completes their courses. Although there are several ways to categorize a ‘pattern’, the most common is to identify them by course subject and difficulty level. High schools in the United States have 5 course subjects: Math, Science, Social Studies, English, and Foreign Languages. The difficulty of a course can vary in high school from introductory to advanced. Additional factors that are often associated with influencing patterns, and that are commonly controlled, are the student’s profile (such as gender and race), the student’s prior educational achievement, socioeconomic status, and institutional characteristics such as the quality of the teacher or the condition of the neighborhood. 

The most common outcomes investigated in course-taking research are achievement (academic performance, GPA, ACT scores), high school graduation, college enrollment, college achievement, college major selection, college graduation, career choice, and labor market outcomes. A consensual observation of the research literature reveals that taking more courses within a subject in high school, especially advanced courses, increases the student’s course proficiency, college entrance exam scores, high school graduation probability, and college performance. It has well been established that success in math courses has the greatest association with student success. But, taking an advanced course within any of the 5 subject areas has a measurably positive relationship with several outcomes. 

The most popular methods for analyzing course-taking patterns are to conduct a cluster analysis, and then employ a regression model such as OLS, or calculate a propensity score matching method. Some research projects conducted both and published the results for each. Stratification was a common method when students were grouped into categories based on exam scores or GPA. Less common methods were to use Cohen’s d coefficient to calculate effect sizes of course subjects on various outcomes. 

Overall, course-taking pattern analysis has demonstrated to be a positive benefit in the world of academia by allowing researchers to measure a strongly correlated relationship between high school course subjects and several academic outcomes, such as higher test scores, higher graduation rates, and even better post-secondary performance.