Why Behavioral Data is Better Than Demographic Data

Data is essential to understanding today’s learner. What type of data is used is equally important.  


Education has made the shift from anecdotal and descriptive data to a more predictive data focused approach over the past decade, but more needs to be done to embrace different types of data and analytics approaches that enable better understanding, support, and connections between instructors and students. That’s where behavioral data comes in.  


What is behavioral data?  

Behavioral data is data on a person’s engagement with websites, resources, a school campus, and more. Most of these data are currently collected through a customer relation management (CRM) platform, websites, LMS and automated systems, among other sources. Behavioral data is dynamic—it represents what a person does while they are engaged in their learner journey. Demographic data, on the other hand, is stagnant data that segments people into different groups based on demographics such as age, gender, race, sexual orientation income, and zip code.   


What demographic data does  

Demographic data can be useful for generating insight into a person’s circumstances–it can tell you about their age, where they live, or what their gender identity is, for example. Demographics can provide additional contextual awareness of a student and what she may be experiencing in her individual learning journey. This type of information can also help understand high level group experiences 


But demographic data also has downfalls. Some demographic data serves as a proxy for information without truly telling you about a person or digging deep into the diversity of a large group. Gender, for example, can serve as a proxy for preferences. Using traditional demographic approaches could lead marketers to advertise baby products to middle-income women ages 20-35. Even with disaggregating the data, they could end up wasting their time and money advertising to women who don’t have children or are not interested in having children. If these same marketers used behavioral data instead, they could advertise to people who have shown interest in baby products and target older women with children, current or future fathers, and non-binary parents. Behavioral data digs deeper into the diversity within demographic groups.  


Demographic data can also perpetuate bias. Data is simply a quantitative representation of our world, so inequities in our society can easily be replicated. Even without using data on protected groups like race or disability status, some demographic data can serve as a proxy for this sensitive information and perpetuate inequities. As an example: zip code data can appear neutral at first, but given that systemic inequities have pushed certain groups into particular neighborhoods, that data can lead to similar results as having used race or socioeconomic status data.  


Why behavioral data is better 

Behavioral data, on the other hand, represents patterns in people’s behavior and give insight on their mindsets and decisions. Where demographics tell the “who”, behavioral data tells you “why” and “how”.  


Implementing behavioral data in your student success efforts is better than just using demographic data because it gives a more holistic view into your students. Behavioral data gives greater context into who your audience is, especially when combined with demographic data. With behavioral data, you can understand the causal factors of the decisions people are making and how those decisions affect their outcomes instead of just knowing people’s characteristics.  


Using behavioral data also allows your institution to create a better connection with students. You can understand how students are engaging with material, what motivates them to continue their education, and what is keeping them from progressing. Empowered with this information, you can provide scalable and one-to-one personalized messaging and support to help each student with exactly what they need. Much like the personalization engines driving value for many consumer facing apps (Uber, Spotify, Netflix), properly applied behavioral data fosters a better connection between students and the institution.  


Why using behavioral data is important  

Personalization, connection, and belonging are more important than ever in the education sector, and using behavioral data can help you foster that for better results. This year, just 12 percent of college students reported feeling a strong sense of belonging at their institutions, an essential component of student success. Connecting with students of all ages and levels is crucial during the post-pandemic recovery, and using the right data can help. Using behavioral data allows you to create a more personalized experience for learners at a time when students are seeking connection in ways that demographic data alone can’t.  


Using behavioral data to support students and learners allows you to meet them where they are at and better support their needs. Behavioral data offers deep insight into who a person is in the moment. Contact us to learn how we can help you offer more personalized support for your students.  

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