Leading and Lagging Indicators in Learning: An Economic Perspective on Improving Student Academic Performance

Abstract: Economists use predictive factors to determine how an economy will perform. In doing so, they must distinguish between information that drives or is correlated with future performance — leading indicators, from data that measure past performance – lagging indicators. Educators and students regularly, unknowingly, mistake lagging indicators for leading indicators. This misinterpretation results in a host of bad outcomes: teacher frustration, student apathy, underperformance and overall dissatisfaction with the educational experience. This article separates leading indicators from lagging indicators in learning environments.

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As members of the media, policymakers, business leaders and Americans in general consume the continual reports of record corporate profits and the skyrocketing stock market, people are left wondering: Where are the jobs?

This question rests upon an underlying assumption that all of this positive activity should be accompanied by a job boon. However, economists will argue that profits and stocks are leading indicators, while jobs are lagging indicators.

Leading indicators predict — though not always accurately — changes, patterns or trends in the economy as a whole, while lagging indicators usually change after the economy has been restructured. Leading indicators are the proverbial horse that precedes the cart.

Importance of Distinguishing Between Leading and Lagging Indicators

Distinguishing between leading and lagging indicators has a tremendous effect on both our motivation and performance. For example, those of us who have attempted to lose weight should be mindful that healthy eating and exercise are leading indicators, while actual weight loss lags behind.

I’m sure we all can recall a time when we were eating healthier and exercising more regularly, yet we became frustrated by the length of time it took for our healthier lifestyle to show results on the scale. If we endured through this frustration, we likely experienced a little weight loss. The reduction inspired us to keep up the good work, which, over time, produced more weight loss.

Well, dropping pounds is not that easy or else everyone would achieve their weight loss goal. We typically abort our new lifestyle when we either explicitly, or more likely implicitly, calculate that the weight loss isn’t happening fast enough. We then lose our inspiration and gradually abandon our routine.

We don’t realize that we were doomed from the start because we’d set up weight loss, a lagging indicator, as our measure of success. This is tempting since lagging indicators are easy to measure but hard to improve directly. It is unrealistic to think that people will sustain their discipline and efforts while waiting for a reward on the back end. If we had used leading indicators, such as healthier eating and exercise, then we might have persisted until the weight loss caught up.

Leaders and Laggers in Learning

There are leading and lagging indicators in learning as well. As in the pursuit of physical fitness, educators and students regularly overlook leaders and focus on laggers. There is good reason for this oversight. Typically, lagging indicators are easy to measure but are difficult to improve, while leading indicators are hard to measure and easy to influence. Refer to our weight loss example: Weight loss, a lagging indicator, can easily be measured by simply stepping on a scale, but leading indicators, such as calorie consumption and calories burned, are more time consuming and difficult to measure consistently.

Students often focus on grades as a measure of their performance. Grades are lagging indicators because they measure how well students have learned (past tense). It’s akin to using the results of an annual physical exam as an indicator of health. The check-up will tell us how we have been doing up to that point. Our lifestyle prior to the visit is the leading indicator. For the most part, we should be able to predict the results of a physical examination. When students are properly focused on factors that accurately predict performance, they are able to improve their performance.

Controlling Future Performance 

Leading indicators are predictive. They drive or can be correlated with future performance. Lagging indicators tell us the story about what has happened in the past. It’s imperative that educators and students know how to distinguish between the two in learning environments and how to influence and measure (a more difficult task) leading indicators.

Both educators and students must clearly understand how their behaviors impact each other. When educators don’t carry their weight, students suffer. And when students don’t carry their weight, students suffer even more. (I say this coming from a higher education perspective in which many professors don’t believe that poor student performance is a reflection on the educator’s performance. Having worked with K-12 teachers, I realize that their performance is more closely linked to student performance.)

Whether educators accept it or not, they and their students exist in symbiotic relationships. In-class educators (teachers and professors), out-of-class educators (learning support professionals, guidance counselors, etc.) and students all must be on the same page if they are to maximize performance in the learning economy.

Below is a list of leading indicators over which we have a high degree of control. If we focus on these indicators, we can expect improved performance to lag not too far behind. (I have listed these as questions to enhance their usefulness.)

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Students and educators who produce the correct answers to these questions can anticipate remarkable improvement in student performance and a healthy learning economy.

The Ideal Learning Economy

I’d like to conclude this article by sharing my view of how a healthy learning economy should work.

Imagine a learning economy whereby educators have organized their instruction around the core outcomes that they want students to achieve. They develop general course outcomes as well as lesson-specific outcomes, all of which include the level(s) of intellectual performance so that students know precisely how they will be evaluated. These outcomes are not only succinctly expressed in the syllabus, but they are also deliberately highlighted and reinforced during instruction.

Educators appreciate the reality that students’ motivation is increased when the material is relevant to their own lives and learning, so they include examples, props and stories that bring the content to life and forge connections between the theoretical and real worlds.

Educators use the content to drive thinking, thus enhancing students’ cognitive skills, along with expanding their knowledge base. These skilled educators focus not only on presenting domain knowledge, or the breadth of knowledge within a field, but they also strategically select specific foundational topics that are central to the subject or discipline.

The various tasks, such as class participation, collaborative work, projects, papers and exams are clearly described and perhaps even modeled. Educators seamlessly switch roles between “sage on the stage” and “facilitator of learning.”

Students accept their role as co-creators in the educational process. They understand how to interpret the outcomes against which their performance will be measured. They continually assess their learning and judge their success by how well they have learned, not by how long they’ve studied – a commonly used non-indicator of learning. They use leading indicators, such as the extent to which they’ve met expected outcomes, how meaningfully they’ve contributed in class, how well they’ve studied away from class and the depth of their learning.

This is not a fantasy. It is becoming the norm for an increasing number of educators, students and institutions!

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