Dartmouth's StudentLife App Wants To Save Your Grades By Tracking Your Every Move

College is a trying time. It's not only the ever-increasing workload, it's also the social life, and the new independence, and the roommate who has sex too loudly in the room next door. It's a time when your mental wellbeing can be lost in the shuffle — but a new app may have you covered. Earlier this year, Dartmouth created a StudentLife app to monitor students' mental health for a study, and you know what? Creepy as it may sound, it's actually pretty necessary.

The Android app was created for a 10-week study of 48 Dartmouth College students, and, yes, it's pretty invasive. It monitors where you are, how you're sleeping, and how much conversation you're having, all automatically, 24/7. It collects data on your phone calls, how much you text, whether you've been stationary in your room or physically active. In case that wasn't comprehensive enough, you also answer questions about your mood at various points throughout the day.

All this information then gets churned through an algorithm that figures out how you communicate, how active you are, and what sleep patterns you have — all of which can be significant indicators of stress and depression. But, as creepy as the app may sound, the information it gives can be used to explain and predict your grades; the more depressed, lonely, or stressed out you are, the more likely it is that your grades are suffering.

As the lead researcher, Prof. Andrew Campbell, wrote in the study:

We found for the first time that passive and automatic sensor data, obtained from phones without any action by the user, significantly correlates student depression level, stress and loneliness with academic performance over the term.
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This translated into a very real help for two students at Dartmouth who'd taken part in the study. They were about to be failed — and suspended for a term — for skipping their classes and not handing in their assignments, but Campbell noticed that their data indicated high levels of stress and depression that they'd not told anyone about. So he got involved, and instead of failing, the students received "incompletes."

And this is of course just one example of what a difference this could make in the university setting. As Campbell writes:

What is the impact of stress, mood, workload, sociability, sleep and mental health on academic performance? Much of the stress and strain of student life remains hidden. In reality faculty, student deans, clinicians know little about their students in and outside of the classroom. Students might know about their own circumstances and patterns but know little about classmates.
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Although it's sad that we should have to rely on technology to reveal to us (and others) our own emotional states, the fact of the matter is, for a lot of students, this could be life-saving. Not only for those who can't figure out why they struggle with academia more than their peers — though this is definitely important — but for those struggling in non-academic ways as well. Think of how it could help in cases of victim-blaming, or bullying, or isolation. Think of how it could help those whose voices are lost in the chatter, who find themselves resorting to suicide (the latter being the third leading cause of death in people aged 18-24).

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As Campbell adds:

Intervention is the next step. It could be something simple like telling a person they should go and engage in conversations to improve their mood, or that, statistically, if you party only three nights a week you will get more decent grades.

Yah, it's scary to let something monitor you that closely. But with the right safeguards, and the right limitations, it could just be a game-changer.

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