Learning Center Growth, Part 1: Tracking a Key Metric
Updated: Dec 2, 2020
Through running a startup, we’ve learned quite a bit about growth. There is a lot of great content on this topic for startups, but the same can’t be said for learning centers. In this series of posts, I’ll share concepts we’ve learned that I hope will help your center grow consistently, resulting in more funding, a greater impact, and a better on-campus reputation. The first piece to the puzzle revolves around KPIs.
Please note: none of these concepts will depend on using Penji at your center.
Key Performance Indicators, or KPIs
“What is measured, improves.” This quote is widely attributed to Peter Drucker, a famous management thinker. It is a foundational business concept that drives the purpose of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), which are metrics that measure your performance in certain areas. Y Combinator, the startup accelerator that helped create AirBnB, Dropbox, DoorDash, and others, recommends selecting a single KPI that most accurately measures your service. This metric should be studied each week, and all decisions should revolve around improving it over time.
For Penji, our primary KPI has been “Partner Count” as we establish our startup as a leader in learning center support; it will soon shift to “Interaction Count” (number of student interactions across all campuses) as we align with our partners in aiming for student utilization. Tracking a primary KPI each week has been a real game-changer for us. It keeps us focused and teaches us discipline around data. Through our weekly efforts to improve our KPI, we’ve built momentum faster than we’d have thought possible. We recommend learning centers adopt the same system as you aim to expand your impact on campus.
Choosing Your KPI
The KPI you select should align with your current goals. For most centers, we’d recommend total interactions (tutoring sessions, group participants, etc.) as the KPI to study each week. Move the needle here, and everyone is happy. Of course, your KPI could be different - for example, perhaps you believe that unique students served, or first-time students, is a better measure of success. Great! Track that instead.
Please make sure to consider your choice carefully. Studying your KPI each week will guide your decision-making and drive the direction your program progresses. If you are using total student interactions, this might lead you to explore ways to improve student retention, which in this case means a student returns for more tutoring. That is great, but ensure that it is aligned with your current goals for the center. Choosing first-time students as your KPI, however, might lead you to explore new marketing channels and ways to brand your center. This system is surprisingly powerful, and the KPI you choose will shape your center. Take some time to think it through.
Peaks and Valleys in a Term
Learning centers aren’t as simple as many other services, because students come in irregular waves - midterm weeks drive usage, while holiday weeks are dead. In-between these peaks in activity, you may experience some dips in the KPI’s trajectory. That’s OK. Each week, just keep trying to improve your KPI from your last week, even if you expect a drop due to an upcoming holiday. Over time, you’ll notice an upward trend in this KPI if you’re working to improve it. Even better, once you’ve tracked this KPI every week for a year, you can begin comparing the KPI to the same period last year. So, you could compare Week 15 of Fall 2021 to Week 15 of Fall 2020.
How to Measure Your KPI
This doesn’t have to be some advanced, technical system. You can do it by hand. Everyone has a different way to track data, so just find a way to count the number each week that you need. I started counting our KPI by hand, and then slowly have found ways to make this more efficient and organized. Now, collecting our weekly KPI data takes about 10 minutes, and is a very worthwhile use of time.
For some examples, if your primary KPI is number of student-tutor interactions, you’ll need a way to measure each interaction. For a drop-in Zoom room, you might ask your tutors to record a tally for the number of students who came, or put a Google Form as the first step when they click the drop-in link on your website, and then include the link to the zoom room at the end of the form. For appointment-based tutoring, the method in which students schedule appointments should have some way of recording the scheduled appointment so that you can count them later in the week when preparing your KPI.
Finally, I record our KPI in a spreadsheet, with columns for “Week Start Date” and “Student Interaction Count” (which is our KPI in this example). It is shown below.
You can see that we don’t have consistent growth week after week, that Thanksgiving wreaked havoc on the metric, and that the semester’s start made the growth look good. Your KPI will be irregular and lumpy like this too - that’s OK - but tracking it sharpens your focus and it will become clear if you are improving over time or if you are not. This semesters slow growth on our KPI has spurred us to prioritize features that will improve the student experience and help students return more frequently.
How to Improve Your KPI
Improving your KPI is all about experimentation. Brainstorm ideas on how to improve it, collaborating with your team if necessary and recording all ideas in a spreadsheet. Then, consider small tests to see if each idea will actually have merit. Design those tests, execute them, and study the results.
For example, say your KPI is the number of sessions in a given week. Your gut tells you that your marketing could improve, and you have a number of ideas to improve it. Your top two are:
Send your tutors to present in associated lectures
Asking faculty to post in their LMS about your center
So, design a test for each idea. Set up 5 tutor presentations in different lectures, and 5 faculty messages in their respective LMS. You’ll need to count the number of students who tried your center through these two channels, so ensure you have a way to track it (e.g., an intake survey). Running these two experiments will help your KPI grow the following week; more importantly, you’ll learn which channel was most effective, and then can scale that up in future weeks to continue helping your KPI. Perhaps you find the channels equally effective and scale both.
Take some time to get comfortable with this KPI system. Get into a rhythm with it, and ensure it is a sustainable habit. Don’t ask yourself to change too much too quickly. Once you are settled, begin efforts to improve your KPI per the experimentation sample I outlined above. Once you’re at this point in your KPI journey, you’ll be ready for our next article!