April 9, 2021

Five Ways to Increase Student Success

Designing Experiences

By Elliot Felix and Shannon Stockton, Double Line

How can colleges and universities increase the success of their students? In this post, brightspot and Double Line, a data and technology strategy firm, will define student success, identify common challenges, and identify five evidence-based strategies to increase success. Later we will focus on the importance of a data vision to support holistic student approach strategies and discuss questions to ask that could impact effectiveness and adoption. Finally, we will share examples of strategies in action. 

There is no consensus on the definition of student success, but there are a set of common themes when looking across definitions. Metrics are a useful way to make definitions more tangible. While reductive, retention, and completion are the most common metrics and serve as de facto definitions. Expanding beyond retention and completion, we might include whether students are progressing toward their goals; developing academically, socially, and emotionally; gaining the knowledge and skill competencies needed to achieve their goals; feeling engaged and connected to their learning, community, and a purpose or path; and places into career opportunities?

While considering the right combination of student success strategies and defining metrics, you might also be facing technology challenges behind the scenes.

We will outline some questions you should ask in order to create a data vision before the implementation of a new student success strategy. Here are just a few common barriers which can affect the overall success of these strategies:

  • Siloed data, untimely information, redundancies, lack of trust in data, lack of adoption or training on technology tools
  • Too many invest in the “nice to have” or latest new thing when they should be investing in the “need to have” tech that can dramatically support systemic change
  • “Zombie” products that never got real adoption
  • Current infrastructure and business practices impede the availability of reliable data used to measure and evaluate strategies
  • Infrastructure does not currently support longitudinal data extractions
Miami University Libraries Website Chatbot
Strategies for Student Success

If we consider student success the goals made of the right combination of these attributes for your institution, then we can also apply a variety of evidence-based practices to help students succeed. These include student advising, projects with impact, one-stop-shop student services, personalized, proactive outreach, and using campus facilities strategically. Let’s unpack these and look at the evidence:

  1. Advising: Student advising is critical to helping students establish their goals and make progress toward them. A study by the Center for Community College Student Engagement that included nearly 180,000 students at approximately 300 institutions found that students who met with advisors were more engaged; they were more likely exert more effort, seek greater academic challenge, have more interaction with faculty, and participate in active learning.
  2. Projects with impact: Capstone projects have been identified by the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) as a high-impact practice. The Gallup-Purdue index found similar results: students who worked on a semester-long project were 1.4 times more likely to think their education was worth the cost and 1.7 times more likely to be engaged at work after graduation.
  3. One-stop-shop student services: Rather than give students the runaround from office to office to solve their problems, institutions can create physical and digital student service hubs that are more effective and efficient. A Rand report of four community college systems found that providing a single stop was associated with a 3 percentage point increase in student persistence.
  4. Personalized, proactive outreach: Technology is enabling personalization at scale. We can aggregate and analyze data on everything from which students used the LMS today to who’s seen their advisor. We can use chatbots to proactively reach out to students to ask questions like how they are feeling about midterms and then connect them directly to a peer tutor. In fact, Upswing has found that about half of students will respond to such a text in comparison to just 7% via email.
  5. Campus facilities: Space plays a big role in student success by not only meeting functional needs but also expressing values and providing inspiration. brightspot’s student experience surveys have found medium and high correlations between students’ satisfaction with campus facilities and their sense of personal growth and likelihood to recommend their institution – and they were higher still for historically underserved students.
Source brightspot nationally-representative student survey, Dec ‘20, n=450
Generating a Data Vision 

As we know, data is needed to drive all five of these recommendations aimed to support student success. These five strategies use tools in which students interface directly. But what about behind the scenes? 

A National Landscape Analysis shows that only 42% of higher education institutions collect student data effectively, and only 32% use that data to foster academic success.

 It is crucial that leadership can monitor metrics, progress to goal attainment, and effectively communicate actionable information to administration and staff. So why is student data not being used effectively? 

Double Line’s experience over the last decade is that new technology tools, data systems interaction, and business processes contributing to data integrity are often viewed as an afterthought or not addressed until there is a problem. Analyzing the supporting data pipeline to create a data vision before implementing a new program is crucial to its success. 

Technology questions to consider before embarking on a student success initiative:

Have we identified the right metrics (qualitative, quantitative, lead indicators) needed to support this initiative and/or technology change? In order to expand key metrics for a more holistic student approach, more data is needed. This could include new data points such as surveys. However, it is likely that the needed data is already being collected but barriers exist, such as siloed data systems, preventing data use to its full potential.

Where does the needed data come from and in what systems is it housed? System mapping is one technique to ensure an uninterrupted and unduplicated data flow. Finding areas where integration and automation can be used to increase efficiencies. Increasing efficiency will allow IT services to spend less time on manual processes and more time supporting students and staff directly.

Are business processes aligned to ensure the accuracy of data reported? Accuracy of the information reported to the student as well as administrators and staff is crucial in proving the trustworthiness of the new initiative. Unreliable or faulty data can lead decision-makers to incorrect decisions that cost time, money, and momentum. Mistrust of information affects buy-in and ultimately the program/tool not being used effectively.

Is data being integrated without manual process or long time delay? Leadership and staff want actionable information, not to spend time understanding data. Researchers want to spend time analyzing trends and reporting information that can improve student success, not taking time to combine and clean data. Students want information near immediately without having to search for it. All this comes down to data infrastructure, de-siloing systems, and automation.

Visualization easily understood, relevant, and actionable for the end-users? Data modeling and cleaning are integral prerequisite steps before any significant visualizations are added to a report. The information must be presented in a way that is complete but also easy to understand to promote use of the service.

The categories brightspot has addressed above are all fueled by data, or they should be. Obvious data such as student information, technology use, grades. Less obvious data like engagement, surveys, observation, in-service information, etc. are harder to quantify and even more difficult to integrate into visualizations. Results from a National Landscape Analysis about Institutions Use of Data and Analytics for Student Success by AIR, EDUCAUSE, and NASPA found that over 20% of institutions surveyed said that it is “unclear which data are necessary to conduct analysis.” 

The questions we’ve outlined will help make clear what data is needed to understand what is working, what is not working, and continuously improve the student experience. A data vision will ensure the accuracy of information presented to students and staff, which in turn builds trust in the new program, and increases adoption. As mentioned previously, collecting the right data or new data sets can help tailor university services to enhance each student’s experience and meet each unique institution’s needs. 

Student Success Strategies in Action

The University of Virginia wanted to improve the student advising experience by bringing together academic, career, and personal support into one place. brightspot worked with UVA to diagnose the current issues and then create a flexible space with a shared service model where dozens of different providers – from the writing coaching to career workshops to psychological counseling and everything in between – could come together. By locating it in a library, brightspot planned a space that blends study space with support services to meet students where they are and reduce the barriers to (and potential stigmas of) getting help. This resulted in a 12% increase in total satisfaction with advising, a 33% increase in students who are very satisfied, and a 31% decrease in students who are very dissatisfied, according to their most recent SERU survey data. What’s more, brightspot’s clients noted that the new Center is “allowing dozens of support offices to interact with students in new ways and to reach students they might otherwise miss.”

UVA’s Georges Service Center, Peer Financial Counseling

Portland State University wanted to meet the growing demand for adult online learners, particularly returning students with some coursework but no degree. They wanted to remove barriers for these students to enable their success. brightspot worked with PSU to conduct in-depth interviews with students to identify their barriers and identify solutions. The awareness and navigation of disparate student services – from accessing courses to paying bills – quickly surfaced as a major concern. brightspot developed the brief for a redesigned “myPSU” student portal which would bring these services together. The new myPSU, developed on the Modo Labs platform, achieved terrific results. It was used 9M times in the first year by PSU’s 30,000 students, was rated the easiest platform to use by students, and PSU saw an increase in student retention from 70 to 74% after its introduction.

Portland State’s MyPSU App, Powered by Modo Labs

Metropolitan Community College wanted to improve student intervention measures, but leadership wasn’t getting the necessary data to figure out which initiatives were working and which were not. The administration had purchased software to help capture data in hopes this would provide the needed insight but was still not clear on the drivers behind why they lacked data-supported answers. One of the main problems was the software chosen did not entirely fit the new initiative’s needs, and many staff members either didn’t trust the accuracy of the data or didn’t know how to use it. They engaged with Double Line to discover why. Within four months of the initial engagement, the client had a clear, concise roadmap and next steps to address the business process and data governance gaps uncovered by utilizing Double Line’s recommendations and Data Maturity Model. The client can now capture new data points that will be used in future analytics and decision-making. Additionally, Double Line’s training helped build two dashboards centering around student completion and retention.


So many factors are involved in the ever-evolving definition of student success. It can be overwhelming at times and unfortunately not one formula fits all. The right combination of attributes, technology, and evidence-based practices are needed to help students succeed. As outlined in the success stories, it is possible. Creating a holistic student approach supporting technology strategy requires a massive amount of collaboration from all and sometimes the right partner can be helpful to find your institution’s unique formula to promote student engagement, learning, and progress through cross-functional leadership, not siloed decision making.

brightspot and Double Line share a mission is to help tailor university services to improve the experience for each individual student and meet the needs of each unique institution. Our hope is that sharing student success strategies from the education community and our combined expertise will help others on the same journey. With the right student success strategies in place and data aligned to support them the future of student success looks bright.

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