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Proven strategies for improving student retention in Higher Education

19 July, 2021

The role that data plays in improving student retention


Supporting student retention is a critical part of education and something that needs to be at the forefront of any course offering. It hasn’t always been easy to proactively identify ‘at-risk’ students, which is why OES has dedicated the last 10 years to truly understanding how data and soft skills, together can set students up for success on their study journey.

At OES we take a data-driven approach to strengthen student retention, which enables us to lead with a proactive intervention practice. Data can show us the students at risk, who are not actively seeking out university support, and connects them directly with student coaches.

The ability to access user behaviour is one of the greatest benefits of operating in the online learning environment, and a useful informant in developing systems that provide best-in-market online education services.

These ‘digital touch points’ (Bolton et al 2017) provide valuable insights into how our students approach their education, which may can be leveraged into opportunities to further meet and exceed their learning needs and support better engagement.

Since the implementation of this strategy, OES has observed a 5% increase in student retention with one Australian higher education partner.

Student support and retention outcomes

A key insight our team uncovered was that there are significant differences in retention outcomes between students who actively seek out assistance via existing support channels, and those who do not.

It was recognised, across multiple OES university partners, that those who ‘self-serve’ – a term given to highly motivated students who help themselves by accessing the available support services, showed stronger retention outcomes than those who did not access support services.

This was again evident after an introductory Student Coach webinar was offered as an opt-in service for students. Of the students that attended the last webinar, 94% of them stayed on past census.

Previous research (Bettinger and Baker 2014) also observes that students who are randomly assigned to a coach are more likely to persist with study, as well as attend the university a year after coaching has concluded.

OES concluded based on the research available and our own insights, that finding a way to engage students who would not usually seek out support services, would inevitably strengthen retention outcomes to the benefit of the student and our partner universities.

Our coaching approach

Prior to the implementation of our outbound intervention practice, we work to identify the student cohorts that are most in need of intervention using the analysis of broader cohort behaviour, and algorithmic analysis of individual student behaviour to spot critical metrics that impact retention. These students are then contacted via the outbound interventions such as telephone, email and SMS.

The student coach interventions work to empower students with insights into their behaviour as well as developing a plan for success in their chosen field of study, building capacity in students in the earlier stages of their course.

OES coaches practice effective questioning and thoughtful observation, focusing on areas such as time management, goal setting and motivation specific to student need. Ongoing accountability and support opportunities are then created by encouraging students to book subsequent follow-up appointments with their Student Coach.

Throughout the process, support and messaging are tailored specifically for each identified cohort. Successful iterations of the program are integrated into a regular intervention schedule, and unsuccessful attempts are refined by switching the cohort, timing or messaging through the analysis of qualitative data obtained during the pilot.


OES continually strives to align our actions and pilot programs with our mission to support, empower and partner with students to succeed. Critical to this, is ensuring that outcomes are measurable and impactful.

By combining hard data sets with the soft skills of our student coaches, we can positively intervene with students more likely to require support, ultimately strengthening progression and retention outcomes and enabling them to achieve their goals in their field of study.

By harnessing the right data insights at the right time, you can improve student engagement and retention. Learn more about our Customised Learning Analytics and how we can tailor them meet your business objectives.

Bettinger, E., & Baker, R. (2011). The Effects of Student Coaching in College: An Evaluation of a Randomized Experiment in Student Mentoring. doi:10.3386/w16881

Bolton, P. Driessen, B (2017) What universities could learn from data. PWC Digital Pulse