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Innovative support system proves positively ACE for students

22 June 2023

A monitoring system for students needing extra support is showing positive results, helping them get back on track with their studies.


The University of Canterbury’s ACE system identifies students who aren’t engaging with their learning, and proactively offers them support.

Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha | University of Canterbury (UC) introduced the Analytics for Course Engagement (ACE) system in early 2020. Its goal is to identify students who aren’t engaging with their learning, and proactively offer them support.

If they are becoming disengaged from digital learning resources, students receive a personalised text message and email. While initially only for first-year students, ACE was expanded in 2021 to include all UC undergraduates.


UC Tumu Tuarua Akoranga | Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic Professor Catherine Moran says the ACE system is innovative and having a positive impact. “It’s harnessing technology that allows us to be proactive, to identify students in need and make sure they are given support to get back on the path to success. It’s helping them adapt to university life in a really effective way.”

A recent assessment of the effectiveness of ACE by project lead Ellie Kay and data scientist Paul Bostock found that students who receive an email and text ‘nudge’ through the programme re-engage at a higher rate and spend more time with digital learning material than those who were not contacted. The positive changes continued for over two weeks, showing a measurable benefit over time.

Student engagement in the test group peaked at 39% higher than the control group five days after the nudges were sent. About 50% of students in the study re-engaged with their coursework after the initial text and email.

The text and email messages also triggered more engagement across the students’ other courses, showing the benefit was transferable and broader than just one course.

Kay says ACE is a way to identify students at risk of disengaging with, withdrawing from, or failing a course. Learning analytics data is used to identify students who are not engaging relative to their peers. Students and lecturers have access to this information in a digital, personalised dashboard.

“The aim of ACE is to boost retention rates across the University, especially those within groups that have traditionally experienced lower success rates, and to connect students with appropriate support if necessary,” she says. 

“Our study shows that gently nudging students – just a quick message asking how they’re doing and what’s been happening – can create behaviour change and has a positive impact on re-engagement with online learning across all enrolled courses, helping them succeed.”

Kay, who is presenting her findings at a STARS (Students, Transitions, Achievement, Retention and Success) conference in Brisbane next month, says the messages UC students receive through ACE are backed up by a team of student advisors, academic staff and support services who follow up individually with students who don’t re-engage.

“Around half of the students picked up by ACE are supported through this extended network of staff. The system combines the benefits of automation and the strengths of a cohesive, people-focused approach across the whole university.”

ACE, which is part of the University of Canterbury’s Student Success Programme, Kia Angitu, won the 2021 CAUDIT (Council of Australasian University Directors of Information Technology) award for Improving Student Success and it was also selected as a finalist in the 2021 New Zealand Open Source Awards.

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