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How They Did It: Improving Retention Rates with Learner Differentiation at App Academy

If you’re like most online education leaders, differentiated learner support is like flossing—you know it’s important and you should be doing more of it, yet it’s actually really difficult to make it happen, especially at scale.

We’re here to make the process of scaling learner differentiation a lot easier (the flossing is up to you, though). One of our Learner Success Guild members, Meredith Bryan, has been tackling learner differentiation at App Academy’s online bootcamps and joined us last month to discuss her process and share her playbook.

App Academy offers online and in-person immersive Software Engineering programs to support learners who have little to no coding experience become competitive in the tech job market in as little as 16 weeks.

With the rise of shorter, online courses, App Academy is seeing more students applying to their bootcamps who have less prior tech experience, more varied backgrounds and more competing demands on their time.

As such, learner retention rates started to become a focus point. App Academy is highly focused on student outcomes, but as more students join the program with limited prior knowledge in coding or tech, how could App Academy better differentiate learning experiences and instruction to prepare learners and maintain high graduation rates?

Meredith Bryan, the VP of Academics at App Academy, tackled that challenge head-on with her team, and joined us as part of the Learner Success Guild to discuss how she approached the challenge, what her process looked like for finding and prioritizing ideas, and what they ultimately implemented.

The Goal: Increase Student Retention

Several years ago, the main student persona at App Academy was fairly consistent. Learners had some baseline understanding already of coding and software—perhaps they’d dabbled in Python or Javascript, or built a few things on their own.

Now, more and more students are coming into the program and self-selecting that they have little to no prior coding knowledge—they’re true beginners and expecting that they’ll be taught everything they need to know.

“We want these folks to come and learn with us and be successful in our programs,” Meredith said, “so what we [realized we] needed to do is…adapt our academics approach and really differentiate our learner support to truly prepare these folks.”

Meredith’s team knew learner differentiation was the key to better supporting new and evolving learner personas. But what learner differentiation strategies would be most effective toward increasing overall student retention?

The Challenge:

Evolving learner personas aren’t the only challenge when it comes to learner support. There’s also the challenges of:

  • large numbers of students in every class / cohort

  • limited staff and instructional resources

  • difficulty scaling support for the number of learners

  • limited data and tooling

  • difficulty tying data to action—i.e. having the resources to act on the data, or understand what the data is actually saying

These challenges are common across most online adult learning organizations, and App Academy was experiencing them too. With several hundred students in each of their online programs, App Academy needed differentiated learner support strategies that could scale—and would help personalize the experience even with hundreds of other learners in the program.

The Solutions:

So, what did they do?

Meredith & her team implemented a variety of strategies to reach their goal, including ensuring data reporting systems were accessible and accurate, auditing academic strategies to provide stronger learner support for current student personas, addressing gaps in student expectations prior to the program start and designing better prep materials for students with little to no coding experience.

Alongside all of this, Meredith also wanted to implement stronger differentiated instruction strategies to meet students where they were and support students at high deferral points. In our workshop with Meredith, we zoomed in on five key learner support strategies they implemented.

1. Improved exit tickets to better identify struggling students.

App Academy already had nightly “exit tickets” in place that were designed to identify how students were doing with that day’s materials, how they were feeling and so on. However, even though students were filling them out, they were struggling to get helpful, in-depth information about who was really struggling and what topics were most challenging.

As they reviewed this process, they implemented two main changes:

  • updating the language and questions on the tickets to better allow students to reflect on what they’d learned that day and more clearly express what topics were a struggle.

  • adding time during class to fill out the exit surveys.

“What we’ve seen [from implementing these changes],” Meredith says, “is the pieces of information and data we’re getting…are so much more useful. Our students are actually spending more time and providing more meaningful reflection on their progress, and they’re also better able to flag which topics they’re struggling with,” which, in turn, of course, provides better data for instructions and support staff.

Takeaway: You might already have strategies in place for differentiated learner support that simply aren’t yielding the most productive results. What challenges are you encountering with your current systems and support? Map the experience and examine what small tweaks might allow you to get more value out of your current support processes? If you need inspiration on an exit ticket, check out our version.

2. Added small-form review sessions on topics students are struggling with.

With better, more in-depth data coming out of their exit surveys, Meredith’s team was able to create a process for adding in additional short-form review sessions on topics students are struggling with, creating additional individualized support for struggling students.

“So what we are able to do now,” Meredith explained, “is if we have a group of students on Tuesday and we see [from the exit surveys] that we’ve got a bunch of students who are struggling we JavaScript objects, [we can] do a review session and a small-form lecture for those interested tomorrow.”

With better data, instructors are able to deliver the most useful instruction to the students who need it the most, making effective use of instructor resources by delivering the highest-impact instruction—and doing so immediately.

Takeaway: Finding ways to immediately implement and take action on new data is a clear way to improve learner outcomes. App Academy is doing so by implementing additional instruction on tricky learner topics—how might your teams implement tools or systems to quickly action on relevant data?

3. Implemented mandatory practice assessments.

Practice assessments offer students the opportunity to understand the look and feel of actual assessments and “get warmed up” before the real thing, but prior to 2023, they weren’t mandatory.

However, since App Academy has a mastery-based learning model—meaning students must demonstrate mastery before they can move on to the next module of the curriculum—failed assessments created high deferral points. In order to increase retention and graduation rates, Meredith and her team needed to figure out how to reduce the number of students at risk of failing assessments.

One simple solution?

Make practice assessments mandatory, which is exactly what they did. With mandatory practice, the App Academy team has seen two major benefits—not only are students doing better on primary assessments, given the additional practice and review, but instructors are also getting better data on student understanding.

Now that we have everyone completing practice assessments, [we’re able to see things like] “Hey, a bunch of students missed this question.” We should provide some extra support on this thing prior to the main assessment so we can make sure that students really truly understand this.

Not only do instructors have real-time feedback on learning objectives—allowing them to adjust curriculum review in real-time to better support students—but students are also receiving more personalized instruction based on their actual understanding and struggles. Even better: all of this can happen at scale.

Takeaway: Additional data can produce both real-time and future insights. In this case, App Academy improves learner outcomes in real-time, while also producing valuable data for instructional improvements for future cohorts. Where might you be able to generate additional data alongside providing something valuable for learners?

4. Added daily small group circles led by an instructor.

One of the main challenges to differentiated learner support—at App Academy and generally—is the combination of limited instructor and support staff resources combined with very large online class sizes.

App Academy’s solution has been to implement daily small group circles that are led by an instructor.

[With these small groups,] the same group of students was meeting with the same group of student peers [and instructor] every single day and we have found that more personalized and more intimate kind of group session to be really, really positive.

Takeaway: Small instances of intimate, personalized instruction or meeting time goes a long way. Even if the majority of your class time is large-group sessions or lectures, implementing smaller cohorts to meet throughout the program provides personalized support systems, deeper connections with instructors, and stronger learning outcomes.

The Process:

These strategies may or may not fit your learners, programs, needs or goals—but you can steal the process Meredith used with her team to create a playbook that supports your learners and program challenges.

In short, Meredith used a 4-step process to determine the strategies that would be successful for App Academy:

1. Analyze and action existing data.

Looking to any existing data is the quickest way to find ways to differentiate learner support—and many online adult learner organizations are already doing this! For example, knowing that smaller cohorts of learners led to better outcomes encouraged App Academy to create daily small group circles that connect a set group of learners with peers and an instructor each day for a short period of time.

What existing data do you have—internally or externally—that can be actioned immediately? What steps can you take to implement best practices, even in a small way?

2. Reach out to network for ideas and support.

Leverage your existing network—and their network!—for support sourcing ideas, brainstorming new solutions and finding industry best practices. Meredith reached out to colleagues at other online programs, leaders in the industry in her network and other education professionals to leverage their best practices and ideas. Meredith is also a member of our Learner Success Guild—which meant she had access to 100+ practitioners in the online adult education space to tap for insights, best practices and new ideas.

3. Focus on increasing actionable data.

Once you’ve made use of the data you currently have, finding ways to get better, richer, or more data is essential to growing and personalizing learner support at scale. You’ll notice that several of Meredith’s final strategies focus on increasing—and actioning!—data.

For example, App Academy improved their exit surveys so that the data was more useful, then used that data to make the small-form review sessions more practical and individualized for current students. Similarly, making practice assessments mandatory gave the App Academy team more data on which topics students were struggling with, allowing them to implement more instruction and review on these earlier in the curriculum.

Upgrading your tooling can help make data easier to find, gather and action. Ribbon helps academic institutions reduce the time between data collection and analysis and implementation. By collecting your learner data in one CRM platform, you can visualize learner data, spot relevant action items, and take action on those data insights all in one place.

4. Implement, iterate and instruct.

Finally, sometimes you just need to jump in and start testing ideas, seeing what works best for your learners, program and instructors. We can see this in App Academy’s example with the exit surveys—implementing a basic strategy and then iterating on it allowed them to develop a more effective strategy in the long run. As App Academy continues to implement and iterate, they’ve also set goals to create process playbooks to instruct their teachers and other support staff on their own best practices to strengthen the quality and consistency of learner support.

Don’t be afraid to start small—small progress can yield big results! This has been a key principle for us at Ribbon when working internally and with our programs and universities. If you don’t have the resources, budget or time to perfectly differentiate learner support, figure out what you can do instead and develop processes to continue iterating on it in the future.


Want support as you develop your own processes and playbooks for learner support? The 125+ education experts and practitioners in our Learner Success Guild community are here to support, brainstorm, ideate and share learnings alongside you. Join our Learner Success Guild today and help us build the student success playbook for adult learners.


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