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La Cité

Early identification of at-risk students improves retention rates

La Cité, a French-language college of applied arts and technology, has embarked on an ambitious multi-year program to improve student retention through the earlier identification of students at risk. Ninety percent of La Cité teacher-student interactions continue to happen face-to-face, so the program puts the emphasis on instructor observation within the classroom and qualitative feedback provided to students through the learning management system (LMS). The approach is not only proving to identify at risk students sooner—it is creating a cultural shift within La Cité’s faculty ranks, with instructor focus moving away from just teaching “material” to teaching “students.”


La Cité

  • D2L Brightspace


  • Student retention in a competitive education climate
  • Manual methods fail to yield results
  • Lukewarm faculty adoption of existing LMS



  • A strong front-runner out of the gate
  • Identify at-risk students
  • Feedback is critical to learning success



  • Finding patterns through over 150,000 indicators
  • 80% Brightspace adoption rate

The Challenge

Student retention in a competitive education climate

While student retention is an ongoing issue for many colleges and universities, the problem is more acute for La Cité, the only fully French-speaking College in Ottawa. “With funding for college institutions tied to graduation rates, student retention is a top of mind issue for any college. But it is even more of an issue for us, in a city where nearly one third of the population speaks both official languages,” explains Michel Singh, Senior Advisor, Technology Integration at La Cité.

Seeking to address the problem of student attrition, La Cité had previously invested in an off-the-shelf early warning system to help identify at risk students. The project failed miserably. “The system was very awkward to use, and didn’t provide us with the ongoing monitoring we needed. Faculty were only required to go into the system a couple of times a year and it was simply not enough,” says Singh.

Mutual methods fail to yield results

La Cité also tried manual methods to identify students at risk. “Student services would meet with faculty twice—once at mid-term and then again at the end of term for a complete progress review. They would go through every student, looking at grades, attendance, and gathering teacher feedback. It was a long drawn out meeting—up to three hours, and again, didn’t really give us that early warning system we really needed to identify students at risk. By that meeting at mid-term, we were often too late to intervene,” says Singh.

Lukewarm faculty adoption of existing LMS

Further adding to its challenges, La Cité also struggled for years with faculty adoption of its previous LMS. After nearly eight years of use, the adoption rate still hovered around 50%.[1] “We were always playing around with the system trying to figure out how to boost our adoption rate, but at the time, use of the system was not a requirement, and faculty just didn’t see the value in the tool,” says Singh.

Frustrated by the mediocre adoption rate, and at the same time pressured by the solution’s vendor to upgrade to an entirely new system, La Cité embarked on a search for a new learning platform that would offer a good product, good implementation and drive up adoption numbers.

2 people in a review meeting

The Solution

A strong front-runner out of the gate

In La Cité’s evaluation of new learning management systems, the Brightspace platform emerged as a promising candidate. In addition to the solution having the robust functionality La Cité was seeking, the D2L team also demonstrated a willingness to partner with the educational institution and tailor the solution specifically to fit La Cité’s needs. “Brightspace was already the premium solution by far, but in practice, it has far exceeded our expectations,” says Singh. “It was also the right timing within the institution. Brightspace was relevant, fit within our vision at the college, and we had the team in place internally to see the implementation through to a successful conclusion.”

Professor and Student

Identify at-risk students

As a key part of the Brightspace implementation, La Cité custom-developed a system called ‘Savoir’ (the French term for ‘knowledge’) using D2L Valence, D2L’s extensibility technology. Valence provides all the APIs, client libraries and tools developers need to create value on top of the Brightspace platform.

Savoir is a student success system that gathers qualitative insights from faculty captured through an instructor’s face-to-face interactions and observations in the classroom. Savoir then couples this information with data from the student’s interactions with learning material to quickly identify students at risk. As early as week three in a term, and then again at week six, faculty provide feedback to students via the Gradebook tool using familiar red, green, and yellow status indicators. Feedback is based on qualitative observations by faculty members and can be captured much earlier than more traditional quantitative quiz-based insights.

“One of the big takeaways for us from the Brightspace/Savoir implementation was the vital importance of feedback to the learning experience,” says Singh. “We absolutely learned through this process that if we want to identify students at risk, the best people to provide subjective information about student engagement are the teachers who are in front of them in the classroom. It’s more than just test scores.”

Feedback is critical to learning success

Now, using D2L Valence, La Cité is able to draw faculty feedback and observations from the Gradebook tool into the student portal, presenting each student with their own individualized report card in real-time. “Students are excited about this progress meter. They are talking about the system and really care about their performance,” says Singh.

Students are also discovering they can use the Brightspace platform to extend their learning experience beyond the face-to-face teaching they receive in the classroom. “We can see students going into the system and into courses at different times of the day. It opens up new possibilities for learning. The students are leveraging the LMS on their terms to enhance their learning experiences,” says Singh.

I can observe a real culture shift.  Our faculty members are subject matter experts. They aren’t necessarily experts in pedagogy. But since implementing Savoir through Brightspace, it is like a switch flipped. Faculty members are now observing students.

Michel Singh, Senior Advisor, Technology Integration at La Cité

The Results

The first year of the Brightspace implementation focused on proving La Cité’s theory that qualitative feedback, gathered through classroom observation, is a solid predictor of a student’s success or failure rate. Over 150,000 indicators were collected through the school year, revealing with a high degree of accuracy that if a student is identified as “at risk” by week three, they have a 50% chance of failing the course. Conversely, a student with a green indicator in week three has a 91% chance of passing.[2]

Adoption rates of the Brightspace platform have also risen to nearly 80% as a direct result of the faculty’s enthusiasm for Savoir student success system. In addition, La Cité’s Savoir system has relieved some of the administration load on faculty, reducing those three-hour student progress meetings to just thirty minutes, with attention now focused only on students at risk.[3]

[1] Information courtesy of La Cité
[2] Results courtesy of La Cité
[3] Ibid.

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