Why Do Learners Drop Out of Online Courses?

Online education is popular. So why do so many learners drop out?

Enrollment in online education continues to rise, with more and more learners each year signing up as part of their college program, for professional training, or simply for personal fulfillment. Yet despite its popularity, many learners fail to complete their courses. And this is a big problem for educators.

It’s not enough to sell your course. A learner who signs up and later drops out isn’t getting everything they paid for. And while that’s not entirely your responsibility, it will still affect their experience of the course. If they feel disappointed or frustrated, it might prevent them from passing on a good recommendation by word of mouth. It will almost certainly mean they won’t sign up for a second class.

Consequently, online educators need to create a course their learners will finish. And to do that, it’s wise to learn why they’re dropping out. Here are some of the top reasons we’ve identified behind online dropout rates.

1. Unrealistic expectations about the work involved.

I would wager that every one of us knows what it’s like to start a project with optimistic visions about the time and effort required, only to abandon it once we realize we’re in over our heads. This is probably the leading cause of most online education drop outs. The promise of convenience inspires some learners to join on a whim, and it’s only when they start that they realize the work involved.

The best way to mitigate this risk is to communicate clearly how much time learners should set aside for the course. Include estimates not just for the course as a whole, but for each module and assignment as well.

2. Lack of prerequisite experience.

What kind of courses or prerequisites should your learners have before they take your course? If your learners sign up expecting content targeted toward beginning students, and instead discover work that’s meant for advanced learners, it could mean they’re not ready for your course.

It’s good to remember that not all beginners start with the same background. You might have created a “beginners” course in data analytics, but you still expect learners to have a background in statistics or computer science. Even an introductory college-level course is designed for learners who have completed high school.

3. Poor communication from the instructor.

Online education can feel isolating. For learners, that lack of contact can make them hesitant to ask for help. They might not even think of it, given the hands-off nature of many online classes.

Frequent and direct communication from the course instructors can make learners feel that their success is important, and that their progress isn’t going un-noticed. Make it clear that you are available to help learners with any questions, and be proactive in contacting learners who appear to be falling behind.

4. Bad pacing.

Some topics are more complex than others, and knowing how to split them apart can be a challenge. A particularly difficult lesson can cause some learners to leave, especially if they don’t feel like they’re getting much feedback from an instructor.

If you know a lesson will be difficult, let your learners know in advance so that they can plan extra time for the module. The more you can break it down into digestible chunks, the easier it will be for your learners to finish. And if they continue to struggle, consider adding more material—or even a primer module—to help them grasp the subject.

5. Unexpected course content or requirements.

Sometimes, learners sign up for a course thinking they’re getting one thing, only to discover after it starts that it’s something else entirely. They might have expected more practical knowledge, and feel disappointed in the theory. Or they might have expected the course to talk about one aspect of a subject, only to have that subject glossed over.

Like many other pointers on this list, good communication about course content can address this problem. And don’t forget to describe any requirements—such as an unusual course project—that might take learners off guard.

6. Low motivation.

Low motivation isn’t the same as laziness. There are many reasons a learner could lose motivation, some of which we’ve already touched upon. A demanding workload can leave a user feeling discouraged, or the social isolation could make the learner feel like no one’s paying attention to their presence or absence from the course.

Fixing issues such as the pacing and structure of the course can fix low motivation at the same time. Or you could try sending an email to check in on learners who haven’t had any account activity in a few days. Sometimes a small prompt can encourage learners to re-engage.

7. Technological glitches.

Technology sometimes lets down learners and instructors alike. There’s nothing like a problem with the computer or with the course software to cause frustration. And when that happens, some learners may leave for good.

The right system can cut down on a lot of your technology problems. It’s also wise to avoid any undue bells and whistles that aren’t providing real value to your course. Better to concentrate on delivering the best content you can than inadvertently sabotaging your work with some trendy gimmick.

Diagnosing the problem can help you find the solution.

After you put so much hard work into your course, seeing learners drop out can be a major discouragement. It can leave many instructors feeling helpless and at a loss, wondering what they could possibly be doing wrong.

Well, the good news is that once you know what the problem is, it can be within your power to fix it.

Of course, some problems will always be outside your control. If a learner faces an unexpected personal crisis, lacks interest in the subject, or ignores your guidelines regarding prerequisites and estimated coursework, then there’s not much you can do. But in the meantime, creating a better course experience for your learners is well within your grasp.

Author

Laura is a marketing specialist with experience presenting at WordPress events in Ann Arbor and Vienna. She speaks Russian and German and holds a double MA (Hons) in History and Russian Studies from the University of Edinburgh.

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