7 Ways to Improve Your Online Course Retention Rate

By Jeff Cobb.  Last Updated on March 2, 2023

hand drawing online course retention concept on white notebook

The e-learning industry has experienced huge growth in recent years, but online courses still struggle to retain learners through to course completion. Studies show the average completion rate for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) is only around 15 percent. Even a successful course will struggle to achieve more than 40 percent completion.

Low levels of online course retention might be the norm in the industry, but they can pose serious problems to edupreneurs seeking long-term gains. While every enrollment is a success, the cost of attracting new learners is always higher than re-engaging existing students. In fact, research suggests that gaining a new customer is anywhere from 5 to 25 times more expensive than retaining an existing one.

So, paying attention to online course retention definitely pays.

There are a number of reasons why learners fail to complete a course, and not all of them can be overcome by even the most attentive educator. The vast majority of college students are under 25 and less than half have regular employment, while demographics for online course attendees consistently show the average learner is in their 30s, married, with a mid-range five-figure income. When surveyed, they cite passion for the course subject and desire to learn new skills as the key reasons they enroll in online classes. In one study, over a third of online students said they had no intention of completing a course when they enrolled.

Put simply, these learners aren’t motivated to follow a conventional course structure from start to completion. They’d much rather dip in and out of the information offered as it interests them or until they feel they understand the course material. For these learners, favorable course outcomes may not align with traditional metrics for success.

While a high percentage of knowledge-orientated learners may cause a course’s retention rate to trend lower than average, guiding as many students to the end should still be a critical goal of any edupreneur. High retention rates provide social proof that bolster a course’s (and educator’s) reputation, and are still the best gauge of learner satisfaction, particularly for large courses that may have hundreds, or even thousands, of attendees.

Knowing why learners fail to complete an online course and how to spot the signs of attrition and correct them before they become problematic can positively impact your course’s success rate and longevity. Here are seven approaches to making sure you retain your learners.

1. Think Like An E-Learner

To understand why learners leave your course, you need to approach it from their perspective. As a starting point, consider your course platform. Is it easy to navigate and intuitive to learn? Complex course layouts and software might offer more functionality, but they also have to be practical to use.

Try to navigate your own course as a learner, or have someone do it for you and offer feedback. (You can even use services like UsabilityHub to hire testers at a reasonable rate.) Fully understanding your learner’s perspective is one of the key reasons for piloting a course in advance of offering it more broadly. Not only will you avoid complete course failure, you’’ll inevitably boost your online course retention rate.

As you offer your course, be sure to keep a close eye on the course data provided through your platform and review any modules or classes that have a lower than average completion rate. It could be a simple fix is all it takes to improve your retention rate.

Ensuring your course’s accessibility is also a vital. Teaching using different methods and providing multiple ways to access the classes and course materials helps maintain engagement because learners are free to choose the most convenient methods. Not all learners will have time to read extensive notes, or watch videos, or listen to podcasts, but by using a variety of teaching methods you can cater to the needs of the majority.

Overall, be realistic about any prior knowledge requirements and pay attention the course’s learning curve. Rewriting lessons to advance at a slower pace or providing options that enable learners to choose their pace will keep a greater number of learners engaged.

If you have a lot of learners dropping out because they struggle to understand the course material, consider offering tiered classes. Not only does this open up new revenue streams, it will keep all your learners happy if they can choose how intensively they study your material.

2. Be Upfront About Course Requirements

In addition to setting clear guidelines for what your learners should bring to your course, you should also inform them what you expect during the classes and – particularly important for adult learners – why. Online learners disproportionately suffer from low motivation. Combat this by setting milestones and holding students accountable for their performance on a regular basis.

You control your curriculum, so information about your course requirements must come from you. You should, of course, include this information as part of the course itself, but it should also be communicated clearly prior to enrollment as part of your marketing. That’s worth repeating because it is so important and so often overlooked or underplayed: information about your course requirements must come from you, and should be communicated clearly prior to enrollment as part of your marketing.

That may sound counter-intuitive since we tend to think of marketing as being all about communicating benefits and value, but providing details about mandatory class participation, or the amount of independent learning necessary in order to successfully complete, ensures learners understand the course requirements before making the decision to commit, and can avoid complaints from dissatisfied students.

3. Set the Stage for Engagement

Engaged learners tend to be learners who will stick around. There are three baseline requirements for supporting engagement in adult learning.

The first of these is meaning, or the sense that participating in a learning experience and the related effort are relevant and will provide the learner with a return on investment. To bolster meaning:

  • Make sure your course contain relevant examples and practice opportunities for your learners (e.g., quizzes, assignments to submit).
  • Make sure you design in opportunities to see or experience results, so learners get to experience the logical outcomes and results of particular choices and decisions. Case studies and role playing can be a great way to do this in most adult learning situations.
  • Make sure learners get meaningful feedback. Not just “That’s right—way to go!” or “No, sorry—try again.” But meaningful feedback about their particular approach to an activity or answer to an assessment. And, always look for go opportunities for learners to provide feedback to each other.
  • And make sure you’re creating tension between where learners are now and where they want to be—and then resolve that tension, by teaching them things that help close that gap. Tension begins with your marketing, but it also applies in the actual learning experience. Structuring lessons as a stories – giving them a narrative arc from presenting an initial problem then guiding students to a resolution is very powerful. And, again, this doesn’t have to be complicated. Even something as simple as saying there are ”7 steps to dramatically increasing event registrations” and then walking through those steps creates a sense of tension and resolution.

Another condition required for engagement is safety, the sense learners have of being able to participate as their true selves without fearing damage to self-image, status, or career. To foster a sense of safety:

  • Make sure empathy is part of your learning—that is, make sure you truly understand the learners’ needs and desires and are focused on supporting their learning. To do this, you’re going to need to be in regular communication with learners and prospective learners, continually soliciting input about their challenges and opportunities and then sharing that feedback with those on the front lines of developing and delivering your educational offerings.
  • Have policies in place that make it clear privacy and confidentiality will be respected—this will help learners be able to speak their mind, ask their real questions, share their real concerns. You can do this as part of the sign-up or registration process for a learning experience, but it’s often important to reiterate it during the learning experience—it can be part of expectation setting at the beginning of a synchronous experience, whether online or off.
  • Let learners know it’s expected that they’ll make mistakes, and, in fact, mistakes are good because they’re valuable tools in learning. So make sure that you don’t shame or embarrass anyone for mistakes, but instead give good feedback that helps the mistake-maker—and other learners—understand what to do differently in the future.
  • Related to valuing mistakes, make sure your learning offers low-risk opportunities for failure (and thereby learning). Again, quizzing and assignments are simple options for this – and, in the future, this is where technologies like virtual reality will play a much bigger role.

And the third condition necessary for engagement to be possible is availability. Availability is the sense of having the physical, emotional, and psychological resources necessary to participate in a learning experience. To support a sense of availability:

  • Make sure your content is chunked into manageable segments. You don’t want to overload your learners cognitively. John Medina’s Brain Rules is a great resource on this.
  • Make sure your content is accurately “leveled”—that is, make sure to align the content to learners’ prior knowledge and experience. To support this, you might, for example, need to do some pre-assessment or, at the very least, make sure your course or session descriptions are very clear about the level at which the material will be taught.
  • Finally, either provide or make clear in advance what learners need to fully participate in the learning experience. This could be everything from required reading to laptop or pen and paper to time carved out for full attention and quiet space for reflection.

Hit on all of the most of the points above, and you will have engaged learners and – as a result – a higher online course retention rate.

4. Ensure Your Learners Aren’t Isolated

Isolation is a key factor in why online learners become demotivated and fail to complete courses. Whether you’re teaching ten learners or a thousand, you can combat this factor by building support networks into your course framework.

Setting group assignments or nominating study partners for your learners provides accountability that solo learning does not. The communication and sense of connection with their peers is an incentive to those who otherwise struggle to stay on task.

Build interpersonal relationships between whole classes of students by providing study groups and chat spaces using social media, organizing regular online hangouts, or even arranging meetups where learners can come together to interact with their peers.

Emphasizing community is another valuable approach to creating the sense of safety discussed above. Be clear that that these are “safe” spaces where mistakes are normal and everyone is accepted for who they are and their current abilities.  The message is “We’re all in this together.” Your success and learning is my success and learning, and vice-versa.

Also, remember that adult learners usually bring tremendous experience to a learning situation, and they may know as much about a topic-–or least particular aspects of a topic—as you do. For everyone’s benefit you want to tap into the knowledge and experience the learners can share themselves, and you can do that by emphasizing community.

5. Be An Involved Educator

Interpersonal relationships aren’t only important between learners. Your students chose you for a reason, and being present for the course you’re teaching is an important part of their learning experience.

Ensure your approachability by holding regular office hours and responding promptly to any questions your learners may have. Provide prompt feedback, both positive and critical, and encourage your learners to engage in further discussion of course materials, or open up about areas where they’re having difficulty.

In order to retain the highest number of learners on your online course, create an early intervention strategy for struggling students. Writing a personal email or making a quick phone call to learners who are falling behind can turn potential failure into success. You might also consider using a tool like Bonjoro to send brief video messages to learners at appropriate times.

Screenshot from Bonjoro site
Bonjoro is a cool video tool that can help you stay connected with your learners.

6. Start the Conversation

Don’t wait for your learners to come to you. With smaller classes any absences are noticeable, but as your course grows and numbers increase, it becomes easy for learners to slip away. Up to 90 percent of enrollees in MOOCs drop out within the first two weeks.

By paying personal attention to each student, you instill the idea that they have been noticed, and thus their absence would be noteworthy. Use open-ended questions when asking for class participation to generate conversations, and praise participating students to keep them encouraged. Don’t overlook the wallflowers who try to avoid answering in front of the rest of the class—they are the candidates most likely to abandon the course.

Keep your feedback constructive, and be open to further discussion when a learner has questions about their performance. Nobody likes feeling like they’re failing, and in an optional setting like an online course many learners will choose to step away rather than address their difficulties. By prompting frequent conversations with your learners, they will feel more at ease coming to you with their concerns, giving you an opportunity to retain them as your student.

7. Listen To Your Learners

The most important thing you can do to retain as many learners as possible is to listen to them. That means being present and engaged with them during classes and office hours, and responding promptly when they reach out to you, but to be successful as an edupreneur you’ll also learn to listen to what learners are saying when they stop talking.

Seeking feedback after a learner has completed (or left) a course is a necessary part of understanding the effectiveness of your lessons. Research shows the number of people willing to review a business or service is growing year on year, and if you are only accumulating reviews slowly, ask—research shows that up to 70 percent of customers will leave a review for a business if prompted.

Conduct private exit or completion surveys in addition to soliciting reviews from your learners, to drill deeper into what they liked and disliked about your online course. Then, most importantly, act on that feedback. One learner’s complaint might be another’s dropout point, so if you see the same critical feedback from multiple learners, it’s a sign you need to make a change.

Bring It All Together

Excelling in any of the areas above will result in an improvement in online courses. If you excel in all of them, then you are almost certain to have high retention. So, work to make them all a part of your courses, and keep in mind that cohort-based courses can be particularly powerful when it comes to high online student retention and completion rates.

High course retention rates might seem like seem an unobtainable goal to most edupreneurs, but by implementing the points covered in this post you can keep more learners engaged, help more learners complete your course, and bring a higher percentage back for your next offering – one of the best ways to ensure the long term success of your education business.

See also:

Head shot of Learning Revolution Founder Jeff Cobb

Jeff Cobb, Founder of Learning Revolution

Jeff Cobb is an expert in online education and the business of adult lifelong learning. Over the past 20+ years he has built a thriving career based on that expertise – as an entrepreneur, a consultant, an author, and a speaker. Learning Revolution is a place where Jeff curates tips, insights, and resources to help you build a thriving expertise-based business. Learn more about Jeff Cobb here.

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