online completion rate

5 Ways to Cut Down High Dropout Rates in Online Classes

Teaching Online Teaching Trends and Best Practices

The statistics for the completion rates for online classes have been notoriously low with many experts weighing in on the reasons for high dropout rates. Studies show that the percentage of U.S. students who do not compete online courses ranges between 30 percent and 65 percent – some even higher. Though the online courses have become more widespread, the dropout rate still remains the major concern of instructors.

A Harvard study on Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, shows that the completion rate is often in the single digits. However, that is often attributed to learner intention. Some students join to audit the class, some to learn, and others who simply want to browse.

But, other than these, there are quite a number of reasons that actually contribute to the learner dropout rates. And these can be looked into and worked upon.

Reasons for High Dropout Rate

In 2001, Karen Frankola cited a list of reasons why learners fail to complete online classes.¹ Interestingly, many of those reasons are still valid 15 years later. Reasons given for why a learner will abandon an online learning course include:

  • Lack of motivation
  • Lack of student support
  • Poorly designed course
  • Substandard or inexperienced instructors

What does this mean? Regardless of the type of online courses a, the results are still the same; the dropout rate is very high. And despite all of our technological advances, online education is still failing.

The sad thing is, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Tips to Combat High Dropout Rate

While some of the reasons for high dropout rates may be attributed to things beyond the educator’s control, there are ways to analyze the level of learner engagement and view the course content from their perspectives. As an instructor, you may need to make some adjustments to your teaching methodology or try various approaches to engage and inspire your students. You may need to try several different combinations of teaching methods to decrease your dropout rate. It may not be easy, but it isn’t impossible.

Apply these 5 suggestions for reducing the dropout rate for your online classes and see what a difference a few simple changes can make.

1. Identify Students Who Need Help with the Content or Topic

In every class, it is almost a given that there will be at least one or two students who struggle with the course material. Whether it is the topic or the way the content is presented. The earlier you identify students who are struggling, the more successful you will be at heading off potential dropouts.

What to Do

  • Watching for those students who appear to be “sinking.” They may not ask you questions. You will have to identify them on your own.
  • Monitor class discussions and look for students who seem to be having difficulty.
  • Try and understand different learning styles. Some need to read material in order to comprehend it while others learn better when they are applying the material to real-life situations. Some students can learn by watching a video while others need to read the words.
  • Offer a content in different formats. For instance, if you offer video, also offer a transcript of the video.
  • Conduct regular exams.

Start doing these things from day one in your class. Once you have identified “sinking” learners, you can take different steps to facilitate a more positive, equal, enriching learning experience by:

  • Offering supplemental material
  • Offering peer tutoring
  • Creating study or learning groups in order

2. Establish a One-to-One Connection with the Learners

Large classes are typically not conducive to one-to-one connections – online of offline. Avoiding large classes will work to your advantage and your learners’. When you connect with your students on a personal level you have a much better chance of engaging them in the course material.

What to Do

  • Break the class into study groups. Work with them on projects one-by-one, answer questions, and provide additional instruction.
  • As you work with students, remember their names. This ensures a personal touch.
  • Create a forum where students can discuss coursework with you on a one-on-one basis. The key to making that connection with your learners is being available to them.

3. Conduct Real-Time Activities

One area of difficulty with online classes is the dispersal of students. You could have students scattered across several time zones so trying to coordinate for real-time activities could present a bit of a challenge. However, if you carefully assign students to learning groups based on the time zones they are in, they can engage in real time activities on their own time. This not only accommodates personal schedules, it also encourages students to work together and coordinate in order to achieve a goal.

What to Do

Real time activities might include:

  • A group presentation on a historical event that requires all group members to be present at the same time. This can be done virtually using a class forum, video, and other tools.
  • A live podcast with real-time discussion. This can be an instructor-led lecture, a guest speaker, or a panel for questions and answers.
  • A live chat where learners can “talk” to a guest in real time, ask questions and discuss concepts with you as well as with each other.

4. Encourage Learners to Ask Questions

Many online courses offer instruction, but discussion and class participation is big a challenge. A forum is a popular method for encouraging discussions, but learners online are much like learners in a physical classroom. There are simply some questions they are not comfortable asking in front of their classmates.

What to Do

  • Ask. Encourage students to ask questions. If this doesn’t work, you ask them questions. This helps test their understanding on the subject.
  • Make yourself available for students who have questions but would prefer to ask in private. Establish several forms of communication including email, private forums, class forums, and even phone calls during office hours.
  • Create an environment that not only allows but encourages discussion and questions. By doing so you can expose your students to an incredible learning experience.

If several attendees are asking the same questions, it’s a signal that you need to revisit that information in a discussion or a supplemental lesson. Take clues from your students and let them guide the flow of learning.

If several students are struggling with certain subject matter, that is a pretty good indication you need to slow down, clarify, and open the floor for discussion. If they feel they are being left behind or that they can’t ask questions to better understand concepts they are much more likely to drop out.

5. Create More Engaging Course Content

The challenge is to create course content that is engaging, inspiring, and interesting. Now, some topics may be a little dry by nature, but with some creativity, you can certainly slip some interesting content in here and there.

What to Do

  • Embed videos and include transcripts
  • Use infographics to address core concepts or specialized subject areas
  • Create interesting content from unique perspectives that will keep your students excited about learning.

Make your course mobile-friendly and you will definitely be ahead of the game. When a learner is able to view your course on their smartphone, it makes learning more convenient. We live in a mobile world and people are on their mobile devices more than they are on their computers. So make your content adaptable to those devices and deliver the lesson in bite-sized chunks that your students can easily digest.

Improving course completion rates is possible. Apply these tips and you’ll certainly find an improvement in course completion rates.


Amanjot Kaur

A marketer by profession and an explorer by nature. I love to read, learn, travel, experiment with new music and food, and have a good laugh.

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