Why do people NOT complete their online courses?

Posted by Justine on Mon, Apr 09 2018

As with any course, completion rates play a big factor. If you are doing research into taking an online course this could be very important to you. Wouldn’t you feel more comfortable with your studies if you knew why people dropped out so that you can avoid falling into the same trap?

So why do people drop-out? What are the factors? The main reasons, in no particular order, are the following:

  • Physical isolation from your instructor/fellow students
  • Lack of Motivation
  • Cognitive overload
  • Technical proficiency
  • Support/lack there of
  • Early course experience
  • Course quality
  • Easy to ‘skip a class’
  • Time conflicts with work commitments

Majority of the factors/reasons contributing to the drop-out rate are found to be unique to the individual. These factors relate to where they are in their life and personally what they experienced during the course. Some of these may not apply to you at all.

Great, so those are the factors. If you are here to see if one applies to your experience or you are just wanting to know what they are, then you are sorted. But if I have peeked your interest continue reading. Below I will take each factor/reason and go into a little more depth. If you want to take it even further then have a look at the following studies. Personally I found them to be very interesting.

  • Physical isolation from your instructor/fellow students

    “Hello?” “Is this what you find yourself saying? Don’t panic you are not alone. Many students feel the same way. This feeling of isolation creates a void between yourself and your fellow classmates or lecturer and you feel there is no one to help you if you get lost. This however is not so. The main thing about this point and how to avoid it, is to take that leap. Try using the forums, even if no one is asking questions, they are still there, get the ball rolling if no one else is. Have a look at the following blog post by myself on how to avoid this feeling. How not to feel alone in an online classroom environment

  • Lack of Motivation

    Lack of motivation leads to procrastination…. agh I will finish it later… Need to reorganise my desk first. The word LATER, famous last words. “I will go online later to do my assignment.” “I just don’t feel like doing it now.” If these are your words then you’re lacking motivation for your course. This lack of motivation could be due to a number of factors. Maybe you are being forced into taking the course or maybe you are just feeling uninspired by the course. Maybe the course just isn’t suited to you, doesn’t mean online learning is not.

  • Cognitive overload

    “What’s that?! What’s this?! Oooh I must do this as well.” Some students found their online experience to be completely overwhelming. Especially when there are forum discussions, multiple conversations, and a general information overload. If you are unfamiliar on one or more of the elements in the online learning environment you may experience a cognitive overload. For first time e-learning students this could become a daunting task, especially during the first few weeks of your course.

  • Technical proficiency

    “What does this button do?” If you are new to e-learning and haven't quite figured out the ropes as of yet and you don’t have technical proficiency, you’re going to have a bad time. Well, only for your first few logins. If students don’t feel comfortable with technology they may feel that they will not be able to complete the course. One study makes mention that they had a 26% drop-out rate and 13% of the reason why was due to the students not feeling comfortable with their technical proficiency. Don’t panic you don’t have to be Bill Gates or Steve Jobs in order to complete your course, as with anything it takes practice. Your first login may be a bit rocky but by the end of your course you will be rocking it.

  • Support/lack there of

    “I’m confused? Let’s see if I can get some help.” You are not sure what is going on and your institution says that they offer support, but its been about a week since you asked your question and still no answer. Maybe you received an answer but it wasn’t what you were looking for or maybe your institution does not offer lecturer support. This makes it just so much easier to give up. One study found that institutions with, what they refer to, “top-level visibility” support had a higher completion rate. When choosing an institution for your studies find out what support they offer and via what channels.

  • Early course experience

    “Hello! I’m new here.” One university found that 35% of their students withdrawn from their course before even submitting their first assignment. They suggest that it was the student’s early experience in the course lead them to drop-out and more specifically with students new to online learning or new to the institution. They also found that majority of the students dropped out during the induction period before instruction took place.

  • Course quality

    “What is this?” This pointer speaks for itself. If the institution is not offering courses of a good standard, students are likely to drop out. This could relate to course content, access or poorly structured courses. Make sure you do your research before choosing an institution for your studies. Review how other students rate that institution.

  • Easy to ‘skip a class’

    “Hey, lets go to the movies? Oh wait I have a webinar at 4… Oh well, I’ll skip it.” In a face to face environment you would feel less likely to bunk as you know your lecturer would notice your absence. However, in an online environment this is not so. If you skip one class, you might skip two and before you know it, you are way behind in your work and dropping out just seems way to easy. The advice here is to make sure you are doing something everyday to ensure you stay on top of your studies. Once again research your institution, find out if they do follow ups or provide you with reports on activity completion to help you avoid falling behind.

  • Time conflicts with work commitments

    “Ok so I have to complete ABC while doing XYZ in order to get my MBA” This factor can be further broken down into two pointers; increased work hours and juggling work duties and studies. Majority of students taking online courses are currently working and are looking at furthering themselves. One study suggested that 27% of their drop-outs stated that their work hours increased during the duration of the course. In the same study 30% of the students said they studied from home, during their personal time. In both situations students found it hard to complete their studies while juggling work and home responsibilities. This compromised results as these students simply just didn’t have the extra time to complete their studies.

As you can see, reasons why students drop-out of online courses are vastly different and they are mainly specific to the individual, except in the case of support and course quality. I suggest being aware of these factors so that you can equip yourself to avoid them. In the case of institution specific reasons, do your research. Find out what your institution offers and see if it is the best fit for you. Before choosing an institution for your studies consider the following five questions:

  • Do you have someone you can contact if you get lost?
  • Do you have access to a lecturer to answer all your course questions?
  • Can you talk to your fellow students?
  • Does your institution inspire confidence in yourself and your studies?
  • Does your institution allow you to study anytime, anywhere?

Final last words of wisdom: Don’t become a statistic, you are entering a course to better yourself.

Written by

Justine van Gysen


The views expressed in the blog post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the South African College of Business.

Posted in Blog

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