OMG! How Do I Increase My Course Completion Rates?

I recently had a conversation with a trainer who pivoted part of her revenue stream to selling her expertise online through short courses. Her audience really loves what she does face to face in her classroom and workshops, so pivoting to online delivery was the right thing to do.

She had been thinking of doing this for some time, and with COVID19 and the national lockdowns, it seemed the perfect time for her to make the shift.

A few weeks later, her initial cohort of students had signed up for the course, she was excited to take a look at her course completion rates.

But they were far less than she expected and she was shocked at how poor they were. Less than 20% of her students had completed the course!  And yet students had registered some four weeks ago with immediate access. 

She had been expecting close to 100% completion. Afterall she always had full completion of her face to face courses, and nobody ever dropped out, always returning after coffee breaks, lunch or the next day. 

She simply could not understand it. What was wrong?

Generally, online course completion rates are notoriously low, so this is no surprise. They become even worse when a course is free, as the user has no "skin in the game" and therefore losses nothing when they do not complete the lessons.

We discussed who the course was aimed at, and what work she had done to identify her target market.

Had she really focussed on creating the right marketing messages to attract the right student to her course? She remained convinced she had.

Did the course deliver what she promised in her sales page? Yes, she had beta tested the content. Everyone said they got precisely what they expected from the course.

She asked me, what she could do to drive up completion rates? 

We carried on talking, and we explored some of the basic things she could do to help improve her online course completion rates.

Here are some suggestions that you could apply if you also find yourself struggling with low completion rates of your online courses.

15 Ways For Improving Online Course Completion Rates

These ideas are in no particular order of importance. Use them as a checklist and see how many of these you adopt in your own courses and which you could use if you don't.

  1. Incentivise/reward completion. Offer something that recognises progress and content completion.
  2. Adding urgency to completion. This can relate to the previous point but can also leverage the fear of missing out.
  3. Send email reminders to chase non-completion. Gentle reminders can work wonders in getting people back on track.
  4. Emails that congratulate students on progress. We all feel better from that dopamine hit when something positive lands in your inbox or via SMS to your phone or in WhatsApp.
  5. Gamification of the course. We will talk more about this in a separate blog post, but some simple techniques can be applied to any course that will help gamify it and encourage progress and completion.
  6. Recognise learners that complete the course. This can include naming people on a leaderboard so show their progress.
  7. Create some buzz around the course using social media, internal communications with end-user teams. This helps to engage people, and the influence of people completing the course and giving feedback keeps others aware of the need to keep going and reengage with the lessons.
  8. Ask people to do things, not just passively sit through the content. Use of downloads and infographics is helpful and asking them to reflect on questions and comment in the discussions is helpful too. Consider worksheets for them to complete that relate to their own workplace and situations. Get them doing and applying what they are learning as they progress through your content.
  9. Give frequent updates of the learning process they are going through. Think "paint by numbers". Have a visual that is showing progress as each lesson is completed.
  10. Use tutor interaction. See how people are getting on by joining them in discussion groups, chat areas or comment boxes. Drop by from time to time and encourage people.
  11. Get people to introduce themselves in the community area. Add some bonus content to encourage visits in the community.
  12. Shorter videos are better. Where possible, keep video lessons to a maximum length of 10 minutes. It is better to have more concise lessons than fewer longer ones.
  13. Attract the appropriate students that really need your course. Refine course descriptions, learning outcomes and marketing language to ensure that only the right people are enrolling in your course from the outset.
  14. Send summary emails. After each module summarise the content with key learning messages and the main points you want people to recall and act upon.
  15. Review the course with your students. Finally, your students for feedback on why they haven't completed the course and what would encourage them to get to the end and benefit from the learning. What are they telling you?


Ultimately however improving your completion rates comes down to two factors that are beyond your control. 

  1. The desire a student has to overcome the challenge the course is promising to resolve.
  2. The commitment they have to complete the course to get the results they want.

No matter what you do if these two factors aren't strong enough none of the tactics you implement may be strong enough to make a difference.




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