How to improve completion rates in your online course

A couple times a month I get a question like this:

Image description: Screenshot of text “I've created a short free course on Teachable. I'm noticing that very few people are finishing the course. I'm curious about what kinds of things you've found that help to nudge people along in their learning journey, and thus more likely to move from lesson to lesson.”

Image description: Screenshot of text “I've created a short free course on Teachable. I'm noticing that very few people are finishing the course. I'm curious about what kinds of things you've found that help to nudge people along in their learning journey, and thus more likely to move from lesson to lesson.”

This is a common question, especially for self-paced courses. If you’re dealing with low completion rates, the first thing I recommend is to find out why your learners aren’t completing your course. In my experience, it usually comes down to a handful of reasons:

  • Lack of structure - Humans are eternally optimistic. We buy a course and think we’ll finish it—but then life happens. We balk at structure (“Ugh, not another drip course. I want access to everything!”) Then we don’t finish because we feel overwhelmed by content. In other words, we need more structure than we think. As an instructor, your job is to plan and design for this. Examples: Email check-ins. A suggested timeline. Breaking up teaching and implementation weeks.

  • Lack of support/community - Instructors usually focus on the cognitive domain: what knowledge do people need. But learning isn’t just about information or action; the affective domain plays a big role. Informal learning happens when people talk to each other. Action happens when we feel motivated by people (including ourselves) and when we overcome feelings and mindset blocks by having the support to do so. Things like community and mentorship can be powerful agents in improving completion rates.

  • Lack of chunking or pacing - Are you overloading your learners? Sometimes low completion rates mean your content is too complex and you need to break things down. This is where chunking comes into play. How can you break down your content into small, actionable chunks to give your learners small wins?

  • Lack of priority - Sometimes you’ll do everything in your power to help your learners and they still won’t take action. In my experience, when asked why the reason is usually some version of “I’m too busy.” But time is never the culprit. It’s just not a priority. In this case, there’s not much you can do about it. For self-paced courses, they can always come back to it (setup an email reminder a couple months out). For coaching programs, I recommend having some consequence for not taking action (a time limit on access to the material or a cost for extended access).

  • Lack of necessity - It may surprise you to know that some of your learners may not need to complete the course to see results. Sometimes implementing just half the course may lead to transformation. That’s a good thing!

Tactical Recommendations

Here's a few things you can do to improve your completion rates:

  • Add learning checks (quizzes) at the end of each lesson to see if there’s anything you could have explained better. This will help you see where people get stuck.

  • Setup an email autoresponder to check-in with people every week. Include an email that asks people where they’re getting stuck. (Also, make sure you or someone on your team responds to these emails.)

  • Review your course structure. Does each lesson and module connect to an objective or outcome? Are you teaching a concept with multiple steps or processes? If so, how can you break it down into smaller chunks to reduce overwhelm?

  • Add a survey at the end of your course for feedback from those who finish. Specifically probe to see what could have been explained better, what else they’d like to learn, etc.

  • Setup a community where people can connect and support each other. Slack. Facebook. Discourse. A forum. There’s a ton of options to choose from.

A note about free courses

Free courses will generally have lower completion rates because there’s no consequence for not finishing. For example, with my free email course, there's a significant drop-off after the first couple lessons.

I think this is okay because the purpose of your free course is to deliver value and generate leads. Use it to connect with your audience and learn about their challenges.

Free email courses vs platforms

That being said, if you’re going to create a free course I recommend an email course vs a course in a platform. By popping up in their inbox, you remove an important obstacle: remembering to log in.

Make it actionable

Also, if you create a free email course, make it actionable. Give them a CTA at the end of each email. This could be a worksheet, a request for them to reply, etc. That helps make things memorable so they look forward to reading (and completing) the next email lesson.

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