How to motivate people to finish your online course

You've spent months creating your online course. You launch it and sell out in a week. In the first couple weeks, people are excited, they're engaging...asking questions even!

But then you start to notice things drop off. With each week it seems that less people are working on the material (you know because you've checked the stats).

Here’s the truth: people will buy your course and never complete it. 

Online courses have a reputation for abysmal completion rates. Generally around 20%. So how do we solve this problem?

Well, the good news is we know the source of the problem: lack of motivation. 

Motivation differences in academic vs non-academic courses

One of the biggest challenges I’ve had since transitioning from creating academic and corporate courses to DIY entrepreneurial courses is how to motivate students.

With academic courses, there’s intrinsic and extrinsic motivation:

  • Go to class and pass or you’ll have to repeat and waste the money of whomever pays your tuition (Extrinsic)

  • Go to class and pass so you can get your degree and accomplish your goal of becoming a marine biologist (Intrinsic)

When it comes to wasted money, we're talking about tens of thousands of dollars if you’re attending college in the U.S. (Plus, the average college student doesn't have a full-time job, family to support or a stack of bills to compete with their attention.)

With DIY online courses that ten-thousand dollar threat isn’t there. You need something else.

So how do you motivate adult students to engage and complete your course when they have a million other things going on? 

3 ways to motivate your students

This is what I’ve been obsessing over lately. Here are a few tactics you can try:

tactic A - Use pricing to filter out people who aren’t serious

Premium pricing weeds out people who aren’t committed. If you tend to price too low, this will be a hard pill to swallow. So grab a big glass of water and wash that baby down--then increase your course price.

You have to make the price hurt a bit to get motivated students into your online course. It may not be college tuition-level hurt, but it needs to be high enough to make someone say ‘ouch’ at the thought of not following through and wasting their hard-earned money.

If you’re worried about excluding people with smaller budgets, you have options: add a payment plan, offer scholarships, or offer a lower priced tier (but still high enough to pinch).

tactic b - Gain your student's attention

Robert Gagné was an educational psychologist who proposed that there are a series of nine events that should happen during instruction to enhance learning. The first one is 'gain attention.' 

Gagne's Nine Events of Instruction


His advice was to kick off each learning event with an attention stimulus to get learners engaged with the material. The idea being that attentive, engaged learners are more likely to do the work and get results.

Some examples of this in the online course world are:

  • Storytelling - Humans are wired to connect to stories. Consider telling a personal story at the beginning of each module or creating a character that your learners can connect with.

  • Quizzes & check-ins - Adding quizzes and progress check-ins at the start of each lesson is a great way to inspire students to do the work. If they can see how far they've come, they'll want to continue.

  • Gamification - Another way to motivate students is to gamify your course by creating a path or roadmap, offering badges, etc. Fizzle is a great example of this. They've created a roadmap to building an online business.

Icons in  Fizzle's  roadmap for building an online business

Icons in Fizzle's roadmap for building an online business

tactic c - Offer a reward

In true Pavlovian fashion, we're more likely to do something if we know there’s a reward afterwards. (I know, I know, another hard truth.) Some ways to use this to increase motivation in your course are:

  • Offer certificates - a certificate can be a great way to increase motivation to complete your course, especially if you have authority in your niche. If you’re building e-learning or professional training courses, this is a no-brainer.

  • Offer money back guarantees - This works great for beta testing. You can offer beta access for a small fee, then promise participants that they’ll get a percentage of their money back if they complete the beta and provide feedback.

  • Promise a result and have testimonials to back it up - If you know your course can deliver the results as long as students put in the work, use that to motivate your students. Just make sure you have examples and testimonials from past participants to back you up. Seeing past students achieve a result can push new students to put in the work so they can get similar results.

Here's a great example of results-focused testimonials from Paul Jarvis'    Chimp Essentials    course.

Here's a great example of results-focused testimonials from Paul Jarvis' Chimp Essentials course.


While motivating students and increasing completion rates in your course can be challenging, you've got options! Don't be deterred by completion gaps. It simply means there’s an opportunity to improve your approach.

Remember, online courses are all about learning, getting feedback and iterating. Take your time, ask your learners what’s working and improve from there.

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