See why many people hardly finish e-learning courses

Reasons most people never finish an online course and how to get it right

See why people hardly finish e-learning courses


E-learning is experiencing somewhat of a renaissance moment right now. People are desperate to understand and utilise its value, and a recent report predicts that, globally, the market will grow by $US61bn by 2024.

This has, of course, been supercharged by the effects of COVID-19 and provides one example (of many) of societal adoption of technology being accelerated by the pandemic. Classrooms have been shut with lessons still needing to be taught; workplaces closed with professional development needing to be undertaken, and millions of employees have been furloughed with personal growth front-of-mind as the best use of their free time. The answer to these issues has been e-learning, which has been music to the ears of learning designers.


But adopting e-learning without considering it’s effectiveness is misguided, and it’s vital that learning designers and interested companies alike consider one of the great taboos of the industry – do people actually finish their courses?

The struggle is real

The answer is, not really. Industry reports show that only 5–15% of students who start a free online course actually follow through, which confirms a taboo that most know is actually true; people generally love the idea of an e-learning course, but struggle to complete it once started.

But why is this? Many would be quick to point the finger at societal issues, like dropping attention spans. A study from Microsoft showed that since the year 2000, the average attention span has dropped from 12 to eight seconds, highlighting the dangers of our increasingly digitised lifestyles and sparking concern among educators worldwide. This may not necessarily be the answer though, as Gen Z, a demographic commonly associated with this, have been shown to be embracing online learning, demonstrated through the huge popularity of platforms such as TheStrive Studies or Skillshare, amassing millions of views on ‘study-along’ videos, based around information retention optimisation techniques.

The importance of programme design

Learning designers have proven that both raising the stakes and regular reminders of why the learner is taking the course can increase completion rates to 85%, which shows that it can be done, and there are plenty of issues with popular e-learning formats that deserve to be highlighted.

E-learning issues

Firstly – motivation, the most important element in course completion. Many courses lack incentives and, crucially, real-world application. The last thing a designer wants is a participant questioning why they’re taking the course, and if they can’t see how they will apply their learnings directly into their life, then they’re guaranteed to give up. Next – difficulty. Courses generally suffer from either being far too easy (and therefore boring), or too difficult, both particularly common when attempting to take a one-size-fits-all approach in the design, and are big deterrents to completion. Timeframes are also a huge problem, with courses often being guilty of either having unrealistic deadlines, or no deadlines at all.

So, what does the ideal e-learning course look like?

  • Personalisation:this solves many of the issues above. Don’t assume that everyone who undertakes your course will respond the same way. It’s absolutely crucial to consider differing education levels, free time available and topic familiarity in your participants.
  • Incentives:ensure there is an end goal to work towards, ideally with real-world outcomes.
  • Commitment:ensure there’s some form of barrier to entry to make the course feel desirable in the first place. For example, maybe students have to pay a small fee for the course? Or maybe workplace employees need to submit an application on why they personally want to undergo the programme?
  • Get the balance of freedom right:for example, make all of the necessary materials available immediately, but build in regular mini-deadlines before the final one. This allows people to move at their own pace, but ensures they always have something to aim for.

But why is it so important to get e-Learning courses spot on? Because they have so much to offer and can be a fantastic building block of a healthy, functioning society.

For example, a study by the American Society for Training and Development found that the average employee income is 218% higher if comprehensive training programmes are available to them, giving credibility to the saying ‘the more you learn; the more you earn’. It’s also theorised by Dr Corey Seemille that e-learning may be the perfect way to engage Generation Z,  who enjoy learning as part of a community, but don’t want their experience to be dependent on others’ progress or to feel competitive pressure.

These are just some of the great benefits to be gained from e-learning. It’s an incredible resource and one that will become increasingly more evident as part of our lives in the years to come. But before we can learn from it properly, we need to learn how to get it right.


Posted On: 14 September, 2020