Prevent Registration Drop-Off!

Sarah Flesher

Did you know that the average massive open online course (MOOC) loses more than 90% of its participants between registration and completion? Registration drop-off is less dramatic in other forms of eLearning, but it's still much higher than learning developers would like. This article will review some causes of high attrition rates and what we, as providers and developers of eLearning, can do to reduce it.

Understanding Attrition

Attrition is a serious problem with voluntary eLearning programs. It's also an issue worth examining in the context of mandatory courses. It's true that attrition isn't usually an issue in required corporate training. If it's 'finish the module or lose your job,' most people will manage to work their way through the module. Even so, engaged learners will gain much more from their training than learners who are desperately wishing they could drop out. It's worth looking at the factors that can contribute to learners wishing they were doing something else.

Although much recent research on eLearning attrition has focused on MOOCs, it likely applies to eLearning in general. Phil Hill has proposed that learners fall into four behavioral categories:

  • Lurkers: Register but view few items, if any.
  • Drop-Ins: Actively participate in a few items and then leave. They are often looking for specific information and leave the course once their goals have been met.
  • Passive Participants: Watch videos and may take quizzes, but do not participate in activities and discussions.
  • Active Participants: Intend to participate fully in the course.

Lurkers have minimal investment in the course. They may register to learn more about the course before deciding whether to take it. Reducing drop-off among this group will likely come down to the factors that encourage potential participants to take the course in the first place.

Drop-Ins are an interesting group, showing traits characteristic of modern learners such as taking responsibility for their own learning. Whether the premature departure of a drop-in is considered a problem will depend on the purpose of your program. A registrant seeking out the information they need is often a successful course user, albeit one with different goals than the course developers.

Passive and active participants are the two groups who intend to complete the course. While their drop-out rate is somewhat lower than the 100% attrition of the other two groups, it's still much higher for non-mandatory courses than eLearning providers would prefer. It seems clear that there are aspects of eLearning that need to improve. Let's look at some of the factors we should be working on.

7 Ways to Reduce Attrition

1. Minimize technical demands on learners

Learners today are attached to their devices. The vast majority can use Google, YouTube, Instagram and Facebook without a thought. But this doesn't necessarily mean they can navigate your LMS or edit and upload an introductory video as easily... Learners often find learning technology challenging, and learners' struggles with technical challenges can inhibit their engagement with the learning material.

eLearning providers can address this issue by:

  • Ensuring their learning material is easy and intuitive to navigate, even on a mobile device
  • Limiting the number and complexity of programs used in activities and discussions
  • Requiring learners to complete an orientation course on technology used in the program

2. Provide clear information about the course before registration

Start your learning program by making sure learners know what to expect, including:

  • Prerequisites
  • Course content
  • Course activities
  • Expected time commitment

Admittedly, this strategy reduces attrition primarily by decreasing the number of disinterested people, Phil Hill's lurkers, who sign up for the program. Nevertheless, it's best to state your expectations up front.

Potential learners are particularly likely to underestimate the demands of eLearning, frequently complaining that they don't have enough time for the program. Creating reasonable expectations at the beginning can have a positive effect on attrition.

3. Provide enough time to complete the course

Another response to complaints that learners don't have enough time is to ensure the course timeframe is suitable. eLearners usually have many other demands on their time, including jobs and family obligations, and if you ask for too great a commitment you're likely to end up abandoned.

Recent research has developed some guidance about pacing: eLearners taking shorter courses are more likely to complete if the course has a set pace while those taking longer and more complex courses are more likely to complete if the course is self-paced.

4. Focus on the beginning of the course

When evaluating a course for improvement, I always recommend looking at the places where the most learners stall or drop out. With voluntary eLearning, the pinch point is easy to find: right at the start. Justin Reich suggests that "Course developers should recognize that, for many students, a course's first unit is the only part some students will see. Course teams should consider allocating resources to making that beginning unit inviting and compelling."

5. Collect learner evaluations throughout the program

Reich also suggests collecting learner feedback throughout the program, not just via a survey at the end. With attrition rates as high as they are, many learners, especially those you most need to hear from, will be long gone by the time the program is finished.

6. Offer recognition and real-world advantages for successful completion

Unsurprisingly, learners are more motivated to complete an eLearning program when its value is increased. Offering certificates to document success has been shown to reduce attrition. In a corporate environment, relating learning to career advancement can also be effective.

7. Create a learning community

The elephant in eLearning's room is social isolation, a significant factor in attrition. In a large study, René Kizilcic and Sherif Halawa found that successful learners reported greater "feelings of social belonging than unsuccessful ones."

The good news is that eLearning providers have many options for fostering connections among learners:

  • Forums: Forums can encourage (or even require) interactive conversations among learners. Instructors should create their own connections with learners as they stimulate and guide conversations, always taking care not to dominate them.
  • Learning Groups: MOOC research has shown that attrition rates are much lower among learners who participate in social learning groups. Local learning groups often meet at cafes or pubs to discuss course material and other topics.
  • Blended Learning: Blended learning means combining eLearning and classroom learning in your learning program. It's a way of realizing the advantages of both types of learning and adding classroom connections to your online training.


High attrition rates are endemic to eLearning, but this is not a situation that providers should simply accept. This article has reviewed the program features that most affect completion rates. Thoughtful design choices and carefully-selected learning elements can be combined to reduce registration drop-off in your next learning program. Which changes do you need to make?

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Sarah Flesher

Sarah is an Instructional Designer at BaseCorp Learning Systems and is currently completing a PhD in Educational Technology. Her research focuses on implementing competency-based learning systems in all types of organizations. When she doesn't have her nose in a book you can find her at the gym, on the ice, on the ski hill, drinking wine or in a coffee shop … with her nose in a book.