Why do Learners Drop Out of a Course?
Instructional Design

Why do Learners Drop Out of a Course?

Despite the best laid plans, the loudest bells and whistles and the loftiest experts in your learning network, learners might enroll only to drop after the first two weeks. There is nothing more heartbreaking than to see the dropout rates of a seemingly perfect course rise above the horizon.

In this article, we will uncover the “why” behind the drop-outs and the “how” to stall them to a complete stop.

With the rise of online universities and training centers, educationists are now challenged with learner retention (DiRamio & Wolverton, 2006; Liu, Gomes, Khan, &Yen, 2007). Research indicates that the failed attrition rate for undergraduate courses in the US ranges between 20 – 50% (Frankola, 2001). Dropout rates in online courses have been cited to be 10-20% higher than traditional face-to-face courses (Rovai, 2007).

Recent work by Patterson and McFadden (2009) indicated that dropout rates in online courses may be six to seven times higher when compared to traditional courses.

Did we create an unsettling feeling in you? Wait! There is hope. Research also indicates that the number one reason why learners drop out of a course is because the course and/or mentor fail to meet their expectations. The degree to which these expectations are met determines the subsequent behavior of the learner. The following six factors play a major role in determining learner dropout tendencies in a given online course.

Proficiency with technology

Technological literacy is the number one problem online learners face when attempting an eLearning course deployed in a learning management system. Research also indicates that newcomers usually underestimate the skills needed to utilize the functionality of a learning management system.

Basic computer skills include using the MS Office (or other office editor applications), checking email, and looking up valid websites for research. Training organizations and higher education institutes that invest in the extra help needed to help new students get accustomed to increased technological needs will experience lower attrition rates. Lack of support services lead to higher online learner dropout rates. As a training provider for your organization, create a couple of “self-help” online courses for your trainees that are free.

Expectations of the course instructor

Instructor responses, feedback and the degree of one-on-one interaction with the learner directly reflect upon the quality of the lesson. The instructor’s presence in the room and the response time between the learners’ requests or questions and instructor’s response is also taken into consideration, when learners determine instructor’s quality.

Other factors like detailed introductions from peers and the instructor, assignment deadlines, assessment dates, course learning objectives and prompt return of graded assignments are directly related to student retention in the course. As a trainer in an organization, these practices will improve your course retention rates.

Expectations of a course’s content

An in-demand course and/or in-demand topics within a course will improve course retention and enrollment rates. As a training manager, try to “listen” to what employees are complaining about in the chat forums and create topics in courses accordingly.

Also, many learners believe that online courses are easier than traditional courses. Clear this misconception by including a short tutorial about online learning habits needed for a successful eLearning student. Learners need realistic expectations from their online learning environment. This will increase low performance and reduce subsequent drop outs.

Another point to remember is to develop content that is relevant to the learner. Learners look for content that can be applied to their work context as soon as possible. On the contrary, lengthy content or irrelevant content or content that is found to be inaccurate, creates frustrated learners who drop out from the course.

Expectations for social interactions

Creating a social network between learners in a course creates a “cohort” feeling that definitely improves learners’ retention. The quality and frequency of interaction in this social learning forum also determines the degree of the learners’ retention. The isolated feeling commonly reported in an online learning environment can easily be avoided if learners connect with peers and mentors intimately.

A sense of affiliation is very effective in the online learning environment. A social support system improves engagement and performance especially when such support is not available in home or work environment.

Expectations regarding the course delivery system

The course delivery system is the basic element that determines learner retention. This includes the company’s intranet or the learning management system dashboard design, accessibility, ease of use and ease of getting around. The course design features are also accounted for when learners drop out of a course.

As a rule of thumb, you should have the online course evaluated by a representative group of “mock” learners and carefully note their feedback on the course design and features. Improve the course based on this feedback. Create a course environment that welcomes the learners and prolongs their interaction with the course. Ease of navigation and the ability to find and retrieve help is the key to student retention.

Personal variables

Several surveys reveal that the online learner body predominantly comprises of the non-traditional student. This student is a full-time employee, a parent, a spouse and most often above the age of thirty. In fact, the older the learner, the higher their course retention rates.

The flexibility in terms of time and place also encourages these non-traditional learners to complete their online courses on time. An important point to note here is that the non-traditional learners need greater technological, moral, emotional as well as intellectual support as compared to traditional learners.

As a trainer, it is highly recommended to conduct a precourse survey to understand more about your learners and support them accordingly.

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