Why Students Don’t Complete Your Online Course

You’ve decided to create an online course. You spend time, money, and effort learning how to create a successful course. Finally, after months of hard work, your course finally launches. You’re excited and it seems like your excitement is rubbing off on your students. People are starting to buy your course—not to mention a nice stream of revenue is quickly growing.

You’re celebrating and you have every right to. Weeks go by and everything is going seamlessly…or so you think. 

You check your stats and notice your churn rate is just as high as your course’s conversion rate. In fact, it’s even higher!

Only 1 in 10 students are completing your course…the very course you spent mooonths developing and perfecting. 

You might start wondering: Is my course bad? Was all my effort for nothing?

The truth is, online courses are notorious for having abysmal completion rates. In a $250 billion dollar industry, only 3-12% of learners complete courses. Business opportunity courses have a 3% completion rate. Harvard, Yale, and MIT are at 6% and Udemy, a new model with 20 million students and 40,000 instructors, only see 8% completion rates from their best instructors.  Personal development industry courses have the highest completion at 12%.

Although low completion rates can be reflective of poor content and bad design, there are many other reasons why students don’t complete a course. Trust me, you aren’t the first and you won’t be the last online course creator suffering from low completion rates. 

You may not know WHY students are leaving, but you do know it doesn’t feel good. You created an online course because you know your expertise has value. But if your students aren’t completing the course, what value are they getting? Students will feel like they wasted their money. Low completion rates mean no reviews, poor recommendations, and fewer opportunities for upselling other products.

That’s why at Client Engagement Academy, we encourage creators to put student experience at the forefront. All our clients have an average completion rate of +60%.

What’s the secret?

While each underperforming course has its own unique challenge, I find that low completion rates normally boil down to these 5 reasons.  Here’s what they are and how to fix them.

Reason #1: Your Course Isn’t Meeting Student Expectations

Your students have expectations for your course. If you don’t meet them, they’re not going to want to continue. Falling through on expectations doesn’t mean you have a bad course, but it does mean you need to reflect on how you’re presenting your course.

Your students are disappointed because they registered with false ideas on what your course is like. Maybe they expected the lessons to cover a specific topic more or maybe they expected the format to be different. It could also be that your students aren’t at the same level as your course. If your course is too beginner-oriented, engagement amongst more advanced students will dwindle because they’ll feel like they aren’t learning anything new. If it’s too hard, beginner students will get discouraged and stop logging on. 

While none of these reasons are exactly your fault, there are measures you can take to prevent them.

Solution: Have a Clear Course Description

Revamp how you’re marketing your course to avoid any confusion.Make sure you’re targeting the right niche. If you’re teaching a beginner course, be clear about that and target beginners. The same goes for expert students. 

Practice good communication to ensure that every student is on board with the course idea and knows what they’re signing up for. Be crystal clear in explaining what your course is going to cover and how you’re going to reach it. Creating an honest, yet compelling sales page will ensure that you’re attracting the right people to your course. 

Read More: The Anatomy of a Compelling Course Sales Page (And How to Make One Yourself) 


Reason #2: Your Course Doesn’t Have an Observable Outcome

I’ve mentioned this in previous blog posts; your students need to have results by the end of your course to feel impacted.

Let’s say someone decides to enroll in a Facebook marketing school. Their motivation for enrolling is the hope that by the end of the course, they’ll be qualified enough to get a job as an online marketer. However, by the time those 6 weeks are up, the new “graduate” can’t even make Facebook ad campaign. Based on the lack of outcome for the graduate, would you say the course has value? 

Your online course has to give your students the tools they need to solve a problem and produce an outcome. A lack of results will put students off to taking your course and taking any future course from you. So, you need to make sure your course delivers.   

Although it may not be your fault that your students aren’t learning, it is your responsibility to educate students and equip them with the ability to APPLY the information they learned. A good strategy to help them with this is to inspire accountability in students and keep them on track. 

Here are some simple ways to do that: 

#1: Create a “Tangible” End Goal

You can’t guarantee that your students are going to get promoted or make a successful career change after taking your course, but you CAN help them earn these outcomes by ensuring they learn from and complete your course material. Offer students an incentive, such as a certificate, to serve as motivation to finish your course. Your incentive should be a way for students to showcase their learning experience and gain recognition. 

#2: Define Lesson Goals

Imagine you’re teaching a course on Instagram Marketing. You decide you’re going to cover “Stories” in one of your lessons. 

You should explain the importance of stories to your students. Tell them how they’ll benefit from learning how to create them. Give them examples of how they can create stories for their future campaigns outside of your course. The point here is to give your students a “knowledge” goal every lesson. As an instructor, you have to understand that not everyone is as passionate about your subject as you are. As a result, you have to explain to your students why each lesson in your course is important. 

As a bonus, make it fun! You could tell members how after the lesson, they’ll be able to create some awesome story templates to start using in their business. 

Tip:  Introduce the lesson goal at the beginning of each lesson. That way you can immediately capture your students’ attention by telling them how they’ll be transformed by the end of class. 

#3: Tell Your Students How They “Transformed”

In addition, you should make each student define the personal/professional goal they’re trying to achieve after taking your course. Find out what’s driving them to achieve this goal and why they decided your course would help them get there. Then, ask them how confident they are right now in being able to achieve their objective.

Keep all the responses you get. By the end of the course, reach out to students (either through a mass post or individually—depending on the practicality) and remind them of their goals. Tell them all the ways they’re now closer to achieving their outcome. Explain to your clients how they’re more equipped to face challenges because they took your course compared to their counterparts that didn’t. 

Lastly, ask them again how confident they are in being able to achieve their goal. I guarantee you’ll get a much higher percentage than the first time around.

Reason #3: User Experience Leaves Much to be Desired

“User experience” is more than just clean visual design, it also includes page speed, usability, and even customer service. The moment users interact with your online course platform, they’ll respond positively or negatively, depending on how easy and enjoyable the experience is.

Your learners are familiar with these user-friendly platforms, and they are expecting the same experience in your course. Remember, people are taking your course while juggling their personal and professional responsibilities. They don’t have time to waste trying to figure out how your site works or to listen to overly long lessons. 

Here are some possible solutions to create a frictionless user experience for your students:

Solution #1: Design Intuitive Learning Experiences

You know where everything is, but will someone on your course platform the first time be able to figure it out? If it is hard to navigate, you can’t expect people to stay on it. If users can’t easily access your lesson material, they aren’t going to do it. Don’t be afraid to simplify your online course to make it easier for student use.

#2: Do Your Research

In order to drive high completion rates, repeat purchases, fewer refunds, and become a successful business, everything you design has to cater to your core target audience.

For an online course to be effective, the learning experience must be easy and flow naturally for every user regardless of their age, skills and job title. Great user experiences happen when course creators know their target audience!

The preliminary step includes extensive research into your consumer’s behavioral patterns. This may require you to dig deep into internal data, and conduct surveys, distribute questionnaires and do everything necessary to formulate a buyer persona.

Survey Your Students!

I can’t stress this enough. Rather than guess why your course is underperforming, just reach out to your students. Your clients are your best source of information.

Ask them about their experience. Find out what they liked and disliked. After a few responses, you’ll start to be able to see what’s working and what isn’t. To create your survey you can use tools like Typeform, SurveyMonkey, or (my favorite) Google Form.

Reason #4:  Your Students Are “Too Busy”

I’m going to keep this one short and sweet.

Life happens.

Students may have initially signed up thinking they could commit to your course only to realize they can’t fit it in their schedule. It happens. We’ve all been guilty of over-committing to things. 

So, you’re probably thinking now, “Well, there’s nothing I can do about that!” True…but don’t give up so fast.  

Solution: Send Reminders.

While you can’t give your students an extra hour in the day or complete their other responsibilities for them, you can (gently) nudge your students to keep up with the material. Look at user data and reach out to students who haven’t logged in in a while and are at risk of churning. I recommend using an email automation system that tags people with this behavior. 


You should include goal-oriented, visual reminders in your messages to remind students of their desired outcomes. This will keep students motivated and engaged even when their schedules get overwhelming. You need to make sure your students stay long enough to get the full value of your course.


Reason #5: Lack of Motivation–Your Students Aren’t Engaged

Gallup reports that “customers who are fully engaged represent a 23% premium in terms of share of wallet, profitability, revenue and relationship growth over the average customer.”This means that by maximizing engagement, you have the potential to grow your business by 23%. 

There are various reasons why your students aren’t engaging with your course material. However, almost all these reasons stem from the same root cause: a lack of motivation. 

As I previously mentioned, you need to create online courses that give your students an observable outcome upon completion, in order to produce value for your customers. What I also want to stress is that you need to produce results DURING your course–the faster, the better.

Why do you think crash dieting programs are so popular? Everyone knows how they’re likely to fail long-term, yet people still do them. Why? Because they offer quick, tangible results. They show dieters “proof” of their efforts. 

Solution: Give Students Checkpoints–Create Milestone & Digital Badges

Imagine your online course as a marathon. You’re getting your students from Point A (where they are now) to Point B (where they hope to be). While crossing the finish line is a huge motivator, it’s also really, really far away. No matter how skilled a runner may be, there may come a point in the marathon where they’ve hit a wall and don’t want to continue. 

A milestone is like a checkpoint. Each point tells runners how far they’ve run, while simultaneously reminding them how far they have to go. Some checkpoints even have volunteers cheering on runners to keep going. 

Milestones are a great way for students to track their progress. Just like the runners, students should be celebrated every time they cross a milestone. Award your students with a digital badge for every milestone (or course module) they complete. Badges are great because they give users something to show for their consistent effort. As a result, they’re a great motivation. If students feel like they’re making progress in reaching their outcomes, they’ll be motivated to go all the way with your course. This is what researchers call completion bias. 

Read More: How to Use Digital Badges for Your Online Courses


Don’t settle for a low completion rate! Not only did you take the time to learn how to create a meaningful online course, but your students deserve to have their expectations meet. Fighting churn is all about understanding user behavior. Once you have that down, you need to come up with ways to keep students motivated to log on every day. Online course creation isn’t easy, but it doesn’t have to be rocket science. Keep your course solution-oriented, and both you and your students will get the results you want.