Increasing course completion rates in e-learning portal

UX case study on improving course completion rates in e-learning platforms

The popularity of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) has exploded in the past few years. The availability of content anywhere on the go coupled with a fraction of the price for a in-person course have led to widespread demand. But unfortunately most people who enrol for courses do not complete it. E-learning platforms are trying different techniques to coax users to complete the course but not much has changed. 

How might we engage users to complete an online learning course they signed up for?

This question got me thinking about the motive behind why people sign up for the course. It is a well known fact that most people who sign up for a course do not complete it. And most of the e-learning platforms are trying hard to coax all users who have signed up to complete through various means — gamification, reminders through email & mobile apps, community building through forums, etc. To me this feels like addressing the symptoms rather than the root cause.


If people not completing a course is a symptom, then what is the root cause?


I posted these questions on a couple of forums and got quite a lot of varied response.

  1. What prompted you to sign up for a course?

  2. Why did you not complete it?

Responses for — What prompted you to sign up for a course?

  • Gain knowledge and learn something new.

  • Change careers.

  • Get a promotion.

  • Looks interesting.

  • Recommended by a friend/colleague.

  • Forced to sign up (by employer).

  • Self paced learning.

  • Content (usually) organised into bite sized chunks for easy comprehension.

  • More affordable and accessible than a regular in-person class.

  • Available free as part of membership for a forum (such as Interaction Design Foundation).

  • Discount on course fee and flash sales that sell courses for a fraction of the original price.

Responses for — Why did you not complete it?

  • No time -> busy with work, family responsibilities, providing care for someone, unexpected health issues.

  • Did not schedule time for learning or prioritise.

  • Subject seemed interesting but realised it is not relevant or necessary.

  • Format of content delivery — video lectures, quizzes, etc is not engaging. It gets monotonous after some time and people lose interest.

  • Course is too long.

  • Content is not formatted in an easy to understand manner.

  • Content is or gets outdated by the time you complete the course.

  • Recurring monthly fee as opposed to a one-time fee for a course (eg: Skillshare). When learning gets delayed due to some reason and people realise they cannot complete the course within the end of the next billing cycle, they tend to skip it and cancel the membership.

  • No opportunity to apply the learning in real life.

  • Prefer in-person classes and real-world interaction with teacher and fellow students.

Some folks were happy to share the reasons why they completed a course:

  • Course duration is short.

  • Friends or co-workers signed up alongside and provided the needed trigger in real-life.

One thing that stood out for me from this research was the sheer number of people who purchased courses because it was available at a discount. We humans love SALE!

I am guilty of impulse shopping at bookstores (both real-world and Amazon Kindle Store), so I know the feeling. So suffice to say a lot of people are not interested in the content to begin with. Reasons such as the delivery medium and time crunch further reduces the number of people who actually want to learn through an online course. While my data is not a sufficiently large, I will go out on a limb and say only 20% of the people who sign up for a course actually want to complete it. The remaining 80% are not the intended audience at all and any effort to chase them would be meaningless.

Re-defining the target audience

Let’s face reality.

We cannot make anyone do something they do not want to do.

If it were otherwise, hypnotherapists would be the richest people on earth. So let us focus on enabling the 20% who want to learn.

What is your motive?

Humans are driven by motives. While some say they have a impulse shopping problem, there is almost always a reason for it. Most of the decisions we make each day are governed by the mental models developed by the subconscious mind. To paraphrase Isla Fisher in Confessions of a Shopaholic, she buys stuff for the thrill of unwrapping something new, the smell of the wrappers and how it makes her feel good about herself. There are many who rummage through second-hand bookshops for the smell of old books.

Human beings are not rational creatures who get emotional, we are emotional beings who sometimes act rationally.


I would like to explore this side of human psychology and ask people what is their motive when they sign up for a course. I have not seen any e-learning platform do this. The closest is Facebook and groups that ask people why they want to join a group to weed out applicants who may not be the right fit. Let us consider some of the common motives and see how we can design user engagement.

  1. Get a promotion

  2. Change jobs

  3. Impress someone

Get a promotion

Let’s say John works as an intern with a social media startup. He would like to convert his internship into a full time job. There is a lot of demand for people good at Marketing at the company. So John decides to upskill himself by visiting uLearn, an online learning platform. When he goes through the plethora of courses on display, he experiences — drive, inspiration, hunger, interest, hope.

The thing about human mind is we forget the good things and hold on to the little, bad things that happen each day. Our aim as designers is to remind John of his mental state when he signed up for the course Marketing 101.

Positive reinforcements tailored for personalised goals will have greater impact than generic engagement practises like progress bars and leaderboards.

The best kind of competition is the one we have with ourselves. I am less inclined to know the rank of a person I do not know personally located half-way across the world. I am more interested in the person I look at the mirror each day.


Keeping this in mind, let us have a look at the User Onboarding.


Change jobs

This is similar to a person who wants to get a promotion. The User Onboarding can be re-designed to emphasise on this goal.

Impress someone

John has been dating Sarah for 6 months and her birthday is coming up in a month. He wants to impress her by playing her favorite song on guitar. One tiny glitch — he has never held a guitar before. So looks for courses on uLearn on how to play a guitar. But the basic course is for 2 months. Would he able to complete it soon and pick up the basics?

Once we know the motive, we can tailor the notifications according to the student to make it personal. We always complete something when we care about it.

Key outcomes
  • Tailor the progress monitoring of courses as per individual’s motives. 

  • Redefine the metric of course completion rate.