A common concern among course creators is how few students actually finish the courses they’ve purchased. Now, for those who created their courses just to be a money tree, this might not matter so much. But for those who actually care about teaching students something and growing their impact (and not just their revenue), those Course Incomplete marks can trigger a lot of doubts.

Is my course too hard? 

Is there too much content? 

Am I moving too quickly between concepts? 

Does my course suck?! Will I have to refund everyone???”

Relax, bud.

Course completion rates are but one metric for your course, and not always a particularly accurate one at that. Here’s why you don’t need to worry (too much) about your course completion rates.

Completion doesn’t equal learning.

When I was a high school science teacher, I always had at least one student who wouldn’t lift a finger on homework but managed to waltz their way to at least a B on the midterm. This always provoked the existential question: If they ace the test (without cheating), does it matter if they turned in all their assignments? If they learn the content, does it matter how they learned it?

Completing an activity does not equal learning.

You can’t assume that a student has learned something from your online course just because they’ve watched all the videos or clicked all the “Assignment Complete” buttons. (I, for one, am fairly terrible at processing information delivered through audio.)

You need ways to truly assess learning outcomes. That can be a self-grading quiz in your course platform or workbook, a checklist or rubric that students can use to gauge their own success, an individual or group check-in call, or a personal review of their work.

Your course should have more content than most people need.

My first year of teaching was at a school that centered the theory of multiple intelligences, which basically says that there are many ways to learn. I learned to incorporate different learning modalities like audio, visual, and kinesthetic into my teaching. Most importantly, I gave students options for how to learn and demonstrate their understanding. A lot of my students struggled with reading comprehension, so I always tried to find supplemental explainer videos to support the textbook. I never forced anyone to present in front of the class because there are plenty of other ways to show their mastery of the content. So many of my shyer, introverted students thanked me for this. 

Everyone learns differently, and if your course can provide options that meet these different needs, it will be more accessible to more people. Some simple, low-cost accommodations include:

  • Transcripts for video or audio content (makes the content easier to skim and search)
  • Separate downloadable files or links for slide decks and other presentation materials (students can go back and review at their own pace without rewatching the entire video)
  • Captions for video lessons (makes the content more accessible for hard of hearing or multilingual learners)
  • Breaking long instructional videos into smaller segments (easier to watch a 5-minute clip than to go back and find your place in a 45-minute video)

If each of these accommodations exists as a separate module or lesson in your course, not everyone will use or “complete” every single one of these steps. 

You may also want to include extra content (or links to supplemental resources made by others) to help fill in skill and knowledge gaps because everyone comes in with a different level of prior knowledge, which I’ll discuss more in the next section.

Not every student needs everything you’re teaching.

One of the trickiest parts about classroom teaching was tailoring instruction for a wide range of abilities and prior knowledge. Some students came into my biology class having attended science camp since first grade, while others came in asking if deer ate meat. (Some deer species are, in fact, opportunistic carnivores, if you need something to haunt your nightmares.) I had to at least try to get everyone onto the same level of foundational knowledge, and find ways to enrich learning for more advanced students so they weren’t wasting time and energy going over things they already knew.

Online courses are no different. Even if you market your course to a very specific niche (which I hope you do), you will likely get students who already know a lot about what you’re teaching. Maybe they want to brush up on one specific component, and they want that enough to pay for the whole course. Maybe they just want reassurance or belonging. Those folks may just hop into a few modules, get what they came for, and bounce.

You may also get students who really want to learn what you’re teaching but don’t have quite as much skill or the right mix of experiences as your intended audience. You can choose to filter these folks out with your marketing or onboarding process, and there’s nothing wrong with that. (I have eternal respect for the service providers I’ve approached before I was ready who were honest enough to tell me I wasn’t ready to invest in their expertise.) Or, if you do allow them into the course, you can provide an extra primer module to bring them up to speed. Many students won’t need that primer, and you should make clear who can skip it. (A pre-test is a great tool for doing this.)

What promises did you make to your learners?

It all comes back to the intended learning outcome. If you want to teach someone how to speak publicly with confidence, and a student works through half of your content and goes on to crush their next keynote, does it matter if they didn’t complete the other half of the course? If you’re teaching people how to build a website, and they already know the basics of WordPress, why should they sit through content they already know?

The important question is not, “How many people completed my course?”

The question to ask is, “Did my students get the results they wanted and that I promised?” 

If so, don’t sweat the incompletes.

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Use the 4 Essential Elements of Teaching to plan your online course! This interactive worksheet can be reused to plan all of your transformational learning experiences.

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Plan your online course with ease

Use the 4 Essential Elements of Teaching to plan your online course! This interactive worksheet can be reused to plan all of your transformational learning experiences.

Check your email to confirm your subscription and get your interactive worksheet!

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