Have some of your online students disappeared?

Why did they go … and more importantly … how do you get them back again?

The truth is, many students who have bailed on the course will probably NOT return and finish it.

Students feel overwhelmed when they’ve fallen behind. I’m never going to pass now, so why bother. They can also be afraid that they will be “in trouble” and are avoiding contact with the teacher.

What can we do to get them back online and motivated to finish the course again?

Here are 5 ideas to re-engage absent learners and keep them on track.


1. Study the Data

Many courses have hidden stumbling blocks. Lessons that are too long. Assignments that don’t make sense. A boring or intimidating first unit.

I call these learning sinkholes.

Less resilient students can’t navigate through them and suddenly your attendance in the course starts to drop. During the course you can track student progress using Google Apps.

The end of a course is the perfect time to reflect on the “learning flow” that just went on in your course. Where did students begin to disappear?

Time to study the data. Here is a Moodle block I just discovered called “Heat Map“. It looks at the assignments and other objects in your course and color codes them for how “active” they are. You can see which of your assignments are “hot” or “cold”.

It works like this:

You can also use the Reports feature in Moodle (Admin >> Reports) to get information, too. After you discover where the major drop off points are, write them down on a sticky note and then go back and fix it later.

Just being aware WHERE your learners fell off will go a long way to improving the course completion next time around.

Now that you know where things went wrong, how do you get students moving again?


2. Fast Forward

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Sometimes it just take a little “nudge” to get unstuck. That nudge might be the chance to skip over whatever it was they didn’t like, or weren’t able to complete. I know it’s hard to allow a learner to “skip” important learning, but sometimes it’s necessary to give up a hill, in order to win the entire battle.

Can they demonstrate learning for the troubling assignment by chatting with you on the phone? Can they come back to it at the end (if time allows)? They may feel more confident later in the course.

What can you do to skip past the pothole and get them back on track again?


3. Pace Support

Many times when I call or email a student to get them back on track they tell me that they were “really busy” or they “thought they had more time”.

It isn’t that they were ditching the course, they just struggle with pace management.

[Tweet “Pace Support is critical to help move online students through their courses.”]

You can offer pace support to learners with gamified elements (see below), cues in the collapsed topics (“Week 15”) or other indicators letting students know where they should be at each week.

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This can also include a series of pre-programmed emails, in an email delivery program like Mailchimp or Constant Contact.

Coursera does an amazing job of this in their online courses. Here is a sample email they send every time you finish a lesson:

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(Nerd alert: Yes, I actually took this course. It was really interesting. 🙂

It’s very easy to assume that schoolwork is top-of-mind for home-based learners, when in fact they can be distracted by all the OTHER things going on in their world at home.

How to grab their attention? …


4. Create a Sense of Urgency

One drawback of long courses is that it seems like learners have all the time in the world to finish it. When a learner sees that they have “2 months” to complete something, it’s no wonder that they let it slide until 3 days before it’s due.

Without deadlines or any sense of urgency it’s human nature to just put it off.

I’m about to test a new Moodle block to see how it affects my course completion stats. It’s called “Enrolment Timer“.

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I’m going to see if having a visual cue indicating when the course is over, will help light a fire under my less focused learners.

There are lots of tricks to create a sense of urgency.

  • Remind them of the end goal (Those 5 high school credits are just a month away!)
  • Invite them to a “Catch Up Night” for students who have fallen behind. Limited space available.

Think of ways to entice them back, rather than adding more negative to the idea of returning to the course.


5. Build a Quick Win


Offer students a way to be successful quickly after returning to the course. Whether it’s earning a badge on the next assignment (make sure that’s the one they complete next), or letting them choose an assessment style they like (creating a video, instead of writing an essay), let them experience a quick win in your course.

This small, immediate success makes your course feel possible.

Change the impression of your course from the place I avoid … to the place I succeed.



I hope you found some ideas for supporting students through your course.

Am I missing any good ideas for increasing course completion? Drop me a note in the comments below!

You might find this article interesting too: 12 Creative Moodle Hacks to Supercharge Your Courses.