Why do so many students drop out from online courses?

Downward histogram

In the transition from presential face-to-face English language learning environments to online, it is not unusual for academies & other providers to experience low rates of student participation & high rates of student drop-out. Why is this & what can be done about it? In the following article, I’ll address some common issues & recommend a strategy for dealing with them. 

Please note that these recommendations are for purposely designed online & distance language learning courses which use a learning management system (LMS), e.g. the “big 4” LMS’ are Moodle, Blackboard Learn, Instructure CanvasLMS, & D2L Brightspace. They are not intended to apply to the predominant “emergency remote teaching,” i.e. face-to-face classes via Zoom, Google or Teams, typically used during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Misunderstandings, distractions & confusion

In English language classes, if students cannot focus sufficient attention on the meaning & language content of tasks, they are unlikely to learn much from them. Misunderstandings, distractions & confusion all take their toll on learning outcomes. As many teachers have learned, well-considered preparation & student training in the classroom at the beginning of a course can resolve many common issues with student engagement, motivation & participation. Likewise in online learning environments, the appropriate preparation & training can return similar benefits. This article will address one particular aspect of this which is: Transitioning students from how they’ve previously learned how to perform learning tasks in traditional, face-to-face classroom contexts, to performing online learning tasks.

Students already benefit from years of preparation

By the time most students start an online & blended English language course, they often have several years’ training & experience of how presential classrooms & studying in general function from school & possibly post-secondary education, & also of the particularities of participating in English language classrooms, e.g. communicative language learning, at English language academies. They’ll already be familiar with the typical layouts & organisation of coursebooks, teaching methods & types of interactions with teachers & classmates, participating in communicative tasks, & doing, submitting & reviewing feedback on homework assignments. They’ll more than likely have had years of training & practice to develop strategies & techniques for more effective learning. In other words, they’ll have learned to manage & minimise the additional (extraneous) cognitive load that typical classroom tasks impose. Such strategies & techniques are often referred to as meta-cognitive skills.

Classroom preparedness doesn’t necessarily transfer to online

Learning skills in one environment, i.e. classrooms, doesn’t necessarily mean that those skills will easily transfer to another, i.e. online. In fact, there’s a lot of evidence that this kind of transfer is unusual (Schwartz et al., 2005). Additionally, most students have little or no training or experience of how LMS’ & online studying function so it’s unlikely that they’ll have had the same degree of training & practice in the particularities of participating in online English language courses as they’ve had in traditional classroom environments. When transitioning classes online, failing to take this into account can result in imposing heavy cognitive burdens on students. They’ll have to learn to navigate & participate in a strange new environment with new user interfaces, new media, new formats, & new types of activities while learning new language content at the same time, which will likely cause cognitive overload, i.e. feeling overwhelmed, confused, stressed & incapable of participating well. Even after starting their courses with the best of intentions, students may have persistent issues with cognitive overload & may eventually disengage, lose motivation, or dropout altogether.

There are at least two possible strategies to deal with this:

  1. Simplify the learning tasks, in effect dumbing down & providing students with less authentic learning experiences, which appears to be the dominant strategy used by many of the online English language tutoring start-ups, or
  2. Provide sufficient training & guidance so that students feel more confident in participating in more authentic, effective, & more complex learning tasks.

As you may have already guessed, I believe that strategy 2 will lead to better learning outcomes, more authentic language use & learning, & greater student persistence. After all, feeling successful & competent at learning in a particular domain is one of the strongest motivators (Barron & Hulleman, 2015).

What do students need to learn?

Such issues with engagement, motivation & participation can & should be systematically mitigated but how? From the beginning of their online studies, students should be inducted & trained in how to participate in their online English language course. Students need to develop comparable metacognitive skills for online study as they already have for presential face-to-face classroom study. Typical tasks may include students learning how to:

  • Log in & orient themselves on the learning management system (LMS);
  • Navigate the course page, the way it’s organised, & how learning tasks are typically sequenced per week, per month or per unit;
  • Connect & correspond with their teacher & classmates, e.g. messaging system & whole class announcements & discussions;
  • Access & participate in video conferences;
  • Do each of the learning tasks types, e.g.
    • participate in interactive self-study lessons,
    • do quizzes, progress tests & mock exams,
    • complete & submit assignments,
    • participate in various types of forum & chat discussions;
  • Find their grades, submitted assignments, feedback, records of work, & reference materials;
  • Install & use LMS mobile apps.*

* Mobile apps can be useful for cultivating a sense of responsiveness, immediacy & social presence ( = greater student commitment & persistence) as well as more successful collaborative & communicative tasks between classmates. In a sense, students have their classroom & classmates available in their pockets at all times.

How should they learn it?

There are less-effective & more-effective strategies to providing this kind of meta-cognitive training. In my experience, a more effective strategy has been a combination of top-down & bottom-up instructional techniques, which enable students to simultaneously construct strong, coherent, cohesive mental models of the tasks they are expected to perform (top-down, schemas), which scaffold learning, as well as observing narrated screen recordings or reading step by step, illustrated guides & practising the steps/stages themselves (bottom-up, worked examples), which enable learning the processes themselves.

Overviews (top-down processing)

In top-down training, students sort, order & complete graphical representations of the stages & processes. They may also identify, sort & order examples of completed tasks in order to get an overview of what students are expected to achieve. These can be as simple as an icon &/or bullet point list or as elaborate as info-graphics & flow diagrams, as appropriate, & enable students to build useful, memorable mental models to scaffold their learning.

Worked examples (bottom-up processing)

Worked examples reduce the cognitive load that tasks impose on students thereby freeing up more working memory capacity to process & learn how to perform the tasks independently (Renkl, 2014). In worked example training, students observe & practise the processes that constitute the task, for example:

  1. Watch a screen recording of their teacher performing a task & narrating their thought processes, i.e. ‘thinking out loud’;
  2. Identify the key stages in the screen recording according to the previously studied overview (explicitly connecting theory with practice, mental models with task processes);
  3. Attempt the task & its constituent processes themselves, i.e. Try to recreate what they saw the teacher do;
  4. Re-watch the screen recording & compare it with their attempt – What did they do well? What do they need to practise more?;
  5. Re-attempt the task;
  6. Re-watch & re-compare;
  7. Repeat re-watching & re-attempting until confident.


Depending on the complexity of the task type (e.g. iterative writing & peer-review assignments can be quite complex), students may need to study & perform worked examples several times in order to gain sufficient confidence, competence & automaticity (sometimes referred to as ‘fluency’). In many cases, this won’t be necessary but where applicable, i.e. for highly complex tasks, sufficient training & practice, which should be distributed over a number of weeks, should prevent the majority of persistent issues with students needing technical support, or the poor quality of students’ work as a result of cognitive overload, i.e. they won’t feel overwhelmed by having to learn how to perform the task & focus on the meaning & language content all at the same time. Given the substantial benefits from more complex learning tasks such as iterative writing & peer-review assignments, the initial investment in learning the necessary skills should pay dividends, in terms of developing authentic communicative competence, throughout the rest of the duration of the course.


Transitioning onto online environments without adequate student preparation can be problematic & increase rates of disengagement & drop-out. In this article, I’ve addressed some common issues that many practitioners experience & I’ve highlighted the need to manage & distribute the cognitive load that new learning environments impose, in particular LMS’. I’ve also suggested one particular strategy on how to induct & train students into studying online &, as a result, improve students’ competence, engagement, motivation, & persistence, which should result in higher course completion/graduation rates. Please note that this is just one possible issue with transitioning to online & there are many other critical factors to consider & address.


  • Barron, K. E., & Hulleman, C. S. (2015). Expectancy-Value-Cost Model of Motivation. In International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences (pp. 503–509). Elsevier. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-08-097086-8.26099-6
  • Renkl, A. (2014). Toward an Instructionally Oriented Theory of Example-Based Learning. Cognitive Science, 38(1), 1–37. https://doi.org/10.1111/cogs.12086
  • Schwartz, D. L., Bransford, J. D., & Sears, D. (2005). Efficiency and Innovation in Transfer. In Transfer of Learning from a Modern Multidisciplinary Perspective (pp. 1–51). Information Age Publishing. http://aaalab.stanford.edu/papers/Innovation%20in%20Transfer.pdf