Reducing Student Attrition in Online Courses

February 12, 2021

Student attrition is a major problem for educational institutions across the country and forced remote learning has caused this to accelerate in some cases. For many students, this has opened up new opportunities for education. However, this comes with a caveat: online students are more susceptible to dropping out without finishing their courses.

Managing student attrition in online courses is vital to maintaining a high quality of education at your institution. Students who drop out before finishing a course face a number of problems including financial losses and an incomplete education. Understanding the causes of student attrition, and being proactive about reducing these causes can help keep students enrolled despite any difficulties they may face. 

What Is Student Attrition and How Is It Measured?

Simply put, student attrition occurs when students in a given course drop out before completing it. Keeping student attrition low is a primary goal for most institutions, for two reasons:

  1. Students who drop out of a course don’t receive the same educational benefits as students who finish the program
  2. Many programs only receive full funding for a student if that student finishes their courses

Keeping attrition low is best for both the students and their institutions. 

Most schools measure attrition by comparing the number of students who begin a course to the number who eventually complete it. For example, if 40 students start a section of a course and only 30 students finish, then there was a 25% student attrition rate. 

Why Are Online Students More Susceptible to Attrition?

Online students are more likely to drop out of a course than students who attend in-person classes, for several reasons. Why do online students drop out so often in comparison? It helps to compare the two styles of education.

In-person students have made a bigger commitment to their courses than many online students. They may have moved to attend the school, they’ve committed to attending in-person classes, and they regularly interact with their peers, providing them with social pressure to continue attending. Online students, on the other hand, have none of these. 

Other reasons online students often drop out include:

Learning Style Mismatches

Some students may do very well in traditional classroom settings but struggle during online courses because of their learning style. Students with physical and verbal learning styles are more likely to drop out of an online course if it does not offer them the right tools and learning materials. 

Feelings of Isolation

Without a concerted effort, online courses can leave students feeling isolated and disconnected from the material. When a student feels like they’re part of a learning community, they’re more likely to remain engaged with their coursework and see the class through to the end. 

Lack of Technological Skill

Online classes by nature require at least a small amount of skill with technology. However, different platforms come with different levels of difficulty. The harder it is for students to access their coursework and learn the material, the fewer students will have the skills necessary to use it, leading to higher student attrition. 

Fundamental Technical Problems

Technical problems with an online class can also affect students who understand how to use the platform. If online materials have glitches or regular problems, or if there’s no technical support to help educators and students resolve complaints, then attrition will be higher simply due to frustration. 

Lack of Faculty Support

Many students rely on interaction with their instructors to keep up their motivation to complete a class. Without that relationship, it’s more likely that students will fail to complete a course. This can be caused by a lack of instructor presence in the course or by a lack of useful feedback after tests and assignments. 

Lack of Clear Instruction and Direction

On a more specific level, since online courses have little face-to-face interaction, a lack of clear direction can become a problem. If assignment instructions, course outlines, and syllabi aren’t well-written and comprehensive, then students may feel confused and overwhelmed, leading to more attrition. 

Life Circumstances

Unfortunately, sometimes a student’s circumstances will change. They may lose regular access to the internet, they may no longer be able to afford the course, or they may need to spend their time handling other responsibilities. This leads to a certain percentage of students who will drop out no matter what you do. 

Identifying Students at Risk of Dropping a Course

For courses that have already begun, the best thing that you can do to reduce attrition is to address students who have showed signs of disengagement. Students who may be at risk of dropping out display a number of common behaviors, including:

  • Rarely logging into the class portal
  • Missing assignments and deadlines
  • Failing to engage in class discussions
  • Rarely using provided materials

Essentially, a student who isn’t engaging in the course is a student who’s likely to drop out altogether. They’re demonstrating common student attrition predictors. If you notice a student who’s seeming to fall off their work, then it might be time to talk with them individually to see what you can do to help them re-engage. While this won’t work every time, it’s enough to help bring many students back into their coursework. 

How to Reduce Student Attrition

Once you understand why students drop out, you can work to prevent it. While you can’t completely avoid attrition, the following tips will help you keep your online student dropout rates to a minimum. 

Help Students Explain Their Need for the Course

The easiest way to reduce attrition is to help students understand why they’re taking a course. When students lack a clear understanding of a class’s purpose, then any frustration or annoyance it causes is much more likely to push students into dropping it. 

On the other hand, by having your students explain why they need a class — such as “Understanding anatomy will help me become a better doctor.” — you can help them connect the class to future goals. This connection keeps them engaged in the materials, and studies show it leads to lower student attrition

Meet the Needs of Different Learning Styles

Every student learns in their own way. For students who appreciate hands-on learning or the ability to talk about the subject out loud, online classes must provide specific resources in order to keep their attention. 

For example, hands-on learners benefit from tools like 3D interactive models that they can manipulate and explore. Similarly, verbal learners benefit from options like class discussions through video chats and online discussion boards. Providing a diverse set of class resources helps keep everyone engaged and student attrition rates low.

Promote and Improve Students’ Technological Abilities

Few students will enter an online course with perfect knowledge of how to use the system. Many will have gaps in their technical skills that make the format difficult. Anticipating this and providing some resources for them to improve their skills can help bridge the knowledge gap and keep them engaged. 

For example, you can provide them with tutorials and “practice” tests that allow them to explore the platform on their own. This helps your students build their technical knowledge and avoid serious problems on graded tests in the future. 

It’s also beneficial to choose an online platform with a robust technical support system. Instead of having to answer every question about technical problems yourself, you can rely on experts to help your students master the technology. 

Build an Instructor-Student Relationship

It’s easier to spot the signs of a student who’s at risk of dropping your course if you work to build a relationship with as many students as possible. Whether you do this through one-on-one video meetings with students, larger class discussions, or simply by email having a connection to your students gives them the confidence to ask questions and remain engaged. 

Provide Regular Feedback

Students thrive on feedback. Regular, personalized feedback helps guide students who may feel confused or lost in the course material. It can also help you build a relationship with students who are otherwise reluctant to communicate since even students who avoid emails will generally read feedback on their papers and assignments. 

Cultivate Mentorship Skills as Faculty

Finally, the skills needed to run an online course with a sense of community and meaning are different from doing the same thing in-person. Instructors who are moving partly or entirely to online courses can benefit from mastering the skill of online mentorship. Responding to students compassionately and individually can help reduce online student dropout rates dramatically even in the face of other problems.


It’s impossible to completely prevent student attrition. Some students will always experience life changes or simply decide that school is no longer their priority. However, for both the sake of your students and your institution, it’s best to proactively prevent attrition whenever possible. 

By keeping students engaged, providing a variety of interesting materials, and offering excellent technical support, online students can be just as successful and just as likely to remain enrolled. Taking the time to offer them the support they need is worth the effort. 

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