8 reasons why someone may not complete your online orientation

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Online courses don’t have the best reputation when it comes to completion rates. In for-credit university and college courses, where the incentive to complete is gaining the course credit, online courses have an attrition rate of 24 – 40%, significantly higher than the attrition rate of 10 – 20% seen in face-to-face courses. Massive open online courses (MOOCs), which are typically taken voluntarily by learners with an interest in the topic, have an attrition rate around 97%. Even for verified students in MOOCs, who have paid a fee to take the course, 54% of students never complete the course.

If getting students to complete a course that they have paid for, that they have a demonstrated interest in, or that will get them closer to degree completion is a struggle, that doesn’t bode well for an online orientation program.

Based on both research and experience, here are 8 reasons why a new student might not complete your online orientation program.

1. They didn’t know the program existed

If a student doesn’t even know the program exists, how can they be expected to complete it? Marketing and promotion is critical for an online orientation program. Students need to be told about the program repeatedly, through different forms of media (email, social media, in-person events, etc.). Find as many ways as possible to get your program in front of students.

2. They forgot

This is one of the most frustrating reasons to hear as someone who oversees an online orientation program, but a relatively common one that we heard from students. They knew about the program, and they may have even started it (which means you did something right to get them to that point!), and then they just forgot to come back and finish the rest. Marketing and promotion comes back into play here. It’s not enough to tell students at the beginning of the summer and never again. Constantly referring to the program throughout the pre-arrival period, and sending specific reminders to students who have started, but not completed, will increase your completion rates.

3. They didn’t have enough time

This is typically the most common reason why someone doesn’t complete an online course, and is also a reason I heard often from students with respect to UVic’s Pre-Arrival Program. People are busy, and completing an online orientation takes time (even if it is only a few hours). Create your course so that it can be completed in a realistic amount of time, and let your students know that timeframe! One of the most common pieces of feedback we get is that they want our program to be shorter; it currently takes about three hours. I’m not sure how short we would have to make the program to make those comments go away (I suspect there would be no satisfying everyone), but length is definitely an important consideration. It’s also worth considering the window of time that students are given to complete the program. The shorter the window, the more likely a student may have demands on their time during that time period. The longer the window, the more opportunity you given students to procrastinate!

This brings us to the second part of the “not enough time” reasoning. Sometimes it’s not that they didn’t have enough time. It’s that a student didn’t use the time that they had, thinking they would still have time later, and now that time has run out. For most new students, the end of the summer can be quite busy as they shop for their new living spaces, say goodbye to their friends and family, travel and move for school, and start in-person orientation programming. Any strategies you can implement to encourage students to complete the program earlier in the summer, and not leave it to the last week, with likely benefit your completion rates (and your students!). We sprinkled contest deadlines throughout the summer (i.e. if they completed module A and B by July 15, they’d be entered in a contest; finishing modules C and D by Aug. 1 would enter them in a different contest). It wasn’t a perfect solution and didn’t work for everyone, but it definitely encouraged some students to finish earlier! 

4. They didn’t think the program was for them

We received this feedback primarily from transfer students, mature students, and online students (pre-COVID). They assumed that the program was geared towards on-campus students, and students coming straight from high school, and so dismissed it as something they did not need to invest time in completing. While they were not exactly wrong – our initial version of the program was created with our straight-from-high-school student audience top-of-mind – we still thought there were many parts of the program that would be beneficial to mature, transfer and online students. This is where the importance of tailored content becomes evident, but also where marketing comes into play again. It’s worth thinking about how your messaging will appeal to all the different audiences you hope to reach, and whether you need separate marketing strategies for different groups of students.

5. It seemed unnecessary

Ouch, right? In our feedback, some students thought they would be able to easily figure it all out as they went, or they indicated that they had siblings or friends who already went to UVic. They felt that they could learn whatever they needed to know from those friends. This comes back to your marketing messaging again. Knowing that these students exist, what can you say to try and convince them of the helpfulness of your program?  

For other students, it’s not that the program as a whole was deemed unnecessary – just certain topics or activities. Some student felt that they already had a strong handle on certain topics, so they skipped those sections. This was often a rationale we heard from transfer and mature students, who often skipped the finance section and the substance use section, for example. It was also sometimes a rationale from straight-from-high-school students who skipped sections, including substance use and sexualized violence prevention… which is a little more concerning!

6. Lack of motivation

Learners who believe that your online orientation is interesting, useful, and important are more likely to be satisfied with the program, and more likely to complete it. Learners who are bored and disinterested while completing the program are more likely to abandon it and not return. People like enjoyable things. The more you can do to ensure your content is meeting student needs, is clear and well-designed, and is fun and engaging for students to complete, the more likely your students will be to complete the program – and learn from it.

7. Lack of social support

We can market our online orientation programs and sing their praises all we want, but we can never negate the influence that family and friends have on a student’s behaviour. If the word-on-the-street from other students is that the program is boring or unhelpful, new students are much more likely to ignore your messaging. If other students are saying positive things about the program, new students are much more likely to complete the program. Family members, current students, or even other new students who talk about the program or ask questions about the program demonstrate that they perceive the program as useful, influencing the new student’s perception of the usefulness of the program as well.

8. The course is not well-designed and intuitive

If a student cannot easily enroll in the course, navigate the course platform, and figure out how to use any technology involved, the likelihood that they will not complete the course increases. The same result holds if they regularly encounter technology problems throughout the course. It’s important that the course be accessible on all browser types and all devices; if it’s not that needs to be clearly stated upfront so that students can access the program in a way that won’t cause problems for them. It’s easy to think that a student who encounters a problem will send you an email and ask for your help, but the reality is that a very small percentage of students will do that; most will just move on. In June 2020, UVic moved to a brand new learning management system, and we had to move our entire program over in the span of just a few weeks. While we did our best to test everything, we discovered while the program was live that some activities could not be accessed if you were using Safari as a browser, and that for some students, random activities weren’t properly triggering completion. While we tried to solve those problems, and provide appropriate messaging where no solution could be found, it was obvious when looking at completion data that some students had encountered those issues, and abandoned the program, leaving those activities incomplete, without asking for help.


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