4 considerations for incentivizing completion

While it’s nice to think that all students will jump at the chance to complete an online orientation program and be better prepared to start at your institution, I think we all know that’s just not true. Incentivizing course participation can be an effective strategy to increase completion; when we surveyed students during the pilot of the Pre-Arrival Program, a large percentage of students indicated that the contest associated with the program was at least part of the reason why they completed the program. Incentives attract student’s attention, draw them into the program, and create a source of extrinsic motivation.

Depending on your institution, your budget, and the buy-in from your campus, incentives could vary widely. An incentive could look like providing a giveaway that a student will receive upon completing a section of the program or the program in its entirety, or it could be offering a student a chance to win a contest prize based on program completion. There are a few factors to consider when implementing an incentive:

  • The incentive must align with the amount of work required. Offering a chance to win a $10 gift card in exchange for spending four hours completing an online orientation program, for example, will likely not be effective.
  • Incentives of higher value are more effective. This probably isn’t a grand revelation for you, but if you offer a $500 gift card as opposed to a $100 gift card, your completion rate will likely be higher. For our initial launch of our program with January-start students, we offered a chance to win a $500 tuition credit to everyone who completed the program, and had a 27% completion rate. The following year, as the result of a few barriers put in place by our legal department, our incentive was a $200 giftcard to the campus bookstore; our completion rate was closer to 10%. While there were a few other factors at play here as well (most notably, that more content was added to the program), the change in incentive certainly didn’t help. Offering more chances to win doesn’t seem to have much of an effect on completion, so you may be better off offering one prize of larger value, rather than multiple prizes of a lesser value.
  • Align your incentive with what students value. This may differ between student populations, but what are your students most interested in receiving for free? A gift card to the campus bookstore? An Amazon giftcard? A prize pack with pre-selected items? A laptop? If you can figure out what your students value most, your incentive will be more effective. We currently have a hunch that offering tuition dollars rather than bookstore dollars is more effective, even if the student saves the same amount of money at the end of the day; the cost of tuition can weigh heavily on a student, so any reduction in that amount is welcome! Other hunches: Offering a discount is not a great incentive, unless it’s for something that they have to purchase, as that actually puts an added burden on them to spend money; Offering items, such as a laptop, iPad, or headphones is a lesser incentive, because if a student already owns those items, the incentive is lost.
  • Students love automatic grade increases. If you can strike some sort of deal with first-year instructors on your campus to provide bonus points for students who complete your online orientation program, you’ve likely struck incentive gold. In 2017, Western’s Faculty of Health Sciences switched the incentive for their online orientation program from a chance to win a $250 gift card to an automatic two-percent grade increase in a specific first-year course. The percentage of students who completed the program quadrupled, going from 8% to 34% of invited participants. Notably, while offering a direct grade increase works as an incentive, promising students better grades due to the knowledge and skills gained by completing the program does not have the same impact. If you are choosing to go this route, make sure to think through how you will verify completion with instructors, and whether a student can receive bonus points in more than one course.


Brown, C. A., Dickson, R., Humphreys, A.-L., McQuillan, V., & Smears, E. (2008). Promoting academic writing/referencing skills: Outcome of an undergraduate e-learning pilot project. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39(1), 140–156.

Hanna-Benson, C. (2019). Development and evaluation of an online university readiness course furthered by capturing the lived experience of students during this transition: A multi-perspective understanding of the transition to university [Doctoral dissertation, Western University].

Keller, J. M. (2008). First principles of motivation to learn and e3‐learning. Distance Education, 29(2), 175–185.

Featured image by Giorgio Trovato on Unsplash

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