In 2012, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) ignited hopes of a disruptive breakthrough in higher education. The idea was that the world’s best professors would deliver world-class education via the Internet.

Three years later, depressing statistics revealed that only 12.6% of MOOC students actually completed the courses. Is this still the case for online learning? What is the current completion rate for online courses?

Of course, MOOCs are not the only form of online learning. Besides cohort courses, entrepreneurs also teach online on Learning Management Systems (LMS). Do these alternative course platforms have a higher completion rate?

First, let’s explore why the number of learners who finish a course, whether paid or free, should concern you.

Why Online Course Completion Statistics Matter?

For 38% of buyers, word-of-mouth is the primary way to discover new products. People tend to refer others to things they value and enjoy.

Likewise, learners who finish your course are more likely to:

  • Buy additional courses from you
  • Recommend them to friends and family
  • Provide constructive feedback to help improve your course(s) further.

As long as they stick around to learn more, they can extract more value from a course.

Higher completion rates increase the number of people who can leave positive reviews, increasing your chances of attracting even more, dedicated students. This is a recipe for growing your online course business.

If you are a company looking to tap e-learning to train employees, studying course completion rates can help you plan how to approach employee training and improve completions.

An American Society for Training and Development survey among 2,500 companies, found “comprehensive training programs” have a 218% increase in revenue per employee and 24% boost in profit margins. So, it pays to care.

What is the Market Size for Online Courses?

The global e-learning market is projected to blast past $521.8 billion by 2027 from $253.3 billion in 2021. That is a CAGR of 9.9% from 2022 to 2027.

Combine that with the World Economic Forum’s estimation that about half of employees will need to reskill by 2025, and you have a strong indication that e-learning will continue to grow.

The demand for online courses exploded in the wake of the 2020 pandemic, when nearly everyone stayed at home for work or pleasure. Then, EdgePoint Learning found that as many as 90% of corporations used online learning to provide training to their staff.

It is likely that this trend will continue, even if it is combined with face-to-face training.

What is the Average Completion Rate for Online Courses?

In 2015, MOOCs had a median completion rate of 12.6%, according to a study of 221 MOOCs.

However, it is important to highlight that students’ completion rates ranged from 0.7% to 52.1% across the courses.

But there’s more.

  • The completion rate for free open online courses ranges between 5% and 15%
  • According to a recent study from Columbia University, only 15% of online learners complete their courses. Yet on the pre-survey, 60% of students had said they would complete the entire series of courses.

But about halfway through the self-paced course, students seemed to drop out.

  • Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) revealed in a 2019 study that MOOCs had a completion rate of 3.13% between 2017 and 2018.
  • However, there are many students who continue to register and learn through MOOCs despite this low completion percentage. For example, the MIT data covered 5.63 million learners enrolled in 12.67 million courses.

So, there is still interest in MOOCs. Participants take the courses through platforms like Coursera and edX (which Harvard University and MIT co-founded).

What is the Average Completion Rate for Cohort Based Online Courses?

As opposed to self-paced courses that often see completion rates of less than 3%, cohort-based courses typically see over 85% to 90% completion rates.

One reason for the higher completion rate is because cohort-based learning provides direct access to an instructor and peers. It also involves smaller, more intimate groups that can keep each other accountable and motivated.

Another reason is cohort courses cost more, which makes buyers more invested and intent on completing the program to gain value back.

That’s not all:

  • Smaller group online courses, in which professors and students collaborate directly, achieve completion rates of over 85% (Training Journal)
  • Those enrolled in Esme Learning’s cohort-based courses complete the program 98-100% of the time (Times Higher Education)
  • At Section 4, completion rates were above 70% in March 2021 (TechCrunch)
  • Nomadic Learning, with its cohort-based programs, claims to regularly go over 90% completion rates (Josh Bersin)

However, most Learning Management Systems (LMS) do not reveal their course completion rates.

But a recent study found that higher education websites see a 51% bounce rate. Learners average just 2.13 minutes on the sites. So, over half of them exit after browsing only two to three pages.

Course Completion and Device Usage: What’s the Connection?

Here’s the thing. eLearning users want more flexibility. It is important for them to ‌access training material with whichever device they have. They want to ‌learn on their schedule. For example, 46% of learners say they use their phones just before they sleep.

Another 71% of Millennial learners told Gallup that they connect more through mobile learning than via desktop or other formal platforms.

Now, consider these other stats from the E-Learning Trends Report 2019:

  • Smartphone users download 50% apps for learning purposes.
  • 64% of learners say that accessing training materials on a mobile device is essential.
  • Learners finish course material 45% faster on a smartphone compared to a desktop.

However, mobile users spend 40% less time on a website on average. For that reason, you may need to do more to keep them engaged and coming back to your course.

How much a student pays for the course can also affect their commitment to complete it.

According to Teachable, completion rates for online courses were 61% higher when the price was $200 or higher compared with $50 or less.

Chabot College observed that more online enrollments occurred during the summer compared to the rest of the academic year.

Online courses may seem to have a gloomy future based on these statistics. You don’t have to quit as an online course creator, corporate trainer, or even just an interested individual.

Instead, you can learn how to improve course completions and deliver more value.

How to Improve Online Course Completion Rates

This section shares some tactics that have helped increase course completions by up to 85%.

A microlearning program is 17% more effective than a traditional one

The Journal of Applied Psychology reports so. Creating bite-sized lessons, or micro-learning modules, helps reduce the overwhelm many students experience in many courses.


  • 94% of course participants favor microlearning. One reason they do is because this empowers them to manage their work demands in a better way.
  • Software Advice also found that microlearning leads to 50% more engagement.

Study results indicate that learners can better recall what they’ve learned by using microlearning content that addresses just one to two learning objectives.

Provide a mobile-friendly experience for your courses

Nearly 60% of all online traffic is through mobile devices, so it is imperative that your course is mobile-friendly.

Many online course platforms like Thinkific, Kajabi, Teachable, and Podia are mobile-responsive. So, by hosting your courses with any of these, your content would be more easily accessible to students on any device.

Zeroing in on Your Target Audience to Provide a Specific Solution

If learners intend to apply the knowledge right away, they will be more engaged, satisfied, and more likely to finish the course.

This is apparent in a study of 3,518 students. In the study, learners living with multiple sclerosis (MS) were more likely to complete an MS related online course and begin applying its teachings than those without MS.

In fact, those that had a recent diagnosis were even more likely to complete the course than people who were caregivers to people with MS.

Create a Community for the Online Course

A study found that when virtual teams or online learning communities are part of an online course, students are 5x more engaged. As a result, the students are 16x more likely to finish the program.

Nobody wants to appear dishonest and unreliable. So, learners are likely to do the work to reach their goal before it’s time for a peer review.

Keep Your Course Up to Date

Updating courses regularly makes them 27% more useful according to participants in a 360Learning survey.

Among the reasons this works is that learners are more likely to experience Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) if they don’t check out your new content.

Combining this with drip-feeding course material over time can help you encourage more students to complete the course material.

Include Questions

Questions produce the highest number of positive reactions, leading to a 75.9% conversion rate. Whenever you ask learners a question in a course, they will respond positively 75.9% of the time.

Encourage Course Completion With Valuable Incentives

As an example, EdSurge recently hosted a virtual challenge with Unilever. In addition to seed funding, they provided mentorship and support to the learners who would come up with the best ideas during a 5-week online course.

This helped 3X the completion rate from the usual 8% on average to 24 %.

Here’s the thing. You do not have to provide monetary incentives.

Instead, you can offer real-world tools and resources through partnerships with employers or funders. Just ensure these tools are valuable and relevant to their coursework.

You can also add gamification features to the course to promote friendly competition and recognition among enrolled students. One study found that using gamification does in deed increase completion rates for MOOCs.

Better yet, provide certificates for finishers. University of Michigan researchers observed that students who pay for courses and are promised certifications are more likely to complete the courses.

Double the Fun With Accountability

You’ll want to encourage your course participants to share their learning commitment publicly. That could be on their personal social platforms with their followers.

Or, they can share their learning goals within the course’s Facebook group.

Studies show this can boost course completion and related goals by 33%.

Charge Your Worth

Picture this. Students are likely to abandon a cheap or free online course more often than a more expensive one.

Juno, a coding bootcamp based in Canada, illustrates how a premium course price can drive high completion rates.

Despite it CAD 2,000 price tag, Juno graduated 95.87% of its students. A remarkable 116 out of 121 students successfully completed the course and received certification.

Wrapping Up

Based on these statistics, you get a sense of the e-learning market’s challenges and opportunities.

First of all, online learning is in high demand. Second, you can increase online course completion rates with a few tweaks.

Also, while MOOCs are not as popular as they used to be, cohort-based and LMS based courses offer a greater level of engagement to encourage learners to finish their online classes.

So, whether you’re an online course creator or a corporate trainer, you can also use these tips to boost completions. Be sure to implement them, will you?