8 Reasons Students Fail Online Classes (And What You Can Do)


Contrary to the popular belief online classes are not easy activities and students do fail sometimes. This article will explain why students fail online classes and give you some good advice on how to stop this from happening in your online classes.

There are numerous reasons why students fail in online classes. The most commonly encountered reasons are:

  • Lack of Technological Skills
  • Unrealistic Expectations
  • Poor Time Management
  • Low Motivation
  • Poor Quality Training
  • Social Isolation
  • Lack of Teacher Interaction
  • Does Not Suit All Learners

Let’s take an in-depth look to understand why this may happen and what you can do to avoid your students failing the class.

Lack Of Technological Skills

Problem

Students may have a hard time during online classes when their technical skills are not well developed. Even basic activities become unpleasant when they have to deal with hardware and software they are not used to.

Due to this fact, they cannot focus on understanding the subject and acknowledging the important concepts. Put yourself in their shoes for a minute: if you do not know how to use some sort of software are you able to effectively learn what you are supposed to use that software?

I always thought when I was a software developer that the next generation of students after me would know way more than I did about technology.  The actual fact is they are getting worse.  They are great at front end dumbed down technologies like using a smartphone, smart tv, or tablet but they don’t really do any more than that.

As a result, you as a teacher can not assume the prior knowledge of your students. Do they know how to proficiently use Word and Excel? Are they capable of using other software? Those questions are critical for you to acknowledge in your pre-requisites for your online classes.

Solution

In Universities, Colleges, Vocational Training, and Private Training organizations they are now including either Linked-In learning (formally Alynda.com) or another similar online training portal so students can learn the skills they don’t have in IT and common technical areas.

While this is a great thing to let students have access to what happens if they have to learn Excel at the same time as you are teaching them basic accounting.  Have you built the time for them to do this into your course?  Did you make it a prerequisite?

Here are some recommended prerequisites to learning online you may want to think about?

If you click on each of the names above I have linked them all through to a tutorial on a product in each of those categories except online chats and forums.  We will get to those in the social isolation topic below.

Having these as free courses they can do as prerequisites or the equivalent exam to prove their knowledge means every learner or student is starting at the same point.

You can also provide them a technical support number where you can have your own staff or a third party provide them with technical support in these areas as well.  If you are using specialized software then when you purchase the software make sure that the technical support for your students is also included.

If you don’t want to pay for technical support then nominate a Guru for those technical skills or software and get them certified to provide the support for your students.

Unrealistic Expectations

Problem

There are unrealistic expectations from both the teacher and the students. So let’s look at some of these expectations.

Teachers Unrealistic Expectations

  • I can make the eLearning and the courses will run themselves
  • Online students are second-grade students
  • I don’t need to respond quickly to online students
  • I will put in a Forum and students can help themselves without me
  • I expect the students to be fully engaged when I am not

Student Unrealistic Expectations

  • That issues will be resolved as quickly online as in person
  • That the workload will be less if taken online
  • That they will not get as distracted at home
  • That an online course saves time
  • That it will be easy to motivate yourself

One thing I know after personally enrolling in and taking many courses online is that it will always take longer than you think to be completed.  Even a simple question and answer with a few follow up questions could take all week or longer.

Solution

Let’s break this down into what the Teachers can do and what the Students should expect to be able to solve these problems.

Teachers

  • Have regular contact hours for students to ask questions either on live text one on one or group chats.  
  • Provide Web Conferences to tutor students when they have completed the online learning for a section.  
  • Ensure courses have clear student hours and what is expected of them.
  • Provide a Service Level Agreement (SLA) with students to guarantee response times to emails.
  • If you aren’t going to provide online students with the same service, charge them less, and clearly define what they get for their money.
  • Know completion rates are based on your engagement with your students
  • Maintain a frequent and open dialog with students
  • Record Live Sessions for students who miss it

Students

  • Just like with an in-person course look at the nominal hours the course will take to complete and make sure you allocate time to complete the work.
  • Making a plan to complete the online course is the easiest way to stay motivated.
  • Make yourself responsible for where you are in the course by telling someone about where you are and where you should be up too.
  • You must be more organized due to longer Q&A times
  • Make yourself available for Live sessions
  • Talk to Instructors prior to enrolling to set your expectations

There are obviously more issues you could have depending on your individual circumstances but this will cover most of the issues you will have.

It is a great idea to create a clear and concise description of your course to make sure you meet student expectations and cover the following topics:

  • Course Title
  • Prerequisites
  • Topics Covered
  • Course Length
  • Expected Study Time
  • Level of Support
  • Delivery Style

Poor Time Management

Problem

No matter how old I get there just never seems to be enough time in the day to get everything done.  Does this sound familiar to you?  Well if we as professionals have more on our plate to get done and have just become better at prioritizing the important over the good to haves and nice to haves we should pass this onto our students.

Time management skills are assumed with courses online and your job as a Teacher is to break down that learning into manageable chunks.  It is also to give the students a framework for success and be able to manage their time.

I once had a University Lecturer when I was younger told me that University should be my only and top priority.  At the time I thought the guy was in a bubble and didn’t live in the real world.  Try telling that to your landlord or when you don’t pay your rent.  We are in busy times with heaps of distractions and we need to show students how to manage that.

Let’s face it how many times have you fallen to sleep with your phone or your tablet in your hand?

The common problems students face are:

  • Distractions
  • Procrastination
  • Trying to do many things at once
  • Not scheduling time for study
  • Not understanding the time involved in tasks

Solution

So let’s look at the ways that you can help your students be better with time management. There are some simple tasks they can do to fix a lot of their problems.

Here is a list of the things Students can do:

  • Create a Weekly Schedule (Study, Work, and Socialising)
  • Create a Daily / Weekly ToDo List
  • Be more efficient with their time
  • Know how to decrease distractions
  • Know when to have breaks

Schedule

It is very important that your students manage their time correctly. To do so, they should make a clear and balanced schedule that includes:

  • Live meetings (Web Conferences)
  • Earning an income
  • Working on assignments
  • Individual study / Group Study
  • Healthy lifestyle (eating, sleeping, relaxing, socializing)

With everyone with a phone in their hand these days whether you use your calendar on there to schedule everything you need and get reminders when tasks need completing.  My preference is Google Calendar due to its integration with Google Classroom.  It also has an App and a website as well as integrates with Windows Mail and Microsoft Outlook seamlessly.

TODO Lists

Not only is it important to schedule things on a calendar but it is also important to prioritize these tasks and that is the purpose of a todo list.  I have had one all of my working life and it has allowed me to be very organized and successful.

I would suggest using Google Keep to have an online TODO list that you can access from an App on your phone or tablet and directly on the website.

Increase Efficiency

If you can make better use of your time but automating certain tasks and doing multiple tasks at the same time you can get more done.  But Glen isn’t multitasking worse on efficiency?  Well yes, it is for new and complex tasks so let’s call it grouping tasks instead.  

If you are going to the library don’t just do one task while you are there but do a couple to save you another trip.  If you have simple tasks to complete you can still use multi-tasking to get them done.

The final thing you can do with it is to look for time savings.  Do you cook a full English breakfast in the morning that may take an hour to make or do you just have cereal with fruit or a protein shake with fruit?  Simple ways of streamlining your day can give you a lot of much needed time to complete other tasks.

Decreasing Distractions

Whether you are studying, in a workplace, or just trying to get a task done at home this is an invaluable life skill.  People, phones, internet access, Netflix, computer games, and many other things can distract you from the work at hand.

So when you want to get some work done the ability to do sections of Deep Work (a book by Cal Newport) means we can get much more done in our day.  If you start with the environment you study or do work in and remove all the obvious distractions and don’t change tasks until you complete the task at hand.  Then you will get more done and be more organized and happy with your day.

I have known people to turn off the internet on their machines when they don’t want that as a distraction as well.  While this is hard when you are researching for an assignment it shows that there are ways to limit pretty much every distraction.

Having Breaks

Knowing when to let your brain have a break is a great tool to refocus and make a division between tasks so that you are ready to face the next task.  While you might think that having breaks cuts into the work time there are some great benefits as shown in this article from Psychology Today.

ARTICLE: How Do Work Breaks Help Your Brain

The benefits of breaks on work are:

  • Movement Breaks – essential for physical and emotional health
  • Decision Fatigue – to stop simple decision making and procrastination
  • Increase Motivation
  • Increase Productivity and Creativity
  • Waking Rest – consolidates memories and increases learning

Low Motivation

Problem

 Motivation is very important regardless of whether you are learning online or in a classroom and the responsibility for this starts with the training provider.   Prior to entering a student in the class, it is important for the training provider whether it is a school, college, or university to set the expectations for what the course will be about.

Starting with your high school education it has been proven that motivation is the top reason for students quitting.  Similar studies can be found with further education as well.  With higher education financial concerns were the other key concern.

Let’s face it we have all felt demotivated when we are learning something we see no practical application for in our lives and this partly comes from poor training materials and delivery of the content through lack of engagement by the educator.

Sometimes you just get into a course or subject and find that it was not what you were sold on and it does not fulfill the need you had.  And sometimes while this is true you still have to do it anyway as compliance or legal issue.

If you want to learn more about why students drop out of online courses, I recommend the following article:

ARTICLE: 11 Reasons Why Students Drop Out Of Online Courses

Solution

Engage, engage, engage! The easiest way to increase student motivation is to engage with them.  Make them responsible to someone for their learning and reinforce the outcomes of completing the training.  Find out what is stopping them from learning and help them remove those roadblocks.

As much as it is nice to say that motivation is purely a student problem the training institution needs to take responsibility as well and this seems quite clearly in completion rates of students.  Take a sincere role in reviewing student feedback and implementing changes to fix the problems.

What can students do to increase motivations:

  • Study first thing in the day
    This just means studying while your brain is fresh
  • Know when to ask for help
    Reach out for support from teachers with questions when confused or a tutor if more help is needed.
  • Learning in a way that suits their learning style
    We will discuss learning styles in the “Does not suit all learners” section below
  • Be goal focused
    It is easier to cope with a subject you don’t like when you know the bigger goal of the course being a better salary or more opportunities.
  • Take Breaks
    As we mentioned above taking breaks is proven to increase motivation

There are obviously many other things you can do to increase motivation and this article has many more of them sprinkled throughout it you can use.

Poor Quality Training

Problem

The first training online was essentially a book on a web page and since then there have been many improvements in the industry that have made completion rates climb.  There is a push away from traditional eLearning to more engaging and interactive eLearning where teachers spend more time with students.

The Learning Management System (LMS) that you choose and how you organize it will make a huge impact on student experience and therefore their ability to find and complete the training material you have given them.

In my time I have seen some great and some awful implementations of LMS in my personal and professional careers.  Students will fail courses if you don’t supply them with the tools to succeed and interact with other students.

Once you have our platform it then becomes about the quality of your training material that you host on the platform.  Are you making it engaging for students?  Are you bringing in Gamification?  Are you adding in Social elements to their assignments and coursework?  Are you recording good quality video content that simplifies new concepts and topics?  Are you delivering it in a way that suits your students learning styles and where they are learning?

Solution

Pick a good quality LMS that is easy to navigate and understand how to use.  There are a few articles you can look at to review different leading LMS to help you pick one.

ARTICLE: Canvas Vs Moodle: Which is better for online teachers?

ARTICLE: Blackboard vs. Moodle: How To Choose What Works For You?

When you are looking at creating engaging content for your training material here is another article that walks you through a massive list of different content types you could use.

ARTICLE: The Ultimate Guide to eLearning Content Types

Social Isolation

Problem

When taking an online course or class it can be very socially isolating and this will cause students to lose interest and fail or just drop out of courses.  There is nothing more demotivating then feeling like you have no support or a group of peers to reach out to for help if you are afraid of looking stupid to a teacher.

Solution

Online this is a fairly simple solution where you can add in some tools for students to communicate with each other and promote them to create study groups either in person or online.  They can create Facebook groups in their local area which has been tremendously successful for Free Code Camp or use Web Conferences to talk together one on one or in groups.

There are also heaps of other tools you can use that are listed in the article below:

ARTICLE: Engaging Students Online With Social Learning

Lack of Teacher Interaction

Problem

Creating a MOOC (Massively Open Online Courseware) course the aim is to share content with the most people possible with the least amount of effort by the institution or teacher.  This is done because it is free in most cases to people anywhere in the world.  It is however not the aim of Teaching Online and this is shown by traditional eLearning methods failing.

Students who pay for courses expect access to teachers whether online or in the classroom.  They expect to be treated with equal priority with the students in the class.  Especially if the online course is the same price.  For simple training, you can sometimes get away without much teacher interaction but definitely not intermediate and advanced courses.

NOTE: Once you have been doing something a while it all seems easy but when you first started it can feel like pushing a boulder uphill when faced with a new subject, concept, or topic.

Solution

It is quite a simple solution to build in tutor hours you are available on Skype or WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger or any of the other online tools.  A student can text message you and ask for help or even book in a time with you to review their work or what they are stuck on.

This is not so important if you are only selling a $15 Udemy Course but if you are charging over $300 for a course it is definitely something you will have to think about.  You can not just put a forum on a website and point them to it and you will answer the question when you can.  I can’t tell you the time I have wasted searching forums and still not finding a solution.

Just give them an email address and be quick to respond.  Make sure you put a Service Level Agreement in place with the students so they know exactly how long it will be to respond.  Or better yet, book in regular catch-ups with students to check their progress whether you do them in a group tutor style session or one on one.  Web Conferences like Zoom or Webex are key for this.

Here are some general guidelines:

  • Personally contact the student when they enroll
  • Contact them with each major submission
  • Contact them to check progress every few weeks
  • Schedule group tutoring sessions
  • Make one on one tutoring hours or have a schedule they can book

Care about the success of your online students as much as the ones you see every day and enable them to succeed.

Does Not Suit All Learners

Problem

To understand whether online learning is for you is to understand what your learning style is?  I am personally a visual, physical, and social learner and find I learn best in groups where I can see the work being completed and bounce ideas off people.

To figure out what type of learner you are, look at this article:

Remember that you can be a hybrid of these learning styles like I am above just like I am.  This lets you know when you are learning either online or offline how you best learn.

Solution

The simple way to see whether online learning is suitable for a student is to get them to take a quick quiz on learning styles and see whether the training material you provide suits that learning style.  Do you have the built-in tools on your Learning Management System (LMS) to support students of that type?

You saw from the article above in Social Isolation about Social Learning that you can build a community for Social learners.  You could also make it more hands-on by using Simulators and real-world equipment they can buy locally to them and integrate into the course.  You can add video content for the visual learners and podcasts for audio learners.

For the Logical learners, you can add in problem-solving of a mathematical or logical nature to engage them as well.  So for each learning style if you vary your training content types there will no doubt be something in there to suit most learners.

Glen Brown

I am a Technical Trainer and Manager with over 20 years experience in IT, Education and Business. I have multiple qualifications on each topic including post graduate qualifications. I have a passion for sharing knowledge and using technology to do this. If you would like to know more about me please see the about page of the website.

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