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How to re-engage students who don't complete your course (+ Templates)

People are enrolling in your online course -- but they're not finishing it. What gives? Learn how to re-engage students who don't complete your course.


Re-engage your students and keep them coming back for more

Once students stop working through your course, it’s hard to bring them back. But by understanding why students don’t complete online courses and sending some strategic emails, you can create a better experience for current and future students.

Here are three big reasons students don’t complete an online course:

  • They don’t feel like they’re making progress. A lack of visible progress can be demotivating. Add elements of gamification, like course certificates, to keep students engaged.
  • They’re overwhelmed by the course content. Don’t try to cram every piece of information into your course lessons all at once. Focus on creating several short videos, or drip your course content over time to make it more manageable.
  • They need more interaction. A sense of community is essential to a thriving learning environment. Create opportunities for your students to interact with you and each other.

And here are three emails to re-engage them:

  • Email 1: Check in with your students and let them know about any updates to your course, like a new type of content or monthly Q&A. Offer to answer any questions they have.
  • Email 2: Share a testimonial from a successful student. Show your inactive students, “this could be you”.
  • Email 3: Ask your students for feedback on the course. The more you learn from them, the more you can improve your course for future students.

If you want to dig in more, keep reading below!

Online course completion rates can be as low as 15% . And once students walk away from your course, it’s hard to bring them back, let alone get them to enroll in another course down the line.

We put together this guide to help you re-engage those students.

We’ll walk through some common reasons that students abandon courses, so you can keep students from leaving in the first place. Then, we’ll share three email templates to help you follow up with those students and encourage them to resume your course.

Let’s start at the root of the problem: What stops students from completing an online course?

Need a place to host your online courses? Podia is an all-in-one creator platform for selling digital products, building community, and much more. Join for free!

Why don’t students complete online courses?

Before you can solve a problem, you need to understand its root cause. In this case, before you can re-engage students, you need to know why they didn’t finish your course in the first place.

Here are some of the most common reasons students abandon online courses and how to fix them.

#1: They don’t feel like they’re making progress

If students don’t feel like they’re making progress, it can be demotivating. On the flip side, clear indicators of progress and achievement can keep your students engaged through the end of your course.

Creator and educator Reuven Lerner knows the power of creating an engaging online course . He transformed his in-person training business into a collection of Python online courses that his students love.

“People who finish your course get really jazzed about it,” Reuven told us . “They really like what you did, and they’re probably going to come back for more.”

How do you build that excitement?

First, consider offering course certificates . A course certificate is a one-page document a student receives once they’ve finished a course.

It’s a visual representation of their progress and achievement — and a powerful incentive for students to finish a course. They’re so powerful that when they’ve been removed from courses, completion rates dropped by 50% .

Course certificates keep students engaged because they add an element of gamification to your course.

67% of students say that gamified learning is more motivating and engaging than traditional courses. Think of rewards like course certificates as the shiny (virtual) trophy you win at the end of a video game.

Podia’s course certificate feature is available to creators on the Shaker plan .

Depending on your settings, students will be able to view their certificate directly from their student dashboard or receive it via email.

(Learn how to issue certificates for course completion on Podia in this help doc .)

Another way to keep students engaged is by staying in touch via email as they work through the course.

UI expert Bryan Zavestoski sends out a series of automated emails to students enrolled in his Meaningful Motion UI course. Every two days, a new email goes out to his students.

Here’s the start of an email that arrives a few days after a student has enrolled:

In the final email in the series, Bryan acknowledges that not everyone will have completed the course. But he gives his students one more incentive: a special invitation for those who reach the final course video.

Of course, bombarding your students with more information isn’t always the answer. In fact, it might be time to rein it in. Keep reading to learn what I mean.

#2: They’re overwhelmed by the course content

When you’re passionate about a subject, you may want to cram as much info as possible into your course.

Resist that temptation.

Take it from Reuven. When he turned his offline classes into online courses , he thought he could upload the same content. Instead, he found that four-hour-long videos were a struggle for his students:

“I got some feedback from people saying, ‘This is fine except for the fact that it’s four hours of one video.’ There were no pauses. It was just an uncomfortable experience for people even if they liked the content.”

Instead of one jam-packed, extra-long video lesson, think about how you could break each topic up into smaller pieces of content. If you’re explaining a six-step process, for example, consider creating six separate videos.

Your students will learn the same information, but you’re less likely to lose their attention mid-video . More students finishing each lesson means more people completing the entire course.

Try to stick to six minutes or less per video. A large-scale study from researchers at MIT found that videos shorter than six minutes hold viewers’ attention longer, which means more students finish each lesson .

Check out the length of each video in Coding Is for Losers’ course, Data Analysis the Lazy Way .

CIFL could have made all seven parts of the lesson into one 20-minute video. Breaking it up into bite-size chunks makes the content more manageable and keeps their students engaged throughout the lesson.

Another way to keep course content manageable for your students is by setting up drip course content .

When a student purchases your online course, they’ll be able to preview the title of all of the content within the “Upcoming” section. They can also keep track of the delivery schedule via the countdown above each section.

Here’s what that looks like in Mackenzie Child’s Design for Developers course :

When a new section unlocks, your customers will automatically receive an email notification with a link to the section. This is an easy, automated way to keep them returning to your course.

All in all, drip content is a great way for your students to focus on one module at a time. Instead of facing a flood of content all at once, students can work through the course at a set, manageable pace, with each week’s content building on the previous week’s module.

Now, let’s move on to our third reason students abandon online courses.

#3: They need more interaction and accountability

Self-paced online courses let students learn on their terms, but that can be an isolated, demotivating experience. Community belonging is fundamental to our ability to learn .

The solution is to include live, interactive elements in your online course.

Online courses with an interactive element let students connect with people worldwide who share their interests. That connection is a major draw of online learning: 63% of students who prefer online learning to in-person find value in the interactivity of live online classes.

Online courses with interactive components also sell better — and for higher course prices  — than those without interaction.

Podia CEO Spencer Fry explains :

“The powerful thing about having live webinars or discussions that go along with your online course is that it creates accountability, community, and a personal touch, all adding value to the student’s experience and their outcome.”

There are two types of interactivity you can add to your course: teacher-to-student interaction and student-to-student interaction.

For teacher-to-student interaction, consider offering weekly or monthly office hours webinars where students can ask questions about course content and get answers in real-time.

For example, Amanda Holden of Invested Development helps women gain financial power by learning how to invest. By enrolling in the Investing 101 + 201 course , students get access to monthly office hours with Amanda.

Amanda also offers a monthly live lesson, which keeps students coming back month after month.

Student-to-student interactions might seem harder to facilitate, especially when you have students starting your course at all different times.

Here’s what makes those connections worth creating, according to Reuven :

  • Your students learn from each other. When you explain something to someone, you’re forced to think it through and find the gaps in your understanding.

  • It puts less pressure on you as the instructor to cover everything.

  • It creates camaraderie among people going through the same challenge at the same time.

“I’m convinced, through everything I’ve done personally in education, teaching, and my academic studies, learning is all about interactions,” Reuven states.

He gives his students a space to ask each other how they solve problems, explain their methods, and learn from one another using the online platform.

Give your students the opportunity to connect by creating an exclusive online community.

When you create a brand community around your course, members can connect over a shared experience. Working through the same course module or striving to meet certain goals creates a sense of community.

Podia’s community feature makes it easy for creators to connect their audiences and their work.

Community members can:

  • Enroll in and take your course

  • Consume your content

  • Post and join discussions

…all in the same place. Try it out for yourself with a free Podia account.

Bottom line: A sense of community and accountability can help keep students engaged and motivated as they work through your online course.

Create a space where students can develop relationships and learn from you and their peers, and you’ll likely see higher engagement and completion rates for your course.

OK, now you have some ideas for making your courses more engaging moving forward. What about the students who have dropped your course in the past or might do so in the future?

Keep reading to learn how you can re-engage those students via email.

3 follow-up emails to re-engage your students

Email is a top-notch way to communicate with disengaged students.

Here’s why:

A staggering 4.1 billion people used email this year. That’s over half of the world’s population, collectively sending about 306 billion emails per day.

Plus, 73% of consumers rank email as their top-choice channel to hear from businesses.

Emails to inactive subscribers (or, in this case, students) are called re-engagement emails or winback emails. Whatever you call them, they often have high engagement rates and are considered an email marketing must-have.

To email students who didn’t complete your course, you need to figure out who they are. Here’s how you can view your students’ progress in Podia:

  1. Navigate to the Products tab in your Podia dashboard.

  2. Click on your course name to bring up a list of customers.

  3. You’ll see an overview of their progress on your course. Click on those progress numbers to see which specific modules they’ve completed.

You can also see your students’ enrollment date, so you know how long it’s been since they signed up. If they signed up last week and haven’t finished the course, no worries, but if it’s been several months, it’s probably time to follow up.

Once you know which students to follow up with, it’s time to reach out. Here are three emails you can send them.

(Quick note: These templates are meant as a jumping-off point, but make sure to customize them to fit your brand, voice, and customers. Check out this guide to writing great email copy while staying true to yourself for tips.)

Email #1: Checking in

This first email is designed to jog your student’s memory. Remind them that your course exists, they haven’t finished it, and you’re here to help if they need it.

If you’ve changed the course in any of the ways we talked about above, share that update with them, too.

For example, they may have been overwhelmed by lengthy, info-packed videos. Hearing that you’ve added shorter videos accompanied by helpful graphics might be just what they need to finish the course.

Or maybe you’ve added monthly office hours. Let them know that they’re more than welcome to reach out with questions and connect with other students.

Here’s a template you can use for this email.

Template #1: Checking in

Hi [first name],

I noticed that you haven’t finished [course name] yet.

That’s okay - life happens. 😅

I just wanted to reach out and ask if there’s anything I can help with. If you have any questions about the course (or anything else related to [topic]), reply to this email. I’m happy to help!

I also wanted to let you know that I’ve [added supplemental worksheets/started offering monthly office hours/created a members-only community] for the course. You can check that out [here].

When you’re ready to get started again, we’re here. 👋

Hope to see you soon,

[Your name]

Email #2: Testimonials and social proof

This next email features a case study or testimonial of a student who already finished your course and accomplished their goal — whatever that means for your course.

For example, if your course teaches students how to self-publish an ebook, a success story could focus on a student who completed your course, self-published their ebook, and is now making money from ebook sales.

Testimonials are a powerful way to show lapsed students what their future could look like. It reminds them why they signed up for your course in the first place and that it’s not too late for them to reach those goals.

Plus, 72% of consumers say that positive testimonials make them trust a business more.

(Don’t have any customer testimonials yet? This guide on how to ask for testimonials can help.)

Highlight that social proof in your email. If you display customer testimonials or have a case studies section on your website, link that page, too. Inspire your students by showing them that success is possible.

Here’s a template you can use for this email.

Template #2: Testimonials and social proof

Hi [first name],

Let me tell you about [student name], who completed [course name] [last year/earlier this year/last month].

They struggled with [problem that your course addresses].

[elaborate on story with emotional detail].

Now, they [achieved result]. By [process], [testimonial name] was able to [benefit]. (Check out these [case studies/student testimonials] for more success stories.)

It’s incredible to see. And you can do it, too. Log back into [course name] and start making moves toward [course goal/result]. 💪


P.S.: If you have any questions, just reply to this email. I’m happy to help!

Email #3: Asking for feedback

If your student still doesn’t want to return to your course, now is the time to find out why. Invite them to share their feedback.

Asking for feedback shows your students that you value their opinions and creates a better customer experience . 90% of consumers have a more favorable view of businesses that give them an opportunity to provide feedback.

Ask them to reply to your email with their feedback. If you have specific questions you want answered, a survey through Google Forms or Jotform works well, too.

As you gather feedback from various students, pay attention to common topics that come up, then improve your course accordingly. Taking your customers’ feedback into account makes them feel heard and helps you create a course that people love and finish.

Here’s a template you can use for this email:

Template #3: Asking for feedback

Hi [first name],

I noticed that you still haven’t completed [course name]. Is there anything stopping you from moving forward?

If you have any feedback on the course, please let me know by [replying to this email/filling out this survey].

My goal is to make it the best experience possible for you and every other student, and your honest feedback helps me get one step closer. 🙂

As always, please don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions. I’m happy to help.

Thanks so much,

[your name]


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Now, get out there and reel those students back in. If you have any questions about selling online courses with Podia, we’re here to help every step of the way .

A portrait of Rachel Burns

About the author

Rachel is a content marketer for Podia, an all-in-one platform where online courses, digital downloads, and communities scale with their creators. When she’s not writing, you can find her rescuing dogs, baking something, or extolling the virtue of the Oxford comma.