Skip to content Skip to navigation

Photo-closeup of a Hoover Tower top

New study suggests steps to boost MOOCs' retention rate

March 9, 2016
By Jonathan Rabinovitz
Thomas Dee, professor of education at Stanford and director of Center Education Policy Analysis
Thomas Dee, professor of education at Stanford and director of Center Education Policy Analysis
Thomas Dee and two Stanford doctoral alumni analyzed data from 44 online courses to identify why some retained more students than others.

Why do so many students fail to complete massive open online courses (MOOCs) while a small number manage to finish?

A new study from researchers at Stanford, University of California-Irvine and Vanderbilt schools of education suggests that the dismal retention rate can be significantly improved through changes in course design and subtle alterations in how material is presented. 

“Several student and lecture specific traits were associated with student persistence and engagement,” the three authors write. “For example, the sequencing of a lecture within a batch of released videos as well as its title wording were related to student watching.” They also noted that “students were more likely to complete the course if they completed a pre-course survey or followed a quantitative track (as opposed to qualitative or auditing track) when available.”

The paper concludes: “These findings suggest potential course design changes that are likely to increase engagement, persistence, and completion in this important, new educational setting.”

 The results were published in the December issue of The Journal of Higher Education.

The researchers are Thomas Dee, professor of education at Stanford Graduate School of Education and faculty director of the Center for Education Policy Analysis, which is based at the GSE; Brent Evans, assistant professor of public policy and higher education at Vanderbilt's Peabody College of Education and Human Development; and Rachel Baker, assistant professor of education at University of California-Irvine School of Education. Both Evans and Baker earned their PhDs in higher education policy in 2013 and 2015, respectively, from Stanford GSE.

The study involved collecting data from 44 MOOCs on the platform established by Coursera, a private company. The majority of the MOOCs used for this research were offered by Stanford University. Findings were drawn from analysis of more than 2.1 million student observations related to more than 2,900 lectures.