Attrition rates in online courses will decline if trainees
simply reflect on where they are directing their mental
During an online course, trainees are often given control over
their instructional experience, which makes dropping out as simple
as turning off their computers. But in fact, evidence suggests that
attrition rates for online courses are often double those found in
traditional, on-site courses. This prompts the question of how
organizations can reduce attrition from this delivery medium.
Recent empirical evidence demonstrates that prompting trainees to
self-regulate can substantially reduce attrition. We conducted an
experiment with 479 adults participating in voluntary online
Microsoft Excel training. The course lasted four hours and was
divided into four online modules.
Half of the trainees were asked self-regulation questions
throughout training, designed to stimulate reflection on their
concentration, understanding of the training material, and
effectiveness of their learning strategies. For example, trainees
were asked to rate on a five-point scale, "Am I focusing my mental
effort on the training material?" and "Are the study strategies I
am using helping me to learn the training material?" The other half
of trainees were assigned to a control condition to provide
baseline evidence of attrition rates and how much trainees would
learn if they were not prompted to self-regulate.
Attrition was 17 percent lower among trainees who were prompted to
self-regulate than among trainees in the control condition. Thus,
asking trainees questions to stimulate self-reflection
substantially increased the probability of completing a voluntary
Prompting self-regulation also resulted in a 5 percent increase in
test scores relative to the control. On average, trainees in the
control condition scored 76 percent on the four exams in the course
- which is a C average. Trainees who were prompted to self-regulate
scored in the B range on the exams, with an average test score of
81 percent. This result is consistent with several previous
research studies that demonstrated that learning improved over time
when trainees were prompted to self-regulate, relative to the
The research also found that trainees who were prompted to
self-regulate spent additional time reviewing the training material
rather than merely clicking through the slides to reach the end of
the course. Trainees who were prompted to self-regulate spent an
average of 30 percent more time reviewing the course material per
module than trainees in the control condition, which explains why
they also learned more in the course.
Attrition from training greatly decreases organizational benefits
and increases the cost of the course per learner who completes
training. The current results highlight that adults are capable of
improving their learning in online training when they are asked
questions to stimulate self-reflection throughout the learning
experience. The self-regulation prompts can be incorporated in all
online courses free of charge.
By prompting self-regulation, organizations can provide trainees
with the online learning support they need and increase their
return-on-investment in online training programs.
Traci Sitzmannis assistant professor of management
at the University of Colorado, Denver; Traci.Sitzmann@ucdenver.edu.
Article is excerpted from T+D magazine.