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4 ways cohort-based online courses improve student success rates

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One of the best ways to improve student success rates for your online course is by implementing a cohort-based online course model. If you’re not familiar with the term, cohort-based courses (CBC for short) are courses taught in small groups that progress through the course material together at the same time. It’s the opposite learning model from the self-paced online courses. 

So, if you’re interested to learn how student success varies between two models, let’s look at the data.

A closer look: self-paced courses 

The biggest study conducted on MOOCs completion rates (massive open online courses) reveals the average course completion rate is approximately 15%. Researchers point out the completion rates for self-paced courses can reach 40% and even exceed that number in some cases. However, the save average is still closer to 15%. 

A more recent study conducted in 2018 at Columbia University examined specifically online courses also found the completion rate was low: only 15%. Another interesting takeaway from this research is that while 60% of students said they’d complete the full series of courses in their pre-survey, the number was significantly lower during the end-of-course survey. This indicates that somewhere mid-way through the self-paced course, students dropped off.

Notably, this leaves a lot of space for online course creators to improve their student success rates

What does a low student success rate mean for business?

A low student success rate means a few different things for your business. If a student doesn’t complete a course, they’re not going to reach their goal or solve a problem. And likely, they’ll end up disappointed with your course. 

For example: You have a self-paced online course that prepares people for running a marathon. A student enrolls in your course and starts preparing for the run. But, mid-way through, they lose motivation or something comes up. They forget about the course and don’t meet their goal.

So, now that the student abandoned the course unfinished, here’s what will happen:

  • You lose a potential student referral opportunity
  • Chances decrease that the student will become a repeat customer
  • You missed an opportunity at a success story to share as a testimonial
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Improve student success rates with cohort-based courses

Comparatively, Harvard Business School reports that its cohort-based course completion rate is 85%. The difference is staggering when you compare this number to the 15% completion rate MOOCs have. 

Now, cohort-based courses are not a new learning model. Most of the traditional education institutions utilize cohort-based learning to teach students. However, CBC is a fairly new approach to teaching students in the online learning space. So, how can cohort-based learning help improve student success rates for your online course business?

Higher student satisfaction

Researchers at the University of Toronto found that students enrolled in cohort-based learning programs reported better academic results and overall satisfaction with their program. Overall, students in cohorts felt a stronger connection to the university and the community, and they felt supported academically.  

Also, researchers found that the overall retention rate in the cohort program was higher compared with students who didn’t participate in the cohort program—even 77% of students completed at least 9 out of 13 program sessions. This shows that students in cohort-based courses have deeper connections and satisfaction with their learning program, leading to more people sticking to the end and completing the course. 

Active learning  

When researchers at Harvard compared the student success between passive learning and active learning group, they found that while passive learning gave students the sense of learning more, the hands-on, active learning activities proved better results. 

And, when you’re teaching a cohort-based course, many of the activities your students engage in will be hands-on learning. Ideally, you’ll be mixing two teaching strategies—passive and active—to help your students get the best results by learning the theory from you and then applying it when working through the course material with their group. 

After each lecture, your students will leave having learned something new, being one step closer to their goal. This will work as a small motivation that will bring them back again for another lecture. And another. And most likely to the very end of the course, which will work to improve your student success rate.  

Accountability is key to success

Another reason cohort-based courses have a higher completion rate is the accountability factor. Cohort-based courses offer the opportunity to learn together with other people. This can help motivate people to complete the course and participate in lectures. Having an accountability partner, either other students in the cohort or the instructor, can be detrimental to helping improve student success rates. 

One study published in 2015 examined how one partner’s behavior influences the other partner’s behavior when it comes to healthy living. The researchers have found that even the smallest change in one partner’s behavior towards a healthier lifestyle positively impacted the other partner. 

If we go back to the marathon course example from earlier, imagine that instead of a self-paced course, you offer a cohort-based course where a group of people prepares for the marathon together. The chances are that people will be motivated more to complete the course and reach their goal when they have like-minded people doing it with them at the same time

Price is right 

You can surely improve your student success and course completion rates by charging premium prices. Students who pay a premium price for an online course will be more likely to complete it because they invested money in it. Researchers at the University of Michigan have found that students who pay for the course and are promised a certification if they complete it have higher completion rates. 

Canadian coding Bootcamp Juno is a great example that charging a premium price for a cohort course can guarantee astronomical course completion rates. In one of their recent Student Outcome Reports, Juno showed a graduation rate of 95.87%. Of 121 students enrolled in their cohorts during the first half of 2020, 116 students completed the course and received the certification. 

One of the reasons why most students stick to the end of the cohort course is the pricing. Juno’s web development cohort price starts at CAD 2,000, a hefty investment for most students. Because cohort-based learning offers direct access to an instructor and is taught in small groups, the price of the course is always going to be higher, which in turn will ensure that a higher number of students enrolled complete the course. 



Author: Karolina Wilde, Karolina Wilde is a freelance writer. Her work has been published on Better Marketing, The Ascent, and Sexography reaching over 25,000+ readers. In her free time, you can find her podcasting, reading, or creating TikTok videos.

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