What causes a student to quit an on-line learning course before it even begins!

by Dr. Stephanie A. Burns



From the very start my research into the phenomenon of on-line learning and teaching focused on several significant issues facing designers, buyers and users alike. One of the biggest and most costly was the problem related to poor completion rates. This problem still plagues the majority of on-line learning product today in 2003.

In this article I look at the issues of completion and abandonment through the lens of the first on-line course I conducted for a group of volunteers as a test event. This article was written 48 hours before the start of the course when the first flinches indicated abandonment were sensed.

The nature of quitting before the first learning action

Given the actual on-line lessons for this new course will not begin for another 48 hours you might wonder how this event can illuminate issues related to course completion. After all the participants haven't even started the learning process. There is a phase, however, that exists between the time an individual makes the decision to learn something new and and the time they initiate the first learning action. In a technology-based course the first learning action might be putting the CD-ROM in the computer and starting the first lesson. Or it might be logging into a virtual classroom on the first day. In a face to face seminar it would be showing up to the first session.

I am going to discuss what is problematic between these two points that can lead the participant to abandon the program before they even begin. I will also define the nature of the problem from the learner's perspective.

First a bit of background on the test.





What is the purpose of the test?

The test course involves teaching students how to become skilled at using IBM's Via Voice software package. This test is NOT about learning to use voice recognition software (but don't tell the volunteers that!). This test uses the process of learning to use voice recognition software as a means to measure the effectiveness of a new method of teaching using technology-based tools.

Of course, learning to use voice recognition software is the reason most volunteers signed on, and the lessons I have constructed will most definitely strive to achieve that outcome. It is important that the volunteers of a learning and teaching test be interested or invested in the skill they are learning.

Some of the content of this test course also deals with issues of learning effectiveness and goal performance. These volunteers will be using their experiences to explore the nature of learning and their own nature in relation to motivation.

What I, as the teacher and designer, am demonstrating (or testing) is how to motivate attention and participation in humans in an on-line learning context. I am exploring how is it that a learning community can be created and utilised for creating positive tensions in an virtual context? Where is the 'human' element needed in this context, how is it manifest and how is it sustained? Lastly, I want to learn what specifically must the 'human' element do to motivate and educate in this context?





The motivation battle begins within. It starts with images and voices








Students make it so hard on themselves

My decision to use voice recognition software

For this first test I decided to teach people how to use voice recognition software. What caught my attention about voice recognition was this: After having used IBMs Via Voice successfully myself, and seeing it as a wonderful tool for my business, I was surprised (well not really surprised) by the poor reviews for these types of software packages. Further searching indicated that, like touch-typing, many people fail to learn the skill because they give up in frustration, misunderstanding and because of a lack of effective learning strategies. Of course, the poor reviews in many cases are not reflective of the technology, but instead are based on reports by people who having struggled to learn to use it fail and put it back on the shelf. It certainly 'feels' right to label this as a technology problem.

But what I saw through the lens of my experience with Learning To Learn and the Goal Achievers Program was not a technology problem, but instead a people problem ... a problem with the learning process being applied and its effect on motivation to initiate and sustain action.

This and a few other factors make it a perfect skill to test my notions about on-line instructional design and teaching methods. If it works I will apply this teaching methodology to self-directed, cbt, or on-line courses. Everything people are trying to learn on their own and failing: guitar, typing, writing, piano, drawing and so on.

How is the problem of abandonment manifesting at this early stage?

At the time of this writing, my 37 volunteers are just 48 hours from "walking into" that first lesson. The number of emails, and the volume of content in the emails, has doubled everyday for the past 4 days. Time is drawing near and new factors are coming into play.

For about 20% of the volunteers the factors in this pre-course phase have been, or are now, leading to negative emotions and unpleasant feelings. Those responses inform the brain and body's decision-making processes related to action. The rationalisations for 'abandonment' or 'avoidance' are becoming more complex, with more strength in the argument for quitting. They are getting harder for me to influence. The volunteer mismatches me more quickly - in other words, they have already thought through my potential approach and are armed and ready to counter any offensive. These are smart people with brains that are serving them well, but these same brains are not operating in the individual's best interest for learning this new skill.

In the absence of some external motivational support the majority of those in this category would abandon the learning goal before starting. My role as the program designer is to have in place mechanisms that influence the behaviour of students who might otherwise fall through the cracks at this stage - and I do. You see, these people who are being led by their own inner processes to quit, really do want to learn to use their voice recognition software. But that desire is in direct conflict with the biological/neurological urges to stop the discomfort - to abandon the goal.

We are battling and the weapons we possess are:

I am, as the program designer and director, armed with my knowledge of human behaviour and my skills to influence that behaviour. My knowledge allows me to make very accurate predictions about how different people will respond to different stimuli.

The student is armed with the desire to learn on one hand, and biological imperatives designed to protect them from discomfort, stress and events that lead to negative feelings and emotions on the other. They are also armed with cognitive abilities to construct rationalisations, reasons and excuses such that abandonment does not lead to the stress of the feelings associated with guilt!!

The factors that arise in the pre-course phase that are problematic

From the time the student makes the decision to learn something new and commits to a method of learning, to the time he/she turns up for the first learning event, two internal events can be problematic and lead some students to abandon the learning goal before they ever start.

1. The focus of the student's thoughts change. The potential student begins to replace constructed images of the fun of using and learning the skill that lead to excitement and curiosity (which lead to the behaviour of making the commitment), with images of what they will have to do in order to 'in fact' learn the skill. Images of what we 'have to do' are rarely as compelling as the images of what we 'are able to do'.

2. Self-talk containing excuses, reasons and rationalisations come to the forefront, increasing in all matters related to grabbing attention and being heard. These ruminations also begin to make sense. They become reasonable. Certainly reasonable enough to be believed and, therefore, have the capacity to alleviate any guilt that might arise from quitting.









What from the learner's perspective is driving the change in these cognitive mechanisms?

There are four features that I see repeated over and over in every learning context, regardless of the method of teaching. These, to the student are salient features of learning, that in absence of cognitive strategies to overcome, can undermine their ability to get to that first lesson.

1. Being a beginner:

Pre-course activities can trigger fears, frustrations and uncertainties simply based on lack of knowledge while we are preparing for a new learning process. Remember, most adults spend most of their time doing tasks in which they are competent. The feelings that arise from the state of being a beginner can lead potentially to many negative emotions and unpleasant feelings for some adult learners. Here are a few examples from the past week or so:

One volunteer writes asking if this a downloadable software package. She notes that nothing happens when she pushes that button in the on-line computer store.

I have to gently bring it to this volunteer's attention that it would be hard to download the headset! The risk is that for some people getting feedback can lead to embarrassment which, in turn, would trigger his/her internal drives to find a way to alleviate the feeling - and there we go - reasons, excuses, and when it all sounds good enough for publication - they are out of there! This is a situation where the designer or director needs to understand human behaviour.

Of course, controlling student behaviour is never easy when you have more than one of them!

Another volunteer wrote to offer some advice to the student above. She suggested that perhaps if she placed her head really close to the monitor ... ! In the wrong moment a joke like this can spiral a potential student down the plug hole.

Another volunteer wrote that he can get the software package into the shopping cart but when he pushes "buy it" the computer tells him there is nothing in the shopping cart. He tried this many times. A few days later he is learning about "cookies".

If a potential student lacks a tolerance for frustration before the course, then this kind of situation can lead them to not begin or take another step.

A Mac user discovers she needs (thought she had) OS 8.5.1. She has 8.5. She writes that she is now off to the computer store because she knows the .1 is in there somewhere.

When this student signed on to do the program she didn't bargain for the frustration of having to take time to visit the computer store.

I had an urgent email from a volunteer saying she can't find the link to buy Via Voice on my website. It is getting close to the deadline and she is asking for help.

I rewrite the instructions I had previously sent. I send the URL and tell her to scroll to the bottom of the page - it is as big as "proverbials".

For some adult learners these types of incidents do not trigger strong responses and do not lead to the propensity to quit before the start. But it must be recognised that for some others, it is these very experiences, being present time annoyances, and reminiscent of past frustrations in similar situations that are indeed strong enough to trigger the whole internal cognitive mechanisms leading to action AWAY from the goal.

2. Uncertainty and a lack of knowledge and familiarity

The examples above which relate to being a beginner are underpinned by the characteristics of uncertainty and a lack of knowledge and familiarity with the events, situations, and elements that come with new learning goals.

And, it is these characteristics that undermine goal achievement in so many cases. Many volunteers have already confronted this, and I am sure there are many others who wanted to volunteer, but uncertainty and unfamiliarity kept them from even taking the first step - making the decision to join.

Not knowing "how" everything works: purchasing, cost, delivery, the computer specifications, installation procedures causes internal stress. Not knowing "where" to get things, do things and find things causes stress as well. And, again past situations begin to come to mind, for instance, you realise you still don't know how to program the VCR - how in the world are you going to install voice recognition software!!


Strife during installation itself can cause abandonment!

3. Assumptions

All kinds of assumptions accompany new goal pursuits and learning activities. Why? Because we have little or no reality to base our thoughts and expectations upon.

In my case I fell right into this one and I could feel the change in my thinking as I began to try preliminary excuses for cancelling the test. I ASSUMED Shane (my Webmaster), being a sort of whiz kid on the PC would be able to help out if any PC users who had trouble! Here was my thought: I wanted to make sure if any PC people had trouble with installation that we could help them out a bit. I don't use a PC but Shane does. So I asked Shane if he'd be a volunteer. What he has to do is do everything a few days before the rest of the group in case there are any PC type technical glitches. He agreed - such a sweetie!

Now with all this going on in my mind I didn't figure it would be Shane who would take one and a half WEEKS and contact with IBM to install the program! You can imagine how nervous this made me about sending out the note to install to that first group. At that time Shane still didn't have it working! When Amanda wrote and said - "... easy as pie" (or something like that) I was never so relieved. You see by then THOSE thoughts supporting the abandonment of this project were well and truly maturing! I kept hearing myself say, "It's only 40 people!"



4. Life Exerts Itself

Life does exert itself on our best laid plans to engage in new learning situations. It is a fascinating phenomenon in its own right. These kinds of events begin to emerge almost at the moment we make the decision. Be it breaking a finger on the day decide to learn to play the piano or having a promotion that moves you out of town before a program starts. In some cases, these events are the honest, real causes for goal abandonment before the start.

But be warned, the brain's capacity to construct a method to relieve perceived future stress has few boundaries. Having taught the Goal Achievers Program now for 2 1/2 years, I can tell you that what may look to be a 'real' life exerts itself, turns out to be a wonderfully woven web of self-deception! When we wake up to just how clever we are at getting out of things we don't want to do movement towards goals can actually begin in earnest.


The untrue things I heard people say about Via Voice that made me want to teach it!


"...I don't have time for this..."


".. the software isn't good enough..."


"...I don't need to use the program anyway..."


"...I'll put this off for a couple of years, until they get their act
together ..."

Why is all this so important?

For the students the stakes in this issue have everything to do with whether the indeed learn the skills and knowledge that benefits their future goals. If the design doesn't provide motivational support to the student who needs it, they repeatedly experience themselves as avoiding and procrastinating. My concern is that eventually they stop engaging in learning goals altogether.

For the designer and director of self-directed, on-line or cbt programs, how long can you continue to design blinded to the fact that there is a huge problem with abandonment. And, yes, this is a people problem that stems from the responses of the students as they approach a new learning situation. But we can exert tremendous external motivational factors that affect the behaviour of future students. I see my job starting the day a student signs on and entailing doing whatever it takes (within reason) to assist that student in reaching end of the program with the desired competence. To do that, I have to get them to the start line!

For the manufacturers of programs like IBM's Via Voice it is important to understand that clever marketing may lead to many sales but not paying attention to the learning process for buyers will lead to few end users. New buyers, left to their own devices, have low tolerance for frustration and high incidence of quitting. When quitting, the user will likely blame the technology as being "not yet sophisticated enough" or themselves for not being "smart enough". Neither of these factors are true. There are other forces at work here.

What is needed is a new approach to instructional design for text-based self-directed, on-line and cbt programs. I will report on my methods and their results in future issues.



In closing ...

These are just a few of the major factors that consistently undermine the intentions of ordinary, smart, successful and competent adults making it to the first learning event for a learning goal to which they have made a commitment.

The design of programs, regardless of their method, must account for the drop out rate that occurs before the start of the first learning event. In the case of the Via Voice on-line test I designed a series of interim interactions that allowed me to use my knowledge of the problems in this phase to support those who might otherwise abandon the goal.

I am happy to report that on eve of the first learning event being delivered to the volunteers, we have 38 of the original 40 volunteers who wrote me an email saying "I'm in!!" prepared to start on Monday morning. The two who did not make the line are accounted for in real 'life exerts itself' events. At least I believe that an unexpected move overseas is a good enough reason to not participate in a four week test! But you never know, even I can be fooled!

Now the volunteers have beginning, middle and end learning goal phases to survive. The success of the on-line method I am using to achieve this for these volunteers, will be reported on in future articles.

Cheers, Stef




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