Flip’D Blog

Factors That Promote Student Retention in MOOCs

by | Feb 22, 2023 | 390X, The Flip'd Blog


Author: Adebisi A. Akinyemi

Department of Psychological Science

Editors: Thomas Matthew Colclough & Helen Meskhidze

Editor-in-Chief: Alex Bower

February 20, 2023


Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are online courses that are open for enrollment to millions of learners without restriction. Examples of platforms that offer MOOCs include Coursera, Udemy, and EdX. These courses have arguably made learning more accessible to people all over the world. Since there are no prerequisites or enrollment windows, people can easily enroll in MOOCs at any time. There is also a wide variety of subjects taught, providing access diverse classes and instructors. Other benefits of MOOCs include the fact that they are inexpensive (and can be audited for free), they are often available in many languages, and students can earn a certificate upon completion. Moreover, completing MOOCs could boost one’s career prospects and promote lifelong learning. 

However, the potential advantages of MOOCs may be limited by their high dropout rates (de Freitas et al., 2015). Therefore, to best realize the benefits of MOOCs and possibly improve educational equity, it is important to promote student retention in these courses. Below, I will discuss some evidence-based factors which may increase student retention in MOOCs. 

Self-Regulated Learning

By nature, MOOCs require students to be independent learners because the courses are self-paced and there is little to no guidance, interaction, or support from others (e.g., instructors, peers). Thus, it is essential that MOOC students utilize self-regulated learning (SRL), a process through which people can achieve their learning goals by engaging in cognitive, motivational, and behavioral functions that help them persevere through obstacles to their learning (Kizilcec et al., 2017). SRL is characterized by goal setting, strategic planning, self-monitoring, and self-evaluation, among other strategies. One of the SRL strategies that MOOC learners are most likely to use is goal setting (Ceron et al., 2020). This makes sense due to the finding by Kizilcec et al. (2017) that goal setting (and strategic planning) was a significant positive predictor of completing a MOOC and earning a certificate. The study also suggested that other SRL strategies were important for student engagement in MOOCs. For example, students who utilized more self-evaluation spent more time reviewing material they had already completed. Still, Kizilcec et al.’s (2017) findings provide support to research that underscores goal setting and strategic planning as vital SRL strategies that promote retention in MOOCs (Kizilcec & Schneider, 2015).


Similar to traditional classes, completion of MOOCs requires motivation. Motivation is arguably more important for MOOC students, given that they are likely not required to complete these courses. Indeed, lack of motivation predicts the likelihood of students failing to complete their MOOCs (Khalil & Ebner, 2014). In a review conducted by Moore and Blackmon (2022), they found that MOOC students were motivated by both intrinsic values (e.g., personal satisfaction) and extrinsic values (e.g., certificate of completion). Both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are related to student engagement in MOOCs, and engagement in these courses is in turn predictive of retention (Xiong et al., 2015). Though both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are important for student retention in MOOCs, research suggests that the latter is especially influential (Reeves et al., 2017). Paton et al.’s (2018) literature review suggests that providing certificates for completing MOOCs is a key factor that promotes student retention. Additionally, Xiong et al. (2015) suggest that extrinsic motivation is a stronger predictor of student engagement in MOOCs – which predicts retention – than intrinsic motivation. Therefore, one’s intent to earn an accolade (e.g., certificate, badge, college credit) may be their primary motivator for enrolling in MOOCs – and the key mechanism that helps them complete the classes.

Learning Community

The lack of interaction with instructors and peers in MOOCs can result in feelings of isolation, leading students to drop out (Khalil & Ebner, 2014). Connecting with others and forming learning communities may increase retention in these courses (Barak et al., 2016; Paton et al., 2018; Poll et al., 2014). One of the most common ways for instructors to foster these connections is through online discussion forums. Wen et al. (2014) found that students who shared more posts to the course’s online discussion forum per week were less likely to drop out. Additionally, students who spent more time communicating with other students in discussion forums were more likely to complete their courses (Xiong et al., 2015). This interactivity may even promote more than retention, as one study demonstrated that participating in forums predicted completing a MOOC course “with distinction” (Engle et al., 2015). 

Recommendations for MOOC Instructors

Given research suggesting that MOOC learners who engage in SRL – specifically, goal setting and strategic planning – are more likely to complete their course (Kizilcec et al., 2017), MOOC instructors should encourage these strategies using prompts (Wong et al., 2019a). At the beginning of the course, students could be prompted to set goals and plan a course of action to achieve them. This could be a graded assignment or a thought exercise. Throughout the course, prompts aimed at promoting SRL could be embedded into videos and assignments (Wong et al., 2019b). For example, EdPuzzle, a platform with which questions can be embedded into videos, could be a valuable resource for this. However, to deploy SRL, students must be motivated. There is significant evidence demonstrating that most MOOC students are extrinsically motivated (Paton et al., 2018; Reeves et al., 2017; Xiong et al., 2015). Therefore, MOOC instructors should offer incentives, such as certificates, badges, or college credits, to encourage student retention. These incentives may be more effective for retention when combined with increased interactivity and collaboration among students and their instructors (Barak et al., 2016; Paton et al., 2018; Poll et al., 2014). One way for MOOC instructors to foster a sense of community among learners is through discussion forums, which offer students the opportunity to communicate and solve problems, collaborate with one another, and share information (Paton et al., 2018). Forums also foster a sense of inclusion, encourage students to dig deeper into the course material, and help build community (Poll et al., 2014). Social media platforms like Discord, Facebook, and Slack may be utilized in lieu of discussion forums. In summary, promoting SRL, motivation, and community among MOOC students increases their retention in these courses and may improve the prospect of educational equity. 


Barak, M., Watted, A., & Haick, H. (2016). Motivation to learn in massive open online courses: Examining aspects of language and social engagement. Computers & Education, 94, 49-60. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2015.11.010 

Ceron, J., Baldiris, S., Quintero, J., Garcia, R. R., Saldarriaga, G. L. V., Graf, S., & Valentin, L. D. L. F. (2020). Self-regulated learning in massive online open courses: A state-of-the-art review. IEEE Access, 9, 511-528. https://doi.org/10.1109/ACCESS.2020.3045913 

de Freitas, S. I., Morgan, J., & Gibson, D. (2015). Will MOOCs transform learning and teaching in higher education? Engagement and course retention in online learning provision. British Journal of Educational Technology, 46, 455-471. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjet.12268

Engle, D., Mankoff, C., & Carbrey, J. (2015). Coursera’s introductory human physiology course: Factors that characterize successful completion of a MOOC. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 16, 46-68. https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v16i2.2010 

Khalil, H. & Ebner, M. (2014, June 23). MOOCs completion rates and possible methods to improve retention – A literature review [Conference paper]. Proceedings of EdMedia 2014 – World Conference on Educational Media and Technology, Tampere, FI. Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education. https://www.learntechlib.org/primary/p/147656/ 

Kizilcec, R. F., Pérez-Sanagustín, M., & Maldonado, J. J. (2017). Self-regulated learning strategies predict learner behavior and goal attainment in Massive Open Online Courses. Computers & Education, 104, 18-33. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2016.10.001 

Kizilcec, R. F., & Schneider, E. (2015). Motivation as a lens to understand online learners: Toward data-driven design with the OLEI scale. Transactions on Computer-Human Interactions, 22, 1-24. http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/2699735

Moore, R. L., & Blackmon, S. J. (2022). From the learner’s perspective: A systematic review of MOOC learner experiences (2008–2021). Computers & Education, 190, 104596. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2022.104596 

Paton, R. M., Fluck, A. E., & Scanlan, J. D. (2018). Engagement and retention in VET MOOCs and online courses: A systematic review of literature from 2013 to 2017. Computers & Education, 125, 191-201. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2018.06.013 

Poll, K., Widen, J., & Weller, S. (2014). Six instructional best practices for online engagement and retention. Journal of Online Doctoral Education, 1, 56-72.

Reeves, T. D., Tawfik, A. A., Msilu, F., & Şimşek, I. (2017). What’s in it for me? Incentives, learning, and completion in massive open online courses. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 49, 245-259. https://doi.org/10.1080/15391523.2017.1358680 

Wen, M., Yang, D., & Rose, C. (2014, May 16). Linguistic reflections of student engagement in massive open online courses [Conference paper]. Proceedings of the International AAAI Conference on Web and Social Media, Ann Arbor, MI. https://ojs.aaai.org/index.php/ICWSM/article/view/14512 

Wong, J., Baars, M., Davis, D., Van Der Zee, T., Houben, G. J., & Paas, F. (2019a). Supporting self-regulated learning in online learning environments and MOOCs: A systematic review. International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 35, 356-373. https://doi.org/10.1080/10447318.2018.1543084 

Wong, J., Khalil, M., Baars, M., de Koning, B. B., & Paas, F. (2019b). Exploring sequences of learner activities in relation to self-regulated learning in a massive open online course. Computers & Education, 140, 103595. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2019.103595 

Xiong, Y., Li, H., Kornhaber, M. L., Suen, H. K., Pursel, B., & Goins, D. D. (2015). Examining the relations among student motivation, engagement, and retention in a MOOC: A structural equation modeling approach. Global Education Review, 2, 23-33.