New Study Shows Few MOOCs Students Follow Through

December 5, 2013 - Emerging data from a Penn GSE study show that massive open online courses (MOOCs) have relatively few active users, that user “engagement” falls off dramatically—especially after the first 1-2 weeks of a course—and that few users persist to the course end. Presented on December 5, 2013 by Laura Perna and Alan Ruby at the MOOC Research Initiative Conference in Texas, the findings are from the newly established Alliance for Higher Education & Democracy at Penn GSE.

The study analyzed the movement of a million users through sixteen Coursera courses offered by the University of Pennsylvania from June 2012 to June 2013. The project aimed to identify key transition points for users – such as when users enter and leave courses – as well as when and how users participate in the courses. The study also considered how engagement and persistence vary based on various course characteristics.

The courses studied ranged widely in topic, target audience, length of study, instructional time, use of quizzes and assignment of homework, and other dimensions. While a few courses were oriented toward college preparation (e.g., “Calculus: Single Variable”), most focused on occupational skills (e.g., “Cardiac Arrest, Resuscitation Science, and Hypothermia”) or were geared toward personal enrichment (e.g., “Greek and Roman Mythology”). Researchers include Laura Perna, Alan Ruby, Robert Boruch, Nicole Wang, Janie Scull, Chad Evans, and Seher Ahmad

 Emerging findings include:


  • Course completion rates are very low, averaging 4% across all courses and ranging from 2% to 14% depending on the course and measurement of completion.
  • Across the 16 courses, completion rates are somewhat higher, on average, for courses with lower workloads for students and fewer homework assignments (about 6% versus 2.5%).
  • Variations in completion rates based on other course characteristics (e.g., course length, availability of live chat) were not statistically significant.
  • The total number of individuals accessing a course varied considerably across courses, ranging from more than 110,000 for “Introduction to Operations Management” to about 13,000 for “Rationing and Allocating Scarce Medical Resources.”
  • Across all courses, about half of those who registered viewed at least one lecture within their selected course. The share of registrants viewing at least one lecture ranged from a low of 27% for “Rationing and Allocating Scarce Medical Resources” to a high of 68% for “Fundamentals of Pharmacology.” 


The Penn GSE research team will be conducting additional analyses with the goal of providing recommendations to improve future collection of data and answering additional questions, including what instructional approaches best engage users and what are the best measures of student engagement.