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Students Disengaging From Your Online Course? Here are 3 Ways to Bring Them Back

As a course creator, one of the most significant challenges you may face is students who disengage. Despite your best efforts, some students may not engage with the course material or with the learning community. In this episode, we will explore why students disengage, what disengagement looks like, and most importantly, what you can do to get them back.

Before we dive in, I would just like to offer a trigger warning for a brief mention of spouse and child death.

At first glance, it may seem like disengaged students aren’t really your problem. After all, they’re adults who have chosen not to engage. They have access to all the content and know how to ask for help.

But I’d like to challenge that. As a course creator, it is your responsibility to provide the best learning experience possible for your clients. This means offering them a great client experience that will create more revenue for you. That’s not to say they have zero responsibility when it comes to the course experience. Of course they do. It’s absolutely their responsibility to engage and take advantage of the content and opportunities for support. It’s very much give and take, and when both parties fulfill their end of the bargain … that’s where the magic happened.

And it’s not just that. Making the effort to re-engage students can lead to decreased refund requests, decreased rates of defaults, increased rates of retention, and increased numbers of referrals. Which of course, all translates to more revenue for you and whatever that revenue means for your life … time, freedom, adventure.

Disengagement can take many different forms. Maybe it looks like a student not taking full advantage of all the opportunities you’ve provided for support. Maybe they’re not attending meetings … or maybe they are, but they’re not fully present, and that’s different for them. Maybe they’re not asking for feedback or support, or they’re not responding to emails. And sometimes it’s just full on ghosting or defaulting on payments.

These are just a few examples, but what’s important is to know your students well enough to know what’s out of character for them. Changes in behavior that leads to a lack of engagement is often a sign that something is going on and they require support.

Now, I do want to take a minute to say that I fully believe that courses should offer students full autonomy over their experience. This means that sometimes students will decide they don’t need to fully engage to get what they need from the program. They may not require the group calls or feedback or additional support. And that’s totally ok, they get to choose what they need and what they don’t. But I also believe it’s still our responsibility as course creators to occasionally check in.

Disengagement is such a weird beast. I mean, here’s the truth: you could have the most incredible program in the whole world and some students would still disengage.

Do we want disengagement rates to be low? ABSOLUTELY. But they will never be 0.

Students disengage for so many reasons. Maybe they’ve gotten what they need out of the program and have gone on to implement and build on whatever it was that you taught. And on the other side of that, maybe they’re not getting what they needed when they bought it – whether they were looking for something specific out of the course or community, it doesn’t matter. Sometimes our programs just won’t be what people need and we have to be okay with that.

Sometimes students disengage because they misunderstood what they were buying. Oftentimes this will result in a refund request, but it won’t always.

Maybe they’re bored or they’re finding the curriculum disorganized and difficult to follow. Maybe their life circumstances have changed and they have a new baby, they’ve lost a loved one, or they’ve experienced celebrations or tragedies). If their life has changed, they may be in survival mode and fear responses may have totally taken over.

And sometimes students change their minds! It’s also totally possible their sense of urgency has changed and they no longer feel the need to learn what you’re teaching.

There are so so many reasons why a student might disengage and they may not be in control of many of them. Our job is to let them know they’re still seen and heard, offer support where we’re able, and just be a kind and decent human in the process.

So maybe as I’m talking about this, you’re thinking of those students in your own program that you haven’t heard from in a while. You know the ones I’m talking about … they might randomly pop into your head or maybe they keep you up at night.

So let’s talk about what you can do to get them re-engaged.

If you notice that a student is disengaging, the first step is to send a wellness check email. Send this email once you notice something is off and then once you’ve done this for your roster, I recommend establishing a regular wellness check schedule. As you send out these initial wellness check emails, be prepared for the responses. They can often be heavy and difficult. Keep in mind the previous reasons why someone might disengage … sometimes it will be for wonderful reasons like they got what they needed and have gone on to grow a really successful business and just don’t need the support. But sometimes it’s going to be for terrible reasons, like their husband or child died.

So as you begin this wellness check process, please have support for yourself so that you can process what gets shared with you. In the wellness check email:

  • Let them know that you’ve noticed their absence and that it is missed.

  • Ask how they are and how you can support them in their course journey.

  • Let them know that if you don’t hear from them by a certain date, you will be following up. Be sure to follow through on the follow-up. Your consistent outreach will be welcome, especially if they are experiencing a fear response and are unconsciously testing to see if you will follow through.

As you anticipate their responses, it’s important to consider what ways you’re willing to support them. Obviously you’ll have the standard avenues of support that your program offers and you can point them to, but it’s also likely there are avenues of support that are not public but you’re willing to offer when necessary. Also consider what avenues of support you’re absolutely not willing to offer.

Are 1:1 calls just not possible? Don’t offer them.

Another way to get disengaged students back is to offer some face time. This does not have to be one-on-one. Likely, if you have one disengaged student, you have multiple. You can offer a live group call specifically for those who have disengaged to give them a space to talk about where they’re stuck. This will give you a chance to offer some support and coaching for them to move forward. It will also provide community support to remind them they’re not alone and give you the opportunity to ask questions and really get to the bottom of the issue. This call will reintroduce the students to the community, your coaching, and will remind them what it’s like to receive support.

However, it is important to create some very specific processes and boundaries around the call, including the time frame, whether they need to register, and whether they need to pre-submit questions or concerns. Keep in mind any extra barriers to entry might keep them disengaged, but if that’s something you need going into this call, then it’s the right move. Go into the call knowing what you will and will not discuss. And remember that sometimes there will be heavy personal things that come up.

If something you’re not willing to discuss comes up, how will you handle it? What are some ways you can gently redirect the conversation?

This is also a great time to make sure you have some counselors or therapists in your network, so that if and when something comes up that you’re unable to help with, you can still offer them support through a referral.

Another great way to re-engage students is by creating an incentive plan. Incentives can be a powerful motivator and can help students feel more invested in the course. Incentives can be as simple as offering a badge or certificate of completion for completing a certain milestone or as complex as offering a bonus coaching session for completing the entire course.

By offering incentives, you're providing students with a tangible reward for their efforts and helping them feel more motivated to stay engaged.

If you’re interested in this method of engagement, there are a few things you need to consider as you design your incentive plan. First, you need to determine your course milestones. How many are there? What will they be? What do students need to do to be considered as meeting that milestone? Where do these milestones fall in your curriculum or your students' course journey?

Once you know the answers to those questions, you need to choose your incentives. These generally fall in one of two categories. You have physical swag, which are things like tshirts, stickers, bags, notebooks, etc. You can get super creative with this. My clients and their students really tend to love these custom letter-sized whiteboards. And let’s be honest, everyone loves happy mail! The key with physical swag is to not make it just something with your logo on it. Make it something that students want to use, that really encompasses the heart of your program and mission. If you decide you’d like to offer physical swag, consider three things: how will they be designed? Where will they be stored? How will they be delivered to students?

Swag can also be in the digital category. You can offer things like digital wallpapers, tools and documents, videos, bonus calls, special course related lists or directories, badges, etc. The possibilities really are endless, limited only by your creativity.

After choosing your incentives, your next step will be to determine how students should submit to receive their rewards. Will they submit files or links? Screenshots? Will they send a video detailing an experience?

There are so many options when designing an incentive plan, but it really comes down to knowing your students and what would make them excited!

So listen, that was a lot to consider. And disengaged students can be really triggering for course creators battling perfection and people pleasing.

If you have an established course and community and need to re-establish contact with and attempt to re-engage students, but you’re overwhelmed with where to start, here is what I would recommend:

  1. Perform an analysis - Review your course roster and identify students who have disengaged at any level.

  2. Send your list through triage - Who is most at risk for total disengagement? Make connecting with those students your top priority.

    1. I just want to offer one caveat: I DO NOT recommend reaching out to all of them at once if you have more than about 5, unless you have additional support to handle the responses.

  3. Create a system of outreach for the rest of your list, in order from most at risk to less at risk. How many students will you reach out to on your next round? How often will you perform this outreach until you complete your initial list?

  4. Create a system of sending regular wellness checks for all students in your program. This is going to:

    1. Keep you from getting behind on checking in and re-engaging

    2. Ensure that no one falls through the cracks

And there you have it, my friend. A solid plan for re-engaging students in your course. Remember that no program will have 100% of students engaged all the time. You got this!!


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