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How Coursera Uses Psychology to Make Online Education Addictive

minute read

Coursera, the online education platform, was founded by professors at Stanford University. During the height of the global lockdown in early 2020, Coursera added 10 million new users in only two months, 7x the pace of new sign-ups in the previous year.

Like many online education platforms, commonly known as MOOCs, Coursera has struggled with low course completion rates. Many students will start a class with high hopes, only to quit partway through. A recent study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found that online courses have a 96% dropout rate on average, over five years.

To increase their completion rates Coursera applies several strategies, with underlying behavioral science and psychology principles:

1. Helping users track their progress makes them more likely to stick around

To keep students engaged, Coursera includes cues and messages that encourage learners to stay active.

1. Step One — Set a goal: In the example below, Coursera asks its users to set a learning goal. They know if students have a goal, the platform can communicate how far they have to go, and therefore motivate users to complete their course.

Coursera asking me to set a weekly goal


Research has shown that in educational settings, sending pop-up and push notifications like these can increase student retention by up to 18%.

2. Step Two — Communicate progress: Coursera is transparent about where students are and how much work they have to finish.

Progress indicators, like the example below, help students know exactly how much work they’ve already completed, and how much is left to go. Studies have shown that progress indicators like these, can increase user focusenjoyment, and users overwhelming prefer an experience that includes this element.

Coursera using the Goal Gradient Effect


Why do these tactics work?

It’s down to two behavioral science principles: Pre-commitment and the Goal Gradient Effect.

What is Pre-Commitment?

Humans like our behaviors to stay consistent with the image we hold of ourselves. For example, someone who sees themselves as athletic is more likely to join an amateur sports league than those who don't see themselves as active. 

That’s why getting ourselves to make a commitment to future behavior is one of the most powerful ways to stick to a goal. 

Pre-commitment says that if we promise to do something in the future, we're less likely to procrastinate and more likely to actually accomplish that goal. 

How to Apply Pre-Commitment to Your Experience

If you want users to stay engaged, ask them to commit to a very specific goal. In this case, Coursera gives users a choice of three time-based options: Learning 2 days a week, 3 days a week, or 5 days a week. 

Ask your users to make a commitment for the future. Whether it's exercising 3 days a week or reading 10 minutes every day, Pre-commitment can help users stick to their goals.


What is the Goal Gradient Effect?

Coined by behaviorist Clark Hull in 1932, the Goal Gradient Effect states that as people get closer to a reward, they speed up their behavior to get to their goal faster. In other words, people are motivated by how much is left to reach their target, not how far they’ve come.

How to Apply the Goal Gradient Effect to Your Experience

To apply this principle to your customer experience, be clear about where your users are in relation to their “finish line”.

You’ll often see the Goal Gradient Effect at work in gamification elements like progress bars, badges, and profile completion percentages. It can be applied anywhere users are encouraged to complete a big task by achieving smaller objectives.

For example, LinkedIn ties a progress bar to a measure of completeness, to get users to complete their profile.

Goal Gradient Linkedin

For added measure, LinkedIn has combined the Goal Gradient Effect with data to persuade users that their work will help them be “discovered in search by recruiters.” By tying users’ profile completeness to the end goal of a new job, LinkedIn makes it clear that their goal is closer than they think.

2. Paying for a Course Increases Completion Rates

The Coursera business model was initially based around free classes. But when it comes to getting students to complete a course, “free” isn’t the best strategy. Paying a fee — even if it’s small — results in students staying engaged.

The New York Times reported that “10 percent or fewer students complete free courses, while the completion rates for paid courses that grant certificates or degrees range from 40 percent to 90 percent.”

Why? It’s down to a behavioral science principle known as Commitment / Consistency.

What is Commitment / Consistency?

Coined by author and professor Robert Cialdini, this principle states that people are highly driven to be and look consistent. We want to keep our actions consistent with what we’ve already committed to.

Psychologists view this desire for consistency as one of the most important drivers of human behavior.

How to apply Commitment / Consistency to Your Experience

To apply this principle to your marketing or product design, get your users to make an easy, low-stakes commitment to the activity you want them to undertake.

For example, outdoor supply store REI offers a lifetime co-op membership for only $20. Once a customer signs up, they get lots of free perks and can even get paid money from the annual REI dividend — a way that REI pays back co-op members a share of their profits.

REI Co-op Membership Commitment


By offering a low-stakes commitment, REI increases the chances that customers will be loyal to their brand over the long-term. If customers see themselves as people who’ve made a commitment to REI, they want to stay consistent to this belief and shop there more.

3. Using Data to Nudge Users Can Increase Completion Rates

The advantage that online education platforms like Coursera have over in-person classes is the ability to track how frequently students watch videos, submit assignments, and complete quizzes. These platforms can use this information to “nudge” students into finishing their modules, by sending reminders at critical moments.

What are nudges?

‘Nudging’ describes the different ways a decision can be presented, to make it easier for people to make the “right” choice. A “nudge” describes a specific strategy to frame or present a choice. For example, online education platform EdX found that when they sent email reminders to complete tasks, students engaged 30% more.

Additional research from Copenhagen Business School found that sending email nudges in online learning made students “1.5 times more likely to view lecture videos” and these same students spent “15% more time on viewing online lectures than their peers”. 

But keep in mind — different types of nudges work better for different types of students. 

Studies suggest that negatively framed messages — such as “If you don’t watch this video, you’ll lose 10 points off your final grade” — work better for low-performing students. However, positively framed messages — such as “If you complete this lesson you’ll earn 3 more points toward your final grade” — are more effective for high-performing students.

So be mindful of the different types of users you have, and how you might frame nudges for each of them. Experiment to figure out who these user groups are, and what messages are most effective for each.

How to Apply Nudges to Your Experience

There are hundreds of kinds of nudges that you can use to encourage user engagement. But in general, good places for nudges are those moments in the journey where customers drop-off, forget to do something or tend to make the “wrong” decision. For example, the language learning app Duolingo famously uses lots of pop-up notifications to nudge users into using the app:

Duolingo using nudges with push notifications

Source: Google Images

The Bottom Line

When it comes to making learning addictive, MOOCs like Coursera have the benefit of millions of data points and proven strategies. But underlying their successful tactics are universal behavioral science and psychological principles that can be applied to any industry or business.

To apply these principles, start by asking yourself:

  • Goal Gradient Effect: Are we communicating where users are in our experience clearly and simply? Do users know how much they’ve already accomplished and how much is left to go?
  • Commitment and Consistency: Are we overlooking opportunities to get customers to take an easy, low-stakes commitment?
  • Nudges: Are there critical moments in our customer journey where a nudge can “punch above its weight” and get people back in our experience?
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