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Are learners learning? (and how do we know?)

A snapshot of research into what we know about how FutureLearners learn.

By Matt Jenner SFHEA, Learning Developer at FutureLearn

Our purpose, at FutureLearn, is to help everyone fulfil their potential in a changing world, by transforming access to education. Rightfully, we’re not alone, but bold statements need to give evidence of their impact. Our approach is to understand our learners and look for patterns that provide evidence of an overall positive experience. And if a pattern shows something’s not working, we make some changes. We want to create a compelling learner experience; this is something to celebrate.

We would be lost if we didn’t know much about our learners – so we need to understand what happens with learners throughout the run of a course. Using data to improve the experience is at the root of every successful technology, without such insight there is a blindness towards what’s happening and how to make improvements.

What do we measure?

To begin discussion on aspects of learning, we need to consider what that ‘learning’ means in terms of a learner taking a FutureLearn course. So below we’re sharing some of our definitions, which help shape what happens on a typical journey of a learner:

  • Joiner – someone who registers for a course.
  • Learner – a Joiner who views at least one step in a course.
  • Active Learner – a Learner who goes on to mark at least one step as complete in a course.
  • Social Learner – a Learner who leaves at least one comment in a course.
  • Completed Learner (50%) – Active Learners who mark at least half of the steps as complete.
  • Completed Learner (90%) – Active Learners who mark at least 90% of the course as complete.  

Measuring learning is tricky – as most FutureLearn courses are open to anyone who wishes to take part. This means, perhaps bizarrely, a social learner doesn’t have to become an active learner! But nevertheless, we look for patterns that help us know what’s happening, and where we can help support learners achieving their goals.

What do we know?

The following data comes from an analysis of 1222 open (to anyone) FutureLearn courses running between August 2016 and December 2017.

50% of people who enrol become Learners

Half of all Joiners (those who register for a course) become Learners. This means, on average, 50% of the people who click the ‘Join’ button never make it into the course when it’s running. This sounds like a lot, it is! You can join a course before it starts, which then requires waiting until you can become a Learner. The longer the period of time before someone joins, to when the course starts, the less likely they may become a Learner. Related analysis shows that learning together offers a more compelling experience than alone (a cohort course vs. anytime enrolment) – so while we would like more people who join a course to become Learners, we also can’t compromise an experience we value highly – courses have a start date for a reason.

35% of people who enrol become active learners by completing at least one step

An Active Learner is someone who has completed at least one step of a course. Completion is something we’ve always wanted Learners to be in control of, which is why nearly all steps provide a ‘Mark as complete’ button for Learners. Once a Learner has completed they mark it as complete and it adds to the Learner’s overall course progress. Active Learners need to mark 90% of steps as complete, and pass assessments, to obtain a Certificate of Achievement – which helps provide demonstrable evidence of learning.

49% of Learners are social

Being social is critical to learning, and we built our platform, and every course, around this concept. Anyone taking a FutureLearn course will quickly see that social interaction is encouraged, by discussions in nearly every step and by educators. Learners will find that educators will encourage discussion within a step with leading questions and thought-provoking prompts. Learners don’t have to post comments to be social, there’s a lot of benefit from reading, liking and following as well.

30% of active learners complete at least 50% of course steps. 21% go on to complete at least 90%

This is a measure of Learners heading towards, and achieving, success in a course. Completion is where learners mark individual steps at complete (except for quizzes, which mark themselves after the first attempt). When Learners mark their first step as complete, we hope it helps them feel in control of their learning and making progress in a course. Once a Learner has marked a number of steps as complete they may be approaching the halfway point. The significance of this is shown in our headline above, upon becoming a Completing Learner, reaching half-way, the majority continue on their journey through to full completion – 90% or more.

Does social learning work?

Conversation is a fundamental mechanism for learning. To be successful it needs to be contextual, engaging and constructive. Discussion and commenting follows course content, Learners respond socially to the topics of the course, and interactions between Learners support self, and peer learning. At FutureLearn, we focus on learning as conversation which builds on the foundations of Conversation Theory (Pask, 1976) which was developed further into the Conversational Framework (Laurillard). These underlying theories and frameworks support the structure of conversations incorporated how we approach social learning in the design of courses and developing our platform.

Making the most of this data

Theory is lost without evidence, and our approach to social learning is proving effective as we explore, benchmark and analyse courses. The headlines we have shared above are a part of our reporting, measuring and strategic planning for courses, our platform and us as a company. They are only a subset and they are only indicative of the underlying activity taking place. We are very aware each learner has their own motivations and goals for taking a FutureLearn course, we make no implication that being included in a bundle of numbers says we can make firm conclusions. They are, however, still useful measures – if we made a change to how social works in courses, we can then take some measurements and ascertain if the change was a good idea. We have, in the past, taken new features away as they had a detrimental impact. The majority, we’re happy to report, do the opposite – we keep changes that make a significant positive impact on the learner experience.

Our partners also have access to a broader range of datasets for each course they run. Many use this for research purposes and we host the FutureLearn Academic Network which provides a platform for dissemination, networking and collaboration for a range of academics, researchers, students and analysts.


  1. Pask, G. (1976). Conversation theory: Applications in education and epistemology. Amsterdam and New York: Elsevie
  2. Laurillard, D. (2002). Rethinking university teaching (2nd Edition).  London: Routledge Falmer.

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