Should People Leave a Class Early?

Should People Leave a Class Early?

On June 14, 2007, we asked Learning TRENDS readers, "If you are teaching a class and some of the people in the course "get it" after a few hours, can they leave? In other words, if they are quick and contextual learners and master the content rapidly, can they leave or do they need to stay until the end of the course?"  Here is a compilation of several responses we received!

 “If delegates would only learn from the facilitator (coach / trainer) then when they get it, they can leave and more quality time is spent on the ones who need further assistance. But in most sessions, the learning is coming from facilitator and fellow learners. The ones 'who get it' can assist in transferring their learning and providing peer coaching (they mostly know more about the application and company specific context then 'external' consultant.

I remember a comment from an MBA student years ago to a fellow student who did not attend or left early on sessions (as he 'got it'). The MBA student said he chose and paid lots of money for this MBA and took a year of work to learn from professors and fellow students (their experience and knowledge). His fellow students were part of the learning and therefore he demanded them to be there.” Hans van der Linden, TMA Ltd.

 “I totally agree with the concept of allowing students to indicate when they wish to demonstrate mastery and then be allowed to leave.  Far too much time in educational institutions is wasted by enforcing attendance rather than ensuring learning. In Asia, attendance taking takes far too much precedence.  However, this is all fine if we are talking about some kind of practical skill. If the session requires collaboration and input from all team members, then it is not appropriate for some to leave early.  When it comes to well-designed technologically enhanced learning, why does the student have to be there physically at all?” Murray Stuart Bourne, Ngee Anne Polytechnic

“If I spotted a trend of students leaving training early after demonstrating mastery of the content, I'd be at our next executive committee meeting to claim victory on both the cost savings and increased productivity fronts. If your Israeli colleagues have found a scalable and repeatable way to do this, please put me in touch with them. Hopefully this e-conversation will prompt more of us to experiment with new learning models and to revisit the relevance of some of the instructional design models that have remained mostly unchanged for decades.” Michael Glazer, Burson-Marsteller University

“Sometimes people think they "get it" early in a class, but as the class progresses there maybe tidbits of information they can still learn.  Also, it is beneficial for the other learners to benefit from their experience/knowledge if shared during discussions or question and answer sessions. Due to their understanding concepts earlier or previous experience, they tend to ask more meaningful questions and the other learners can benefit from this. I think it is a plus to all for all participants to remain for the duration.” Lee Rahr, Kimberly Clark 

 “In order for learners to "peel off", all the content/concepts would have to be covered. Typically, course design - especially ILT - is not prescriptive. There would have to be opportunities provided to have participants "test out" on the subject matter. It would necessitate re-thinking how we design programs, but the concept is an interesting one and would make better use of resources.” Evelyn Townsend, GoTransGlobe

 “I think that allowing those who have already mastered the content to leave early makes perfect sense.  The global mindset is conservation and efficiency in general, and I say why not apply that with respect to the time commitment of learners. If I can master the subject half way through a two week course, let me return to my job and apply it productively rather than lose that productive forever.  Then there is the problem of continuing professional education requirements that assign CPE or CPU credits based on a 50-minute "contact" hour. If I master the material in some fraction of that 50-minute hour, I only receive credit for each full unit of contact time completed. It's a disincentive for me to leave early.  But I suppose CPE hours have less to do with mastery than they do with checking a box to satisfy professional requirements for "contact". Sigh…if only contact equaled proficiency.” Jeff Martin, Interactive & Learning Solutions

 “The Army option is a sound strategy, and one that we as a TAFE ( Australia), or in the USA, a Community College delivering Trade Qualifications adopt.  However, there can be a greater benefit to the class if the person that "gets it" stays on.  This is via their valued input into class discussion and the opportunity for learners to learn from a peer, "who already gets it".

  • An alternative explanation from the students’ perspective
  • An alternative explanation from a generational perspective
  • A collaborative environment promoting teamwork and camaraderie. linking closely with life in the real workplace

Yes they do have options, but the benefits of staying, and helping far outweighs leaving.” Rodger Carroll, Chisholm Institute

“If education and or training are truly learner centered then it's hard to argue that when the learner feels they have got what they wanted or needed from the experience that they should stay the distance. To what extent is this about reporting and funding issues?

In a similar vein, here in New Zealand, we've an ongoing debate about state funding for courses being tied to completion rates. One of the arguments that keeps cropping up is what happens when a learner leaves, say a welding course, because they have landed themselves a job as a welder. Has the learner failed? or is getting a job as a welder a successful outcome. In terms of the funding regime, this may be regarded as a failure to complete, but from the learner's point of view, they achieved what they needed to and got the job, presumably, they were training for.” Keith Tyler-Smith, Christchurch Polytechnic of Technology

“Working with elementary and secondary schools can you imagine the impact this could have on education?  Students who "get it" don't have to sit through an entire year of a class, but rather can test/project out or demonstrate expertise in another way and move on to more challenging subjects.  It would also provide what our schools desperately need - more time for those children who truly need it.  Add in technology and we could actually find the schools in this nation preparing children for life.” Carol Geddis, Catholic Schools Administrators Association of New York

“If I want my training to be learner-centered, then I want the learners to be making the best use of their time. That may mean (as my ego takes a humbling gulp) that NOT being there for the duration makes the most sense for some. If mastery of the content is performance based and can be measured, then there is even the option that they need not attend any of the training if they can demonstrate mastery prior to the event. If we allow that, then we certainly need to allow early departures upon demonstrated mastery.

It's about the learners and meeting their needs - not about me pontificating or thinking their life is somehow incomplete because they weren't in my presence as long as others.” Jeff Ross, Humana Inc.

“Learners take more and more responsibility for their own learning. And therefore should be more and more be free to adjust to their learning style. And therefore free to leave a course after a few hours. The reason to doubt the effectiveness of the training when learners do so, in my opinion, is:

  • Rumor while leaving
  • Keeping on eye on the true reasons of leaving (does he really master the content?)
  • Learners who stay in the classroom can get insecure of their knowledge en capabilities compared to the "leavers"

So I wonder if the instructor can get more effectively on those needing coaching.

But essentially I adapt the principal study-"just enough". Society is getting more and more individual, which is not a negative thing, so the way you learn most effectively should be adjustable to this individual "just enough, just in time" principal.” Nandy hos, PAT Learning Solutions

“This idea recently came up in an e-learning demo I sat through. This particular e-learning vendor had some great design concepts, and one of them was this customized learning path.  Each online course included a pre-test and, as a customer, I can set the mastery level for the pre-tests at whatever I want; I think the default was 70%. Depending on which questions on the pre-test I get right or wrong, I can "test out" of portions of the course. Of course, the online course was developed in a modular fashion without dependencies. In this way, a learner can "test out " of sections and a customized learning path is built. I think this is great! And when you get right down to it, what difference would it make what the delivery mode is--for me, in an ideal environment no learner should be expected to sit through content they have mastered. I think this is where we, in the learning industry, cause great frustration with learners. When we deliver content that is rote based on their current level of knowledge and expect them to bear through it because others in the class need it. We justify it by saying the "review" can only help. No, the "review" can really just insult learners. We need to get away from this--we need to find inventive ways to make every experience fit every learner.  This just seems like a way to do this.  Of course, it is dependent on the content. If the course includes some practice or skill building in areas that "one can always improve"--public speaking, communications, probably mostly softer skills, then maybe it makes sense to have the learner stay and complete that kind of ongoing practice.” Angela Athy, Union Pacific Railroad

“I've often "left" class early, but only for online learning.  We often receive e-mails about required courses we must take at IBM.  Some of these courses are 4 - 8 hour e-learning events, and with our high utilization goals, we end up having to take this training at night.  What I often do is immediately take the associated exam to see how much I know off the cuff.  Then, based on my score, I decide which modules to review.  I then take the exam again and generally pass, saving myself several hours of time.   I honestly haven't ever left a stand-up ILT class early, outside of when they give you four hours to take the exam, and you finish it in one.  I guess my fear in leaving early would be that maybe even though I "think" I get it for the upcoming lessons, do I know for sure the instructor isn't going to share some interesting nugget of info that would help me?  To be honest, being able to take a "real live" class these days is such a privilege that I don't know that I'd want to leave early.  IBM is so focused on profit that they overlook employee development (oh, they'll tell you differently, but it's true).” Bronson Beisel, IBM Application Services

“As a learner, I have been on both sides of the coin:  I’ve been one of the last in the class to “get it”, and I’ve also been one of the first in the class to master the concept.  I can see both sides of this argument.  But I will say that there is a lot to be gleaned from those who “get it” by those who don’t.  I’ve picked up a lot of great tips, tricks, and extra information from conversing with those in the classroom – things that the facilitator may never have experienced or encountered.  Similar to your Learning 200X conferences, much of the knowledge is gained – not from the keynote speakers (as interesting and exciting as they all are) and facilitators, but – from chatting and conversing with others in attendance, who share first-hand, “recent” experiences.  In conclusion, my vote would be for the quick learners to try to stay (for a little while) so they can pass their knowledge and understanding to the others in the group who may need the extra time.” Judy McDonough, Constant Contact

 “I’d first say that “peeling off early” is dependent on the individual training session and goals.  Certain topics – perhaps those more “technical” in nature? – might lend themselves to this outcome.  However, in a classroom/roundtable setting I am not in favor of participants leaving for a couple of reasons.

  • They could be utilized to “assist” those who are not grasping the material as quickly.
  • It disrupts the room.  Other participants then get distracted – may feel stronger pressure to perform which can lead to higher stress and a further cycle of distraction.
  • It has the potential for people to “rush” through tasks/discussions/assignments etc.

In a school setting I liken it to the end of any class where students think the class is over and start bundling up to leave.  The professor may have formally concluded the lecture but still has a few informal comments to make…but no one hears those because they are too busy filling their backpacks, checking their IM, etc.” Murray Moman, Agricore United

“In my storage networking training business, I teach technical classes all the time.  My assessment is that the student is always making informed or uninformed choices about the relevancy of a training class "as we go". They have every right to assess and act on those assessments.  If they think they "got it" up to that point it is fine.  I do not even think a "mastery test" is needed at that point.  People know if they got it or not.  The question is "what is left? And what may be missed?"  They can even look ahead in terms of the remaining portion of a class training materials and come to an opinion as to whether investing more of their time in completing the class is a wise personal investment in time or not.  From a practical financial point of view they won't get a refund so that does not enter into the equation.  The thing is that those choices have an inherent risk for the learner.  Without completing the class, even with the opportunity to take a mastery test, they should be missing the additional context information the instructor should be providing as an added value for the remaining information.  Without investing the time in completing the class, that context information would be missed.  That aspect is often overlooked.  So, I encourage students who want to make those "leave early" assessments to make them.  But I encourage them to stay, to add value through discussion for others and continue their role as learning enablers for everyone else's sake.  If I am doing my job, there are things they will pick up through those contextual discussions and at the very least they can act as in class mentors for others.  Bottom line is however every student’s needs to and should balance the remaining learning opportunities with other needs or choices.  By all means go if you wish to or need to make that choice.” Howard Goldstein, Howard Goldstein Associates, Inc.

“I'm all for it.  As a participant, I really do "check out" once I've mastered the content, and inevitably start doing other things even if I'm in the class (i.e. balancing my checkbook, checking email, web-surfing, other work). As a facilitator, one way to attempt to stop this is to string out the key content and mastery activities so that the participants must stay to actually "get it."  But to me this is torture!” Teresa Davenport, Davenport Design & Development

“Having a learner leave after Lesson 1 or 2 and say they 'got it' doesn't certify them for the overall learning objectives or performance based objectives identified by the business. For example, if the course is a negotiating course, and each module during the 2 day course touches on a different skill, if the learner leaves after the first few lessons, how will the organization know that learner mastered all the skills required for negotiation?

For a learner to leave after a lesson that would only be feasible if that lesson was self contained. For example, if it was a course that taught different billing or inventory systems, and the learner only needed to learn one or two of the systems, it would be reasonable to have that learner take those lessons and 'test out' at the end of those modules to validate the knowledge.  The learner, when committing to the training course, or program, signs up for the entire program. In the example below, where the learner felt they 'knew' the material and didn't need to stay, the facilitator should use the learner as a SME and have them support the training program, but participating in the role plays, help other learners if exercises are giving or activities where the SME can then provide feedback. Use the learner to 'show' they mastered the training by having them partner in the training experience.” Debbie Dragone, IBM Business Transformation


“It can happen, but only rarely.  I was once let off a course early.  I had been teaching a section of stuff for years, but did not have the required basic qualification.  So I was required to attend a 1-week course. When I arrived, I found that the instructor was a former student, to whom I had actually taught this stuff!  So, he asked me to stay for the first morning, during which time I quickly completed all the worksheets, and then I returned on the last afternoon to take the skills assessment.  He had all his records up to date, and I had a week to devote to my real work.

Most times, though, a course builds up as it progresses, so even if students get the early stuff, there's no knowing that they will get the later, more complex, stuff.  You might want to set a pre-assessment or even mid-course assessment, with an advanced section.  And if they get above a particular score for that advanced section, then they may leave.  If they don't, they have demonstrated that they don't actually "get it" all, so have to stay - it certainly cuts down on the complaining.” Ken Masters, University of Cape Town


“In most of our workshops, as well as much of the custom training we develop for clients, I am accustomed to seeing participants leave and go back to work when they have mastered the skills they came to learn, so my reaction to your article was "but, of course!" I loved your phrase, "people 'peeling off' a class as they master the content."  It provides a great visual image of active learning and going forth with new skills and knowledge. 

Bob Mager's Criterion-Referenced Instruction methodology allows instruction to be developed that is learner centered (rather than instructor focused) and self-paced (rather than group paced or time bound).  With the CRI approach, the performance criteria or standards that each learner needs to meet are spelled out up front (in the objectives) and measured as the instruction proceeds (in the skill checks).  The learning program can be designed to allow learners the freedom to select learning activities and sequence (within certain guidelines), to practice as much as they need to, and to take skill checks whenever they feel ready. Once they have mastered all the skills, as evidenced by performance on the skill checks (which mirror as closely as possible actual job performance), they are deemed competent and are free to return to work, or to go on to an activity of their choosing. 

Learners absolutely love this way of learning-the flexibility and freedom, the responsibility for controlling their own learning, the one-on-one coaching tailored directly to their needs instructors can provide, the lack of time wasted on things learners already know, the ability to spend extra time where they need it without the pressure of feeling they are holding the class back, just to name a few of the things participants tell us.  So, in response to your question, "Can people leave a class early?" my answer is a resounding YES if the instruction is designed to allow for that while ensuring competent performance.” Ann Parkman, CEP, The Center for Effective Performance


“I think this is an issue that needs to be handled on a case by case scenario.  While the example given of the army "master-class" is an option, it would also be easy to argue that people leaving a session early can serve as a negative reinforcement to the remaining learners and possibly make them feel "dumb" because they are not getting it as quick as the others.

Besides in some cases having some of the quicker learners stay can sometimes encourage peer discussion/learning that can help the entire group in their development and team building capacity.  So, my answer is - in some cases it may be appropriate to let quicker learners leave but in others it may not - it should be a call by the (hopefully) qualified deliverer given the type of training that is occurring.” Paul Langenberg, Brisbane City Counsel


“Having to work with a cross section of I/S and non-I/S folks, I think the issue becomes two-fold.  First, aren't there direct costs associated with training? While I can appreciate folks that "get it", what message does this send to other individuals that were bumped or waitlisted? 

The other issue becomes why these individuals feel compelled to attend a full or multiple day class, when they only need training on one or two topics.  Shouldn't they look towards online learning or abbreviated workshops that target specific needs?” Ellen Weinstein, Carnival Cruise Lines


 “In principle I am all for it, I usually argue a similar case when some adult learners take longer to learn than younger or more educated classmates.

But I remember the situation of people peeling off class when I was a boy or teenager.

If I was one of those staying longer it stressed me. Because I felt that I was loosing out, or I wasn’t smart enough! So I couldn’t enjoy the benefits.

I think it is important to create context, methods, attitudes and organization which reduce the stigma of being one of those who "always takes longer".  This might help some to benefit from the personal attention they get when few participants are left.” Hróbjartur Árnason, Iceland University of Education



“The answer to the question is both content- and context-based.  There are arguments for when peeling-off is not appropriate.  For example, I am a student in an online PhD program in organizational psychology.  My coursework consists 12 week asynchronous classes. As a seasoned OD practitioner, I could easily complete much of the coursework in less than 12 weeks but part of the instructional approach includes interaction between students.  I can't peel off because I have to respond to other students' work and let them respond to mine.  In many cases, I have to engage in asynchronous dialog with classmates or instructors.  In this case, peeling off would detract from the learning experience.  I agree with allowing a student to drop out if ongoing interaction is not a necessary feature of the learning model, but in some cases interaction is necessary and peeling off would not be appropriate.” Jay Spitulnik, Lifespan Learning Institute


 “In my opinion, the difference between using one-on-one technology to learn and being in a live class to learn is that you not only learn to master the content but you learn from others. So the learning is not just from the content but also the interaction with others and how they learn.  If you are going to be a leader you will understand that not everyone can learn at the same speed so is learning just mastering the content or is it boarder?  If the live class is just lecture and there is little interaction then leaving may be okay but then in that case why go to the live class at all. Just read the book and take the test showing that you mastered the content.” Kayla Briggs , AICPA


 “Personally, I would like to see the folks who “get it” stay in the classroom until completion so that others in the class can benefit from their new found knowledge. As we all know, adult learners all gain knowledge differently and it might be that one individual who will learn from a colleague who catches on a bit more quickly than the rest.

Then again, for those who do “get it” earlier in the course can regain that scheduled training time to move on to other lessons or get back to the job at hand a little sooner than expected. This question and subsequent responses are a double edged sword.” Craig Trask, Roche Technical Support Center


 “Having people "peel off" a class makes great sense in terms of time and money.

It is a way of allowing people in a classroom to do something that is allowed in some e-learning courses. (I am thinking of courses where I can test out at any time.)

You may hit a snag, though, where there are regulatory requirements which may include "seat time." This could also be an issue for people who are claiming continuing education credit for a class, as their accrediting body likely (in my experience) wants a report of hours in a classroom.” Jennifer Juday, Baxter


 “Your question is related, of course, to the instructional design of the course.  If people can master the material early it implies that they either knew the material before the course (in which case they could have tested out to start with) or the course design covers all the learning objectives at the start and uses the rest of the class to elaborate on the content (different than offering an advanced organizer, which gives context but not content.)

The courses I teach have lessons that build, introducing new concepts each time that build on previous learning.   How could a student master quadratic equations because they'd mastered 1st degree equations?  How could a student master the geometry of cones because they knew the geometry of circles? I can see how a programming student who knows how to use help effectively could program the final assignment even though they hadn't learned each construct because they knew how to learn on their own using the help function.

It would help if you gave us an example of objectives that could be taught in the way you suggest. I can't for example, picture a soldier leaving basic training early (and perhaps not having to go through live fire exercises.)” Susan Leslie, SBC Global


“1) You have to have a way for persons to prove mastery during the class and not just at the end of the class. It's obvious and easy if it is an online class, but doing it in ILT is a challenge. Here is some sub thoughts:
*          How does the learner get the content ahead of time without disrupting the class?
*          If we are talking knowledge content, and the learner already knew it, why are they taking the class
*          If we are talking skill content, and the class time is being spend on mastery of the skill, then it seems easier to me. I think this is what is happening in the Army example -- they've mastered shooting the gun, and the others haven't.
2) You have to have clear-cut learning objectives with good criterion. If you have that, you can provide assessments based on the objectives, and the learner can take them at any time.
This topic also points to the need for pre-testing. Why not a pretest for an ILT class, then based on the pre-test scores the learner only comes to the sessions they need?” Bruce Maples, Humana Inc.


 “I am in agreement with the school of thought permitting early dismissal.  Having experienced this first hand throughout my training in the Marine Corps, it is very effective not only in learning but also in engaging the learner.  As recruits and as Marines, we tended to pay closer attention when we knew that mastery of a task meant "free" time of sorts.  The Corps gave river banks to learning throughout its curricula, a concept I am trying to incorporate into my company's philosophy as we embark on our own e-learning/e-communications implementation. 

        Our Operations and Training organizations see the value of providing guidelines, or river banks, rather than detailed processes for mastery of our content.  It allows the restaurants to be more responsive to learning needs and allows the managers to implement learning in ways that meet their timing, human resource and other needs.  For all of our learning programs, there will be various options available for learners to demonstrate comprehension and mastery.  Once they do, they can move on.  This reduces cost in terms of labor hours, improves efficiency, and, as already mentioned, increases flexibility exponentially.  This is especially true when learners come to us from our competitors' employment and already have a good understanding of operations, safety, service and other crucial topics.” Adam P Horbett, Burger King


“I think that there are a number of issues to consider here.

*          The learning environment must be such that those who remain (and in particular the last person) do not see themselves as "failing" in any way, but rather as just learning at a different pace etc.

*          For some "hard" skills, leaving once mastery is achieved would seem to be a reasonable way of maximizing the value of both the trainer's time and that of the learners. I think that whatever method is used to assess mastery must be robust enough to ensure true learning before departure.

Where "soft" skills are taught and in particular where experiential learning is employed, learners often acquire skills and knowledge from more able colleagues as they work together and so a valuable source of learning may be lost if some leave along the way.” Alec Brown, Tombo Development Limited


 “Novel idea, but it is rational. The opportunity to 'test-out' at certain intervals should be an option for classes of 1.5 days or more.

People should be able "suffer" through a one-day'er.

The  "downsides" I can see:

*          The reactions or feelings of the people "left behind". Would they feel like candidates for a dunce-cap?

Ideally, the audience would be around the same experience or level, but that's not the 'norm'

*          The mental state-of-mind of those who tried the 'early-out', but failed. Are they in ANY mood to learn at that point ?

Upside: Those that pass the 'early-out' could be given the opportunity to mentor the remaining students, assist the instructor, or even lead remaining portions of the class!

They become the 'Go-To' people during and after the class.

Probably more 'mine-fields' than 'morning-glories', in trying early-outs, but needs to be considered” Jim Taite, CPMS


 “At first I was like "are you kidding?" then as I finished reading through your note and Army example, I thought this makes sense. My only concern would be how the participants who are left until the end might feel and could this jeopardize their learning? In other words if I had to stay until the very end either because I was not as quick a learner or had not yet mastered the content would I feel frustrated or take a "why bother?" attitude? In the classroom I think this model would not be as effective. However with an online class (asynchronous or synchronous) this model makes sense and would be an interesting one to test, especially in the US (since we are an individualistic { Hawthorne} and competitive culture). In the online scenario I do think it makes sense and would effectively focus the energy of the instructor on those needing coaching - as long as the facilitator does not form a bias towards those who are still "left till the end".” Kim Ziprik, The IQ Business Group, Inc.


“The concept of demonstrating mastery is the goal--or eliciting a change in behavior. So if the training is not dependent on group interaction then letting students "graduate early" seems prudent. The material and skill check need to be aligned so that some element of key learning is not missed with early test-out.” Frederick T. Mertens, Boeing


“I have used the peel off methodology in high school when I taught CISCO router programming and MCSE courseware. It worked well, and it did allow me to focus on those students who needed additional help... However, given the fact that this was a high school setting, there were challenges with what to do with them since they had to remain in the classroom.” Catherine Walton, Microsoft