How to design your course to build learning habits
Many of us know first-hand the power of habit—both good and bad. A good habit, like a morning routine, can help us start our day on the right foot, while a bad habit leaves us feeling consistently defeated.
Because of the influence habits can have over our lives, finding ways to create, break, or change habits has become a fixation for anyone interested in self-improvement, which includes online education.
Based on behavioral psychology research, we know that habits can be divided into three parts: the cue, the behavior, and the reward. The cue is usually environmental condition that triggers the habit loop. It can be obvious, like the morning alarm clock, or subtle, like shifting sunlight through the window indicating a certain time of day.
Whatever the cue is, it sets in motion an automatic and usually subconscious routine. This is the behavior that most of us associate with the habit. Finally, the reward is what helps cement a habit in place, ensuring its future repetition.
As an example, the alarm going off in the morning is the cue for many of us to get up and make a pot of coffee, the reward for which is that early jolt of caffeine. The behavior between cue and reward can be relatively complex (boiling water, grinding beans, putting them in a coffee filter, etc.), but frequent repetition allows many of us to perform it while still half asleep.
This automation is key, because it makes it easier for learners to start their course and stick to it. Accordingly, designing a course that helps learners build learning habits could have a huge impact on engagement and completion rates. Here are a few ways you can adjust your course structure and delivery to help form learner habits.
1. Help them create a streak.
Forming a new habit is difficult, but turning a small behavior into a “streak” is an easy way to motivate learners to keep up. The best streaks are those that are easy to achieve—something that can be integrated into the learner’s daily routine with little added effort. A difficult action (logging an hour of study time a day) is too big a change for most learners to keep up with in the first weeks of habit building. But a micro-lesson, or even something as small as logging into a the LMS every day can help learners stay engaged.
Logging into the system isn’t enough to help them complete a program, obviously, but it is enough to keep their interest engaged. And, once they log in, they may easily decide to stay to complete a short lesson or quiz.
2. Create lessons that dovetail with daily routines.
Think about ways your course content might fit in with other habits your learner already follows. Maybe you deliver lessons in audio format so that your learners can listen while they drive to work. Or you can keep lessons the right length to fit in to a lunch break.
Planning your course to fit in with daily routines is a good marketing tactic as well. It’s a lot easier to sell a course your learners can complete over breakfast than one that will take up an hour of their evening every night.
3. Set user notification reminders.
Has it been a few days since your learner last checked in? Reminder emails can help them stay on track. Even better, encourage your learners to take charge of their own notifications by setting their reminders for a time most suited to their schedule. Maybe some of your learners want a reminder email waiting for them when they first wake up, while others prefer to have one in the evening after dinner. Your learners are coming from diverse backgrounds and lifestyles—let your course fit their schedule.
4. Share daily micro-learning opportunities.
Overcoming inertia is the hardest part of any new habit. So, anything you can do to make starting easer is bound to have a positive effect on your learners. Short, mobile-friendly lessons are a way to engage learners who are busy or prone to procrastination.
Even if you can’t break every lesson down into small pieces, that doesn’t prevent you from sharing content that will inspire your learners to take a first step. Think about 5-minute articles or videos you can share that would be easy wins for your learners and inspire them to keep going.
5. Initiate community check-ins.
As we said at the beginning, the reward that comes after the habit-forming behavior is what helps the habit stick. Communities can provide that reward to many learners, giving them the small rush of satisfaction they need to keep going.
Try suggesting to your learners that they make a daily post about their progress in your class forum, and encourage their fellow learners to respond to their updates with support. Or have your learners make a daily social media post so that they share their goals with their own network. Either way, the social aspect can keep your learners from feeling isolated during their course progress.
Don’t lose sight of the goal.
All this increased engagement can go a long way toward helping learners finish their course—but only if it keeps the goal in sight. The goal of your online course isn’t to keep your learners checking their phones. It’s to help them actually learn something.
Notifications, micro lessons, and community support don’t necessarily result in a successful course. Your learners might grow used to reading your emails every day without engaging with your course. Or they may become active forum users simply because they like to socialize, and not because they like to learn.
Habit-building course design can seem like the gold ticket to success, but only if the habits your learners build are ones that help them achieve their learning goals. If your course can keep that goal front and center, then a habit-forming system of cues and rewards can make it easier for your learners to succeed. If not, it’s time to re-assess before you start teaching your learners bad habits.