Every educator wants to create a course that will keep learners riveted. Here’s how to get there.

Many online educators begin creating courses with a good idea, but get lost somewhere along the way. Maybe they’re experts in their field, but haven’t ever created something in an online format yet. Or perhaps they had a great idea for an interactive feature, but can’t seem to retain learners.

When a course falls flat, it can be incredibly discouraging for the instructor. No one wants to put a lot of work into creating something they truly think will serve their learners well, only to feel like its coming up short. The good news is that, in many cases, fixing these problems doesn’t mean going back to the drawing board—it just means finding the weak link and repairing it.

Whether you’re new to instructional design, or wondering why your courses aren’t grabbing learners the way you hoped they would, these are six elements that learners need in their courses to stay engaged.

1. Purpose: Learners should be invested in the course.

Learners sign up to courses for any number of reasons. Sometimes they come already committed. Sometimes they’re just curious. And sometimes they come because it’s a requirement of their job. What’s important to remember is that you aren’t guaranteed a buy-in from your learners, and even those who are interested can become disengaged if you take their investment for granted.

Make sure your course begins by drawing a very clear line from the content of your course to the benefits your learner will gain from completing it. These may be professional benefits (certification in a new field), aspirational (master a new skills), or even recreational (you’re going to have fun!). Just make sure your learners have a clear why for taking your course.

2. Goals and Milestones: Learners should know how far they’ve come.

Once your learners have signed on to the purpose behind your course, it’s time to show them how they’re going to get there. There’s nothing worse than taking a course where the instructor keeps promising to explain it all to you… just after they finish telling you about this other thing first. (Trust me, I’ve been there.)

Keeping your learners in the dark, intentionally or otherwise, is disempowering. Instead, you want to give your learners a roadmap of the course so they can understand where they’re going and see how far they’ve come.

3. Practice: Learners should do what they’re learning.

Is your course currently set up with a “lesson, test, lesson, test, lesson, final” format? This kind of structure puts a lot of pressure on learners to have to simply memorize information without engaging with it more meaningfully. Lessons are more powerful—and are remembered more easily and for longer—when learners have time to put what they learned to practice.

In some courses, learners can practice directly with the subject. For instance, learners practice math by doing math problem, and they practice language by making sentences and speaking. But what about soft skills courses, like leadership? More importantly, what about emergency training, where it’s absolutely crucial learners remember what to do even though you hope they never have to use it?

For these courses, practice may be indirect, using branching scenarios, incorporating team building exercises, or using a blended learning approach that combines in-person and online training can be effective ways o help learners practice.

4. Assessment: Learners should be see their improvement.

Do your learners know how well they’re doing in your course? Having regular check-ins by way of micro quizzes and other feedback is an important part of any online course—not because learners need grades, but because learners need encouragement.

If that seems strange to you, it’s because many of us are conditioned to think of quizzes as intimidating—something we might fail at. However, review quizzes should be anything but. Short quizzes, delivered quickly after a learner encounters material in a course, are a way for a learner to check their knowledge—and to catch any misunderstandings before they become ingrained. And, when a learner passes a quiz, it can be that small confidence boost they need to keep going.

5. Support: Learners shouldn’t feel ignored or invisible.

Many online courses suffer from unsustainable rates of learner burnout. When learners become exhausted, discouraged, or bored, they’ll stop turning up to a course. This can happen for any number of reasons, but with a little investigation, you can probably discover a few of the leading causes, and then take steps to address them.

For instance, your learners may benefit from some automated email reminders to log in and take another lesson, or you may want to offer a fifteen minute private Zoom call to learners if they miss a major milestone. Anything to keep your learners from feeling like their absence is going unnoticed.

6. Engagement: Learners should want to keep coming back.

Finally, your course should have features that motivate your learners to return to it. Whether this is an active community who provide social support as the learner works toward their goals, gamification elements that add something fun to the learner experience, or individual coaching and mentoring from you, that extra contact is the key to bringing your learners to the next level.

Quality online education isn’t just about the content—it’s also about the learner experience.

There’s a lot more to creating an online course than knowing a subject very well and being able to create content. People don’t learn by being told a lot of information. They learn by a complex process of consuming content, testing their knowledge, putting it to practice, and asking questions about what they’ve learned so far.

So if you’re struggling to keep learners engaged with your course, it may be time to take a step back and see if you’re missing one of these essential elements. Finding and fixing the missing link may be more achievable than you thought.

Laura Lynch photo

About Laura Lynch

Laura is a marketing specialist with experience presenting at WordPress events in Ann Arbor and Vienna. She speaks Russian and German and holds a double MA (Hons) in History and Russian Studies from the University of Edinburgh.

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