Bring method to the madness with your course outline.

Have you ever found yourself with a fantastic idea for a new online course, but you don’t know where to start? No matter how brilliant your ideas are, transmitting those ideas from one person to another is incredibly difficult. You may understand what you’re trying to say, but as subject matter experts, it’s easy to become blind to ideas or concepts that are new to your learners. Creating a course outline will help you return to the fundamentals so that you can structure your course methodically, using clear building blocks for success.

When writing a course outline, it can be easy to become bogged down by details. Unfortunately, this can work against you by overwhelming your outline with non-essential information. A good course outline should help you see the big picture so that you don’t miss the forest for the trees. In fact, by focusing on the essentials, you can create an effective outline by following just three steps. Ready? Here we go.

1. Determine the course objective.

When your learners finish your course, what do you hope they will have achieved? Setting the end goal of your course sounds obvious, but it can actually be a difficult thing to nail down. For instance, let’s say you want to teach a course on cake decorating. What do you want your learners to be able to accomplish by the end? Do you want them to be able to pipe a beautiful wedding cake? Or create creative birthday cake designs? Or execute advanced professional decorating techniques?

Setting your course objective will provide clarity for your course by limiting the material you will cover. By picking one of the above objectives, you already narrowed the scope of your course to something much more manageable. This focus will also help you identify and market to your ideal audience. If you decide you want to teach a course on one of the other topics, you can save that for another day.

2. Break the objective down into a sequence of milestones.

You’ve decided that your learning objective is to teach a cake decorating course for children’s birthday cakes. What steps do your learners need to cover to get there? Probably your first lesson will be about preparing the cake base for decoration. The next lesson may be about types of frosting and fondant, and what to choose for your application. Maybe the third lesson covers icing tips and technique. You get the idea.

When you review your milestones, they should form the major stepping stones for your course outline. The milestones are the bird’s eye view of your course. Looking at them, you should be able to readily trace the outline of your course.

When it comes to creating your course, you will quickly be able to convert your milestones to section headers. This will help your learners understand where the course is headed, and how much content they will have to master to achieve their goal.

3. List the action steps needed to achieve each milestone.

With the milestones in place, your next step is to connect the dots. To do this, you will need to identify the action steps necessary to achieve each milestone. This is often the most granular part of your course outline, which is why setting your milestones in the previous section was so important. Without good milestones, it’s far too easy to find yourself traveling down a never-ending list of action steps that may not connect to the end goal.

If your previous step included milestones such as “preparing the cake base” and “types of frosting and fondant,” than your first list of action steps might include a basic cake recipe as well as shaping, layering, trimming, and covering the cake with a crumb coat. Your next list of steps would cover types of frosting, when to use each kind, and how to color and roll out fondant.

When it comes to creating your course, these action steps will form the individual lessons of your program. If you need to become more detailed, think about the topics and quizzes you would add to each lesson, and flesh out your course as necessary.

Reserve excess information for blog posts, supplementary courses, and support material.

One final word of warning: avoid overwhelming your learners with too much information all at once. While you want to be sure you aren’t skipping any steps, it’s just as easy to confuse and disorient learners with information overload. On the other end of the spectrum, you risk alienating the fast learners in your course by bogging them down with an abundance of examples they don’t really need to understand the material.

Be conscientious about what information in your course is essential for learning, and what is bonus content. My favorite use for that excess content is to turn it into blog posts. For learners taking your course, they are a great way to offer additional resources. And for anyone unfamiliar with your course content, blogs are a great marketing tool to pique their interest. For example, if you were teaching a course on cake decorating, you might use your blog to share extra decoration idea.

That said, blogs aren’t the only use for extra course content. You can also repackage this content as course add-ons or advanced lessons. In this way, your learners can pay for the “basic” package, and then buy supplementary information according to their interests. And remember that LearnDash makes it easy for you to pull lessons from previous courses and easily drag and drop them into your new courses.

Finally, you can offer some information as support material for those who have signed up for your course. While supplementary courses are private and paid, and a blog is public and free, support material is free and private. In other words, you’re offering it as free bonus material to anyone who has purchased the main course.

The purpose of setting this material apart from the main course content is that helps learners focus on the primary course material instead of distracting them with non-essentials. In other words, a course outline helps you edit your material into meaningful, manageable chunks. And once you’ve created effective building blocks for your learners, you’ve given them the toolkit they need to tailor your course to their needs.

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.


6 responses

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Thanks for the post! I have a follow up question about handling supplemental material for a course we offer which is primarily done in person but has an online component. There are a series of 5 online lessons with 3 topics each which are required to be completed as part of the course (in addition to the lectures, assignments, tests, and design projects submitted in person).

My question is regarding how some more supplemental topics can be handled using LearnDash. These topics have made available but are not mandatory. There are about 10 of them in total and we give a bonus percentage point for each one they complete up to 5. I feel like your article does a good job in trying to identify things that are best offered as supplemental and I think that’s what we are doing here. I promise I’m going to ask an actual question here eventually..!

Setting up the mandatory parts of the online topics is easy, straightforward, and clearly within the intended scope of LearnDash. it’s when I get to these other pieces that I start having a harder time because I can’t have both a forced progression but also offer topics that are tracked and can also be completed at any time on the side. What I’ve been doing is allowing the students to take all of the lessons in any order and then I manually look at each student’s progress and record their progress to tally outside of the website with the other submitted material.

Back to my question… Is there a say to include topics as part of a course that are not compulsory to completion but are still tracked? We still want the supplemental material to be protected so I don’t think a blog post is the answer but we also want these lessons to be included inside the same course as they are part of what the engineers paid for.

Thanks again for the post and I realize this is a niche question where the answer may be “You can’t do that”.

Thank you Laura. Great guidelines.

Launching next week with LearnDash – “Speak Like A PRO”. I’m going to review things for good measure!


Hi Brad,
I see what you’re trying to do, but you’re right, that is a fairly niche question. I would recommend you reach out to someone on the support team, as they may be able to help you out more effectively.

Laura LynchReply


This is maybe your best post so far!!

Way to go!!


Hi Ignacio, thanks so much! Glad you enjoyed it!

Laura LynchReply

This plugins, it looks like the Moodle.???
More than 10,000 students can be entered.???
What makes it different from the competition?In short I’d like to see a demo.Best regards

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