Keeping learners engaged means finding the balance between too much content and too little.

If you’re planning your first online lessons, one of the first decisions you will have to make is  how long your lessons should be. Some educators are easily able to find a comfortable pace that fits their own teaching style, and that pace may be faster or slower depending on their content. But others are torn between the quick, punchy length of YouTube videos and the hour-long lecture format typical of college courses. Which is better?

Read more: How Long Should Videos Be for E-Learning?

One of the beautiful aspects of online education is that it gives course creators the freedom to decide for themselves what length is most appropriate for their content. There are guidelines you can follow, but at the end of the day, if you feel like your content works best in a certain form, follow your cut.

If you don’t have that cut instinct and are truly feeling out of your depth, here are a few considerations to help you find your way.

1. Follow your course outline and introduce ideas one at a time.

If you’ve taken the time to create a course outline, it should be your primary guide in determining how much content you have in each lesson. Your course hierarchy should match your content outline, meaning you should have a structure that looks like this:

Course Title

  • Course Section A
    • Course Lesson A1
    • Course Lesson A2
      • Course Topic A2.1
      • Course Topic A2.2
  • Course Section B
    • Course Lesson B1
    • Course Lesson B2
    • Course Lesson B3

Etc.

Note: I’ve used the LearnDash naming hierarchy here, so if you’re using our plugin, this is how you would organize course material.

The content in Course Lesson A1 may take twenty minutes to cover, and that’s fine. If it gets longer than that, it’s time to break it down into topics. If one of your topics is so long that they’re also each over twenty minutes, then you may want to consider turning that into Course Lesson A3.

Not every lesson needs topics. The point is, if you’re finding yourself getting deep into the weeks in any particular lesson, it’s time to break it down into topics so that each idea has room to breathe.

2. Longer lesson content is for instruction, short content is for reminders and reviews.

Many of us who are used to creating online content have it drilled into us that long-form content is the gold standard, both for SEO and UX. In online courses, this is still mostly true. Your learners have come to you for instruction, not quick answers.

However, unless your lesson content is open to the public, you aren’t writing it for SEO. Your lesson content should still be thorough and thoughtful, but you also have more flexibility in how you deliver it. Content that is meant to instruct should still be thorough and informational, but it can also be designed as a quick review session.

I’ve had “lessons” that are as short as one minute. This type of ultra-short content isn’t so much to teach learners something new as to offer a reminder of what they should be doing, such as a one minute meditative breathing session, or a quick flashcard review. This kind of micro content can be very valuable to learners, although it won’t work for every course.

3. Follow natural break points to give your learners check-ins.

Long content is important for giving learners detailed explanations of complex subjects. However, too much content all at once can leave learners feeling overwhelmed. This has been a common criticism of the traditional lecture format for many years.

As it turns out, having people sit and listen to one person talk for an hour straight isn’t the best way to help those students absorb that information (in no small part because most lecturers struggle to deliver high quality content for a solid hour). Lectures, whether written or presented as videos, are a form of passive engagement. But most learners need some form of active engagement to remember information long-term. Without it, learners will have forgotten material presented at the beginning of a lesson by the time they reach the end.

Instead, it’s better to give learners check-ins in the form of micro quizzes at the end of a natural break point. If you get far enough into your content that you feel like it’s time to pause and give your learners a few questions, then that may also be the right time to end your lesson and save the rest of your content for the next.

4. Are your learners on mobile or desktop?

One final point: think about where you expect your learners to be accessing your course. If they’re desktop users, longer content will be easier for them to consume. If your users are on mobile, focus on shorter lessons that can be easily interrupted.

Learn more: How a Mobile App Can Benefit Online Learning

tl;dr—how long should my lessons be again?

It may feel like a cop out to say “as long as they need to be,” but  You aren’t limited in the number of topics and lessons you can have in your course, so don’t pack everything into one lesson. At the same time, don’t chop up content so much it becomes disjointed. So here’s the bottom line:

  • Give thorough answers without overwhelming learners.
  • It is better to create a long lesson than to leave out key information.
  • Context and application matter, but keep it under half an hour.
  • No lesson is too short or too long, so long as it is complete.

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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