Many learners turn to online courses to gain a new habit, lose a bad one, or change their lifestyle for good.
Online courses are often based around subjects or specific training goals. Because learners sign up to take courses in French, or to achieve a certification in their professional field, we’re used to thinking about teaching those courses as a way of relaying information. Teaching a course is about helping that information stick.
But learning is also a behavior. If someone signs up for an online fitness course, or for life coaching, or for meditation, they’re trying to learn new behaviors that will replace existing patterns of behavior. Even traditional courses rely on new behaviors, such as helping a learner remember to review their French flashcards, or to respond to a crisis at work in a certain way.
Focusing on behavior in your course can engage learners more powerfully than if you focus only on information and ideas. It can also have a tremendous impact on their lives that can keep them coming back for more—and recommending your course to friends. Here’s how you can create a course that focuses on behavioral learning.
1. Prepare your learners for the long haul.
Changing behavior takes time. When learners first sign on, their enthusiasm can carry them through the first couple weeks. But it takes about six weeks for a behavior to become a habit, and it’s unlikely your learners’ enthusiasm will carry them through without help on your part.
That said, preparing your learners for the stretch after the novelty has worn off but before the habit kicks in can help them stick with it. Setting expectations goes a long way toward preventing learners from burning out early.
2. Set achievable goals and milestones.
Part of setting expectations includes establishing benchmarks for progress. If a learner feels like they’re not advancing, it can cause them to lose motivation quickly. Goals and milestones are a way for learners to mark the progress they’ve made while also setting a standard for how quickly they can expect to keep moving forward.
If you can, work with your learners to help them set their own goals and milestones. You can help moderate unrealistic expectations, and hold them accountable to the achievable goals they set for themselves.
3. Celebrate your learners’ successes.
In terms of building motivation, offering rewards is a great way to help learners feel excited about their progress and to mark their achievement. This isn’t a new concept—think about belt colors in martial arts, or badges in scout clubs. Gamification has been around for a long time, and its continued popularity is a testament to how well it works.
Perhaps the most salient badge you can offer learners as they build a new behavior is the daily streak tracker. Habits are build faster with daily repetition, so a reminder to your learners to make progress every day—even for only a few minutes, can lead to great success.
4. Offer prompts for micro learning opportunities.
The greater the effort it takes to accomplish the desired behavior, the harder it will be for learners to stick with it. Short lessons that can be completed in under five minutes are a great habit builder. For instance, if you’re trying to teach your learners meditation, a prompt that reminds them to pause for a few minutes to clear their mind at different points during the day can help.
Micro lessons are also a great way to break down more difficult skills into smaller components that are easier to master. If you’re trying to teach your learners how to draw, a micro lesson might encourage them to pause, look around them, and complete a five-minute sketch based on something they see that is of interest. Teaching observation as a behavior ties in to the skill of drawing.
5. Set dynamic triggers based on learner actions.
While prompts are effective ways to remind your learners to stop and take action, they can fall short of their purpose if they’re delivered at the wrong moment. You can schedule some reminders, but you can also create automations that trigger based on how your user is interacting with your content.
For instance, if they’re always visiting your course in the evening, you could adjust the schedule of your reminders to send in the evening. Or, you could time a reminder email to go out a certain number of hours after a learner completes a lesson.
6. Reinforce behaviors through practice.
Finally, for new behaviors to become second nature, your learners need opportunities to practice in real time. A learner can turn practicing French flash cards into a habit, but their brain needs to be put in a position where they are conversing with a French speaker to begin actually using the language. A learner can master a sequence of martial arts moves, but needs a sparring environment to engage them. And you remind your learner to engage in mindfulness practices, but until they remember to do so in a stressful situation, it won’t be helping them.
You can create some of these opportunities yourself by creating a practice environment in your course. For others, you designing interactive scenarios can help a learner practice behavior so that by the time they are faced with a situation in the real world they are already familiar with the response.
A supportive community can turn new behaviors into a way of life.
While there’s a lot you can do to help your learners build habits and learn new behaviors, most will struggle to do so on their own—and your own time is limited. Instead, build a support community to help your learners. Other members of your course can be there to give advice as your learners encounter challenges, encourage your learners to keep going if they’re losing motivation, and cheer them on when they reach one of their goals.
In time, your learners who become successful in changing bad behaviors or learning new ones can point to your course as a being instrumental in their success. As an online instructor, what more could you ask for!