How to Create Effective Online Courses

Updated on April 12, 2023

Online courses provide an opportunity for anyone to share their knowledge or skill with interested students. Whether you teach music lessons, are an expert photographer, are passionate about helping kids learn, or love guiding families through tax season, you can create a class. And if you want, you can even charge for your courses and create a supplemental or full-time income.

But there are some steps you’ll want to take to make your classes as effective as possible. So let’s take a step back, look at the online courses industry as a whole, and then dive into tips for creating successful courses.

An overview of the online course industry

Education has always been a hallmark of society. Why? Because even in the earliest days of human existence, people wanted to pass knowledge and skills down to the next generation. While this was part of the family unit early on, as societies grew, schools were formed to teach groups of children.

The concept of distance learning isn’t particularly new, either. In the late 1800’s, the University of Chicago established the first correspondence program, designed to make education accessible to people who weren’t part of wealthy families. As radio and television developed, they were used to instruct students around the world. And with the rise of the internet, digital learning became an even more effective option.

Now, people can use online learning to earn a college degree, complete a certification program, receive on-the-job training, or learn a new skill or hobby. eLearning is the fastest growing segment of the education industry, and since the COVID-19 pandemic, demand for online learning grew by 400%

Not only did online education allow students to continue with traditional school in spite of the pandemic, it also enabled people to participate in cooking classes, learn how to build a website for their suddenly-closed storefront, and discover valuable activities for their stuck-at-home children. 

The ingenuity of online learning in recent years is proof that you can be successful creating courses around virtually any topic you can imagine. And it’s also proof that there’s an eager audience — with experience learning digitally — that’s willing to purchase your classes.

An introduction to course completion rates

There are a variety of ways that you can measure the success of your courses, but for the purposes of this article, we’re going to look at course completion rates.

Course completion rate is the percentage of enrolled students that finish your course in its entirety. A high course completion rate indicates that learners found it valuable. And happy students mean fewer refund requests, more repeat purchases, and greater chances of referrals to friends and family.

But what is a realistic rate? The average completion rate for massive open online courses (MOOCs) is between 5-15%. But if there’s a fee involved, students have more “skin in the game,” if you will. They’ve invested something, so they want to finish it. In fact, one online course designer went from a five percent completion rate for MOOC courses to an 85% completion rate for premium courses — what a difference!

Remember that this can vary dramatically depending on your courses, industry, audience, and a variety of other factors. But increasing your completion rate is always a good thing. 

12 tips for creating successful online courses

Let’s take a look at some actionable ways you can create effective online courses and increase your course completion rate.

1. Know your audience and tailor everything to them

This is the number one way to create successful courses, and should be considered throughout every other item on this list. Why? Because if your course doesn’t meet the needs of the people that sign up for it, they won’t finish. 

So take the time to get to know the people you’re targeting. Learn everything you can about them. What are their needs? What problems do they want you to solve? Why do they want to learn online? What is their familiarity with technology? How do they spend their time?

If possible, talk to them in person. This gives you the opportunity to ask open-ended questions that can help you uncover a gold mine of information. But you can also conduct surveys and spend time where your audience does — in the same social media groups, forums, and websites.

Then tailor your site, graphics, content, and courses to meet that audience’s specific needs. 

Screenshot of Cursos Online website.

Kevin Farias, who sells online drawing and animation courses, even designed his classes around the individual skill levels of his learners. He enables students to choose between beginner and advanced classes, and focuses on how his courses benefit them. 

2. Choose between cohort-based and self-paced courses

Now it’s time to choose the type of course you want to create. While there are several you can select from, let’s examine two popular options: cohort-based and self-paced.

Cohort-based courses are taught to a group of students (a cohort) all at the same time. This is the typical format of traditional education, with learners moving through lessons together and turning in assignments at once. However, the time-sensitive nature of cohort-based courses can be discouraging to students. After all, if they can’t be present for a lesson for whatever reason, they’ll fall behind.

Self-paced courses allow students to complete classes in their own timeframe. They can start modules, pause them if needed, and come back when they’re not busy with other tasks. One learner might be on Lesson One at the same time another is on Lesson Five. This style of course is more convenient and flexible for online learners.

But, ultimately, you want to consider your audience and subject matter. Is it critical for your students to complete everything as a group and bounce ideas off of one another? Cohort-based courses might be for you.

Is your audience taking your class for fun or on the side? In that case, they’ll most likely prefer self-paced learning, so they can fit it into their schedule.

3. Focus on information organization

Organization is critical to helping students successfully complete your online classes. And that starts with a predictable course structure. While each module doesn’t need to be exactly the same, it should follow the same basic pattern so learners know what to expect.

You’ll also want to set expectations at the beginning. For example, you might include the following for each module within a course:

  • A summary of the topic
  • An estimate for how long it should take a student to complete 
  • What students will learn 
  • What students will do (e.g. watch three videos, read a PDF, and take a quiz)
  • The media and downloads included
  • The next steps after module completion

And make resources like syllabi and documents students will need to reference easy for them to find. Not only will this lead to a more seamless course, it will also prevent you from having to answer “Where can I find…” questions over and over again.

4. Make yourself accessible 

While courses can be relatively passive income depending on how you set them up, it’s important that you’re easy to reach for questions and feedback. You may set certain office hours — e.g. you’re available between 3:00 and 6:00 PM Monday through Thursday — or guarantee a 24 hour response time. You may also want to offer multiple ways for students to get in touch, like a contact form, message system, phone number, and email.

5. Consider every type of learner

People learn in different ways. Some are visual learners, while others learn by listening. Some prefer to read and others really need to be hands-on. As much as possible, try to accommodate all different types of learners when creating your courses.

This might mean including different types of materials within each module. For example, you might include a video in one lesson, along with a transcript for those who like to read things multiple times. You could also add podcasts, images (like graphs, charts, and infographics), and suggestions for physical activities that can be completed alongside the module.

Screenshot of Get Uked website with text that says, "It's always fun to play".

Get Uked, a website designed to teach people to play the ukulele, combines different styles of learning in their courses. For example, one of their classes includes a book, videos, and hands-on activities that get students really using their instrument.

You’ll also want to ensure that your courses are easy for people to use whether they’re on a desktop, tablet, or phone. Navigate through each one using a variety of device types and watch out for things like text that’s cut off, images that are too hard to see, and buttons that are too close to other elements. Tools like Responsinator make checking your site using different devices super simple.

Finally, you’ll also want to think through your courses from an accessibility perspective. This means considering the needs of every single learner, including those with physical or mental disabilities. There are a variety of things to consider to make your courses accessible — here’s an accessibility guide you can reference — but they include adjusting for color contrast, adding alt text to images, and using legible fonts.

6. Add a community component

Adding a community component to your courses can go a long way, even if you’re using the self-paced model. First of all, it provides accountability. Students who work together perform better and are more invested in their work. 

Secondly, it gives students the ability to get to know one another and collaborate on assignments so they can get the most out of your course.

There are different ways to create a community. You can do so through a private Facebook group that you grant access to after enrollment. Or you can create forums directly on your website, which you can either keep open to all students or divide by course or module.

7. Create an introduction page

The welcome page that students see when they start your course can make a big impact on their experience. Have a welcoming tone when you greet new learners — they can do this! 

Also include all the information they need to get started, such as:

  • The goals of the course
  • What students will learn
  • An introduction to yourself
  • Ways they can get in touch with you
  • The materials they need (if any) for the course

Be super clear, as well, about how students will benefit and what they’ll gain from completion.

Screenshot of a Fauna course landing page that lists the topics covered in the course.

The Fauna Foundation does a great job of this, though on their product page rather than a welcome page. They include the topics covered, course dates, coursework involved, and materials required. 

8. Break your courses into bite-sized pieces

One of the best ways to encourage students to complete your course is by breaking it up into bite-sized, manageable pieces. You can do this by using modules and lessons to divide up the topics covered. Then, within those, you may want to use bullet points, headings, sections, images, videos, and activities to separate topics. This is especially helpful for students who may stop and start your class based on their schedule.

Screenshot from Curso WP website showing lessons broken into multiple Modules.

Curso WP breaks their courses up into modules and lessons that are clear and focused. It’s very easy for potential and existing students to get an overview of what each module covers.

9. Use images and visuals

Our brains process visuals around 60,000 times faster than text. Make the most of it! Add videos, slides, charts, graphs, pictures, and infographic elements to your lessons. Use them to illustrate concepts, demonstrate instructions, and just add interest to the subject matter. 

Screenshot from showing the elements in a course such as videos, PDFs, and sample questions.

AdvantageLearn really incorporates this principle. For example, a class designed to prepare students for standardized testing includes more than 150 videos — 20+ hours worth!

10. Offer incentives for finishing

Rewards can look completely different for different types of classes. Here are just a few options:

  • A certificate that students can print and hang
  • A free download, like an eBook, music track, or piece of printable artwork
  • A private lesson or session
  • A coupon or discount code off of a physical or digital product

11. Make the most of gamification

Gamification is the idea of applying concepts that are typically associated with games — points, competition, rules of play, etc. — to another area. Adding this to your courses can make them more fun and encourage healthy competition.

You could add fun challenges and quizzes, reward people who comment frequently in your forums with badges, enable social sharing, add a progress bar, or even create a points system based on actions taken. 

12. Conclude with a survey

Send students a survey after they complete your course (or, alternatively, if they don’t complete your course!). Ask questions about their experience. What did they enjoy? What did they find challenging? What value did they get? What would they recommend you change?

This will give you valuable information about what’s working and what’s not. You can use this to make changes to your courses to increase their effectiveness in the future.

Create online courses with Sensei LMS

The right platform is absolutely critical to creating effective online courses. And Sensei LMS is the perfect tool for the job!

Sensei LMS is a WordPress course plugin that includes everything you need to create and sell classes online. Build modules, lessons, and quizzes. Connect with students, grade their work, and provide valuable feedback. Add interactive content like images, videos, and downloads. And sell your courses as standalone products or as part of a subscription or membership program.

Plus you can do all of this without needing to know one bit of code — the drag-and-drop page editor lets you build everything from courses to pages and blog posts with ease. And since Sensei is a WordPress LMS, you get all the benefits of the top website tool that powers 43% of the web.

The best part is that since it’s built on your own website, you can fully manage your content, students, and courses. You don’t have to worry about a third-party platform taking down your site or advertising competitors right next to your classes. You’re in control!

Ready to go? Get started with Sensei LMS.

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