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Online courses don't have to be monotonous--these strategies can help you create compelling online learning experiences

5 ways to create online courses that improve retention

Online courses don't have to be monotonous--these strategies can help you create compelling online learning experiences

Think back to the last online courses you completed. Do you remember what the learning objectives were? How were you assessed? How were you able to apply the content after completing the courses?

If you’re struggling to remember these basic aspects of the last course you completed, the course design could likely benefit from some improvement. Now ask yourself this question: What am I doing differently as a teacher or faculty member to create better learning experiences for my students?

Asynchronous online learning differs in one obvious way from traditional classroom learning: the teachers and students don’t have live, real-time interactions. However, this is no excuse for creating uninspiring, unengaging “Click Next” style eLearning courses that are completely forgettable and are far from meaningful learning experiences.

Try applying the following strategies the next time you create an online course to lead to higher student engagement throughout the learning experience and higher retention of the content after course completion.

Strategy 1: Apply the basic principles of instructional design

As an educator, you’re already familiar with the basics: write clear, measurable learning objectives, align your content to the objectives, and create assessments that measure students’ knowledge and skill relating to the objectives. And what about online course development? Is it completely different?

The Association for Talent Development defines instructional design as: “The creation of learning experiences and materials in a manner that results in the acquisition and application of knowledge and skills. The discipline follows a system of assessing needs, designing a process, developing materials and evaluating their effectiveness.”

As you can see, methods for creating educationally sound content for online learning are not all that different from creating traditional classroom content, even if the technology and processes are different. The classic educational models and theories still apply, such Gagné’s Nine Events (or Principles) of Instruction. This structure creates a comprehensive learning experience through the following practices:

1. Gain attention
2. Inform learners of the objectives
3. Stimulate recall of prior learning

 Instruction and practice
4. Present new content
5. Provide guidance
6. Elicit performance
7. Provide feedback

Assessment and transfer
8. Assess learning and performance
9. Enhance retention and performance

By applying these nine principles, you’ll be able to design engaging and meaningful instruction.

Strategy 2: Add interactivity

Online courses can offer so much more than simple onscreen text that takes the place of textbooks or class lectures. If your students can only move through your course by scrolling through lines of text or periodically clicking “Next,” you’re missing out on taking advantage of meaningful interactions.

Rapid development course authoring tools offer a bevy of prebuilt interactions that you can simply paste your content into, in order to build interactions with a few clicks of the mouse. Encourage learners to explore your course’s content to reveal widgets, flip cards, drag-and-drop interactions, multimedia experiences, and more.

Requiring your learners to interact with your content physically (as opposed to passively scrolling through paragraphs of text) leads to greater cognitive activity, which translates into higher retention. Course interactions allow students to actually practice skills and apply their new knowledge, and interactions can even be set up as “gates” within the course, requiring learners to complete these activities before they can move on.

Strategy 3: Use microlearning

Offer your students the exact content they need, right when they need it, in an easily digestible format using microlearning. eLearning Industry states: “While there’s no official microlearning definition, all microlearning-based training shares one key characteristic: brevity. This could either be small learning units or short-term learning activities.”

We’ve already cautioned against using eLearning as a replacement for long-winded lectures or lengthy textbooks. Microlearning takes this advice one step further by offering students “bite-sized” chunks of content on narrow, specific topics. If you’ve ever watched a short YouTube video on how to perform a simple task, you’ve enjoyed microlearning.

Microlearning is often built with mobile devices in mind, which is well suited for students who use smartphones and tablets for their online courses. By using short passages of text, engaging audio and video segments, and a concise presentation of content, microlearning hits the mark. Consider creating a library of microlearning courses that your students can access when they need to; if they “pull” the content from you, rather than you “pushing” the content at them, their retention will be higher because their consumption is based on their desire for learning the content.

Strategy 4: Make an online quiz or survey

With online courses, you can do more than simply present your content–you can also include interactive quizzes and surveys that are scored automatically by your learning management system. Save time by automating your record keeping, and use your authoring tool to create assessments that provide valuable insights into your students’ knowledge and their application of your content.

Choose from pre-built assessment formats such as matching, multiple-choice, sequencing, drag-and-drop, and more. Course authoring tools commonly provide prebuilt templates for different types of questions, so all you have to do is customize the text fields with your unique content and your quizzes will get built in no time.

Strategy 5: Provide your learners with feedback

Don’t fret over losing valuable opportunities for interaction with your students in online settings. Building feedback into your course and your assessments is a meaningful way to ensure that students will not only receive feedback, but that all students who take the same course will receive consistent feedback, no matter who their instructor is.

For example, you may design your course so that students have timed assessments, or open assessments. Maybe they receive feedback after a certain number of attempts, or maybe they have unlimited attempts. You can also provide feedback after each possible answer choice, as well as holistic feedback at the end of the quiz.

Feedback offers students valuable insight into why answers are correct or incorrect, and also allows them to continue learning through the evaluation process. As with all other aspects of online courses, your feedback is something that you as the designer have complete control over, which allows you to write and provide feedback that meets both your needs and the needs of your students.

Final thoughts

Boost your students’ retention by applying the basics of instructional design. Create courses that use meaningful interactions that encourage your students to be cognitively active as they move through your content. Present your learners with concise, highly relevant content during their moments of need, and then offer assessments and feedback that allow both you and your learners alike to evaluate performance. All these together will let you create an impactful online learning experience that will lead to higher retention on the part of your students.

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