5 Ways to Make an Online Course More Interesting and Engaging

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teaching-engagement

You've decide to create an online course but are worried about how best to make it interesting and engaging.

We've compiled a list of teaching strategies and engagement techniques to help you attract and retain the attention of your students throughout the course.

Making content engaging is about much more than using visual aids. It encompasses everything you do in a course from how well you understand your audience, the design of your course, and how you encourage your students to use the knowledge you are providing.

#1 – Use Smart Planning: Know the Needs, Problems, and Desires of Your Students

 

Content is engaging when it is interesting and relevant to what students really want to learn.

Remember in school when you had to sit through classes where you absolutely hated the subject matter? Where every minute seemed like 10 minutes and it felt like torture just to survive the class?

This happens when a topic is neither interesting or relevant to students' needs, problems, or desires. I hated high school chemistry. I didn't like science and diagramming molecules was absolutely the worst possible use of my time.

Now if that class had been about how to get pretty girls to like me I probably wouldn't have skipped a single lesson.

As much as possible, always align your content with what your students want.

You find out what your potential students want by conducting good market research (here are some ways to do it). Before you ever start to plan your course content, spend as much time as you can learning about what your students want.

This isn't high school; your students aren't forced to sit and listen to you. They are paying you to solve their problems.

#2 – Design Learning Outcomes That Align With Solving Your Students' Problems

 

Once you learn what your customers' problems are, you should design your content around objectives that solve those problems.

Learning outcomes are what a student will be able to know and do after taking your course.

When your lessons are continually moving toward a student's desired outcomes (ability to solve their important problems), they feel a sense of accomplishment and purpose with what you are teaching. They will pay attention to what you say since they feel it has great value to them. If your lessons stray into irrelevancy, students will disengage.

Just think of your own life and the content you read, watch, or listen to. What do you do when the speaker starts talking about things you don't care about? Your mind wanders. You tune out. You may get frustrated or even angry that your time is being wasted. You may pull out your phone and do something else more meaningful to you. Bottom line – you disengage.

If your lessons are laser focused on helping students understand and solve their most pressing problems and meet their greatest felt needs, you will absolutely keep them engaged.

#3 – Use the Seven Laws of Teaching

 

If you have no formal training as a teacher (or you haven't had good training), it is worth investing in yourself and learning the art of teaching. Teaching is a skill that can be learned and refined just like anything else. Fortunately, there are good resources to help you learn and develop that skill.

One great starting place for learning the basics of teaching is a book called The Seven Laws of Teaching by John Milton Gregory.1 Each of these laws breaks down the fundamental aspect of the teacher-student relationship and how to make your teaching understandable. Here is a quick summary of Gregory's 7 laws:

Law 1: The Law of the Teacher

 

I'd like to ask you an important question.

What percentage of the teachers you have had in your life were good teachers?

I can honestly say that number for me is lower than 25%. Good teachers are truly hard to find and schools are filled with mediocre, even awful, teachers.

What makes many teachers so sub-standard? It could be they aren't following the Law of the Teacher.

The Law of the Teacher is this: You can't teach what you don't know. Imperfect knowledge results in imperfect teaching.

Did you ever suspect that your teacher really didn't know what they were talking about? Its sad when a student loses confidence in their teacher because they feel their teacher really isn't prepared to teach the subject.

Here are some tips to put this law into practice:

  • Be an excellent student yourself. Know your subject very well.
  • Re-study a topic before teaching if you  have taught it before so the material is up to date and fresh.
  • Clarify concepts in your own mind so you can help make them clear in your students' minds. If you have questions yourself, find the answers before teaching.
  • Tap into the best thinkers in your subject matter areas. Learn from them so you can also become a great thinker.

Isn't this the kind of teacher you would want to learn from? Be that person.

Law 2: The Law of the Learner

 

Being a great teacher is the first, foundational step. But you also need your students to become great learners.

Teaching is two-way communication: the communicator and the recipient. If the communicator is functioning at a high level but the recipient isn't engaged, teaching will fail.

You can't control your students but you can do some things to help them get the most out of your teaching.

The Law of the Learner is this: Students need to pay attention with interest to the content being taught.

There are two components to the Law of the Learner: attention and interest.

Interest comes with subject matter that is aligned with the learner's natural desires. Inherent desire is much easier to work with than trying to create a desire that isn't there.

Here are some tips to put this law into practice:

  • Know your students' interests through market research and asking students regularly.
  • Be a counselor or guide that facilitates your students becoming absorbed in the material. Help them solve problems, specifically relevant problems they have right now.
  • With online teaching,  you cannot tell if your students are becoming distracted or not. To help with distraction, make the lessons short. Udemy suggests 7-8 minutes per lesson. Others say a maximum of 12 minutes. TV commercials happen after 8-10 minutes of watching a program. Those are some good lengths to model.
  • Tell your students at the start of the lesson why they should pay attention by telling them how the information will help them solve their problems, reach their goals, etc. Basically, you are justifying your content material in the minds of your students before starting. If your students asked, “Why should I listen to you?” make the answer your intro.
  • Quiz after every lesson. Set the expectation that learners will be held accountable for what they learn.

Law 3: The Law of Language

 

There is nothing more frustrating than not being able to understand what a teacher is saying, especially if you know the information is critical for your learning goals.

The Law of Language is this: The language used in teaching must be common to teacher and student.

Sometimes speakers like to impress their audience by using highly technical and erudite language (See what I did there? “Erudite” means “having or showing great knowledge or learning”). Unfortunately, this is often done for the benefit of the teacher's ego and not for the listeners' understanding.

Every area of knowledge tends to have its own terms that must be learned. For new students, these terms are unknown and make a subject sound hard and mysterious. You don't want that.

Here are some tips to put this law into practice:

  •  Use language your students understand. When teaching new terms, explain them with known words. (i.e. you may not have known what “erudite” meant but you do know the words “having or showing great knowledge or learning”)
  • Use illustrations from the world and experience of your students. Take situations and concepts they already know to help explain what they don't know.

You may not be able to figure out Einstein's Theory of Relativity by reading math equations, but watch how this video explains the theory using ideas you are already familiar with (clocks, trains, etc.)

If you need help on how to explain complex ideas, go watch some YouTube videos and see if you can find good examples of how other communicators do it.

Law 4: The Law of the Lesson

 

Have you ever missed a class, or a series of classes, due to sickness and when you came back, you were completely lost when the teacher started talking?

Many topics are very dependent on a proper flow of thought or the way one idea logically builds off another.

For example, if you were learning how to frame a new shed for your tools or lawnmower, but the instructor never taught you how to measure, cut, and nail 2x4s properly, you will have a tough time completing the task. The teacher falsely assumed you had essential knowledge that you didn't have.

The Law of the Lesson is this: whatever you teach must be learned from truth your students already know.

There is a reason that you learn ABCs in Kindergarten and not in High School. You need a foundation of the very basics of language before you start writing papers.

Unfortunately, many students get lost in classes because they do not have the proper knowledge foundation to build from. As a teacher, you must design your lessons like a builder who sets a solid foundation in the basics before moving on to more advanced concepts.

Here are some tips to put this law into practice:

  • Don't assume your students have even very basic knowledge about your subject (unless you are certain they do). There is a lot you know and take for granted that your students do not know. Make sure you develop a solid foundation in the basics before moving on to more advanced material.
  • Proceed by steps going from the known to the unknown. Build upon what you have already taught.
  • Use students' existing knowledge and experience in your explanations and illustrations.
  • Use quizzes to ensure students are learning fundamental concepts before proceeding to the next lesson.

If you move in step by step fashion with your lessons, your students will be able to follow you much easier and be more engaged.

Law 5: The Law of the Teaching Process

 

When you were a kid, how did you typically learn things – by listening to your parents or learning on your own?

We tend to learn best when we learn to think and do for ourselves.

For example, I could tell you how to build a shed for your garden tools on a webpage. Or I could give you a step by step video demonstration and ask you to follow along and repeat the steps with me. Which would be more effective in helping you build a shed?

If I was teaching a group of students about the characteristics of pine trees, would it be better if I gave them a list in a classroom or took them outside and told them to come up with 25 observations and details about a pine tree from their own examination?

The Law of the Teaching Process is this: Excite and direct the self-activities of the learner, and as a rule, tell him nothing that he can learn for himself.

This law may sound a bit controversial. After all, we are used to being told everything in school by our teachers or textbooks.

The problem with traditional teaching is that students tend to retain a very small portion of what they read or listen to. Retention goes way up when students have to think and discover for themselves.

Here are some tips to put this law into practice:

  • Instead of seeing yourself as a knowledge guru, see yourself as a guide or director that helps students learn for themselves.
  • Give students small, practical assignments that relate to the lesson and help them with whatever problem they are facing.

For example, if I was trying to teach productivity and I was on the topic of distractions, an assignment I might give is to have students write 5 times they got distracted while studying and the cause of the distraction. As a follow up assignment, I might have them brainstorm ways they might overcome the cause of the distraction.

As a teacher, I can teach them all kinds of information about distractions but ultimately I want a student to self-diagnose productivity problems so they can keep themselves on track long after they finished the course.

Law 6: The Law of the Learning Process

 

Teaching involves transmitting ideas that are in the mind of the teacher into the mind of the student. Unfortunately, the success of that process is often taken for granted and doesn't always occur.

The Law of the Learning Process is this: The pupil must reproduce in his own mind the truth to be learned.

Have you ever told someone something and you felt it “went in one ear and out the other”? That phrase is about the failure of learning. For whatever reason, the information didn't stick.

Our goal as teachers is to get the ideas to settle in the minds of students and be useful to use in the real world.

How do we know when the information truly sticks in the mind of the learner? Here are some tests:

  • The student can repeat what is taught
  • The student understands the thought
  • The student can translate the thought accurately into his own words
  • The student can give reasons for what he believes
  • The student can apply what he has learned to life

Notice how “repeating what is taught” is at the top of the learning process and not at the end. We don't want students merely to say the information. We want them to be able to put it to work.

Here are some tips to put this law into practice:

  • Use simple quizzes to test if a student can remember what has been taught.
  • Use “why” type questions to diagnose if a student truly understands the concepts of what has been taught.
  • Use short answer questions to test if a student can explain a concept in their own words.
  • Use essay type questions to see if a student can defend his reasons for believing what he does.
  • Use projects to see if a student can apply the information to real life.

Different types of tests and assignments can be used to diagnose if true learning has taken place. It is always helpful to see if students can truly solve the problems they need to solve on their own at the end of the course. Not only will that help you see if you have done your job as a teacher, but it will help the student see that they have truly benefited from what you have to offer.

Law 7: The Law of Review and Application

 

Information is easily forgotten. What percentage of the information you learned in school do you still remember?

As teachers, we must do what we can to help the information stick in the minds of our learners.

The Law of Review and Application is this: The completion, test and confirmation of the work of teaching must be made by review and application.

The goal of teaching is to perfect, confirm, and help the student put the knowledge to work for their benefit. Students can't do that if they don't remember what they've learned.

Here are some tips to put this law into practice:

  • Review the most important concepts after every lesson.
  • Review briefly at the start of the lesson concepts you have taught that are necessary for current lesson. This is how you can help the student move from what is known to what is unknown.
  • Review the most important concepts at the end of the course.
  • Review using new examples and illustrations to keep the information fresh and demonstrate how the concepts help solve different problems.
You don't need to review every single detail. Focus on the most important concepts that help students solve problems and complete the learning objectives you set at the start.

Those are the seven laws of teaching by John Milton Gregory. I highly recommend you pick up the book as a reference to help you become a more interesting and engaging teacher.

Let's look at some more tips to help keep your students engaged.

#4 – Use Step by Step Instruction to Teach Complex Tasks

 

People love step by step instructions for learning new things.

Think of the last time you put together a new piece of office furniture that came in a box. Did you use a one page diagram or did you use the step by step instructions?

You may not be teaching a course on how to put together office furniture but realize this:

All complex tasks and ideas can be reduced to simpler tasks and ideas.

Think about your favorite sport or exercise. How did you learn how to do it? Were you taught in a clear, step by step way or was the process haphazard and confusing?

I was briefly an amateur boxer and still do the conditioning routines weekly. Every week I see new people come into the gym for the first time and I observe the coach taking them step by step through the techniques of throwing the basic punches.

You wouldn't think that punching is something that is very difficult to do. After all, kids learn how to do it without being told.

But there is a big difference from doing a task poorly and doing it with skill and efficiency. Every athlete knows this and trains in proper technique throughout their careers. The art of throwing a good punch involves far more body mechanics than just moving your fist forward. The motions are complex and taught best step by step.

Most of your students have knowledge that is far below yours. They need your help bringing them up to speed in a way that doesn't leave gaps in their understanding. A step by step approach can really help in the right situation.

Think through your teaching goals:

  • What complex tasks or ideas are you going to teach?
  • How can you break these down into simpler tasks or concepts?
  • When might a step by step approach be most helpful for your students?

Sometimes you might think you will insult the intelligence of your students by teaching this way. But was your intelligence insulted by the step by step furniture instructions? No. If a step was too easy, you just moved through it quickly to the next. Your students will do the same.

#5 – Incorporate Smart Visual Aids

 

I saved visual aids for last because I suspect they are typically the first thing people think of when trying to make a course more engaging. However, pretty pictures won't make up for poor teaching strategies.

So what kind of visual aids can make your course more engaging?

Demonstrations

 

Show how to do something yourself. If you can't show you doing it, show someone else doing with a high level of skill and point out to your students what they are doing right.

Watch this video for a great example of an effective teaching demonstration – How to cook fish and chips with famous chef Gordon Ramsay:

After watching that video, I felt inspired to cook a recipe that I was intimidated by before. Creating great fish and chips went from a complex, intimidating idea to making me feel like I could easily do it too. That is exactly what you want your students to feel also – empowered and encouraged by your instruction.

Graphics That Explain Complicated Ideas

 

Any time you can visually demonstrate a complex idea it will be helpful to students.

For instance, what is easier to learn: a words-only lecture on the United States Federal Budget or a graphic like this?

Source: Congressional Budget Office

Sometimes pictures are worth a thousand words.

Important facts or concepts

 

Even simply showing important facts in visual form on screen can help make them more memorable. Its why companies use marketing messages next to their logos or politicians use slogans on their campaign signs. Statistics benefit from visual aids too.

Conclusion

 

I hope you learned a bit more about how to make your courses more interesting and engaging for your students.

Remember – the most important thing is to stay focused on helping your students solve problems that are important to them. Teaching techniques, memory aids, and visual aids are all designed to help facilitate that primary objective.

Helpful Resources10 Places to Sell Your Course Online

Sources

 

1. Milton, John Gregory. The Seven Laws of Teaching. United States: ReadaClassic.com, 2010 (Reprint).

 
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Jim Rosenquist

Jim Rosenquist

Jim started earning a living online in 1999 and became a solo entrepreneur in 2001. He started Solo Intel in 2019 as a way to help solo entrepreneurs and small operators become more strategic with their online business.

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