oo long, too short, just right?
Just how long should an eLearning course be anyway?
It’s a common question. We’ve all had to justify the amount of time employees will be spending on a course to an under-resourced manager, or busy teams. So, what is best practice?
Dig into the learning science, and you’ll find a range of different conclusions, including:
- As short as possible - humans have pathetic attention spans.
- Fifteen to thirty minutes - no more, no less.
- As long as you need - why stop at one hour? Take two!
How is it possible to have so many different conclusions?
It’s possible because there are many different ways to manage the length of an eLearning course that can lead to success or failure.
In other words, almost any course length can succeed or fail, depending on how the course is designed.
To help you succeed every time, we’ll share our tips for managing length, and then we’ll explore the advantages and disadvantages of different course lengths.
Tip #1 - Use your learning outcomes as guidelines
If you’ve read any of our previous blogs, you’ll probably know that we believe that learning outcomes are the critical first step for creating any piece of training.
Learning outcomes are like the rails on a bowling alley, preventing your course from ending up in the gutter by keeping it, well, on course. Though unlike bowling rails, you never grow out of learning outcomes, because they’re just too important.
With clear learning outcomes, you can determine what material is useful, and what’s superfluous. With every word, diagram, video or question, ask, “Will this ensure my learners achieve my learning outcomes?” If it doesn’t - toss it.
In this way, you can hone your course down to a lean and punchy learning experience and confidently justify the length to any manager.
You can also use the number of learning outcomes in a course as a rough guide for the length of the course - more on that later.
Tip #2 - Prioritise quality over quantity
Another challenge when trying to gather research on how long a training course should be: studies rarely (if ever) share the courses given to participants. They only show the results.
This is significant, because the most important influence on the satisfaction of learners with the length of course is the quality of the course.
A poorly constructed course is going to have any learner begging for it to end sooner.
But a course that works hard to make the content highly relevant and engaging… well, that’s when a learner might start to lose track of time a little.
Therefore, before asking “how long should my course be?”, first ask questions like:
- Will my learners understand the importance of this material?
- Will they be able to see how it relates to their practice?
- Is my content clear and concise?
- Does my content assist my learners to achieve my learning outcomes?
- Have I thoughtfully employed stories, media, questions and interactive elements?
By prioritising the quality of the learning experience, the question of quantity becomes largely irrelevant.
In other words, worry less about how long your course, focus more on if it is good.
Advantages and disadvantages of short courses (5-15 minutes long)
Short eLearning courses are ideal for focusing on just one, two or three learning outcomes.
These courses saw a rise in popularity with the concept of “microlearning”. Microlearning is a broad concept that essentially refers to structuring content in a series of small bites.
They typically have around a dozen or fewer pages, and the ultra short ones rarely have time for an assessment.
Short courses certainly appeal to short attention spans.
“People’s attention span can be affected by other work priorities. The prospect of knowing a short course won’t take a large part of the day is a motivating factor for learners,” shares Caterina Nicolo, Lead Learning Scientist at HowToo.
In more recent years, microlearning has evolved into the concept of learning in the flow of work. This concept advocated for libraries of short courses that workers can dip in and out of on an as-needed basis, such as brushing up on a process, or using a spare ten minutes to upskill once every day or two.
Breaking larger courses into smaller chunks can also help you to space the learning over several days or weeks, a well-known tactic for improving retention.
However, this approach struggles to deliver when tackling more complex topics containing interlinked concepts or new ideas.
“The disadvantage of a really short course is lack of depth of the subject matter,” Nicolo confirms. “It’s hard to vary the interactions in a short course.”
Short courses are also often insufficient for covering important compliance-related topics, such as workplace safety or digital security. The solution to naturally dry content isn’t to get it over and done with as quickly as possible, but rather to spend time on making the content relevant, significant and engaging.
Advantages and disadvantages of medium courses (20-40 minutes long)
Medium length eLearning courses are ideal for tackling four to eight learning outcomes.
Medium length courses are the most common as they can often cover an entire topic in one course. Medium courses can employ branching pathways and multi-topic structures, unlike short courses that are typically linear only.
Medium courses are ideal for covering important compliance topics that are difficult to break into smaller chunks. Compliance topics such as safety and policy can be dry or tedious, and therefore require more time to engage the learner. They also often require more involved assessments in order to certify the learner’s competence.
“It also gives the learner the chance to interact with more media, such as videos, audio or even games that may not fit into shorter courses,” Nicolo suggests. “If designed effectively, a longer course can tap into the learner’s past experience, expand their understanding, apply new knowledge and reflect on what they have learned.”
Medium courses also align well with popular productivity methodologies designed to maximise focus for fixed durations, such as the Pomodoro method. A medium course could easily fit into one or two cycles of a method such as this, and may include designated moments to take a quick break to refresh.
An approach like this could combat one of the disadvantages of long courses. “Courses over 30 minutes can be daunting for learners as they may have deadlines or competing work responsibilities,” Nicolo shares. “Learners need to have self discipline and strong motivation to maintain their concentration and get the most out of longer courses.”
Another drawback to medium courses is that they are often treated as one-and-done training solutions. The course is distributed, the learner completes it, a box is ticked and the topic is forgotten about. This lack of spaced recall can significantly reduce long-term retention of the content.
Advantages and disadvantages of long courses (50+ minutes long)
Long courses are without a doubt the least popular and most controversial option. While some research may suggest that a 90 minute course is fine, it’s rare to find a learning designer planning to design one.
“Try to divide the course into several micro courses, or if that’s not possible, use a more complex structure in which content is broken into individual topics,” Nicolo says.
Creating a truly engaging long course requires extensive planning, effort and investment.
Such a course would need a wide range of media such as videos and audio, as well as interactive elements, expert storytelling, clever questions and take-a-break points.
However, such a long course is almost certainly going to put your learner in a frustrated and resistant mindset before they’ve even begun. Why? Such a long course is inherently inflexible at a time where flexibility has never been more important. It forces learners to block out a very long period of time, and spend it all staring at screens.
“Do some research with your target audience with a test course, before rolling out a very long course,” recommends Nicolo. “You will get valuable information about your learners and their needs and capabilities.”
So... how long should my eLearning course be?
As a rough guide, every learning outcome can equate to around five minutes of learning content, give or take.
The type of content can also inform the length of your course, as some types are naturally quick to cover, and others require more time.
But if you’ve gotten to this point in the blog, you’ll also know that the quality of your course is far more important - if you need to make it longer or shorter to make it better, then go right ahead.