4 common mistakes in determining how long an elearning course should be

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One of the top questions we see from people new to elearning (or even experienced instructional designers) is how long an elearning course should be? Yet most people approach this question with fundamental mistakes in their thinking. Let's review four of the most common mistakes in determining how long an elearning course should be in this article.

One of the top questions we see from people new to elearning (or even experienced instructional designers) is how long an elearning course should be? It’s such an important question that it plays a part in three of the core rules for our digital learning coach, Sage.

Yet most people approach this question with fundamental mistakes in their thinking. Let’s review four of the most common mistakes in determining how long an elearning course should be in this article.

Mistake #1 – Too much focus on attention span

A lot of articles about ‘how long an elearning course should be’ have a focus on the issue of attention spans – how long can someone focus on the content? This is completely irrelevant.

Adults are capable of focusing on content for hours. We regularly watch sporting events, movies, TV shows which go for many hours or read a book for an entire evening. We don’t have a problem with our attention span. We have a problem with content which can’t hold our attention span.

Not surprisingly, most generic elearning cannot hold an adult’s attention span. But this isn’t due to a problem with our attention span – that’s the symptom. The problem is content which is not relevant or contextualised. Generic elearning, by its nature, is generic. It’s often not suited to the learner’s role, organisation, culture or personality. It’s not surprising that style of elearning needs to be short, because it is boring and irrelevant.

Now contrast that to various YouTube channels which have 30-minute videos going in-depth into specific challenges and solutions. Those videos may not have particularly high production quality, nor are they in any way interactive, yet they can have 1000s of views right through the 30 minutes. This is because the content is relevant. It’s authentic. It’s just what the viewer is looking for.

That’s not to say your elearning shouldn’t look good, but if you think the solution to poor attention span is to have higher production values in your elearning, then you are still missing the point. Relevancy is king. If the elearning content is relevant and valuable to the learner, it doesn’t need to be overproduced and it can be of just about any length.

When it comes to determining how long an elearning course should be, it’s an inverse relationship. The more relevant your content, the less you need to worry about the length of elearning from an attention span point of view. So perhaps spending more time improving the content, or positioning the importance of the training to the learner, is a better investment than paying a consultant to ‘jazz up’ your elearning with expensive videos or animations.

Mistake #2 – Not enough focus on cognitive load

A more important issue when determining how long an elearning course should be isn’t about attention span – it’s about cognitive load. Adults are capable of focusing for a long time. However, we are not capable of learning indefinitely.

All learning places a load on our cognitive (mental) resources. Cognitive load refers to the used amount of working memory resources. There’s plenty of research and science in the area of cognitive psychology. Broadly speaking, instructional design in elearning needs to manage the cognitive load in learners to allow working memory to process information before it is transferred to long-term memory. So what does that mean?

Essentially, if we overload a learners working memory, then they are unable to process new information coming at them and that information is not retained. Think of it like a sink with a drain at the bottom. We can turn on a tap to fill the sink (provide the learner with new information). The sink fills up (cognitive load) and drains out the bottom (into long-term memory). If we turn on the tap faster than the sink can drain, the sink overflows (new information is lost).

While this is a simplistic example, it demonstrates the gist of the problem. Learners need time to process – reduce cognitive load, analyse new information and transfer it to long-term memory.

So back to our question of how long an elearning course should be. The issue of cognitive load suggests they should be shorter, to allow time for learners to digest content. And to a degree that is true. Less information is, at first glance, easier to consume than more information. That too is a simplistic analysis, however.

  • The issue is not how long an elearning course is. The issue is creating space within the elearning course. If the elearning course is FULL of content without any reflective learning activities, so that the learner never takes a break, then even a short elearning course can be a problem.
  • All learning needs pauses. Time to review and reflect. Time to stop new content and simply analyse existing content. This is why, after presenting new content, elearning needs review and reflection activities – some scenarios to analyse, a short quiz to complete, some social learning opportunities. Anything which ‘turns off the tap’ and allows learners to process what they have already received.

As a result, you can sustain elearning modules for a lengthy period, if those modules contain an appropriate amount of ‘pauses’ for the content they are presenting. This means also considering how complex the content is and how experienced the learners are. In any event, it does not mean ‘shorter is better’.

Mistake #3 – Not enough focus on chunking

Let’s continue with this thought. When considering how long an elearning course should be, we need to take a step back and consider the issue of chunking.

Say we have an elearning course which is 60 minutes in length. If that course has no checkpoints, modules or chapters within it – there is just a start and, 60 minutes later, a finish, that might indeed be too much cognitive load even with review and reflection activities (depending on the content). Chunking may therefore be the answer.

Chunking of content breaks up an elearning topic into smaller pieces. In Tribal Habits, for example, chunking occurs as follows.

  1. Elements. The smallest chunk of content is an element – a quiz, an interactive image, a video, a set of flip cards.
  2. Sections. Sections then bundle up elements of content around one small aspect of the content. So a section might consist of an image, some text, a few insights and a quiz.
  3. Points. Points then bundle up several sections around one major aspect of the content.
  4. Topic. Topics then bundle up several points to cover the defined learning objectives of the content.
  5. Pathway. Pathways then bundle up several topics to create a learning journey through a number of learning objectives.

Chunking of content this way firstly helps cognitive load by ‘pre-processing’ information for the learner – this speeds up the transfer process for the learner. Chunking helps the learner digest smaller pieces of content and organise that content into a ‘scheme’ (a pattern) which is easier to remember later.

Chunking also provides milestones. It gives the learner a feeling of progression as they complete each chunk. In Tribal Habits, for example, as a learner completes each point, they receive visual feedback of their progress – checkmarks, positive language and so on.

The transition from each point also creates a pause in the process, which allow for the cognitive load to be reduced or encourages the learner to take a break at that moment (when they are between new points of knowledge, rather than within one point of knowledge which they have not finished).

Mistake #4 – Too much focus on elearning fads

Chunking is a great buzzword in elearning. In any article about how long an elearning course should be, chunking is bound to come up. Unfortunately, two other less useful buzzwords may also arise – micro-learning and gamification. These fads offer ‘solutions’ to issues of elearning length, but actually, they are simply addressing the symptom (disengaging content) rather than the problem.

Micro-learning

Micro-learning suggests that, due to our apparent short attention spans, learning should be compressed to bite-size pieces of less than three minutes. There is no research at all to suggest this approach works. There is research to suggest that ‘micro-reminders’ (nudges) may help reinforce previously learnt knowledge. But to consider micro-learning as an approach to teaching anything of substance is misinformed.

It takes the average adult several minutes to move on from a previous task and focus on the current task. If the current task is a two-minute micro-learning module, the experience is over before the adult had any change to actually focus. The cognitive load becomes irrelevant if there is no time for cognitive engagement!

If you want to know how long an elearning course should be – the answer is not 2 minutes.

Gamification

Gamification is a widely used concept with many meanings in elearning.

  • It can be used to describe the gamification of content – turning learning into the process of playing a game to understand the content.
  • It can also be used to describe a points system – learners receive points for completing learning tasks in some form of competition.

Using games as a learning interaction can have its place, but the games need to be carefully designed. Games can disengage certain learners or trivialise certain content. The time spent to build an appropriate online learning game is often better spent on just creating more relevant content!

Gamification for points on a learning leaderboard may work with certain demographics, but once again it suggests that the purpose of learning is to gain points, not create change. When a learner understands that the elearning module will actually help them as a person – in their role – then made up points on an imaginary leaderboard become irrelevant!

The answer to how long an elearning course should be

In summary, there is no prescriptive answer to how long an elearning course should be. 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 60 minutes or 90 minutes may all be completely fine.

  • Ignore warnings of ‘people have the attention span of a goldfish’. People will stay engaged if the content is relevant.
  • Think about your content and trying to avoid cognitive overload. Use review and reflection activities to pause the load.
  • Give more time to how you ‘chunk’ your content, to help the cognitive analysis process and reduce load.
  • Don’t get caught up in buzzwords and fads which try to mask symptoms rather than address problems.

In Tribal Habits, our digital learning coach, Sage, has three rules in her algorithms which review the length of your elearning modules, including…

  1. How long is each point (including its relationship to overall topic length)?
  2. Are any sections too long (in their relationship to each point)?
  3. Do you have too many sections (in relationship to the length of each point)?

Together, these rules (and our number-crunching behind them!) give you realtime feedback how on long an elearning source should be!

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