It’s kind of like writer’s block, but for instructors.

Maybe you’ve been given a new course to teach that’s related to stuff you’ve taught in the past, but is slightly different. (Side note: I’ve got two of those lined up for next year.) Or maybe you’re new to training and are trying to figure out where to begin. Maybe you’re an expert in your field who wants to create and sell online courses.

Whatever your case, here are some questions to get you thinking and help you get on with creating new courses.

Image of mathematical symbols: I can't help you understand what these mean, but I can help you create new courses that teach people how to do that!

What’s the point?

No, really. Do some thinking about the big-picture goals you have for the trainees in the course. At this stage, I like to keep things really general. Maybe it’s something like “trainees will understand how safety procedures fit into job duties” or “participants will understand basic principles of photography.” For me, it’s often things like “trainees will have a better understanding of language and culture and why these matter in a diverse workplace.”

It’s important to know what your goals are–for obvious reasons!–but it’s good to keep it general at this stage because it lets you take into consideration how this particular workshop fits into the larger training program in your organization. These workshop-specific goals should tie in to the broader goals of the training program as a whole.

In general, this step should be done first and the others are done in stages. I usually lay things out and then go back and forth, adapting as needed.

How much time do you have?

As we’ve mentioned before, pacing is something that’s hard to get the hang of at first. This is as true in an individual course workshop or online module as it is over the entire course.

Often, people get really excited and throw everything in–all the readings, all the exercises, all the videos. I remember one class in grad school where the professor wheeled in our course reading packets on a dolly, and then told us that was just for the first half of the semester. It was demoralizing, to say the least, not because we weren’t eager and excited to learn but because the chances of our assimilating all that material in 16 weeks were slim.

Good course design is really about editing, which means that what you take out is just as important as what you leave in. Think hard about which exercises and activities will be most relevant to trainees in the time you have together and given the constraints of their lives and jobs. The materials should be relevant and challenging enough to keep people engaged, but not so overwhelming that they give up or have a hard time figuring out what truly matters in the course.

Thinking about time constraints is a great way to keep this in mind. As I’m creating that initial workshop outline, I’ll divide things up by week, session, or module, and then work in the activities I think will be relevant.

How will you get people to learn the things you want them to learn?

Once you know your general goals and your timeline, it’s time to think about how exactly you’re going to get people where they need to go.

It’s also time to get more specific. Instead of a general understanding of safety procedures or language or culture, we can dive into the nitty-gritty of what they’ll actually need to know and how they’ll learn it.

As a trainer, your job is in part to set up a scaffolding that participants can follow from concept to concept and course to course.

If you’re a photographer teaching an online course for beginners, for example, think about the more specific goals you have for participants–the kinds of things they should be able to do and the concepts they should understand by the end of the course. Then think about the kinds of exercises that will let participants practice the skills they’ll need to move to the next stage.

For the workshops I’m involved in, that’s things like vocabulary, conversational phrases, and cultural knowledge. We separate it out by level, so that beginners learn the basics like “Hola, ¿cómo estás?” while more advanced participants learn the specifics of the past tense, for example. We then create activities that give participants the chance to practice the skills we want them to learn.

The specific goals for each workshop tie back to the general goals for that workshop and for the program as a whole. This helps ensure continuity among workshops and trainers in a larger program, but it’s helpful for individuals to think about too. Even if you’re an entrepreneur selling your online courses individually, you still want participants to see the connections between courses and across levels.

How will you have people show you what they’ve learned?

It’s never enough to take people’s word that they’ve learned something or that they understand something. Depending upon the kind of training you’re leading, you may need to have trainees demonstrate their understanding of the material for their managers or others. Even if there’s no real need to assess learning, as with people who sell online courses, it’s still fun to show what you’ve learned!

If your trainees need to demonstrate mastery for their bosses, think about ways to mimic the real-life situations in which they’ll need to use that knowledge. For example, set up an emergency scenario and have people act out or describe the necessary steps in ways that show that they can follow protocol. Get constructive feedback from managers on how the trainees are doing.

For someone selling online courses, you could create a space on social media to share projects and continue learning together.

In general, it’s a good idea to include multiple “tests” of knowledge in stages. Research has shown that it improves learner retention in the long run, and there are lots of ways to do this without making anyone sweat bullets about failing an exam. Build in review sections and comprehension checks with each module or workshop, then ask participants to show what they’ve learned, whether that’s in short quizzes, brief writing activities, or discussion questions.

How will you get feedback and improve the course for the future?

After doing all this work, you’re going to want feedback on what worked and what didn’t, especially if this is a course you’re leading for the first time. Although it’s a good idea to check in with trainees on a regular basis, figure out what it is that you want to measure and how you’re going to do that.

In general, I always want to know how trainees feel that their learning matches up with the course goals. I’m also interested in things like instructor effectiveness and general group dynamic. I measure these things by including formal surveys, such as workshop evaluations at the end of the session, but also by including reflective writing activities throughout the course. I also make connections with individual participants and encourage them to share feedback with me personally.

Once you’ve got the feedback, figure out what you need to do with it. If you’re teaching solo, maybe you just need to keep it on file and review it when you revise the course for next time. If you’re working with a group, do you have a way to share feedback from different participants and workshops? Who else–such as managers or other people in the organization–has access to it and what format do they prefer to see it in? Who’s in charge of that line of communication?

Creating a new course from scratch can be a lot of work, but it’s also really fun. It’s an exercise in balancing creativity and organization, and when it’s done well, you get to watch people acquire new skills and develop new talents, which as most instructors will tell you, is honestly the best part of the job!

Kirsten Drickey

Kirsten Drickey

Chief Marketing Officer at Avizr

I'm endlessly fascinated by how people learn, and I'm happiest when I'm in the process of learning something new myself.

When I'm not working on marketing for Avizr, I can be found teaching Spanish, working with my student teachers, hanging out with my dogs, and exploring the many trails around Bellingham.
Kirsten Drickey

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