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How Long Should a Self-Paced Course Be?

It depends.

Okay, okay, I know that’s a cop-out answer, but it’s true. It does depend on many factors.

One rule of thumb you can typically follow is that no single session of a self-paced course should be more than 30 minutes. More than that, and you’ll lose many people’s interest, patience, and focus.

But it’s a lot more complex than that.

A good rule of thumb is that no self-paced course should contain more than 30 minutes of content.

Even though we say no more than 30 minutes, 20 should always be your goal. It’s a magical (made-up) number. But before we get too deep into timing, to level set, it’s important to understand what we’re talking about when we say self-paced course. That’s because many things could technically be considered self-paced courses but are not.

What Is a Self-Paced Course

You may know it as a self-paced course, online course, digital course, eLearning, or something else entirely. But they’re typically all classified similarly. It’s an online course that lets you click through, read, or listen asynchronously.

Another defining feature of a self-paced course is that it can be more than something you click through. It may include videos, activities that make you do something, and evaluation questions. Then, things like software simulation eLearning allow you to learn new software at your own pace.

Then, self-paced courses are not quite as small as single-objective (micro-learning) content. They contain modules that could cover a few different overarching topics. For instance, one self-paced course project we built for an organization showed employees how to do the following:

  • Introduce employees to why they use the software and how it will help them work better.
  • How to create a new referral, save it, upload documents, and submit the referral.
  • Resume a saved referral and access referrals from other employees and locations.

Each module has a different topic that breaks up the content into thoughtful tasks that help employees understand the start and end of each task. When we work through our process for creating effective eLearning, we usually make no more than five performance objectives (not learning objectives) unless they’re extremely short.

Self-paced courses are also known as digital learning or eLearning.

A self-paced course also helps employees achieve a certain level of expertise. That doesn’t mean they become an expert, but it could be a certain level of skills that help them do their job. It does more than help employees do one specific task in a system. A training video might be more helpful and could be considered microlearning.

A self-paced course might help employees learn the essentials to complete their jobs. Or, if a specific role requires expertise, multiple courses might build different skill levels in each self-paced course.

That’s a lot of stuff that a self-paced course is. It’s hard to imagine being less than 30 minutes because it can do all that. Well, it doesn’t do all those things in one course, or if it does, then each one is likely very short.

So, now that you know what a self-paced course is, it’s also helpful to define more precisely what it isn’t.

What A Self-Paced Course Isn’t

You may have guessed already, or perhaps you just used a bit of common sense that a video alone isn’t a self-paced course. Yes, you can go at your own pace: speed it up, slow it down, pause, or whatever. Sure, a video could cover several objectives, but that’s not a good practice since it will make a video too long. That still doesn’t make it a self-paced course, though.

It’s also not a Udemy course with many videos squished together that you can watch at your own pace. Yes, you could technically call it a self-paced course, and we have built courses that are individual videos in a format that allows someone to watch them one after another.

Typically, this allows employees to easily consume every video in one place or track their progress. This strategy is not necessarily great, but it’s not always bad. It’s also not a great example of a self-paced course, even though it technically is.

Top of Udemy's home page.

Even Udemy doesn’t call their training a self-paced course or eLearning. They call it a course or an online video course. Same thing with LinkedIn Learning, they’re online video courses. They are not considered self-paced courses or eLearning because there’s no interaction in them. Maybe there’s a test or an activity you can do, but there are no drag-and-drop activities, and you also can’t have someone perform an activity like you can in a software simulation.

It’s a course but not eLearning.

Self-paced courses are also not something you sit back and absorb. You likely click a lot for activities through software or perhaps drag stuff around the screen. Yes, you probably have to click next, even though that’s not interactivity. But it’s not something you passively experience leaning back in your chair watching video after video.

A self-paced course isn’t a passive learning activity. You shouldn’t be able to sit back and watch.

A self-paced course also doesn’t make an expert out of someone who takes it. Unless the topic is so simple and fine-tuned, it can be mastered in less than 30 minutes. Typically, a self-paced course has one primary goal related to the business or department. Within that, some objectives help people achieve the ultimate goal to help them perform their jobs better.

While a video isn’t a self-paced course, a self-paced course can include a video or a few. Sometimes, a video covering a single goal could be used in a course to teach one task while learning a more extensive skill. But the video itself is never a self-paced course. Or at least it shouldn’t be.

Now that you know what a self-paced course is and isn’t, I can cover a bit more about how long they should/n’t be.

How Long Should a Self-Paced Course Be?

As I said at the beginning of this post, no course should ever be more than 30 minutes. If your content requires a course to be longer than 30 minutes, then you’re not breaking up the content sufficiently. No matter how relevant the content is, it’s difficult for anyone to focus for more than 30 minutes when learning.

If the content needs more than 30 minutes, it should be broken up into topics that make up a curriculum. We can watch the Lord of the Rings for three hours, but a self-paced course is a different beast. Nobody has to concentrate and understand complex ideas for a movie. Yes, there can be complex storylines, but that’s still not comparable to learning; it’s entertainment. When you’re learning something, it’s necessary to concentrate and connect complex dots.

The level of concentration and cognitive effort when learning something new cannot be compared to entertainment. At 30 minutes, our brain starts to tune out, and we forget; shortly after, we’re likely to experience train brain. Then there’s the fact that the more you try to pack in, the less effective anything is.

Like we always say, nothing is important if anything is important when learning.

No matter how smart someone is, there are limitations to how much working memory we have. As instructional designers, we always have to contend with cognitive load, which limits how much we can process at any given time. Information has to have time to sink in.

The self-paced course’s “goldilocks length” is 15-25 minutes, with a 15-20 minute goal.

While 30 minutes is the upper limit we recommend, that’s not the “goldilocks length” for a self-paced course. The ideal length is 15-25 minutes, with a goal of 15-20 minutes.

So, that means the main content and most important learning should happen within 20 minutes. However, there might be a short video introducing the content’s importance and WIFM (what’s in it for me), plus a little recap and additional resources at the end.

If you properly focus a self-paced course both in terms of content and performance objectives, it’s not a hard time to hit. Some of our training resources help with that focus for self-paced courses, especially the course outline template.

When you figure out the correct goal to focus on, it’s much easier also to focus the content to be shorter. It’s all about figuring out that one primary course goal and then breaking it into 1-5 performance objectives to meet that course goal. Then, make all the content map back to those objectives.

Easy, right?

Okay, it’s not easy, which is why we stake our whole value on creating more valuable and efficient training for company technology. It all boils down to what employees need to do.

If you still need to figure out how to shorten your self-paced courses, we have some tips for you!

Ways To Make a Self-Paced Course Shorter

If you’re having difficulty making your self-paced courses less than 20 minutes, these tips will help you achieve that goal easier. We could say it’s easy, but it’s not. It takes a long time to master the art of simplicity and content consolidation.

It’s impossible to take what you get from a subject matter expert (SME) and make it pretty. You’ll have too much content, and the self-paced course will be overwhelming. That’s not the SME’s fault, either. They are experts in their field and have way more knowledge than most people need to know.

As an instructional designer, your job is to work with them and their content, distilling it down to the essentials. You must also maintain a good working relationship and balance content and performance goals.

These tips will help you accomplish this monumental task you’ve been given when creating training.

  • Make sure you even need a self-paced course. Performance support, videos, or other training methods are sometimes better options. Sometimes, no training is required, and the performance issue is beyond training!
  • Keep your performance objectives to no more than five.
  • Define the ultimate goal of what employees need to be able to do after taking the course. Anything that doesn’t help accomplish that is extra and not needed.
  • Relate every learning objective to the larger goal of the course.
  • If there are too many objectives or content, break it down into more courses and combine it into a curriculum. Every course will be different in how it needs to be broken up, but there’s always a way. This is an opportunity for you to encourage recall and spaced learning.
  • Spend more time on analysis and design than on the rest of the process. Don’t skip the A or D in ADDIE. If you do, your content will DIE.
  • Use our ADDIE process to work through content more effectively.
  • Use our blog post about creating a good self-paced eLearning course, which outlines our course outline template.
  • Ensure every piece of content is essential. That analysis should even go down to the sentence level. If the content isn’t contributing directly to the objectives, cut it.
  • Chunk the content better and, if possible, split it into multiple courses that can be taken at different times.

Hopefully, with all of these ideas, you have some potential methods to shorten your self-paced course. It’s essential for everyone’s sanity that you aren’t overwhelming employees.

A little extra work on your part can save employees thousands of hours.

Spending extra time creating a self-paced course could save hundreds and thousands of hours for employees across your organization. We worked through a process that helped us cut training from an hour down to 30 minutes, saving the organization hundreds of hours (and thousands of dollars) every year.

Wrap Up

Now that you’re an expert on self-paced courses, their development, and all the strategies behind them, our job is done.

Just kidding!

Just as we could never make someone an expert with one blog post (or five), no single course could (or should) make someone an expert. But you now have a better idea about the maximum length of a self-paced course. There’s never an exact correct answer to any question, but there is a good rule of thumb to observe.

That’s why, while we may have been a bit vague at times, you still have some good guidance. There’s no good reason why a self-paced course should be longer than 30 minutes.

While our upper limit is 30 minutes, there’s still a more ideal course length, which we also reviewed. So, make sure your content at least has the goal of being 15-20 minutes. While a course isn’t likely to be shorter than 15 minutes, we regularly create content around 17-20 minutes. It’s ideal to keep it there, and you can accomplish that goal with some work.

You even have some helpful pointers to help you create shorter, more digestible content. While our list isn’t comprehensive, it does point you to some additional resources that are a bit more comprehensive. We also have many resources that help you create better training. That will always be a great go-to for templates, checklists, and other documents.

Remember, you’re not alone when creating training in your organization. There are many great resources for creating more concise training content, and we’re always here to help; just ask.

If you have a project coming up that requires technical training for employees to get up to speed on a corporate IT system, we’re experts in that realm. We’d love to discuss your project and learn more about it, so schedule a free consultation.

Our expertise is creating custom software simulations using a variety of solutions that we will work with you to determine. It all comes down to helping your employees work better with company technology.

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