How Long Should A Self-Paced Course Be?

It depends.

Okay okay, I know that’s a copout answer but it’s true. It does depend on a lot of things.

One rule of thumb that you can typically stand by no matter what is that no single session of any self-paced course should be more than 30 minutes. More than that and you’re going to lose a lot of people’s interest, patience, and focus.

But, it’s a lot more complex than that.

A good rule of thumb is to make no single self-paced course take more than 30 minutes.

Even though we say no more than 30 minutes, 20 should always be your goal and is a magical (made-up) number. But, before we get too deep into timing, just to level set, it’s important to understand what we’re talking about when we say self-paced course. That’s because a lot of things could technically be considered a self-paced course 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 a course that you take online 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 too. Then there are things like software simulation eLearning that allow you to learn new software at your own pace.

Then there’s the fact that 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’re using 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 them understand the start and end of each task. When we work through our process for creating effective eLearning, we usually create 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, though. A training video might be more helpful for that and is what could be considered microlearning.

A self-paced course might help employees through the essentials to complete their jobs. Or, it could be that a specific role needs to be an expert in which case multiple courses might build different skill levels in each self-paced course.

That’s a lot of stuff that a self-paced course is. Being that it can do all that, it’s hard to imagine being less than 30 minutes. 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 nice to define a little 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 simply 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 that is a bunch of 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.

That’s typically to provide employees with the option of consuming every video about a system all in one place easily or to track watching them all. That’s not necessarily a great strategy, but it’s not always bad either. It’s not a great example of a self-paced course, either, even though it technically is.

Top of Udemy's home page.

Even Udemy doesn’t call their type of training a self-paced course or eLearning. They simply call it a course or an online video course. The reason for them not being considered self-paced courses or eLearning is that 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.

Self-paced courses are also not something you sit back and simply absorb. There’s likely a lot of clicking for activities, through software, or perhaps dragging stuff around the screen. Yes, you even likely have to click next even though that’s not real 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 does not make an expert out of someone who takes it. That is unless the topic is so simple and fine-tuned that it can be mastered in less than 30 minutes. Typically a self-paced course has one major goal that relates 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 is not a self-paced course, a self-paced course can include a video or a few. Sometimes a video that covers a single goal could be used in a course to teach one task in a process of learning a larger 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?

Like 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. It’s difficult for anyone to focus for more than 30 minutes on something important they learn for their job.

If the content needs more than 30 minutes it should be broken up into topics that make up a curriculum. We can spend three hours watching the Lord of the Rings 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. 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’re likely to experience train brain. Then content starts to become forgettable, things blend together, and people get overwhelmed. 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 golidlocks length of a self-paced course is 15-25 minutes with a goal in the 15-20 minute range.

While 30 minutes is the upper limit that we recommend, that’s not the goldilocks length for a self-paced course. No, the ideal length of a self-paced course is between 15-25 minutes with a goal more towards the 15-20 minute range.

So, that means the main content and most important learning should happen within 20 minutes. But, there might be a short video that introduces the importance and WIFM (what’s in it for me) of the content plus a little bit of 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 to also focus the content to be shorter. It’s all about figuring out that one major course goal and then breaking it into 1-5 performance objectives to meet that course goal. Then, just 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 training employees on company technology. It all boils down to what employees need to do.

If you’re still at a loss for how to make your self-paced courses shorter, we have some tips for you!

Ways To Make A Self-Paced Course Shorter

If you’re having a hard time 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 SME (subject matter expert) and make it pretty. You’ll end up with way too much content and a self-paced course that’s 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.

You’re an instructional designer whose job it is to work with them and their content to boil it down to the essentials. It’s your job to maintain a good working relationship and manage a balance between content and performance goals.

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

  • Make sure you even need a self-paced course. Sometimes performance support, videos, or some other means of training is a better option. Or, sometimes training isn’t needed at all 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 too much content, break it down into more courses and then 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 you do on the rest of the process. Don’t skip the A or D in ADDIE. If you do then your content will DIE.
  • Use our ADDIE process to work through content more effectively.
  • Use our blog post about how to create a good self-paced eLearning course which walks through 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 up 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 the sanity of everyone that you aren’t overwhelming employees.

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

If you spend extra time creating a self-paced course you could potentially save employees across your organization hundreds and thousands of hours. 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!

The same as we could never make someone an expert with one blog post (or 5) no single course could make someone an expert (or should). But you now have a better idea about the maximum length of a self-paced course. There’s never an exact right 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 pretty 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 length of a course 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 that is around 17-20 minutes. It’s ideal to keep it there and with a bit of work, you can accomplish that goal.

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

Just remember, you’re not alone when creating training in your organization. There are tons of great resources out there about how to create more succinct training content. We’re always here to help also, just ask.

If you have a project coming up that requires technical training where employees need to get up-to-speed on an IT system, we’re experts in that realm. We’d love to discuss your project and learn more about your project so be sure to 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 and using technology to do that.

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