Creating an engaging online course isn’t just about the content—it’s about structure.

Think about it like constructing a building; without a solid framework, even the most beautiful designs can crumble.


So, how do you build an online course that stands strong?

It first needs a clear path.

Whether it’s a step-by-step journey or a more flexible, topic-based approach, your course should guide learners smoothly from start to finish.

Consider your online course outline as the blueprint, setting the stage for success.

Remember, a well-organized course isn’t just easier to follow—it makes learning more enjoyable and impactful for your students.

Tools for laying down course structure

When structuring your online course, the right tools can make the planning process much smoother.

When it comes to structuring my online courses, I find that mind mapping is an incredibly useful tool. Mind mapping not only helps me organize my thoughts but also taps into the way our brains naturally work.

By visually plotting out the main topics and subtopics of the course, mind mapping allows for a more coherent flow of information.


Mind mapping allows you to visually plot out your course’s main topics and subtopics, making it easier to organize your thoughts and ensure a coherent flow.

  • XMind: A versatile free option that’s great for getting your ideas down quickly.
  • MindNode: A fantastic choice for Mac users, known for its clean interface.
  • Online Tools: Tools like MindMeister, Miro, and Whimsical offer web-based mind mapping that’s collaborative and interactive.

When creating a more detailed structure for your course, an invaluable tool is an outlining tool. One such tool is Dynalist, which enables you to create outlines that can be as simple or as complex as you need. It supports nested lists, document organization, and more.

By using these tools, you can better organize your course content and provide a clear learning path for your students. Whether you prefer the broad strokes of mind maps or detailed outlines, these resources will help bring your vision to life.

Determine goal of your course

Determine goal of your course

When structuring your online course, it’s pivotal to have a clear goal driving the design.

Imagine the transformation you want your students to experience by the end of the course.

Keep asking yourself: What should they be able to accomplish that they couldn’t before?

Here’s how you can home in on your course goal:

  1. Endgame: Visualize the finish line. Where do you want your students to be? Start there and work backward to build your roadmap.
  2. Action steps: Identify the five essential actions that will lead to transformation. For example, to succeed, students should comprehend, implement, progress, engage, and reflect on their growth and understanding.
SMART goals

The goal should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound (SMART).

  • Specific: What exactly will your student achieve?
  • Measurable: How will they and you know they’ve succeeded?
  • Achievable: Is the goal attainable with the course content?
  • Relevant: Does this lead to the desired transformation?
  • Time-bound: Can they reach the goal in the course duration?

Remember, by enabling your students to achieve these goals, you not only empower them but also gather success stories that act as testimonials to attract more learners.

This feedback loop perpetuates a cycle of continuous success and growth for both you and your students.

Determine format of your course

Choosing the right structure for your course is pivotal.

It should align with your course’s goals and cater to the optimal learning experience for your students.

Let’s explore the various formats you might consider.

  1. Step-by-step approach: Ideal for sequential learning where one lesson builds on the next. You have to decide whether to release all content at once to allow binge-watching or if you’ll unlock modules gradually to pace the learning process.
  2. Monthly challenges: These are perfect for courses requiring action and consistent engagement. Each day unlocks a new lesson, prompting regular interaction and building a routine for learners.
  3. Week-by-week outline: This format spaces out content across weeks. It’s a great fit for courses that benefit from reflection and practice, providing ample time between sessions for students to absorb the material and apply skills.
  4. Reference course: This type of course is like a knowledge library. If you’re teaching theoretical content that’s available elsewhere but you’re presenting it in a streamlined and captivating manner, the reference format is your best choice.

When planning your course, think about how you want your students to journey through the learning material.

Sprint Vs Marathon

Should it be a sprint or a marathon?

Your answer will help you select the most suitable course format to lead your students to success.

Nowadays, monthly or 90-day challenges are extremely popular, particularly for transformative courses. Whether you’re looking to improve your sleep quality in 90 days, lose weight, or succeed on YouTube, these formats may be of interest to you.

Create course lessons

When crafting your online course lessons, start by defining a clear learning objective for each lesson.

These should align with the overarching goals of your course and its modules. Consider how each objective supports learners in acquiring the intended knowledge and skills.

gagne nine events
Image credits: Educationlibrary

Structure your lessons around the 9 events of instruction to foster effective learning. These events include:

  1. Gaining attention: Grab your learners’ interest from the start.
  2. Informing learners of objectives: Let learners know what they’ll accomplish.
  3. Stimulating recall of prior learning: Connect new information with existing knowledge.
  4. Presenting the content: Clearly and concisely share the material.
  5. Providing learning guidance: Offer resources and support understanding.
  6. Eliciting performance: Get learners to apply what they’re learning.
  7. Giving feedback: Offer constructive insights on learner performance.
  8. Assessing performance: Measure learner comprehension and capability.
  9. Enhancing retention and transfer: Help learners retain information and apply it outside the course.

These events culminate in a comprehensive learning experience.

Lessons should be bite-sized, with a suggested max length of 2-7 minutes. Why?

The attention economy has changed how we consume content; therefore, short videos can be more engaging and help maintain focus.

Concept of chunking

For an in-depth look at their benefits, explore the psychological concept of chunking, which bolsters memory and understanding.

Also, each of your lesson videos should be no more than 5-7 minutes.

To get more ideas on optimal video length guidelines, check out this resource.

Distribution of Video Lengths
Credits: Wistia

This not only provides comprehension benefits but also makes it easier to add and delete new and existing videos in the future. With atomic lessons, editing becomes much simpler and time-efficient compared to a single long video that would require extensive editing.

And here’s the thing.

To spice things up, you need to consider supplementing video content with other formats of lessons.

Incorporate various content types into your lessons to cater to different learning styles:

  • Quizzes: Test knowledge and reinforce learning.
  • Audio Clips: Offer succinct explanations and expand topics through related podcasts.
  • PDF Documents: Provide files for easy reference during or after learning.
Various content types available on Thinkific

Many LMS platforms like say Thinkific already comes with these.

For example, when you create a course, you have the ability to include surveys, quizzes, slides, and assessments alongside the course content.

This mixed-use of media serves as a “pattern interrupt,” a psychological tool that keeps learners engaged by presenting information in new and varied ways.

These elements should be woven into your lessons to create a dynamic and inclusive learning environment.

When naming lessons, don’t get stuck. Jot down potential names, then group them based on common themes, making sure they’re indicative of the lesson content.

Remember, understanding your course’s specific learning domain—whether it involves verbal information, cognitive strategies, or motor skills—can guide how you design lesson content, ensuring it’s tailored to the kind of learning you’re imparting.

Create course modules

Create Course Modules

When organizing your online course, think of modules as milestones, each one moving your students closer to their end goal.

Consider what main projects or achievements they should complete along the learning journey.

For example, if you’re teaching about video content creation, a module might be “Mastering Video Editing.”

When people see the name of a module, they should be able to clearly understand the main transformation they will experience by going through it. This transformation should ultimately align with the goal of your course.

It’s okay if module titles don’t come to you immediately.

Start by drafting your lessons. Often, patterns emerge that naturally group into modules.

For naming the modules, choose generic yet descriptive module names; they should be intuitive and clearly communicate what learners will gain from each section.

Course module names

Also, you need to consider including a variable number of lessons in each module. This unpredictability can make learning more exciting, as students aren’t sure how many steps it will take to reach the next celebration point.

By keeping your module creation student-centered and progress-focused, you’ll design an online course that’s both effective and enjoyable.

Refine the structure

Refine Course Structure

Once you’ve drafted the initial framework of your online course through a mind map or outline, it’s crucial to refine its structure for student success. Think of it as a roadmap; make it one they can follow easily.

To enhance the learning journey, prioritize empathy.

Put yourself in your learners’ shoes to ensure the content resonates and is digestible.

Here are some actionable tips on this:

  • Start with the basics and then progressively introduce more complex topics.
  • Reorder content for a natural progression, guiding students from one concept to another seamlessly.
  • Identify and bridge knowledge gaps within your course. This ensures students don’t get lost and all necessary information is covered:

Refining the structure of your course is an ongoing process as you continue to add more content over time.

Get Feedack For Courses

To help you with this, you need to regularly:

  • Review feedback from pilot sessions or anticipate queries.
  • Insert additional lessons or exercises where needed.
  • Use italicized text for important terms and bold for key takeaways.

Remember, the goal is comprehension and retention.

Adjust the sequence of lessons to facilitate a state of flow. This might mean breaking down complex sections into bite-sized modules or adding interactive elements to maintain engagement.

Lastly, continuously refine your structure based on student feedback and performance data. An iterative approach will significantly enhance the learning experience and success of your online course.

Tweaking the course structure for better completion rates

Understanding that only a fraction of enrolled students typically finish an online course can be disheartening.

For instance, according to an Open University doctoral student, over 90 percent of students quit online classes.

Open University doctoral student Study

To combat this trend, it’s essential to structure your course to foster higher engagement and completion rates.

Here are some actionable strategies to restructure your online course for better results:

  • Incorporate immediate feedback: Introduce quizzes and assignments for immediate assessment and active participation.
  • Encourage discussions: Start forum threads, host live Q&A sessions, and promote sharing of insights to foster collaboration and meaningful discussions.
  • Create module milestones: Assign points for module completion to motivate students and provide a clear learning path.
  • Leverage group dynamics: Form student groups, assign accountability partners, and create opportunities for peer feedback and recognition to enhance engagement and create a sense of community.

By implementing these targeted adjustments, each student’s journey through your course can become more compelling and fulfilling. Engagement should rise, mirrored by an uptick in completion rates.

Closing thoughts

In conclusion, creating an engaging online course requires careful consideration of its structure.

Just like a well-built building, a solid framework is essential for success. By outlining a clear path, utilizing effective tools, defining goals, selecting the right format, and crafting thoughtful lessons and modules, you can create an online course that not only guides learners but also empowers them to achieve their desired outcomes.

Remember, continuous refinement and student-centered design are key to improving completion rates and enhancing the overall learning experience.

Now that you have a strong understanding of structuring an online course, it’s time to dive deeper into the next blog post in this series: How to Create Course Content. In this upcoming post, we will explore strategies and tips for developing engaging and impactful course content. Stay tuned for more valuable insights on your journey to creating exceptional online courses.