How To Create An Online Course Using Learning Psychology

I've created some really high-performing online courses which ended up generating almost 10 times my salary when I was working as a surgeon and I'm going to share some of my personal tips and approaches that made my course perform really well and offer value to learners.

How To Create An Online Course Using Learning Psychology
Photo by Sam McGhee / Unsplash

Everyone has something valuable they can teach others and there has never been a better time to create an online course and share your knowledge. Online courses are super popular with sites like Skillshare and many more enabling people to create useful content and generate a new revenue stream. But how can you ensure that people actually get value from your course and maximise your revenue from the time you put in.

Find Your Niche

So there are lots of online courses out there and most of the YouTubers that you follow probably have courses and you might be thinking "what the heck can even teach people anyway?". Well the good news is that you don't need to have a PhD in something to teach a course and you don't need to be an expert, although it definitely helps. Most learners are interested in new takes on a particular topic and the value that a course offers to help them transform their lives. So if you are a great teacher and have a course that actually offers value and impact you can teach pretty much anything that you are passionate about and you have some experience in from passing exams to something related to your job.

To help you find your niche think about the following questions: What do you do for a living? What are your favorite hobbies? Do you have a special skill that most people don’t possess?

When I created my first course when working as a surgeon it was because I had done really well at job interviews and had lots of notes and materials I wanted to share to help others. Then I came to the realization that I should really be charging for my time as I was putting in a lot of effort.

So pick something that you are passionate about. Learners respond to the vocals, energy and personality of their teacher and delivering your online course is as much about how you make people feel as it is about the actual content of what you are saying. If you are passionate and knowledgeable you are more likely to find it fun creating the content and when you do, your enthusiasm will be reflected in your learners.

Finally make sure you choose a focused and niche topic rather than a broad one. Having a broad topic usually means more competition. The more focused your niche, the easier it is to convey expertise and the more focused your audience will be. One of my original businesses specialised in interview skills for surgeons which was super niche but offered a huge amount of value and made marketing pretty straight forward. Now if you're still struggling don't worry too much as you can optimise your course by speaking with the most important people; your learners.

Understanding Your Ideal Learner

Offering value to our learners is absolutely critical when creating our online course. But just who is your learner and audience? Well while jumping in and creating content might sound like the first logical step it is important to first identify your learner persona and deeply understand what their needs and problems are so that you can tailor content to those needs and problems and ensure you have product market fit i.e. people will actually use your course. Most entrepreneurs and businesses fail because they don't have product market fit and what they are building just isn't useful so no-one buys it as it's not solving a problem for them.

Remember your learners are the most important part of your course and you need to know them in detail. It’s therefore helpful to map out a quick learner persona by asking a few simple questions:

1. What age are your learners?

2. What are their demographics and language?

3. What is their level of education/understanding of the topic

4. Where do they usually go for knowledge online?

5. How can you connect with them online? E.g. social media what blogs do they read etc

6. What are their main goals that your course can help with

7. How much time do they have

8. What problem are you solving for them

Once you have started to map out a persona and know where your learners go for their information you might want to start reaching out to them and building an early audience to help you construct your course. Conducting early learner interviews even when you just have a rough idea of your niche allows you to get insights from your learners. You can do this by reaching out to people you think might be interested on social media or through communities or forums.

You can say something like, "Hi, I'm creating a course on blank and want to make sure it's incredibly valuable for learners. I'm wondering if you'd be willing to give me 15 minutes of your time for a short video call, where I can find out how my course

might be able to help people, just like you reach their goals. If you're interested, I'd love to give you the course for free. Once I'm done to show you my appreciation."

Once you've set up a few video calls, make sure to take the time to study these ideal learners' social media profiles, to learn more about them in preparation for the meeting at the meeting, make sure to ask these questions and to document their answers.

• What are the problems that I can help you solve?

• What are the challenges that you encounter in the learning process that I can help you overcome?

• What would your goals be in taking this course?

• If you were to complete the course, what is the outcome you'd hope to get?

• What modules would be key in a course like this?

You can learn a lot from that natural interaction of interviewing someone and sometimes gain a lot of information that they wouldn't really think about writing down. Make sure to conduct interviews with at least 10 people.

Once you're done this, creating a quick Google survey with the same questions is a really good idea. That way you can widen your sample size to make sure it's significant between interviewing people and sending out surveys, you'll want to make sure that you have answers from at least 30 people if possible.

Another great way to test for product-market fit for your course is to pre-sell a course with a waiting list. While this doesn’t give you as much insight into your learners as interviews do it is a fairly quick way to gauge interest and can help you to build up a waitlist of learners.

To pre-sell a course all you need is a landing page or email list and form capture tool that allows you to collect emails and expressions of interest.

A tool like ConvertKit is great for this and you can say something like “Hey I’m planning on launching a new course about X which covers XYZ. Here is a quick outline of the course. If you are interested would like early access to the course please complete the form below.”

Obviously your email copy can be loads better but the idea is that if people are excited enough to sign-up to your course before it is live that’s a great indicator of it’s usefulness and can help you to build a marketing list.

Before you even start building your course I'd recommend writing out a sales page in a word document or as a landing page using something like ConvertKit to define the problem you are solving and why your solution adds value. Most entrepreneurs build their product first and then hope marketing will take care of the rest. But they're doing it the wrong way round. If you don't believe me just look at how online fake gurus use marketing tactics to build cult-like followings around online courses that don't necessarily offer huge value.

I'll be diving into how to market your online course effectively and without deception in my next video so be sure to hit subscribe but for now remember to focus on teaching something that offers value to your learners rather than something that you want to teach.

To get even more data on your early idea for a course, create a mini-course MVP. MVP stands for minimally viable product and is outlined in detail in the book the Lean Start-up. In the book an MVP is a product with just enough features that you release to the public to validate your assumptions. From my experience outside of surgery and medicine founding and building tech companies early customer interviews and creating an MVP are the two most important things to ensure that your product is useful and sells.

Your course MVP is the shortest course that offers enough value for people to sign-up to. This forces you to focus on what the core value add of your course is to learners and allows you to collect early feedback on your course content.

Depending on what your niche is a mini course might be a snippet of the subject you are teaching. For example if you are teaching how to create an amazing online course you might just release a mini-course around how to structure the course first.

Your final option to test your assumption and ensure that learners want your course is to offer out free content through your network. This might be a webinar programme, Instagram live or social media posts that cover bit-size snippets of what you are an expert in. This will help you to grow an audience and also to get to know your learners and validate that people actually want your course idea. Again you can turn this into a marketing and sales funnel by moving people to a waitlist or to sign-up to your mini-course.

All of these methods help you to test your course idea, gain feedback on your value proposition to perfect it, prototype your course in a condensed format and most importantly to deeply understand your audience. As a helpful side effect all of these things will help you to grow your audience and create excitement for your online course.

How To Structure Your Online Course

From a learning psychology point of view it’s important that learners have a curriculum that they can follow that aligns to their goals so that they stay engaged. When you were “Understanding your Learners” in the previous module you hopefully got a good idea about what their goals and needs were and you might have even collected some feedback on what modules should make up your course and what learners will find the most valuable.

When outlining your content, I’d recommend using reverse planning and starting from the end and work backwards. Begin with your learner's intended end outcome after completing your course and work backwards from there.

For example, if someone was looking to learn to become a YouTube Content Creator their intended end outcome is to be able to confidently record video content and upload it to YouTube.

So how do we help that learner make that transformation? Here are some of the things they would need to learn to get their.

  • Camera Types
  • Lighting
  • Scene Setting
  • Scripting
  • Video editing
  • Video Uploading
  • Creating Titles and Thumbnails
  • YouTube SEO and Marketing
  • YouTube Analytics

So basically we've just created an outline for our course curriculum. Once we've done this, you'll need to take the sections, sometimes called modules or chapters and break them down into your video lessons..

Continuing with our YouTube Creator example, our Camera Type Module might break down into things like lenses, camera settings and camera recommendations.

So this is giving us an overview of what content our course needs to contain but how do we put all of this together into a structure that guides learners? Well this is where cognitive learning science can help out. David Ausubel, an American psychologist and advocate of cognitive learning, believed that for learning to be effective and permanent, it had to be meaningful.

When teachers make a marked effort to show why a lesson is meaningful for the learner, there’s a significantly higher chance of it becoming anchored in the brain alongside what’s already known.  Ausubel suggested that advance organizers are an effective way of doing this. This means that before diving into a complex topic, teachers and learners should cover some introductory material or offer some background to the topic. When learners have the relevant background knowledge, it’s easier for them to ‘slot in’ new information.

I love to see a course trailer on a landing page or as the first part of the course. That indicates to me, the course has already been thought out and helps to build trust and confidence with your learners even before they have bought a course. A trailer is just a short, 60 to 90 second video, introducing the instructor and sharing what's in the course and usually sits in your course description or landing page or free part of your course.

So to kick off your course you want to create an intro module that sets the scene and aligns the learner to what they are going to get from the course and why it is important. This will help make their learning meaningful and keep them engaged. An intro module also helps to contextualise the course and provide logical structure and guidance in bite-size chunks so that the course materials don’t overwhelm learners to ensure they finish the course.

When creating your intro module you can give an overview of your background and an overview of the course and learning objectives of each module explaining how the course modules align to the goals of the learner. You should use the voice and language of your audience throughout your course but especially in the overview section.

If you have a longer course you might also want to align the course content with when the learner will be learning. By this I mean if you have a long course with 30 video lessons why not roll it out as a 30 day course and help the learner break things up into bitesize chunks such that they can do a 10 minute lesson a day. One psychology study found that students who were provided with a specific time and location for a vaccination shot were much more likely to attend the appointment than students who were given a more vague time slot and no campus map telling them where to go.

By proactively suggesting learners break up their learning into chunks and going as far as to suggest how much time they should spend in your course overview they are much more likely to stick with the course.

In terms of course structure you want to ensure you have an introductory module that sets the scene, then progress through your subject covering the basics first before moving into more advanced areas. At the end of each video lesson or module you should provide a way to actively engage learners with a quiz, test or assignment and a brief summary of the previous module either at the end of a lesson or at the beginning of the next.

Summaries and testing are vital to ensuring learners retain information. Without covering too much research into learning psychology German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus found that people forget upwards of 80% of what they learn as outlined in his forgetting curve. He suggested two ways to improve memory retention and reduce the effects of the forgetting curve:

1. Improving memory representation using things like mneumonics or visual aids

2. Repeating topics using active recall

Now point one can be taken care of by creating content that is simple, memorable and visual in nature with diagrams and similes explaining what you are teaching in memorable chunks of information. Keeping things entertaining works well here too.

For point 2 active recall is the process of actively remembering information we have previously learned and in terms of your course it is best done through testing learners at regular intervals.

So let’s look at some ways to apply active recall principles to your course to help learners remember:

1. Adding in quizzes at the end of each module like a mini-test or exam will help learners to see how much information they have retained. You might even want to make this into a formal assessment or exam at the end of your course prior to course completion.

2. Using interactive video where learners need to make choices while watching your lessons is a great way to engage learners while they are passively watching your video.

3. Setting assignments within each module helps learners to put what they have learned into practise and forces them to actively recall what they have learned in order to apply their new knowledge.

4. Collecting learner feedback before and after a course or lesson will help the learner reflect and consider whether they have actually understood the lesson. Even better feedback can help you make your course even better which we’ll touch on in a later module.

5. Finally allowing for live teaching and discussion will enable learners to ask questions in chat or live with the teacher. This helps to further personalize learning and stimulate active recall and participation.

Now you don’t need to go crazy on testing and assignments and really the depth of testing and practical homework for learners depends very much on what you are teaching. A great guide here is to consider Bloom’s Taxonomy which helps teachers and students to classify and organize learning objectives and is based on cognitive learning and assumes that learning should be structured from easy to difficult in six logical steps. For example if you are teaching something like how to record and edit video your learners are going to need to make it to the top of the pyramid and possess the skills to create something. Whereas if your course is entry level Spanish focusing on vocab your learners are only going to need to remember words, understand grammar and apply those to form a sentence. Testing and assignments and learning outcomes can then be structured appropriately.  

In practical terms you will want to write out your course structure using a template similar to the one on screen and after your introductory module keep your main course modules focused around what you are teaching. Each module should come with a learning outcome and tests or assignments or other active recall elements to keep your learners engaged.

At the end of your course your final module should provide a summary module covering what has been learned and you might like to include some bonus items to reward the learner for finishing and add value beyond the scope of your course for those who want extra materials.

To simplify and summarise the learning psychology around structuring your course think of it as a menu or a book and you are the chef or author. The first course should be simple and cover the basics giving an overview for what is to come in the course and get the learner excited about the learning outcomes and how the course will transform them when they complete it. The main course should then be your core modules around what you are going to teach going from basics to more advanced topics. Each module should contain a brief intro to that module and contain a video to explain theory and principle and then quizzes, assignments and practical ways for the learner to apply the knowledge from the video. The dessert section can then contain a summary of the whole course and bonus lessons.

Planning Your Course Content

So now we have structured our course and created a course curriculum we now need to think about the actual content that will make up the lessons of the course.

As we’ve already touched on there are a number of content formats that you can put into lessons depending on what you are teaching. Sticking with our learning psychology principles learners need to have context and understand some of the basic theory behind what you are teaching in an individual lesson and then they will get the best learning experiences by practically doing something for themselves. In terms of learning efficacy the best way to teach is with direct, personalised 1-to-1 coaching or tutoring where the learner receives direct feedback based on their specific needs. Coaching (unless done in groups of students at similar stages) is not hugely scalable and so using content formats that closely resemble coaching and deliver impact is most effective at scale.

Video content is great for portraying ideas simply and time effectively.

Screenshares and walkthroughs are ideal for processes where students need to see the exact steps. Screencasts are great for teaching things like coding for example or anything technical where learners can see the actual lines of code and steps used.

Text and image content is good for explaining concepts in more detail, giving step-by-step info and linking to other resources around the web. Text and images used within a video are much more effective than used by themselves.

Downloadable content is best for cheat sheets, glossaries templates, and other tools that set learners up for success.

When creating educational content, it's important that it remains focused and actionable. You don't want to overwhelm people with too much information, so make sure that it feels digestible.

As a best practice, keep your videos below 10 minutes in length, shorter videos in succession will help your learner feel like they're making progress, which will really help to keep them motivated. Equally when creating videos remember teaching is as much about how you make the learner feel as it is actually reciting content to explain what you are teaching. By this I mean keep it entertaining. If you aren’t a great public speaker or find it awkward talking to camera my best advice is to practise. Your first 20 videos will likely be pretty embarrassing as you find your voice and work out some of the recording technicalities like setting up your background and getting lighting and audio sounding great.

Think of your lessons like mini-TV shows, it will be quite boring simply watching someone speak to camera. Instead think about adding in b-roll, graphics and text to help explain concepts in that you are teaching in simple terms. Imagery and graphics can help explain things much more effectively than simply speaking and screensharing what you are actually doing is also very effective.

Another tip from learning science is to adopt the Feynman method when explaining anything in your lessons. Richard Feynman was a Nobel-prize winning physicist and was also know as The Great Explainer for his ability to explain complicated topics such as Quantum Physics in relatively simple terms. The Feynman technique is encapsulated by the concept that in order to really understand something well, you must be able to explain it to a child. So when you are planning out your content think – can I explain this concept to a child. If you can’t you need to go back to basics to ensure what you are teaching is understandable by all learners.

This brings me to the next key point in planning your content which is to create a script. There are two approaches here. If you are experienced at talking to camera or are a strong speaker who is able to speak confidently from bullet points simply creating a few key talking points around your lesson title and learning outcomes might be fine. If however you are talking about something specific you might want to write out a full script for your 7-10-minute lesson and then use a teleprompter to help you similar to a newsreader. I'd suggest keeping things as real as possible and not just reciting a script as it can feel a bit unnatural and less conversational. I tend to write things out and then memorise the key points and phrases and then edit things afterwards.

Whatever method you choose either using bullet points or a full script delivery is much more important than the actual content of what you are saying.

When recording try to imagine that your learners are in the room with you and you are having a conversation with friends. This less formal style will build rapport and better connect you to your audience. Try to be open and transparent and speak from your experiences. Most importantly be yourself and have fun. If you are enthusiastic and passionate about what you are teaching this will infect your audience and keep them engaged and excited.

As a pro tip, make sure to use multiple content formats and to interleave in different concepts to maximise learner engagement.

Collecting Course Feedback And Improving Your Course

Whether this is your first course of your 50th online course simply launching and then sitting back hoping for the best isn’t an effective strategy but it’s one I see lots of people using and it’s why their online courses are never as good as they could be.

Integrating feedback into your course is vital for a number of reasons.

1. Firstly it allows you to continue getting to know your ideal learner persona and to find out which parts of the course they found the most useful and which they didn’t enjoy. Feedback after each lesson will help you to quickly see which lessons might need to be improved or re-recorded and why.

2. Secondly a feedback form sent out before a learner starts a module and after can help establish the impact of the course. For example how confident was the learner before the module compared with after on a scale of 1 to 10?

3. Finally feedback allows you to collect learner testimonials which are a vital part of marketing your online course

Feedback doesn’t just need to be collected through qualitative forms sent to learners. Objective feedback can be found in your video analytics and learner test scores to see whether people watch till the end of your video, where they dropped off and whether they actually retained enough information to then score highly at a quiz or test.

All of this data is essential as it allows you as a course creator to tweak your content. For example if you see that learners stop watching your video at the 2-minute mark you might want to analyse why that is and consider adding in some b-roll or visuals to make things more entertaining to keep their attention.

If learners are just skipping entire modules qualitative surveys will help to find out why that is and you might want to remove these sections or change up the titles or record new videos that are more aligned to the needs of the learner. Remember anything you remove or delete you can always offer up as bonus old material for anyone who wants extra content so nothing goes to waste.

Most importantly feedback will help you to improve as a course creator. The first few videos that I ever recorded were not that great but as you practise and respond to feedback and keep the learner at the centre of everything you are doing your online course will grow and develop.