Design an Online Course That Actually Works

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Here’s the harsh reality about creating online courses: Most of the people who teach you how to create an online course are marketers… not educators.

They say, “if you just show all the steps, then your students will learn”.

If only it were that easy…

In reality, so much learning comes from the one-on-one interaction between a teacher and student. It’s hard to capture that real-learning in an online course.

To have any chance, you’ve got to be really smart with your course design.

Sure when you’re designing your first course, listing all the steps in order sounds like it should work. But if you’re teaching anything above a basic task, you’ll need to do better.

Think about it, when was the last time someone explained a complicated process once you instantly knew how to do it?

Homer: Can you repeat the part of the stuff where you said all ...

Well, today we’ll look at a technique you can use to design an online course that almost guarantees your students learn everything you’re trying to teach them.

Read on to learn how.

The Ladder Approach (Using Educational Frameworks in Your Online Course)

The Ladder Approach is a course structure you can use in your online course to make sure your students are actually learning.

Our method is heavily based on a tried-and-tested educational framework, Bloom’s Taxonomy. Bloom’s is a framework for teaching that’s been around since the 1950s in one way or another (with a few revisions over the years). It’s incredibly popular in the education scene from elementary school, all the way to university studies.

In fact, your teachers probably used this framework on your growing up. You just don’t know it.

Simply, the structure gives six-levels of knowledge from basic knowledge all the way up to higher-order thinking.

The Ladder Approach takes this proven structure and tweaks it to be used for online courses.

Design an Online Course with the Ladder Approach in Six Steps

There are six steps of the Ladder Approach:

  1. Remember
  2. Understand
  3. Apply
  4. Analyze
  5. Evaluate
  6. Create

Here’s why it works.

Have you ever followed along with a blog post or YouTube “how-to” video to fix something on your website, or around the house?

Picard Embarrassed Wave Awkward GIF | Gfycat

Sure, when you follow along, it works most of the time.

But, what happens if the same thing breaks again in six months. Do you think you’d be able to fix it without looking up the steps? If it’s anything above a basic task, the answer is probably “no”.

Or, what if you need to solve a similar problem… Do you think you’d be able to fix that?

Again, probably not.

So, the main question is, “when you follow along with a process, are you actually learning anything?”

It’s the same with your online courses. You’re not given all the steps to properly learn. A lot of the time, you just dump all the information at once and hope it all works for the best. 

Next, we’ll look through all six steps of the Ladder Approach and how you can implement them.

Step One: Remembering

The first step of the Ladder Approach focuses on retaining information. At this level, the learner only needs to be able to memorize and recall basic terms and facts.

This is the basis of your ladder. While it’s the simple stage, it’s also the most important. Without the basic knowledge of concepts, terminology, and theories, your students won’t be able to progress to the higher tiers of learning.

Obviously, the type of student you’re targeting with your course will dictate how much time you need to spend on getting your students to cover the key terms and concepts.

If you’re targeting newbies, you’ll need to make this a major focus, but if you’re looking at targeting someone a little more experienced, you might only give a quick lesson recapping the concepts that’ll be used in the course.

Either way, it’s a good idea to continuously make sure you’re testing your students on their remembering of key terms and concepts. Especially when you cover something new.

Example Activities

When looking to set activities for the ‘remember section’ you need to start small. The goal here is to make sure your students have the key points remembered. Some examples of activities include:

  • A basic quiz that covers key concepts
  • List key terms
  • Match key phrases with their meaning

Step Two: Understanding

The next step of the ladder includes the understanding and explaining of information covered in the last step.

Technically, you could lump this and the ‘remembering’ part together. However, in ‘understanding’, a student can do more than just regurgitate information and key phrases.

Instead, a student should be able to compare, explain, and classify their knowledge.

At this level of learning, it is a good idea to encourage learner interaction and collaboration. According to the Vanderbilt University Centre for Teaching, research shows that online instruction is more effective when learners collaborate with one another, as opposed to working entirely independently.

This isn’t too important when you’re just memorizing info. However, once you get to the ‘Understanding’ phase, and beyond, collaboration comes in super handy.

Try to include a way for your students to communicate with each other, and you. This can be in a forum, Facebook Group, weekly video chats, or an email group. 

Example Activities

Your methods of teaching won’t be too different here. You can still use readings and videos to go over your content. You just need to make sure your students are interacting with the content in a different way.

A great way to move a student along from ‘knowledge’ to ‘understanding’ is to have them summarize or paraphrase the content.

When you summarize or paraphrase, you need to properly explain information and concepts. This is a level above just being able to remember a few key phrases. 

Step Three: Apply

The apply section is where the fun part starts to happen. Here, students use the content and knowledge they’ve pickup up and apply it to a new situation.

You can provide them with scenarios, practical tests, simulations, or anything that can simulate the real-life problem students are trying to solve. Basically, you want your students to use their newly learned knowledge to solve some problems.

Example Activities

When teaching a course and getting to the apply stage, it’s pretty tempting to jump the gun and go straight to the end. However, look to re-create real-life scenarios.

For example, let’s say you’re creating a course on how to start a website. Rather than jump straight into the website creation, you should have your students model a website structure. 

This can also be done as a case study.

Other activities may include:

    • Role play
    • Write an explanation about this topic for others
    • Predicting outcomes
    • Create a checklist
    • Design a set of instructions
    • Case studies

Step Four: Analyze

Now, we’re going to dive into the second half of the structure. In this section, we’re going to look at analyzing information and procedures.

Basically, here you want to make sure learners can break down the information and make connections between different concepts using the knowledge they picked up in step three.

Example Activities

You can really let your course platform do a lot of the work here. You can guide students with discussion questions and open up the communication channels.

Comparing and contrasting is also a great way to get students thinking about the content. Let’s use the ‘create a website’ example from before.

If you’re teaching two different methods of off-page S.E.O., you can get students to compare how both systems work. This can be done in a table or even a Venn diagram.

design an online course venn diagram

Step Five: Evaluate

Here, you have students evaluate work on set criteria.

The evaluations can be on your own work, or on the work of someone else. Ideally, it would be both. 

This is a great section, and if done well, your students will learn a lot from the work of others, or their own work.

Example Activities

  • Evaluate your work with a criteria
  • Judge multiple submissions and choose a winner
  • Determine the relevance of results
  • Predict the success of your model alongside the models of others

Step Six: Create

Before diving into the next stage. Let’s see what students have done to get to this level of higher-order thinking.

  1. Remembered key concepts
  2. Summarized those concepts
  3. Use that knowledge in a new scenario that models real-life
  4. Broken down the knowledge picked up from the case study and been able to make connections
  5. Evaluated and self-evaluated

Pretty impressive, hey. You should be able to see by now how this sets your students up for greater learning outcomes than just dumping all of your information at the start.

After students have completed the evaluation stage, they can use knowledge picked up through the course to create something new.

Example Activities

Here, depending on your course topic, your students create or build something new. If you’re teaching a course that has a tangible result or practical implementation, this is pretty simple.

Otherwise, have your students find a problem from their evaluation stage and create a solution to that problem.

Course Examples: The Ladder Approach in Action

Throughout this article, I’ve mentioned a ‘build a website’ course as an example. Well, let’s go one step further here and see how this hypothetical course creator could use the Ladder Approach to design an online course.

Example One

For this example, let’s say this course is about creating an affiliate or general niche website. This unit, in particular, is based around silo structures and how to implement them.

  • Remember: Recalling key terms around silo structures.
  • Understand: Looking at examples of other websites and how they structure their websites. Write a short explanation about what a silo structure is in the course forum.
  • Apply: Students are given a case study to complete with where they have to design a site structure for a make-believe website with 30 pre-existing pages.
  • Analyze: Create a Venn diagram comparing the different types of site structures.
  • Evaluate: Discuss the pros and cons of silo structures. Evaluate your case study, and that of another student’s with set criteria.
  • Create: Students are to create a model for their website structure. Design a checklist that they can use when designing a website.

Example Two

Now, let’s pretend you’re teaching a course on how to write a novel and you have a unit on character development.

  • Remember: Remember all the parts of a character. What does every protagonist need to have?
  • Understand: Answer the question “What makes a good character?”
  • Apply: Create a “character profile” template that is to be filled out when you create a character. What information should be included in that template?
  • Analyze: Rank the character traits in your profile template from most important to least important.
  • Evaluate: Using your answers from past tasks, choose a protagonist from a book you know and see how they stack up to your definition. Write a short paragraph explaining your answer and what improvements the author could have made to their character.  Once you’ve done that, make any adjustments to your profile template if need be.
  • Create: Complete a character profile using your template.

As you can see, structuring your course to accommodate for the Ladder Approach gives your students the steps to effectively learn.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do I have to use all of these steps?

You definitely don’t have to use all of the steps here. This approach reflects the way that people learn new skills.

Also, the steps here will depend on the prior knowledge of your students. If your students have experience and prior knowledge, you could skip (or only just touch on) the first two steps of the ladder.

When would you avoid using the ladder approach?

As you can see here, there’s a lot involved in creating a course that reaches all of these learning objectives. If you were selling a $49 course on mass, it would be incredibly difficult to give each student the personalized learning journey through the ladder approach.

However, it is still handy to know the theory behind how people learn and use that to your advantage when designing your course.

How is the Ladder Approach different from Bloom’s?

The main differences here are the simplification of some pretty complex educational concepts into something that any course creator can use.

The revised Bloom’s actually covers four different learning dimensions (factual, conceptual, procedural, and metacognitive). However, that’s probably overkill for online course creators.

Why is creating the best course possible important?

There are two reasons why creating the best course possible is important to you as a creator.

  1. It’s literally what your students are paying you for
  2. A well-performing course will lead to better referrals and a strong group of ex-students who can basically do a lot of your marketing for you.

Final Thoughts

Use the Lader Approach to help design an online course if you want to make sure your students get the required knowledge.

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About the author: Hey there! I’m Vince. I’m a trained and practicing teacher with experience in e-learning and course design, along with having an extensive background in building and maintaining websites. I started EduTest Labs to help course creators and students find the best resources (without the BS).