Designing sticky courses: 10 top tips

With online courses how do you make them ‘sticky’? How do you help participants, after they have started your course, remain engaged and motivated?

Good questions, and ones I was asked a short while ago by some clients. So, I thought I would post some of the ideas I shared with them.

With all of the following ideas, I have either worked with clients to add them to their course design, or have experienced them in action in other courses.

The ideas are based on the assumption that your course is going to be for adults (or learners who are used to using what are considered adult learning strategies), and is totally online, with rolling sign ups (i.e. no participant groups, which means that approaches such as, for example, responding to online forums, are likely to be less effective):

1) Sharing is a big key to ongoing engagement and motivation. Two things you could consider in your course design are:

  • Encouraging participants to find a ‘buddy’, who is not doing the course but who is interested in how the participant is doing. This buddy might be a trusted friend, or family member (or even a journal…and you could frame up as something like “share your progress with your journal”). As long as the buddy is genuinely interested, it can be hugely motivational for the participant to share the big challenges, as well as the big steps forward. So, you can invite your participants to share regularly, although being careful that you don’t do it to the point of overload. For instance, you might want to include one invitation per learning segment. Also, at the beginning of the following learning segment (or if you have a video in the segments), you could ask something like “we invite you to reflect for a moment – Who did you share with? How did that go?”…or something similar 🙂
  • You can also consider setting up a private group (maybe Facebook or similar) where people can share: their learnings, their experiences, and maybe resources that they have found useful. One aspect to be aware of if you do go down this track though, are providing ‘guidelines for positive interactions / what’s appropriate to post’. You might also want to consider if you, as facilitator(s) would also respond to postings, and how you would moderate the group to make sure things remain civil.

2) Participants are likely to find different approaches to learning resonate with them. Therefore, when you encourage your participants to think about various concepts, you could use language that encourages them to

  • use their senses,
  • or bring their prior knowledge to a situation,
  • or imagine (in words, sounds, and/or images).

3) When you suggest that participants consider themselves in a particular context, you could also ask them to think about their ‘future story’. For example, if they are working toward skills that will help them start a, or transition to another, career, they could imagine themselves at a table, where they imagine the other characters who are there to support, advise and guide them. This approach, as well as being a powerful personalised ‘tool’, can help people visualise their own inner strengths, and resources on which they can draw. Imagining the ‘conversation’ between the characters can also help identify possible challenges, and ways continuing with your course might help address them.

4) Having a storyline running throughout your course can also be really powerful. Participants can ‘get to know’ characters, and get involved with the challenges they face, and how they work through them. In some cases this approach can help participants ‘recognise’ themselves, while also bringing complex concepts to life.

5) A model I have seen work really well is, for an additional fee, people can choose to have a regular – or one off – virtual session(s) with the facilitator(s). This option enables people to share their learning in a much deeper way, and request things they would like to specifically focus on. To make these sessions effective though, you are likely to find that setting clear expectations is useful. For instance, clearly stating that these are additional formal learning sessions, but are fluid and based on a specific request from the participant, and it is up to the participant to identify their focus. These sessions can be recorded and shared back with the participant for their ongoing access.

6) If you are recording videos for your course you can include hooks such as “watch the next video for…”, or “next time you will have the opportunity to learn / try / experience…”. This ‘in the next episode’ approach’, if done well, can help excite or intrigue participants enough to tune in next time.

7) Measurable progress can be important for some people, which is why journaling and sharing with a buddy can be so useful. However, other people like to measure themselves more concretely. So, you could consider having a short benchmark questionnaire at the beginning of the course, and then make the same questionnaire available at a key point further through the course. Participants can then compare the two, and see how their perceptions around their progress have shifted, if at all. The comparison would be a good point for participants to choose to have a virtual session with a facilitator, if they wanted to.

8) Regularly inviting your participants to make specific commitments to themselves about what they are going to do, how often, and how they will motivate themselves to do it (e.g. telling a friend that they are going to do something on such day or putting a reminder into their phone), can help some people remain engaged and active in your course.

9) You could also have a ‘badge’, or some sort of image…or whakatauki (proverb / saying), that a participant is (automatically) sent when they complete each part of the course – in other words, they receive positive reinforcement that recognises their progress.

10) Polls, where other people’s responses are aggregated and shown (after the participant has responded) can be a way of indicating that there are other people doing the course, along with an indication of of their opinions.

I hope that you find these ideas useful. Please let me know if you have any questions.

Also, please add any of the approaches you use, or have experienced, in the comments below – and say if they were effective or not … and what you might do to improve on them.

Glue-goo. CC ( BY ND ) licensed Flickr image by Sam-cat:

About ictenhancedlearningandteaching

I am a director and consultant at Ethos Consultancy NZ ( I have a keen interest in all aspects of ICT Enhanced Learning and Teaching (ICTELT) where the focus lies on ways of scaffolding and empowering learners. In particular, I am interested in the way that creative, blended approached to Academic Professional Development can create trust, rapport and encourage reflective practice. As such, ICTELT is approached from facilitation, design, evaluation and assessment as opposed to the tools and what they can offer. I am a strong advocate of the potential of Web 2.0 to empower learners from all walks of life and cultures, especially after my experiences working for 6 years in the Middle East. In particular, I am interested how ePortfolios can be used in the VET sector (especially where Literacy and Language challenges are faced), in Recognition of Prior Learning, and in authentic, applied assessment. I have been involved with designing and developing ICTELT approaches and programmes for ten years. Following research informed approaches and design, I apply a qualitative, iterative process to evaluate the effectiveness of interventions, programmes and tools, encouraging learners' voices and input from all stakeholders.
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