How long should a training course be?
General consensus will tell you to apply the Goldilocks approach to eLearning design. If you make eLearning too long, learners will switch off. Too short, and they won’t get enough time with the material. Find a happy medium and they’ll be just right.
But how do you find a happy medium? It’s not that straightforward. Almost any course length can succeed or fail. It all depends on how the course is designed. You know that you need to take your learners’ attention span into consideration, but how?
This article will give you tips for determining a length that’s best for your learners and explore the advantages and disadvantages of different course lengths.
Pro tip: Make sure the content is engaging
A course that’s completely dry and reads like a textbook? Well, good luck getting anyone to spend more than 10 minutes on it before they start looking for the nearest exit button. But a course that works hard to make the content highly relevant and engaging… well, that’s when a learner might start to lose track of time a little.
So, before you think about duration, spend time culling what’s going into it. The main points to consider when organising the materials include:
- Will the learner see how this is relevant to their practice?
- Is the information clear and concise?
- Have I used media, questions, stories, and interactive elements in the best way possible?
You don't need to write as much as you think to have a high-quality course. Instead of worrying about length, focus on your course flow.
Advantages and disadvantages of short courses (5-15 minutes long)
Short eLearning courses are ideal for focusing on just one, two or three learning outcomes.
These courses saw a rise in popularity with the concept of “microlearning”. Microlearning is a broad concept that essentially refers to structuring content in a series of small bites.
In more recent years, microlearning has evolved into the concept of learning in the flow of work. This concept advocated for libraries of short courses that workers can dip in and out of on an as-needed basis, such as brushing up on a process or using a spare ten minutes to upskill once every day or two.
Breaking larger courses into smaller chunks can also help you to space the learning over several days or weeks, a well-known tactic for improving retention.
However, this approach struggles to deliver when tackling more complex topics containing interlinked concepts or new ideas.
Short courses are also often insufficient for covering important compliance-related topics, such as workplace safety or digital security. The solution to naturally dry content isn’t to get it over and done with as quickly as possible, but rather to spend time on making the content relevant, significant and engaging.
Advantages and disadvantages of medium courses (20-40 minutes long)
Medium length eLearning courses are ideal for tackling four to eight learning outcomes.
Medium length courses are the most common as they can often cover an entire topic in one course and can employ branching pathways and multi-topic structures, unlike short courses that are typically linear only.
Medium courses are ideal for covering important compliance topics that are difficult to break into smaller chunks. Compliance topics such as safety and policy can be dry or tedious, and therefore require more time to engage the learner. They also often require more involved assessments to certify the learner’s competence.
Medium courses also align well with popular productivity methodologies designed to maximise focus for fixed durations. A medium course could easily fit into one or two cycles of a method such as this, and may include designated moments to take a quick break to refresh.
Another drawback to medium courses is that they are often treated as one-and-done training solutions. The course is distributed, the learner completes it, a box is ticked, and the topic is forgotten about. This lack of spaced recall can significantly reduce long-term retention of the content.
Advantages and disadvantages of long courses (50+ minutes long)
Long courses are without a doubt the least popular and most controversial option. While some research may suggest that a 90-minute course is fine, it’s rare to find a learning designer planning to design one.
Creating a truly engaging long course requires extensive planning, effort and investment. Such a course would need a wide range of media such as videos and audio, as well as interactive elements, expert storytelling, clever questions and take-a-break points.
However, such a long course is almost certainly going to put your learner in a frustrated and resistant mindset before they’ve even begun. Why? Such a long course is inherently inflexible at a time where flexibility has never been more important. It forces learners to block out a very long period of time, and spend it all staring at screens.
So... how long should my eLearning training be?
As a rough guide, every learning outcome can equate to around five minutes of learning content, give or take.
The type of content can also inform the length of your course, as some types are naturally quick to cover, and others require more time.
But if you’ve gotten to this point in the blog, you’ll also know that the quality of your course is far more important - if you need to make it longer or shorter to make it better, then go right ahead.