What is the ideal online course length?

What Is The Best Length For An Online Course?

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Deciding on the ideal online course length has always been a bit headscratcher. How long should an online course be without overloading your students? And how short is too short? Luckily, we’ve gathered data from scientific studies and scoured the eLearning landscape to research what would be the optimal online course length. Here are some recommendations that online course creators might find helpful. 

Optimal online course length

What Is The Ideal Online Course Length?

Our general recommendation is to keep it short and sweet. If you’re making a comprehensive, beginner-to-advanced online course, we advise that you divide your massive online course into weekly units, with a tangible and clear end goal for each chunk. Make sure that each weekly unit doesn’t have the student spending more than five hours watching videos, reading articles, filling out answer sheets, or however else you plan to have them interact with your online course. 

All in all, the ideal online course length should be 7-8 weeks at most, with students engaging with the learning materials within 3-5 hours of weekly chunks

And we have research to back up these numbers. An international study done on Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs reveals that online courses from established universities as well as open platforms like edX and Coursera generally average at about 7.6 weeks. The study also finds that the recommended amount of time a student spends interacting with this online course material is 3-5 hours. These recommendations were made to lower student drop-out rates while maintaining their performance levels.


Course length and learning hours

Also, notice that we’ve been using the word “chunk.” This is because a famous paper by psychologist George A. Miller advises “chunking” information for better memory retention. He states that the “process of memorizing may be simply the formation of chunks, or groups of items that go together until there are few enough chunks so that we can recall all the items.” Even more interesting is his finding that seven appears to be the magic number for memorization. People find it challenging to recall lists that have more than seven items. For instance, have you noticed that long phone numbers are grouped by seven or fewer so that they’re easier to remember?

This is the reason why the ideal online course length lasts for 7-8 weeks. Online courses can then be easily divided by the week and organized into an effective online course outline. So, if you’re ever stuck on the question of how many subtopics you can pack in your online course that will keep it comprehensive but won’t overload your students 一 remember the magic number seven.

Picture of the number 7 inside a frame

What Is The Optimal Length for Online Course Videos?

Instructional videos are the primary method of delivering information for most online courses, so you’ll most likely have to make a video or two yourself for your own online courses. But what’s the ideal length of an online course video? How long can you make a video before your students start zoning out? 

According to computer science researcher Philip Guo, the optimal online course video is 6-12 minutes long. After analyzing millions of watch sessions of online course videos on edX, he illustrated his findings using the graph below.

Online course video length graph

As we can see here, student engagement peaks at 6-9 minutes and drops sharply after 12 minutes. Take note that students are willing to watch for a longer time when there are incentives involved 一 certification in this case. This will be relevant in the next section of this article.

Factors That Affect The Length of Your Online Courses

While we’ve been talking about theoretical, big-picture, and general recommendations, deciding on your online course’s length is not always one-size-fits-all. There are plenty of external factors that affect memory retention, student focus, and the overall online course length. There’s a reason why online courses vary from concise 4-hour video series to a detailed 8-week boot camp, after all. Here are some factors that you may want to consider when fine-tuning your online course length. 

1. Online Course Topic

Different online course topics necessitate different online course lengths and video lengths. The more theoretical and technical the subject, the longer the online course tends to be. For video lengths, instructional videos demonstrating hands-on, practical techniques will be hard to squeeze into 2 or 3 minutes. However, online course videos which just deliver facts and information are better condensed and to the point.

2. Target Student Profile

Who are the target demographics of your online course? For instance, introductory online courses for beginners are naturally shorter than more comprehensive online courses for the pros. Age is something to note as well, as younger students will most likely have shorter attention spans than adults. You might also want to consider if your student is coming from a corporate background, academic environment, or something more casual. Online courses made for corporate use like crash courses on marketing or content writing typically don’t take more than 3 days to complete. Compare that to semester-long modules made for university students that take 4-8 weeks.

3. Certification and Other Incentives

As we saw previously, students are more focused when they’re working towards something tangible. This is why certification courses on eLearning platforms tend to be longer. However, you can also motivate your students with something other than certificates. Gamification options like giving away points along the duration of your online course can make your students more engaged. Consider having more interactive activities the longer your online course is. 

Certification - person lying down with lots of certification documents

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While we’ve gone through the research of the what’s and why’s of an online course’s ideal length, remember that teaching is more of an art than a science. What are your experiences in the world of eLearning? What’s the longest online course you’ve ever taken? The shortest? Feel free to sound off in the comments below.

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