Course Dreamers

How to Keep Student Attention During an Online Course

Teaching people within a web browser is like trying to have an intimate discussion in the middle of a circus… there is so much other stuff to look at. There are people breathing fire over there!

As a course author and teacher designing and delivering content exclusively for online consumption, how do I provide an environment to help my students stay focused?

Aside: This post will assume that you are teaching an online (self-paced) course and not just selling an online course. Teaching a course, and I hope to go deeper on this in a future post, means that you are creating interaction opportunities with the students so you can personally help them find the right path.

Even a student with the best of intentions has an uphill battle when it comes to working online. They may be very interested in skilling up, but when they sit down to do so, they are doing it at a computer full of distractions, from email to YouTube, to the dopamine hit of scrolling through social apps. If we are honest with ourselves, we all suffer from this attention problem at different levels.

Now, with our course design hats on, let’s consider ways we can help our students stay focused.

Use simple forms to capture student goals and kickoff discussions.

The web is an interactive medium. To consume an online course that is just text and video seems like we are not using the medium to its full potential.

One low-tech way to inject student interaction and seed some focus/attention for your students is to have some well-positioned forms in your course.

At the start of the course, you might ask the students what they want to accomplish by taking the course and what schedule they have to complete it. Use this schedule to kick off check-in emails and prompts for the student to ask how they are doing and what their next short-term goal is

After significant content sections, provide a form to allow the student to share their confidence level with content. Have a free-form text box so they can ask questions. Kicking off email answers and discussions like this keeps the course in students’ minds as they see replies.

Keep these forms simple. Don’t overdo it with a ton of fields. The real value is in the free-form text areas.

Mix up content types

I don’t have solid research data, but let’s assume the average student learning session is around 15-20 minutes.

First, you need to build within that constraint. Don’t construct hour long videos if the expected session does not last more than 20 minutes.

Second, ideally the student would have a colorful mix of interactive experiences within that time frame. No one type should fill all the time. In addition to the standard video and text instruction, consider breaking up the time with:

  • Small quizzes to confirm comprehension of the topics.
  • Repetition-based code sessions (where they are asked just to type in code and watch it work).
  • Creative-based code sessions (where they are asked to solve a similar problem independently).
  • Out-of-the-box experiences (tell them to draw a flow chart and take a photo to send to the instructor).

Provide office hours for active students.

Weekly or bi-weekly open office hours can be an excellent option for students to get help. The event on their calendar is yet another signal in their periphery, reminding them of their goals/intentions around the course. This event can also be great for getting students to commit to goals.

If a student shows up, ask them about their goals for the next week. Take note and revisit how they are doing when they show up again. Like a book club, having a bit of social guilt to follow through can be a good motivator and keep students focused.

Open the course with your personal consumption suggestions.

Taking some time at the start of your course to share your personal recommendations on how best to consume the course might help.

Personally, I’d recommend:

  • Commit to a window of time for pure focus. Pure focus is taxing and a skill we don’t flex very often. You can set a timer on your phone or plan to work through a full playlist worth of music. When the time is up, get up, take a short walk, stretch, and then return for another dedicated session.
  • While reading or watching videos, ensure no other applications are running. If possible, put the content window in a full-screen experience so there is nothing else to look at.
  • If watching a longer video, find a desk toy to keep your hands busy and off the keyboard, which can lead to distraction.
  • Make sure you get a full night’s sleep. Learning new things requires good sleep to be captured.
  • Don’t copy and paste code. Type it out. Experience the compiler errors from your typos. This is part of the experience.

Design your curriculum with meaningful breaks.

Grouping lessons into sections makes for good natural points of rest, where a student can walk away from the course with feelings of accomplishment.

Some students will take off significant time between sections. Maybe offer brief recaps in section intros to review what we did last time.

How to get started.

I suggest finding low-tech, manual ways to run these interactions with your current students before investing in automations. If you start seeing positive outcomes, consider investing in better integrations.

If you made it this far, then I had your attention. 😀

Thanks for your time. I hope you found this helpful. If you have any additional thoughts, please let me know.