5 Instructional Design Tips for Engaging eLearning

Sarah Flesher

I could sit here and list all of the reasons why people don’t like eLearning courses, but it all boils down to the fact that learners are bored and unengaged. Despite this, online learning isn’t going away. In fact, eLearning solves two business needs that all organizations face.

  1. Compared to face-to-face classroom workshops, eLearning delivery is low cost.
  2. Organizations can more effectively educate larger demographics of learners at the same time.

So, how do we curb boredom? How do we re-engage learners? Read on to discover 5 instructional design elements to consider when designing eLearning courses.

1. Keep your audience in mind

Understanding who your audience is ensures that the most effective teaching strategy is used. You may even determine that eLearning won't be effective.

You don't want to build an eLearning course if it doesn't lead to meaningful learning. In order to understand who your audience is, ask yourself the following questions: What motivates your learner? What capabilities do they have? What do they lack? What are their end goals? What eLearning format will best meet their needs: synchronous, asynchronous or blended? Are your learners senior-level managers? Are they end users?

You want to design material that enables your learner to achieve their learning goals. Without knowing what these are, your learners will not be engaged.

2. Write clear learning objectives

good learning objective is a description of a performance you want learners to be able to exhibit before you consider them competent. When an eLearning course does not have clear learning objectives, there is no basis for designing instructional material. If you don't know where you are going, it is difficult to select a suitable means for getting there.

According to Robert Mager (1984), Preparing instructional objectives, a learning objective should include three things:

  • Performance: What learners must be able to DO or perform.
  • Condition: In which the learner must complete the performance.
  • Criteria: Identifies how the learner is evaluated or how well the learner must perform.

Learning objectives not only guide learning, they become the structure for building your content and generating assessments.

3. Ensure assessments align with learning goals and objectives

You don't know if learners are achieving their learning goals unless they are evaluated. You also don't know if your eLearning course is successful unless it is assessed.

Regardless, any assessment must align with your learning objectives. It is useful to write your assessment before writing the content of the eLearning course. If you have clear objectives, this step is relatively simple. Your assessment should also consider what your learners are being asked to do.


For example, are they demonstrating a skill? Is there a piece of knowledge they need to memorize? Do they need to meet a regulated standard?

Once you have determined these things, use a wide range of assessments to cater to different learning styles. Examples include multiple choice tests or practical evaluation/skill checks.

When creating your assessment, start with a rubric. Ensure that your learners know exactly what they are going to be tested on. The goal isn't to surprise learners, rather you want to ensure they are competent. If you keep your learners focused on achieving their learning objectives, and if you fairly evaluate them, they are more likely to stay engaged.

4. Build an effective feedback loop

Just because there isn't a teacher standing up at the front of the class answering questions, doesn't mean feedback isn't still important. In an eLearning course, feedback needs to:

  • Be constructive
  • Be provided often
  • Align with the learning objectives

You want to provide feedback as early as possible to engage learners so they have the opportunity to act on the feedback and show improvement. Constructive and timely feedback holds learners accountable. It ensures that they don't just click from one screen to the next.

When designing your content, consider inserting a question or activity every couple of pages. A quiz or exam at the end of the course comes too late to provide feedback. Inserting questions throughout the course allows learners to adjust their behaviors.

Don't forget to reward your learners. Celebrate their successes and show that you care.

5. Use course design to motivate learners

Borrowing from Charles Dull, Assistant Dean for eLearning and Innovation, Cuyahoga Community College, "motivation should lead to engagement and engagement should lead to learning".

Course designs need to motivate engagement. This means ensuring resources are easily accessible in the design of the course. Build connections in modules for alignment with course objectives. Use game-based thinking to build competency. We know that adults stay engaged if they are motivated to learn. This can be designed into the course itself.

For example, if a learner is doing nothing but clicking a 'Next' button the entire way through a course, they are more likely to zone out and miss important content. Every so often there should be a change in the interaction to recapture the learner's attention. Interactions are the advantage eLearning has over the more traditional textbook-based learning.


Implementing any or all of these 5 design elements will help you design eLearning courses that are engaging, that motivate users to learn, and that learners look forward to taking. To learn more tricks to engage learners, read Build Engaging eLearning Courses: 7 Tips to Ensure SME's Commitment.

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Sarah Flesher

Sarah is an Instructional Designer at BaseCorp Learning Systems and is currently completing a PhD in Educational Technology. Her research focuses on implementing competency-based learning systems in all types of organizations. When she doesn't have her nose in a book you can find her at the gym, on the ice, on the ski hill, drinking wine or in a coffee shop … with her nose in a book.