Five tips for designing effective online learning modules

Developing useful training materials can be a little daunting, especially if you're new to the process. Katherine Murray shares a few simple recommendations for creating topnotch learning modules.

Online learning makes it easy for students to learn what they need to move ahead in their training, courses, or careers. Whether you're designing your original content in Word, PowerPoint, or Excel, when you add it to a Learning Content Management System (LCMS), the way you organize your content can help students learn the material successfully. The learning modules you design will be effective for students if you create a logical structure, reinforce key concepts, and add exercises at just the right points to help students evaluate their own learning.

1: Outline your session

Perhaps the most important element in an effective online learning module is the way in which it is organized. Your students need to know what the major tasks in the lesson will be. This will help them recognize and remember the most important elements in the process. Use your outline to identify the key steps you are teaching. Aim for five to eight sections per module, including the introduction and summary sections.

2: Create sections for major steps in the process

Design your learning module so that each major task is its own section. If you're developing a course on using mail merge, for example, your main sections might be (1) Introduction; (2) Starting the Mail Merge Document; (3) Adding a Data List; (4) Creating Content and Inserting Fields; (5) Previewing and Finishing the Merge; and (6) Summary.

3: Make your introductions clear

The introduction of your learning model sets the stage for everything that follows. In the introduction, establish the context for your students. Explain why this material is relevant to their learning and clearly state the objectives of the module so they'll know what they'll be learning in the course. You may also want to include a brief introduction to your company or program or add a personal bio with related resources.

4: Reinforce the learning in each section with exercises

One of the great advantages to working in a self-directed, online learning environment is that students can complete exercises during the course to assess their own learning and determine what they need to review. To reinforce the concepts presented in each major section, add exercises that help students evaluate different scenarios and apply what they've learned. You can also create multiple-choice, sorting, or interactive activities to help evaluate student learning.

Make sure your activities directly reflect the content covered in the section and use key phrases word for word to help students recognize and remember the phrasing. For best results, have someone new to the material test it for you before you begin offering it to students, just to make sure the section content and activities are clearly linked.

5: Wrap it up nice and neat with a summary

After you cover the necessary content in your sections and activities, end the learning module with a summary that touches on the main points you covered. Be sure to include each of the objectives you included in the Introduction. When you complete the module in this way, students will remember the major tasks presented and feel a sense of completion as they finish the unit. If you want to capitalize on that sense of accomplishment, you can add a link to a survey or invite feedback before the student exits. You can use the comments and suggestions to improve the course for next time.


Katherine Murray is a technology writer and the author of more than 60 books on a variety of topics, ranging from small business technology to green computing to blogging to Microsoft Office 2010. Her most recent books include Microsoft Office 2010 P...


Kudos! Comprehensive, and well organized. Very valuable information. Important factor of e-Learning module development is describing the right learning objective. An ineffective learning objective will lead to unsuccessful training module.


As a professional training developer, I can attest that instructional design for asynchronous training is a huge topic. Most of us have sat through training that had no clear purpose. The most important steps take place before you begin to develop a course or module. As Joe Harless, the father of front-end analysis famously said, "Training is the last thing you want to do." By that, he meant we should be certain that the problem we are trying solve with training stems from lack of skill and/or knowledge. In my experience, training is a knee-jerk reaction to something bad that happens. I've also seen a lot of perfectly fine training materials that have no direct connection to a particular job or role. There is a whole body of literature on rapid training needs analysis. Likewise, there is body of literature on e-learning design, some of which is pragmatic and approachable by any reader. If you are interested in evidence-based techniques to improve course quality, I highly recommend looking into the work of Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer. Once you've decided training is necessary and know what you want to communicate, Clark and Mayer can set you in the right direction regarding design choices you will have to make.

mike five
mike five

I think a sixth category could be listed and that is the avoidance of unnecessary high end technical terms and acronyms without elaboration. Since there is no instructor and by using them in excess the module becomes more a demonstration of "see what I know" than "here's what you need to learn". If the student were familiar with the terms and acronyms they wouldn't need to be leaning the material presented. A certain large software company is one of the worst offenders of this.

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