Skip to content

How to create a transformational online course

As an online course creator, you never want your students to walk away from their experience feeling disappointed. That can happen when expectations are misaligned or the curriculum isn’t designed to engage and excite learners. Don’t let this happen to you. Steph shares her most effective strategies to help any independent business owner create an outstanding online course.

Time for some real talk: most of the online courses out there suck. There, I said it. What do I mean by that? They have super low completion rates, which means most students aren’t even watching all of the content, must less getting the results they were promised. That means no ravings fans to refer the course to others.  This sadly seems to be the norm these days. According to Teachable, online courses have a completion rate of just under 10%, meaning most students don’t get any results from the courses they’re investing so much in. I think that’s devastating– for both the students and the course creator. The abundance of ineffective online courses has caused a lot of people to think that they just don’t work well at all. Wrong. They just have a bad reputation. I’m on a mission to change that by helping you create an exceptional transformational online course!

Why a lot of existing programs suck

First, I want to say that it’s not your fault that your course isn’t performing well. Most of the guidance about course creation is about how to sell the courses, and not how to create a truly transformational curriculum. That makes sense since most of the support comes from people with marketing backgrounds. A lot of people have decided to go the DIY route and just wing it. This is understandable; it doesn’t seem too complex and you’ve seen a lot of other independent businesses launching courses all the time. But would you attempt to fly an airplane without some guidance? Or step in and take charge during an open-heart surgery? You might say that those examples are a little dramatic. After all, this is just an online course. But let me be clear: courses can also be life-changing. After all, if you didn’t want to make an impact, you wouldn’t be doing this in the first place.  Courses have the power to change lives! Well, at least the excellent ones do. Read on for some tips on how to keep your students engaged so they finish your online course and get those spectacular results that they deserve! 

Here’s why your completion rates are low

From my experience, both working with Stanford professors and online entrepreneurs, I see four main reasons why completing your course is so dang hard for students. When some (or all) of these things happen, it gives your learner the excuse to push your course off and into the digital graveyard, never to be resurrected again. This little progress halting monsters are confusion, procrastination, boredom, and overwhelm. You want to avoid these at all costs. Let’s break them down one by one.


This is when you’re students have no clue what’s going on or what they’re supposed to be doing. They’re thinking, “Wait, what am I supposed to be doing? What do I do next?” They’ve been dropped into a new experience and trusted that they would be shown the way, but they’ve lost track and don’t know what action steps to take next.


We’ve all been there—knowing there’s something we should do right now but putting it off repeatedly. Your students say to themselves, “I’ll come back to this later when I have more time to focus.” This happens when your learner is required to choose between competing priorities. And, unsurprisingly, your course loses. In most cases, procrastination leads to a mad dash right before the deadline to get stuff done. In an online course, procrastination means your student ghosts, never to be seen again. Both confusion and procrastination contribute to…


Your student says to themselves, “Ah there’s too much to do, I don’t have time for all of this.” This usually happens when you accidentally overload your learner with too much content. In this case, they won’t end up absorbing anything at all. We are so excited and eager to give our learners everything they need to reach their goals that we sometimes overdo it. The trick is that less is more.  It might sound more appealing to accomplish something in three steps versus eight, but the reality is that you’re more likely to reach the end in eight smaller steps versus three big ones. 


The worst one of them all. This is when your learner thinks, “Ugh, who cares? What does this have to do with anything?” When your learner isn’t engaged with the experience and/or doesn’t see the relevance, they lose their momentum quickly. Why would you keep going if you just… don’t… care? It seems like our attention spans are getting shorter all the time and, when it comes to online courses, this couldn’t be more true. So we must keep our learners engaged! 

How to create a better course 

Fear not, course creator! There are simple tweaks you can make to your course to make sure that your students stay on track and move forward toward their amazing transformation. The remedies for our little monsters will not only help your learner as they move through your course but have the added benefit of simplifying your creative process as well! I like to think of these as the jewels that bring extreme power, like in Thanos’ Infinity Gauntlet (for my Marvel fans out there).


To combat confusion, give them structure. Adult learners like to know where they’re headed. Let them in on the structure because it helps organize information. Your learners will spend less time focused on how all the pieces fit together, and more time on the content itself, if you’ve spelled it all out for them upfront. It also sets clear expectations for what they are going to learn and when. This then reassures them that they’re on track to reaching their goal.  

In practice, this looks like making sure that your content is laid out in a clear order and grouped in ways that make sense. You can provide a roadmap of the course journey or workbooks that students can fill in as they go through the course. Even a simple agenda will reassure your students and keep them engaged. 


Address procrastination by ensuring your course is as easy as possible to move through. Any friction in your course can be an easy excuse for a student to simply bail (and we don’t want that!). They’ll be less likely to save it for later (which, let’s face it, never comes) and more likely to act if the next steps are relatively easy to accomplish. Action means higher completion rates, and higher completion rates mean more transformation and happier students.  Adding ease can be as simple as making sure that your lessons are bite-sized. A good rule of thumb is to keep your lessons under ten minutes. When you’re doing something like a workshop, sprinkle in activities to break things up!


When learners are bored, they need more connections. Connection to the material, connection to the transition between learning points, or connection to other people who are on the same journey. Keeping things relevant for your learners is key for engagement. Put things into context to help avoid the dreaded “why should I care?” question. Doing so will help keep your students engaged even during the drier parts of your course.  In practice, this looks like including examples, case studies, and stories in every lesson. Demonstrate how the activities you’re asking them to do connect to the promised transformation of the online course.


It’s part of your job to ensure everything you’re giving your learners is truly essential to move them toward their goals. When in doubt, ask yourself, “If I took it out, would my learners still be able to get to their goal?” If the answer is yes, it goes. But you don’t necessarily have to throw it away. Hand on to these less-essential elements of your course to use as bonus topics or to use as a free lead gen magnet in your marketing strategy. 

Pro Tip: Transformation does not come from knowing what to do. It comes from knowing what to put into action!

To foster more action in your course, you need to adjust your mindset. The old mindset asks, “What do my students need to know?” But really, we need to be asking, “What do my students need to be able to do?” Instead of focusing on what topics we need to talk about or what information we need in our content, focus on what action you want your students to be able to do. This helps you to think about what essential information is required to accomplish that and what activities you should include in your course.  Beyond thinking about how to give your students success, think about what you need to optimize your enjoyment, money, and time.

Above all else, I want you to be proud of your online course. So proud that you can’t stop bragging about how over-the-top amazing it is because you’re absolutely in love with it! The reality is that if you aren’t confident in your course’s effectiveness, or don’t enjoy delivering your offer, your students aren’t going to like it either. Don’t love being on Zoom calls? Then teaching your online course live is probably not the way to go. Love interacting with students? Make sure to schedule lots of opportunities to connect, like hot seats or 1:1 coaching sessions.

Short on time? Then promising weekly check-ins with students is probably not reasonable. I hope that this article empowers you with the tools and mindset to create a transformational online course that works just as much for you as it does for your students. At the end of the day, these tools are just that — tools. They aren’t rules that you must follow. Rather, guidelines on how to give your students the best possible results. The truth is, infusing your course with one or two of these tips can make the world of difference. Adding all of them can take your online course from meh to marvelous!

Now, go and have fun creating an amazing online course, you rockstar.

Ready to diversify your revenue streams? Get our How to Diversify Your Revenue Streams Ultimate Guide.

Download Guide

Related posts