How to teach online effectively

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Whether it is at school or online, we’ve all been through tedious classes or courses that were boring, uninteresting, or even completely useless.

And even if they are less common, we can also remember some amazing learning experiences we’ve had in the past. They tend to be memorable, but it isn’t because of the great slides or books the teacher showed us, they were memorable because of the teacher.

The goal of this chapter is to help you become that kind of teacher for your students.

This is chapter 3 of the Online course creation guide

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1. How to guide your students through their learning journey

Most people are not learning just to cram more information into their brain. They have a specific goal in mind.

Your role is to act as a guide to help them go from where they are to where they want to be. To do so, you need to identify the gaps that are blocking the way, and build bridges over them.

Let’s look at how to do it.

Identifying and bridging the learning gaps of your students

During your calls with beta-students, you can identify what stands between them and their goal. Let’s call these things “learning gaps”.

There are 5 types of learning gaps:

  1. Knowledge gaps: This is most of what you learn in school (information, definitions and theorems). Your students need to understand how things work and why.
  2. Skill gaps: Knowledge is not enough. For example, you could learn all you want about how to do a backflip — but you won’t get anywhere without practice. The same goes for your students: it’s your job to provide assignments and challenges that build the skills required to succeed.
  3. Environment gaps: Your students need to get access to the right tools, documents, or resources.
  4. Habit gaps: General discipline is useful (making progress on the course every day, avoiding procrastination) but you might want to encourage some habits that are specific to your topic (like drawing every day for an art course).
  5. Motivation gaps: You might think people who bought a course would be sufficiently motivated to get through it, but you’d be wrong. Motivation comes and goes. Constantly remind your students why they are there and what they can expect to get out of their efforts.

When you identify one of these gaps, find a way to build a bridge above it:

Here is how you can help your students overcome each of these gaps:


→ What information does your student need to know?

→ What information is merely “interesting” and is NOT required to get the result?

→ Can you include different types of explanations in different formats which approach information differently (such as a written explanation, plus a mind map, plus a metaphor)?

→ What is the best way for students to remember this information? Does it need to be repeated? Studied every day? Kept in a reference sheet?


→ What skills will your students need?

→ How should they practice those skills?

→ How long will it take to become proficient?

→ How can you create a sense of progression throughout the process?


→ What tools do your students need to be successful?

→ What is the easiest and cheapest way to acquire them?

→ What tools should your student NOT worry about right away?


→ What are some simple good habits they need to develop to succeed?

→ How much should they practice every day to get results?

→ What bad habits do they need to unlearn to succeed?


→ What is a good way to help them keep their goal in mind at all times?

→ How could students get discouraged? And how can you prevent those situations??

→ How can you build confidence through “small wins”?

<p class="tip">💡 What is the difference between a knowledge gap and a skill gap?

Ask yourself: "Is it reasonable to think that someone can overcome that gap without practice?"

If they need to practice, then it means that you are dealing with a skill gap rather than a knowledge gap.

For example:
• Knowing how to upload a YouTube video is knowledge.
• Making entertaining and engaging YouTube videos is a skill that requires practice.</p>

Identify 20 to 30 gaps (knowledge, skill, environment, habit, motivation) your students will have to overcome by using the feedback you got during your beta tests and the first section of this chapter.

Different students need different learning experiences

If someone is already familiar with what you are teaching, they’ll get bored if you take too much time going through the basics.

But if someone is a complete beginner, they’ll simply get lost if you skip over the foundations!

More experienced learners will also expect more autonomy, while beginners will not need as much autonomy, as it would simply lead them to feel overwhelmed.

Here are some examples of elements that will change based on your student’s level.

Best practices when teaching to a beginner learner

  • Providing a lot of guidance, especially at the beginning.
  • A slow introduction to the topic at the beginning that answers their questions.
  • Small achievable goals.
  • Increasing their confidence by celebrating small wins.
  • Increasing the difficulty incrementally.
  • Giving them opportunities to rest.
  • Providing feedback often to ensure they are going in the right direction.
  • Coaching from teachers or more advanced peers.

Best practices when teaching to an advanced or expert learner

  • Giving them more autonomy.
  • Having more of a support role when they need help and letting them make their own progress.
  • Helping them measure their progress.
  • Providing advanced material & challenges to stimulate them and help them master the topic.
  • The opportunity to teach and help less advanced peers.

To identify where they are on their path to mastery, you can use the model of the Four Stages of Competence.

Here are the 4 stages:

1. Unconscious Incompetence: the learner isn’t aware that a skill or knowledge gap exists.

2. Conscious Incompetence: the learner is aware of a skill or knowledge gap and understands the importance of acquiring the new skill. It’s in this stage that learning can begin.

3. Conscious Competence:  the learner knows how to use the skill or perform the task, but doing so requires practice, conscious thought and hard work.

4. Unconscious Competence: the individual has enough experience with the skill that he or she can perform it so easily they do it unconsciously.

Generally, a course will take students from stage 2 to stage 3 ; and then further practice can get them to stage 4. (It’s usually the role of your marketing to get them from stage 1 to stage 2, which makes them aware of their problem and your solution).

Here is an example of me going through these 4 stages while learning how to type faster:

<p class="tip"> 💡Quick Tip
When at level 3 & 4, a student can start helping others that are less advanced. This is called peer-to-peer learning, and it’s beneficial for both parties:

• The beginner gets to improve with the help of someone who was in their place just months ago and who might have a different perspective than the teacher.

• The more advanced student gets social status and good karma from helping someone else. Plus, teaching something is one of the best ways to internalize it.</p>

Arrange the gaps that your students have to overcome in the order in which they will have to face them.

(Make it progressively harder to keep your students in the Challenge Zone as they improve)

2. How do we improve skills and build knowledge?

In schools or in most online courses, the most common form of learning material we encounter is lectures. But is that what you should do in your course? Probably not.

Lectures encourage students to memorize facts, but they are not great if the goal is to actually APPLY the information to reach a certain goal, the same goes for reading, watching a video, or a demonstration because these methods are too passive.

Great courses help your students learn actively.

Adapted from National Training Laboratories, Maine

Let’s look into the 3 Active Learning methods:

  • Group learning through communities
  • Learning by taking action through deliberate practice
  • Mastering a topic by teaching to others

How to make your students learn together

Most online courses are just a bunch of videos that students have to watch by themselves. It’s all too easy to just watch and never do anything. No one is there to push you to take action (or judge you if you don't).

This is where traditional education has some advantages. In a classroom, students can talk to each other, ask questions to their teacher, and they are kept accountable. If anything, you are expected to show up and turn in some kind of work.

But when you’re building an online course, it’s not so easy:

  • There aren’t many reliable solutions for users to communicate. You can use a Facebook, Discord or Telegram group, but people won’t engage in it as much as you’d like because the community isn’t well-integrated with the program.
  • People are rarely kept accountable for their progress in a course, and they tend to drop off.
  • Asking questions to the teacher and receiving answers can be a messy process, spread between emails, course comments, and social media. Students ask themselves “will I actually get an answer? Am I even asking in the right place?”. This creates friction, and it seems easier to just not ask for the student.

Ok, so this is where the sales pitch comes in. We built SchoolMaker to fix those exact issues that plague most online courses.

SchoolMaker gives you:

A built-in community to keep your students engaged and create more accountability.
A step system that gamifies each student’s progression by assigning them tasks at the end of each lesson.

Easy ways to take questions, answer quickly and make all your replies searchable.

SchoolMaker helps your students get more results from your online course, so you can get more sales.

You can learn more about SchoolMaker here, and start a 14-day free trial here.

But having a great online course platform isn’t everything. You also have to create a course that helps your students improve in your chosen topic, and our favorite method for this is deliberate practice.

Improving through deliberate practice

In the book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, the science writer Robert Pool and the psychologist Anders Ericsson make a strong case that success in today's world requires a focus on practical performance, not just the accumulation of information.

They explain that deliberate practice is the most efficient way to improve in any domain and get better outcomes.

<p class="tip">💡 What is Deliberate Practice?
Deliberate practice refers to a special type of practice that is purposeful and systematic. While regular practice might include mindless repetitions, it requires focused attention and is conducted with the specific goal of improving performance.</p>

For example, if someone wants to learn how to play a song on the guitar, an efficient way for beginners to improve is to first try to play it very slowly, and then incrementally increase their playing speed until it matches the original song’s speed. This allows them to deliberately practice each note and is much better than repeatedly blundering through the song at full speed.

To make deliberate practice easier for your students, you can share mental frameworks that can help them engage in the activity more easily.

For example, if you want to teach which note each guitar string produces to a beginner, you can give them the following mnemotechnic framework, so they can remember it more easily:

A bit stupid, but memorable!

Another important thing to do to help your students improve is to help them track their progress.

Peter Drucker once said, “what gets measured, gets managed.”, and it also applies to learning new things.

To help your students track their progress, you can create spreadsheets for them, give them exercises with measurable results throughout your online course, create habit trackers or other templates for them.

Your learners can be teachers too

As your students progress in their learning journey, they will gain more skills and knowledge about their topic, and they will be able to teach their peers in a community.

This is great for you, because it means that your job will be easier as your more advanced students will help out.

This is where a tool like SchoolMaker can help you through its integrated communities which encourage student discussions and peer-to-peer learning.

In SchoolMaker, the questions available under each lesson appear in the forum. This means anyone can reply, and you (as the teacher) can reward students who offer a good reply.

In order for the more advanced students to help out, you need to keep them more engaged by providing them exclusive activities and access to more advanced content.

For example, you can let your students ask you or members of your team more advanced questions and answer them publicly, which will create a brand new advanced resource for all students.

3. How to keep your students engaged

It’s becoming harder to focus on long-form content. Some might say Twitter and TikTok have something to do with it.

But all hope is not lost: people still binge on hours of content on Netflix or YouTube. Of course, you won’t have the budget of a Netflix production — but you have something they don’t: you can credibly announce that you are going to change someone’s life.

Let’s see how you can build on that promise to create an engaging course.

Use storytelling

People have a much better memory when it comes to stories, especially ones that appeal to their emotions.  There is a higher chance that your students will relate to characters in your stories, or to your examples, which will also make them more engaged.

For example, throughout your course, you can tell the story of a person you know who became successful in the topic you are teaching, the story of a fictional character, or even talk about yourself when you were in your student’s shoes (the last one is the best as it shows more empathy!).

<p class="warning">⚠️ What to avoid when telling stories
Avoid telling stories that are too long, it can become tedious to follow a complex story or distract the student from the point you’re trying to make. Also, try to talk about the things that they’re going through at the moment in your story.</p>

Write a quick story that mirrors your student’s learning journey in 500 to 1000 words.

(The story could be yours, someone you know, a beta student, or a fictional person’s. You can mention small parts of this story throughout your course to mirror your student’s experience)

Use real-world examples

Examples are especially useful for beginners who do not always have the same level of understanding about your topic as more advanced people.

They make the content of your online course less dry and more engaging than simply reading theory.

It’s usually better to give real-world examples as they are more relatable and easier to visualize.

This is why it’s easier to learn statistics than advanced functions, as in statistics a math teacher usually gives a lot of real-world examples and exercises, whereas functions are taught in a more abstract way.

Write down at least 2 examples for each learning gap your students will have to overcome.

Use visuals to make information more digestible

Here are things that really benefit from being illustrated:

  • Progression
    Visuals can often be more effective than text only to show a procedure, process, or showing some kind of progression. For example, this is how we could illustrate the 4 stages of learning:
  • Concepts
    Visuals can help explain concepts by simplifying them through graphs, charts, or infographics. For example, this is how we could illustrate the Dunning Kruger effect, which are the stages through which someone goes when learning a new skill:
The Dunnking Kruger effect
  • Big numbers
    When referring to big numbers that may be hard to visualize, it can help to compare these numbers to something the student is already familiar with. For example, this is how the World Wildlife Fund helps us visualize the deforestation rate in the world on their website:
    “According to the UN, we lose 88,000 sq. km of natural forest globally every year — that's an area of forest the size of London lost every week, or roughly one football pitch every 2 seconds.”

A few additional tips when creating visuals for your course:

  • Avoid adding too many visuals as it can make your learning material difficult to follow. (a good balance is having one or two visuals maximum per slide).
  • Avoid visual clichés, everyone has seen this kind of stock photos to represent “business” or “teamwork” way too many times.
Boring 😪
  • Except if you are teaching artistic or design related skills, don’t spend too much time on making your slides pretty. Make them well enough for them to be clear and understandable, and move on.
Find or create visuals to illustrate the 10 most important concepts you will teach in your course.

Use rewards and play

Another way to keep your students engaged is to reward them for advancing in their learning journey.

Let’s say that you are teaching a friend how to play a video game.

If you spend an hour explaining all the different button combinations and rules of the game to this person, they’ll probably go and get a pizza while you blabber on.

You already know that it is worth the effort to learn all the combinations to do cool things in this game, but this friend doesn’t yet.

Instead, you could just explain enough for your friend to do basic things, then let them have some fun, you could then teach them the next move, then the next one, and so on. They’ll end up learning everything they need to know (and actually have a chance to remember it!).

Here is how it would look:

As it turns out, this is the optimal way to teach people because it’s very rewarding to make something out of what you learned right after understanding how to do it.

Having your students practice often (after each lesson), your course will help them improve quicker and get more results, as well as having a higher engagement in your programs.

Write down an exercise to help your students overcome each skill gap you wrote down.

Use technology to your advantage

Online education has evolved a lot during the last few years, and the tools around it as well.

With tools like SchoolMaker, you get:

  • An integrated community for you and your students
  • Ways to make your courses more actionnable with steps to complete at the end of each lesson
  • Features to engage directly with the members of your courses like consultations and lives
  • Or even the ability to create quizzes like this one:
Complete the quiz, and think of where you could add quizzes in your own course to check that your students remember what you taught them

Now that you are familiar with the best practices for teaching online, we can get started with more concrete things.

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Created by

Alexandru Golovatenco

Alex has enrolled in dozens of courses on marketing, development and design. He ended up with varied skills — and also a collection of best practices for teaching online.
He wrote the guide you’re reading.
Produced by

Stan Leloup

Stan has been creating courses for a decade. He built a 7-figure online course business called Marketing Mania.
He is also the founder of the website you’re on: SchoolMaker.