The Trouble with Self-Paced Courses

There’s a trend I’ve noticed with online courses. It’s not new. As with most trends, this one is really just a cycle: People are moving away from self-paced courses.

But not just learners; course creators are making radical shifts to their education model.

In this article, I want to discuss the reasons why this shift is happening.

Has this happened to you?

I’ve purchased three self-paced courses this year, and you know what? I haven’t finished any of them.

In each course, there wasn’t anything to help me finish either: no welcome sequence, no on-boarding, no community. Nothing.

You can probably guess what happened next. Pretty soon I forgot about those courses.

Can you relate?

This isn’t news to anyone, of course. We all know there’s a problem. Lately, more course creators are doing something about it.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before we get into the solutions, let’s talk about the problems with self-paced courses.

4 problems with self-paced online courses

Problem 1 - Lack of consequences

When my little brother was a toddler he had a habit of standing on his tip toes to grab things from the kitchen counter. Most times, this only resulted in frustration for my parents and I. No matter how many times we warned him, he didn’t stop…until one day.

I had just made him some hot chocolate (after finally giving in to his begging). I poured it into a mug and sat it on the countertop to cool. Then I turned my back for one minute to grab a spoon—next thing I know, I heard a loud, wailing cry.

He had reached up and pulled the now-warm-chocolate off the countertop and onto his baby soft face. Luckily he was fine. And he never grabbed anything off the countertop again.


When it comes to online courses, Justin Jackson said it best: there’s no consequence for not finishing a course.

Okay, technically, if you don’t finish you’ve lost money. But let’s be honest: a lot of us throw money at a problem—over and over again.

So other than money, what consequence do you have for not finishing a course? Nothing.

Consequences are important in learning. They can be a great asset and motivator (as long as they’re not extreme or damaging).

Problem 2 - Lack of accountability

Another thing missing from many self-paced courses is accountability.

Did you do what you said you were going to do?

Because even if you go through the course, doing the work is another thing altogether. In fact, accountability is the number 1 reason people sign up for my group program, Finish Your Damn Course.

We somehow recognize that having someone hold our feet to the fire is a good thing at times.

Again, this isn’t new. It’s why you get more done when you have a hard deadline versus when you don’t. It’s (partially) why you tend to do a thing that you’ve publicly announced you would do.

Not everyone struggles with accountability, but for those who do, self-paced courses simply don’t work very well.

Problem 3 - Lack of instructor interaction and feedback

Learners need feedback.

  • How do you know if you’re on the right track?

  • Who do you contact when you get stuck?

Imagine walking into a classroom where the instructor gives you a stack of information to read, a few media links, then writes down her email address just before she walks out the door.

Sure, if the topic is pretty straightforward, you can do well.

  • But what if you run into roadblocks?

  • What if the content builds upon itself and you want to make sure you’re on the right track?

  • What if there are learning gaps in the content?

  • What if you struggle with finishing things on your own?

It’s not that email support doesn’t work. It’s simply not enough in many cases.

As an instructor, you can mitigate this by having a community where people can ask questions or by holding office hours. Feedback is a key piece of the puzzle when it comes to transformative teaching.

Most times information isn’t the answer; learners need guidance, mentorship, community and accountability in addition to information.

Problem 4 - Lack of constraints

Time constraints are a good thing. If you have forever to finish a course, chances are you will take forever to finish it.

Can’t meet the time constraint? That forces you to reconsider spending money on something you can’t commit to right now.

I’m a fan of a little flexibility when life happens. For instance, in Finish Your Damn Course if life blows up and you can’t finish, you can join the next cohort for a small fee.

There’s more to discuss here, but let’s move on to solutions. Because, as course creators, the question we need to ask is: “How can we increase the stakes & boost results?”

How can we make online courses better?

Currently, I see two solutions trending:

Solution 1: Add a welcome & a follow-up sequence

Technically doing this still counts as a self-paced course. But adding a bit of follow-up makes all the difference for your learners.

You can’t make people finish your course (and everyone doesn’t need to finish to get results), but you do have a responsibility to properly onboard your students. (Remember the scene above of being dropped into a classroom without any interaction? Pretty jarring, right?)

Solution 2: Move away from self-paced courses altogether

A more radical solution is to change the structure of your course(s) entirely. This is what I’m seeing more course creators—who care about results—do.

What are they moving to? Accelerators/Bootcamps and group programs.

  • For example, Bryan Harris just changed his entire training model. No more self-paced courses—now there are bootcamps with a limited enrollment period that run for a specific number of weeks.

The accelerator/bootcamp model is also fantastic for learning a complex process that has a lot of challenging spots.

  • Another example is Claire Pelletreau’s Facebook Ads Incubator. It’s a 12-week mentorship program. Just look at this image from one of Claire’s students!

Image credit: Claire Pelletreau

Image credit: Claire Pelletreau

Action Items

If some of these learning problems are happening in your self-paced online course, here’s what to do about it:

  • Set up an onboarding/orientation sequence to welcome students.

  • It’s also a good idea to add a follow-up sequence with regular check-ins to keep students on track. You can learn more about points 1 and 2 here.

  • Take a look at your learning analytics inside your course platform or LMS (Learning Management System) to see exactly where students are having trouble. (If you don’t have learning analytics, keep reading.)

  • Survey your students to see where they got stuck and why. Offer to do learner development interviews to dig deeper and offer support. (It sounds obvious, but don’t forget to ask if they’d prefer a different format.)

  • Announce the planned changes to your list and run a pre-sell to validate demand.

Enjoy This Post? Get More Like This Delivered To Your Inbox.

(It's Free)

Enter your email address to get free course tips & articles.

Back To Top↑