Work Backwards to Organize Your Online Course

Have you ever finished reading an article and thought “Okay…what was the point? I just wasted 10 minutes of my life.” Yeah, me too. Fortunately you probably didn’t pay $500+ up to read that article. Wouldn’t you be peeved if you had? Well, there’s a lot of online courses out there that leave people feeling that way. Luckily, there’s a simple strategy you can use to make sure yours isn't one of them.

If you’re signed up for the Zen Courses newsletter, you’ve probably read some of my tips for working backwards to organize your online course. But you haven’t heard about the alternative. There are two approaches you can use to create content for your online course: working forward and working backward.

Why You Don’t Want to Work Forward

What do I mean by "working forward"? (Sidebar: is it forward or forwards? Geez, grammar!) This is when you get excited and write all of your content first, then try to retrofit it to your learner. The result? More work and stress.

Maybe you’ve spent hours creating content—and feeling super proud of that—only to realize that you missed something that your audience really needs to learn? Maybe you have tons of content and are struggling to figure out how to organize it into a logical flow?

That's a pretty common issue. Here's how to fix it.

Just Like Writing, Start With Your Audience

Writing content for your course is similar to writing a (good) article, with one exception. When you write a (good) article, you think about what your audience needs to know, then you outline the content. From subject to main topics and so on...

When you write content for your course, you do the same two things but you also think about what your learners need to be able to do after taking your course. That’s the key.  

You’ll be amazed at how this shifts your mindset. When you use existing content without thinking about how it fits the learning goals for your course, chances are it'll be off-target. Also, it won’t be very fun for your fans, your tribe, your people. The ones who fork over their hard-earned money to buy your stuff, believing it will help them succeed. We can’t let them down, can we?

Work Backward: Get it right with less stress

So how do you work backward and organize your course the right way? Start by asking questions about your learners: Who are they? What problem will your course solve for them?

Next, work backwards by figuring out your course learning goals. Ask yourself “What should my learners know and/or be able to do after completing this course?” By asking this question, you should come up with at least one answer. These are your course learning goals.

Working backwards from there, ask yourself “What topics do I need to cover to make sure my learners can do these things?” Write down the main topics that you need to cover. You can keep working backwards like this to figure out what sub-topics your main topics should include. When you’ve finished, you’ll have a working outline of your online course content. 

Wait…does that mean you'll have a well-organized course AND an outline to work from? Why yes, yes it does.

When Do You Stop Working Backward?

When you can't think of anymore questions. It's up to you. If you want, you can keep working backward by asking questions like: "What’s the best format to explain this topic--audio, video, or text? Do I need to include any resources to support this topic?" See how it all starts to come together?

Back to You

Does this make sense? Now that you've learned how to approach organizing your course, give it a try. Even if you have content already, you can still ask these questions. Start by asking yourself these five questions:

  • What is my course subject?

  • Who are my learners?

  • What big problem will my course solve for my learners?

  • What should my learners know and/or be able to do after completing my course?

  • What topics do I need to cover to support their ability to do those things?

Image Credit: Kenny Louie via Flickr

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