Course Content: How Deep Should You Go?

You’ve taken the big plunge and decided to create an online course or build another one. Then you come to this stage and question, ‘What content do I put into the course?”

And your question comes from a place of complete concern for your students and the experience they are going to have in your course. You don’t want it to be like drinking out of a firehose, nor do you want to offer a light ‘n fluffy one either.

What is worse, you have sooo much content that you love, that you built with your fingers and over many hours of sweat and tears. At times, you think, ‘Darn, this is good!’ but you know that you can’t cram it all into your course. And you don’t really want to do, either.

I have a content model for you to follow that will help to qualm some of those concerns, and give you… Click To Tweet

Study the graphic below and move onto the explanation.


People are taking your course because they don’t know the topic or strategy that you are offering,… Click To Tweet

Also, they are human beings with the same wired brains as they next person. That is, they learn just like you.

Considering these notions, we need to determine how to scaffold the learning to help students move from one level of understanding to the next. The gap in between is where we need to teach, help and support them in order to bridge over it. See the illustration below – by the way, this is Vgotsky’s theory of cognitive development.


So where are the gaps in your topic area? Where do you think students will get stuck or need to learn something first before moving on to the next level?

You can determine this by organizing your course into 3 or more tiers of understanding (knowledge) and ability to apply (skills). Basically, organize your course from easy to difficult.

Can you now see how easily courses can become firehose experiences without addressing the learning process?


Below is a chart of three main levels of learning from easy to difficult, or general to more specific. This is a broad representation and know that your course may have one or two more levels.


1st LEVEL: Basic Knowledge & Skills

At this level, learners want to understand the basics behind a topic and how to apply simple steps to better their life or business.

The focus for this tier should be:

  • Foundational knowledge
    • Share the basis of a topic
    • Give a brief background of the topic
    • Use illustrations and examples of topic foundations
  • Conceptual
    • Share the underlying philosophy of the subject area
    • Outline the thinking behind it, the rationale
  • Modern twist
    • Put your course into a current context
    • Refer to modern tools and methods to apply the topic
  • Immediate application
    • Ensure exercises are simple and have immediate gratification
    • Choose exercises and instructions that can be repeated successfully
    • Model an example of the outcome as a form of feedback
  • Experience & test
    • Encourage students to experiment and have fun
    • Give them ideas or measures to test the topic/strategy
  • Buy in
    • Set the stage for the importance of the topic
    • Provide cases or stories on the impact and potential

2nd LEVEL: Practice & Application

At this level, learners already understand the basics and want to apply their knowledge and skills on a broader scale, within more places and situations. They see the potential, have bought into the strategy and want to use it in their life on a larger scale.

The focus for this tier should be:

  • Broader application
    • Show students how to use the topic/strategy in more than one context
    • Give examples of cross discipline application
    • Provide more tools to use when applying
  • Troubleshooting
    • Share potential issues and how to solve them
    • Quiz learners on different issues to choose best solutions
  • Feedback
    • Provide different forms of feedback as students become active
    • Share modelled results, quiz feedback and work by peers
  • Online community
    • Set up a community online so active learners can share and get help
    • Together people can create more and support each other
  • Resource gathering  
    • Provide additional resources to help with more application
    • Teach how learners can find their own tools and resources

3rd LEVEL: Mastery Work

At this higher level, people are ready to put some serious elbow grease into their learning, personal growth and creations. They want to go deeper.

The focus for this tier should be:

  • Deeper philosophy
    • Place the topic into universal levels (i.e. global, regional, humanity, etc.)
    • Explore the potential for wide-reaching betterment by the topic
  • Problem solving
    • Address real issues and how the subject area provides solutions
    • Provide examples of complex, ill-defined problems and potential outcomes
  • Creative mastery
    • Push students to create deeper and better with explicit criteria to follow
    • Set up work groups for support, sharing and rich discussions
  • Reflections
    • Ensure learners take time to reflect with guided questions
    • Create pauses to think about their work, challenges and questions
  • Critical thinking
    • Provide difficult reflective questions and ponderings
    • Give meaningful yet challenging feedback
    • Acknowledge their expanding thinking skills


You may have been a bit surprised at the separation and connection of the 3 tiers, and perhaps realized you’ve jumped tiers too soon in some of your curriculum.

The 3 tiers offer a model to build your course with a logical flow that both motivates learners and builds their knowledge and skills.

Each tier could be a section in your course or a course on its own. There are many 1st Level courses in the world that are helping many people. Also, you could have 3 separate courses that are individual tiers. Know that it is not necessary to teach all the tiers – it will depend on what and how you want to teach.

As the levels of learning get more complex and involved, learners will need to commit more, and will need more tools, support and teaching from a facilitator. If they joined a higher tier course they are most likely ready to work, commit and pay more.

I hope this explanation of expanding knowledge and skills has helped you determine not only what you want to teach but the best content and activities for each level.


About the Author

Dr. Kelly Edmonds

Dr. Kelly Edmonds is a professional instructional designer and teacher who specializes in creating online courses. She has three degrees in education with a focus on adult learning, educational technology, higher education and online learning. For the last 17 years, she has continuously created online courses for companies worldwide. Her company provides e-learning solutions for small and mid-size companies as well as academic institutions. She also has Do-It-Yourself course design tools for the savvy entrepreneur. See her website to access many e-course creation tips, tools and resources.

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