We build our courses with an ideal “flow” that we expect the learning to take. We assume students come into our course, read all our intro material, then diligently work through all the assignments until completing the course.

This fantasy learning flow is supposed to look like this:

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Unfortunately, it’s actually a lot more complicated than that. With all your lessons, assignments, units, forums, live Blackboard sessions, multi-colored fonts and dancing smiley faces, your course has dozens of opportunities to confuse and lose learners.

Just like a river suddenly hitting a dam or falling rocks, that flow can be interrupted and STOPPED by problems in your course.

Quite often, the flow in our classes actually looks like this:

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I’m going to dive into each of these problems and suggest some ways for you to keep the learning “flowing” through your course.

(By the way, I’m a big fan of arrows. I have them in my blog posts and my Moodle courses. Notice how your eye just wants to follow like …. this ….)


1. The Baffling, Dizzying Top of Your Course

In web design, we call everything that first loads on your screen “above the fold”. This is borrowed from the newspaper industry, where the most eye catching news stories were position on the top of a folded newspaper, which is what most people saw on a news stand.

In your course, the cluttered, multi-coloured font and button-palooza that is “above the fold” can really derail the attention of your learners. Or worse, make them completely tune it out.

I know teachers load up the top of the course because they want to call attention to important items. Ironically, cramming everything at the top of the page isn’t necessary and doesn’t work.

Start with this question: What ONE thing do I want my learners to do when they enter my course today.

In September, the answer might be watch a welcome screencast so they can learn about the course and meet me. Put that at the top of the page, under the course logo. All the OTHER things that you might want there for reference … can be turned into small, icon buttons in the sidebar. They aren’t necessary all year long, splashed all over your front page.

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(Live class, Course Outline, Recordings, Forum)

That’s just an example of a button set I would have, tucked in the sidebar of your course. Remember, less clutter means less confusion.

Want them just to get cracking on their assignments? Then clear away the clutter and lead their eyes to Unit One.

Uh oh … speaking of Unit One …


2. The Great Barrier Reef (Unit One)

The most critical unit in any course is the first one. Unit One, to me, is about psychology. This is where “elearning” actually get real for students, and the fantasy of the easy, multi-media extravaganza comes to a screeching halt.

Elearning is, actually, quite challenging. You’ve already done 10 things just to get logged in to the course, figured out what to do and begin learning the first lesson. And the lesson doesn’t get easier because you don’t understand it.

The first unit is often incredibly intimidating for students. As teachers we are excited to dive into the meat of the course and give students lots of learning and projects to explore.

15790762 - climb the cliff, success

(Mount Everest is a bad idea for a first unit … )


The first unit is typically way too long, way too difficult for beginning elearners, with very little motivators to keep moving. Online learning … and the routines, self discipline, tech skills, and reading comprehension necessary to be successful at it … are just ASSUMED to be present in students. If you go check your stats I’m sure you’ll see that if a student is going to crash and burn … it’s right here in the first unit.

They just don’t get off the runway, and in some cases become so turned off elearning they never finish the course.

Here’s a few quick tips:

a) Keep the first unit short. It will build momentum and seem more inviting at first glance.

b) Make the first assignment a no brainer. A quick win. Even this easy activity will be challenging for new elearners. Let’s get them just handling the “how” without worrying about the “what”. Maybe a short paragraph introducing themselves in a forum? A quick “matching” Quiz? Let them settle in and build confidence.

c) Give them lots of feedback and personal contact. This first unit is the “welcome mat” of your course. If you can, write an email to every student after their first assignment. I know this isn’t possible all throughout the course, but making a connection right away will help students see that it isn’t a robot running the course .. it’s a live human who cares about their success.

And this brings us to the next section …


3. The KT Boundary

The KT Boundary is the thin, dark line found in the sedimentary rocks. It marked the end of the dinosaurs (and most other living things on earth). Scientists were puzzled. How could all those diverse living things be found before the line … and then after it … just disappear?

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Well, just like your course started out rich with a diverse set of learners … the impact crater of the first unit meant that only the heartiest, most resilient students survive to finish the course. Often our most fragile learners can’t persist through the challenges of starting the first unit and will just disappear.

The single greatest drop off point in your course is right here … the invisible line in your course just before the second unit. What can you do to help push students forward?

a) As I mentioned with the first unit, keep it short, easy and encouraging

b) Warn students about it. Create a “check in” to help get them started on the next unit.

c) Re-arrange your units. Make unit 2 the most engaging, rock star unit of your entire course:

  • Forensics Unit 2 …  Profiling serial killers.
  • English Unit 2 … Film Study, etc.

It doesn’t matter what order you arrange your units in, so do it in a way that creates the most inviting learning path for students. Again, if you look at your stats, you’ll see that students who make it into the second unit are much more likely to finish the course.

But what about your stronger learners? What dangers might be blocking their path to the finish line?


4. End-of-Unit Rest Stop

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Even your most motivated students are going to take a little breather at the end of a unit. The sense of closure that comes with “finishing” means they can concentrate on other subjects, or just go have fun offline.

Make sure they get a little reminder to come back and finish the course. You can do this in a few ways.

  • Award a badge at the end of each unit. This will trigger a “congrats” email from Moodle. Sneak in a little teaser for the upcoming unit in the email. Maybe a screen cast? A riddle that is solved in the next unit?
  • Manually send them a message in Moodle. Change the settings in the final unit one assignment for you to be notified when a student completes it. When you get this notice, go send them a little note in Moodle. They will get a pop up message the next time they log in.

How you nudge them will depend on the size of your class, and the time you have to devote. However you can do it, give them a little bump into the next unit.


5. Project Pothole

10407504 - cracked floor. black hole in the white pavement.

This could also be called the project sinkhole because when students fall into it, they can get seriously lost. Project-based assignments are a mixed blessing. They give students freedom and creative choices … but this very freedom can leave them lost and unguided.

a) Create tiny micro goals. Many people (adults included) have difficulty managing big open ended projects. Breaking it down into weekly (or even daily) tasks with some kind of check in, helps keep learners on track.

b) Offer a template for the project. I often GIVE students the Powerpoint presentation I want them to use. This helps guide those students who don’t know how to get started or what to do next.

What’s that in the distance? … it’s .. it’s ….


5. The Teeny, Distant Finish Line

13199185 - a stock vector illustration of a man walk in a long road up and down a hill to achieve his goal in life

As teachers, we often think of the end of a course in very neutral terms. It’s just … the end. That’s not really a great sales pitch.

Do this and this and this and then you get to be … done!

“Done” is not a big enough motivator for a lot of students.

Let students SEE the finish line and excite them a bit about reaching it. If it is buried at the end of a long scrolling course it might be too far off for many learners. What awesome thing does getting done offer them? Is it a certificate? Five high school credits? … detective badge … Master Level Moodle training? Make a big colourful graphic with a success image at the end.

Then, add “markers” along the way. Put reward pictures in a label, like this:



It really helps to know that you are making progress. I can’t stress enough the power of gamification in your courses. Even a simple badge or progress bar can help show that they are on the way to success.


Let me know

Are there things you are doing to keep students flowing through the course? Did I miss any blocks in the learning flow? Let me know in the comments below.

After that, learn how to add badges in this quick step-by-step guide.