woman on a computer taking a self-guided course

Designing a Better Self-Guided Course

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Self-guided courses offer promising outcomes for learners and organizations. But desgining an effective self-guided course can be a challenge if you’ve never done it before. What should be included in a self-guided course? What makes self-guided courses more effective for learners? How do you ensure that learners will actually complete the course? How do you design self-guided course that lives up to what it promises? In short, how do you create a self-guided course? I say, start with effective course design in mind and then move on to the technical side.

In this article, I define what I mean by the term self-guided course (as opposed to self-directed or synchronous learning). I then share eight essential course design elements that will ensure that your self-guided course effectively delivers on its promises. These design elements will help ensure that participants learn what you want them to learn, and complete the course – on schedule without giving up.

If you want to create a self-guided course that works, start with these learning concepts in mind BEFORE you move onto the technicalities of offering a course online.

What do I mean by a Self-Guided Course?

A self-guided course, for the purpose of this discussion, is one in which the learner completes the majority of the learning on their own, but with materials and content provided by a teacher or organization. This kind of course is typically designed by an instructor or facilitator, but that person is not present and interacting as learners complete the experience. The term “asynchronous” applies to self-guided courses, as they are completed by individuals on their own schedule, not in a group setting.

Self-guided courses can be distinguished from other types of courses by four characteristics:

Autonomy – The learner is primarily responsible for his or her own learning in a self-guided course. The learner decides when and how to study, and completes the course at their own pace (though often within a suggested or required timeframe).

Internal & External Motivation – The learner must be internally motivated to complete a self-guided course. There is usually no instructor present to provide external motivation, to keep them on track, or to tell them how to complete each step of the process. However, external motivation is often a factor in self-guided courses if they are required by a workplace or necessary to achieve a credential.

Flexible Structure – A self-guided course must have some level of structure in order for the learner to know what is expected of them and to stay on track. But the learner has some flexibility in how they complete the course; there are typically no designated course hours.

Materials – Self-guided courses often make use of online materials, but they can also include print materials, video, and audio. These materials are available to the learner either all at once or through sequenced release. Materials need to be easily accessed by the learner, but can be diverse in terms of mode of delivery.

Examples of self-guided courses might include:

  • Organizational training programs that are required for employees to progress or meet workplace requirements (such as workplace safety trainings, sexual harassment trainings, or introductions to new technology or workplace tools);
  • New Employee Orientations that provide employees with the information they need to successfully navigate their workplace;
  • Online or remote courses designed to teach a professional topic or skill (these are wildly popular among social influencers, wellness professionals, and others in the online world);
  • Online educational courses that meet requirements for attaining credentials, certifications, or degrees.
woman at a computer taking a self-guided online course

Why are Self-Guided Courses so Promising (and Popular)?

Self-guided courses offer benefits for both individuals and organizations. They allow organizations to deliver information to employees on an as-needed basis, often through passive methods that require less time from supervisors. For individuals, self-guided courses offer an opportunity to learn on their own schedule. They can complete experiences that will help them grow personally and professionally and eventually lead to either greater fulfillment or increased income (or both).

For these reasons, self-guided courses are becoming commonplace in the work environment. They are also becoming a huge market in the digital world. Course creators are churning out content at a record pace – in fact, some estimates put the market for online courses at $500 billion by 2025. But not all courses are created equal. Some courses are thrown together quickly without supporting materials; some in-person courses are put online without thought for how self-guided learning changes the equation; others promise way more than they deliver. However, with a little bit of knowledge of course design and learning science, you can design a course that is much more effective at achieving its goals.

How is Self-Guided Learning different from Self-Directed Learning?

Self-directed learning is a process in which learners take the initiative to identify their own learning goals, and then seek out resources and experiences to help them meet those goals. In self-directed learning, learners are in control of their own learning experience – they decide what they want or need to learn, and they select the resources and experiences that will help them learn it. In a self-directed learning model, learners are active participants in their own learning, and they take responsibility for their own success.

Self-guided learning shares some characteristics of self-directed learning in that learners have more control over the learning process. They can make decisions about how to complete the course, and in many cases the decision to complete a self-guided course is truly voluntary. However, because the learner is provided with content and learning goals by an instructor or organization, self-guided learning is not truly self-directed.

If you have content to offer to your audience, or content that they MUST learn, then you want to create a self-guided course, not a truly self-directed course.

create self-guided courses checklist

How do I create a self-guided course?

When designing a self-guided learning experience, I believe that there are several essential components that need to be included in order to ensure that participants complete the course and learn the desired content. No matter what course-delivery tool or method you are going to use (Blackboard, Moodle, Teachable, Thinkific, etc.), these components should be a part of your course plan. You need to start here, before you move into the technical aspects of online or remote course delivery.

My checklist for an effective self-guided course includes the following 8 principles:

A Compelling Reason to Learn

In order for learners to be motivated to complete a self-guided course, they need to have a compelling reason to do so. This could be an external motivation, such as a workplace requirement, or an internal motivation, such as a desire to learn more about a topic or gain a professional skill that will help them succeed. That compelling reason should be well-described and articulated in all materials that describe the course or training.

Clear Goals and Objectives

Self-guided courses need to have clearly defined goals and objectives in order for participants to know what they are expected to learn. These goals and objectives should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART). They will help learners understand the overall outcomes that they can expect from the course (goals) as well as the interim steps that will move them toward that outcome (objectives). Read more about why I think goals and objectives are so essential here.

A Course Outline or Syllabus

A course outline or syllabus is a document that helps learners to understand how the course is designed to be completed. It is also an expression of how the progression of the course will lead them to desired learning outcomes. An effective outline helps a self-guided learner to look ahead, plan their time, and effectively complete the experience. It also clearly explains any requirements, assessment, or products that the learner needs to deliver in order for the course to be considered complete. Without this explicit “map” for learning, learners and their supervisors (if applicable) have nothing to which they can hold themselves accountable.

Sequenced Release of Divserse Learning Sources

Learners need materials from which to learn about the topic at hand, and these materials should be presented in a logical and purposeful sequence. Even if all materials are provided at the beginning of the program, a reference should be included to help learners progress through them in a purposeful order.

Self-guided courses open the door to redefining what we mean by course “materials.” Rather than relying only on written sources of learning, self-guided courses should diversify learning resources to include everything from written materials to online videos, podcasts, and personal experiences.

A Flexible Structure

Self-guided courses need to have a flexible structure in order to accommodate different learning styles and schedules. There should be no designated course hours, and learners should have some flexibility in how they complete the course. Requiring course completion by a certain deadline is acceptable, as is asking learners to spend a certain amount of time on content, but learners should be free to plan their course time within those guideposts.

Clear and Effective Instructions

Learners need to be provided with clear instructions for completing the course, especially if an instructor will not be readily accessible to answer questions. The instructions should be easy to follow, not overly complex or confusing, and written in language that the typical participant could easily grasp. For example, try to format each “unit” of your self-guided course in a similar fashion so that learners know which steps they will need to follow and get used to those components of the experience. Also consider dividing your course up by what you want learners to REVIEW (watch, read, etc.), COMPLETE (assignments, exercises, tasks), and TURN IN (assessments, projects, etc.).

Methods for Assessing & Demonstrating Learning

Depending on the nature of the learning experience, the need to assess learning outcomes will fall along a spectrum. Some courses will demand that learners demonstrate certain knowledge before completing the experience because that learning is required in their professional setting. In such courses, a learning assessment like a quiz, test, or demonstration project will be necessary.

In other cases, it may not be necessary to measure learning outcomes, but it is always desirable. Integrating opportunities to “test” learning outcomes, or apply learning to real-life scenarios, will help participants to better absorb and retain learning (read more about the science behind learning here). It helps them to move from passive learning which is often forgotten to active learning which is tested, absorbed, reflected on, and better understood. This will lead to better outcomes, and – if it matters to your program – likely better reviews of your course.

Recognition of Completion

When a learner completes a self-guided course, their experience will be most rewarding if that completion is recognized. Often, completion will open new doors for them at work such as a promotion or step increase in salary. These achievements should be recognized in the workplace.

Outside of a workplace, completion of a course should be marked by other forms of celebration and recognition. Can you offer the participant a credential for their resume, a digital badge for their website or social media profile, or a “title” they are now able to use? Can you provide the learner with access to additional resources or tools that were not previously at their disposal?

While a simple Certificate of Completion can be enough of a capstone to recognize the time that someone has put into this learning experience, the more concrete the recognition, the better. This type of recognition will help a learner to remember what they have achieved, feel it was worth it, and be open to new self-guided learning options that arise in the future.


Self-guided courses hold a lot of promise for adult learners who are busy and have other demands on their time. They are also a promising method for organizations to deliver information effectively to folks who can’t always gather in one place. Likewise, self-guided courses are becoming more and more popular in the digital world as a way to earn an income by helping others grow. The higher quality of experience you are able to offer, the more successful you will be.

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