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How To Get More Out Of Online Courses

July 15th, 2020

I was going to write how to get the MOST out of online courses, but I think that will mean different things to different people. More important, I want this post to start a conversation, and to start ideas, about how you can get any more value out of a course you watch, subscribe to, bought, etc.

Caveat: I am a Pluralsight author. I have over 35 courses in Pluralsight. Before Pluralsight I did 9 courses for JibberJobber (the company I own). And I’ve done hundreds of webinars + hundreds of on-stage presentations. I am biased towards Pluralsight, the leading course library for techies. Having said that, I don’t care if you are watching a course on LinkedIn Learning (formerly known as Lynda), Coursera, Udemy, Thinkster.io, Youtube, your company’s LMS, Udacity, General Assembly, etc. etc. etc. There are literally thousands of options. I’m not here to say what is best for you… you have to figure that out on your own.

Let’s talk about getting MORE out of online courses.

Actually watch the course you paid for (or have access to)

Why is it that we buy books and never read them? Oh, you thought it was just you? Nope. There’s even a Japanese word for this: Tsunkodu (doku = reading; tsun = to pile up).

I’m not saying you always have to be learning. I’m not even saying I won’t allow you downtime, or depending on life circumstances or stage of life that you can’t just take a break. If you need to take a break then take a break.

But at one point in your life you decided it would be a good idea to learn something. Whether it was cooking or coding you wanted to learn a new skills or fact or thought process, or just see what the “experts” are saying.

A quick google translate shows that “course” is kōsu in Japanese. So let’s not accumulate courses, not ever watch them, and then have the word tsunkōsu (to pile up courses) apply to us! (I totally made that up, hope it’s not some offensive word!)

Make the time to actually make watch your course. You owe it to yourself. Maybe that means you stop buying new stuff until you go through what you already have.

Turn off distractions

In my listening course I invite people to, right now, turn off all distractions. Other windows, browsers, their email, their Slack and Teams, and even their phone. Let’s just be honest with ourselves… if we allow these distractions to stay up we might… no, we will miss stuff. If you are going to “invest” the time in yourself and watch a course, really do it right the first time.

Personally, if I leave my distractions up during a course, and I switch my attention even for a nanosecond, I get lost in the course. I miss something, I get behind, etc. I know it is against our super power to “multitask,” but please, turn off your distractions and give the course your full attention.

Take notes

I don’t care if you take them on your computer, on paper, or with a chisel on a rock tablet… take notes. Here’s the weird thing: I take lots of notes… but I hardly ever refer back to them. Even when I was in school I would not… for some reason I didn’t understand, I could not go back into my notes. But just writing things down seemed to help my retention. I heard retention is better when you hand write things instead of type things… but I don’g care how you take notes. Just take notes.

You might even look up some note-taking tips online. I’m not talking about learning shorthand, but there are things you can do to really bring out certain parts of your notes. For me, I use an empty box (square) to designate a “do this later” task. It is one of the most important tactics I use when taking notes. Later, I can easily scan through my notes and look for boxes, then see what I need to follow-up on. When I do the thing, I cross it out or put a check in the empty box.

Practice what you learn

Your notes should include actionable tasks to put into practice things from the course. Whether it is cutting code or cutting onions, practicing something artistic, speaking (on stage or on a webinar), listening, or using a new phrase to be more assertive, practice it.

In some of my Pluralsight courses I end my modules with “if you’ve been taking notes you might have written down some of these things to do….” and then I tell you five or six actionable things to practice. Every time you watch any part of a course you should walk away with your own list of “I’m going to try this thing.” If you are watching a technical course it might be easy to pause the course and try the thing they are showing you. If you watch my “Becoming a Better Listener” course you’ll have to figure out when you could practice active listening, or any of the tactics I share there.

But really practice the tactics. There’s this idea that we retain or really understand things based on doing different things (poorly written I know, but hang with me). There are models you can find on google images that show the difference in learning from passive to active listening tactics. If you just watch a lecture you learn or retain 5% of the stuff (numbers vary, I’m sure, based on who did the model). If you read you retain 10%. If you hear and see (audio-visual) you retain 20%. That is 4x more than just being in a lecture (although I don’t know what that means… a lecture has both audio and visual). Anyway, if you see a demonstration you retain 30% (that is why we love the science teachers who light things on fire in the classroom). Discussion increases to 50% (wasn’t he case with me in school… I was more aloof). Practice raised it to 75%. I think if you practice multiple times, over time, you can work your way to a mastery level.

Teach what you learn

In the model I talked about in the last paragraph the last step was to teach others. The retention rate is supposedly 90%. I know when I have to get to teach others I might spend hours and hours and hours reading, researching, thinking of questions, thinking about my audience and how to best present, and learn a ton more than I get to actually talk about. I heard someone say that in corporate training it takes 40 hours of prep time to do a one hour presentation. Yuck, I thought, I’m never going into that field.

And yet here I am.

I love spending the 40 hours learning. Thinking. Creatively devising ways to communicate concepts that will make an impact. My only regret is that once I’m done with my 1 hour presentation I feel like there is so much more to learn and do, and I couldn’t communicate it all. But maybe, just maybe, I was able to inspire the audience to want to learn more.

Teaching others gives you the opportunity to dig way deeper than just consuming content (from a lecture, supposedly at 5% retention effectiveness). How can you do this? Invite a group of people to a brown bag lunch and share what you learned in 30 to 45 minutes. Don’t stress about YOU, and how good you are, and about how this is out of your comfort zone. Once you send the invite, and you are not obligated, I bet you go through the course again with more focus and intention, thinking about what and how you will teach. It’s an awesome experience.

Debrief the course with someone else

Debriefing was a foreign concept to me until about 10 or so years ago when I was involved in youth government and leadership simulations. We spent four days running around a building simulating government relations, negotiations, etc. It was very intense and heated, and most everyone got really involved in the simulation. Then, on the last day, we’d wrap up with a “debrief” that could last two or three hours.

I thought it was a little weird and maybe a waste of time… until I did my first one. The debrief became my favorite part of simulations. Debriefing is where we were able to step aside from the simulation, back into the real world, and talk about what we had learned. Why we made decisions, why we followed certain people, why alliances were (or weren’t) formed. We learned what happened from different perspectives, and got time to analyze what the heck just happened. There were a lot of aha moments as people shared their insights and perspectives.

When I create my courses I hope, in my wildest dreams, that a group of people watch the course individually and then come together in a room and beat up my talking points. Not to prove or disprove my points, but to talk about them as a team. To come to a higher truth for that team, and figure out how they could apply the points and principles individually and as a team. I love to get feedback, and to know that teams have taken my course to a much higher level by talking about it. Figuring out what things they could/should implement in their organization and what things didn’t apply to them. And, because of that conversation, they could figure out their own tactics and techniques that I didn’t even talk about, and become stronger.

This might not happen at a team level but you could certainly talk to someone over lunch. “Hey, I just watched this really interesting course and I want to talk about some of the ideas with you. Can we get together for lunch?” Or, on a webinar. Or, with a group of people who have watched the course, even if they are from different departments. It’s like a book club, where you learn from others, see what stuck out to them, understand how they are thinking about implementing some of the ideas.

I think this conversation that happens in a debrief increases the value of a course exponentially. So don’t just one-and-done watch a course… talk about it with someone!

Here are some ideas from Twitter

I like this idea from Eliud… watch other courses on the same topic to get different perspectives.


Jeremy talks about really budget the right amount of time… this is smart because if you think it will take an hour but you keep pausing it you might think “I’m never going to finish this long course.” But you need to respect how you learn.

Jeremy and John both recommend breaking the course into parts, instead of spending a lot of time just to plow through:

Winnie emphasizes scheduling time out… actually block it out on your calendar! And if you have the list of KSAs you might understand more of the context of the course.

Rachel says (in my own words) to respect yourself, and the time you are investing into the course:

Leo is talking to course creators, but let me flip the coin on this and say that YOU (the learner) can put reminders in your calendar to either pick up where you left off, or to practice certain things, etc. Putting reminders in your calendar shows you really want to learn/master the material, and improve.

Dave’s four-point list is great, and reinforces everything in this post:

I think Colyn is talking to course creators or platforms, but if you agree you can see that debriefing and practicing after watching a course are just critical:

Alright, your turn… what do YOU do to get more out of online courses?

2 Comments »

2 responses to “How To Get More Out Of Online Courses”

  1. Samuel says:

    Best way to get value out of a course is to immediately implement what you were taught. I have to remind myself and make a conscious effort to do this so I benefit from the content provided in the course.

  2. Norman Reiss says:

    Excellent points, Jason!

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