A well-designed course is essential to your success as an edupreneur. But let’s face it. You’re not going to cultivate raving fans or make a ton of sales if your course is poorly conceived and constructed.

Learners need masterfully designed online courses so that they can acquire new knowledge, master new skills, and adopt new behaviors. Learners also need to feel supported and socially connected to a virtual learning community created just for them.

Unfortunately, there are a few common course design mistakes that can really undermine the quality of an online course. These mistakes lead to attrition, confusion, frustration, and disengagement for learners enrolled in online courses.

Let’s take a closer look at some of these common course design mistakes—and discuss ways they can be avoided.

Mistake #1: Neglecting to Set Observable, Measurable Learning Outcomes at Every Level of the Course

A lot of course creators, particularly those without formal training or experience as educators or instructional designers, neglect to set observable, measurable learning outcomes for their courses.

Sure, a course landing page might include a list of course features; however, course features do not equate to course learning outcomes or goals.

This is a critical mistake made by many course creators. The overall quality of the design and development of an online course is going to suffer if a course creator neglects to set goals for his/her course from the outset.

An online course needs to be constructed around an established set of objectives. This step is vital to the course design process.

Without an established set of learning outcomes to guide the overall framework and design of a course, the course will wind up being more of a showcase or gallery tour of the course designer’s knowledge and skills versus a strategic roadmap to develops a learner’s knowledge and skills.

To avoid this mistake, course creator’s must set learning outcomes for their course and for each individual module (or unit) of their course right from the start. These learning outcomes must be written from the learners (not the instructor’s or course creator’s) perspective, and the learning outcomes need to describe observable, measurable behaviors.

Here’s an example to illustrate how to write learning outcomes at the course level.

By the end of this course, you (or substitute ‘learners’ for ’you’) will be able to:

  • Create a design framework for a course
  • Fill in a design framework for a course
  • Develop a course from a design framework
  • Upload course content into the learning management system of your choice
  • Publish your course
  • Launch your course
  • Review, evaluate, and revise your published course

And here’s an example to illustrate how to write learning outcomes for a module of a course.

By the end of this module, you (or substitute ‘learners’ for ’you’) will be able to:

(Then provide a bullet list of items)

  • Generate a list of possible topics for your course
  • Analyze the possible topics for your course
  • Select a topic for your course and explain why you chose this particular topic
  • Identify a target audience for this course topic
Mistake #2: Emphasizing Viewing Content Over Doing Content

I have been conducting audits on several clients’ online courses recently. In every case I encountered problematic examples of courses that emphasized what I call VIEWING content over DOING content. By that I mean, most of these courses relied too heavily on ‘explainer’ video content at the expense of providing learners with enough actionable content  to facilitate their knowledge and skill development.

This is a problem because learners need to activate higher order thinking skills and perform (or practice) actions and tasks in order to acquire new knowledge and to master new skills and behavior. People learn by doing, not by listening, so course creators need to avoid subjecting their students to excessive, passive content in the form of videos or text.

To avoid this common mistake, I suggest applying the 40/60 rule. Restrict viewing content to no more than 40% of your content and make 60% or more of your content actionable. This puts the onus of learning and doing on the learner, which allows for transformation and change in the learner.  And isn’t that the goal of all learning?

Mistake #3: Using Assessments Conventionally vs. Strategically

Another frequent mistake I see course creators make is the arbitrary use of assessments, in the form of quizzes. I think a lot of newbie course creators are under the mistaken assumption that legitimate courses need quizzes.

Nothing could be further from the truth. There is absolutely no reason to pepper online courses with quizzes, particularly if the primary goal of the course is to foster skill development or behavior change.

A better option is to have students submit and share copies or artifacts of the work they create for the course. Then, they can engage with their peers in structured student-to-student feedback activities and receive commentary and feedback from the instructor. The course creator can provide authentic assessment tools, such as self-assessment rubrics, scorecards or checklists, to make it easy for learners to evaluate their progress in mastering the course content.

Keep in mind that the goal of any assessment is simply to measure a learner’s progress in developing skills (formative assessment) and to evaluate the level of a learner’s mastery (summative assessment) of the course content and learning outcomes.

Mistake #4: Missing Key Opportunities for Social Engagement

Community building and social engagement strategies need to be an integral part of any online course. And yet, many course creators are missing golden opportunities for social engagement in their courses.

Course creators are more likely to make this mistake if they perceive their course as a product to promote sales rather than as a product to promote learning.

Granted, online courses generate revenue, but that is simply a by-product of their primary purpose, which is to engage learners in various forms of activity and interaction that will ultimately produce some sort of transformation or change.

We simply haven’t evolved to the point where we can implant a microchip in our brains to gain new knowledge, skills or behavior. Thus, for the time being, learning is still a social endeavor because we learn through interaction. As course creators, we need to design social engagement into our courses.

Practices that facilitate opportunities for social engagement in online courses include providing learners with opportunities to share their work, to interact with their peers, to ask questions, to participate in live synchronous learning events, and to work collaboratively in small groups or teams.


Designing online courses is partly and art partly a science. To keep your knowledge and skill development as a course creator moving forward, here are some tools and resources you’ll want to bookmark and refer to often.

Using Bloom’s Taxonomy to Write Effective Learning Objectives

What is the difference between formative and summative assessment?

Self-Assessment Inspires Learning

7 Tips for Increasing Student Engagement in Online Courses

Active Learning in Online Training: What eLearning Professionals Should Know

What are some of the online course design challenges you are facing?

Share your story in a comment below or join me in my ChangeMaking Course Creators private Facebook group to ask questions and share insights with fellow course creators.


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