The 80/20 Rule for Creating Awesome Online Courses

80-20-rule-sqYou’ve probably heard of the 80/20 rule (also known as the Pareto Principle). It’s the idea that:

80% of results come from 20% of the effort

The 80/20 rule been applied to entrepreneurship, time management, sales, software development, economics … almost every topic imaginable.

But what about when you are creating courses?

What’s the 80% that gets 20% of the results?

How We Learn

All the research on how people learn – from neuroscience to psychology to learning theory … it all points to one thing:

People learn way more and way better when actively engaged with learning – through hands-on practice and application – than when they passively consume content.

This probably doesn’t come as a surprise. I’ve talked about the myth that content is king for learning before, and you’ve experienced it in your own life:

  • Sitting in a classroom listening to a teacher drone on about the history of WWII? Zzzzzz.
  • Playing a game of Axis and Allies with friends? Not so zzzzzz.

And yet, most courses still get this wrong.

Most courses on the market today are suffering from the content curse.

Content-Cursed Courses

You can easily identify a course that suffers from the content curse when you look at the sales page. The “what you will get” section of a content-cursed course reads like all the worst high school lectures, rolled up into one:

Videos. eBooks. Emails. Case studies. Readings. Presentations. Expert interviews.

Content, content and more content. Maybe the occasional Q&A or worksheet thrown in, but when you actually look at what’s actually being offered, you’ll be lucky if that makes up even 20% of the overall course experience.

It gets worse when you realize that even the guides, courses and products on “how to make money teaching online” are espousing this same approach: figure out what you’re going to teach, create your content, write your sales copy, profit.

The problem begins because entrepreneurs approach teaching with the wrong mindset: they think their job is to teach and share knowledge, rather than to facilitate learning.

But the consequences of getting it wrong are real. Your ability to create premium products dives, because you can’t show premium results. Your brand equity tanks because students feel they didn’t see the promised results. And you stay firmly entrenched in the quagmire of ‘average,’ alongside the masses of  online info product producers – you just won’t stand out from the crowd.

Oh, and You’re Also Wasting Your Time

As if that wasn’t bad enough, because we believe that good content is the same as “good teaching,” we waste countless hours producing mountains of content.

What’s more time consuming: writing a 75 page eBook? Or creating a 75 page workbook that’s 20% long form content, and 80% actionable, hands-on activities?

Video is no better. You have to come up with your visuals and record a script (or prep your presentation, if it’s live), do the actual video recording (usually multiple takes), edit it all together, package it up…

And after all that, you still just end up transferring knowledge, which as we saw last time, is a surefire way to keep your students from getting the best possible results.

80% of the effort.

20% of the results.

Doesn’t make much sense, does it?

So what’s the solution?

In Brilliance by Design, Vicki Halsey says that you can “rebalance the learning equation” by using a 70/30 split. Below is the table from the book; the first column describes what we normally do; the second column is what we should be doing:

Rebalancing the Learning Equation from Brilliance By Design
70% you talk/teach70% they talk/do
70% what you are going to teach70% how you are going to teach it
70% of time you teach skills70% of time learners practice/build skills

Of course, the table as a whole is a bit wordy, and really each line makes the same point. So that’s why I’ve simplified it down for you, into one simple statement:

The 80/20 rule for creating awesome online courses:

Do that, and you’ll cut your content creation time by 80%. You’ll fix your teaching mindset and see revenues rise. And your students will get superlative results.

All by just focusing on the 20% effort that gets 80% of the results.

  • Christy Campbell

    love this! And it takes so much pressure off when it comes to creating content. Really, I want my students/participants to go out and realize that they can DO what it is they’re reading about. So why not just start with the doing?

    • “Why not just start with the doing?” — what a GREAT summary. You got it!

  • Emma Weise

    Loved the concept… I have been slightly overwhelmed by the thought of creating content for my courses (ie-thought I needed to do video – but just the thought of it overwhelmed)… This takes some pressure off… Lots to ponder… THANKS!!!

    • You’re not alone in feeling overwhelmed; I hear that a lot, especially because you look around at all these course creators who are killing it and they are SO PRO. But everyone starts somewhere. When it comes to video, you don’t have to do video – but it also doesn’t have to be as hard as you might think. What if you did 80% of your material as activities, worksheets, etc. and then had a 5-minute slideshow that introduced your worksheets – just the slides, with you talking over them? It can be very simple, and very effective.

      • Emma Weise

        Agreed… The slide & audio concept is definitely less overwhelm than video… There is a lot to consider – but step one = bed down concept! I have just finished running a 15 day creativity challenge which was great… So conceptualising the what next!

  • KatyJoyAlice

    I love this pov! It has REALLY made me think about how to deliver my new Web Designer Beauty School course with a whole new twist. Part of what makes it so (potentially and presently) successful is a support community where students can ask any questions they want, no matter where they are in the process. Most importantly, they learn from and inspire each other. Boy oh boy, you just set off some creative sparks in my busy little brain!

    • KatyJoyAlice

      Also, can you elaborate a little more about (or give an example of) the ‘what’ v’s ‘how’ in “70% how you are going to teach it”

      • Sure!

        What often happens when we focus on “what” you are going to teach is that we end up spending a LOT of time developing content. We try so hard to figure out how to get stuff out of our heads, that we don’t leave anything out, that we don’t put in too much or too little …

        That we end up forgetting to think about the best way to help our students/customers learn, in the first place.

        What if, instead of spending all that time trying to create perfect content, we instead were asking ourselves, “What would be the best, most natural way for someone to learn this?”

        When we focus on “what”, we basically end up trying to shove information into peoples’ heads.

        But when we focus on “how”, we are more attuned to what they want to receive, and the best way to give that to them… especially since often what they want isn’t information or knowledge in the first place.

        This article on the two teaching mindsets also touches on this a bit:

        • KatyJoyAlice

          Thanks for the info and article. I’m giving this some deep thought about how to apply it, and while doing so, I recalled how many of my students tell us that they like it when we work through problems in the videos, to show them, (unscripted), how we problem solve.

          • That’s a great example. Often when we just step back, we’ll realize that a lot of what we’re doing is because we think we “have to”. In reality, our audience/students/customers are TELLING us what they want and need … we just have to be willing to listen.

          • KatyJoyAlice

            So, I just read your comment and then popped into my Web Designer Beauty School support forum and I see this, “Katy, one of the things I so appreciate about you is the way that you show HOW to look through a string of code to find the really specific piece that needs to be targeted to get the desired effect … so this very simple sentence ” So, reading through this, I’m looking for something that is ‘related’ to the ‘related products’ ” pulled so much together for me …I am always amazed. Thank you for teaching us how to figure it out … HOW to play effectively…”

            How congruous. My eyes and ears are listening! Thanks Breanne!

  • Angela Hall

    I wish I’d understood this 6 months ago. I’d be much further ahead by now

    • Angela – the good news is that content is never wasted, and you’ve also spent a lot of time really thinking through your ideas. And — now you have a new framework, and can move forward with this new knowledge in mind!

      • Angela Hall

        You’re so right. I’m in the process now of chopping and junking. I have lots to work with now!

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