5 Things To Consider To Find The Optimal Length Of A Training Course
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How To Find The Optimal Length Of A Training Course

The day has finally come: Today, you release your required annual training.

It’s been a long road getting here: You’ve listened to all kinds of advice, ranging from Subject Matter Experts eager to get their content included to HR folks determined to keep your training short so as not to waste people’s time.

You decide to open up the course one last time for a final once-through. The clock starts ticking, and ticking, and ticking, and ticking. And it’s then that you realize that your short, fun, impactful course somehow turned into 50 minutes of white noise.

What Went Wrong?

If this scenario rings true for you, you’re not alone: Many different pressures and guidelines are involved when it comes to determining how long to make the online training you use. The truth is, training takes resources: Both the time needed to create the training, and the time it takes for every employee to consume the training. Because time is money, smart businesses look for ways to optimize training length to get the best results, for the business and for the training need.

The fact that you’re looking for ways to optimize your training length is a good sign that you won’t consign your employees to death by PowerPoint. But I’m afraid that there is no one right answer to the question “What is the optimal length of a training course?”. However, there are some no-nonsense suggestions that will help you find a training length that is the right choice for you and your organization.

What Does The Science Say?

I love science, but I don’t think you should take most findings on this subject too seriously. There are many variables that can affect their outcome, and the criteria used in most studies may not be similar enough to your industry to be useful.

In other words, the studies didn’t occur in your workplace with your employees, so they should be thought of as guidelines—not rules. Here’s an abbreviated look at many studies’ conclusions:

  • Fifteen to 30 minutes is the “sweet spot”.
  • Courses should be as long as needed, even if they’re 90 minutes.
  • Shorter is always better. People can’t concentrate. Five minutes. Tops.

How can studies find such different conclusions? Whose advice should you take? Here are some things to consider.

What You Should Keep In Mind To Determine The Length Of Your Training Course

1. On Attention Spans

If you’re like most, you’re leaning towards “shorter is better”. You can’t imagine your employees sitting still long enough to deliver an hour-long training module, especially with existing research bemoaning how short modern attention spans have become. You’re mostly right, with a few caveats.

A 2015 study by Microsoft had some great insights into how awful our attention spans have become, thanks to the abundance of information we experience in modern life.

Long story short:The average human attention span is about eight seconds—that’s shorter than the attention span of a goldfish! That’s sensational! That’s amazing … that’s misleading, like a vacuous, attention-grabbing headline:

“Think you can you pay attention longer than a goldfish? Try this one weird trick to find out!”

Go beyond the click-bait and you’ll see what the study is really about: How people decide what they want to pay attention to is happening faster than ever before. In other words, if you haven’t grabbed them within eight seconds, they’re already bored.

Lesson 1: You have a short window of time for training to make an impression. Regardless of your course length—come out strong to set the hook, and find ways to keep it there.

2. RIP Long Form?

It’s important to note that this is not the same as saying that people can only pay attention for a few seconds. In fact, a study by Newswhip evaluating the success of online news articles found that long form articles (2,000+ words) containing high quality, thought-provoking analysis, commentary, or other extensive coverage did just as well as short, punchy articles of about 200 words or less. While this isn’t a perfect comparison to eLearning, both involve, for example, an audience member interacting with content in front of computer.

So, what does this mean for your training?

The keyword here is “high quality”. When it comes to training, learners can—and will—sit through lengthy training with high production values or high interest levels. In the eLearning world this usually means lots of visuals, interactive elements, an appealing tone and style, and a polished presentation. High interest levels might be harder to come by!

Lesson 2: Long-form can work fine if you’ve got the creative chops and budget to support a top-shelf experience.

3. Calling For Reinforcements

Here’s something you may have forgotten: People forget stuff. All the time.

Even a razor-sharp eLearning course can’t help learners retain information that they never need to recall. This is where reinforcement comes in. Regardless of the length you choose, training should never be a “one-and-done” experience. I often see companies allocating time for annual training on a topic just to satisfy a compliance requirement. Annual training is like duct tape: It sort of fixes anything, but that thing is still broken; a fact you’ll probably be reminded of at an inconvenient time. One source found that about 50% of learning is lost in less than one month, with employees reverting to their original behavior.

Training should be an ongoing component of your organization, so much so that it transforms from “training” to become part of your everyday culture.

Lesson 3: Long or short, be prepared to back up the training with recurring touchstones that help people recall the essentials.

4. Mind The Gaps... And Keep It Chunky

Long-form training done well is great, but I advocate for shorter training broken down into discrete modules because it leaves gaps between learning sessions. When you leave gaps, learners won’t walk away with everything they need to know in one sitting. This means that there’s stuff “out there” on the job that you deliberately haven’t told them. This may sound counterintuitive, but stick with me.

Self-discovery is an often-ignored aspect of eLearning. By this I mean what happens in your brain when you discover something on your own.

Learning this way has two advantages: first, knowledge arrived at individually—meaning not pointed out explicitly by another—is more “sticky” than facts coming from a course’s narrator.

When they return for the next session, they’ll be ready to build on existing knowledge gained from the first round’s content. If an employee can perform their job without being told EVERYTHING, let them, but make sure they have a strong foundation for the essentials. Think carefully on how much an employee really needs, and then build your course just long enough to cover that. Help them arrive at important conclusions on their own.

Second, leaving gaps between training lets you break content into more manageable courses from a scheduling, implementation, and budget standpoint. Three 15-minute courses may suit your business resources more easily than one 45-minute course. This flexibility is one of eLearning’s strongest advantages.

Lesson 4: Don’t be afraid to break content into smaller chunks. It gives employees a chance to master what you’ve taught them and to discover information on their own. Plus, chunks give you more flexibility.

5. Making The Decision

So how long should you make your eLearning course? I don’t know—you tell me.

Seriously, there really is no best answer to this question. There are certainly best practices, but each of those needs to be tailored to your organization’s needs and culture. Shorter is usually better, sure, but there are plenty of jobs and processes out there that simply need more. Identifying your requirements and then applying the lessons discussed in this article will help your training be the best fit for your employees—and make your training more than white noise.

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