How Fast Should I Complete Self-Paced Online Courses?

Online courses and classes make it easy to learn at your own pace. However, since you’re reading this article you’re probably curious as to what is the ideal pace to learn.

First, let’s get this disclaimer out of the way: there is no one right speed to take classes since everyone learns differently and at a different pace. Courses also vary in length, scope and depth.

With the obvious out of the way, the real question we’re left with is “what is the right pace for me to take online courses?” This is the question I want to help you answer in this article.

To cut straight to the answer: you should complete online courses at the rate suggested by the course provider. Every learning platform will provide a suggested “required time” to complete the course and you should trust their recommendation.

With the direct answer out of the way, it is time to deep dive into the question and really explore how fast you should complete an online course in various situations. I also surveyed 41 people with their preferences for taking online courses and pacing and have included the results in the article.

7 Tips to Take Online Classes At the Right Pace

To get right to the good stuff, here are 7 quick tips that I personally use to help me keep a good and consistent pace with my online classes. I’ll explore these concepts in more detail below after the survey results.

  1. If you are struggling with the subject you will benefit by taking the course at a slower pace.
  2. If it’s a subject you’re already well-versed in then you can move at a faster pace to brush up the subject.
  3. Devote yourself exclusively to the course while taking it (no cellphones or other distractions if possible!)
  4. However, don’t overwhelm yourself! Do take regular and reasonable breaks whenever they’re needed!
  5. Don’t cram at the end, get ahead early and stay ahead. Do assignments immediately if possible. If you neglect the class until the last minute and have to cram at the end to pass then you’re not learning at a good pace.
  6. Take courses on things that you actually want to learn. If you’re naturally curious about the intricacies of a subject, you will be more inclined to work through the course until the end.
  7. If you’re having trouble with a lesson it makes sense to retake or revisit the parts you’re having trouble with. This is one of the main perks of online courses!

Survey Results: How Fast Should You Take a Self-Paced Online Course?

As I mentioned, everyone learns differently, so I figured asking the community how fast they prefer to take online courses was a good place to start. I had 41 respondents finish the survey and here are their results:

What is the maximum amount of time you would want to spend on a single online course?

Most people (39%) prefer online courses that are “greater than 1 hour but less than 2 hours” while 36.6% prefer a course to be greater than 30 minutes but less than 1 hour. This makes sense, because any topic that requires a course will need to be in-depth, but keeping it short makes it realistic enough that even someone with a busy schedule can take and complete the course.

If you took a self-paced online course that was recommended for 2 weeks of daily activities but had only 3 hours worth of content, what would you do?

Almost everyone (92.7%) said they would take a course faster than recommended. The majority (63.4%) said they would complete the course over several days instead of 2 weeks, with the next most popular answer (29.3%) being to just complete the entire course in one sitting. As someone who takes a lot of courses that match this description, I have a tendency to complete these types of courses in one or two sittings myself, so I think this is a very honest answer from the group.

If you were to take a 2 hour online course, which of the following best describes the number of breaks you would take before finishing the course?

Any discussion about course pacing needs to take breaks into an account. To this question, the majority (43.9%) responded with “one break, in the middle or where ever appropriate” with “no breaks. I would take the course in one shot and get it over with” being the second most popular answer (24.4%.)

For the purpose of learning effectively, how long do you think breaks should be when taking long online courses?

One third (34.1%) of respondents answered that 11 to 15 minutes is the ideal break when taking online courses, followed by 26.8% who answered that 6 to 10 minute breaks were most effective. If we combine those results, 60% of those surveyed responded that 6 to 15 minutes is the best break length.

How Fast Should I Finish Online Courses?

Every learning platform will provide a suggested “required time” to complete the course. You should try to stay in the ballpark that they recommend. That means don’t take a 2-week course in 2 hours and don’t take a 2-hour course through out two weeks. The exceptions to this rule is when you already know the subject (you can probably take the course faster with no ill results) or when you know little about a subject and are struggling (you should probably take the course slowly and repeat any foundational material you don’t fully understand.)

You can think of an online course as an investment in your future. To that end you should invest as much time into these courses as they are worth to furthering your career or goals.

There are a number of studies that have shown that online courses can be just as effective as in-person classes. I read this study of online course pacing which suggests that the course pace has little or no effect on the learner, but it doesn’t really address the question of how to break up a multi-day, week or months long course into the ideal length for learning.

If those studies are to be believed, then ultimately you need to find out for yourself what the best pace is for you. That means you should experiment, collect data and then analyze your results. You can experiment with session lengths, break lengths, number of breaks, number of hours a day dedicated to courses and more.

One thing is clear: you should finish an online course on or before the course due date. If a course has a recommended 2 week period then you should make every effort to finish it on-time or even ahead of the deadline. Why? Because you should treat a deadline as a hard deadline! Show yourself and the world that you can follow through, stay consistent and complete tasks even if you’re not fully invested into them. Setting goals and deadlines helps motivate people to finish what they started and that’s just one reason why you should follow through and complete your courses on time.

Take Online Courses Multiple Times to Help Fully Absorb the Information

If you’re having a hard time retaining the information in a particular course, one of the benefits of online courses is the ability to retake the same course as many times as you need. Sure, if you take the same course 2 or 3 times than you double or triple the time it takes to finish the course, but the additional focus on repeating the lesson will help you retain the knowledge.

Often times, when I think about taking online courses, I’m thinking about how fast I can blast through it. However, that is a bad mind-set to come from if the actual goal is to acquire new skills and knowledge. If I am taking a course with the goal of learning a new skillset, then the correct pacing is whatever pacing gets me a deep understanding and practical knowledge of the skill I am learning. So the goal isn’t to learn fast, it is to learn effectively. That’s why you shouldn’t be afraid to retake parts of courses or even full classes if it will help you learn what you need to know.

Take Online Courses at a Regular and Consistent Pace

How long of a session should you spend on a course? Some courses will take days, weeks or even months to complete and so pacing yourself on these longer courses becomes much more important then on the shorter classes.

One thing to avoid is having long gaps in between sessions on a single course. If it is a several week course but you take a week off you are not going to be fresh on the material. You should take no more than a day or two off from longer courses so that you can continue where you left off without losing a bunch of the information you “learned.” You can also review the last module or section of the course to refresh yourself before jumping into the new material.

The Key to Natural Pacing: Take Courses You’re Actually Interested In

Courses that are not interesting to you are harder to stay focused on because you fundamentally don’t care. Choosing a course you’re interested in will help you to stay through to completion because you’re excited, you want to know more, and therefore have a natural motivation that will help keep you on pace.

Sure, in theory you might be interested in a course because it can further your career… but if the actual course is boring and outside of your interests, then it is going to be an uphill battle to stay invested in the course even if it can help your career in the long-term.

If an Online Class Overwhelms You Then Slow Down, Take a Break, & Repeat the Basics

If a course is over whelming then it is a good sign that you should slow down take a break and come back to it when you’ve recharged your batteries. It also means you’re probably missing some pieces of the puzzle when it comes to foundation of your subject, which is a good reason to go back and retake the basics.

As I said before: take regular breaks. Most good online course providers break their courses into manageable sections which makes for natural breaking points. You may want to put your nose down and grind away at a course for 8 hours straight, but such an exhaustive schedule is bound to negatively effect your ability to learn and retain the material over time. Be kind to your brain and it will return the favor.

Concluding Thoughts on the Best Pace of Learning

I take a lot of online courses because I review learning platforms and individual courses, but also to learn things I’m interested in as well as courses on subjects that will help me in my career. What I’ve found is that my motivation level, pacing, and overall engagement all vary depending on the underlying motivation for taking the course.

When I take courses so that I can review a platform or the course itself, I am interested in getting through it as quickly as possible so that I can finish the entire process of the review. This is because my reviews often take substantially longer than the course itself to fully finish.

When I take courses on things I am intrinsically interested in, I still go through the course quickly, but only because I am engaged and hungry to learn more.

The courses I struggle the most with are those that can advance my career, but that I don’t actually care about beyond that. These are the online courses I tend to procrastinate, take slowly or even abandon when I’m really not feeling it. I’ve learned from experience that if I want to finish those types of courses, I need to pace myself properly, which in this case, means I need to get ahead of where I should be so that I feel like I’ve already invested too much time into it to abandon it. It’s like playing chess against myself in the sense that I’ve had to develop and implement a strategy to psychologically trick myself into finishing courses I have no real interests in.

Those are just my personal experiences and preferences for online course pacing. I hope the tips and data in this article helps you to find the best pace for online learning. It may be cliche, but the whole “it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon” seems to apply to education as a whole and seems like a relevant metaphor for finding your ideal pacing.

Let me know in the comments below if you have any great tips or advice on learning speed. Also, if you have any questions, comments, or concerns I am happy to address. As always, thanks for reading and happy learning!


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