Instructional design

29 minute read

Steps to Creating a Successful E-Learning Course with Marina Arshavskiy | Podcast Ep. 4

Laurel Buckley

Laurel Buckley

In the fourth installment of The L&D Explorers Podcast, we had the pleasure of speaking to Marina Arshavskiy, an expert in instructional design.

Author of Instructional Design for ELearning and elearning strategist, Marina Arshavskiy, shares a wealth of practical tips for crafting courses that truly engage and resonate with your audience. From conducting thorough needs assessments to setting clear learning objectives and understanding your learners, she covers every step necessary to ensure your course content strikes a chord with learners.

Mentioned in this episode

Key takeaways

1. The importance of needs analysis 

It’s often hard to know where to start when designing a course. Arshavskiy advises,

All courses are different. And while there is no single best way to design successful e-learning courses, I typically start with the needs analysis and target audience. So, I think these are the most important things…in your e-learning journey to begin with.

(3:40 - 3:59)

Actionable Steps: Before designing a course, complete a needs analysis. Asking questions and pilot testing, for example, are great ways to conduct this analysis and will better equip you to meet learning objectives and create an effective course. 

2. Creating learning objectives

Learning objectives are an important part of course design. On how to approach them, Arshavskiy suggests,

So when crafting clear and measurable learning objectives…instead of using verbs like understand or know, use action verbs that describe the observable behavior, learners will actually demonstrate after completing the course.

(19:36 - 19:51)

Actionable Insight: Use actionable verbs in learning objectives to model the desired behavior in employees. Bloom’s taxonomy is a great framework for determining the appropriate level of understanding that needs to be achieved and will allow for more quantitative measurement of results. 

3. Engaging learners

Successful courses not only meet employer needs but are also engaging for the learners.

So, you don't want to just give them a lot of theory and assume that they understand the concept…So introducing points, badges, leaderboards to create a sense of healthy competition that you want to motivate learners.

 (23:44 - 24:06) 

Actionable Insight: Find ways to integrate gamification into your online courses. Interactive elements and healthy competition engage learners and motivate them to continue learning. 

We hope you enjoyed this episode of our L&D Explorers Podcast! Subscribe to our YouTubePodbean or Spotify so you don’t miss the next episode. 

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Dan Gorgone: Welcome back to the L&D Explorers podcast from GoSkills.

In today's episode, we're talking with Marina Arshavskiy, an award-winning instructional design and e-learning expert. Our topic today is how to design a successful e-learning course. We'll discuss each step in the course-building process, from needs assessment to creating learning objectives, understanding your audience, and ensuring the content of your course resonates with your learners.

I'm Dan Gorgone, course producer for GoSkills, and if you create e-learning courses, well, this episode is for you. 

Hi, everyone. Welcome back to this episode of the L&D Explorers podcast from GoSkills. My name is Dan Gorgone, and I am very happy to be joined by Marina Arshavskiy, who is an award-winning instructional design and e-learning expert. Marina, thank you for joining us.


Marina Arshavskiy: Thank you for inviting me.


Dan Gorgone: Yeah, I'm excited about the topic because it's very simple. It's how to design successful e-learning courses. And I guess maybe it's easier said than done, right?

So you have a great deal of experience, which is why we've asked you to be here. And I'm wondering if you could tell us about some of your experience, not just designing courses, but you've also written a great book about how to design great courses and why, honestly, you're so passionate about helping other instructional designers out in the industry.


Marina Arshavskiy: Sure. So, I have a master's degree in instructional design, and I've been an instructional designer for almost 20 years now. I received multiple awards for my work, including the Gold Markham Award and also the Top 100 Leaders in Education award from GFEL.

I'm the owner of Your E-Learning World and I work with multiple organizations and government agencies and I created lots of different courses for them.

So, I'm the author of the Instructional Design for E-Learning book as well. And I just recently finished another book, which is an E-Learning on a Shoestring book, and it will be published by ATD, hopefully in October. Hopefully. But you can now pre-order. 

So that's about me. I'm passionate about e-learning, creating courses, and especially about writing effective scripts that convey the information effectively and teach learners not just basic information, but also help them internalize the information and apply it so that the learning that they receive is very effective.


Dan Gorgone: That's really cool.

And so again, if you want to learn more about Marina, you can go to your We'll talk about the website, and also there's a great course that you've got available to offer to instructional designers out there.

We'll mention that at the end. But I wanted to jump right into it because designing an e-learning course is something that so many of us have been asked to do. Many of us have been asked to do it without any kind of formal training, any instructional design training. A lot of times it's, hey, you happen to know this thing that we think other people should know. Can you just design a course? And, you know, it's very often you're just thrown right into the fire.

So what are the steps for designing a successful e-learning course?


Marina Arshavskiy: That's a good question.

So all courses are different. And while there is no single best way to design successful e-learning courses, I typically start with the needs analysis and target audience. So I think these are the most important things that in your e-learning journey to begin with.

And again, I just want to repeat myself. It's very important to take each course. You know, each course is very different, so you can't really look at one course and then consider other courses, that other courses will follow the same process. That's not always the case. But as I just said, it's always important to start with needs analysis and target audience analysis.

And I establish the purpose and goals of the course. And what knowledge, skills, and attitudes do learners need to gain? Is e-learning the most suitable approach for achieving these goals? Maybe not.

Then I look at who I'm actually designing the course for. What is their demographics, learning styles, preferences? I should say prior knowledge or expectations. And this helps me move on to the next step, which is creating measurable and observable learning objectives. So I take all this information that I gather about my learner and I convert it into the learning objectives.

And next, I structure the content logically, ensuring it's accurate, engaging, and delivered in a way that resonates with my target audience. I incorporate diverse learning resources like text, visuals, audio, and interactive elements.

Of course, it depends on the course. Some courses are more visual, some are more interactive, some are more just text-based. And it also depends on whether I have to really strictly follow 508 compliance if I choose appropriate instructional methods that facilitate knowledge and skill acquisition. And this could involve scenarios, simulations, case studies, quizzes, different collaborative activities. And then the third step for me would be implementation of production. So I create the storyboarding and prototyping that helps me refine the design and identify potential issues before fully developing the course.

And then I use e-learning authoring tools, and I use a variety of tools. And with that tool, I basically transform the storyboard into an interactive e-learning course. Then I test the course for functionality, usability, and accuracy. And of course, I ensure it functions seamlessly across different devices and browsers.

And then my last step is basically evaluation and improvement of the course. So I gather learner feedback through surveys, assessments, or discussions to identify areas for improvement. I also assess the effectiveness of the course in meeting the learning objectives. And I forgot to mention at the beginning, but I'm also Kirkpatrick's Bronze Level Certified Professional.

Sometimes I also do Level Three and Level Four evaluation with my clients as well.

So sometimes my evaluations involve just basic measurement of knowledge that the learner gains skill, application, or learner satisfaction. And sometimes it's definitely more in-depth evaluation depending on the course.


Dan Gorgone: Certainly. I mean, the steps make a lot of sense, and if any of you out there listening have created a course before, they ought to be pretty familiar. Hopefully you followed similar steps and, you know, and your courses have been successful. But I want to ask you about that first step that you mentioned, which is the needs analysis and getting to know your target audience.

Needs analysis, researching your audience, it sounds like a lot of work. It sounds like a lot of important work, a lot of valuable work, and it's going to inform what you create. How can instructional designers and how can people who are maybe new to creating courses do something like a needs analysis that will be effective for them?

What are some, you know, what are some easy things that they can do, simple things that they can do to maybe begin a needs analysis of their own?


Marina Arshavskiy: Some of my clients, they're not really into needs analysis.

They're not interested in needs analysis, and they don't think that that's important. That's one of the problems. So, number one, I always explain to them why needs analysis is an important step to consider as they design their courses, as we design our course, actually.

And if they're completely against needs analysis, I still kind of gather the requirements by asking questions.

Sometimes I realize that it's just a matter of time, so I send them questions ahead of time so that they can answer them quickly in email.

I review their information that's available to me.

I ask questions based on my assumptions.

So even, I feel, even if you can't really go deep, you still have to gather at least some information.

Otherwise, your course, your objectives will not be difficult and it will not solve the problem.Your learner, 


Dan Gorgone: and this is really important, too, because you want to personally, you want to be successful when you're creating something, and you want your audience to benefit from it and enjoy it, but to roll out something that doesn't meet their needs and become something that is, frankly, it could be boring, it could be repetitive, it could be basic level when they need something more intermediate or advanced.

If you're not hitting those marks for the audience, then it could be that you didn't do the research that you should have done, which you just talked about, asking the questions, forcing the questions, in fact. And I've been in situations myself where I've been told what to create, but without the research, I wouldn't know for sure.

So you really do have to do that research. And part of it is understanding the audience. What are some ways to understand the audience better?


Marina Arshavskiy: Some of the ways to understand the audience better would include, obviously, doing some pilot testing.

So sometimes when I create my courses, I basically build a course, and then I take that course and I have some of, some of the learners to complete the course and give me feedback. And based on that, I see if maybe the course is not even the right fit for them. What is it that I need to include in that course in addition to what I already have? Maybe I need to add some examples, additional explanations. And sometimes I feel that maybe there are certain sections that are not needed at all.

So I do that a lot with my learners. I just do a lot of pilot testing, and I always recommend to my clients that they do it as well and come back with feedback and additional information for me. So that's my number one thing.

I always try to. I do a lot of surveys along the way, but I do find that surveys are not always useful, primarily because not everyone likes to answer questions early, honestly. So sometimes they just answer question without really paying much attention to the question or not caring about the answer. So I like surveys because I can glean some information from them, but they're not my major area. So I also like to talk to subject matter experts and see what they think about the course. What is it that they think that needs to be added in addition to what they already have? What are the needs of the people that they're targeting?

And sometimes I also like to give that course to somebody who's brand new to the content, who's never seen the content before, and I have a look at it and just point the areas or some gaps where they feel additional content is needed or maybe lacking an example or something is clear to me, but it's not clear to them. So that's how I like to approach that.


Dan Gorgone: I wanted to ask you in this process of putting together some of the beginning materials for your courses and your learning materials, have you started using AI tools at all?


Marina Arshavskiy: I have. I don't use AI extensively, but I do use AI to just gather some information. So sometimes I just want to create an outline with AI. Sometimes I just use it to gather some background information about the topic so that I can personally understand it better. But I haven't, I don't really use AI to craft my course to design scenarios.

Sometimes I actually design my own scenario or my own case study, and then I put it in the AI, and then I have a, you know, it actually, I asked AI to give me additional information about it.

It'll tell me if that case studies is clear or if there's anything that, you know can be added to to make it clear. I also use AI sometimes to help me come up with interactive questions. But usually I just create that very first version myself and then I put it in AI, and then I have AI spit it out for me as something that, you know, they think is appropriate or something that maybe is something that I haven't looked at, something they haven't considered. So it gives me some additional information, some context.


Dan Gorgone: That's cool to hear because I've done some similar things with some of the courses that I've created where there's been times where an outline hasn't been really clear to me and I would ask it to give me a suggestion, and then it's great because I can work from that.

I don't have to accept what it is.

I can start pulling it apart and reorganizing things, and I can do similar things to what you were saying, which was, here's a scenario. Can you give me an exercise maybe based on this? Or what I usually do is can you give me two or three suggestions for exercises or things like that? And that way, I'm really trying to push the AI to kind of work its way around a concept or a topic, and then I can find the one that I can really use and connect with and really get the point across I'm trying to make.

But one of the things that you mentioned was working through an outline and trying to structure a course. Are there, you know, every, every course is different, but are there some, you know, some fundamental rules that you use when structuring a course? Is there, are there some certain things that kind of inform your decisions about how to structure it, like how many sections to use or certainly how long it is, is sometimes a requirement of the people who are asking you to create the course. But what are your thoughts about course structure?


Marina Arshavskiy: Usually when I structure a course, I base it on the objectives. So I take a look at the objectives first, and then I try to see if I have enough content to cover each objective.

If the objectives were provided to me by the client. Sometimes if I identify certain objectives based on my needs analysis, then I would also try to fill the gaps with the concept of information that's required for each objective.

So if I don't have enough information for the objective, then obviously I would go back to the subject matter expert and obtain that information. Or I would look for search for examples myself. So the length of the course, that's a very tricky question, because sometimes they just come to you and they tell you that we're actually looking for a course that is 30 minutes in length and it can't be more, and that's the requirement. So, especially when you're dealing with federal government, they usually have stricter requirements. So they know exactly what they want and they know the length.

When you're actually dealing with a private client who just wants a course on a certain topic and they just want to cover certain objectives, then in that case, sometimes I just have to make sure that I just cover all the objectives in depth with all the examples, and I'm not really paying attention to the length.

Then at the end, I go back and I make sure that my courses are not too long. So I really try to follow the microlearning approach because that's how learners tend to learn best. So even if micro learning is not something that the client requested, sometimes I just take the course and they break it into short section, shorter section segments. And what I've done recently, actually, I've actually used the nano learning approach. This is where you take the course and you break it into an even smaller section.

So that being said, what I basically do, I just take the objective, and each objective becomes its own lesson. So that's how I break my courses. Sometimes I organize the content from, you know, the very beginner, beginning level content to more advanced type of content. Sometimes if it's just for beginners, then I just do it from, you know, simple to complex. So it all depends on the course, of course.

But usually if it's, if I have to cover a lot of information in one course, then I would just do it from the beginning to more content, and then I would just break it into smaller sections to make it more like micro learning experience for my learners.


Dan Gorgone: You mentioned more than a couple times that learning objectives are key to figuring out the structure and the content as well.

And can you talk about how important learning objectives are and really what is a great way for our audience to think about learning objectives, to create their own, to make sure that they really fulfill the needs of the audience.


Marina Arshavskiy: So learning objectives are very important, in my opinion. They're actually, in my opinion, they actually play a key role in developing any e-learning course if you want the course to be successful.

So when crafting clear and measurable learning objectives, I usually recommend focusing on verbs. So obviously, instead of using verbs like understand or know, use action verbs that describe the observable behavior, learners will actually demonstrate after completing the course.

And I also recommend using the ABCD of learning objectives. So that framework, I really like that framework. I think that framework actually helps you craft the most accurate objective that covers all the needs.

So with the audience part, you would talk about, again, your target audience, which is, like I said before, is a very important component behavior. What specific action should they be able to perform at the end of the course? And then condition, under what circumstances should they perform this action?

And then degree you would talk about, to what extent should that actually be performed? So, like resulting in a 10% increase or something like that. Right. And another suggestion that I have is to align with Bloom's taxonomy. I use Bloom's taxonomy a lot.

So Bloom's taxonomy categorizes different levels of learning, from remembering basics to evaluating complex concepts. And using this framework to ensure that objectives target an appropriate level of understanding is crucial, in my opinion. And I also recommend clearly defining how you will measure whether learners have actually achieved the objectives. So this could involve assessments, quizzes, or practical tasks, demonstrations.

So that's not necessarily always multiple choice questions. And of course, I always recommend keeping it simple and concise.So we want to avoid overly complex and lengthy objectives, and we want to ensure that learners can easily understand what's expected so they know what's needed. And again, going back to microlearnings.

So that's important in my opinion, especially nowadays. Right? Right.


Dan Gorgone: So developing all this content that's going to support the learning objectives is key to the success of your course. But really, we've got to do more than that, right? We've got to do more than just deliver the facts, deliver the lists, deliver the, you know, all the things. We have to really engage our learners in different ways.

And of course, every audience is going to be different, and there are many different kinds of learning styles. But what are your recommendations for creating engaging content? What are some of maybe the best practices that you've seen where you can take content, but make sure that it really resonates with the audience.


Marina Arshavskiy: So engaging learners, especially beginners and those with limited resources.

So sometimes when you're designing courses, you have limited resources. And I keep talking about limited resources because like I just mentioned, I just finished my manuscript for the book about working with limited resources.

So, and I know that that's a big problem for many instructional designers nowadays. So some strategies that I really like to use are storytelling and case studies.

So I always integrate storytelling elements like characters, conflicts, resolutions, so that the information can be presented in an interesting, intriguing way. And I use relevant case studies or scenarios that beginner learners or even more advanced learners can relate to and understand the practical application of the learning.

So the practical side is very important. So you don't want to just give them a lot of theory and assume that they understand the concept. Also, interactive elements and gamification. So introducing points, badges, leaderboards to create a sense of healthy competition that you want to motivate learners. So motivation is another key to success. And I already talked about microlearning and chunking the content, so microlearning is crucial here, too.

So you want to deliver information in small, easily digestible chunks to prevent information overload and cater to busy learners, because we all know that adult learners are busy, so we want to make sure that they're still able to learn. Organizing content into logical sections that build upon each other and that also helps with understanding the material.Combining text, audio, images, infographics, and even short videos to cater to different learning styles or preferences in keeping learners engaged. 

Ensuring accessibility is another important part when you're actually creating your courses, and that may not be important for some private clients, but it's definitely important when you're working with government. Some of the courses that I create, I leverage a lot of open source and free resources that are available to us so that I wouldn't be recreating what somebody already created there. So I take advantage of resources like images, videos, articles that align with our learning objectives. That saves a lot of time and effort creating the content and also encouraging collaboration in the community, that's another important thing. So I integrate online forums, discussion boards to allow learners to interact, share experiences, and learn from each other. And I also like to design, even if it's an asynchronous course, I like to design group activities or projects that actually encourage learners to work together. And that can be done through, you know, maybe a Facebook group dedicated specifically for the course, or maybe through another social media platform.

And that actually helps them feel that they're part of the community and that they're shared learning and when they feel that, they feel engaged and they feel more motivated. So that was really great.


Dan Gorgone: And it's funny because you talk about how a lot of instructional designers are limited in what they can do, and then you listed a huge laundry list of all the things that you can do.

Now, the thing is that you don't have to do all of those things, but each one of those things has benefits to them. And you may find as an instructional designer that some of these courses and some, especially the audiences, the company organization already has some of these things built in. They may already have, like, an internal kind of social platform that people use, and then they can share ideas so you don't have to rebuild the whole thing.

There may be already a culture where they use open source materials all the time and you can tie into that. So there are all these options that, you know, that you have just mentioned, and so many of them are valuable. And it's kind of an idea of, as you get to know the audience, like we talked about at the beginning, you can already tap into those things and figure out what are some of these things that they're going to respond to? What are some things they're already open to? And I'm not trying to force them maybe to do some of these other things.


Marina Arshavskiy: Right, right.

That's exactly right. So, yeah, it all depends on the course. Like I said at the very beginning, you don't necessarily need to use all of that content and information, all the interactivity and all the options in one course. In fact, you don't want to do that.You want to really treat each course as something unique so that you can make it as successful as possible and so that, you know, like I said, we're going back to the objectives we're looking at.

What is it that needs to be done? And then based on that, we need to determine what techniques or methods we can use to create engaging e-learning. That's right.


Dan Gorgone:And one size does not fit all. Never. You have to adapt, and you have to understand your audience.

I want to leave our audience with an opportunity to learn a little more from you, and I'm wondering if you could tell us about the program that you have over at your You mentioned to me a course that you offer there. I wonder if you could tell us about it.


Marina Arshavskiy: Instructional design for e-learning program.

It's a complete e-learning program for instructional designers who are either transitioning into instructional design, just getting started. And I had some students who are instructional designers at the moment, but they just want to refresh their skills.

In that program, I teach everything from the very beginning. How do you conduct audience analysis? How do you conduct needs analysis, to learning objectives, to storyboarding, scripting? I teach about e-learning authoring tools, how to work with subject matter experts, and then I go into more advanced instructional design, e-learning methods and techniques.

So that program is close to 10 hours and it has lots of supplementary content materials, downloadable guides, and I'm always updating my information, the guides, the lectures, the videos, and as I update them, they will be available to you once you purchase the program for free. So that's about the program.

If anyone wants to improve their skills, or if you want to gain skills or just refresh them, you're welcome to join. And I also have a book which is based on the or actually the course. The program is based on that book which is Instructional Design for E-Learning. And that's my main book that actually a lot of colleges and universities currently use in their graduate programs, and you can purchase that on Amazon.


Dan Gorgone: Nice. That's great.

Marina, thank you so much for joining us.

All these, all the tips and the walkthrough, all the different steps has been really great and I appreciate you coming and speaking to our audience about it.


Marina Arshavskiy: Thank you so much for inviting me. It was a lot of fun. I enjoyed it. Thank you.


Dan Gorgone: Hey everyone, thanks for watching this episode of the L&D Explorers podcast.

If you enjoyed it, please give it a like and subscribe because more episodes are on the way and no matter what, what your learning and development goals are, GoSkills can help. Click the link in the description to find out more.

And thanks again for watching.

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Laurel Buckley

Laurel Buckley

Laurel is a writer at GoSkills. She also enjoys writing on travel and culture and is always studying a new language.