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What’s the difference between online classes and traditional classes?

Are online classes better than traditional classes?

There is a difference between online classes and traditional classroom learning. 

Online classes, also called tutorials, lessons, courses, how-to videos, and many other things, follow a different pattern than face-to-face lessons. A learner can turn an online lesson off at any moment. This means the course creator needs to design the course to keep the learner motivated and moving forward. 

This is very doable. It takes some thought and planning, but creating a course that keeps the learner engaged to the end is within reach. In this post, I’ll cover five things you need to consider when planning your online course to move your learner through to the end. 

If you don’t feel like reading the entire blog post, here’s a list of what I’m going to cover. Online lessons are given in smaller chunks than face-to-face classes. Engagement tools are different in an online space vs a traditional classroom. Small wins pull the learner forward. Lessons are repeatable on-demand as often as the student needs it. Immediate feedback from the learner is missing in an online environment. 

Online Lessons Are Given In Smaller Chunks Than Face-to-Face

In a traditional classroom, the teacher has a set of time to work with a captive audience. Often, this leads to a lecture and then an activity. The lecture can be short and then the rest of the class period is spent on an activity. Or the lecture can take up the entire allotted time and the students have to complete the activity outside of class.

Students in traditional classes are essentially captive audience.

In an online class, students are not a captive audience. They have more control over their learning environment. That means they can shut it off and walk away. They can also choose not to listen to or read the lecture at all and just jump to the activity. 

The Benefits of Shorter Lessons

Breaking up the larger lecture into smaller, focused lessons is a good practice for online courses for several reasons. Smaller lessons make the information more accessible. Activities mixed in with smaller lessons allow the brain to review the information while it is fresh. And shorter lessons allow students with full schedules to have some flexibility on when and how they consume the information. Let’s get into that with a little more detail, shall we?

One important reason to break it up into smaller chunks is to make the information more accessible as learning support. As a Technology and Learning Coach, I worked with a teacher who recorded all her math lessons with students. She then posted the recording immediately after class so that students could refer to it. Often, her recordings were 30-60 minutes long and worked through many example problems.

We talked about why her students weren’t going back to the videos to get help when doing their assignments. The most likely answer was that students couldn’t find the relevant part they needed easily. I suggested she stop and restart recording between each sample problem and then label each small video clearly when she posted them. Video use increased dramatically. When students could go back to exactly what they needed, they were more likely to use the support and that made them more successful.

Retrieval Strengthens Learning

Learning theory says that information needs to be retrieved multiple times before it moves into long-term memory. Break lessons into smaller chunks. Provide a mental or physical activity after each lesson that requires the learner to apply what they learned. That counts for two of the retrieval times needed. At the end of a group of small lessons, you can build in an activity that requires the learner to apply ALL the things they just learned. This strengthens the pathways freshly created in the brain.

From The Faculty Lounge, October 03, 2016. Retrieved January 16, 2020.

So if you’re creating a course on crochet, you might do a video lesson on how to single crochet and then have a small activity or project for the student that only uses single crochet. Then you create video lessons on half double crochet and have them do an activity using only that. Next, add an activity using both the single and the half double crochet. Brain theory LOVES it when you mix it up. Then move on to the double crochet and activity, then the half triple… you get the idea. 

Step-by-step lessons interspersed with applied practice, such as learning individual stitches in crochet, are a good way to deepen student learning in online classes.

Another important reason to break longer material into shorter lessons is to allow flexibility. Adult learners have responsibilities pulling them in many directions. Courses that are flexible enough for adults to do as they can around their busy schedules have a better chance of getting completed. 

Engagement Tools Are Different In An Online Class vs A Traditional Classroom

In a traditional classroom, a teacher might say something like, “Turn to your classmate and share one insight from yesterday’s lesson.” That doesn’t translate as well into an online class. Most online courses are asynchronous. The learners aren’t in the course all at the same time. 

Classroom teachers use tools like class discussions, quizzes, small group activities, journals, and labs to help engage students. And there’s the ever-present Eye of the Teacher to keep students on track. But online courses don’t have all those options.

An online course creator needs to be creative and thoughtful with activity choices. Project-based learning is the easiest to build engagement around because every activity is building something larger. The learner knows that every activity is contributing to the end goal. If the course is about painting, then the course designer will build the lessons around an ultimate final painting the student will produce. 

Project-based learning such as learning to paint a scene one lesson at a time, keeps learners engaged in both online and traditional classes.


Some tools are things that work in both a traditional classroom and an online course. One example would be a quiz. In a traditional and online classroom, students can take a quiz electronically and get immediate feedback. If the quiz is on paper in the classroom, the students can trade papers and grade each other’s quizzes during class. The feedback would be immediate for the student and the teacher in both the traditional and the online course. 

In a traditional class, the teacher might look at the quiz results and pivot the class lesson to meet student needs. If a student does poorly on a quiz in an online course, they may go back and review the material and try the quiz again. In some online courses, the software may move the student to review material if the quiz score was under a cut line. The difference is that in the classroom, every student gets the material review whether they need it or not. In the online course, only students who need or want the review get it. 


Discussion boards are the online version of class discussions. The online discussion boards I’ve participated in as a student and the ones I had to grade as a teacher didn’t quite live up to their face-to-face counterparts. Discussion boards can be lively and useful tools in an online course if they are managed well and are open and encouraging. This is not easy to do and the topic of another post. 

Turning and talking to a partner in class doesn’t translate directly in an online course, but a variation can still useful. A course designer can direct students to have specific conversations with real people and then use those conversations to complete an activity that moves the learner forward in the course. 

Small Wins Propel The Learner Forward

The activities built into a course serve another purpose besides engagement. They give the learner small wins that keep them moving forward. 

Small wins in online classes keep learner motivation high.
Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash

In a higher-ed classroom, there might be two or three tests throughout a semester course. Many times those would be the only grades that count toward earning credit. In some of those classes, there may not be any feedback until the first test. A student who bombs that test may decide they will never pass the course and withdraw at that point. Or they may wait until the second of three tests to decide whether to stay in, but they will have put in two to three months of work without knowing if they will earn credit. I don’t know about you, but that’s demoralizing to me. I need to know if I’m on the right track.

Feedback and motivation are what small wins are all about. The activities you choose to put with each new bit of material gives the learner feedback on how they are doing. It gives them a chance to reach out for help if they get off track. And it allows learners to go back and try again. That’s unheard of in a traditional higher-ed classroom. There are no second chances for an assignment in college.  

Each activity the learner performs well strengthens learner confidence and gives a boost. That boost moves the learner to the next lesson and activity to see if they can do it again. And again. And again. And before they realize it, they’ve won their way through all the material!

Online Class Lessons Are Repeatable As Often As The Student Needs It

I mentioned this topic earlier in the post when I talked about the math teacher I worked with who recorded her lessons. Once the teacher broke the videos down into single example problems and labeled each one, she immediately made the videos more accessible and useful to the students in her class. 

In an online course, the titles of the short video lessons are reminders of material covered and help jog the learner’s memory. It also allows the learner to go back to whatever it is they may need without having to wait on a teacher to respond. This helps keep momentum in the course.

Scaffolding in education helps students in both online and traditional classes.
Photo by Al Soot on Unsplash

Shorter, well-labeled videos are a form of scaffolding. Scaffolding is the term for giving learners the support they need to move forward. Real scaffolding gives construction workers, bricklayers, and painters a framework to climb to do their job completely, but it also provides a place to land if they start to fall.

The term scaffolding is used in education because it’s similar. When you are scaffolding a lesson for learners, you are providing information and help they may need to continue the course. We’ll talk more about scaffolding in other blog posts. 

Immediate Feedback From The Learner Is Missing In An Online Class

A major difference between online courses and traditional classes is that the teacher isn’t directly in front of a class of learners taking cues from how students are reacting to information, either with body language or facial expressions. In a traditional classroom, I could introduce a concept and check for understanding throughout the lesson. If I see students stumble, I slow down or review the information to make sure I didn’t leave anything important out. Students may also have questions that I didn’t think about, so their question enriches the lesson. 

A toddler crying in frustration represents students not understanding in class.
Photo by Marcos Paulo Prado on Unsplash

In an online course, the teacher isn’t able to see the student reactions as they move through the material. The teacher needs to know his or her audience to be able to generate the types of questions the audience might have and answer them through the lessons. This requires solid research into your target audience.

Not every question can be anticipated, though. As learners work through a course, there should be built-in ways for the learner to give feedback on the material and ask more questions. This information can be easily added to the online course as an FAQ document or video.

Are Online Courses Better Than Traditional Classes?

Not better. Just different. The traditional classroom has the benefit of face-to-face interaction and feedback for the teacher. An online course provides flexibility and allows learners to move through the material as needed.

Designing an online course takes a bit longer than creating a face-to-face lesson plan. But once that work is done, the course becomes infinitely scalable. You can’t really say that about an in-person teacher.

I’m Laura V. Coulter and I help people create online courses. If you’re interested in creating an online course, subscribe to receive my blog posts directly in your inbox along with exclusive content.

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