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The pros and cons of choosing a course difficulty level

Who are your learners?

Getting the right or wrong answer to this question can make or break your online course business. You also need a learner profile to make the best decisions for creating the course content, marketing to prospective learners, tailoring your message to their interests, etc.

Plus, there’s that satisfaction of helping someone solve their problem, whether it’s learning how to sew, do yoga, draw, or write code. You can’t help a beginner by giving them very advanced tasks to solve — that tends to backfire quickly!

That’s why, in many cases, you need to know your learners’ skill level so you can brand your courses appropriately. Is it for complete beginners? Intermediate users who want to get better at their hobby? Advanced learners, who want to perfect what they already know?

Adjusting the difficulty level comes in handy in many cases, so read on to find out more about the pros and cons of doing this.

The pros and cons of setting difficulty levels for courses

Sometimes, we adjust the level without meaning to or without labeling courses as “beginner” or “advanced.” Let’s start with the pros of doing so intentionally:

  • It works for complex subjects. If you have a complex course topic, such as a programming language, you can separate modules for beginners, intermediate, advanced, etc.
  • Find your ideal learners. Adjusting the difficulty level helps you market to your target audience as you can build very detailed buyer personas.
  • Choose the appropriate materials. It’s easier to curate and create learning content if you have a specific difficulty level in mind, based on the skills learners should develop at each stage (and cut superfluous details).
  • Sell more products. You can differentiate courses based on levels and, as a result, offer a complete course bundle that takes the learner from beginner to advanced.
  • Enhance courses with automation. Difficulty levels can be adjusted through course automation, which is what dynamic differentiation is all about (see below).

However, labeling your course as beginner, intermediate, and advanced doesn’t work in all situations. Here comes the cons part:

  • There are time constraints. It takes time to do two or more separate courses or build difficulty levels into a single course.
  • It doesn’t apply to all topics. For example, some personal development courses focus on the journey from beginner to advanced, so learners don’t need three separate courses to achieve that.
  • There’s a “start and abandon” effect. If the first, easy course doesn’t live up to expectations or learners quit for whatever reason, there’s a chance that they’ll forget about the others.
  • Adjust your idea of “level” to theirs. Generally, people tend to overestimate their abilities, but more advanced learners underestimate them. That’s why it can be tricky if learners decide to skip steps.

How to adjust your course difficulty level with your LMS

Now, bearing in mind the pros and cons of choosing a difficulty level, it’s time to figure out the options for adjusting it. Today, we’re going to have a look at what you can achieve with the help of your learning platform alone, in three different ways:

  1. The classic course building method

    I’m going to use the term “classic” loosely because this is what you could achieve even in the early days of learning management systems (LMSs). It’s merely creating three separate courses for each level, depending on how many levels you need. There’s the “beginner, intermediate and advanced,” but you can have two, four, or even five levels.

    Most of all, you need to take apart the skills that you’re teaching for each level. It’s essentially doing a skill hierarchy analysis, in which you determine what a beginner, intermediate, and advanced learner should do and know.

    It also helps to set up a survey on your website that learners take to figure out where they’re at in their journey. In this way, they’re directed towards a specific skill level (course). I know this can be off-putting for some learners, but it might help others figure out which course to buy (and feel more optimistic about the purchase!).

  2. The different specifications technique

    Whenever I’m following an online exercise video, I’m grateful when there’s a modification. I can reap the benefits of movement at the level that I’m currently at, preventing strain and injury. If you don’t have enough content and time to create three different courses, giving separate indications can work just as well.

    For this type of adjustment, show learners what they can do and offer alternatives. The alternatives can come in different written instructions, such as “if you're a beginner, do this instead,” or show side by side images/videos.

    A potential downside of different specifications is that it’s up to each learner to follow the additional instructions and not skip some parts. You need to make it clear when they can skip steps and where they’d better follow the instructions, especially if safety is an issue. Yes, I am talking about you, instructors that are considering a woodworking course :).

  3. Dynamic differentiation

    Dynamic differentiation takes things to a whole new level with the help of automation. That’s because, in an automated course, one learner can have a whole different experience than another, based on their performance.

    Read more: 10 Course automation tricks you need to save time

    For example, two learners, let’s call them Sarah and Miranda, start with the same module named “Introduction to social media.” Then, based on a quiz at the end of the module, they each unlock a different one. Sarah gets 50 percent on the quiz, opening Basic social media tactics. Miranda receives 70 percent, unlocking Intermediate social media tactics.

    They can go up and down the levels, as learning isn’t linear. We can be pretty good at doing something while at the same time dealing with knowledge gaps. You can also integrate scenario-based learning for a more exciting journey.

    Read more: How to create scenario-based learning directly in your LMS

Level up!

All in all, choosing a difficulty level and labeling your courses has many upsides. You get to refine your audience, work on building excellent materials for any skill level, and ultimately, help your learners grow, no matter where they’re starting from.

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