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  • Vasco Cavalheiro - Course Creator

    Vasco Cavalheiro - Course Creator

    Online Course Creator, teaching web technologies. I taught over 100k web developers over the years, and I'm now sharing everything that I know about online teaching here at the Creator Academy.

    More posts by Vasco Cavalheiro - Course Creator.

    Vasco Cavalheiro - Course Creator

How Long Should an Online Course Be?

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How Long Should an Online Course Be?

Learn exactly how long your online course should be, depending on your goals, the price you want to charge, the business model that you are trying to create and more. I'll recommend you a couple of typical course lengths to aim for, based on my experience as a course creator.

Have you ever stared at a blank course outline, haunted by the question: "How long should this course actually be?"

You're not alone. The battle between jam-packing everything in and keeping students engaged is a real struggle.

Too short, and you leave them wanting more. Too long, and they're left drowning in a sea of information.

So, how long should your online course be to keep learners engaged, happy, and learning without feeling overwhelmed?

For an online course to sell well, it should ideally be between 5 to 10 hours long.

This length ensures that the topic is covered thoroughly. Courses shorter than this often struggle in terms of sales because people seek comprehensive information and want the best value for their money.

Longer courses, around 20 hours or more, tend to perform even better on marketplaces. In essence, the course should be as long as necessary, but if it's shorter than 5 hours, it might not cover the topic adequately or could be too specific.

Stick with me as I explain in detail below.

Table of contents

I also have guides on the following:

How Long Should an Online Course Be?

Well...... it depends. 😉 No, just kidding. 😂

I'm going to give you an exact estimate right now, depending on a couple of factors.

In principle, an online course length should be as long as it needs to be, but not longer.

You should cover your topic in enough depth to meet the expectations of your target students, without spending any more or less time than necessary.

This means that for most topics that people are willing to pay some money to learn, a course should be at the very least a couple of hours long.

Anywhere between 4 to 8 hours of total length would be a very typical number for most industries.

Not that you are specifically aiming for a given length, it's just it will naturally take you that much time to explain everything in sufficient detail.

But your courses don't have to always take that long either.

It could be that you are teaching a very focused tutorial on a relatively small tool on a rather niche and well-contained topic, and 4 hours would just be too much.

Then in that case, maybe 2 to 3 hours is going to be enough. But less than that, and it's going to be very hard to pack enough value in so little time that would justify the money investment from your students.

If the course is only 1.5 hours long and it costs $49, that's a tough sell, unless the information that your students are looking for is super valuable to them, and they can't really get it from nowhere else, which is of course very unlikely.

Some courses take 20 or 30 hours, and they sell great too, we call those Masterclass courses.

Independently of the duration that your course ends up having, I recommend never adding filler or fluff material just to make it longer, but simply cover more related topics with sufficient detail to bring the most value to your students.

And if that results in a shorter course, so be it. For example, some of my best-selling courses are around the 4 to 6-hour mark. 😉

As you can imagine, the course duration depends on a couple of important factors, so let's break this down further to help you decide on the approximate length of your course.

What Is The Average Online Course Length?

The recommended length depends a lot on the type of course, so let's break this down further to help you determine what is a good duration target for you.

In general, there are three types of online courses you can build:

  1. Free
  2. Niche Course
  3. Masterclass

Each one serves a different purpose, which impacts its length.

What Is A Good Length For a Free Course?

In most cases, you’ll build a Free Online Course to generate new leads and grow your audience. These are simple courses. Short and sweet!

People don’t invest much time in the things they get for free, because they don’t value them enough.

As such, you want to keep a course like this as short as possible, pack enough value in it to make it useful on its own, but don't give away everything either. 😉

At the end of the course, mention that this free course is part of a longer, premium course and list all the topics that you will be covering on the paid course.

Ideally, a free course should take your students no longer than 1 to 2 hours to complete, not more, and it's preferably a subset of one of your premium courses, just with different introduction and conclusion lessons.

What Is A Good Length For a Niche Course?

These types of courses are longer. In this type of course you are covering a specific subset of your topic, but not more than that.

Niche Courses are not meant as a complete reference that teaches everything about your topic.

For example, let's say that you teach Excel. A couple of examples of niche courses could be:

  • Excel for Beginners
  • Advanced Excel Formulas
  • Excel Charts In-Depth
  • Excel Pivot Tables In Depth
  • etc.

As you can see, each course goes into a niche of the Excel topic in detail.

There is a course focusing specifically on Beginners, and then every other course assumes some level of prior knowledge.

This is great for students because each person is at a different point in their learning journey: some are complete beginners, others are more advanced, some only want to dive into charts right now and leave the rest for later, etc.

Splitting things up into several different smaller niche courses has several advantages:

  • it makes it easier for you to complete the recording process faster
  • it gives you more products to sell
  • it allows you to continuously release new courses, meaning more course launches and the sales boost that comes with them
  • it makes it easier to sell the multiple courses as a higher-ticket bundle.

As you can see, the decision on how long to make your course has important sales implications, besides affecting the student experience, and making it harder/easier to produce the course.

What Is A Good Length For Masterclass Courses?

If you want to create a fully comprehensive guide to your topic, then creating a complete Masterclass is a good option too.

With this type of course, you are aiming at creating the complete, knock-it-out-of-the-park resource on your topic, that teaches your students everything that they need to know from A to Z, from beginner to advanced.

This type of course is much harder and longer to produce, and because you have a lot to teach on the topic it's going to result in a naturally longer course.

For most topics, if it takes less than 10 hours, it's probably not comprehensive enough to be considered a Masterclass.

This value of 10 hours is an important psychological threshold that is important for students to decide if they are willing to pay more for the course or not because they believe that with that minimal length, the course is going to be comprehensive enough, so they feel safer paying a bit more for it.

Depending on how much you have to teach on the topic and how far you want to go, your Masterclass might have 20 hours, 30 hours, or even more.

In most cases though, if you are going so far and so deep in your topic, it's unlikely that the full length of the course is going to be interesting to all your students.

Most likely you are mixing in the same course things that are aimed at complete beginners with things that are meant only for the most advanced users.

So it becomes likely that most students won't watch the whole thing, and will have to pick and choose, which takes away from their course-taking experience.

So if your course takes that long, in most cases, you probably want to split it up into multiple courses and sell them as a bundle for a higher value.

Longer courses also have some very important advantages that make them worth considering.

Do You Want to Know The Truth About Longer Courses?

Creating a Masterclass course is a good way to convince people to pay a bit more for a more in-depth product, but the truth is that if the course is over 10 to 12 hours long, most people simply won't watch it until the end. 😃

No matter how well the course is produced, it doesn't matter.

People will naturally lose their motivation, and get distracted with other things as they take the course, and they will end up never completing it.

And this might reflect negatively the next time that they see a 12h course from you: they might hesitate to buy it again, as they know they won't finish it unless they really need the information, for example for their daily jobs.

If that is not the case, chances are that people will feel satisfied with what they have learned after a few hours, and they will move on to something else.

So if you are going for a Masterclass course, make sure that the first few hours and preferably the full length of the course is super engaging, because people will tend to quit faster if they see that they still have 19 hours to go.

But if they already took 3 hours and the course lasts only 2 more? Chances are that people will make the effort to finish the course, with fear of missing out on some important nugget of information.

You might think that I'm underestimating the average attention span of your students, but let me back that up with a couple of studies.

A study by SumoMe suggests that our attention span drops after just two minutes when watching a video online. Other studies align with this:

  • A Microsoft study says our attention spans online are just 8 seconds…
  • It’s estimated we see between 6,000-10,000 ads every single day (not a typo)…
  • In 2020, it’s said each person created 1,7MB of data every second…

All this is to say that we’re bombarded with content. At all times.

Everywhere! 😉

It’s exhausting, and although you provide value as a course creator, you have to remember that your 20-hour masterclass is competing against all this.

Important Questions To Help You Determine The Length of Your Online Course

Here are a few questions that might help you get a better idea of what would be a good length for your course:

What Business Model Are You Looking to Create?

If you are looking to build a subscription-based model on your own website (which is what I do and recommend considering), then a Masterclass does not seem to fit so well into that.

With this business model, you are constantly creating and publishing new content on a weekly ongoing basis, and you are also releasing new courses all the time.

For this type of model, Niche Courses are a much better fit. It's hard to charge $15 a month on an ongoing subscription if your students already learned everything they need in your 20h Masterclass.😃

Are You Thinking of Selling In Marketplaces, or In Your Own Website?

If you are thinking of selling in Marketplaces, then bear in mind that in a lot of cases, your course will be sold for around $10 to $20.

I think adopting a mixed approach of publishing in both marketplaces and in your own website works great (see here - Where Should You Publish Your Online Course? (Self-Hosting vs Marketplaces)

So bear in mind that if you go for a full-length Masterclass, it's going to be hard to sell it on your website for $89 and on the marketplace for $10.

Many of your students will notice, you will get refund requests, etc.

On the other hand, Masterclass courses do very well in marketplaces and often take up the first few places of sales in any given category.

So do check your course category on a few marketplaces, and check the course length of the best sellers. Chances are, if you want to create a competing course, you will need to go for a similar length.

How Much Do You Want To Charge For Your Courses?

The longer the course, the more you can charge for it, although for certain situations that will not be the case.

Imagine that your course is really some sort of time-sensitive financial report, just as an example. Then in that case, the course might only be 45 minutes long and people will still be willing to pay over $100 for it.

But with rare exceptions, that is simply not the case for most informational courses, that teach the student something that they want to learn that is really not that life-changing.

Are You Thinking of Doing Course Creation Full Time?

Another thing that you might want to think about is, are you planning on doing course creation for the long term, or do you just want to quickly release a course on a topic, and move on with other activities?

If you are not looking to create content on a continuous basis, then a subscription-based model wouldn't be a good choice for you.

In that case, you want to go for a higher-ticket Masterclass course that covers everything from beginner to advanced.

That tends to sell very well because it's a one-time non-recurring charge only, and it does not create an expectation of continuous new content like in the case of a subscription.

So if you are only planning on creating a single course on the topic, then go the extra mile and make it a masterclass, it will be well worth it.

What Course Length Do I Recommend, From One Course Creator To Another?

In this section, I will give you my personal opinion of what I think will work best for you in terms of course length, and tell you what worked and didn't work for me over the years, as I've experimented a lot with it.

If you want to learn more about my personal journey as a creator, I've also written about it here:

But here, let's just focus on course length.

I've tried creating two premium courses with only 1.5 and 2 hours long and noticed that they sold very poorly, both on my website and on marketplaces.

These were niche courses, diving deeper into a specific sub-topic of what I teach.

I went back and made improved, much more in-depth versions of these courses, and of course they did much better, one of them even got the Highest Rated tag on a marketplace. 😉

Looking back, it turns out that there was just a lot more to say about those topics than when I quickly recorded the first versions of 1.5 and 2 hours, and those courses were unsatisfying content for the student, that did not cover the topic in the necessary depth.

The second versions of the courses were approximately 5 hours 40 minutes and 6 hours 30 minutes, so much larger courses, but still way below 10 hours.

These niche courses took me just a couple of weeks total to produce, and did way better in terms of sales and reviews.

But I've bought courses of 4 hours that I felt extremely satisfied with, so I don't think that 5 or 6 hours is a requirement.

On the other hand, I never bought 2 hours courses that I felt satisfied with as a student.

So my advice, based on my experience as a course creator and as a student, is to create a course that is at least 4 or 5 hours long.

Because less than that and you are probably creating unsatisfying content, without realizing it.

I've recorded other courses well above 5 hours, in the range of 7 hours to 9 hours, and those also did well, but after 4 to 5 hours the course length seems to be uncorrelated with commercial success.

For that, other factors are much more important, like for example the popularity of the sub-topic.

But a minimal length is definitively necessary, under which the course will not feel complete to the student.

My largest course that also does very well is a 10h Masterclass on a related topic to my main topic, which I opted to cover in one go because I won't be creating content on that all the time, and there is also a bit less to say about the subject.

Because I adopt the mixed approach of publishing in both my website and on marketplaces, also because I have other professional activities (the OnlineCourseHost.com platform), I end up not creating longer, 20-hour masterclass courses.

I prefer to produce a smaller Niche Course of 5 hours, release it on my website and marketplaces in a couple of weeks to months, see the launch results, and move on to the next course, this is what I found works for me the best for me and for my particular situation.

So as you can see, based on my experience so far I'm a big fan of shorter Niche Courses of around 5h, but it's true that longer 20 hour-long Masterclasses also do very well, especially in marketplaces.

So should you go for Masterclasses? I would say try one eventually, but for your first course try a Niche Course, and with that initial feedback you will be in a much better shape to create your Masterclass, if that is your goal.

And if you ever see that you are recording a Niche Course that is starting to take 8 or 9 hours, try to see if, without ever adding fluff, but by adding extra value or covering an extra topic, you manage to take your course over the 10-hour mark.

Most people will still complete it and you should see slightly improved sales and will have a chance at competing at top marketplace spots.

Summary: How long should an online course be?

I hope this helped give you an idea of what to go for in your courses.

In a nutshell, 4 to 6-hour Niche Courses are a great choice for your own website and for doing frequent launches, while 15-hour to 20-hour+ Masterclasses do especially well on marketplaces.

Courses shorter than 2 or 3 hours don't seem to bring great results as students consider them usually unsatisfying, but there are exceptions.

In general, if you simply dedicate enough time to explain in sufficient detail your topic, you will end up naturally having a 4 to 5-hour course without having to do anything special to get to that mark.

There is no need to add any fluff or unnecessary content to the course just to get to a certain length, and this is to be avoided as it would result in bad reviews.

If you do enough justice to the topic, cover all the bases, and explain everything in depth, you will end up creating a very satisfying course-taking experience for your students. 😉

Next Steps

You probably have many other similar questions on course creation.

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Thanks for reading… and enjoy the course creation process! 😉

Vasco Cavalheiro

OnlineCourseHost.com Founder & Online Course Creator

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