In the world of self-paced online courses, drop off rates amongst learners is very high. A majority gets distracted midway and never really completes the course. Furthermore, as Jennet mentions in her blog, course creators don’t always provide their learners with the structure, support, and motivation required to complete the course.

Fortunately, there is a low hanging fruit that course creators can pluck to increase retention level amongst the audience.

Here it is:

Actionable content – Content that tells the learner to take action. Content whose focus is not mere knowledge transfer but instead it is approach transfer. Instead of the read – learn – repeat cycle, actionable course content’s students go through the read – act – learn – repeat cycle.

Creating actionable course content is one sure shot way to decrease learner drop off rates. Neil Patel, in this post, states that producing actionable content is an often overlooked and yet very significant factor in making your marketing content a success.

I discovered that course content is also going to be more effective if, instead of being passive, it is made active i.e. actionable.

volunteer curriculum ACTION

Why focus on action?

Without explicitly focusing on TODOs in your course, your users are never going to take action. I discovered this the hard way.

While volunteering as an English teacher in GOA (India), I compiled together an English curriculum that could help part-time volunteers teach ‘practicable’ English within all the time and resource restraints that they are bound to face.

Everything sounds good so far.

In my six years of volunteering, I had taught people of all ages and closely worked with scores of other volunteers. Along the way, I had discovered a unique approach to teaching English that worked out well for volunteers. I stuffed together all the knowledge and insight that I had gathered over the years into my course – course meant to convert novice volunteers into effective English teachers.

So what could have gone wrong here?

The focus was on knowledge transfer. And because of the intensity of my content, many of my learners got so bogged down that they dropped out altogether. Overloaded with tips and techniques, my course was just too difficult to complete.

But I never wanted to overwhelm my learners (the volunteers) with content. All I wanted was to support them with content to help them teach English more effectively.

So I changed my approach. Instead of showing all possible approaches, now I wanted to enable the volunteer to discover the right approach for himself through my content. And to find that approach the volunteer has to experiment. He can’t be a passive learner anymore. He has to take actions.

Therefore, instead of knowledge transfer, now I targeted action. Action was no longer implied in my course; it was made explicit. Each lesson in the course had specific TODOs for the learner.

This new approach helped me a lot. My learners were visibly more engaged, and the results of the actions which they submitted kept me updated about their latest issues and requirements, which gave me a chance to fine tune my course content even further.

I made three significant changes to my course to make it action focussed. These initiatives can be easily replicated in any course, online or offline.

1. Exhaustive to indicative

When it comes to providing technical details, you have to be comprehensive. You have to think from all possible angles and then come out with an all-encompassing solution to help your user get the required technical result like creating a WordPress website or finding the mac address.

But this approach does not work for teaching more open ended things like a new language, sketching, photography; because it is just not possible to be exhaustive here. There is just way too much content to cover.

So you have to focus all your energy on explaining the ‘typical’/most common case in your teaching. What about the rest?

volunteer curriculum INDICATE

Let your student discover it himself. To discover, he has to experiment. To experiment, he has to take action. Help him take that action. You got to tell him what he has to do to fully understand and, possibly, apply the lesson in hand.

Previously each of the lessons in my course had this structure:

Knowledge transfer focused content
Lots of content related explanation arising out of me trying to be in my learners’ shoes and anticipating the problems they are going to face

After this change, my lessons looked more like:

Content that focused on explaining the typical case
Actions that the learner has to take to discover ‘what works for himself.’

Suggestion: All your lesson plans should cover the typical scenarios. Only those corner cases and deviations which help in explaining the typical scenarios should be taught.

Case Study


How can my volunteers help their students make their first few sentences in English?


To create any complete sentence in English, a person needs to know what ‘subject’, ‘verb’ and ‘object’ are. Each of these three words is an ocean in itself; Google any of these terms, and you’ll know.

Typical case:

Usually, the new learner wants to speak about himself in his first few sentences in English. So he must be taught how to make sentences that help him introduce himself in English.


Be indicative, not exhaustive. Narrow done the possibilities to the most typical case.

Let’s narrow down the definition of subject, verb, and object based on the typical case.

Most common/typical subjects = personal pronouns (I, we, you, he, she, they, it)
Most common/typical verbs = action verbs – eat, play, enjoy
Most common/typical object = objects on which the above verbs act upon? E.g. eat what? = rice, play what = tennis, enjoy what? = swimming.

Most common/typical sentence:
Subject + Verb + Object

Sentence examples: I eat rice. It eats fodder. She plays tennis. They enjoy swimming….

These sentences are the first few sentences that a new learner should be taught to speak and write. They help the learner introduce himself!


The learner has to make these sentences ‘relevant’ for his students. He has to talk to the students in their native language (he has to figure out how to bridge the language gap between the student and himself if it exists). And find out their specifics that he can fit in these sentences for e.g. what the students’ names are? What do they enjoy doing? What do they like eating? Now, if a student enjoys trekking then a relevant sentence for the student would be “I enjoy trekking”.


I knew the typical case based on my teaching experience. I used that. Next, I also knew what it takes to customize the sentences i.e. make them relevant for these students. That’s what I shared as the action.

2. Engagement hooks

What if, through your course, your users got a chance to engage in their favorite hobby-activity-pastime? Surely that would give them a strong reason to complete the course.

In my actionable course:

I always encouraged my users to create their own art and clicks and use them as teaching aid. Now that’s synergistic – by doing the course, my users would find extra time to indulge in their favorite activity, and, having got a chance to indulge in in their favorite activity, they would be further motivated to complete the course.

volunteer curriculum ENGAGE

How can you deploy this strategy in your course?

1)    List the activities that your learners love to take part in – bicycling or listening to world war stories – whatever it is. You may take a poll amongst your learners or simply based on your intuition create this initial list.

2)    With the list in hand, think of all the ways in which you can integrate the activities you have listed down with your course content. Can you give your users an assignment that is linked to their hobby? Can you provide examples from their field of interest to explain your content? Think. The possibilities are endless. Remember: You have to be indicative, not exhaustive!

3. The motivation page

If your student is motivated, then you can rest assured that nothing will stop him from completing the course. Confusing content, lack of explanation, slow internet speed – he will ride over them all.

Quite often I found that midway through the course my learners had lost their appetite to complete the course. Having to do so many different things in between, they had forgotten their original motivation behind starting the course.

That happens quite often. Let it never happen to your learners. But how?

volunteer curriculum MOTIVATE

Solution: A motivation page of course!

Ask your learners to write their motivation for choosing your course on this page, when they start the course. After each lesson plan, make them visit this page and write another reason why they would like to continue this course.

This way, after completing each new lesson plan, your learners will have an extra reason to get through the remaining course.

Bonus Tip:

The KISS approach

As a course creator, if you are deeply stuck trying to explain something complex, then you can fall back on the KISS approach to guide you through.

KISS = Keep it simple silly!

volunteer curriculum KISS

Remember: You just got to show your course-takers the right door, and then leave them to figure out the rest themselves. Don’t try to explain what would become apparent with the right approach. Teach that approach and ensure that your users have the motivation to open the door every single time.

Raghav Nyati

You’ve been reading a guest post by Raghav Nyati

Raghav Nyati has been volunteering as an English teacher since 2010 and launched in 2015 to provide curriculum services to fellow volunteers and online English teachers.