3 Ways to Write Learner-Catching Introductions to Your Online Course

And So it Begins…

You’ve mapped out exactly what your learners need to know, and how to teach it to them. Yet when you sit down to write your course, you’re staring at a blank screen. How to begin?

You know you don’t want to start with that boring sentence you’ve been subjected to before—”In this module, you will learn…” But you also can’t just dive right in to the deep end of the content.

What you want is a “hook.” This is what journalists call the first sentences of a magazine article. Something that will capture your learner’s attention, make them interested, and make them care. If your course is optional, a good introduction will keep them reading. If it’s mandatory, it will keep them from tuning out before they even begin.

But if creative writing doesn’t come naturally to you, this can be easier said than done. So here are three easy formats to try for engaging introductions that can be adapted for almost any type of course. You can use these formats for both the introduction to the course as a whole as well as introductions to individual units or modules.

1 Imagine if...

Make your learner the main character in a story about your content. If your course is on jurisprudence for your profession, ask them to imagine themselves in a common legal conundrum. If your course is on safety, tell them a story about a safety incident and how it could have been prevented. I did something similar in the beginning of this blog post, by asking you to imagine yourself in front of the blank screen.

This is a great way to both catch your learner’s attention and emphasize why they need to learn this stuff. If you can create the internal motivation that they need to engage with the course, then you will help them to both learn and retain the information.

Here’s an example:

Boiling Water 101

Your aunt is visiting, and she wants a cup of tea. You have a tea bag and a cup, but what’s next? You can’t give your aunt cold tea. In this course, you’ll learn everything you need to know to boil water for tea that will make your aunt proud. Let’s begin with the science of why water boils.

2 Rephrase the topic as a question

  • How do you recalibrate the whatsit on an X-series Thingamjig?
  • What caused the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire?
  • You’ve received an email from the prince of a foreign country. Should you open it?

No matter what your course is about, when you ask the learner a question and they don’t have the answer, they are motivated to keep reading to find out the answer. You’ve also concisely indicated what they’re about to learn, which helps to prepare them for the course.

Boiling Water 101

You need to boil water. Should you use a pot or a kettle? How much water do you need? And How can you keep from scalding yourself? Boiling water for the first time can be overwhelming, but in this course, you’ll learn everything you need to know to boil water efficiently and safely.

3 Relate it to something they know

If your topic is complex or the learners are complete novices, it can be very helpful to make connections between the content and something they recognize in their daily life. That foundational principle in your Intro to Psychology course can be seen in the current response to Covid. Or the project management tool they’re about to learn is the same one used by many of their favourite brands.

This can also take the form of a metaphor. Maybe assembling flux capacitors is like making a sandwich—it’s critical to have the bread on the outside.

When students can build their learning onto their existing knowledge and experience, they learn the content better and feel more confident in their ability to understand and apply it.

Photo by Uwe Conrad / Unsplash

Boiling Water 101

Chances are, you consume water that’s been boiled every day. Did you know that coffee, pasta, and even rice are made with boiling water? With a little practice, you can learn to boil your own water and begin making those and many other foods and drinks at home. Let’s get started.

Concluding the Introduction

Tie up your “hook” by signposting what is going to come. But avoid listing every subtopic in the module. The purpose of this last sentence or two is to transition to the content and orient the learner, without losing the engagement or momentum you’ve created.

One final tip—write the introduction last. It’s often easier to write out all of the content that you’re comfortable with, and then circle back to how you want to introduce it. The questions you want to ask or the scenario you want them to imagine might become obvious in the process of writing the module. And since introductions are often the hardest to write, saving it for last will help you get past that dreaded blank screen.

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Jennifer Delisle