How Long Should Your Online Lesson Be? Seinfeld Might Know

Written by

Christian Shockley

on July 12, 2018

Jerry Seinfeld wants to know if you’ll watch his show. Well, that was a big question when developing his internet show Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. He asked YouTube, Facebook, and others who know our watching habits well.

Seinfeld: I'd like to make this show. Each episode will be be about 20 minutes.

YouTube: That'll never work. People will never watch past 5 minutes on the internet.

Seinfeld: Well, I'm going to make this show, and it's going to be about 20 minutes long. We'll see.

I wasn't in the room, but that's basically how Seinfeld says it went.

When the show aired, the creators of Comedians in Cars found that almost every viewer watched each entire episode. They hung around for an average of 19 minutes.

Does this mean that YouTube was wrong about people's attention spans? Not at all. YouTube collects millions of data points about our viewing habits every day. They know how long we pay attention.

It does mean, however, that YouTube doesn't know how you'll watch this particular show. YouTube can give a well-informed suggestion when it comes to the length of your internet show. But you might just surprise them.

A lot of people ask, "How long should my online lesson be?" My usual answer is: “About 20 to 30 minutes.”

But here’s my real answer: I don't know, and we might be asking the wrong question.

I wish there were a magic number of minutes that hit that sweet spot between getting a learner's full attention and tiring them out just enough to sleep well at night. But, alas, I haven't found that number.

Seinfeld's experimental show teaches us a question to ask instead of “how long should an online lesson be?”

What kind of lesson do learners need and want?

Seinfeld knows his audience. He knows there are people out there who'd love to watch their two favorite comedians chat. As a teacher, you know your learners best. You know how to get in your learner’s shoes and retrace their path. If you do that, you'll know where and how to lead them. Maybe practicing physicians learn best through bite-sized lessons taken between seeing patients. Maybe those learning to cook will be happy with an hour long lesson as long as you chop up the cooking demonstration into shorter videos. Get to know your audience (your learners), and you’ll know what they need in a lesson.

What pattern will help them follow you?

Despite its variety of guests, Seinfeld's show has a lot of predictability. You know you'll find comedians, cars, and coffee. That framework makes the variety of guests sparkle even more. The comedians, cars, and coffee become the cozy living room where you can have a surprising conversation. So try designing a pattern for your learners to follow each day or week. Then, let the information sparkle on its own.

How should your lesson be paced?

"People are less likely to fall asleep when you move," Seinfeld says about his show. The same is true of courses. Give your learners movement, and they'll stick with you. Sure, they could learn a lot from an essay that takes an hour to read, but they aren't as likely to stick around for that (especially if they’re reading online). Instead, pace your lessons by changing up activities: something to read, something to write about, something to watch.

YouTube could’ve been right, by the way. There’s a chance Seinfeld’s internet show could’ve failed. But part of the point here is that Seinfeld tried this new kind of show for a new kind of audience.

So go make a new kind of learning experience your learner hasn’t seen before, one that matches their needs and is paced just for their skill level. But if it doesn’t work, don’t sweat it. Keep asking the right questions and iterating on your design. Engagement is the key, and, with time and attention, you can find it.

Pathwright supports learner engagement in several ways. Check out how to evaluate course performance, so you can iterate on your design with expert know-how.

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