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So you’ve got a great course topic, you’ve built a course outline to help you deliver, and now you’re all set to start your first lesson plan.

When it comes to building an online course that delivers, you need to be strategic about your lessons. Each lesson plan is a building block that ladders up to your overarching course goals.

Let’s talk about how to build a lesson plan that hits home.

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Before you begin

Before you dive into lesson planning, start with a few key questions to determine the goal of your lesson. As the topic expert, the breadth of this course content is clear in your head, but your students are still figuring it out as they go along. Keep a narrow focus for each lesson while keeping the bigger picture in mind – this will help your students build knowledge in context so they can use it independently and remember it forever!

  1. What do your students already know? This back to what you’ve covered in previous lessons, or what foundational knowledge you expect students to have. Do they have all the definitions they need to understand today’s topic? Are there any gaps you need to close before you dive in? That will be your starting point for this lesson.
  2. What do they need to learn today? Eyes on the prize here – keep your goal clear or you’ll get lost along the way! Set yourself a single goal for this lesson: should students understand the formula for a unique value proposition, or should they be able to write a great cover letter? What single concept or skill do you want this lesson to impart to your students? Remember to keep it simple, and if it’s too complex you might want to consider splitting it up into smaller lessons to avoid confusing your students with information overload.
  3. What’s the best way to lock it into place? Now that you’ve locked down the goal for today’s lesson, you can decide on the best way to deliver the information. Is this something best delivered through video, or is it better explained with text and diagrams? Could you represent this as an infographic? What practice activities would help your students lock in their newly acquired skills?

It’s not always about downloading your brain onto the page. You need to consider how you explain things so your students fully understand not only the new facts, but the context surrounding them – that’s the key to them being able to apply these new skills independently when the course is over. With the Thinkific course builder, you have so many teaching tools and resources at your disposal – use them in harmony with one another to give your students a dynamic learning experience.

Now that you’ve got those three guiding principles in mind, let’s put them to work in your lesson plan.

Related: The Ultimate List of Free Online Course Lesson Plan Templates

Set the stage

Begin each new lesson by setting the stage for your students. You can do this in three key steps:

  1. Take a brief moment to look back at what you covered in the last lesson,
  2. Give a high-level overview of what today’s lesson will entail, and
  3. Tell students the key skills or takeaways they will have conquered by the end of the lesson.

In particular, consider if any content from previous lessons is applicable to the new lesson. Never miss an opportunity to name-drop or draw examples from old content while introducing new material! It’s a great opportunity to help your students build context between what might feel like a confusing array of new facts. When you build bridges between old and new knowledge, it creates that lightbulb moment for students to see how all the pieces fit together.

This is more than just summarizing or expectation-setting – it’s a strategic educational principle. By reminding students of previous lessons, you help them draw connections between old and new content so they can understand how everything fits together. When you share the key touchpoints for today’s lesson, you set up a framework for them to contextualize everything that follows. If they know what the final goal is, they will naturally be more attuned to anything you say about those skills from that point onwards. This brief process at the beginning of each lesson provides anchors for students to shape their understanding throughout the rest of the lesson.

Related: How To Use Learning Sequencing To Plan Your Lessons

Explain new information

This is the main component of any lesson plan. When it’s time to introduce new content, make sure to do so clearly and simply. Explain new concepts in the most straightforward way possible. Consider your weakest student, and explain things with them in mind – even your strongest students will still benefit from that simplicity!

Be sure to use lots of examples to help students develop context with new information. One tip here is to use a mix of examples that draw from general knowledge and subject-specific knowledge. For example, you can and should give concrete examples grounded in the course subject matter; for more abstract concepts, however, it can be helpful to explain things using everyday examples that everyone can relate to. Consider using apples and oranges to explain abstract economic concepts, or using nursery rhymes to explain music theory. This doesn’t mean you have to come up with mysterious hypothetical examples like the ones you might have found on a high school math quiz – just look for everyday situations you can use to explain more difficult concepts, so your students can ground their new understanding in something familiar.

Students learn in a myriad of different ways – some through text, others through video, and still others through graphic design or activities like writing by hand. While explaining things clearly in a well-produced video or article is always a great place to start, consider using a variety of methods to make your lesson plan stick.

  • Create an infographic to illustrate key points from the lesson
  • Provide fill-in-the-blank notes so students can follow along with you and pay attention for key information queues
  • Link key words and concepts to external articles or videos to provide students with additional learning resources
  • Create a slide deck of key points that students can use as a review tool
  • The sky’s the limit – if you can think of an alternative way to present your information, your students will benefit! The Thinkific course builder has a number of different content types to suit your needs, wherever the inspiration leads you.

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Related: How to Use Backwards Design To Create Your Lesson Plan (Template + Steps)

Practice makes perfect

After introducing new material to students, it’s vital to give them an opportunity to put their new skills into practice. This is what helps them lock new information into their brains and build contextual links with other skills. It’s also an important tool to help students master the content from this lesson before they move on to the next – as they work through practice activities and find themselves stuck on particular concepts or tasks, it will become clear which aspects of the material they didn’t quite understand. That gives students a targeted opportunity to ask good questions or go back through the course material until they master that skill.

Even in an online course, there are a number of practice activities you can prompt students to use:

  • Ask students to define key concepts and use them in a paragraph, so they have an opportunity to put things into their own words
  • Suggest students rephrase concepts by converting your notes into questions, like those they might expect to see on a quiz
  • If you have a community or online group, ask students to share their summaries or reflections with each other in a dedicated lesson thread


Sometimes, you also need to assess student knowledge. While you won’t do this for each and every lesson, it’s a helpful tool to check student understanding at important course milestones.

Thinkific’s course platform makes it easy to deliver student assessments with quizzes, exams, and assignments to put your students to the test, but you should keep future assessments in mind while you plan lessons. As you build a series of lessons, keep these questions in mind for future assessments:

  • What facts and skills from this lesson are necessary for a student to succeed in this course?
  • Are there any facts in this lesson that students need to be reminded of to make sure they stick?

Keep a running list of these answers as you build your lessons. By the time you reach a course milestone and you’re ready to build an assessment, you’ll already have a list of key questions to use in your quiz or assignment. By drawing questions from across a series of lessons, you help students build contextual links between different batches of information and end up with a more cohesive learning experience.

Build a lesson plan

Ready to start building dynamic lesson plans? We’ve created a downloadable lesson plan template for you below so you can build your own.

Download Free Lesson Plan Templates: Download Now

You’re well on your way to building a great course, with solid principles that help you deliver dynamic lessons to your students!

This blog was originally created August 2020, and was updated March 2022 to be even more useful.