Online Courses - Self-paced courses

In the current reality we’re living in, online courses are more relevant than ever. They provide us with an instant and safe solution to continue developing our skills from anywhere in the world, from the safety and comfort of our own home.

Within the online courses realm, self-paced courses are a popular choice mainly due to the flexibility they offer. Not only they’re usually more affordable, but we can easily adapt them to our schedule. This is especially useful for busy learners with an unpredictable schedule like me. If you struggle finding extra slots in your calendar or keeping the pace of a structured program, then self-paced courses might be for you.

However, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. The perceived advantages of a self-paced course; flexibility, affordability, lifetime access, can quickly turn into cons.

If you are like most of the clients I’ve consulted with, you might have purchased more than a couple of courses in the past that are now sitting around, waiting to be completed.

Why does this happen?

From a learning science point of view, there are a few potential explanations for our tendency to postpone endlessly the completion of a self-paced course.

The main factor I’m addressing here is motivation.

In a simplified way, we can think about motivation as being intrinsic or extrinsic. Even though some theories argue that motivation is mainly intrinsic and external incentive is short-lived, we need to consider that we often rely on external factors when pursuing something new.

It is possible that we’ll take a self-paced course just because we’re passionate about a specific subject and we enjoy the process of learning more about it. However, it’s also common and equally acceptable to be motivated by external reasons: advancing in our career, earning more money, finding a new job.

Whether we like it or not, many times it’s the carrots and sticks that keep us going.

Removing the constraints of time and money often means removing any sources of external motivation. When you have lifetime access to a course that was already affordable to begin with, it doesn’t feel you have much to lose. It becomes harder to make it a priority.

If you want to finish a self-paced course, you’ll need to find motivation from within.

The solution: intrinsic motivation

Now that we know that we are most likely unable to rely on external motivation for self-paced courses, what should we do?

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Without deadlines or financial factors involved, finishing a course stops being an undesirable task or something we need to check off our list.

In one of my favourite books, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel H. Pink outlines the three main elements of intrinsic motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. We can easily apply this framework to the process of completing a course.


When was the last time you worked on something you were really excited about? For most of us, this means a personal or passion project. This is because, unlike a client’s project, we are not being motivated by external reasons.

It works the same for a self-paced course. When you are not motivated by being issued a final certificate or completing a deadline, you’re learning for the joy of it.

What does learning mean to you? Or what does learning the specific content of this course mean to you? There’s no guarantee that this course will get you a client or a pay rise, but this is what no one can take away from you: the positive emotions; the confidence, the inspiration, or the happiness it brings.


We all want to be good at what we do. This is the element of intrinsic motivation that is mostly applicable to courses and educational programs. It’s connected to the human desire of becoming better at something.

When applying the mastery principle, we need to remember that learning a skill can be frustrating, especially if we have never done it before.

To be motivated to complete a course, we need to ensure the course is right for the level we are at, and that it aligns with the skills we are interested in learning or improving.


Purpose is the highest form of motivation. It’s the sense of believing in something that is bigger than ourselves, something that matters to us.

When picking a new course to take, think about how it aligns with your purpose and values. Learning a new skill or obtaining knowledge about a topic that is meaningful to you can bring you closer to your purpose.

What is fascinating about self-paced courses is that both their pros and cons can either have a positive or negative impact on your progress as a learner, depending on how you deal with them. On one hand, the flexibility and affordability of self-paced courses remove any chances of external motivation. On the other hand, the lack of external motivation can encourage us to seek deeper within for a much stronger type of motivation.