You can pack an elearning course full of all sorts of stylish content, such as high-quality graphics, animations and videos. But if the course navigation isn’t clear, concise and intuitive your learners may become confused or frustrated. Your course might not achieve the success you’d hoped for. So what is best practice when it comes to course navigation? Should users have free rein to navigate through as they wish? Or should you lock the navigation to make sure they’ve read all the information? Let’s examine course navigation in more detail.

What type of course navigation?

Next and back buttons are the standard navigation technique in elearning courses. These could take the form of arrows, or simply text. While this might be a safe option, it avoids confusion and means learners won’t have to guess how to work their way through the content. Next and back are fine for linear courses, but what if you have different chapters or branching scenarios? You could use grid style navigation, where the learner clicks an image to access the next section. This adds a great visual element to your course.

elearning course navigation

A grid style navigation adds a great visual element to your course

Tabbed navigation is another option. This technique can be useful when there is additional information that you want learners to see, but that doesn’t fit on the screen all at once. It’s also intuitive, as people are used to seeing navigation tabs outside elearning, in filing systems for example. You could present the contents of your course using a menu. Usually shown as a vertical list on the left-hand side of your course, it’s best to limit the number of links in the menu to just the main sections of your course. You could also add a drop-down submenu if you need to include any extra information.   Whichever navigation style you choose, in all cases you must:

  • Explain how the navigation works at the start of the course. Simple text boxes will do on most courses or, if your navigation is more complex, a short video might be better
  • Use consistent terminology. If you have a next button, you should always refer to it as this and not ‘forward’ or ‘continue’
  • Use relevant, well-known icons, such as a home button
  • Place buttons in a consistent, clearly visible position on each slide
  • Provide a help option that is accessible at any time during the course.


Locked or unlocked?

That is the question! Well, there are pros and cons to each. Locked navigation means learners can only move forward and back through the course. They are required to visit every page, and are often asked to complete a quiz or assessment before moving on to the next section. While this ensures that no content is missed or skipped – something that satisfies clients, particularly if there are important policy documents involved – it can be frustrating. Some learners will come to the course with prior knowledge of the topic. Forcing them to click through content they are already well-versed in can detract from the success of the course. By the time they get to the information they want to see, their mind is elsewhere.

Woman Stressed about course navigation

Locked navigation can sometimes be frustrating for learners

Unlocked navigation gives learners flexibility, and is more adaptable to different learning styles and goals. They can access content in any order they want, and skip sections completely if the information is not pertinent to their needs. If you’re concerned that some learners may miss out on important information just to complete the course quickly, you could still add in an assessment at the end. If a user incorrectly answers a question about a certain topic, they are redirected back to that content.

Making your learners want to click next

If you make your course relevant and engaging, unlocking the navigation becomes less of an issue. Your learners won’t want to skip through it anyway. A great way to accomplish this is through interesting interactions, such as scenarios and checkpoint questions. You could create a dilemma or end the page on a cliff-hanger, like a good chapter in a novel. Using relevant situations and asking learners to make decision can help them not just learn but also understand. Providing learners the opportunity to demonstrate their level of understanding allows them to apply their knowledge.

happy woman pleased with elearning course navigation

A relevant and engaging course makes your learners want to click next

If you have no choice but to lock the course navigation, try to make the sections of your course short so your learners feel they are progressing. A progress bar shown on each slide can also help learners see how much they’ve covered and provide the impetus to complete the course.

Final thoughts

With so many course navigation options available, it’s clear there is no one-size-fits-all answer. All learners look at content from a slightly different perspective, and often start the elearning with different levels of knowledge. While a client’s needs may dictate some aspects of the navigation, employing sound instructional design techniques can make sure your learners stay engaged and your client is happy that all the important information has been covered. If you have any elearning needs, contact us at, or stay in touch with what we’re up to on Twitter.

Share This