Many of us have been in this situation: your boss hands you a new e-learning project, gives you a 100-slide PowerPoint, and tells you “everything” is important.

But as the instructional designer, you know better. You know the content is not all equally important and that, in all likelihood, only a very small portion of it qualifies as the really juicy “need-to-know” stuff. 

Your job, as an instructional designer, is to sift through the content and separate that need-to-know from the nice-to-know.

Let’s say you need to teach your learners to change a tire. In your tire-changing course, would you include a history of cars and information about the various types of tires? Would you explain the components of the rubber that the tires are made of? Of course not. You’re going to focus on the actual task of changing a tire. That’s all the learner needs to know. Anything else is “nice-to-know” and can actually detract from the final learning objective by overwhelming the learner with information that’s not necessary to perform the task at hand.

With that in mind, let’s look at a few simple rules to help separate the need-to-know from the nice-to-know.


  • Do identify how the content will be used on the job. If you understand the practical application, you can better present the content in a way that learners will connect with.
  • Do identify the repercussions of not knowing a piece of information. Understanding the importance of learning the content means you can design scenarios with realistic consequences. For tips on writing realistic scenarios, check out this article: How to Craft Awesome E-Learning Scenarios.
  • Do ensure that every piece of information supports the learning objectives. If it doesn’t, then either your learning objectives aren’t accurate or the information isn’t essential.


  • Don’t let your client or Subject Matter Expert (SME) convince you that everything is important. When it’s a topic you’re passionate about, everything seems crucial. But the reality is, it’s not. As an instructional designer, it’s your job to identify the essential information that directly speaks to your course’s learning objectives. That’s all that matters. 
  • Don’t include “nice-to-know” content as filler or to make the course look meatier. Nonessential information can detract from the really important stuff. This makes it harder for learners to learn and retain key information. And that’s not what you want!
  • Don’t forget about your audience. Adapting your content to your audience is key if you want your course to be effective. As you decide what to include in your course, ask yourself questions like: What do my learners already know? What do they need to learn? If you haven’t already, be sure to do an audience analysis to find the answers to these questions.
  • Don’t forget to do a task analysis. A task analysis is critical and will help you identify task-based and performance-driven information. Without it, your course may fail to include key information the learner needs to know.

The Bottom Line

Your course should only include essential information. Any interesting but unnecessary information can detract from the key messages and render your course ineffective. By following the do’s and don’ts outlined here, you can better determine which content to keep.

And remember, you can always include links to additional information at the end of your course for learners who want to deepen their understanding. But the core of your course should focus only on the essentials.

Looking for more tips for designing effective courses? Check out these articles:

Have tips on paring down your content you want to share? Drop them in the comments below! And remember to follow us on Twitter and come back to E-Learning Heroes regularly for more helpful advice on everything related to e-learning. If you have any questions, please share them in the comments.

Jacqueline Hutchinson
Erica Cummins
Richard S