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I recently crafted some CSS to automatically number lessons and/or topics and/or quizzes on LearnDash course & focus mode pages. The code works great, but Antonio from the LearnDash Facebook group pointed out one problem—it doesn’t work when using pagination.

This got me thinking… is pagination even a good idea? If you have 50+ lessons, surely breaking them up with pagination must be the way to go, right? What about courses with over 100 lessons?

I have a clear opinion on this, but I also did some research to back me up.

Here are the 3 reasons why I don’t recommend pagination for any course, no matter the length.

The Research

Content Types & Pagination

First, let’s look at which types of content might benefit from pagination, and which do not.

The Nielsen Norman Group (NNG), world leaders in research-based user experience, have this to say:

“Linear content flows — such as articles like this — should almost never be broken up into multiple screens. It’s better to show the full article on one long screen than to inflict the pain of additional steps on users when all they want to do is read an article, and thus stay within that one item.

Where pagination comes in handy is for listings, such as ecommerce category pages, search engine results pages (SERPs), article archives, and photo galleries. Here, a user’s goal is not to peruse the full list, but rather to find a specific item and click through to that destination page.”

We can sum that up with a few points:

  • For linear content flows, pagination should almost never be used
  • For listings, pagination can come in handy

So if we have a linear list of lessons, is it considered a linear content flow or a listing?

I would argue that your lesson list is a linear content flow, not a listing. The examples given for listings include ecommerce category pages, blog archive pages & search engine result pages. These types of content are quite different than a list of lessons in a course. The display order is not imperative, and sometimes it’s even adjustable (i.e. Price: Low to High, High to Low, etc.).

And while your course material is not a long-form article either, it is almost always linear. Some learning models might have you program a course where the material is presented randomly, but for most of us, there’s a specific order to it. It should flow, linearly, from top to bottom.

Therefore, if you consider your course outline to be a linear content flow, you should almost never use pagination.

Upper Limit of Items Displayed

The NNG recommends almost never using pagination for linear content flows, but they did say almost. So when might it be a good idea?

Their research shows that there is an upper limit to the amount of items you should display to the user on one page, based on two factors:

  • how easy it is for users to scan items
  • how much a long page impacts the response time (aka: site speed/performance)

The upper limit is typically 100 items, though it can be more or less.

If you have more than 100 lessons in your course, what should you do?

  1. Considering breaking your course into several smaller courses
  2. Use a View All option instead of pagination

NNG writes:

“Many users like to see all options on a single page, rather than clicking from page to page looking at products. In user testing, we’ve often found a View All option to be helpful to some users. More important, the View All option didn’t bother users who didn’t use it; when it wasn’t offered, however, some users complained.

I haven’t done any testing on page load times for a course with 100+ lessons in LearnDash, but I don’t think 100+ lessons would add significant overhead to the page (as compared to 20 or 30 lessons).

However, the issue with LearnDash is, there’s no way to implement a View All option. The only option is multi-page pagination.

Therefore, why not just offer up all lessons from the get-go?

Interaction Cost

Interaction cost can be defined as:

The sum of efforts — mental and physical — that the users must deploy in interacting with a site in order to reach their goals.

Therefore, you should try to minimize:

  • scrolling
  • clicking or touching
  • comprehending information
  • page loads
  • wait times
  • attention switches

When using pagination…

  • you’re adding more clicks
  • you’re making the information harder to comprehend by splitting it up into pieces
  • you’re requiring more partial page loads
  • it will almost always take longer to get to lesson 65, on page 6
  • it requires more of your attention to navigate to the desired lesson, as you have to locate the next arrow each time, scroll to it, and then click it

In my opinion, the interaction cost is much higher with pagination vs. simply scrolling through a longer list of lessons.


Now I’ll share the 3 reasons why I don’t recommend pagination for listing course material.

1. More Clicks

Every time someone revisits or reloads the LearnDash course page, it starts back on page 1. It doesn’t remember what page you were on. The same thing happens in focus mode.

Let’s say you have 50 lessons and have chosen to display 10 lessons per page.

If a user completed the first 10 lessons today, they need to get to 11-20 tomorrow, 21-30, next week, and 31-40 the week after that. Tomorrow they have to click the “next” arrow once. Next week they have to click the “next” arrow twice. The week after that they have to click the “next” arrow three times.

Each time they revisit the course page they’ll have to click the pagination arrows multiple times, just to get back to where they left off. They might also have to scroll down the page a little bit after each click of the arrow (especially if they’re using a mobile device).

Alternatively, they could just scroll down the page a bit and click on the next lesson that has yet to be completed.

And if you’re displaying course content to unenrolled users, they’ll have to click several arrows to get a preview of the entire course material, versus simply scrolling down the page.

2. User Preferences

Typically, when you provide pagination to the user, it’s nice to give them more than one option on how many items to display per page (see the View All research above). You see this on ecommerce sites all the time, as well as search result pages.

LearnDash’s pagination doesn’t allow this. So you, as the admin, are setting the “per page” limit, thereby depriving the user of the option to choose their preference.

3. Picking Up Where They Left Off

This has some overlap with #1 above, but is a little more specific for users who are just trying to pick back up where they left off in the course.

The progress/status bar will show the user the % complete, as well as X of Y steps completed. This is helpful, but it doesn’t always tell the complete story.

Free Form Course Progression

If you’re allowing users to navigate the course in any sequence they’d like (“free form” course progression), they might complete lessons 11-20 before completing lesson 10.

If they’re quickly navigating through the pages, they might go to lesson 21 and continue from there. If they get to the end of the course, they might think they’re finished, forgetting that they never completed lesson 10. This gets even worse if the only lesson they didn’t complete is on page 3 or 4.

There are tons of different ways this scenario could play out, but my point is this:

If you display all lessons on the same page, it’s easier to scan, and easier to see your progression in the course.

Lesson Names

Using pagination could also force the user into multiple clicks before being able to see the name of the last lesson they completed, or the name of the next lesson that they have yet to finish.

The name of the material is important as it provides context within the course as a whole. Just knowing you completed 45 out of 70 steps is nowhere near as valuable as being able to quickly see that the last lesson you completed was “SEO Basics: Keyword Research 101” and the next lesson that you have yet to complete is “SEO Advanced Topics: Link Building using Social Media.”

This would be much easier/quicker to see with all lessons on one page, as opposed to clicking the pagination arrow a few times and scrolling/glancing through each and every set of lessons.

If you have 5 pages of lessons, the flow would look like this:

  • scroll through first set
  • click arrow
  • scroll through 2nd set
  • click arrow
  • scroll through 3rd set
  • click arrow
  • scroll through 4th set
  • AH! That’s where I left off.

As opposed to:

  • scroll through entire set
  • AH! That’s where I left off.

TIP
You could use the free Uncanny LearnDash Toolkit to add a resume button, which will take the user to the last visited lesson, topic or quiz in the course.

What are other elearning sites doing?

I took a gander around the web to see what other elearning platforms are doing. Here are my findings.

Udemy

When previewing course material (equivalent to a LearnDash course page):

  • No pagination is present
  • Lessons are displayed within sections. Sections can be manually opened or closed with one click. Multiple sections can be open at a time.
  • An “Expand All” link is available to view all lessons at one time (with zero clicks required)
  • This applies to courses with over 250 lessons

On the learning screen (equivalent to LearnDash’s focus mode):

  • Provides collapsible, accordion-style sections that contain only the lessons within that section
  • Only one section can be open/viewed at a time
  • Viewing other sections requires one click, and does not reload the page

Khan Academy

When previewing course material (equivalent to a LearnDash course page):

  • Lessons are broken up into sections
  • All lessons are displayed on one page, accessible by scrolling
  • No collapsing sections or pagination of any kind

On the learning screen (equivalent to LearnDash’s focus mode):

  • Only the lessons within the current section are displayed, but they are all displayed. No pagination.

Teachable

When previewing course material (equivalent to a LearnDash course page):

  • Displays ~20 lessons on first page load
  • Lessons are grouped into sections
  • Clicking a down arrow after the 20th lesson reveals the remainder of the lessons
  • No collapsing sections or pagination of any kind

Skillshare

For both previewing course content & learning screens:

  • Displays all lessons in a scrollable container
  • No sections, collapsible content or pagination of any kind

NOTE: The largest course I could find had 87 lessons. Most courses have less than 20. Regardless, they all use the layout mentioned above.


If you’ve made it this far, thanks for sticking with me. Also, if you have any research to contribute and you’re willing to share, I’d love to see it. Or if you use a different platform and can share how they display lessons, I’d love to add more examples.