eslinsider5 logo


Looking for actual studies and research on online TEFL courses? You may have read some negative things about online courses, but do you know why people are saying these things and what the actual research on online courses is?

First I'll let you know about some of the common opinions and problems w/ online courses then we'll go over these in more detail and finally you'll see what the actual research is.

Problems w/ online TEFL

  • Some people think "online TEFL certifications are a joke", "worthless" or only "good for checking a box".
  • Some people have problems with retention (the reasons why below).
  • Some people say you can't learn without "observed teaching practice".
  • Some people say you won't get a job or a "good job" with an online TEFL.
  • Some people just repeat what others say.

Why do people think that online TEFL courses are a joke?

Well, one of the reasons people say that is that because there is no classroom teaching practice. Most in-class courses like CELTA include around 6 hours of actual teaching practice.

You won't get that with an online course, but is 6 or 7 hours of teaching practice that valuable?

Can you get a job with an online TEFL?

Sure, somewhere, but do all schools accept them? No. It depends on the school and location. Read more about if your online TEFL will be accepted.

So then why aren't people learning much?

Problems with retention have mostly to do with the course itself being low quality, yet it can also be a problem with the student too.

"All I have is an online TEFL that I forget most of." - thedan633

"I finished the entire program in 3 days and retained like 5% of the information." -woobv

Some people may be better suited for online courses compared to others. If you are not sure then you can read online TEFL vs. onsite TEFL courses.


Some of these online courses are mostly or entirely text based, where you read and then answer multiple choice questions. These courses are not inspiring. The reasons why they didn't remember much of their course will be explained below.

Now you know some of the criticism and problems with online courses.

So what does the research say?

People tend to only read 20-28% of a page online

Most online courses will require you to spend a considerable amount of time reading and then answering true/false and/or multiple choice questions.

The problem is...

People read less and tend to remember less of what they read. When online people tend to skim and scan and according to some studies they only read 20% of the page.

So if you are only reading that much then how much do you think you will remember?

It's not to say that text isn't valuable, but your brain usually likes visuals better.

Video-based instruction is superior to text


Recorded classes and instructional videos mimic actually being in a classroom.

I can tell you from my experience that the easiest way to learn how to teach is by watching other experienced and qualified teachers teach your target students. Now you can almost do that in a classroom course (although in most in-class courses you won't be observing "real" students) or you can do it online with video.

Video is way easier, faster and richer than reading text.

"Video-based e-learning is superior to illustrated text-based e-learning when teaching certain practical clinical skills."

Visuals enhance your memory

A visual is crucial for memory. Without a visual your brain will have to make it up with your imagination, however, if you have no experience teaching you are not going to have an easy time imagining it.


  • are faster - people can remember images seen as fast as 13 milliseconds. Source
  • improve memory - Pictures are remembered better than words. Source 1, source 2
  • are used by half of your brain. Source.

Example - images are superior to text

There was a famous study done by Lionel Standing in 1973. He took individuals and showed them 10,000 pictures for 5 seconds each for 5 days. 5 days later he wanted to see how many people could remember.

He showed the people images they had seen and ones they hadn’t. People remembered 70% of the images they had seen. One of the basic findings of this study was that…

In terms of memory images were superior to words spoken or read.

I took one of those cheap Groupon courses mentioned above and there were no related visuals or video.

Visuals are a large part of "teaching" English too

You need visuals because without them the language remains an abstract concept.

If you want to teach some new vocabulary words to students when you can't speak their native language then how are you going to do that?

There are various techniques on how to do that, but using images is one way.

Images are a big part of language learning. A good text book will include many images along with the language.

Here's an example from a student book:

lp2 assignment

Now imagine you were learning these words in a new language. Don't the images make it easier?

Again many of the cheap and or lower quality courses will not use many visuals.

You need repetition

You need repetition and practice to learn anything. Spaced repetition improves memory. This means that cramming or extended practice does not always improve retention.

Instead it's better to practice a bit or do a bit of work online, then do something else then come back to that material on another day.

"Practice is more effective when spaced out over time, instead of massed or grouped together (equating total practice time).",PIBBS).pdf

Aside from learning online some people have complained that courses like CELTA throw to much at you.

If you race through that course just to get the carrot (a certificate) then you probably won't remember much. A good course will space out content and use repetition to commit concepts and skills to memory.

Writing improves your memory

Writing is also another way to commit things to memory. Taking notes (especially by hand) vs. transcribing them tends to boost memory. 

Many of the cheaper courses will not include writing assignments because marking requires human effort and time. Writing assignments online are especially crucial in learning how to lesson plan.

Think you don't need to learn how to lesson plan?

Think again.

A lesson plan is basically a written document that says what you are going to do for the lesson.

Learn more about how writing helps improve your memory and retention.

Feedback & interaction with a human helps

There are 2 reasons why feedback is beneficial. First feedback can help improve your learning outcome.

Part of teaching is correcting a student's mistakes. A teacher can see things that you can't see. You can learn on your own, but getting feedback makes learning faster and more thorough.

How will you know if you are doing it correctly or not? 

"Hi Ian. Thanks for the really in-depth comments. I have a question.

Should warm-up lessons be more of a way to introduce the lesson or should it be a workout warm-up where the main goal is to get the students energized?" - Dwayne Melendez, ESLinsider's advanced course

Another note about onsite courses like CELTA is that they provide feedback on your lessons. Feedback can be good, but do online courses provide feedback?


It depends on the course, but many online courses will not include much if any real feedback from a real human.

How can you provide feedback online?

Well, lesson planning (what you are going to do in the class) is a pretty important skill to master and a good course will include feedback (from an actual human) on multiple assignments.

It should also be specific and given in a timely manner.

In some courses you may have to wait an extended period for feedback. Here's an example:

"Grading time is advertised as 'usually 5 working days'." - godless-life

I grade all lesson planning assignments in ESLinsider's Advanced and Practical course within 24 hours.

Having to wait many days is inconvenient and it's not optimum for learning.

How helpful is feedback?

Feedback should point out things that you may have missed during instruction. If the method of delivery is effective (the instruction) then feedback can help, but it's only secondary to the actual instruction.

"It is important to note, however, that under particular circumstances, instruction is more effective than feedback. Feedback can only build on something; it is of little use when there is no initial learning or surface information."

The 2nd reason feeback helps

Yes, having feedback and interaction with a real human makes it more likely that you will complete a course. If you weren't aware drop out rates are higher with online courses. 

It's possible to fail an online TEFL course, but it's more likely that you will drop out or quit.


There can be a lack of interaction with many online courses that makes the student feel lonely.

Audio can improve your memory

Audio is often present in video or it can be used on it's own. Audio may good for "multi-tasking". You can listen to a program while you drive on the highway, eat breakfast, walk, etc.

A high quality course may include audio to listen to.

When is the best "time" to take an online course?

Most people take courses before they get a job and start teaching. But when is the best time to take an TEFL course?

Well, ideally you would take a course before you start and then again after you start. You can actually do that with some online courses although many have short term access, but not with an onsite course.

Anyways if you are only going to take a course one time then take it when you start. You'll probably get more out of it because teaching won't be an abstract thing.

You'll get your actual teaching practice which will be far better than any in-class course too, because it's going to be with real students that you are teaching.

No, you won't get feedback from a trainer, but your students will give you feedback. Bored students, problem students and other classroom problems are often because your teaching and/or lesson is low quality.

What about ESLinsider?

ESLinsider's advanced course includes:

  • Instructional videos shot in the classrooms of Asia (primarily of the age range 6-15)
  • Feedback on written lesson planning assignments
  • Bite sized learning
  • Long term access which is best for convenience and learning

All of these will lead to a better outcome once you hit the classrooms. You can learn more about this visually engaging course here.