Writing to Teach: How to Harness the Power of Text in Online Courses

A quick 5-step primer that clarifies the aspects of writing most critical to online learning.

Instructional designers wear many hats during the course of the typical project: researcher, interviewer, project manager, user experience designer, graphic designer, videographer, and—often—writer.

But while there’s a wealth of resources available targeted at boosting instructional designers’ skills in the technical aspects of instructional design, support for good instructional writing often is overlooked.

And that’s a shame. Because for audiences who can read, well-written and well-presented text is the single most effective learning medium (for many situations; keep reading for the handful of exceptions). And even in today’s online world of feature-packed handhelds and cloud computing, text remains the single most reliably supported digital medium—the fallback content delivery approach of designers everywhere whose audiences occasionally experience bandwidth and hardware challenges (for example, rural, low-income, public school, and international audiences). When images won’t download, videos won’t play, and interactives hang, text works.

In addition to reliability, providing materials in text form is the single most efficient way to meet baseline Section 508 accessibility requirements—an important consideration for organizations that provide online courses in the United States.

If it’s been awhile since you’ve brushed up on your writing skills, here’s a quick five-step primer that clarifies the aspects of writing most critical to online courses.

 1. Who is your audience?

  • Novice learners—that is, learners for whom the material and concepts you’re training are brand new—benefit greatly from concise definitions and practical examples. Instead of “A hasty generalization is one type of logical fallacy,” for instance (which, though technically accurate, is insufficient to make meaning for someone new to the topic), for an audience of novice learners, you might write instead, “One type of logical fallacy is the hasty generalization, which is a generalization you make about a large group based on one or very few members of that group. A young child who sees an orange cat and reasons that all cats are orange is committing the logical fallacy called a hasty generalization.
  • Expert learners are learners who are familiar with the overall topic you’re training, but unfamiliar with certain specifics. Examples of expert learners are learners familiar with the 2.0 version of software application X who are in training to learn the 3.0 version of the same software, or emergency room nurses in training to learn the latest advances in wound care. To support expert learners, consider providing a written:
    • Overview explaining how new material fits in with what learners already know
    • Comparison of the old way of doing things with the new way
  • Rationale that outlines the reasons behind the facts and concepts—both to boost motivation, and so that learners can apply what they already know about the topic to the new material (that is, to encourage learners to think critically)
  • Both novice and expert learners benefit from adding text callouts and captions to images. Callouts should direct learners’ attention to the relevant parts of an image and explain why they’re relevant. Image captions should describe how each image exemplifies or relates to the concepts presented in the text.

2. What text is crucial for all learners to succeed in an online course?

  • A detailed course outline and schedule, or table of contents, is a visual overview that outlines both the scope and sequence of the training. A detailed table of contents serves triple-duty: as a pre-training aid to set learner expectations at the beginning of the course; as an aid for keeping learners on time and on task during the course; and as a checklist learners can use for review at the end of the course.
  • Clear assignment instructions communicate specifically what learners need to do, when they need to do it, what they should do if they have trouble doing it, and what the end result should look like. Clearly written assignment instructions help learners be successful by communicating expectations and reducing learner anxiety—both of which are helpful in aiding retention.
  • Course content. You’ll want to present all the course content you intend to cover—or, at least, all the content on which you intend to assess learners—in text format , even if you’re also presenting it in video format or in some other medium, such as a narrated presentation. Why? Because text is both quicker to consume than video, and less ambiguous. It’s also easier for learners to scan quickly, which makes it more useful for review. One last benefit of presenting course content in text format: Text can be adapted to support sight- and hearing-impaired audiences much more easily (via text-to-speech technology) than other media.

3. When should you present materials as text—and when should you forego or de-emphasize text in favor of an image or a video?

  • Always use text to describe abstract concepts, important facts, steps in a process, and in any other situation where text communicates meaning more effectively than an image, animation, or video.
  • Reduce text to a supplementary role and use images to communicate visually rich static material, such as a diagram of the integumentary system, a map of England, or a painting.
  • Reduce text to a supplementary role and use video to communicate emotionally charged material (such as a performance of Shakespeare or a documentary about the latest hurricane to hit Haiti), complicated interactions (such as the soft skills required to gain consensus) or processes (how pencils are manufactured).

4. Where should you place text elements in relation to each other to maximize learning?

Organize text on the page to communicate maximum information with minimum cognitive overload. Use bolding, white space, indenting, and bulleted and numbered lists to communicate sequence and whole-part relationships economically and instantaneously.

5. How should you write to maximize learning?

  • Keep text short, direct, specific, and simple. When your text is as clear as you can make it, take one more pass and look for (and delete) filler words and phrases: in order to, advance warning, added bonus, all things being equal, each and every, and so on.
  • Avoid pronouns. In long, complex sentences, learners can’t always tell which antecedent goes with which pronoun—and, therefore, can’t always tell who (or what) is responsible for the action in the sentence. And when you’re writing for learners, clarity trumps style. So rather than write, “It was the most important plank of their proposal,” repeat the nouns: “Education reform was the most important plank of the Democrats’ proposal.”
  • Avoid passive sentence construction. Instead of “The use of active sentence construction is preferred,” for example, write, “Use active sentence construction.” Active sentence construction both trims your text and clarifies your meaning by explicitly identifying who is responsible for taking action. In the first part of our example, readers are left wondering, “Active sentence construction is preferred by whom? And what do you want me to do about it?” In the rewritten example, the message is clarified: Readers are responsible for using active sentence construction—period.
  • Use second person imperative. This is the language of recipes and do-it-yourself (DIY) instructions. For example, write, “Complete Assignment #5 by Friday and click here to turn it in” instead of “The learner should complete assignment #5 by Friday and click here to turn it in.” As with active sentence construction, using second person imperative helps trim wordy text while simultaneously clarifying your meaning for learners.

Text has been around so long, and plays such a ubiquitous part in all of our lives, that it’s easy to overlook its effectiveness as a training strategy. But paying just a little focused attention to writing for learning can pay off handsomely in online learning—both in terms of learner retention and in improved learning outcomes.

Author, teacher, and instructional designer Emily A. Moore, M.Ed. (Vander Veer) has written more than a dozen books for adult learners, including several “…For Dummies” titles. Her work has appeared in numerous online and print publications, including Salon.com and SF Weekly. She has developed and delivered instruction for K-12, higher ed, government, and industry audiences.