Writing for learning with Helen Hill

How much do you consider the finer details your writing beyond making sure it covers the right topics, the learning objectives and is grammatically correct?

I see it time and time again – dry learning content filled with jargon, acronyms and unclear messages. Content which satisfies the needs of a company CEO or marketing team, rather than focusing on what the learner needs. 

Why do we do this? 

For fear that we have to cover EVERYTHING and provide as much value as we can. We focus on the wrong things in our approach. It is easy to get caught up in other factors such as timing, budget and satisfying too many stakeholders’ opinions.

What if our definition of value is wrong? Creating learning should not be about giving every piece of related information we can think of. It is about creating a great experience for the learner, meeting them at their level and helping them to achieve their goals. Why put stumbling blocks in the way of that? 

Writing is an area where we can have great impact and make sure that the learning is inclusive for all. By refining how we write for learning experiences it helps to reduce the cognitive load for the learner, makes the information easier to scan, helps make learning inclusive for all, increases accessibility, and reduces stress and time pressures. 

We can learn from other areas of design such as user experience (UX) design and content design which can enhance our ability to reach our audience and make learning inclusive for all. The core principle of content design is making sure you are delivering the right content, in the right place, at the right time. These 3 factors alone give a lot of food for thought and areas for improvement. 

So how can you make sure you are putting the learners first in your writing? 

Meet the learners where they are

Consider the learner journey – what feelings do they bring to the experience? How can you acknowledge them and provide clear benefits for completing the learning? 

Writing in plain language

Is you content full of jargon and technical info? Can you remove these or at least provide glossaries to help them? Look at the level of difficulty in the language you use and areas where there could be potential misinterpretation or confusion.

Translation and localisation

Look at how you can prepare content for translation and potential areas of confusion. Also look at the impact of metaphors, local language, and other potential areas of difficulty. 

Be concise

Many IDs work by the question of what so learners need to know vs nice to know. Others live by the mantra ‘cut your content in half, then half again’. Either way, being concise is an important factor in making sure your learners get the knowledge they need when they need it. This also includes looking at how you can break text down visually through short paragraphs,  varying sentence length and bullet points. 

Looking from another perspective

Consider how the non-typical user may experience the course. This is where accessibility requirements come in. Are the instructions clear and easily read by screenreader (get rid of all ‘click here’)? Could you understand the buttons/navigation if English was not your first language? Have you made state changes clear (i.e. not just a change of colour).

Test with learners

Usability testing with members of your audience can highlight problems you never considered and open your eyes to issues you did not expect. As we build learning experiences we should actively ask for feedback at all stages – and use it! Often we can forget to include questions around language in the questions we ask – focusing more on higher level features such as flow and topics. 

Write as you speak

Learning doesn’t need to be stale, technical and filled with jargon. By using conversational language it is easier for the learner to relate to the content (and you as the training provider), to focus on the point being made, and interpret the information. 

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Helen Hill

Helen Hill

I am a self-employed Digital Learning, Content & Graphic Designer at Unlikely Genius Ltd. I have been working in learning and content design since 2014, combining the skills gained during the previous nine years working as a graphic designer, a Further Education lecturer and developing literacy and e-learning in schools. Unlikely Genius is based on the principles of ensuring the user comes first, communicating in plain language and making content available and accessible to all.