Writing Text for Online Learning

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We’ve all had that teacher, lecturer, instructor,  or seminar presenter who lost us within the first couple of minutes of their presentation. Perhaps you worked hard at paying attention but the complexity, monotone delivery, PowerPoints filled with text, or flat out boring material made you lapse into a coma. Text has a propensity for becoming that boring presenter. We tend to scan and shy away from large blocks of text. Why? Because we work to process information in the most efficient way with as little effort as possible.  Our brains attempt to reduce cognitive load as much as possible. We can ease the burden by presenting text in a way that allows for efficient processing.

Keep in mind that reading on a screen is very different than reading printed material. I can’t emphasize this point enough. I admit my guilt in simply dumping textual material formatted in MSWord into my online courses as I’m sure many instructors do. Designing for conveying information on a computer screen is a different animal than designing for printed material and requires some additional planning.

Consider using the following guidelines for presenting text in your online courses.

Keep it Clean and Simple

Sometimes instructors tend to get a bit wordy when writing content. Hey, I am guilty of this one as well and my disappointment over students not reading every word of my carefully crafted prose is shared by many other academics.

In his excellent book on usability, Don’t Make Me Think, Steve Krug came right to the point when he wrote:

“Happy Talk Must Die”

Happy talk is very alive and well in academics. You might remember the old Peanuts cartoons where Charlie Brown’s mom is giving a lecture and all he hears is “whaw…wha..wha..wha.” Reading Happy Talk produces similar sounds in your brain.

I completely understand that academics is all about accuracy and there is a place for lengthy course descriptions, 20-page syllabi, and extremely accurate but wordy prose. The problem is that few students read these well-crafted materials. Think of all of the legal agreements associated with websites we happily click on the “I agree to the terms” statement without reading.

Reducing happy talk will make your students happy. Bombarding them with pages and pages of text will create stress and confusion and increase cognitive load.

Here are some ways to reduce or eliminate happy talk without compromising information.

Break up Large Amounts of Text

We tend to scan or disregard large amounts of text. Break up large textual passages by presenting bolded headings followed by smaller chunks of text.


Let’s talk about fonts. We might remember the default MSWord Times New Roman font. Times New Roman is called a serif font. Serif fonts have small lines attached at the end of a stroke. Sans serif fonts such as Arial do not have these tiny additional lines. So the question is…which is easier to read?

There is no clear cut answer to this. For years it appeared that people preferred serif fonts for reading printed text but there seems to be a recent trend toward a preference for sans serif fonts for reading computer screens. For online courses I would recommend using sans serif fonts.

How big should the font be? That depends on what kind of information you wish to present.  Headers or beginnings of sections would have larger fonts than body text. The minimum font size should not be less than 12 point font. Using common fonts is also preferable. Not only do we recognize these fonts but they also load faster. Browsers need to have the font installed so using common fonts like Arial, Helvetica or Veranda will appear more uniform across browsers.

Bold, Italics, Underline

Bold can be used to draw attention to a word, phrase, sentence or heading when needed but should be used sparingly. Research shows that users look at bold font up to 4 times longer than regular font.

You can use italics to draw attention to words. Like bold, use italics sparingly. Don’t use italics in headings but you can use them in the body of text for emphasis. Use underlining only to emphasize links. This is a common web convention.


Using all capital letters makes your text more difficult to read and your students will feel as if you are shouting at them. Don’t use more than 2 ways to highlight information

This may relate more to graphs and charts versus pure textual information. Some of these items contain multiple methods for ranking information such as colors, bars, numbers, and so on. Try to keep it simple when it comes to highlighting information.

Don’t Use Equal Spaces Before and After Headings

The space between headings and body of text should be closer than the space between headings and the previous body of text. This technique helps to organize information better as the heading is more closely related to the body. We subconsciously make this determination when we view how the information on a page is organized.

Use Medium Line Lengths

To make text more readable use an optimal line length of about 50-75 characters. Short line lengths cause excessive eye movements, as the reader’s eyes must shift from the end of one sentence to the beginning of the next. Long line lengths cause readers to lose focus on text since it is more difficult to determine the beginning and end of the line. If you can’t get your line lengths down to 75 characters then it is better to err on longer line lengths since people tend to prefer these over shorter line lengths. For example, a study conducted by Dawn Shaikh (2005) showed that longer line lengths were read faster than shorter line lengths.

Be Consistent

Once you determine your basic design parameters you should work to maintain consistency throughout your course. For example, title pages with instructions should have the same look, line lengths, and organization as well as the rest of the course. There is a learning curve with regard to understanding the information flow for each course. Once students achieve this it is best to stick with your original design throughout the course.

Hope this helps with your use of text in your online courses.

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