Improve Your Course Content: Active Voice

Content is difficult to read on a screen. If you want students to engage with your online course, you need to improve the cognitive load. The best practices used for writing for the web include active voice, positive tone, the inverted pyramid, chunking text, bullet and number lists, and descriptive headings. In this post, we’ll examine how to improve the readability of your course using active voice.

Woman Writing
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Academic writing often slides into passive voice. Let’s be honest, we’ve all rearranged sentences to reach a word count requirement. Passive voice allows us to remove first person bias, but it makes the sentence more complex (the object happens to the subject). The reader must rearrange the sentence in his or her mind to understand it. If your content is too complex, the reader might give up.

In internet terms: tl;dr (too long, didn’t read).

Active voice is clear, concise, and easy to understand; it’s one of the best ways to improve writing. According to Strunk and White (2000):

“The habitual use of the active voice […] makes for forcible writing.”

I once inherited a document written in 45 percent passive voice. I challenged myself to only use active voice (and succeeded). The good news is you don’t have to do that. As a general rule, your content should use under 10 percent passive voice.

In some situations, you might use passive voice to remove responsibility. The famous example is an organization using “A mistake was made” rather than “I made a mistake.” In this case, the abstract verbiage removes the blame from a person; however, this usage is the exception not the rule.

Active Voice Graphic
Examples of active and passive voice. Includes Subject + Verb + Object formula.
How to convert passive voice to active voice:

  1. Find the verb: If you see “to be” (am, is, are, was, were, been, etc.), the verb is in past tense—this causes passive voice.
  2. Simplify the verb or use a descriptive verb: Replace the active verb with the “Simple Present” version (see Purdue OWL, Verb Tenses). Another option is to use a more descriptive verb.
  3. Rearrange the sentence: The best way is to write Subject + Verb + Object. You might find this difficult at first. You’re already familiar with the current sentence, and you will need to think of another way to say the same thing.

It’s okay to write a draft in passive voice—just remember to revise!

Are you a subject matter expert, instructional designer, or course editor? Or do you write for the web? Leave your favorite tips for online content in the comments below.

References

Berry, C., Brizee, A., Angeli, E., & Ghafoor, M. (2017, June 2). Verb Tenses. Retrieved from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/601/01/

Strunk, W., & White, E. B. (2000). The elements of style. New York: Longman.

5 Ways to Write Relevant, Engaging, and Useful eLearning Content

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Writing content for an online or blended course is different than lecturing in a face-to-face course. Great eLearning content doesn’t just happen—it is intentionally designed to reach the student at their moment of need. As you develop your course, keep these five tips in mind to write relevant, engaging, and useful eLearning content.

Know your audience:

Consider the learner’s needs as you write your course content. Elearning demographics are shifting. Online learners are oftentimes older than the traditional campus student. It’s likely the online student studies around a full-time job and raising a family.

How can you frame the course to include their life experiences? What information is most meaningful after graduation? Do they need to pass an outside certification exam? What insights can you share to make that process smoother?

Tell a story:

From a young age, we discover our world through story. Stories inform and inspire; we’re more likely to retain what we’ve learned if we’re engaged on a personal level.

In “Wired for Story (2012),” Lisa Cron explains:

“We think in story. It’s hardwired in our brain. It’s how we make strategic sense of the otherwise overwhelming world around us. Simply put, the brain constantly seeks meaning from all of the input thrown at it […]” (Cron 8).

Storytelling works well with interactive scenarios. Instructional Designers use tools such as Articulate, Camtasia, and Captivate to build the scenario—all they need is your content to make them stellar!

Be real:

In academic writing, we’re taught to remove the “I” (first person) to create an objective distance. Elearning content is not as formal (nor impersonal). I’m not suggesting that you write in emojis and text speech. Your tone should be authoritative yet conversational. If you address the student as “you” and use inclusive language such as “we” and “us,” he or she will see you’re authentic and relatable.

Provide relevant content:

Quality content delivers useful information to the learner. Research current ideas and trends and remove any content that doesn’t meet the student’s needs. Museums curate art pieces around a theme or topic. Your content should curate links to relevant articles, books, videos, etc.

Encourage growth:

Marketers use calls to action as milestones to guide users to an outcome. In your course content, use learning outcomes to engage students and create a meaningful learning community. Ask questions at critical points in the course. Use the Discussion Board forums to invite student interactions. Include journals and blogs as spaces for online instructors to work with each student as an individual.

Are you an Instructional Designer, eLearning subject matter expert, or online instructor? How do you provide relevant, engaging, and useful content to students? Comment below to join the conversation.

Cron, L. (2012). Wired for story: The writer’s guide to using brain science to hook readers from the very first sentence. New York, NY: Ten Speed Press.