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
This royalty free image is from
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.


Berry, C., Brizee, A., Angeli, E., & Ghafoor, M. (2017, June 2). Verb Tenses. Retrieved from

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

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

Pen, Paper, and Laptop
This royalty free image is from

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.

So you want to be a subject matter expert?

Sure. You’d be glad to develop an online course. How hard could it be? You’ve been teaching for years now. This should be easy. Maybe you can focus on the project next weekend.

warning-400px-copyWarning: get ready for a moving experience.
That is, moving away from how you are accustomed to approaching teaching and learning. And moving toward an environment where your curriculum is masterfully designed for interaction and success.

Imagine a course without lectures!
Or a course that is never cancelled!

Imagine a course with:

  • a syllabus that is complete before class begins and is NOT subject to change
  • a readable list of criteria and points awarded for successfully attaining each requirement in every assignment.
  • space for meaningful and specific content-focused interaction between students
  • space for one-on-one interaction with each student at the point of need

Warning: you have to answer some questions.
The good news is that teaching and learning is not fundamentally changing. It’s always been about leading students to a new level of knowledge. But today, through the process of developing online learning, instructors have no choice but to re-think every corner of the content and employ refreshing and engaging routes of delivery.

In our eLearning department, the first questions we ask a subject matter expert (SME) are:

“What is it that you want your students to come away with from the course?”

“Who will your students be at the conclusion of this course?”

“Ten years from now, what will your students say they gained from the course?”

In reality, those are difficult questions to answer. But the answer becomes the learning outcome. Once it is clearly articulated, every course decision must align with it. Here are some learning outcomes from some of our university’s online courses:

Doctrines of the Christian Faith:

Discover the relevance of Christian doctrine for personal life and the practice of ministry in church and society.

Human Biology for Social Work:

Demonstrate the ability to guide my clients in making appropriate and informed decisions regarding their personal and family health issues.

China, India, and Japan:

Use evidence from selected readings on China, India, and Japan to defend the conclusion that individual human beings are both shaped by and shaping events that define their cultures.

Warning: it’s not about you.
Traditionally, the college professor is on stage for an hour dispensing knowledge. In the online and blended environment, the professor is on duty for the duration of the course – facilitating discussion, providing feedback, inserting relevant media to support the weekly topics, and interacting with students with questions and concerns. You will be busy, but it’s really not about you.

Student-centered is becoming a buzzword — but the eLearning world is convinced that it is the future. When you develop an online course, you must address who the student is, and make adjustments to get on his/her level. Teaching becomes a process of leading students from Point A to Point B. The journey that you take with your class will result in a milestone – a learning outcome that will be lasting for your students (and rewarding for you).

Warning: after this course development, the way you teach may improve.
Instructional designers often hear their SMEs say things like:

“It’s wonderful to see students participating in discussion that relates to what they were assigned to read and study. This course has so much value!”

“Can I use that video we developed in my face-to-face class as well?”

“Those rubrics worked so well, I think I’m going to provide grading rubrics for every assignment in my face-to-face classes from now on!”

So if you want to be a subject matter expert — we can’t wait to meet you!


Course Development: It’s not magic

It’s tempting (and common) for members of the academic community to think that converting a face-to-face course to an online or blended course produces a special brand of magic. It’s just not true.

After building over 100 online courses, I have come to believe that the process is anything but magic! Of course, I’m always looking for that one spectacular experience…but honestly—even if it is spectacular—it involves hard work.

It is good old-fashioned respect and communication that seems to be the magic—not the new 5-week format, the online portfolio, or the 5-star learning management system. Of course technology needs to be there and work well, but it’s the human involvement that makes it sparkle. The next time you face a course development, incorporate these five tips for success!

1 Mutual Trust

Can you begin with mutual trust? The instructional designer (ID) and subject matter expert (SME) are often placed together without introduction or a previous working relationship. If you are starting from scratch—work hard on establishing trust. Believe that your partner knows what they are talking about, and decide to listen and consider their contributions seriously.

2 Establish Clear Guidelines

Can you define the project? Do you both understand the back story? What kind of course is it? What purpose will it serve? When will it be running and who will be taking it? Talk openly about what you know. The SME often has more information than the ID, but sometimes it’s the other way around. Come together to understand exactly the project’s parameters. Before you begin, take the necessary time to get clarification from others if needed.

3 Workable Time Frame

You must develop a workable time frame for both ID and SME. Melding two demanding work schedules can be problematic. Be open about the time you have to give to the project. Is it better to do it all in one week or spread it out over a few months? Then, acknowledge that circumstances out of your control may impact your plan. Consider several options before landing on a schedule and agree to go all in.

4 Communication

Why is it that we never talk about how we’re going to talk about it? In your very first encounter, establish communication paths. There are many paths to take today—choose one or two. Keeping communication lines clear and accessible in one place is important. Will you text, email, instant message, or make phone calls? Will you schedule face-to-face or virtual meetings? Make a plan for communication that respects comfort and accessibility.

5 Use Web Tools

Keep things manageable by using Web tools for sharing information. Email attachments are a default information-sharing tool—but other options can work much smoother. Think tools like Google Drive, BOX, Trello, and Dropbox. A web tool gives you both access to the same filing cabinet, at any time of day or night. Decide on one and use it.

So the next time you are told that converting a face-to-face course to an online or blended course requires a quick wave of the magic technology wand, take a deep breath, because you know it isn’t so!

It takes good old-fashioned respect, trust, and intentional communication to make the project shine.

And well, everyone else will think it’s magic.