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.

Form an Online Connection: Part 2

This post is the second in a series titled, Form an Online Connection. Part 1 was published March 9, 2017. 

In my last post, Form an Online Connection, Part 1, you read about using your voice to connect with students. This time, the focus is on using your eyes. In a face-to-face course, students have the benefit of being in the same room with the instructor. This makes it possible to observe body language, vocal tone, and facial expressions. Valuable connections are made as the professor looks into each student’s eyes and allows them to return the gaze.

Open your eyes.

Bhat, Chinprutthiwond, and Perry (2015) hypothesized that videos allowing students to have eye contact with the instructor and to view non-verbal signals contribute to better student engagement in the online environment.

It’s true; direct eye contact can be very captivating. In the online speech course I teach, I post “coaching” videos to demonstrate certain speaking techniques. Not only does this allow me to model the expected behavior for my students, it gives me the opportunity to make one-on-one eye contact with each learner. Students are often quite apprehensive about giving speeches, so with my first video (posted below), I try to alleviate their fears, give them solid tips, and connect with them on a personal level.

Use a free tool.

Instructors may conveniently record from their webcam, phone, or another device. The recording can then be uploaded to YouTube and a link embedded in the course. In addition to appearing on camera, a professor may find value in sharing what is on their computer screen (think: documents, websites, images, PowerPoint slides). Screencast-o-Matic is free software that allows anyone to record up to 15-minutes of content.


What kind of videos can you share with students? Here are a few ideas to get you started:

IDEA 1: Provide a brief review of the prior week’s learning.

  • Recap the highlights of the week by emphasizing key concepts.
  • Clarify topics with which students may have struggled.

IDEA 2: Model how students are to implement a particular concept and/or complete an assignment.

  • Visually demonstrate the steps students need to take in order to be successful.
  • Appear on camera, but also use screen-sharing software so you can illustrate with examples.
  • Record yourself doing the task. If it’s a speech class, give a speech. If it’s a math course, solve a problem.

The main thing to keep in mind is to appear relaxed and personable.

Look directly into the lens of the camera. While it may feel awkward to you, your students will perceive that you are looking into their eyes.

Smile and use good vocal variety. Speak as though you are having a one-on-one conversation.

Keep your recording short and sweet. If it’s too brief, students won’t see the value; if it’s too long, they will tune out.

Although personal interaction may seem easier in the traditional classroom than it does in cyberspace, a little creativity and planning can result in a valuable online connection between the instructor and student through the use of video.


Bhat, S., Chinprutthiwong, P., Perry, M., & International Educational Data Mining, S. (2015). Seeing the Instructor in Two Video Styles: Preferences and Patterns.

Boling, E., Hough, M., Krinsky, H., Saleem, H., & Stevens, M. (2012). Cutting the distance in distance education: Perspectives on what promotes positive, online learning experiences. The Internet And Higher Education, 15(Special issue of the American Educational Research Association’s online teaching and learning special interest group), 118-126. doi:10.1016/j.iheduc.2011.11.006

El Mansour, B., & Mupinga, D. M. (2007). Students’ Positive and Negative Experiences in Hybrid and Online Classes. College Student Journal, 41(1), 242-248.

Wolff-Hilliard, D. d., & Baethe, B. b. (2013). Using Digital and Audio Annotations to Reinvent Critical Feedback with Online Adult Students. Delta Kappa Gamma Bulletin, 80(2), 40-44.


Visual Tools: Convert Your Content into a Format That Pops

Are you an instructor who’s thought, “I have all this content that my students need to know—why aren’t they getting it”? Have you considered converting that bland text into a format that pops? Let’s discuss why you should consider using visual tools to bring your information to life.

Why would you want to use a visual tool like an infographic? According to Educause, an “infographic” displays a lot of data and ideas with images from simple to complex in a visually appealing online format that can be interactive.

Converting your content requires the following steps:

  1. Start by analyzing your content to determine what format you are going to use. You want to make sure that it is meaningful and relevant to the topic at hand.
  2. Ask yourself: “what are the instructional objectives?” Are students required to remember facts and concepts to build a foundation so that they can later connect, elaborate, synthesize, and apply it to other information? This was my situation when I created the history infographic below. Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy is a useful tool for considering instructional objectives. Bannister (2002) also provides useful tools for Developing Objectives and Relating them to Assessment.
  3. Finally, what format will you convert the information into? Your answers to Question #2 will help you determine the format that you will use. An infographic is best to present facts and concepts; if you want to use embedded audio or video, an interactive presentation works better.

Two easy-to-use infographic tools are Emaze and Piktochart. You can sign up for a free account, but keep in mind that it only gives you access to certain templates. You can still create some cool visual presentations and interactions with the free templates.

Below, I’ve shared two examples that I created using these free tools. In the first example, I created an infographic using a Piktochart. In my Black Political Thought infographic, I asked learners to connect how black ideologies and politics shape current American events and culture.

Screen Shot 2017-03-23 at 10.49.55 AM

In the second example, I presented Great Peacemakers to the Trailblazers Toastmasters club. Rather than sharing handouts with globs of text, I used Emaze to create an interactive visual presentation to engage my audience throughout my presentation. by emaze

My audience gave me great feedback with meaningful Glows and Grows (a reflection and assessment strategy meant to improve presentations).

This time you might use an infographic or interactive visual; the next time you may want to transition your content into an eLearning activity. In my next post, I’ll discuss how to use PowerPoint to create an interactive scenario.


Bannister, S. (2002). Developing Objectives and Relating them to Assessment. The Center for Teaching and Learning.

7 Things You Should Know About Infographic Creation Tools | EDUCAUSE CONNECT (01 February 2013) by Educause_learning_initiative