Four ways to write better online courses

If your course is online, chances are learners will access at least some of it as text on screen. Maybe your course is designed to be completely asynchronous. Or maybe you are trying to reduce “zoom fatigue” by providing some of your content on your LMS or even as a document. Many instructors and subject matter experts tackle writing this text in the way that’s most familiar to them—in the style of an academic paper or formal report. Other instructors think of their online course as being the digital equivalent of a textbook or manual. But is it?

Asynchronous text can be overwhelming as a way of learning new and complex information. It can also quickly make learners feel cut off from their instructor. Even if it’s in a printable format, students are most likely to read the material on screen, and this format also requires certain considerations.

But online text can also be an extremely powerful delivery mode, as it allows students to learn at their own pace, and can actually make it easier to incorporate storytelling and interactivity. Here are four tips to help you avoid the pitfalls, and optimize the learning potential of your asynchronous text.

1 Make it Personal

While you may be in an academic or other formal setting, course content should not have the same tone as a research paper. Research shows that people work harder to process information when they feel like they are in a conversation with a real person, not passively receiving it from a computer. Addressing the learner as “you” can go a long way toward creating buy-in (Clark and Mayer 2016).

Bring the content to life with personal anecdotes. Not only do your experiences demonstrate how abstract principles apply to the real world, storytelling and the feeling of “social presence” and personal connection with you enhances learning (Martin 2019).

This doesn’t mean you should be so informal that it sounds unprofessional or forced—you may lose credibility with your learners. Write in a way that feels comfortable to you and like a natural extension of your own voice.

2 Use Plain Language

Use shorter sentences and simple words, so that the learner’s cognitive energy is spent on understanding the concepts, not the sentences. This doesn’t mean “dumbing down” your content, or teaching to the “lowest common denominator.” Even the top students will benefit from text that is easy to read.

Using plain language involves:

  • Avoiding jargon and acronyms unless they’re necessary to what you’re teaching
  • Avoiding unnecessary wordiness
  • Using shorter sentences with only one or two clausesUsing active voice

For more information on using plain language, check out the Government of Canada’s guide Plain Language: Clear and Simple.

3 Chunk It

How is learning impacted by reading from a screen, compared to a book?

A 2017 study found that when the text was less than 500 words, readers had the same or higher rates of comprehension when they read digitally compared to print. When the text was longer than 500 words, however, the comprehension of readers who read the print version was much better than digital. In a digital format, the longer text requires more scrolling, which seems to interfere with cognitive processing of the material (Alexander and Singer 2017).

The solution? Break your content into chunks of less than 500 words at a time, so that learners don’t have to scroll and can process the material before moving on. Since the capacity of our working memory is limited, this is a great practice to improve comprehension in any format. This doesn’t mean you can’t teach more than one topic at a time, but rather that learners will benefit from the mini mental break that comes from clicking to a new page or starting a new section.

Dividing your content this way, using clear headings, also helps to keep your material organized and helps learners feel oriented.

4 Slow it Down

Most students read digital text much faster than print, which may also explain that reduction in comprehension in the digital format (Alexander and Singer 2017). So how can we encourage our learners to slow down when they are reading online?

Incorporate frequent knowledge check questions that ask learners to stop and assess their own understanding. Ungraded questions are easy to add in most learning management systems, and providing feedback explaining the correct answer is another way to reinforce the concepts. Giving learners practice with retrieving the information is in itself a powerful way to reinforce learning (Davis et al 2018).

You can also get learners to both slow down and start to think critically about the content with more open-ended reflection questions. These often come naturally in a classroom environment, but can work well in asynchronous material, too. Prompt them to stop and consider what connections they can make between the content and their own experience, or how they might apply the content to a situation in the real world. You can even just ask them to stop and reflect on whether they are still paying attention, and suggest they take a break if they aren’t. Such reflections have been shown to significantly improve completion rates and test scores (Carnes 2012).

Final Thoughts

Writing and teaching aren’t the same skill set. The most dynamic and engaging instructor in the classroom can be paralyzed at the thought of having to write it all down. But hopefully what these tips show is that the most important thing is to be human! If your grammar isn’t perfect, that’s okay. Think of simply writing how you speak. That will help you to find a more laid back tone, use more plain language, and make sure that you are present in the content as the learner’s guide.


Alexander, P. and Singer, L. A new study shows that students learn way more effectively from print textbooks than screens. (2017, October 16). Business Insider. Retrieved from

Carnes, B. (2012). Making eLearning stick: techniques for easy and effective transfer of technology-supported training. [Alexandria, Va.]: American Society for Training & Development.

Clark, R. C., & Mayer, R. E. (2016). E-learning and the science of instruction: Proven guidelines for consumers and designers of multimedia learning (4th ed.). Standards Information Network.

Davis, D., Chen, G., Hauff, C., & Houben, G.-J. (2018). Activating learning at scale: A review of innovations in online learning strategies. Computers & Education, 125, 327–344.

Martin, J. (2019). Building Relationships and Increasing Engagement in the Virtual Classroom. The Journal of Educators Online, 16(1).

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Jennifer Delisle