Instructional Copy: A Horse & Cart Approach

November 24, 2009

What this post is about: Considerations you need to make when creating a strategy to write, develop and/or edit instructional copy. It looks broadly at structure and approach.

What this post is not about: Grammar, punctuation or sentence structure. These will be covered elsewhere

Here is a summary: Learning communication is full of paradigms, short on silly metaphors. My Horse and Cart approach aims to rectify this. Much instructional copy is poorly implemented, as writers or designers don’t consider their objectives, voice, audience or the impact of their copy. This post aims to provide suggestions to help instructional designers overcome this.

Here begins the post

This post uses a silly metaphor (horses and carts) to provide some guidance in how you should develop your instructional copy. It deals primarily with strategies to developing learning content.

The first thing to consider is the road to be travelled. Your horse and cart have to be prepared so that they can deal with the obstacles that may arise over the way. This translates to ensuring your learning content will apply to ‘real world’ scenarios. Consider:

  • What it is people should be able to do
  • Why they should be able to do it (knowing this will help you identify where knowledge can be applied elsewhere, or where learners may need to consider how best to apply the knowledge they learn)
  • What the outcomes for the learner, their organisation and/or industry should be (in this order)

Next, make sure your horse is right for the cart. This translates to ensuring your learning content is being driven by the right objectives. You should consider:

  • That the objectives all contribute to the desired outcomes of your learning project (as outlined by the Road you need to travel)
  • The objective verbs are correct. This may seem pedantic, but the difference between “understand”, “identify” and “describe” is a series of lacunas something like the great lakes.  You need to ensure the objectives you map out for the project will take the learning in the right direction and ensure learners get to where they need to be (as defined, again, by the road)
  • That your learning content directly addresses your well-defined objectives. Anything off the point should be provided as an add on (e.g. drilldown, download, “See also…” types of information. Keep the copy as sharp and focused as it can be to derive optimal effects and get learners from start to finish quickly and easily

Now, the cart itself. This is the media you are using to carry the goods. Think about carts here carefully – you don’t try to shape the goods to fit the cart (although you can do); instead, you should ensure the cart will carry the goods. You don’t carry milk in a wooden flatbed. Neither do you use a discarded oil tanker.  You also need to consider how you prevent the goods from falling out or spilling. This translates to the media you use to deliver the knowledge from you (or the trainer, facilitator, etc.) to the learner. You should consider:

  • The best format to assist the learner in retaining the knowledge. This can be a tough decision, but generally boils down to: Print, Online, Multimedia: consider permanence, access and ability or need to update, as well as how engaging the media needs to be (will learners have sufficient motivation to stick with something that is not very engaging?)
  • The best format to express the information you want to deliver.  For example, complex relationships should always be represented graphically. Steps are often better implemented in text, as you can then provide download checklists. However, some steps might benefit from a screencast.
  • The best way to structure and use that format. Never expect anyone to sit down for 60 minutes to ‘learn’. Even if you’re using Video or Flash, learners just will not concentrate for that length of time in one sitting. You need to structure your learning so that it contributes to achieving your objectives, but also is delivered in managable, engaging sections that learners can take one at a time
  • Assessment and other retention techniques and checks for understanding. Ensure that however you deliver your training, you check that learners can remember and use the information being provided.  It is next to tragic to consider a well structured and delivered learning content that people forget immediately after leaving the classroom. More and more often, I’m finding assessment and checks for understanding are being considered more important than the content itself. This may be a foolish turn of events, but the point is assessment/retention and checks for understanding are the only way to be sure that the knowledge people take on board can actually be applied to the workplace or situations they are training for. You can look at your content and say “Yes, this applies to that objective”, but without assessment you can never be sure how effective it is in doing so.

Finally, consider the wheels on your cart. This relates closely to ensuring the goods don’t fall out the back. What it entails is looking at the road, the goods being carried, the weight of it all together and ensuring the wheels will be able to support the cart, and move it along the road. Consider:

  • How robust your learning will stand up to the demands of a modern workplace. Do you ask people to take time out from work, or can they take the training in hour long bites?
  • How often does the information you are providing change? Is it about software, which may update regularly? How do you intend to deal with such changes so that 1 – the learning content stays relevant and 2 – learners themselves can be updated
  • Can the learner use what they have learned in the content and easily/directly apply it to their workplace, or tasks they are learning to perform? What is the gap between the Learning environment and the Real World environment, and how do you intend to bridge it?

Finally, keep en eye on your cart as the horse draws it. I wanted to include this last point with the Wheels, but it doesn’t really belong there, no matter how silly the metaphor can be made. Evaluation is often overlooked, but always a key driver in improving all future learning content (or indeed existing content that can be updated). Monitor every step of your instructional copy, from design and development to implementation. This will allow you to evaluate what worked best (improving your own systems), and what was most effective for learners (improving future learner engagement and success).

I hope this has been useful to you, or at the very least of interest. If you’d like to hear more about my opinions, please do leave a comment, email me at brendan-dot-strong at gmail-dot-com. If you’d like to share a link to this post with someone else, please do so!



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