Friday, October 20, 2017

Readability and Instructional Writing

Readability Statistics in Microsoft Word
In my book Write and Organize for Deeper Learning, I discuss how to make instructional writing easier for people to understand, remember, and apply. One of the first steps is making sure your content is readable by the people reading or hearing it. We communicate a great deal in instruction through writing. We use the written word to build information, support materials, scripts for audio and video, and more.

But what if how you write actually gets in the way of communicating clearly? The answer to this dilemma is readability. Readability is a score given to text that tells you how easy it is to understand. It's not the end-all of determining clarity but it's a needed first step.

According to usability expert Jakob Nielson: "Users won’t read web content unless the text is clear, the words and sentences are simple, and the information is easy to understand." Instructional content is similar. When people are frustrated, they will skim or ignore what we write.

I write about how to test readability in my book (Microsoft Word will calculate readability for you > Look under Word Options) and the steps needed to make content more readable. Here are two of the steps:

  • Use simpler and more understandable words. 
  • Break apart long sentences into shorter sentences. 
Recently, I've run across some good readability resources and wanted to share them.
Knowing your audience, calculating readability scores, and writing for the needs of your audience are ways to make your instruction more learnable, better for remembering, and application.

Friday, October 13, 2017

No! No. Background. Music.
<-- I started building a series of explainer videos this week on the most critical concepts in my Make It Learnable series of books. The first one is on learnability and readability in instructional materials and how they impact learning outcomes. I want to help people understand the importance of evidence-based concepts in building good instruction.

I tried out a number of explainer video applications (or applications that could be used for this purpose) and too many had fatal flaws. I wanted to use Camtasia as I have the application and love its ease of use. But I couldn't get the audio to work right. After two days of trying and working through help files (noting that others had similar problems), I gave up. But I'd like to use it again if I can figure out how to get the audio working.

I looked at other tools and tried them, but most had even larger fatal flaws. The one that worked immediately was Powtoon. There is a serious flaw: No ability to input a transcript for those who cannot hear the video. I'm looking for a workaround. (Let me know if you have one.)

When I bought Powtoon, I had to decide which upgrade to purchase. The higher versions had more objects, backgrounds, and background music. But background music should typically NOT be used in instructional video. The reason is easy to understand and quite clear. Added music makes attending to the important messages on the screen more difficult. In other words, it adds extraneous (harmful) cognitive load.

When people are learning, their mind has to select the important messages from what is shown and mix them with what they know to make meaning. This is. Hard. Work. Adding extraneous (extra) messages, images, and music makes this even harder.  We absolutely should not do anything to make understanding harder.

You shouldn't use background music unless your lesson is about background music. If you want to understand cognitive load better, consider reading Write and Organize for Deeper Learning or Practice and Feedback for Deeper Learning.

Monday, October 9, 2017

The next book in the Make It Learnable series?

I told myself I'd take some time off after completing Practice and Feedback for Deeper Learning. And I am. Sort of. I'm getting other work done and spending time gathering research on two topics for upcoming books:

  • What we as L&D practitioners and organizations as a whole must do to support learning and skill building in our organizations
  • The tactics that work best for training people in hard(er) skills
Research shows that if we train but don't do what's needed to support learning and skill development, far less learning and skill development occurs. I think many practitioners and especially organizations are confused about this. It's about aligning the myriad things that must be in place. 

For example, if we train people to take initiative with handling customer problems to make sure that customer problems get handled quickly but managers give staff a hard time if they handle a problem that technically belongs to another department, what was trained will fail. Mirjam Neelen and I are working out what to include in the book and are likely to write this one together as it's of interest to us both.

Research also shows that many job skills are becoming more challenging and less stable. Easy(er) and more repetitive work is being taken over my computers and in many cases, AI. But training more complex work like repetitive work doesn't work. What does? And how do we help people learn these types of jobs and tasks in an environment when these skills are changeable? Research has some very good answers, which I think is terrific news.

I also get requests for training on good multiple choice question development and plan to write a book on this topic. Tell me what you think of these topics. I write for readers and most certainly want to write what you need to learn about. Thank you so much for reading my books!

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Reader input.. the story of Bill Sawyer's gift

Bill Sawyer, Director, Global Learning Services at Seal Software, is the kind of person you want helping you evaluate your instructional writing. He’s picky. And when it comes to writing, picky is good. 

As Bill read my first book, he sent me lists of things that were either problematic or things he thought I could do better. For example, he called out a figure and said he didn’t understand it. I looked at it and realized that the editor and I had missed that half of the figure made it into the book. No wonder it didn’t make sense.

I went through each of his lists and updated the manuscript. Sometimes we simply disagreed stylistically. And there were a few things I simply couldn’t figure out how to do. For example, the Kindle translation of my manuscript wasn’t nearly as attractive as the print book. I was embarrassed that I couldn’t make the tables work as well as I liked. Of course, getting tables to reflow and look terrific on anything from a phone to a 10” tablet was obviously a challenge.

When I wrote the second book, Practice and Feedback for Deeper Learning, I found his stylistic suggestions influencing me. And I simply had to back and update the first book so they matched. I told Bill I didn’t like the covers and was going to change the first one to match the second. He said, “I hated the cover but was afraid to tell you!” So, I changed the cover on the first book to match the second.

People think of writing as a solo activity. Nope… anything but. The first step is understanding your audience, just like when building instruction. 

Thank you, Bill Sawyer. I consider you a critical part of my writing team. And cannot wait to meet you in person someday.

I’ll tell you how I fixed my Kindle problem in my next post. So much to learn (and I kind of love that).

Ta-da. Book 2 is out!

Yesterday I uploaded the second book in the Make It Learnable series to Amazon. It's available in print and Kindle and should be available internationally.

I've been writing Practice and Feedback for Deeper learning pretty much nonstop the last few months. I woke up each morning excited to get back to work. Except when I was working on the feedback research and information. I thought I'd never get through it. It's a difficult topic and there are areas where experts don't agree. I wondered how I'd ever write the chapter in a way that was clear and applicable. But I know that if you keep going and use each problem as a way to learn, you'll eventually figure out how to make it through. I'm stubborn like that.  

I learned a lot while writing the book. And one of the best parts of writing them is improving my own knowledge and skills. If you think I know everything there is to know before I write one of these books, well, you'd be wrong. I write to find answers to questions I have and share what I learn (another great part of writing these books).

If you read it, I'd love to know what you think. I really do think the second book is even better than the first because readers offered input that influenced the second book.

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Something new...

I'm making a few changes in where I write. One of the biggest changes is that I'll now be blogging here on my own site. Or, to be more precise, I'm blogging on blogger and pulling the posts onto my site. I'll be blogging in smaller chunks about:
  • The books and research I'm reading
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  • Tools I use to do my work that I think others might want to know about)
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Research shows that too many multiple-choice questions are written poorly and therefore create bad assessments. A few of the common issue...