Writing for Instructional Design

Some of the worst instructions I have ever read are from College English teachers. My brother-in-law has returned to school to get his diploma. I tutored him a bit. The instructions for his writing assignment was too long- a page and a half. Furthermore, there were no examples of the final writing product expected. I dug deeper into this “mystery assignment” to discover the instructor’s content wasn’t segmented in a logical manner. The result? My brother-in-law had submitted an incorrect manuscript. Furthermore, the peers who reviewed the manuscript didn’t understand the assignment either, so the peer reviews were worthless. I had to figure out the hieroglyphic directions before I could help him.

I asked him if the class thinks he is a good teacher. The answer was yes, because the students thought he was a nice guy. I asked him how much he had learned. He said he had learned much, but kept saying that he “sucked at English”, suggesting that learning anything and getting good grades was sufficient progress.

This brings up the topic of college teachers as “edutainers”. Of course MTV has ruined not only civilization but also teaching (tongue in cheek). Rate My Professor has made a popularity contest out of teaching. Here instructors are rated on 4 criteria, none of what deals with content the student has learnered. It is like rating a window without judging the view through the window.  Here is an example rating about a highly rated teacher:

blog image 1“his lectures are super fun to listen to”, is what the student says. Super fun like “Big Bang Theory”? But what did the rater learn? Here is another:

blog image 2It reads like a hippy love-fest, not instruction. Neither of these students speaks of the value for the content they had learned! But here is one who does:

blog image 3Although there is the bonding as in the previous rating, there does seem to be evidence that the student doesn’t mind the bothersome task of learning!

I have taught for years and was always sensitive to student feedback. Thus I went from being a formal teacher to a more informal one- and watched my ratings rise! Then I added interesting learning activities and my ratings rose again! Then I hit the third stage and became self-critical that my classes were not efficient and effective enough. This led to a streamlining of instruction- cutting PowerPoints down to the bare bones, replacing lectures with 5 minutes of clear explanation followed by a learning activity, and focusing everything in the course to an overriding goal- have my students prove their overachievement with portfolios so they get employed before students in other classes. Purposeful enthusiasm had replaced edutainment. Bam! This led to being highest rated teacher at 3 universities!

I also realized something else- I was not me! I had developed a teaching persona-an image of instructor that I presented to the classroom audience. This persona is still evolving as I learn and grow. As a change agent, I don’t aim to get stuck in a character that is unauthentic as I change and grow as a person. But one permanent change is to be as clear and efficient as I can be when writing instructions. Here is the secret-if the instructions are a page long, it is not instructions but a process for a learning activity that requires instructed guidance.

Here is another clue to the secret- we can be interesting when we are presenting learning, but instructions have to be like a recipe- simple and easy to follow.

A good example of how to merge persona and instructing to be clear and entertaining is The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. I wonder if there is an opportunity to opening a similar center to teach instructional writing to English teachers.

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