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The Importance of Instructional Text

Does this conversation sound familiar?

Student: I saw the materials for class, but I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do.

Instructor: Well, I posted it all in Blackboard. I’m not sure what the problem is.

If your students are telling you things like this, it may be time to reconsider the instructional text you’ve written or are missing from Blackboard. Here are a few tips to help you identify places that need instructional text and how to write stronger instructional text.

Address What You Want Students To Do

Attention spans are incredibly short in digital environments. If users can’t immediately find what they’re looking for, and if it’s not immediately clear why something is there, they’re typically moving on.

To combat that, make sure you are using purposeful content throughout your course and that students know what they’re supposed to do with that content.

The best way to demonstrate that all the content in your course is purposeful is to write instructional text for everything. And when I say everything, I mean folders, learning modules, tests, assignments and everything in between.

Unfortunately, Blackboard has some content types that don’t allow you to write descriptions or instructions. For instance, I recommend against using the File upload content type because it doesn’t allow you to write any instructional text. Instead, create a Content Item and add a file attachment. That way, you can provide instructions for the attachment.

Sometimes I talk to faculty who say, “Well, I tell the students what to do in class.” If that sounds like you, I urge you to reconsider.

Your Blackboard content needs to be able to stand alone. Write it for the students who are absent from class. Write it for the students who are also enrolled in four other courses and may not remember every detail of everything you say (because that’s probably the case for most of your students).

Be Concise

Let’s be clear that even though I’m telling you to write more text, I’m definitely not telling you to write anything long and rambling.

The key with instructional text is to be specific:

  • Review this study guide to prepare for the final exam.
  • Complete this learning module before you attend class.
  • Watch this video to prepare for our in-class quiz.
  • Open this folder to access all of your final project documents.

As you can see from those examples, the other thing I’m doing is prepping the user about what exactly they can expect when they click the link. This is essential.

Did you also notice how each example is written in active voice? This helps keep your writing tight and it’s more engaging. Each of those examples is what we refer to as a Call To Action (CTA). The user now knows exactly what they need to do.

Avoid Long Instructions and Redundancies

Nothing is a bigger turnoff than long, complex-looking instructions.

If you start writing instructions, and it’s getting long and confusing, go find a colleague or friend (or me) and tell them what you want students to do. See if they can help you break it down more simply. Sometimes it can be difficult for us to simplify our own work, but an outsider’s perspective can be really helpful.

The best way to simplify instructions is to use ordered lists or bullet points. If you find yourself using very many sub-bullets within those initial instructions, you’re probably being overly complex or you need to rethink how to present the project or assignment.

Another thing to keep in mind with online assignments is that Blackboard has designated spaces to input the due date, points possible and grading rubric, so avoid including those things in your instructional text. Besides, it’s easy from semester to semester to forget to update some of that information, and that just further confuses students.

Jayna Phinney
Jayna Phinney

Jayna Phinney is the Instructional Technology Specialist for the ASU College of Science and Engineering. Contact her at or 325-486-6264.



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