Write and Organize for Deeper Learning by Patti Shank: Read it, use it, repeat

Mirjam Neelen

I had a couple of reasons for reading Patti Shank’s new book ‘Write and Organize for Deeper Learning’ (2017). First of all, I love her work. She’s extremely knowledgeable and recognises why it’s critical to design learning experiences based on the science of…? Indeed, learning. More importantly, she practices what she preaches. So, I was curious as to what she ‘came up with’ this time and of course, I wanted to find out if I could learn anything new that I could apply in my own work.

Just to be clear: this book is about instructional writing. Shank explains why writing for instruction is fundamentally different from other kinds of writing. Specifically, writing for instruction means writing for learnability, which “describes the ease and speed with which something can be learned, applied, and remembered” (p 2). She proposes that there are six areas that can improve learnability as illustrated below (copied from Shank’s figure on page 8 of the book).

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Shank discusses in her book the core research that helps us understand the why behind the how to for these six areas with respect to instructional writing. Although many learning designers have little if any knowledge of the science of learning, Patti hits the nail right on the head when she says that it’s irresponsible in today’s complex and busy workplace NOT to apply what is known about these evidence-informed tactics that “make learning easier and deeper” (p 7).

Next, in the main body of the book she discusses four strategies and 28 tactics that are needed to improve need to apply to improve our instructional writing. The following table presents an overview of these strategies and tactics.

Strategy

Tactic

1.  Understand the audience’s needs
  • Analyse the audience’s needs
  • Write for the right level of prior knowledge
  • Make the purpose obvious
  • Answer audience questions
2. Write for clarity
  • Determine the key points
  • Use shorter sentences
  • Remove less-valuable sentences
  • Use simple, common words and phrases
  • Talk directly to the reader or listener
  • Prefer active voice
  • Be direct about what people need to do
  • Make long descriptions easier to understand
3. Make text readable and legible
  • Test readability
  • Use readable fonts
  • Use readable type sizes
  • Left-align body text
  • Use adequate white space
  • Space lines of text for ease of reading
  • Use readable line lengths
  • Offer adequate contrast between text and background
4. Organise for memory and use
  • Connect to what the audience already knows
  • Design for scanning
  • Write clear, reader-friendly objectives
  • Tell learners where they’re going
  • Use signals
  • Make content job-ready
  • Write helpful headings and sub-headings
  • Move less-essential content to non-prime space

As a learning designer, you might think that you ‘know it all’; in other words that you don’t need to read the book because you feel that writing is the very basics of learning design and therefore, of course, you know how to do it well. Well, I can only speak for myself but I’m not so sure.

Shank clearly explains the difference between declarative (facts and concepts) and procedural knowledge (application and problem solving in the real world). Even if her book doesn’t spark any new declarative knowledge in the reader, I bet that it definitely triggers new procedural knowledge. Although I can assure you that you’ll run into at least a handful of things that you (f)actually didn’t know. In my case, Shank taught me a couple of things on using Word that I didn’t know, for example I’ve never known about the availability of readability statistics. Another helpful reminder for me was ‘Determine your key points’ (Tactic 5 related to the second strategy ‘Write for clarity’). I have a tendency to drift when I write (hopefully I haven’t done that here) and get lost in the details. This tactic is the one that I need to pin on the wall as a constant reminder.

OK, those were two examples of two things that I learned from the book. Now, let’s explore how we can use the book in our jobs as learning designers (or in any other role that requires instructional writing – although I’ll focus on a corporate learning context).

How to use Shank’s book in a corporate learning context?

In my experience, Shank’s book wholeheartedly invites you to a) think about your own practice as an ‘instructional writer’, b) consider who else could use this book in a corporate learning context and (c) think about how to use it best. At least, that’s what it did for me. Let’s take a look at three of the possible ways to use the book that came to my mind while reading.

1. As an Individual

As an individual, you can use this book as a professional development tool to improve your own instructional writing (Well, duh! That’s probably why Shank wrote the book in the first place!) Read it, use it, repeat; that’s my first advice. Then, whenever you design a learning experience, use the checklist on pages 131-136 as a job aid. You can use it to critically look at your own writing, or, even better: ask a peer to review your writing (after all, in the eye of the writer her/his own writing is never that bad) and give you feedback on (some of) the tactics. This way, over time, you learn to spot your own strengths and weaknesses based on self-reflection or peer feedback and then… practice!

2. As a Team

Let’s assume you work with a team of learning designers and/or other team members who deliver instructional content. When all team members read the book you’ll have a good starting point for the team to get on the same page (no pun intended) on what the requirements are for strong instructional writing. When all team members use the checklist (you could also easily create an online version for internal peer review), you can discuss each other’s instructional writing and determine why it’s good or not so good. This way you’ll start to look at each other’s work through the same lens, which can tremendously help to improve the quality of the work that your team delivers.

Just to state the obvious, of course this type of job aid shouldn’t be a standalone for a full Q&A peer review of a learning design process. However, the quality of the instructional writing within any learning design deliverable is without a doubt key for effective instruction.

3. As a Subject Matter Expert (with Caution)

This is a bit of a tricky one but it’s worth a shot. Several of my clients recently talked about how it’s becoming more common that subject matter experts (SMEs) deliver instructional content and/or performance support resources in various shapes and forms. This approach is a pragmatic solution to a fast changing business environment where learning designers don’t have the capacity to create all the resources required.

Although a SME is of course a necessary team member when designing learning experiences, I’m not sure if a SME is the right person to create the actual content for instructional or performance improvement purposes and although I’m not convinced that we need all that content in the first place (It’s typically very focused on declarative knowledge – facts, information – and the next step, procedural knowledge – application, transfer – is usually missing), we need to deal with reality sometimes.

So, let’s say there’s a need for resources and the learning design team indeed doesn’t have the capacity to deliver all that content. In that case, Shank’s book can provide insight to SMEs that instructional writing is a whole different ball game compared to ‘just writing up what you know’. It can create awareness. Also, the checklist would come in handy in the same way as described for the team setting above. SMEs and learning designers can also collaborate to set up a review process. For example, the expert can write the original content and the learning professional can review, revise, and provide feedback. Over time, the domain expert will likely get better at applying the principles of effective instructional writing. Or at least, one would hope.

So, let’s get on with it and start practicing! patti2

Oh wait… Caution. Don’t overlook that red flag. 

Although high quality instructional writing is extremely important, content is not the only king. We shouldn’t overlook the critical first step which is understanding the needs of the audience. As Shank states:

“If we don’t understand our audience or their jobs, building good instruction is practically impossible to do. This is because helping people do a good job and increase skills is a critical goal for organisational learning.” (p 27).

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Shank has hit the nail on the head before and she does it again.

 

Reference

Shank, P.  (2017). Write and organize for deeper learning. 28 Evidence-based and easy-to-apply tactics that will make your instruction better for learning. Learning sPeaks Publications.