Learning Materials: How to Make Them Clear and Accessible?
By learning materials, we refer to all the supporting materials that your students need to achieve your predetermined goals, e.g. your syllabus, slides, (academic) articles, (transcripts of) knowledge clips, etc. Drawing up, structuring and designing your learning materials in a well-considered manner will support your students' learning process and thus contribute to better study performance. In this Education Tip, you will learn how to draw up clear and accessible learning materials.
General Points to Consider
- Per course unit, each lecturer defines the learning content that will be covered by the assessment prior to the actual teaching activities (cf. OER, art. 49). Prepare all your learning materials before your classes begin. If that is not possible, prepare a table of contents that is the basis for supplementing the learning materials each time. This way you can keep an overview of what is discussed and how the learning contents are related. Be sure to focus on the matters that will be discussed during the assessment.
- Each lecturer provides as soon as possible learning materials that are suited to the education activities and the intended learning outcomes. To concretise this with an example: If, e.g. in the Bachelor's programme, you exclusively give lectures, then slides containing only key words/key phrases without further interpretation or explanation are insufficient as teaching material.
- Start from the competences that you aim for with your course and ask yourself the following questions:
- Do the provided learning materials support your students to achieve these set goals or do you have to provide extra instructions or learning content during class and/or on Ufora, e.g. references to current affairs, extra articles, your own example that makes the learning content concrete, etc.?
- Can you use these learning materials to test whether your students are achieving the appropriate goals? In other words, is it possible to insert feedback moments with these learning materials or is it better to focus more on, for example, processing assignments (cf. infra: Content)?
- What do you expect your students to already know? Can you evoke that prior knowledge, for example by integrating a quiz into your slides or by letting students watch a video beforehand?
- Within your learning materials, create sufficient variation: do not only offer a syllabus, but also, for example, slides, scientific articles, videos, current references in the form of news items, etc. This will give your students a range of options on how content can be presented, and they will get different views on the content. This not only promotes their critical thinking, but also helps them when they have to reproduce the content themselves.
- Always post all information about the learning materials and any supporting initiatives on Ufora before your lessons start.
- Always communicate clearly about how these different forms of learning materials relate to each other, e.g. do your slides support a written syllabus or are your slides the essence and do your students need to get the rest from articles? Make the expectations you have explicit: what exactly should students know and/or do with which part of the learning materials?
- Be aware that your learning materials set an example for the students. When they have to make a writing task or give a presentation, they will mirror your syllabus or slides in terms of structure, vocabulary, etc. Therefore, have colleagues read your learning materials in terms of content, structure, language errors, etc.
- Always remain critical of your own learning materials, and evaluate them before, during and after your lessons. Question your students about the content, structure, etc. Have a colleague, whether from the same field or not, read everything.
How to Determine the Content of Your Learning Materials?
When you start from the intended competences and objectives, you can more easily define your content. Make sure you
- build up in difficulty;
- always offer relevant and current content;
- provide sufficient examples to contextualize concepts and concepts;
- refer to additional (digital) supporting materials;
- repeat by e.g. integrating review slides or adding summaries in your syllabus at the end of chapters;
- challenge sufficiently. Set high expectations for all your students.
You can integrate processing assignments in your syllabus, such as questions that assess comprehension, self-tests, etc. Add these to your slides anyway to make your classes interactive.
How to Structure Your Learning Materials?
Another point to consider in terms of clear and accessible learning materials is a good structure. You should always display the text structure in a table of contents at the front or back of your syllabus. Use sufficient subtitles that cover the content of the text chapters. Always put the keyword in the title, as in the teaching tip titles.
Start your syllabus with an introduction in which you make the following explicit:
- the goals of your course linked to the final competences. Do not just copy them from your course sheet, but rewrite them in student language;
- the position of your course unit within the study programme, with possible links to other course units;
- the common thread of your learning content: clarify which structure you follow and why;
- your assessment methods and criteria;
- an overview of all learning materials (e.g. extra slides, articles, handbooks, etc.) and where students can find those;
- your expectations towards the students in terms of
- prior knowledge;
- and attitude, e.g. willingness to take charge of one’s own learning process, motivation, rigor, etc.
Review that information in your first lesson as well. Put it on your first slide with key words.
Pay close attention to the structure of your paragraphs. A paragraph is always about one idea or aspect, which is in the first or last sentence. The rest of the paragraph elaborates on that aspect. Your paragraphs and sentences are linked with structure indicators. These help your students to actively process the subject matter: they promote reading comprehension and help schematize. Integrate structuring paragraphs at the beginning of a chapter. These show where the student is in the whole.
Add the following attachments (if necessary) at the end of your syllabus:
- a glossary, with or without explanations. This way your students know which (course) terms are important. Consult with your colleagues to arrive at such a list of crucial terms. Or let your students create such a glossary themselves;
- a bibliography of works cited and additional sources. Some students need an extra challenge, so they can read more.
Regularly insert images, such as tables, graphs, photos, videos, etc. A combination of word and image supports students to better process the subject matter. In this way, pictograms can clarify the structure. You can find this in the templates on Ufora. But certain processing tasks can also respond to this in terms of content: let them visualize information in the form of an infographic or similar, for example. Make sure that the images are always relevant. For example, do not just use photos to cheer up your syllabus. Especially with slides, distracting images have an adverse effect on learning performance. Always provide your images with a caption and numbering. In the syllabus text, you refer to that numbering so that students know how text and image are related.
Think carefully about (the use of) your slides. Slides are, in any case, support for your student, but can also offer you guidance. Make sure you do not provide too many slides: guidelines state that you can spend about 3 minutes on a slide, which results in a maximum of 20 slides per hour.
Never put too much text on a slide, but limit yourself to the essence, preferably in words or short sentences. Long sentences ensure that your students are distracted and no longer listen to your story. Use the 1-6-6 rule: put 1 idea per slide in maximum 6 lines and maximum 6 words per line. If you cannot provide a syllabus or other supporting materials, for whatever reason, you can always write out your slides in the notes at the bottom and make them available.
Decide for yourself how many visual elements you add. The more visual elements, the more your students must write down, but the less grip you have as a teacher. Only visual elements on your slides help to draw attention to your story. Note that these slides in themselves have no meaning for students, so their notes become extra important.
Your Digital Learning Materials on Ufora
Post your slides and (link to) additional supporting material on Ufora. This can be done in the form of a learning path.
Be aware that digital learning material does not always have to be offered in a learning path, and that the students can choose the order of the learning content themselves. In that case, make sure that each web page stands on its own. Making the link with other learning content explicit is extra important in that case.
Make sure you give all hyperlinks a meaningful description. For example, do not write ‘Click here’, but ‘Click here to open the article’. This way you help students who use reading software.
Making a text better and understandable is not the same as simplifying it. This applies not only to the vocabulary, but also to the writing style. Write academically, but keep it concise, active, and clear. Be sure to read all the tips that students receive on the language advice website.
Be aware that as a teacher you are using academic words that are new to most students. You are not supposed to avoid those words, quite the contrary. In your learning materials, emphasize that new vocabulary, and ensure that students can consolidate it.
You can do this by creating a glossary with explanations (see above: Structure), whether or not in consultation with your colleagues. For this list, you can use the Word index tool or the Ufora Glossary tool. If you do not know which terms qualify for such a list, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
In addition, put new terms in your syllabus in bold, and only include those terms in your PowerPoint presentation, instead of sentences. Those visualizations help students remember the words. Have students apply the new terminology in activating processing assignments.
Make sure you do not make mistakes against the rules of spelling, grammar, and punctuation. You can also find these rules on the language advice website.
Throw in a piece of your syllabus in the online KULeuven Writing Aid. There you will receive feedback on structure, style and language. Ghent University has purchased a license for Dutch and English: the usernames and passwords can be found at https://www.ugent.be/student/nl/st studenten/taaladvies/schrijfhulp.htm (in Dutch)
How to Make Your Learning Materials Accessible?
Attention to clear language ensures that every student can understand the syllabus and slides more easily, regardless of background characteristics such as an atypical prior education, different home language, etc. For accessibility, not only the language plays a role, but also several practical matters. Make sure the learning materials
- get to the students in time. This way they can optimally prepare for new learning content and terms. In addition, the Education and Examination Code (Article 49, paragraph 1) requires that learning materials about your assessment are available prior to your lessons. Think about what materials you can make available at the beginning of term;
- is affordable. For example, print recto verso and avoid empty intermediate pages. State the cost of the learning materials on the course sheet. Make a distinction between necessary and optional learning materials. Consider whether it makes sense to let students buy expensive textbooks that you only use some parts of;
- is (digitally) accessible for every student. This can be done by subtitling knowledge clips, making manuals and slides available digitally, etc. Students with disabilities may use compensatory software, e.g. SprintPlus, for which they need a digital version of your syllabus. If you have used images, provide them with a clear ‘alternative text’ (in image settings). The software reads that text to clarify what is on the image. Make use of the 'eye' on Ufora to check accessibility of your texts. You will get suggestions for improvements if necessary.
- has a clear layout. Provide a calm syllabus layout by using margins and white lines. Align the text to the left, instead of justifying it: this increases readability. Do not capitalize important words; put them in bold to emphasize instead. Use a sans-serif font, e.g. Calibri or Arial so that even students with reading difficulties can read the text easily. The font size is ideally between 10 and 14, with line spacing of 1.15. Avoid scanned images or texts as they may be blurry. Follow the Ghent University faculty style guide for the cover of your syllabus.
With slides, it is best to use font size 40 for titles, and 28/30 for the standard text. Use the Ghent University templates for a PowerPoint presentation.
How to Make Your Learning Materials Recognizable?
Your learning materials must always appeal to a diverse student group. In the first place, this requires inclusive language use (only in Dutch). For example, replace ‘He/She can…’ (referring to the student) with ‘They can…’.
Keep in mind the different backgrounds of your students. Think carefully about your word choice and do not use discriminatory language. Be aware of stereotypes when using examples and case studies.
Choose visual materials in which students with diverse backgrounds are represented.
Want to Know More?
Consult the sources on which this Education Tip is based:
- Forum Language Policy and Support, workshop Syllabi (2014) https://www.forumtaalbeleidhogeronderwijs.be/
- Schneider & Preckel. Variables associated with achievement in higher education: a systematic review of meta-analyses, 2016
- Checklist course materials, Karel De Grote-hogeschool, 2014
- Competence profile, Language Developing Teacher, Hogeschool van Amsterdam, 2019
- SIHO Guideline universal design: https://www.siho.be/nl/publicaties/leidraad-universeel-ontwerp
- Ghent University webpage on inclusive communication