5 Tips for Designing Course Documents

Here towards the end of the semester, I’m thinking about all of the different kinds of documents I’ve seen left behind on or near the departmental photocopier over the past 15 weeks. And I’ve developed some … opinions about how such documents could be improved.

Here are 5 specific tips I’d like to share with you:

  1. Add the same visible metadata to every document: Remember that each of your documents will have a life independent of the other documents you’re creating for a course. When that document is separated from context, will it be possible for someone to know where it came from or what it’s for? Add some context in the form of a header on each page: put the course name and number, your name, office number, and whatever contact information you wish to share. This information helps a student keep track of which document belongs to which class and reminds them of how to get in touch with you.

  2. Frontload the important stuff: Students use your course documents like a reference work, not like a novel. For example, they’ll revisit an assignment sheet again and again to remind themselves how long an essay needs to be or when it’s due. Don’t slowly reveal the important information; instead, put it at the top of the document in an easy-to-find format. For the essays I assign, I create a bulleted list with the due date, the required number of words, the required format, and how much the assignment is worth.

  3. Use white space: If your primary goal is to save time and paper at the photocopier, you risk ending up with an unreadable gray blob of text in 10-point type (I’ve seen it) stretched across each page. Think instead of the individual who is eventually going to be reading your text and allow yourself generous margins, space between the different parts of the document, and a decent-sized font (12 point is nice).

  4. Use headings and subheadings: To allow your students to quickly scan through text to get to what they want to see, create headings and subheadings to clearly indicate the different parts of your document. This might sound obvious, but I’ve seen plenty of assignments, for example, that have a title at the top of the page and then several paragraphs of prose. This makes it difficult for readers to jump right to the "Research Requirements," say. So make it easier for them by breaking your document up into different sections and then putting a heading at the top of each section.

  5. Use lists and bullet points: When you have several items in a list — possible topics for an essay, steps to take to complete a process — don’t just put them into a sentence, separated by commas. Instead, create an ordered list or a bulleted list. Why? It makes the information much easier to scan, and it allows more breathing room for your information by creating some white space (see point 3 above).

How about you? Do you have any specific suggestions for how to improve the design of course documents? Please share in the comments.

["design sketches" by Andrew Turner is licensed under CC BY]

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