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Better Science for Better Learning: Text Layout

Friday, October 18, 2019
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We can improve how we arrange text in learning materials. I’ll use a screen as our medium for arrangement, but you can apply these ideas to computer or handheld screens, slide projections, or printed pages.

First, choose an answer to this question: If you want a group of learners to discuss your text, what’s the best way to display it?

A. Cram all the relevant facts onto one screen.
B. Break groups of related facts onto separate screens.

Which is correct? Well, that depends. We’ve all yawned our way through screens packed with blathering bullet points, and we’ve all stared vacantly at screens showing one incomprehensible phrase in gigantic type. In neither case have the authors understood when to include full text and when to go minimal—an understanding that will point you toward the right answer to my question. It’s a matter of goals. Do you want to transfer information or support discussion?

To Transfer Information, Present Bit-by-Bit Sequences

Suppose your content breaks comfortably into bullet points. Contrary to popular belief, you can put as many bullet points on one screen as you like if you sequentially post them. Don’t pop them onscreen all at once. Show one for a moment then add the next one. This gives learners time to absorb your information step-by-step without cognitive overload.

Advice based on research by learning scientists says to:

Describe, Don’t Explain
To maximize remembering and understanding, reduce each bullet point to a short sentence with a subject and predicate. Don’t write Storage Temperature, which is a heading without context. And don’t write For best results, keep an acidic solution’s storage temperature below 45 degrees centigrade except in the tropics, which will undoubtedly put your readers to sleep. Instead, reduce your bullet text to Store acids below 45°C. Move your explanation out of the bullet and into nearby supporting text or spoken narration. (By the way, this also applies to the heading at the top of your screen. Learners will better remember your content if you write a short sentence rather than a traditional topic title.)

Don’t Narrate Word for Word
If you’re presenting live or with audio visual media, never read your text aloud word for word. Some learning software companies promote this feature, but making learners listen to something spoken slowly at the same time they read it rapidly can reduce how much they’ll remember.

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Limit Your Line Length
For longer text, even in headings, pull in your side margins so the text is no more than eight or so words across. Try putting a graphic alongside your text rather than above or below it. Because of the way humans scan and process text, longer lines slow down reading and reduce remembrance. That’s a lose-lose for your learners.

To Support Discussion, Present Rich Information Sets

The game changes when you want to support a discussion or help someone make a decision. Presenting information bit by bit can lead your audience to a foregone conclusion, which is the enemy of real discussion. Instead follow these best practices:

Visualize Each Topic As a Relationship
Let the nature of that relationship direct your visual display. For example, you may use a table to demonstrate a pattern and use color to make concordances or exceptions stand out. But to enumerate a process or an order of importance, a list of bullet points might be more effective.

Put All Relevant Information on Screen
Give your audience everything they need to have a rich discussion or make an informed decision. Don’t worry about crowding your screen. Instead, focus on ways to organize all that information as clearly as possible.

Dump the Junk
3-D graphs, dancing type, and fancy illustrations can interfere with learning. Keep your layouts stable, flat, and clear.

By the way, here’s a better way to conclude a face-to-face or synchronous presentation. Don’t display a huge question mark and ask, “Any questions?” By now, learners have forgotten what puzzled them 20 minutes ago. Instead, post a heading like Have more questions? or Need to review anything? Under this, display a well-organized, point-by-point summary (brief points, please!) of every important topic that you covered. This will remind learners what to ask, while turning question-time into a useful review.

There’s more to laying out learning text than I cover here. But I offer you best practices embedded in a useful insight. Fads begone! When your instructional design shifts from explaining things to promoting discussion, shift your layout style from minimalist sequencing to rich information sets.

Looking for more about text for learning? Try Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer’s E-Learning and the Science of Instruction. And even if you know Edward Tufte’s pathbreaking work, check out Stephanie Evergreen’s Effective Data Visualization: The Right Chart for the Right Data.

Two weeks from now, we’ll look at ways to streamline guided practice. In the meantime, please post suggestions or stories about terrible text in the comments below.

About the Author

Douglas Lieberman offers short-term consulting and targeted problem solving for difficult challenges in skill building and behavior change. For more than a decade he was a member of IBM’s Center for Advanced Learning, where he led the award-winning, patent pending Adaptive Learner approach to innovative thinking, and he created the instructional standards for IBM Watson employees’ required online training in artificial intelligence. Now he works with IBM’s P-Tech initiative, bringing technical training to underserved populations around the world.

1 Comment
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This column is the learning designer's version of "The San Francisco Chronicle"'s serialized *Tales of the City*! Thanks for another great installment. Your tip for the final slide reminds me a bit of how I was trained as a facilitator: Instead of asking, "Does anyone have questions?" we asked, "Who has questions?" Thanks, too, for adding sources that qualify where the research came from.
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