Does Your Content Put People to Sleep?

You can forgive if the shot is not right, or the lighting is a bit off, but not if the writing is bad.”

Moran Atlas

One day in a literature class, I felt my pen slide across the page. I jerked awake and my pen made a jagged ridgeline in my notes. When I tried to read them later, I found them nearly illegible because I had fallen asleep so many times.

IMG_20150513_153748820-2  Have you ever fallen asleep in class? It’s particularly embarrassing when you sit in front, as I always did. My professor told endless anecdotes that were not only irrelevant, but also incomprehensible. And definitely dull.

He often started in an imaginative way, but he just couldn’t hold onto his subject matter without letting it get flabby. He was in serious need of toning up his middle.

Today we’re going to talk about how to win the battle of the bulge when it’s your subject matter and your audience’s engagement on the line. I’m focusing the conversation on classes, but the takeaways apply to all writing that goes soft in the middle.

Think for a minute about the structure of any piece of writing. Traditional outlining requires you to note your central thesis and the main points that will develop your thesis. Essentially, a class is like a paper in this way—you introduce the topic, develop it, conclude.

But a class is not a paper, and an online course is not an eBook with some visuals. You have to engage your audience throughout—just as you do for any article or book.

Before we tackle some of ways to keep your students on board throughout an entire class, here are a few key research findings you need to know:

  • The average student’s attention span is between ten and twenty minutes.
  • Research suggests that students are focally aware of the lecture content only about 50 to 60 percent of the time.
  • Students can absorb only three to five points in a 50-minute period and four to five points in a 75-minute class.
  • After 10 to 20 minutes of continuous lecture, assimilation falls off rapidly.
  • Students learn more in classes that allow for active involvement and participation.

What can we extrapolate from this?

  • You need to refocus attention again and again by using active engagement—i.e., interactivity.
  • You need to limit the number of points.
  • You need to restate and support content in different ways to help students absorb the points and stay interested.
  • Engage, engage, engage!

What I’ve found as I’ve worked with professors crafting online courses is that the middle tends to fall apart. They try to rush through to the end. They get bored themselves. They forget to use all the juicy devices that make for a compelling introduction and a satisfying conclusion. The body needs those devices just as much.

I don’t want to repeat those tips here. You can apply many of the same techniques to sparking up the body, though, so read those blogs in the archives to find out how:

“Save my babies!”—7 Ways to Make Your Students Care about Your Online Course
Riding off into the Sunset—How to Close with a Bang, not a Whimper

Let’s look at some additional techniques that will help you organize your writing so it keeps up a snappy pace from start to finish.

Prep by writing an outline of some sort. Few people are willing to do the Roman numeral; capital A; 1, 2, 3 kind of outline anymore. But you’ve got to do something to provide a structural foundation to your writing. Otherwise your middle will sneak up on you, and you’ll be wandering around like you’re at a buffet line, picking up a little of this and a little of that. Your plate will be overloaded, and when you sit down to start eating, you’ll discover you only have two bites of the stuff you actually like. Or you simply overeat yourself into a coma.

Having a sound structure is like knowing what diet you’re on before you go to the buffet table. Building that structure will be the subject of another blog. For now, at least before you start writing or even if you’re halfway through writing your lesson, take time to think of what happens in the middle.

An analogy that has helped many of my clients is this: Think of your content as the stones enabling you to cross a river. Each major point is a stone. Use too many, and you’re going to walk funny. Use too few, and you’re going to fall in. Use a variety of stones, and you pay attention to where you’re stepping.

Bottom line: what stones do you really need? Those are your key points. You can “act” this out by putting your points on sticky notes or index cards and building your bridge from one side to another. It’s easy to rearrange them, add more, or throw some out. This is helpful to those who think better by doing something physical. You can also move the pieces around in a word document or shuffle slides in PowerPoint or Keynote.

So—assuming your points are logical in content and placement, what else do you need to do to keep us awake?

Every time you write a sentence about a main point, ask “So what?” So what, what does that mean? To connect with your audience on a deeper level, you have to be able to dig deep to show what each point is really solving.

 In an online course, one thing you can do is to act as if your students are present in front of you. Talk to them. Ask them discoverable questions—ones they must ponder. Pause 5 seconds to let them formulate their answers. Why is that pause so important?

Because otherwise, you fill in the gap and don’t give them time to think of any answers. Then the technique is useless.

You can use questions in an article or book just as effectively.

Vary how you explain your key points. I once heard a professor explain how to do a complex equation in three different ways: one, a straightforward explication; two, a demonstration with some cardboard models; three, by telling a story that drew a parallel to the process. I am not a math whiz, but I understood how to do the equation once I’d been taken through it three ways.

Use analogies to help draw comparisons that will create connections. We learn by association. Provoke some interaction by asking directly, “What else does it remind you of?” Or use an analogy throughout, as I am, to keep your students refocusing by redrawing the comparison in different ways. It’s like preparing your meat by grilling, frying, or roasting. The meat is the same, but the flavors are different. It activates our taste buds and keeps us going back for more.

Contextualize the material. Help students connect the dots. Learning that is isolated is hard to remember and to pay attention to. Social, political, artistic, or musical context, to name a few possibilities—any of these can bring relevance to material while also making it more engaging.

Ask for predictions and possibilities that trigger the imagination. “What else could have happened? How could we ____? What will happen next?” This approach makes the material feel more like a live event, a mystery of sorts. You want to know how it will turn out in the end.

Ask questions that lend themselves to generalizations and theories: “What is the same about ___ and ____? Why is it that way?”

Look at your sentence structure. What is the pattern of your sentences? Do you always have long sentences? Short sentences? Varying your sentence structure will help you modify how you explain things, even how you speak aloud. You’ll be more alert to how speak, and that will lead to additional variety. Changing your pacing will help your audience stay on their toes, too.

If you have three to five main points to cover, each of those points offers an opportunity to change up how you are delivering the content. You can add in an anecdote here, a demonstration there, a question in another place. Your method shouldn’t be robotic—alter your approach according to the content and what feels natural to you. But if presenting all the material the same way for every point is what feels natural—then applying a system will be better than not varying anything.

A lot of research has been done to try to answer the question of whether there are distinct learning styles. While some people would argue otherwise, it appears that mixing all learning styles is what has the greatest impact. Appeal to people through sound, visuals, and movement—mix and match to shake things up.

When you sit down to eat, sometimes the first or the last bite feels like the best. But with these tips, every bite can be just as satisfying. And your audience won’t nod off in the middle of the meal.

Feed your students the best of what you cook up, from the appetizer through the main course to the dessert.

Question: What techniques have you used to keep your students alert from start to finish?”

Post your comments below! I’d love to hear from you!

Thanks for joining me in this week’s blog. Tune in next Friday for Issue #7 of “Everything You Need to Know to Create Outstanding Online Courses.” We’ll be talking about a unique way to get started writing:”Why Your First Drafts Should Be Crappy!”

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About Marcy McDonald

Marcy on assignment in Siena, Italy

Online Course Producer

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