Improving Your Learning Material

We’ve all come across learning materials we think are brilliant, and maybe some we don’t rate at all. How can you ensure that your learning material is as good as it can possibly be? Wordhouse has five top tips.

Image of student and professor working through textbook

Tip 1: Get your learners to do something


There’s a proverb – often attributed to Confucius – which goes something like this: ‘I hear, and I forget; I see, and I remember; I do, and I understand.’ It’s well worth remembering this whenever you’re writing or trying to improve learning material.


It’s a well acknowledged fact that most people learn more effectively if they do something with the material or information they’re trying to come to grips with. Think of it like this – you’d never learn to ride a bike by just reading a manual about it, would you? Well the same principle applies to all learning tasks, whether they’re skills-based or more conceptual in nature.


For example, if you’re teaching someone double-entry bookkeeping for the first time, show them a quick example and then get them to draw up some crude ledgers of their own, using information you’ve provided. They will almost certainly make mistakes as they go along, but they will learn from these mistakes. And the theory will be more readily understood when they come to it later.

Tip 2: Get them to be active early on


Activity gets the learner involved and motivated from the outset, rather than passively trying to take in knowledge. So introduce activity early on in your learning session.


It’s like kicking off your training session or lesson with a warm-up activity or ice-breaker. We’ve all seen students drift off when the teacher takes too long at the beginning of a lesson to explain the principles, history or background to something. Well the same applies to learning material – whether printed or online. Get your learner involved in a practical example, and it will engage them straight away, help them to put the theory into some sort of context and, most importantly, stimulate their interest in the subject.


Some of your learners – those who’ve already got some experience or knowledge of the subject, for example – may want to move more quickly on to a reflective activity or state, so you need to build this possibility into your learning plan.

Tip 3:  Give them a helping hand


Rather than explain a task or exercise, and then leave them to get on with it, give your learner a helping hand. Do a little part of the exercise for them, especially if there is any chance they may not fully understand what they are being asked to do. It will ease them into the problem, and make them more confident about trying it themselves. Otherwise, there’s a danger they may just skip it, because it’s apparently too difficult.


If you’re asking learners to complete a table (where you’ve provided the column and row headings for example) fill in one or two of the cells for them. It will make them feel much more confident about having a go themselves. Or if you’re asking learners to think of three examples of a particular topic, give them the first one. They’ll learn just as much by coming up with the other two, but at least they’re less likely to give up because they simply didn’t understand what you were asking for.


Don’t forget, the purpose of an exercise should never be to try and catch your learner out. That's like a bit like tripping up a trainee athlete just as they’re coming out of the starting blocks.

Tip 4: Always give them feedback


Feedback is crucial for building confidence. Many first-time writers of learning material understand this in relation to their face-to-face teaching experiences. But they fail to apply it properly to their written material, especially when the questions or activities are open-ended or draw on the experience of the learner.


The excuse is often that, in written material, we don’t personally know the learner individually, therefore how can we give them meaningful feedback? The truth is, you can’t know exactly how the learner will have responded to your question. But if you are familiar with the types of learners your material is aimed at (and you certainly should, if you’ve been asked to write material for that audience), then you can probably hazard an inspired guess as to what kind of responses they might have made.


For example, you might ask your learner to think of an instance in which they have experienced a particular problem, and then to say how they could have handled it better using a technique you’ve just taught them. You won’t know which particular experience they may have noted down, but you can still come up with really helpful feedback as follows, for example: ‘You might have mentioned an experience involving…[mention a common example]…in which case you might have handled it better by…[give an example of good application of the technique].’ This won’t cover all learners’ experiences, of course, but even if they have thought of something quite different, at least they’ve now got an example to compare with their own personal response.


Write some kind of feedback into all learning activities, questions or exercises, no matter how open-ended or personal they are.

Tip 5:  Variety is the spice of life


A constant diet of exactly the same type of learning activity can be dull and lifeless. So spice up your learning material by creating new tasks that reinforce the learning in each section.


There’s nothing worse than page after page (or screen after screen) of similar-looking blocks of text followed by the same old style of question and answer – especially in a long sequence of learning. Think of different types of activities, to keep your learner interested. For example, in any one learning session you could offer learners a case study to analyse, a set of multiple choice questions, a brief report to write and a table to complete. Not only will this help to keep them alert as they learn, it will also mean that learners with different learning styles are more likely to have an opportunity to use the skills they prefer to use or are best at using.


Don’t forget: nobody complains about learning materials being too exciting.

Bonus tip: Make it fun too!


Finally, you won’t hear many people say they prefer a boring lesson to a fun one. So try to surprise your learners occasionally by helping them see the funny side of things, by showing them a real-life example, by giving them a picture to look at instead of text to read, or by mentioning a personal experience or anecdote, for example.


Remember that using learning material can be a lonely and isolating experience for learners. Try to inject into your learning material the same sort of warmth, informality and humour as you would in a classroom, training suite, lecture hall or tutorial situation.


You can never be too prescriptive in creating learning materials. What suits one organisation may not be right for another. But follow these tips and you can guarantee that your learning materials will focus attention, reinforce the information and inject memory-fixing fun into the learning process. And that, as they say, is priceless.

To find out how Wordhouse can help breathe life into your learning materials, speak to Stephen Wellings on 0118 961 7578 or email him at