5.1 Instructional writing

Instructional writing

Key Concept: Separate description from instruction.

When writing activities for students to undertake independently, you will need to provide enough information for them to understand what is required of them whilst at the same time providing clear and specific instructions. This page looks at approaches to do this, but a good check is to ask a colleague who is not teaching on your module to read over your activity. The ELDT is also able to help with this.

Introducing an activity

The introduction to an activity is just as important as the steps a student must take to complete it. The introduction provides the context, link to learning, and hence motivation, for the activity. Students access online activities outside of the classroom, devoid of any context and may be accessing the activity without undertaking a prerequisite sequence of other activities or resources. This is particularly true in Yorkshare if you are not using adaptive release or sign-posting content, students may be selecting only certain parts of your module site to view.

The following instructional design approach adopts a 9-stage approach to activity construction. Whilst instruction design is a pedagogical approach in its own right, the principles translate well to the writing of instructions for online activities:

  1. Gaining attention
  2. Informing the learner of the objective
  3. Stimulating recall of prerequisite learning
  4. Presenting the stimulus material
  5. Providing learning guidance
  6. Eliciting the performance
  7. Providing feedback about performance correctness
  8. Assessing the performance
  9. Enhancing retention and transfer

Source: Gagné et al. (1992, p.190).

Here, the activity of the student doesn’t start until step 6, with the first 5 steps presenting information and context to the activity. As an example, below is the introduction to a blog activity. The activity heading is clear and provides a succinct description of this task (step 1), with subsequent detail addressing steps 2-5 to enable the student to undertake the task. Step 6 is the student undertaking the task, this is where learning begins in this activity. Steps 7-9 would take place in the seminar.

Example of an introduction

TASK: Weekly news blog

This task is designed to get you thinking about how the issues we discuss in lectures are manifested in current affairs as reported through news websites and other media. You will be expected to find a news article, draw upon theory from this week’s lecture and interpret through a short blog post how that theory is evidenced by the news article.

Each week you will need to make sure you have attended the lecture or watched the recording to understand that week’s topic in order to participate. You can choose your own news website and you can use multiple sites during the module, however you may be asked to justify your choice of article in the seminar. You will need to complete your post each week the day before your seminar for this module. Your posts will then be used to start the seminar discussion.

[Step-by-step guidance for accessing the blog, writing the post and submitting it would go here]

Separate description from instruction

One of the challenges of writing activity instructions is making them easily understood and actionable by students. There are some golden rules to stick to:

  • Provide a contextual introduction and overview first, separated from the step-by-step requirements.
  • Instructions should not contain additional or conditional information. Require one action per point.
  • Step-by-step guides should be in a numerical list and for clarity to encourage action should start with a verb.
  • Supplementary information should use non-numeric bullet points, i.e. they do not need to be read or used in sequence.
  • Use consistent highlighting (e.g. bold) to indicate user interface text or elements (e.g. buttons, links).

Poor example of instructions

Once you have completed your work, submit it to the drop box below with your name and the title of your work in the filename. You should only submit in .docx format, if you need to convert it from another format we have some helpful guides available. You will get feedback on your work via the drop box.

Good example of instructions

You will need to complete your work by 2nd December 2015 and submit it in a Word (.docx) format to the drop box below. The filename should include:

  • Your name
  • Title of your work

You will receive feedback within four weeks. An announcement will be posted and you will be able to view your feedback by clicking the drop box link. If you have any problems, please contact myemail@york.ac.uk.

How to submit:

  1. Click the Drop Box: First assignment link below.
  2. Upload your work using the Browse button.
  3. Click Submit at the bottom of the page.


  • Assignment submission
  • Converting to a .docx format

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