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Making course materials more user friendly

All course materials, including a syllabus, handouts and Blackboard site, should be designed with your students in mind. That means making documents easy to follow, making material easy to find on Blackboard, using language that students will understand, and making sure that your materials are accessible by screen readers. None of that is complicated. Nor is there a single approach to making your materials user friendly. Here are a few things to think about, drawn from research in print and web design, and best practices in online course development.


  • Create a landing page that guides students to course material. You can set a page as a landing page in the Customization area of Blackboard.
  • Make sure your syllabus and contact information are easy to find.
  • Use short paragraphs, headers, boldfacing and other typographical elements to break up material and make it easier to read.
  • Create modules or folders to make each week’s materials easy to find.
  • Explain to students what they will be doing in each module and assignment. I suggest creating learning goals for each week and explaining how students can achieve those goals.
  • Create an area where students can ask and answer questions. You can do this with Blackboard or with other communication tools.
  • Use embedded links rather than pasting links alongside descriptions. This saves space and makes pages much easier to read.
  • Open documents in new pages. When you to a document or image, Blackboard will by default try to open it within the Blackboard template. Often that sends students to another page with a link. You can get around that by changing the dropdown in the "Target" dialogue box to "Open in new window."

Course documents

  • In your syllabus, explain in clear language (not course catalog copy) what students will learn and do in the class. One way to do this is through an introduction to the class that helps students understand the broader scope of the class and helps them understand how the class will help them.
  • In your syllabus and other course documents, use visual and typographical elements that help draw students in. In other words, create documents that students want to read. Some ways to do this:
    • short paragraphs
    • defined headers
    • boldfacing and other typographical elements to make materials more legible
    • artwork or other elements to break up blocks of text
  • Use defined headers and other styles in Word (in the Home tab) so that the documents can be easily read by screen readers.
  • Run the accessibility checker in Word. You will find it under the Review tab.

Resources on making your materials more user friendly

  • Effect of syllabus tone: students’ perceptions of instructor and course. Harnish, Richard J., and Bridges, Robert K. Social Psychology of Education 14 (2011): 319-330.
  • Plain Language Is for Everyone, Even Experts. Loranger, Hoa. Nielsen Norman Group, 8 October 2017.
  • Quality Matters. An organization that has set widely accepted standards for online course design and usability.
  • Recommended syllabus compo­nents: What do higher education faculty include in their syllabi? Doolittle, P. E., & Siudzinski, R. A. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching 20:3 (2010): 29-61.
  • The Evolving Role of Syllabi in Higher Education. Palmer, Michael S.; Wheeler, Lindsay B., and Aneece, Itiya. Change, July/August 2016: 36-46
  • Video Usability. Schade, Amy. Nielsen Norman Group, 16 November 2014.
  • Why Chunking Is Important (video). Moran, Kate. Nielsen Norman Group, 12 October 2018.
  • Your Syllabus Doesn’t Have to Look Like a Contract. Gooblar, David. Chronicle of Higher Education, 26 July 2017.