Academic journal article English Journal

Designing and Testing Multimodal Instruction Sets: Writing for Real-Life Users

Academic journal article English Journal

Designing and Testing Multimodal Instruction Sets: Writing for Real-Life Users

Article excerpt

How many of you are working right I now, have jobs?" I asked my class of sophomore technical writing students.

Half the class raises their hand.

"What about babysitting, lawn work? Those are jobs," I encourage.

I select a newly raised hand. "Chris, what would happen if you needed your brother to take over a regular babysitting shift for you? What types of things would you need to let him know?"

The student considers. "Hmm, which snacks are OK for the kid to eat . . . what time he goes to bed . . . his bed and bath routine . . . where to find everything."

"How would you explain it?"

"I'd pretty much just walk through a typical babysitting night, thinking of what happens at what time and how to do it . . . where stuff is . . . what is important to know . . . . Hm, I'd probably make a list of things to know . . . write it down for him . . . there is a lot to remember and keep track of, like allergies or how his parents like things to be done."

"It's hard being in a new situation," someone comments. Nods all around.


One student offers, "You aren't sure what to do, or even who to ask if you have questions. My new job was hard at first. I didn't know where anything was or how to do anything. I had to ask others to show me."

Another adds, "It takes a little while to know what to do and how to do it right."

"What do you do if you don't know how to do something?"

"Ask someone."

"Google it!"


"What was the last thing you Googled how to do?"



"Hey, say what you want-but I know how to do it now!"

What these students are naturally describing is procedural-or "how to"-knowledge. By now, many of your students have probably used YouTube, WikiHow, or Instructables to learn how to complete a task in everyday life. Instructions are everywhere-in print, video, and photo form- lending multimodal flexibility to how the user learns the new material.

Instruction sets and usability testing are fun, yet difficult, to create. The writer learns how to help users complete an action. The writer also learns valuable methods of critiquing another student's writing and information display strategies, similar to traditional peer review. This project has excellent potential to be of interest to most students: they get to explain a topic they are passionate about, whether it is machinery, software, or crafting. It doesn't feel like writing. However, the documentation process still incorporates the traditional document cycle of brainstorming, planning, drafting, designing, testing, and revising the document to meet its end goal (Boiarsky and Dobberstein 535; Seibert; Tebeaux and Dragga).

One of my students, Sarah, developed instructions for completing one's first management shift at a fast-food restaurant (Bear92495). She walks her user, a new management trainee, through the pre-shift checklists that management needs to complete each night. Students learn how teaching another person can be difficult and how it requires thinking from the other person's point of view. Students act as an expert about their process, explaining their ideas to a non-expert. Incorporating this assignment may be an easy way to connect with students who enjoy technical, hands-on assignments but may be reluctant to write in traditional classroom genres. Most high school writing assignments are based on literary analysis or developing an argument, which may not connect with all students' interests (Schunn et al. 1). Assignments that have applicable, hands-on productions and outcomes, and are directly related to a student's everyday duties, may be more appealing to students who ask, "When will I ever use this in real life?"

Encouraging the Reluctant Writer

Instructions are a particularly good way to encourage writing in students who may not be interested in pursuing a college career. No matter what type of position students hold after graduation, at some point, they will be learning a process or training another person. …

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