“This is easy to use.”

“Try this simple process.”

Do these statements really lower learners’ fears? Or do they merely set unrealistic expectations that something learners find hard is actually easy to perform — making them feel worse when they have difficulty?

Such presumptuousness about feelings is just one of many types of assumptions that instructional designers make when writing that can undo even the most thought-out design plans. In this article, I specifically explore three of the most common assumptions that instructional designers make when writing, and suggest how to avoid them. 

Assumption 1: About Knowledge

Wait! readers might say. “I perform a thorough needs assessment and, as part of that, I verify the entering knowledge and skills of my learners.”

Perhaps. So why, then, did you use an acronym without spelling it out or terminology without defining it? Or why did you skip over that step to insert the key in the car when explaining instructions for driving?

With time, we often make assumptions about the basic things or overlook important details when writing instructional programs. Some typical issues:

  • Failing to spell out acronyms. The general rule from most writing guides is that instructional designers should spell out an acronym the first time they use it in a document.

But because, in many courses, learners do  not necessarily take lessons in sequence—and because an acronym used in the second screen of lesson 1 might be forgotten by its second use in the middle of lesson 6, learners are likely to forget what the acronym means.

So define acronyms not only on their first use in a course, but also their first use in each lesson and, if more than 6 or 7 screens pass between uses—define it again, because learners easily forget since the focus of the content should be the objectives, not acronyms used in achieving them.

  • Failing to define terms, especially basic ones. Often instructional designers assume that learners know the term, and do not need to have it defined. In other instances, Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) might advise that defining a term insults the intelligence of the learner.

The problem is, many learners either don’t remember the definition or work with one that’s different than yours. Starting out with a false assumption about knowledge can only take learners down a bad path as you try to build on incorrect or incomplete knowledge.

Consider confusion over the terms formative and summative evaluation. For people trained as teachers, formative evaluation refers to the quizzes and exercises given in the middle of a unit to determine how well students are mastering the material; summative evaluation refers to end-of-unit and end-of-year tests. For formally trained instructional designers, however, formative evaluation refers to activities to assess the accuracy, completeness, and usability of learning materials before they go into wide use; summative evaluation refers to results of satisfaction surveys, learning assessments, and assessments of transfer after a course goes into general use.

For those worried about insulting the intelligence of their learners, consider using one of these expressions to introduce a basic term: “As you might be aware,” or “To make sure that we’re all working with the same definition.”

One more tip: placing a definition in a glossary is not the same as defining the term or acronym in text. Although, from a most-technical standpoint the definition is available to learners, from a practical perspective, “out of sight is out of mind.” That is, if the definition does not appear immediately after the first use of the word, learners are not likely to search for the definition, even if a hot link appears. Or, if they do link, there’s a chance they won’t return. So provide definitions in-text.

  • Names without references. Many instructional designers use names of people, places, and organizations without first stating who they are. Although instructional designers might know to whom they’re referring, learners often do not, especially if the reference is to someone or something in an organization and the learner is relatively new to that organization.

With names, state their roles. With places and organizations, briefly state their significance. If they carry history that might not be apparent from the “location” information, briefly explain their significance, too.

  • Missing steps in procedures or logic. In some instances, instructional designers leap from one point to the next, unintentionally overlooking an intermediate step.

Consider this situation: bored with writing, “Type your answer and then press Enter,” one instructional designer decided in unit 5 to shorten the expression to just “Type your answer.” The learner did as told and did not press Enter, since in all of the previous instances the instructional designer said to do so, the learner assumed she didn’t need to press Enter this time. In other words, if you mean something, say something.

So think through all steps—in procedures as well as in logic—to avoid gaps that learners need to fill on their own, and that will either baffle them or leave them waiting for a response that never comes, as in the example just given.

Assumption 2: About Feelings

As noted in the introductory paragraph, in an effort to make learners feel comfortable with material, instructional designers often include messages about the ease, simplicity, or speed with which learners can finish the program.

But what happens if a simple, easy, quick program is anything but that to the learner? Consider the instructional designer who took a “simple, easy, two-hour” Dreamweaver tutorial that took her 14 hours to complete.

Two issues are at work. The first is, “If I say it, it must be true.” That is, if the course tells learners that something is easy or quick, the power of suggestion makes it that way.” But, as many technical or policies–and-procedures trainers who have had to teach around a glitch in the technology or policy have learned through experience, one cannot teach around a problem.

The second issue at work is learners’ responses to the message. Learners generally believe what they read, so, when they read that something should be easy, they assume it’s true. When learners find the material to be challenging, many internalize the problem and assume that they’re the ones with the problem, not the material.

That, in turn, affects their perceptions of their abilities to successfully complete the learning program, a concept known as self-efficacy. Several studies have shown that this self-perception of abilities plays an important role in successfully completing courses.  

Avoiding this assumption involves avoiding the expressions in the first place. Specifically, avoid assumptions about ease, simplicity, and feelings about content.

When providing estimates of the time needed to complete a course, only do so after timing several learners of differing abilities. When using those times, do not report the average time but that time needed for 90 percent of the learners to complete the course. Taking less time than suggested to complete a course does not affect learners in the same way as taking more time.

Assumption 3: About Culture

If you’re American, the following number might make sense to you:


It’s a Social Security Number, used not only to apply for old-age benefits but as an identification number for credit checks, students in colleges or universities, and similar situations.

But if you live outside of the U.S., you don’t have a Social Security Number. For example, Canadians have a SIN (get your minds out of the gutter—it’s a Social Insurance Number).

If your learners are limited to those living in the U.S.A., then you can probably safely use a Social Security Number. But if the learners for your eLearning program live in several countries, you probably want to avoid this. You might use a more generic term, Identification Number.

At the least, using an unfamiliar cultural cue will baffle your learners—meaning that they’ll spend time they should invest in learning on de-coding the unfamiliar cultural reference. At the most, using an unfamiliar cultural cue will incense them—because the instructional designer appears to have made little to no effort to understand them.   

Here are things to consider for simple cultural cues that tend to show up in eLearning. They include formats for temperature (Celsius versus Fahrenheit), measurements (metric [mm, cm, km] versus Imperial [inch, foot, mile]), telephone numbers (the 10-digit North American system is not followed elsewhere), and the side of the street on which people drive (right in some countries, left in others).

Cultural cues range from simple expressions (elevator versus lift) to complex messages (such as historical references and shared values).  

Furthermore, cultural cues are not limited to regional and national culture, but also to occupational culture. For example, within the culture of instructional design, needs assessment and writing measurable instructional objectives are important cues. In contrast, technical communicators—who also write eLearning—focus on audience and task analysis (a variation on needs assessment), and share a primary concern for consistency.

Avoiding assumptions in your own writing

This article explored three common assumptions instructional designers make.  But the list of potential assumptions is so much larger and most books on writing and instructional design emphasize the importance of knowing your learners — not on the use of that knowledge in the choice of sentences and phrases to avoid offending them. 

In closing, here are two practices you can adopt during the development phase of instructional design that may help reduce the impact of assumptions on your writing:

  • Reviews and pilot (or usability) tests.  Alternate views of the writing often identify passages that have the potential to offend learners.  (Indeed, I learned many of these practices through reviews and pilot tests.)
  • Awareness.  The greater your awareness of assumptions when writing, the more likely you might catch yourself in an assumption—and correct it.