In this post I’m going to look at the concept of a ‘plain English’ approach to student information, often cited as a panacea for miscommunication with students and applicants. In what ways do universities make adjustments to their use of language with the aim of improving the comprehension of their messages and how might such attempts be adopted in other areas of university life?
Course Information includes module guides, programme specifications, student handbooks, course pages on a university’s website, prospectuses and other marketing information. A lengthy article from Jisc on ‘Managing course information’ includes the statement that “Consumers of course information are many and varied and can be both internal and external to the organisation.” It is therefore a challenge to produce information that fulfils multiple aims and is relevant to different audiences. This quote in the article from the University of Birmingham highlights a potential pitfall:
“Currently programme and module descriptions are written as part of the approval process by the programme/module proposer who in the majority of cases is an academic from the host school. The content and detail of these descriptions varies depending on the author but at times can be very subject specific and quite heavy in detail. These descriptions are often written to provide detail to approval committees rather than with a student focus.” – University of Birmingham (Jisc, 2013)
The article goes on to provide some examples of universities to have developed guidance on writing course information documents with a student audience in mind. It also includes a section on the use of language in course information and a list of ‘Tips for student friendly language’. These are reproduced here for ease of reference:
- ‘You’ not ‘the student’
- Active not passive verb forms
- Verbs rather than abstract nouns
- Acronyms spelt out
- Technical words used with care
From the City University London guidance (accessible via the Jisc article):
“When you are developing your documents you should now write them as if you were talking to the student face to face. This provides an oppportunity [sic] to use language they will understand but also helps you make them more interesting and include the things you think are really good about your programme and module.”
This approach perhaps brings course information documents more in sync with marketing information, as published on university websites and in prospectuses, and reduces the need to produce two sets of information for separate audiences.
Website information: here are two guides to writing content for university websites, both advocating an approach with similarities to the aforementioned student-friendly language. 1) University of Bath; 2) University of Bradford. There are sections in these guides on the use of ‘plain English’ with a number of useful pointers. The Bath guide has a list of words to avoid, which would see an end to ‘going forward’, ‘overarching’ and ‘one-stop shop’. It advocates writing conversationally, “picture your audience and write as if you were talking to them one-to-one but with the authority of someone who can actively help”. However, a line in the Bradford guide is cautionary when applied to writing course documentation in this manner: “Whenever you’re writing for the web, remember users tend to scan websites, not read content word for word.”
Calls for a plain English approach permeate into aspects of university administration. A Good Practice Guide from the AUA (available to members only) advises the use of clear language when drafting policies and procedures. It’s top tips are as follows:
Regulations are an area of often impenetrable terminology, designed by committee and subject to incremental change. They serve a number of audiences, with the principal aim of setting-out the rules governing a university’s academic standards and how these are maintained. The guidance from the Competition & Markets Authority on university’s obligations under consumer law seeks to influence the language used by universities when drafting rules and regulations:
“Unfair terms legislation requires that your terms must be written in plain and intelligible language – they must be clear, transparent and legible, and students must be able to understand the terms, how they affect their rights and obligations, and how the terms could impact them. You are more likely to achieve this if your contracts and rules and regulations are intuitively laid out, use meaningful headings, are written in plain English and explain any terminology used.” (42, CMA, 2015)
Committee minutes, similar to regulations, are sometimes written in an impenetrable style using acronyms and formal language. This appendix to MMU’s Committee Handbook has guidelines for writing minutes in a plain English style:
- Keep sentences short.
- Where possible, write active rather than passive phrases eg “Members noted that…” rather than “it was noted by members that…”. Although passive phrases are useful when
you want to avoid identifying somebody (eg by writing “it was reported…” rather than “Tom Smith reported…”) try to keep most phrases active.
- Use the simplest words that are appropriate, and avoid jargon and legalese.
- Try to use verbs rather than abstract nouns like “consideration”, “approval” “clarification”. For example “further to members’ consideration of the matter it was agreed” reads better as “having considered the matter members agreed…”.
- Use bullet points and numbered lists where appropriate.
So, there are plenty of tips available. The challenge comes in finding appropriate, intelligible and accessible language to convey information accurately. Regulations, policies and committee minutes often become verbose in an attempt to avoid misunderstandings, whereas the result may be quite the opposite.
An alternative approach to writing formal minutes, and perhaps other documents, might be to produce something more illustrative, such as this example from Katrina Swanton (Head of Quality & Enhancement, Edinburgh Napier University) from the QAA conference:
It elegantly summarises the key points from a conference session on a single sheet by combining key points and visual representations. For me, it points to the benefits of a mixed approach, particularly for those with a more visually-orientated learning style. The AUA good practice guide advocates the use of flowcharts or diagrams to illustrate processes and such an approach can help by breaking-up long sections of text and providing more immediately comprehensible information.
The HE sector may not yet be ready for committee minutes or policy documents in this format but it does offer food-for-thought and the principle of freeing ourselves from a single, conventional style.
Association of University Administrators (AUA) (2016) ‘Writing Clearly: Avoiding complex language in drafting policies and procedures (Good Practice Guide #44)’. Available at: http://members.aua.ac.uk/uploadedfiles/pdfs/GPG_44_writing_clearly.pdf (access restricted to AUA members) [Accessed 7 June 2017]
Competition & Markets Authority (CMA) (2015) ‘Advice for higher education providers and undergraduate students – Information on your consumer law obligations/rights’. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/428549/HE_providers_-_advice_on_consumer_protection_law.pdf [Accessed 2 June 2017]
Jisc (2013). Managing Course Information [Online]. Available at: https://www.jisc.ac.uk/full-guide/managing-course-information [Accessed 2 June 2017]
University of Bath (n.d.). Writing for the web [Online]. Available at: http://www.bath.ac.uk/guides/writing-for-the-web/ [Accessed 2 June 2017]
University of Bradford (n.d.). Write in Plain English [Online]. Available at: http://www.bradford.ac.uk/external-affairs/web-team/web-style-guide-and-content-tips/plain-english/ [Accessed 2 June 2017]
Manchester Metropolitan University (n.d.) ‘Committee Handbook 2016-17 Appendix J’. Available at: https://www.mmu.ac.uk/sas/govandsec/committeehandbook/APPX_J_PLAIN_ENGLISH.pdf [Accessed 2 June 2017]