Writing effective online units

Do you find that students don’t read all the content in your unit site? Do they skip steps, or complain that there is too much content?

They’re not alone. A Nielsen Norman Group study (1997) found that only 16 percent of online users read a webpage word for word. The majority of online readers skim-read, and it’s not because they are lazy. It’s an adaption to the disorientation that occurs when reading on a screen (Nichols, 2020, p. 38) and the overload of information found on the internet (Nielsen, 1997).

Here’s the good news. By applying the following key strategies and techniques to your writing, you can dramatically improve your students’ ability to grasp the content in your unit site.

Why read this?

Readers are 10 to 30 per cent slower (Kurniawan & Zaphiris, 2001), and more likely to skim-read (Nielsen, 1997), when reading on a screen compared with reading a printed page. Without physical structures such as pages, chapters and static headings in a printed document, we have to work harder to create a mental model of the concepts in an online document (Nichols, 2020, p. 38; Thüring et al., 1995, p. 57).

If you include large volumes of dense, academic text in your unit site, your students will have to deal with disorientation and increased cognitive load. Despite your expertise in academic writing, students may still struggle to comprehend what you have written when they are reading from a screen.

This series of articles outlines the key strategies and techniques adopted by successful online writers to improve a reader’s ability to grasp online content. By decreasing the factors that add to cognitive overload, and increasing factors that support comprehension (Nichols, 2020, p. 38; Kurniawan & Zaphiris, 2001), you can help your students comprehend and retain the written content in your site. See the quick-glance summary for an overview of the key recommendations.

Please note

Academic literature is a crucial part of student learning and understanding, and the approaches outlined below are not designed to tone down university study. An effectively written online unit will provide a scaffold and curated pathway that assists students to develop the necessary higher level understanding and application of academic literature.

This article will guide you through the following steps to write effective unit content:

Step 1. Before you start writing

1.1 Get to know your student audience

1.2. Map out your heading structure

Step 2. While you are writing

2.1 Write for your student audience

2.2 Write for impact on a screen, not a printed page

Step 3. Editing and redrafting

3.1 Start bigger-picture, then narrow your focus


Kurniawan, S., & Zaphiris, P. (2001). Reading online or on paper: Which is faster? [Paper presentation] 9th International Conference on Human Computer Interaction, New Orleans, LA, United States. https://ktisis.cut.ac.cy/handle/10488/5247

Morkes, J., & Nielsen, J. (1998, January 6). Applying writing guidelines to web pages. Nielsen Norman Group. https://www.nngroup.com/articles/applying-writing-guidelines-web-pages/

Nichols, M. (2020). Reading and studying on the screen: An overview of literature towards good learning design practice. Journal of Open, Flexible and Distance Learning, 24(1), 121–131. https://search.informit.org/doi/10.3316/informit.195571684952519

Nielsen, J. (1997, September 30). How users read on the web. Nielsen Norman Group. https://www.nngroup.com/articles/how-users-read-on-the-web/

Thüring M., Hannemann J. & Haake J.M. (1995). Hypermedia and cognition: Designing for comprehension. Communications of the ACM, 38(8), 57–66. https://doi.org/10.1145/208344.208348

(Please note - it's better to refer to the Online version rather than export, as it's always up to date)