Step 1. Before you start writing

Note: This page takes you through the first of three steps outlined as part of the article 'Writing effective online units'.

You have planned the core curriculum content and the assessment details. You have a clear idea of what needs to be covered in each unit module. Time to start writing the content, right?

Hold on. The main reason why capable writing fails to be effective is because it doesn’t speak to its audience. The necessary planning you have done so far has focussed on students working towards the learning outcomes by the end of your unit.  Now it’s time to focus on the start of the unit and look at your content from the student perspective. Remember, the content you are presenting is new to students. They don’t yet know what you know. In order to ‘reach’ your student audience, focus on their perspectives as you write. Express your content in the context of their current skills and knowledge. Engage their interest by linking your content to their likely professional goals.

Follow these steps when planning your online unit: 

1.1 Get to know your student audience

To write effectively for your student audience, look for ways to connect your content with their interests and goals. Research their demographics, brainstorm their motivations for studying, identify their short- and long-term goals. What will spark their curiosity? What should they already know? What difficult concepts are they likely to struggle with?

Creating an empathy map of your students will help you consider what they are likely to think, feel and do while they progress through your unit. This will help you contextualise your content in terms of your students’ interests, abilities and goals.

This will help you turn what students need to know into what they want to know.


See the Knowledge Base article: Create an empathy map of your students for a tool to help you identify the goals, interests and points of curiosity of your student audience.

1.2 Map out your heading structure

An effective heading structure is the backbone of an effective module. By mapping out a clear structure of your content, you will decrease disorientation when reading on a screen and help students create a mental map of the information.

Some guidelines for mapping out a heading structure:

  • A good heading structure flows logically, follows a deliberate progression, is easy to scan, and sparks interest or curiosity.
  • Your headings could be questions that engage students to read further ‘Why does soil erode?’, or articulate steps in a process ‘Step 1. Ingestion - getting the food into the body’.
  • Avoid jargon-heavy headings which lack context such as ‘The Endoplasmic Reticulum’; instead you could use ‘Transportation in the cell through the Endoplastic Reticulum’. This heading will reinforce the function of the Endoplastic reticulum, which is critical for students to remember.

1. Map out the structure by deliberately chunking your content

Follow this process to map out your heading structure:  

  1. Organise your key concepts into digestible chunks, then break these down into logical sub-sections.
  2. Identify the key concept or point of interest in each chunk and sub-section, then use those to write each heading.
  3. Scan through the heading structure. It should provide a ‘quick-scan’ outline of the content and allow your students to digest one concept at a time before moving to the next.

This process will also break your writing process into manageable chunks and help you focus on only relevant content when writing each section.


Mapping out the heading structure will aid student understanding and make your own writing process easier. The process will help you focus on what students need to know when they need to know it, and avoid wasting time on unnecessary content.

2. Aim for a parallel structure to the headings and sub-headings

This will make it easy for students to navigate and find where they stopped reading if distracted.
Create a ‘matching set’ of headings to present a ‘quick-scan’ progression of your topic.
Some examples:

    • All single-word nouns: ‘Overview’
    • All imperative sentences: ‘Map out your heading structure’
    • All questions: ‘What are academic sources?’

Example: Module 1. Climate change

1.1. Where we are now: Evidence that climate change is happening

1.2. What we know: The science behind the evidence

1.3 Where have we came from: Human behaviours that are affecting the ecosystem

1.4 What mistakes have we made: Anthropocentrism and power structures  

1.5 What we can do: Sustainability and science

3. Begin your module at the most compelling point

Once you have mapped out the heading structure, look at the sequence of your content as if it were a narrative telling the ‘story’ of your module. Is it presented in the most engaging way? While your plans for the curriculum might have been a chronological sequence, consider how you might re-order the learning in order to maximise engagement and understanding.

Example: Compelling points

Consider the previous example of a heading sequence for a module about climate change. The structure of the example aims to begin with the most relevant and compelling point "Where we are now: Evidence that climate change is happening". Once the first point has been made (while students are enthusiastic and engaged) your job of presenting the drier facts and contexts will be made easier by connecting those concepts to the first.

Variations on this approach include:

•  Begin with a personal anecdote from your own career or by referring to a well-known anecdote within your discipline.

•  Begin with a quiz or game that introduces the central concept in a low-stakes, engaging way.

•  Introduce a conflict or controversy that speaks to the heart of the topic, for example, in order to introduce a topic about environmental justice and indigeneity, you could include a newspaper article about indigenous populations felling trees for firewood.

•  Challenge students to identify their position on a controversial topic, then warn them they will be asked to defend their position or explain how and why they have changed their position as the module content is presented.

These are only some examples. Can you think of others? Imagine your unit were a Hollywood blockbuster movie – what would be the opening scene?


See the Knowledge Base article: Write clear and engaging module headings for more guidance on writing and structuring your module headings.

Next: Step 2: While you are writing

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