Navigating Student Success Blog

The art of effective student communication

A Q&A with the Center for Plain Language

by Melinda Salaman

What does a bursar do? Are developmental courses considered college courses? What does ‘MWF’ mean?

The list of questions students ask during onboarding is lengthy and at times, frustrating. For those of us who “speak” the language of higher education, it is easy to overlook confusing terms or phrases. However, over one-third of community college students (36%) identify as first-generation college attendees, leaving them without the cultural capital needed to navigate the ins and outs of the college admissions process on their own. Simplifying language used throughout the onboarding process is a necessary step in preventing early attrition, particularly among at-risk student groups at your college.

This fall, The Atlantic published an article titled “The Needless Complexity of Academic Writing,” which examines some of the factors contributing to “unwieldy writing” across academia. One of the factors is the simple fact that writing clearly is difficult:

“It boils down to ‘brain training’: the years of deep study required of academics to become specialists in their chosen fields actually work against them being able to unpack their complicated ideas in a coherent, concrete manner suitable for average folks. Translation: Experts find it really hard to be simple and straightforward when writing about their expertise.”


Rebecca Gholson, Executive Director of the Center for Plain Language, has spent the past few years at the non-profit organization educating government officials and private business leaders about the value of plain writing. I sat down with her for an interview to hear why plain language is important and how higher education leaders should optimize their communication with students.

Melinda Salaman: How do you define plain language?

Rebecca Gholson: Plain writing includes writing, designing, and testing—you’re correcting for clarity, and most importantly, there is always a consumer research element. You cannot achieve plain writing in a vacuum—you always have to bring in the people who are going to do something with the document you’ve created. For instance, if you write something for Veterans Affairs, a real veteran might look at the document as a test case. You as the writer should observe what they read (or don’t read) and ask questions to gauge how well they understand the message you’re trying to communicate.

MS: What kinds of organizations are interested in the Center for Plain Language’s work, and why?

RG: Primarily, government agencies. In 1998, Vice President Al Gore created the “No Gobbledygook” award to recognize federal employees who use plain language in innovative ways after President Clinton issued a memorandum directing agencies to write all forms, documents, and letters in plain language. Since then, President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act of 2010, which requires federal agencies to use clear communication that the general public can understand. The Center played an active role in pushing this legislation through, and continues to work closely with the government to assess language clarity across individual governmental agencies.

We also work with public organizations in the financial, health, and insurance industries, primarily because of regulations that mandate consumer transparency. Less often, we’ll see interest from state or local government offices and institutions of higher education.

MS: What is difficult about plain language?

RG: Human nature—people cannot bear to admit that they are wrong, or that they are poor writers. In the information age, there is a misperception that more information is better, but that isn’t necessarily the case. When experts in our field consider the act of sharing information, there are a series of higher-order concerns that must be prioritized before considering a piece of writing “plain” enough for the public. First, examine the audience. Next, determine your purpose for the message—that’s a great way of eliminating unnecessary content—and remove any language that doesn’t further that stated message. Ideally, you want to start with these higher-order items before considering other factors, like the medium of the message (e.g., document, web page, memo, bulletin, etc.).

MS: I’ve had a few conversations with college administrators who believe it’s not their job to simplify language for incoming students. The sentiment is that if students don’t understand the college onboarding process, then maybe college isn’t the right place for them. What’s your take on this?

RG: That’s an interesting perspective, but ultimately (and thankfully), it’s one that isn’t applied consistently across colleges. Those same administrators who defend convoluted language in the enrollment process are unlikely to make the same point about emergency exit signs or 9-1-1 stickers on phones. In those instances, we’re asking individuals to take action, so the language we use is intentionally direct. Similarly, the enrollment process is a time when we want new students to take action—it’s not a test of their literacy or college readiness. There’s no need to add unnecessary layers and complicate it for the sake of complexity. That’s just silly.

MS: How do you recommend writers test their work to determine if they’ve written using plain language? Are there tools that you and your colleagues rely on as a benchmark?

RG:The most useful way to determine if you’ve written in plain language is to have members of your intended audience read through your draft and study their interaction with the material. If someone looks confused or misses the main message, then you haven’t done a good job. In higher education, administrators have to be able to put themselves in students’ shoes—and that is difficult without running tests with students and watching them interact with the document. Listening to real-life students explain why a document is difficult to understand is the best and most important way to improve your writing or presentation.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stand out as a government agency with a strong commitment to plain language. They developed the Clear Communication Index, which is a series of questions content producers (i.e., writers) must use before submitting a document for publication. Not only is it widely used within the organization, but it’s also extremely user-friendly and could be used by any writer looking for guidance to self-edit.

Any words of advice to college leaders on effective communication with their students? What should non-experts keep in mind when try to write plainly?

RG: Treat writing the way you would treat the development of a new tool or product. If we were talking about developing a physical object, the product would go through testing with the intended consumer. In higher education, those are students. In the information age, we have to treat the written word the same way. Draft, test, and revise before considering it done.

Additional resources

Simplifying language means that students will have better odds of navigating the enrollment pathway themselves, but also that enrollment staff will spend less time interpreting obscure language for them and more time helping with special cases. In the end, both students and institutions win—growing access, decreasing summer melt, and increasing campus diversity.

EAB has several resources to help you get there:

  • Eliminating Enrollment Pain Points, the first part of our latest research on student success, provides tools on how to audit your student-facing materials for confusing jargon using a tool called the Gunning Fog Index: a free, online language simplicity calculator. The Gunning Fog Index calculates the years of education required to easily understand an excerpt of text.
  • Once you’ve identified communications that are convoluted and unnecessarily complex, use our How to Write Better, Right Now infographic as a guide to make improvements.

Looking to help your students beyond onboarding? Learn more about how SSC-Navigate equips advisors with data to help at-risk students.

 

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