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How to develop a great FAQ page for an online course

By Rahel Anne Bailie / June 2007

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When instructors and course designers create an online course, an accompanying FAQ page is often included as part of the package. While the creators of FAQ pages may feel virtuous about providing contextual information, the effectiveness can't be confirmed until the other side of the equation has been calculated: Are learners using the FAQs?

If you think a FAQ page is where learners look for handy information about their courses, think again. Computer users have learned, generally, that FAQ pages are of little-to-no use in actually answering their questions. Because many FAQ pages have become elephant graveyards of non-information, the equivalent of a miscellaneous file folder, the place where information-we-didn't-know-where-to-put was dumped, users have generalized their usage patterns to all FAQ pages. The challenge of creating a FAQ page that learners will find useful has several aspects to it, but can be accomplished with a lot of thought and a little strategic planning.

The first step toward creating an FAQ page is to understand what an FAQ page actually is. FAQ stands for Frequently Asked Questions, and implied in that acronym is that the questions are frequently asked today. Frankly, if you're still answering the same questions today as you were last year, your learners will likely assume that your courses have the same problems as last year's problems, and that's an entirely separate set of systemic issues. So let's assume that the questions being asked are not due to ongoing poor design or aspects of technical delivery. Let's assume these are questions that fall within the normal range of experience of learners who are generally satisfied but need more information, either while considering your course, during setup, or during course delivery.

First, you need to find out what questions your learners are asking. Where do your learners generally go to ask their questions, and what simple questions do they regularly ask? Do you have a feedback forum—one that works!—on your website where learners can pose questions? These are all valuable sources of information, both in harvesting questions and in providing answers. If you need to answer a question for one person, you can answer it for multiple people at the same time. The following tips will give learners hope that the FAQs are usable and useful:

  • Analyze the needs of your audience. If your learners need a mini-tutorial, then providing information in the form of a FAQ probably won't do the trick. You'll want to provide answers to oft-asked questions that didn't really have a place to live—yet. If there are enough questions on a particular theme, perhaps there needs to be a "regular" Web page on the topic, or a task integrated into the course.
  • Make sure the questions are written with a specific topic focus. "What about software?" is too vague to be of use to a learner with a burning need to know what software to purchase for a course.
  • Make sure the answer addresses the question accurately. If you want learners to use the online FAQ instead of clogging up your telephone lines, check that the instructions actually work—especially if you've made any changes that haven't been thoroughly tested.
  • And please, resist the temptation to introduce marketing-speak into the answers. People resort to FAQs to fix a problem, not be convinced of the benefits of your program.
  • Have the questions written consistently. This makes the questions easier to scan, and more likely for a learner to keep looking for an answer. Some learners will think of using the browser search function, but often not knowing your organization's particular jargon may prevent learners from figuring out what to search for.
  • Have the questions professionally written. Nothing will turn off your learners faster than getting an unclear answer when what they need is well-written, plain-language instructions.
  • List the questions alphabetically. There's nothing more frustrating than having to search through a haystack of questions for the needle of an answer.
  • Sort your questions by audience type. Wading through questions like "why should I consider taking a course online?" to find specifics such as "what are the computer requirements?" is annoying to those looking for general benefits as well as anyone looking for technical information. Open School BC has done a good job of separating this information.
  • Group your FAQs by question type, and give each group a heading. This helps learners find their information faster.

Now that you have a great FAQ page, you'll face a related challenge: How do you get learners to use the page? It may be hard to get past the presupposition that a FAQ page is a dust-covered museum of questions from yesteryear. Just as FAQs change, so should your approaches to FAQ presentation; what works today may be obsolete tomorrow. That said, here are a couple of approaches that work in today's Web world:

Break up your FAQs. Provide an index of FAQ topics, and have each topic open in a new window. There are a few reasons to do this:

  • This keeps the FAQ window open, in case the learner needs to find other information later.
  • If any FAQ answer needs to be printed, such as a list of computer requirements or a list of books that someone may want to take to a bookstore, the page can be printed without printing the entire list of FAQs.
  • More frequently, learners may search for information from a mobile device such as a Blackberry. From personal experience, looking for information on a small screen while in line at a retail store can become excruciating when dealing with long, formatting-intensive pages.
  • Use a software utility to extract the top questions and list them as a sidebar. The Help with FAQ section of does an excellent job of re-assuring customers that the information there is current and accurate.
  • Don't call the FAQ a FAQ. If you have lots of questions, consider a more useful name that tells learners what the questions are about. If your questions supplement your support, call it a Help Center. Or, if your questions are all about how to set up an account, call your page Getting Started. At CNET, they have both a Help Center and a Tips & Tricks section.
  • Refer to the FAQ page from elsewhere. For example, if you have a FAQ section on registration policies that governs fee assessments, you can link to it from the registration section. This indicates to learners that you respect their time enough to point out their obligations before they register.
  • Include a link so that learners can ask questions that don't yet exist in your FAQ repertoire, as UBC has done here.
  • If you use "Top of page" links to break up a long answer (recommended), make sure the link works in all browsers.

Peeking at a FAQ page is a little like peering into a kitchen during a dinner party. It reveals the personality of the chef: smooth and organized or neglected and disheveled. A dynamic FAQ page can be a valuable part of your overall course offering, particularly if it's considered a knowledge asset and maintained with the same care as the rest of course material.


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