Proper Use of Labels in Course Work

Dr. Tamara Fudge, professor in the School of Business and Information Technology

Writing a paper or even posting in a discussion board involves more than just writing content; it should include labeling. For a paper, these labels are called subheadings; for a discussion board, it is the subject line.  Unfortunately, the power of the label can be overlooked.  Here are some reasons to use labels and, more importantly, how to use them.

A Word of Caution

First, a word of caution is necessary.  Before using headings in your papers, make sure that you actually need them.  Headings and subheadings are often used to separate sections of a long paper – often scientific publications or upper-level academic writing – and make it easier for readers to follow. However, headings and subheadings are rarely used in short papers, unless required by the professor and the assignment. They should not be used simply to avoid normal transitioning between paragraphs.

Reasons for Labels

A subheading or subject line’s purpose is to help a reader understand the associated content and to be able to find information quickly. It is important for the student to learn how to label information for the workplace, where bosses tend to scan documents for small bits of information and need the guidance of subheadings. It also assists a professor in grading an assignment by clearly identifying and matching sections to the assignment requirements.  In the discussion boards, descriptive subject lines prove an understanding of the material or at the very least provide a unique moniker. (When every initial post is called “Initial Post,” there are no winners.)

An Incredibly Bad Practice

One practice to always avoid is copying assignment or discussion questions, making the words bold, and pretending the words constitute a subheading. Copying never proves you understand anything. Questions are too long to use as appropriate labels; they cannot be perused quickly. Importantly, these questions are someone else’s work, so using them is plagiarizing.

  • Keep subheadings and subject lines short (typically 1-5 words) and descriptive.
  • Pay homage to the rules of netiquette and never write in all-caps.
  • Write formally by avoiding clichés, questions, and conversational phrases.
  • For most circumstances, avoid humor, as not everyone will “get it.”
  • For discussion post subject lines, do not include your name, the unit number, the discussion or topic number, or the name of the unit. These are already known entities and do not adequately describe the content in the post. Besides, the poster’s name is always associated with a post.
  • For assignments, check that the formatting of your subheadings is done correctly. The Writing Center has materials to assist in learning the proper way of presenting levels of subheadings.

Instead of allowing the copying of questions, those who teach courses taken early in a student’s program might consider offering an assignment template that already contains appropriate subheadings. Alternatively, suggesting a simple outline and providing good subheadings can teach the importance of good labeling. Of course, encouraging students to identify content on their own would be optimal.


This is a blog post, so subheadings were really not necessary. However, I hope they helped make the point!  While stealing a question or using “answer 1” as a subject line takes no real effort, labeling well is also not difficult and should lead to good workplace habits. There are many reasons to promote the writing of strong, descriptive labels and to consider teaching the power of the label.

You may also like...

3 Responses

  1. kuwcnews says:

    Thank you for mentioning that listing and then answering the questions may not always be a bad practice, but instead can be very helpful for students in beginning courses. Your commentary well illustrates that what may work well for one course or student may not work as well for other courses or students. After all, education is rarely one-size-fits-all. Thank you for your comments. ~ Amy

    • You’re welcome. I just didn’t want new teachers to get confused and ask their students to do things that are impossible for them to do and then they feel like failures and will drop out. KB

  2. I disagree about copying the questions and using them as headings. I always ask my students when they have bulleted questions to respond to to put the question down and then write their response below it. First, it ensures that they know what the question is and what they are supposed to research and respond to. Second it makes my grading time incredibly short because I am not going back and forth between the question and their response wondering if they actually answered the question, a part of the question or all of it. Sometimes they have skipped it all together or answered it along with another question somewhere else on the list.

    My students are HS100. There assignments are not formal research papers as you are describing such as scientific publications or upper level research projects. Thus, in my opinion it is not an “incredibly bad practice” but an incredibly good practice to teach them how to stay focused on the question at hand and respond to it directly and clearly using the research they have done on that specific question. It keeps them from rambling and going off track or running around the bush as they say. That happens easily when they don’t understand the question or haven’t paid attention to the questions and are just shooting from the hip.

    Anyway just my opinion from 20 years of teaching associate level students and developmental English at various colleges. Otherwise, you’ve given them great tips that I hope they will all use as they move forward in their course work at Kaplan.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: