Here is a list of problems I’ve encountered while trying to organize information about lesson plan resources; this is essentially a list of marketing suggestions to help sellers — but if sellers heed my advice, they’ll help teachers find useful resources with less effort.
This list emphasizes one “marketplace” because I recently spent many hours scraping, cleaning, and transmogrifying data for 104,000 products offered for sale through the “TeachersPayTeachers” marketplace (for inclusion in the LessonIndex.com directory) — but it’s also informed by my earlier efforts importing data from other merchants’ web sites.
TeachersPayTeachers is a “marketplace” of lesson plan resources, where both individual teachers and larger publishing companies can offer their products for sale. There are thousands of sellers, each creating products, writing product titles and descriptions, and selecting product categories, grade levels, and product “type” information. Since there’s no single “editor” or editorial team, nor a “style guide,” sellers exercise a wide range of judgment and discretion.
Here are some mistakes that sellers make (on TPT and elsewhere):
- Product titles that don’t say what the product is. What should a teacher expect from products with these actual titles: “Canterbury Tales,” “Math Worksheet,” “Big Bang Theory,” “Canada,” “Grading Revolutions,” “Candy Sort,” “Broken Promise,” or “Cars”? Sure, there’s more information to be gleaned from the subject and grade level designations, and in the product description, but the titles should be more specific.
- Product titles that don’t match the product being sold, as shown in the preview images. I’m not talking about complete mismatches, but situations where customers familiar with a publishers’ products simply can’t find that publisher’s products by searching for the products’ actual titles. (Common substitutions: Novel/Literature/Lit, Guide/Study/Unit). Yes, you can add to the title — if you’re stuck with a product whose title really is just “Canada,” you’d add more information into the title at TPT (e.g. “Canada – unit with articles and worksheets for elementary students”).
- Omitted words and ambiguous abbreviations. A resource about the classic poem, “Casey at the Bat,” shouldn’t be titled “Casey at Bat.” There is no book called The Lion, Witch, and Wardrobe (C. S. Lewis’ first Narnia book was The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), and a product titled “The Lion, Witch, and Wardrobe Learning Unit” might never be found when users search for the real title or for the unique word “Narnia” (hint, hint).
- Terse product titles and descriptions. This is different from the first item above; a title and description might identify the product reasonably well, but without any additional information that most customers want before buying. If you’re selling a quiz, text, or exam, how many questions are included, in what formats, for what level of student ability?
- Not listing the contents. If you’re selling a “Novel Study,” be specific about what elements are actually included: Are there vocabulary lists? If so, are there separate lists for each chapter or section? Do you include page numbers where the words appear? Definitions? Worksheets, crossword puzzles, other vocab activities? Separate vocab quizzes? Are there discussion questions for each chapter? Are there quizzes for each chapter or section of the book? A summary test? What format do the tests use (matching, multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, short-answer, or essay)? Are the tests made up of the exact same questions used in worksheets? Are answer keys included?
- Not identifying learning styles or levels of knowledge. Do study-guide and discussion questions merely ask what happened, or do they include higher levels of thinking and learning (Bloom’s Taxonomy)? Does the unit include various activity options (reading response journal, quote log, map activities, drawing activities, group work, class discussion topics, project ideas) which incorporate “multiple intelligences” and cover different learning styles?
- Not specifying whether the resource allows (or clearly implements) differentiated learning. Does the resource include clear and easy directions for using the materials with students at different skill levels, or with different learning abilities? Are specific situations reflected (gifted/talented, remedial reading, ESL/ELL, physical or cognitive impairments, etc.? How much extra work will the teacher need to do to adapt or augment the materials for different student segments?
- Spelling and grammar mistakes. No, I don’t care if you include the comma before the last element in a series. But if you confuse “there”with “their,” or misspell (or misuse) a literary term, or if you misspell a book title or author name when promoting your novel study, buyers will question the competence of your materials.
- Style Embarassments. Don’t use ALL CAPITAL LETTERS in your product title (it’s OK for “NATO,” but not when identifying a separate book title or key concept).
- Character Translations. When you cut and paste from one file format to another, certain characters are often garbled (accented characters, certain punctuation marks, and symbols like ™ and ©), turning into bizarre symbols when viewed on TPT.
- Unspecified file format or requirements. Although TPT shows an image for the file type (.pdf, .doc, etc.), you should also clearly identify the specific file format (or the program you used to create the file) and any specific requirements for using the product. Does your product require the use of specific plug-ins (which might not be installable on some school’s computers, for security reasons)? Note that some devices don’t support certain technologies (for example, Flash on iPhones and iPads), and some school districts block web sites (like YouTube or Facebook) which might be incorporated in a lesson.
- Failing to “think about search” when writing titles and descriptions. Remember that there are “two levels of search” to consider: the search function on TeachersPayTeachers (or any other marketplace or merchant web site), and the “search engines” (Google, Bing, etc.). Even if you know how search results will appear on a TPT search-results page, Google shows a much smaller snippet of text from a product description in its search results. Even if your product is properly categorized on TPT, you may need to repeat the category or content area in your product title in order for your product to be included in keyword searches.
- Using Confusing/Ambiguous Terms. In your product title, does the word “revolution” refer to the American Revolution (or French, etc.), or to the scientific or industrial revolution, or perhaps it’s about rotation and revolution of a physical object (such as a planet), or maybe it’s a classroom management topic? Is your “Invisible Man Novel Study” about Ralph Ellison‘s or H. G. Wells‘ novel?
- Keyword stuffing. Your product title and description should be written for humans, not search engines. Don’t include a long list of keywords and phrases, and never include keywords or phrases that aren’t relevant for the product you’re selling. Don’t include “cross-selling” language for unrelated items in your product description.
- Omitting page count. Often, a customer must quickly filter through dozens or hundreds of search results for a topic, and one of the easiest numbers to find is “number of pages.” Someone looking for a “Novel Study” or “Unit Plan” wants to see 20, 40, or 60 pages; if there’s no number at all, they might ignore your listing.
- Mismatches. If you’ve identified your product as a “Novel Study” or “Unit Plan,” but TPT reports that your product is only 4 pages long, that’s a mismatch. Likewise, if you’re selling a 150-page AP Literature Unit Plan for $3, buyers WILL perceive a “mismatch” between the price and the product being described. (Of course, an even worse mismatch would be a 4-page “AP Literature Unit Plan” for $50.) Sometimes you can “explain” an apparent mismatch; for example, you might note how much “white space” you’ve included in the materials. If you embed “cross-selling” into your product (for example, adding two pages listing the other products you sell), or if you include multiple variations of a product, state this clearly so buyers understand why your “worksheet” is listed as having 5 pages.
- Preview images that only show a title page. If you’re selling “reproducibles,” make sure that your “image previews” include at least one of the reproducible pages, not just the title, copyright, or instruction page.
- Subject and Product-Type selection. Many teachers select “too many” or “too few” options for the subject area, grade level, or product type. TPT has lots of subject categories, with lots of overlap — just like the Content Standards for most K-12 content areas. If your 30-page US History resource includes a half-page list of 10 Civil War terms, don’t select “Vocabulary” as one of your product’s subject categories. Likewise, the product “types” are vague and overlapping. But if you’ve created a “Study Guide” that merely includes a dozen reading-comprehension questions for each chapter in a novel, it’s neither a “Unit Plan” nor a “Novel Study.”
- Too Few Grade Levels. In most California schools, aspects of US History are generally taught in 5th, 8th, and 11th grade. If you’re an 8th-Grade history teacher in California, you probably teach US History, and you might be tempted to only select “8th Grade” for your US History materials. If so, you’ll exclude customers who are teaching US History to 7th or 9th graders. You should also consider whether your materials might be useful for some 5th or 11th grade classrooms.
- Too Many Grade Levels. Some sellers simply select every “Grade Level” (Pre-K to Post-Secondary, plus the eclectic options). That’s not just annoying and unreasonable, it will likely discourage customers who might find the product useful. If I’m teaching 7th graders, I’ll be reluctant to buy a product that’s identified as being appropriate for “Pre-K through 12th grade” or even “Grades 4 through 10.”) In addition to skepticism about the likely content (substance), teachers know that classroom reproducibles are visually designed for a specific age group (materials for lower grades generally use larger type, more white space, more and larger illustrations, and fewer words [from a smaller vocabulary]), and students respond to these visual cues.
- Poor responses to “questions.” TPT provides an option for prospective customers to post questions for sellers, with both the question and the response visible to all customers. I’ve seen some sellers reply with very terse, non-responsive, vague, unfriendly, and even rude responses — which are now visible for all future customers to see.
- Atypical (non-representative) “free product.” The TPT marketplace requires that every seller offer at least one free product, with the expectation that customers can inspect the free product to evaluate the quality of the seller’s work. An implied expectation is that the free product should be “similar” to the products offered for sale, in complexity, scope, and size. If you’re selling lengthy Novel Studies, but your free product is a single-page worksheet, customers will be skeptical. In this situation, a better option is to offer an 8- to 10-page excerpt from one of your Novel Studies (including the full table of contents, one or more introductory pages, and materials for the first section of the novel, but omitting the answer key and perhaps other pages from that section).
- Failing to indicate how materials are adapted. Most customers assume that the materials sold on TPT are “classroom-tested” (though I’ve seen many products that cast doubt); you should clearly state if you’ve used the materials in your classroom. Beyond this, you should explain any adaptations or changes you’ve made before offering the items for sale on TPT. (I hope you’ve “genericized” the product: replaced your name with a blank for another teacher’s name, and omitted any specific references to your classroom or policies, or to prior lessons or activities in your classroom or school) . As noted above, you should also note if you’ve adapted the materials (whether in your classroom or for publication) to address different learning styles and ability levels.
- Selling materials that are dated or obsolete (or assume the use of a specific version or edition). If you last used these materials in your classroom in 1969, they probably need some “refreshing,” and they might even be obsolete. An obvious example would be geography materials that reference the “Soviet Union (USSR)” instead of the separate nations that now exist there. Another interesting example of this is The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank: you might assume the use of the original version of the memoir (edited by her father and published in 1947), but your customer might be using the dramatic (play) version of the story included in many anthologies, or perhaps your customer’s classroom is stocked with the newer “Revised Critical Edition,” published in 1989, or Susan Massotty’s 1995 translation of the “unexpurgated text,” which include some passages (omitted from the earlier edition) which will make some parents, students, and teachers uncomfortable.
- Failing to identify specific issues affecting usability in a public school classroom. Resources that reflect specific moral or religious values or views should be clearly identified as such, so that both public-school teachers and others can make informed decisions about what to purchase. Materials that condemn homosexuality, impose strict gender roles (females as homemakers, for example), or “teach” creationism or intelligent design instead of evolution can’t be used in public school classrooms, even if they don’t include specific religious references. Likewise, materials that assume extensive knowledge of Christian Scripture, or which incorporate Bible verses or religious themes, can’t be used in public school classrooms (with the obvious exception of classes studying different religions). These materials are generally intended for use in non-public schools or in home-schooling, and should be clearly designated as such. This will increase sales to the educators who want to use these materials, while avoiding mistakes that could result in negative ratings from dissatisfied customers.
- Urging customers to shop elsewhere. I was shocked to find product descriptions from one seller which urged customers to visit a different web site where the same product was offered for a lower price. That’s not just against TPT’s rules, but it’s an overt unethical action, which will drive away customers.