ETP - Providing Clear Directions and Explanations

learning objectives


Instructor clarity improves student outcomes and motivation, results in higher grades on end-of-course instructor evaluations, and is positively associated with students’ perception of their learning (BrckaLorenz, Cole, Kinzie, & Ribera, 2011Chesebro & McCroskey, 2001Sorcinelli, 2005).

Learning Objectives

To provide clear directions and explanations, we’ll discuss practices you can use to:

  • Explain the purpose of the activity or assignment 
  • Break directions into appropriate steps
  • Provide written directions
  • Model the activity in class
  • Create a video to provide complex directions
  • Provide organizational cues (forecast, highlight, signal transitions, repeat)
  • Appropriately pace information
  • Ensure vocabulary is accessible
  • Include multiple examples
  • Create a video explaining complex content
  • Provide worked examples
  • Integrate visuals (diagrams, videos, pictures, etc.)
  • Use a class or online activity reaction survey

Skeletal Outline

Download a skeletal outline to take notes on the key practices included in this module.

Course Demonstration

This video shows instructors effectively demonstrating the evidence-based practices presented in this module. Through this authentic classroom observation, you can begin to consider how you might implement these practices and techniques with your students.

The instructors featured in the video include Linda Nilson, PhD, from Clemson University; Jess Butler, PhD, from Butler University; Emily Moss, DA, from California State University, Los Angeles; Robert Puhak, PhD, from Rutgers University – Newark; Tara Lineweaver, PhD, from Butler University; and Mark Paternostro, PhD, from West Virginia University.

Download the transcript for this video.

Expert Insights

In this video, you’ll hear Linda Nilson, a scholar in teaching and learning, discuss the specific nuances of and the research support for the teaching techniques and practices presented in this module.

Download the transcript for this video.

Common Challenges & Misconceptions

In this section, you’ll read about some common challenges and misconceptions associated with techniques designed to provide clear directions and explanations. Click on each statement to read research-based clarifications and suggestions aligned to each challenge or misconception.

MISCONCEPTION: Collecting student feedback with class-reaction surveys on the clarity of directions and explanations requires too much effort and often does not result in meaningful responses.


Given at the end of selected class sessions, class-reaction surveys can be brief and quantitative, which allows for the easy collection of feedback. These surveys provide students with the opportunity to communicate how well they understood the directions and explanations and provides you with the opportunity to offer clarity about points of confusion (Erickson, Peters, & Weltner Strommer, 2006, p. 99 ).


Design short, mostly quantitative surveys to administer at the end of classes in which you are introducing step-by-step directions for an activity or assignment or explaining complex content. If the class meets in a computer lab or online, create an electronic survey that provides a quick summary of responses and a tracking system. If students indicate a lack of clarity in response to any statements or questions, require them to include an explanation or question related to the area of confusion. This will help students to identify exactly what was unclear and you to adjust your instruction in the future (see Erickson, Peters, & Weltner Strommer, 2006, p. 99).

CHALLENGE: Finding and integrating visuals can be time-consuming.

Clarification :

Finding visuals is easier than you may think, and since images are far easier for the brain to remember than words, integrating visuals into your course will help all students make deeper connections to the material (Nilson, 2010).

Suggestion :

Ask colleagues in your field to share examples, use publishers’ resources, source videos on YouTube, and investigate professional organization websites for options. Visuals for most topics are readily available and already identified by topic. To make this process even more efficient, spend time finding effective visuals that can be reused for subsequent courses (Erickson, Peters, & Weltner Strommer, 2006, p. 94).

MISCONCEPTION: Providing clear directions and explanations doesn’t impact student satisfaction and motivation in my course.

Clarification :

In his study, Chesebro (2003) found that students liked both the instructor and the course more when the instructor provided clarity, and students self-reported better motivation and outcomes.

MISCONCEPTION: If I integrate teaching behaviors that lead to clarity, I can expect students to understand.

Clarification :

No single behavior can produce clarity for all students all of the time.  

Suggestion :

Strive to integrate as many behaviors that improve clarity as possible. Behaviors include using organizational cues, checking for comprehension, appropriately pacing information, ensuring vocabulary is accessible, using visuals, and providing examples. Plan to adapt based on student feedback regarding concepts that are still unclear (Titsworth, n.d.).

MISCONCEPTION: I should be able to dictate directions with the expectation that students will accurately record them.


According to Nilson (2010), many students come to college with poor note-taking skills. Even if you are dictating directions step by step, there is no guarantee that students will accurately record the information.


Distribute or post online a handout with written directions. Encourage students to take notes directly on the handout, which will help them to listen more actively, to increase the recall of presented information (Cornelius & Owen-DeSchryver, 2008; Larson, 2009), and to refer to the handout as they work independently outside of class. For online courses, it is also helpful to video record a step-by-step explanation of the printed instructions and set up a discussion forum for questions (Boettcher & Conrad, 2016).


In the Observe & Analyze (OA) section, you’ll view the video(s) depicting developing practice, where an instructor implements some of the module techniques effectively while other techniques may need slight adjustments or improvements. As you analyze the video(s), you will gain a deeper understanding of the module techniques and gain insight into some common pitfalls.


Download the transcript for this video


  • Instructional Practices

  • Online Instructional Practices

  • Additional Resources

This section includes resources and handouts to support your implementation of the techniques and practices presented in the module.

Download all of the implementation resources for this module.

Implementation Resources

Download or print the following resource to practice our techniques for providing clear directions and explanations:

  • Download our class-reaction survey For class sessions in which you’d like to gauge how well your students understood assignment or activity directions or your explanation of a particularly challenging concept. The attachment includes a single-page student survey along with an instructor guide to help you effectively use the collected surveys to adjust your instruction.

The module learning objectives and aligned online practices are listed below. Each resource offers step-by-step instructions and examples of effective online teaching in text and/or video.

Provide effective directions for online assignments

Create a video to provide complex directions online

In addition to providing written directions for an assignment, it can be very helpful to provide a video recording of you offering a detailed explanation of both the purpose of the assignment or activity and the steps required to complete it.

Download a resource for providing effective directions to your online students.

Provide effective directions for online assignments

Create a video to explain complex content

Explanatory videos are helpful to students in face-to-face, hybrid, and online classes, because students can engage with the video at their own pace and reengage as needed.

Download a resource for creating videos to explain complex content.

Provide effective directions for online assignments

Use online class reaction surveys to ensure comprehension

Students in online courses do not have the opportunity to raise their hands to ask for clarification and at times may be hesitant to reach out directly to you with questions. It is also difficult to gauge understanding, because online classes lack visual cues that indicate students may be confused. Therefore, consider using a short online reaction survey to gauge students’ understanding of important instructions or key material before moving forward with the additional module content and activities.

Download instructions and examples of online class reaction surveys.


Judith V. Boettcher, PhD
Online Learning Consultant and Author
Designing for Learning

Debra Olberding
Faculty Development and Assessment Coordinator
Baker University

April E. Mondy
Instructor in Management
Delta State University

Below are additional resources to further explore the module topics.

Resources for Further Reading

Consult a comprehensive list of references for this module.


Chris Phare
Graduate Research Fellow, Electrical and Computer Engineering

Emily Moss, DA
Assistant Professor of Music
California State University, Los Angeles

Jess Butler, PhD
Dept. of Sociology & Criminology; Core Curriculum
Butler University

Linda Nilson, PhD
Higher Ed. Education Expert and Author
Clemson University

Mark Paternostro, PhD
Associate Professor and Associate Chair for Education
Department of Physiology & Pharmacology
West Virginia University

Mika LaVaque-Manty, PhD
Arthur F. Thurnau Associate Professor
Department of Political Science
University of Michigan

Robert I. Puhak, PhD
Associate Professor
Department of Mathematics & Computer Science
Rutgers University – Newark

Tara Lineweaver, PhD
Department of Psychology
Butler University 

Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010).
How learning works: 7 research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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The unwritten rules of college. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from

BrckaLorenz, A., Cole, E., Kinzie, J., & Ribera, A. (2011, April).
Examining effective faculty practice: Teaching clarity and student engagement. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, LA. Retrieved from

Brookfield, S. D. (2015).
The skillful teacher: On technique, trust, and responsiveness in the classroom (3rd ed.)San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Chase, B., Germundsen, R., Cady Brownstein, J., & Schaak Distad, L. (2001).
Making the connection between increased student learning and reflective practice. Educational Horizons, 79, 143–147.

Chesebro, J. L. (2003).
Effects of teacher clarity and nonverbal immediacy on student learning, receiver apprehension, and affect. Communication Education, 52, 135–147. 

Chesebro, J. L., & McCroskey, J. C. (2001).
The relationship of teacher clarity and immediacy with student state receiver apprehension, affect, and cognitive learning. Communication Education, 50, 59–68.

Cooper, T. (2007–2008).
Collaboration or plagiarism? Explaining collaborative-based assignments clearly. Essays on Teaching Excellence: Toward the Best in the Academy, 19(1). Retrieved from

Cornelius, T. L., & Owen-DeSchryver, J. (2008).
Differential effects of full and partial notes on learning outcomes and attendance. Teaching of Psychology, 35, 6–12.

Davis, B. G. (2009).
Tools for teaching (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Erickson, B. L., Peters, C. B., & Weltner Strommer, D. (2006).
Teaching first-year college students, Revised and Expanded Edition of Teaching College Freshmen. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 

Filene, P. G. (2005).
The joy of teaching: A practical guide for new college instructors. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Gliessman, D. H. (1987).
Changing complex teaching skills. Journal of Education for Teaching, 13, 267–275.

Lang, J. M. (2008).
On course: A week-by-week guide to your first semester of college teaching. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Nilson, Larson, R. B. (2009).L. B., & Goodson, L. A. (2018). 
Enhancing the recall of presented material. Computers & Education, 53, 1278–1284.

Metcalf, K. K., & Cruickshank, D. R. (1991).
Can teachers be trained to make clear presentations? Journal of Educational Research, 85, 107–116. 

Nilson, L. B. (2010).
Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Smith, L. R. (1982).
A review of two low-inference teacher behaviors related to performance of college students. Review of Higher Education, 5, 159–167. 

Sorcinelli, M. D. (n.d.).
Explained course material clearly and concisely. IDEA Retrieved from

Titsworth, S. (n. d.). 
Translating research into instructional practice: Instructor clarity. Retrieved from

Weimer, M. (2013).
Learner-centered teaching: Five key changes to practice (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Weimer, M. (2015, November 18).
Are we clear? Tips for creating better explanations. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from

Wieman, C. (2010).
Basic instructor habits to keep students engaged. Retrieved from the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative at the University of British Columbia website:

Zull, J. E. (2002).
The art of changing the brain: Enriching teaching by exploring the biology of learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus.