Recommendation 6.4: Writing Clear Instructions
Provide clear instructions to preempt student questions and build students’ confidence.
Synopsis from Self-Review
Clear and actionable instructions for completing assessments support student confidence, engagement, performance, and success. By tailoring instructions to the student perspective, you can empower more students to complete the task confidently and successfully, cut down on the number of student questions and emails, and reduce grade disputes.
How to Put Into Practice
Considering your assessments from the perspective of a student can help increase transparency regarding what students are expected to do and how they are expected to do it, and provide a scaffold to help students succeed.
These general principles help ensure your directions are not only clear but inclusive and motivating for your students:
- Make expectations explicit
- Be consistent
- Build student investment
- Provide support
Additionally, inviting someone to look over and provide feedback on your instructions can help to ensure that your writing is efficient and your meaning is clear.
After each description below a set of questions is given to help you think about your assignment from the perspective of a student. As you draft your instructions, ask yourself these questions, and revise your steps and descriptions to make sure they are addressed.
Make expectations explicit
By making the implicit rules explicit, you support all your students to show their best work and succeed in the complex process of completing college-level assignments. Ambiguous instructions, or those that rely on implicit understanding can reinforce a range of inequities. When the directions are not clear, certain students carry advantages: students who attended English-medium schools, students from dominant groups, and students whose parents have attended college, may be more able to intuit what the instructor wants, leading them to higher performance in the assignment.
The questions below can help to think through your instructions from a students’ perspective, leading to greater clarity.
- What am I expected to do?
- What steps will I need to take?
- How can I do it (format of assignment, parameters for group/individual work)?
- Are there any rules & expectations I need to follow (file naming, file format, text format, margins, font, word count)?
- How do I submit my work?
- When am I supposed to do it?
- When is the assignment due?
- How long will it take?
- How can I judge when I’m done?
- What are the penalties if I am late?
- How will my work be assessed?
- What criteria will be used (i.e. what is the rubric)?
- What is the grade scheme?
- How and when will I receive feedback?
- What should I do with the feedback I receive?
Having a consistent structure and style among assignments increases students’ confidence and learning. Students are not only struggling to learn content when they complete an assignment, they are also learning how to perform the different elements of the task. If you think of related assignments as a series of steps, and build them consistently, it can allow you to set progressively more complex expectations without increasing the difficulty of understanding the task.
- Have I done a task like this before?
- What parts are the same?
- What parts are different?
- What helped me be successful before?
- How does this relate to previous assignments in this or other courses?
- What did I learn that can be incorporated here?
- How can I build on the feedback from my previous assignments?
Build student investment
Along with explaining how to satisfy expectations, addressing the “why” is equally important. Providing a justification and linking assignments to measurable learning outcomes can lead to greater motivation and investment. Likewise, in your directions also clarify the link between what students are learning and real-world problems, skills, or practices.
- How does this address a stated course learning objective?
- What skills can I expect to develop as a result of completing this assignment?
- How does this assignment prepare me for my future classes or career?
- How does it fit into the rest of the course and my overall learning?
- How does this connect to other assignments and assessments?
- Will this be on a test?
Another important part of building students’ confidence is providing a range of additional support. This can mean clarifying what tools or websites are allowable; linking students to student services such as the libraries or software training; suggesting ways of seeking extra practice or extra credit; or providing a model of a completed response for them to review.
- How do I know I’m doing the right thing at the right pace?
- Can I see a template or a model?
- Can I submit a draft for feedback?
- How will I receive updates about the assignment?
- Will I be supported when I struggle?
- What support am I permitted / not permitted to use (e.g. partner, book, online tools)?
- Where can I get help? (The Writing Center, Software Training for Students, …)
- Who should I ask when I have questions? (TA, Lead Instructor, Course Helpdesk…)?
- What should I do if I need an accommodation, extension, or exception?
Alternatives and Supplements to Written Instructions
In addition to written instructions, some instructors record short videos to talk through what they are looking for. It can also be beneficial to provide models of student work, examples of the steps of a problem, walk-throughs, and clear direction about where students can go for help when needed. For ideas about campus services that can help promote effective learning, see Recommendation 2.5: Academic & Learning Support.
- The Writing Across the Curriculum Online Writing Toolkit provides explanations and examples of high-stakes writing assignments in disciplines as models of clear instructions.
- The Writing Center provides suggestions to keep in mind while you write assignments: Tips for writing an assignment.
- Consider the Transparent Assignment Template from the Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TILT) Higher Ed project, an initiative that endeavors to promote student success through more transparent teaching practices. Learn more about TILT.
What is this?
Clear instructions fully explain your expectations, including what students have to do, how they will be assessed, and how they can submit their work. The instructions should also address broader questions like how an assignment relates to other work, why it is important, and how to get help.
Why is this important?
Giving directions is an important part of building an inclusive learning environment, by reinforcing that students have a place in the course and giving them confidence to succeed. For all students, confusing instructions add unnecessary cognitive load, slowing their progress, reducing their confidence, and distracting them from the material and tasks you want them to focus on.
Where is this?
Instructions are normally attached to each assignment on Canvas, or in a printed or downloadable document.
Success Factor 6: Assessment & Feedback
Methods for assessment, grading, and feedback are planned and clearly outlined for students. Assessment methods should be carefully considered in terms of equity, transparency, rigor, and integrity, and may challenge conventional approaches to quizzes and exams.