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Teaching Strategies

4 Criteria for Effective Directions

Directions that are observable, timed, clear, and concise can help ensure student compliance.

December 1, 2020
Teacher standing in front of her classroom instructing students
Photo by Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

One of the most important, yet initially harsh seeming, pieces of advice my principal gave me was this: If multiple students aren’t following the directions, it most likely isn’t their fault, it’s yours. It quickly made me reevaluate the ways in which I gave directions to my students during class.

Luckily, the principal who made me realize that it might be my directions that were the problem was the same principal who helped me figure out how to fix it. A major piece of the fix was in creating criteria for my directions and ensuring that every time I asked my students to do something, these criteria, outlined in detail below, were met.

The 4 Criteria

1. Observable: The first shift I addressed with my directions was to make each direction I gave observable. This made it easy for me to identify which students were following the direction and which were not. Additionally, observable directions provide clear action steps for students, so they know exactly what is expected of them and how they should accomplish the given task. The action steps given should include not only what students are doing but how they are doing it—silently, with partners, in groups, etc.

2. Timed: The second facet of my directions that I needed to address was timing. When students are provided a time frame for the direction, they know when to start and when to stop. This helps to create a sense of urgency in the classroom so that all students recognize the need to be on task right away and remain on task the entire time. This can take the form of a specific time frame for the activity or can simply be an indication to students of how they know when to start and stop.

A timed direction may sound like this: “You will have two minutes to complete problem number three.” An indication of start and stop times may sound like this: “When I say ‘Go,’ you will begin working on problem number three. When it is time to stop, you will hear me count down from three, and your pencils will be down by the time I say ‘Zero.’”

Depending on your students’ needs and work styles, one of these forms of timed directions may be best or some combination of the two. I often combine the two forms to give my students as much structure as possible in how to fill their time effectively and ensure that no class time is wasted.

3. Clear: Providing students with clear directions may seem like a no-brainer, but taking the time to assess whether your directions are clear is certainly worthwhile. There are many instances in which I said something that I thought was perfectly clear, but it left my students confused. By taking the time to plan out in advance exactly what you will say to students, you can ensure that your directions will be as clear as possible. In practice, you may find that you have given what you deemed a clear direction and then realize that students are not meeting it. In these moments, it’s imperative to bring the students back and deliver the direction again in a different way.

4. Concise: Finally, it’s crucial that directions be concise. For many students, especially younger students and those who struggle with processing, a long-winded set of directions will be useless, as they may not be able to understand or remember everything that is said. Instead, provide concise directions that outline each step so that all students have the opportunity to be successful. This may require you to break down the task  into smaller steps so that students can hear what to do in pieces as opposed to one large set of directions. The age and work style of your students will help you determine how to deliver directions and how many directions your students can handle at once.

What This Looks Like

When all of these criteria are put together, your directions may sound something like this: “When I say ‘Go,’ you will turn the page and begin annotating problem number one silently and independently. You have 90 seconds—go.”

Here you can readily identify the criteria at work. This direction is observable, as you can easily see whether students have turned a page and begun to annotate, while also monitoring that they are doing so silently and independently. The direction provides both a time for the entire activity and a cue for when to start. The direction is clear, as students are told exactly what to do and how to do it. Finally, this direction is concise in its wording and in the number of tasks that students are being asked to do.

Once students complete this, the next direction may be for them to work with partners, work independently, or engage in guided instruction. Regardless of what is planned next, teachers can ensure that all students will be prepared by employing effective directions.

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