Middle school teacher talking to students
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Classroom Management

6 Ways to Make Instructions Stick

Teacher-tested strategies designed to minimize the need to repeat instructions in class.

February 14, 2024

In her high school English classroom, Rebecca Alber often repeated instructions over and over again. Focused on “honing the more measurable literacy skills—reading, writing, and speaking,” she found the important work of holding kids accountable for skills like paying attention to directions less pressing. 

But when students grow accustomed to “hearing instructions twice, three times, and even four times, listening the first time around becomes unnecessary,” writes Alber, now an instructor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education.

Even when teachers feel that they’ve delivered clear, concise instructions—and that students have absorbed and processed the details—the outcome can be frustrating. “As you peered into the crowd, youngsters nodded with assurance, giving you overall satisfaction. They definitely got it!” writes Daniel Vollrath, a high school special education teacher. “A minute later the question gets asked, ‘What do we need to do again?’”

We dug into our archives to line up six smart teacher-sourced strategies designed to cut down on the need to repeat instructions and shore up what Vollrath describes as students’ ability to “listen with understanding.” 

Repeat After Me

To get students listening more closely the first time, “ask a couple of students to re-explain the instructions to the class,” suggests educator Connie Radbourne. “They never know who I will ask! It helps them to listen closely.”

For a slightly more involved variation, ask students to turn and repeat the directions to a partner, then ask a volunteer to repeat the directions to the entire class. “This process takes less than a minute but allows additional time for auditory processing and repetition for any students who may need it,” notes Gina DiTullio, a principal in Rochester, New York.

Check for Clarity

Especially in written work, it’s important to pressure-test your instructions. “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,” writes educator Rachel Fuhrman.

To reduce cognitive load and make his written instructions as clear as possible, science teacher Ian Kelleher points to a number of research-backed principles:

  • Number steps and use bullet points.
  • Use subheadings to chunk instructions for easier reading.
  • Be consistent in formatting throughout the year.
  • Avoid visual clutter; be deliberate about adding images, quotes, or links.
  • Consider font size and readability.

A 2019 study found that highly effective teachers regularly check in with their students to make sure instructions are clear. Doing so in the moment is ideal, but you can also give a quick survey about lesson clarity after a unit or lesson—informing how you deliver instructions on future assignments.

Offer Several Formats

Because she knows her students are prone to quickly forgetting her instructions, teacher Audra Lynam delivers them in several ways. “I give them the schedule for the day with explicit directions,” Lynam writes. “I give directions for transitions verbally, and I also write the schedule on the board.”

In the higher grades, a centralized hub for all assignments and instructions can help support directions delivered in class. A running hyperdoc, for example, with updated instructions and links to relevant materials for all recent assignments, is especially helpful when students miss class, writes educator Misti Gil. Likewise, if you have a learning management system, make sure students know where and how to access instructions and materials, writes Kelleher.

Display Key Expectations

Posting crisp, concise visuals targeted at precise tasks, routines, or transitions can help clarify expectations and cut down on the need to repeat instructions. 

In the early grades, for example, a red, green, and yellow color wheel—a circular chart with a rotating arrow at the center—can help set expectations for the room. When the wheel’s arrow points at green, students are free to talk quietly and move about within designated areas. Yellow is for more structured discussions, when students must raise their hands to speak or move around. Red is for transitions, indicating that students should stop what they’re doing and listen attentively to the teacher. In a 2023 study, researchers found that first-grade teachers tended to repeat their instructions about once per minute. But when the color wheel was introduced, that dropped to around once every five minutes—a much less frantic pace.

Using your class walls to post clear guidelines around typical tasks—like flexible seating rules or grade-level writing conventions—can “continually ground students in the classroom expectations,” Fuhrman writes. In her elementary class, teacher Kari Stewart has a poster displaying the full range of sound levels—“mime school,” “movie theater voice,” “library voice,” “restaurant voice,” and more—and she helps students understand which level is appropriate for any given activity.

Have Students Model It

When laying out a set of steps, peer examples can help make instructions more vivid—and uniquely memorable for students. “Assign selected students to model the procedures that you’ve described, such as the right way and wrong way to organize their class groups during collaborative work time,” suggests neurologist Judy Willis. Likewise, in the early grades, occupational therapist Lauren Brukner recommends appointing a “transition leader” who can “model functional transition skills for their peers,” like calmly cleaning up from one task in preparation for the next.

Narrating as students model classroom routines can be especially compelling, helping students commit expectations to memory, education researchers note in a 2008 article for the National Association for the Education of Young Children. As a student washes their hands, for example, the early-grade teacher might say, “Let’s watch Noel at the sink. First, she turns the handles a bit. What does she need next? That’s right, soap!”

Make It a Challenge

The instinct to immediately step in when students struggle, or feel confused, runs deep in many teachers. “When we sense discomfort in our classrooms, we can be quick to explain and provide steps to follow,” writes instructional coach Shannon McGrath. “But removing the struggle for students also removes the cognitive heavy lifting that leads to deep learning and understanding.”

After a short mini-lesson, for example, challenge students to turn and discuss work-related questions with a peer rather than asking the teacher for instructions, McGrath writes. Students might be surprised by how much they’ve absorbed. Or consider occasionally designating the first five minutes of a classroom activity as a period where students must attempt the work without talking or asking questions; an educator on our X feed notes that the exercise “builds autonomy and gives students a chance to rely on themselves before others.”

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