Giving Clear, Effective & Engaging Instructions to Students

Ryan Barone
June 12, 2023

Welcome, teachers! Tell me if you've been in this situation before:

You have a long list of instructions you need to pass along to your class. The instruction steps themselves are quite simple and straightforward, but they are also a little repetitive to say the least, as in: choose this option from a drop-down menu, check/uncheck boxes, input these values, etc. 

Getting the words out to the students isn't difficult, but you're worried kids and teens will get bored if you don’t try to make the delivery more interesting than just reciting the steps.

Pretty common scenario, right?

To combat the situation, here are some good ways to make that process engaging for students, and something they'll have a better chance of understanding and following. (Hint: it's not “First you do this, then this, then click this thing….”)

Whichever route you choose, the goal should be to communicate effective instructions by:

  • Being direct
  • Being memorable
  • Providing examples
  • Explaining the "why"
  • Explaining the "why not"
  • Being engaging

Try Instructional Stations

One way to make instruction more engaging is to change the way you're delivering the instructions.

Meaning, if you typically do so via handout, maybe you try the whiteboard. Or, if you normally do so via whiteboard, maybe a handout is the way to go.

(This tip in itself might not move the needle, but when used with some of the methods below, you might see a positive change.)

Maybe it's something else entirely. 

For example, say you have a list of instructions on how a student should go about writing an informational essay. You'd typically hand out a sheet of paper with steps and then discuss each one, but what if you set up different stations in the classroom, each representing a step in the essay writing process?

Station 1: Brainstorming and selecting a topic
Station 2: Outlining the essay structure
Station 3: Gathering evidence and conducting research
Station 4: Writing the introduction and thesis statement
Station 5: Developing supporting arguments
Station 6: Addressing counterarguments
Station 7: Writing a compelling conclusion
Station 8: Editing and revising
Station 9: Peer review and feedback
Station 10: Finalizing the essay

Students could gather and discuss for a few minutes before moving on to the next station. They could even complete a task associated with each station, and then share with the rest of the class. 

Use Mnemonics or Acronyms

Really, not everything we do is necessarily “fun." Sometimes there are tasks that need to be completed that are menial or repetitive, but necessary to get the project to the next step. For this it comes down to how you phrase and present it.

So, when presenting as “we need to complete these boring 12 steps to move on” the class is going to look at what you're presenting through that "boring" lens. 

Instead, look at frame the delivery like “I’m so excited to show you to solve algebraic equations" and then instead of handing out that dreaded sheet of instructions or simply writing them on the whiteboard, consider taking things a step further.

Read More: Funny Questions to Ask Students

For example, one approach could be creating a memorable acronym or mnemonic device to help students remember the steps. Rather than a list of instructions, the acronym  serves as a memorable and easy-to-remember tool for students to recall the steps involved in solving an algebraic equation.

Explain the Alternatives

When instructing students to do something, there is always a "right" answer, but there are also other times where alternative answers might be just as good, and then others that simply don't work.

So, if you're instructing a student that they should input a particular value, let them know why, and then also let them know what happens if they choose an alternative. 

For example, how about scenario where students are learning how to solve a math word problem. Again, rather than immediately handing them a sheet of instructions or writing those instructions on the whiteboard, you can engage the students through a discussion that involves different answer possibilities.

Present the word problem and explain the context and the given information.

Discuss the best answer by walking students through the step-by-step process of solving the problem. Clearly explain the correct approach, highlighting the best answer based on the given information and the mathematical concepts involved. Emphasize why this particular approach is the most accurate and efficient way to solve the problem.

Read More: Should School Days Be Shorter?

Explore good answer alternatives by introducing alternative approaches that are also correct but may involve slightly different methods or reasoning. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of these alternative approaches, highlighting the different perspectives they offer and the potential challenges or limitations they might present.

Identify bad answer alternatives by discussing incorrect or flawed approaches to solving the problem. Clearly explain the errors or misconceptions associated with these approaches and why they would lead to incorrect results. 

Encourage discussion and evaluation where students can compare and evaluate the different answer alternatives. Encourage them to justify their choices, consider the advantages and disadvantages of each approach, and provide reasoning for their decisions.

By providing and talking through alternatives, students can feel empowered by their choices and also learn why certain approaches work and others don't. Yes, you're still going through step-by-step instructions here, but they become more of a reference guide than a teaching guide. 

Gamify the Situation

Going back to the above, if you present instructions, your class will see instructions. But if you present instructions within a game, the class will hopefully see the game while following the instructions. 

One way to do this is to frame things as a race to complete, while students are put up against each other to see who can complete the instructions first. (Of course, you don't want to sacrifice quality, so maybe it's not only who can complete instructions fastest, but correct as well.)

Another example would be to create a puzzle of sorts out of the instructions. For example, you write out the steps on large paper and then cut them up into pieces. Students have to reassemble them in the correct order. Can be done in one large group, or in several smaller teams as a competition.

Again, fun and engaging, and hopefully superior to simply handing out instructions and reading through them.

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