How to give excellent directions to your students

Flynn, R. M. (2007). Giving directions: A teaching art. Teaching Artist Journal, 5(1), 37-46.

Retrieved February 12, 2018, from

This refreshing article outlines one teacher’s attempt to compile for all teachers in any setting how to give better directions to students. The author believes that “engaging students productively in even the most thoroughly planned and richly meaningful arts activity requires giving effective directions” (p. 37). Working where she does (in an arts school), she noticed that the skill of giving directions properly was one that some teachers did well and other not. She sought a primer on the subject, but finding none, wrote her own. This informal research endeavor, then, is the primer she sought.   Her list explains five categories of thirty considerations that she believes are involved in proper direction giving: tell students, show students, rehearse students, help students and let students. After listing each category, she expounds on each consideration. Deeming her content worthy of the risk of posting a long review, I submit her list as printed:

Tell students:

  • To have their desktops, laps, and hands free of any objects
  • While they are silent
  • How to respond to an “all-quiet prompt”
  • The name and the objectives of the activity
  • Why they are doing the activity
  • That they are listening to learn the activity directions
  • How they will participate in the activity
  • The basic steps of the activity
  • What they are not going to be doing
  • Any new words, terms, phrases they need to know
  • What materials they will need
  • The behavioral guidelines of the activity
  • Why certain behavioral guidelines are required
  • The qualities of excellence in this activity
  • More than once

Show students:

  • An example of what they will be doing or creating
  • A written step-by-step breakdown of the activity

Rehearse students:

  • By guiding them through a version of the activity
  • By explaining and practicing their cues

Help students:

  • By asking them questions
  • By inviting them to ask questions by asking a student to explain the procedures
  • By reminding them
  • By establishing time limits
  • Understand how they will assemble in groups
  • Value what you are saying by refusing to continue giving directions when they are failing to listen

Let students:

  • Assemble in groups
  • Do the activity
  • Hear your praise of their good work
  • Share their group’s work with the rest of the class

There are studies that address the basic idea of giving directions and what impact that will have on student learning. Erhel & Jamet (2013) discuss this at length and draw a distinction between instructional instructions and entertainment-like instructions, but they do not explain what those types of instruction styles look and sound like. Indeed, Flynn asserts that no such research exists and begins her own field of inquiry with this article.

As an instructor who has received student feedback regarding my own poor instruction giving, I am now a student of the art. I had not realized that anything was going poorly until the student evaluations were completed, compiled and circulated. Now I pay attention every single day to what I am doing (and not doing). This list will help me to further analyze my own growing skills. In time, I hope to read on those same course evaluations that I am very clear with my directions.

Erhel, S., & Jamet, E. (2013). Learning: Impact of instructions and feedback on motivation and learning effectiveness. Computers & Education, 67, 156-167. doi:10.1016

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