When students don’t follow directions


Erik Ketcherside

Erin Hellmann is a second-year teacher and a corps member of Teach For America. Her eighth-grade classroom is in Jack L. Kuban Elementary School, part of the Murphy School District in Phoenix, Arizona. Erin says her district’s budget, like many in Arizona, is challengingly tight when it comes to essentials such as textbooks and curriculum.

One resource Erin alone can control is time in her classroom. Using instructional time efficiently is important to her. Using it effectively is something she had to work on.

“I had to learn not to rush it,” Erin says. “My students told me after my first month of school, ‘Ms. Hellmann, we didn’t like you. You were so strict!’ I had really strict behavioral expectations because I knew I was going to have these students all day, every day, and they were eighth grade. As a first-year teacher I was worried about it getting out of control.”

Erin says she and her class now have a wonderful relationship that developed as her students learned to cooperate and participate. One of the tools she used in shaping the classroom culture she wanted is Giving Clear Directions for a Task, a free, professional development module available on demand from the Sanford Inspire Program through Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

Concern: Students not following directions

Erin was experiencing some frustration from her class not following directions the way she expected. She describes a particular “quiz-quiz-trade” classroom activity in which she instructed her students to write a word and a definition on a notecard. “All of them wrote the word and the definition on the same side of the notecard,” Erin recalls. “I thought, ‘What are you doing? Who writes the word and the definition on the same side?’ But when I had multiple students do it I realized, I never told them to write the word on one side and the definition on the other.

“Simple things like that made me realize I wasn’t being clear,” Erin says. “It seems silly, but if those kinds of things are happening all the time you’re wasting a ton of time in class.”

Solution: Giving Clear Directions for a Task

Research shows that teachers often use indirect forms of communication when conveying directions or behavioral expectations to students. Instructions such as “Can you raise your hand before you leave your seat?” or “Work quietly with your partner” contain expectations that are implied, not explicitly stated. But for students to be successful in the classroom, they need to understand, rather than be required to guess, how they are expected to behave in a given situation.

Giving Clear Directions helps teachers explore the connection between clear and explicit directions, student behavior and issues of fairness and equity. The module teaches a step-by-step process for crafting clear directions, establishes criteria that directions should meet to be effective and provides a template for planning and executing a set of effective directions.


Erin says the module was ideally suited to address her issue. “It did a really good job of justifying why you should buy into giving clear directions,” she says. “I don’t have time to plan directions like that for every task, but it was really valuable for directions you give frequently, when you can use them over and over.”

A month later, when Erin taught her pupils how to lead their own reading groups, she used the module’s template to create a set of clear directions. Those directions allowed her students to succeed the first time, even in a completely unfamiliar task. “For 45 minutes, they all worked in small groups,” she says. “They all read, they all turned in work. I was so impressed.”

Erin also appreciates the module for being constructed with a teacher’s schedule in mind. “Sometimes we’ll go to a professional development meeting and it will be extremely long,” she says. “I prefer things that are to the point. I thought [this module] had the perfect balance of interaction. I really liked that there was a clear objective and I accomplished it.”

Teacher resource: Giving Clear Directions for a Task

Source: Sanford Inspire Program

Type: on-demand, single user

Cost: free

Estimated time required: 1.0 hour

Completion documentation: certificate

Teacher Standards (InTASC): Essential Knowledge: 3(l)

Topics: Learning Environment > Managing Student Behavior > Communicating expectations

For more free professional development resources for teachers, administrators, schools and districts, visit the Sanford Inspire Program homepage, and the ASU Professional Learning Library, powered by Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.