Our lessons need to be clear in order for students to understand the subject content they are expected to learn. This is particularly important for older students who are preparing for exams, and who are therefore expected to memorize, understand and apply vast amounts of information.
An unclear teacher who presents information in a confusing way can be a source of dread for students who are expected to perform highly on end-of-unit tests and exams. A clear teacher, on the other hand, can make students feel confident, relaxed and comfortable with the learning process contained within each lesson.
The good news for us is that it is easy to make our lessons clearer with just a few, simple, proactive tweaks. In today’s blog post I offer my top eight suggestions for maximizing lesson clarity: all of which have been distilled from just over 16 years of experience. Within these paragraphs I will present the conclusions garnered from the many mistakes I have made in my teaching career, so that you don’t have to make those same mistakes yourself.
Lesson Clarity Tip #1: Share resources with your students in advance of each lesson
When we share instructional resources with our students in-advance of each lesson we provide an opportunity to read-ahead. And, of course, we should be encouraging our students to read-ahead before each lesson anyway, as this process will cement some foundational principles before greater detail is presented within each lesson itself.
Nowadays most teachers are competent in the use of Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) such as Google Classroom, Firefly, Moodle and so on. However, one aspect of this digital realm that’s not fully exploited is the ability to upload PowerPoints, Google Slides, PDF summaries, worksheets and other resources in advance of each lesson.
One big challenge that this poses for teachers is that these resources actually need to be ready and stored somewhere, in an organized fashion, before they can be uploaded en masse. This problem becomes further compounded when syllabuses change, and resources need to be adapted accordingly.
Where possible, we should have a sequence of slideshows, worksheets, summaries and other resources mapped out for a course before the course begins. Then, when day one of the course starts, all of the resources needed for the entire course can be ready for students to access right away. At the moment, for example, all of my PowerPoints for my entire two year IB Diploma Chemistry course are uploaded on the students Google Classroom, and are classified on there by topic.
Advantages to us, as teachers, when we do this are:
- We don’t have to scramble to upload resources on the day of teaching. Our time can be better spent on other things.
- We don’t have to scramble to find resources on a USB drive or some kind of shared folder. The resources are all in one place, online, ready to go.
- Students can view the presentations, worksheets, PDF textbooks and other materials on their individual device screens in real-time, as the lesson is happening. This aids our instruction, reduces note-taking time for students and even saves paper for printing (students can view worksheets on their screens, without the need for a printed copy, for example).
Lesson Clarity Tip #2: Don’t put too much information on slides
- Keep text large and clear.
- Make diagrams and illustrations as large as possible (as large as the slide is perfect, where possible).
- Avoid ‘crowding’ slides with too much information. A slide filled with paragraphs of small text can be very off-putting for students, not least because the the text can be difficult to read when it’s so small.
- Keep information digestible – present material in bitesize chunks. Avoid presenting tons of information all at once.
Lesson Clarity Tip #3: Avoid irrelevant information
It can be tempting to bring-in content that’s indirectly related to the material we are presenting: often to provide an extra dimension of fun and interest to the subject. A good example I can think of from my experience is when I was teaching physics to young teenagers some years ago. The topic they were learning was entitled ‘Sound and Hearing’, and the students had to learn about sound waves, the Doppler Effect and how human ears work.
In my youthful stupidity, however, I thought (for some bizarre reason) that it would be a good idea to teach the students about sign language. I thought that it would bring a bit of fun to the classroom and allow my learners to empathize with those in society who cannot hear properly. This proved to be a mistake on my part, however, as some students were confused about what exactly they needed to know for their upcoming test.
“Do we need to know about sign language for our test, Mr Rogers?” was a question I was asked.
The answer was no, of course. I had essentially wasted a good portion of teaching time bringing-in extra material that was unnecessary. That time could have been better spent reinforcing the foundational concepts needed to pass the test.
We must keep our lessons focused on the curriculum statements we are expected to teach. When we want to bring in topical information, then let’s do that after the students have learnt the main material. At the end of a recent physics lesson, for example, I played a short video of the recent Mars Perseverance Rover landing from NASA, as this was related to velocity, acceleration and distance (concepts we had been exploring in class). This NASA video didn’t form the main-body of the lesson, but was rather a short ‘treat’ for the students at the end of an hour of hard-work.
Lesson Clarity Tip #4: Always assign focused activities
Have you ever been in a rush at school and quickly found an online quiz or web-activity that relates to your topic, only to share it with your students and later find out that the activity wasn’t quit up-to-standard?
I’ve fallen into this trap many times in the past. I’ve assigned Quizlets, Wordwalls, Kahoot! activities and other online quizzes in a rush, only to later find the following errors:
- Spelling, punctuation and grammar mistakes.
- Content mistakes (in some cases).
- Too much information (more than the students needed to know).
- Too little information (not enough for the task to be substantial).
- Irrelevant information (content that the students didn’t need to know).
- Poor usability (problems with software interactivity and the user experience).
It’s vital that we check our third-party content thoroughly before we assign it to our students. This level of due process needs to be extended to offline resources, such as textbooks, too.
Lesson Clarity Tip #5: Speak loudly and clearly
We must avoid the following:
- Using colloquialisms that our students may not understand.
- Speaking with an accent that may be unclear to some learners.
I quickly learnt the importance of the above three points when I moved to Thailand in 2008 to teach Chemistry at an international school. My students mostly had Thai as their first language, so I had to lose my thick North Wales accent (which even native English speakers would find difficult to understand at times) and I had to speak classical, textbook English. I’m “sound as a pound” became “I’m fine, thank you”, “That doesn’t quite cut the mustard” became “This work is not up-to-standard”, and so on.
We must ensure that our speech is clear and, just as importantly: loud. This latter point is of more importance now than ever before as teachers all over the world are wearing masks and visors when speaking. One thing that surprised me when I wore a visor to teach last summer was that my voice sounded louder to myself when I wore the visor, then when I took it off (due to vibrations and bone conduction).
Lesson Clarity Tip #6: Speak slowly
Our students need time to process information: especially when it is presented verbally. We must include pauses in our speech, and check for understanding along the way. It may be necessary to repeat key sentences a few times too, especially if the concept being explained is advanced, or technically challenging to understand.
Lesson Clarity Tip #7: Reinforce key words
Technical vocabulary feature prominently in official mark schemes, and are often the core components of a well-formulated answer to an exam-style question. Consider the following strategies:
- Ask students to say key words when they appear in your lessons. In a recent chemistry lesson, for example, I said “Everyone say the word ‘resonance'”, after which the whole class said it. Forcefully getting students to articulate key words through deliberate speech can be a good way to prime the brain to remember those words when they are used in some thought process later on in the lesson.
- Use exam-style questions and official mark schemes to show students just how important it is to write key words within an acceptable context during an exam.
- Differentiate texts to make key words more digestible.
- Encourage students to highlight key words in their notes along the way.
Lesson Clarity Tip #8: Use everyday language to explain advanced concepts (where possible)
Rephrasing sentences that contain subject-specific vocabulary can be a good way to help students understand the underlying concepts being taught. Here are some examples:
- The train accelerated = the train sped up
- The bond enthalpy of the C-C bond is…… = the energy contained within the C-C bond is…….
- The dinner was sublime = the dinner was superb
We can prompt this process by repeating technical sentences in an everyday format, and we can ask our students “What does ___________ mean?”. This can lead to meaningful discussion that will serve to reinforce key words (Tip #7) and clarify the underlying theory of the lesson.
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