The immediate impact of clear directions on your student engagement

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Are your students often less engaged than you’d like them to be? Or do some students occasionally not do what you’ve asked them to, or do it wrong? While we often think we’re making ourselves crystal clear, the directions teachers give to students directly impacts their students’ engagement with the lesson activity. Overly long or wordy directions can be difficult for students to remember what to do, and so without trying to be disobedient, they don’t do it.  

Whether you’re a new teacher or have been teaching for decades, consider how a few key changes in how you deliver your directions to students could impact student engagement in your classroom.

First, good directions should be concise and limited to three at a time. Long directions are hard to remember for students (and adults too!). Read the following aloud to yourself (or better, read it aloud to a colleague and ask him/her afterwards what was asked of students):

Overly long directions: “You should have out your notebook, your math notebook, not any notebook, and you should have a pencil or some kind of writing utensil.  Everyone should come to class prepared, if you don’t have one, ask a neighbor. Don’t forget to pick up your math textbook, and then everyone should start answering the three do now problems in your notebook as quickly as possible. The timer is already ticking on the board so let’s get going. If you get done early, you can start copying the notes. I’ll come around and check homework and you should raise your hand if you have a question.”

If instead the directions are limited to three at a time, and all the verbose language is cut, the same directions could sound like this:

Concise directions: “Right now, complete the three do now problems in your math notebook silently and in your assigned seat. You have 5 minutes. Go.”

Hearing directions like this helps students know exactly what is expected of them.

Second, the directions should be precise and include 4 things every time: time, task, material, and sound. (These four come from the Skyrocket rubric.)

  • Time means the amount of time students will have to accomplish the activity, such as 30 seconds or 2 minutes.

  • Task refers to the specific and observable action that you as the teacher are asking your students to do. This could be reading a specific passage, opening a text book to a given page, walking to guided reading groups, talking to a partner, and so on.

  • Material means what students will need to accomplish what you’re asking of them, such as their math notebooks, crayons, or a partner.

  • Finally, sound is perhaps one of the most important parts of directions that teachers often leave out. Each set of directions should include the volume at which students should carry out the activity, such as silently, in a whisper, or voice level 2. Use the word “silently,” when you mean no talking because the word “quietly” levels the volume open to interpretation. (I can whisper quietly.) Also consider making a noise level chart that you teach to your students, such as voice level 0, 1, 2, or 3 and what each sounds like.

Where in the concise directions above do you see the time, task, material and sound? (Pause here and quiz yourself if you’d like!) The time is “5 minutes,” the task is “complete the three do now problems,” the materials are “math notebook,” and the sound is “silently.” Remember, this level of specificity can be delivered still keeping in mind the first criteria, being concise.

Finally, the way directions are delivered impacts student engagement as well. Directions should only be delivered with the full attention (silence and eyes looking at the teacher) of all students. This means that you should use your consistent attention getting signal before delivering directions. Delivering directions while talking over students isn’t good for anyone: it devalues what you have to say as a teacher and it sets up the kids who aren’t listening for failure in the next task. Next, directions should be delivered from the same spot in the front of the room every time. This helps students know that they’ll be receiving important information about what to do next when you move to that spot in the room. Consider even marking an X on the floor with tape. And lastly, directions should be said in a confident tone and with clear pauses. Confident tone means a little bit louder than your normal speaking voice, and in a professional (not overly friendly, nor overly urgent) tone. Put a pause to emphasis each important part of the directions. This could sound like: “Right now, complete the three do now problems in your math notebook [pause] silently [pause] and in your assigned seat. [pause] You have 5 minutes. Go.”

Let’s recap the criteria for super clear directions.

Directions should:

  • Be concise

  • Limited to 3 at a time

  • Include time, task, material and sound

  • Be given with the full attention of all students

  • Be delivered from the same spot in the front of the room every time

  • Be delivered with a confident tone and clear pauses

Here’s a few more examples of revised directions to meet these criteria:


When you spend time making small tweaks to your teaching like improving your directions, your students are the ones who benefit!  Implementing the criteria laid out here to give really powerful directions will positively impact the engagement of your students.

Practice this!

  • Script out 3 sets of directions that you commonly use in your class, using the criteria above as a guide

  • Practice giving better directions from what you read here in your class at every transition and before every activity.  Videotape yourself or ask a colleague to sit in on your class to give you feedback on your directions.