Explaining Things Clearly to College Students

Avoid Complaints that Students Don’t Understand You

“Explaining Clearly” is the title of Chapter 16 in Barbara Gross Davis’s book, Tools for Teaching.  Explaining things clearly is vital for avoiding one of the most common complaints college students lodge against their instructors – “He can’t explain anything.  Nobody in the class understands what he is saying.”

General Strategies for Explaining Material Clearly

The first suggestion Dr. Davis makes is to “Give students a roadmap.”  At the beginning of class provide an outline of what you are going to cover.

A good idea is to write it on the board.  A strategy Davis does not address, however, is the use of Advance Organizers.  The link I have provided is one I highly recommend.  Try searching for the term Graphic Organizers and Smart Art for ideas.

Some of the other strategies Davis recommends are:

  • explain how new concepts relate to prior material and major course topics;
  • pay attention to quizzical or confused looks from students; and
  • if you have an accent, use compensating strategies such as putting assignments in writing.

Let me add that a good technique for assessing how well you are explaining this is the One-minute Paper.

Let me also add some of my advice for instructors with accents:

  • Never assume your students understand;
  • do not ask your students if they understand;
  • do ask specific questions to assess students’ understanding;
  • use effective techniques for answering questions;
  • use the Terminology in the Textbook; and
  • repeat key points.

Helping Students Understand

The first three suggestions Davis has are:

  • Build on what your students already know and understand.
  • Identify difficult topics and prepare effective techniques to present them.
  • Cue students before introducing a topic that is hard to understand.

Davis’s next recommendation can be paraphrased this way:

  1. Tell them what you are going to teach them;
  2. teach them; and
  3. tell them what you taught them.

Her next three suggestions are useful tips for organizing your lectures:

  • Move from simple ideas to more complex topics.
  • Begin with familiar concepts and segue to the unfamiliar.
  • Start with general statements followed by specific examples

Her final suggestion for helping students understand is to give them an exercise to demonstrate their understanding.  This could be an in-class exercise, perhaps a problem to solve.

Some of the additional points Davis makes, the ones I thing are most effective, are:

  • Demonstrate a process, don’t just tell your students about it.
  • Provide multiple examples of a concept, ideally in different contexts.
  • Provide analogies, anecdotes, and vivid images.
  • Repeat important points.
  • Present difficult material more than one way.

Some of Davis’s advice is based on prominent learning theory.   Remember the VAK principle?  VAK stands for the three ways students learn – Visually (be seeing), Auditorily (by hearing) and Kinesthetically (by doing).  Deliver material in different ways, ones that appeal to each learning style preference.

© 2010 Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

Posted June 27, 2010


About Dr. Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

My name is Paul Hummel, and I often introduce myself to others as a recovering engineer. If you are familiar with the Dilbert cartoons, let me simply say that I lived all of that. I started my college saga at Illinois Institute of Technology. Eventually, I earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering and a Master’s Degree in Engineering Management. I worked for many years in industry, and during this time I did some college adjunct teaching. During my career I held several managerial positions in industry, the last as Director of Technology of a division of a Fortune 500 corporation. Then, in 1996, with minimal planning or forethought, I found myself working as a manufacturing consultant on behalf of Elgin Community College (ECC). My career in higher education began to take shape. I fell in love with ECC and with the mission of community colleges in general. I worked fulltime and occasionally taught college courses for my institution and two other colleges. After a couple years I set a goal to move over to the “credit side of the college” and eventually become a college administrator. In 2006, having earned my doctorate in education, I achieved that goal. I was hired by Waubonsee Community College as Dean for Technology, Mathematics and Physical Sciences. I have had the great fortune of working at two excellent colleges. The insights I want to share are drawn from the various college positions I have held. At ECC, in addition to my consulting role, I coordinated non-credit professional development training programs for three years and spent four years advising students in the TRiO Student Support Services program. That position helped me understand college education from the perspective of today’s college students. After seven years at Waubonsee, I retired April 30, 2013. I now devote my knowledge and skills to upgrading and expanding the websites I created beginning with Adjunct Assistance. I have three other websites: College Teaching Tips, Keys for College Success and Lighthouse for Learning. A lot of work lies ahead for me in terms of upgrading and expanding each of these websites, but I could not be more excited about fulfilling the vision I have for helping college instructors and their students succeed.


Explaining Things Clearly to College Students — 2 Comments

  1. Education means understanding basic principles, logical conclusions, and empirical verifications. Teachers must understand how students think, and build from there using the basic principles.

    • Dr. Aranoff, I am not sure what you are saying. Are you disagreeing with the issue of explaining things clearly or saying that there is more to it such as knowing how students think and building on basic principles? Or, is your point something entirely different? What are some of those principles to which you refer?

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