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:
- Tell them what you are going to teach them;
- teach them; and
- 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