Clarity and organization in the classroom improve student learning

November 7, 2017 | Claudia Stanny

Clarity and organization in the classroom improve student learning

Although we may have cherished memories of eccentric instructors, I have yet to hear anyone reminisce that they loved a course because the instructor was disorganized or that the lectures were incomprehensible. As a student, I appreciated courses that were well-structured, with a clear plan for the academic term. These courses included assignments that made sense as meaningful learning experiences. I appreciated instructors who could explain difficult concepts, gave clear directions for assignments, and established unambiguous criteria for how they would evaluate my work. Faculty also seem to value clarity and organization as evidence of skilled teaching. Instructors pay particular attention to student ratings for organization and clarity in their course evaluations and cite these ratings as evidence of their teaching skill in their narratives for tenure and promotion.

Is our intuitive esteem for clarity and organization based only on personal preference? Are evaluations of clarity and organization meaningful indicators of effective teaching?

Roska and his colleagues (2017) examined the relation between instructor clarity and organization (as perceived by student raters) and student achievement on disciplinary content. Their analysis lends substance to the notion that organization and clarity are important attributes of effective teachers. Based on data from over 7,000 students (first-year students attending 38 four-year institutions), Roska et al. found that students who reported greater exposure to clear and organized instruction also reported high levels of academic motivation. Moreover, students who reported frequent experiences with clear and organized instructors also reported that they spent more time studying, participated in class more often, and prepared for class.

Roska et al. also found that students who reported more experience with clear and organized instruction also reported higher first-year GPAs. The benefit associated with taking courses from instructors who were clear and organized was large as the educational advantage observed for students from families with college-educated parents. Moreover, Roska et al. report that the positive relation between instructional clarity and academic achievement was strongest for the subset of students who were appeared to be least prepared (based on ACT scores and high school GPA).

What are the hallmarks of instruction that is organized and clear?

Roska et al. (2017) evaluated the clarity and organization of instruction by asking students to rate faculty on the following ten indicators (p. 285):

  • Presentation of material is well organized
  • Faculty are well prepared for class
  • Class time is used effectively
  • Course goals and requirements are clearly explained
  • Faculty have a good command of what they are teaching
  • Faculty give clear explanations
  • Faculty make good use of examples and illustrations to explain difficult points
  • Faculty effectively review and summarize the material
  • Faculty interpret abstract ideas and theories clearly
  • Faculty give assignments that help in learning the course material

Why is organization and clarity important?

When faculty design courses that are well-organized, write a syllabus and assignment instructions in language students understand, and explain course content clearly, students interpret these behaviors as indicators of faculty interest in the academic success of their students and faculty intention to teach well. When students believe that an instructor is invested in their learning, they may engage in more effective study behaviors and increase their efforts to learn.

Advice to faculty: Get feedback on organization and clarity

Students can be a valuable source of feedback about instructor clarity, course organization, and the perceived relation between assignments and learning goals. The voice of students is needed to determine if an instructor can bridge the gap between experts and novices because an explanation that is crystal-clear to an expert may confuse a novice. However, the student voice should not be the only source of information about teaching quality. Instructors rightly question whether students have the expertise to make judgments about all aspects of effective teaching. For example, a judgment about whether an instructor has a “command of the material” requires disciplinary expertise that students do not possess.

Instructors should also seek feedback from colleagues with specific expertise. For example, skilled teachers from other disciplines can provide feedback about teaching (e.g., class structure, timeliness of feedback, clarity of explanations, classroom management, whether the instructor creates assignments that provide meaningful opportunities to learn). Colleagues within a discipline can provide feedback about whether explanations are accurate and whether instructional materials are designed well, present appropriate disciplinary content, and are appropriate for the level of student enrolled in the class (introductory through graduate).

Resources

Roska, J., Trolian, T. L. Blaich, C., & Wise, K. (2017). Facilitating academic performance in college: Understanding the role of clear and organized instruction. Higher Education, 74, 283-300. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10734-016-0048-2  


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