CTL Blog

I is for Instructions

February 22, 2011 | 4 Minute Read

Students have a right to expect instructions that are clear and that are not changed during the course.  I know that I and my TA's have tried many times to write questions for my health economics class that can be interpreted only one way.  Try as we might, it turns out that they can often be interpreted more than one way.  When students are working through the problem and not facing a multiple choice test, they have no problem telling me about the alternative interpretation of my instructions.  The students with the alternative interpretation, their classmates, and the instructors all find this difficult and time consuming to deal with.  This is just on illustration of the need for and value of clear instructions.  

Students like to know due dates.  They rarely complain when the due dates are moved to a later date.  I don't think I have ever shifted a due date to an earlier date.  Still, students in the setting in which I teach are taking classes in eight week segments during which they are often facing 20 hours a week of contact with faculty.  This is a huge time investment and needs to be planned for.  Thus, making sure that the instructions are as clear as possible on day one of a course is particularly helpful in my case, but this is certainly generalizable.

I think that the giving of instructions can also be used to set expectations.  A constant struggle at this point in time is students in class with laptops.  I know that many students like to take notes directly on their laptops.  Some schools have even invested in software that facilitates direct annotation on pdf files.  However, some students when given the choice between paying attention or using the wireless Internet will choose to use the wireless internet for non-class-related purposes.  On the one hand, students paying a lot of money for their education have the choice of how to spend their class time.  On the other hand, and here it is particularly useful to teach economics, there is an externality that is associated with non-class-related use of the Internet.  It does not affect only the student who is using the Internet but the student's classmates as well.  This would be a great way to introduce the concept of externalities on day one of class (which is also particularly relevant in public health) and then to set the expectation that students not do this.

What other expectations should be set?  I like to set expectations about participation and taking advantage of the learning opportunities that are presented.  I am a long distance runner who is now training for my third half marathon with an eye toward my second full marathon this October.  In the 13-20 week training programs for such events there are plans for running and fitness opportunities for every day. Including, on some days, resting.  If the runners follow the directions of the coach, it maximizes the probability of success for the runners.  If we think of the students as analogous to the runners and the instructor as analogous to the coach, the instructor plans a series of learning opportunities.  The students need to be encouraged to do them all--to take advantage of them all--so that they will understand the bigger picture in which the set of activities fits.  Then, the students will maximize their chances of learning and of deep understanding.

In economics and economic evaluation, I particularly focus on giving students instructions on how to use the practice examples that they are given, questioning and discussing the premises of economics and the applications of economics, and using opportunities for group learning appropriately to help with understanding the material.  Just a few comments on those.  I try to give students two practice examples.  One that they will most likely do on their own.  A second in a group. Then they get assessed.  I'll discuss this more later.  Some students don't find the time to do the practice.  If they don't they will miss an important learning opportunity.

I don't teach economics as dogma.  I want students to question it and I want them to question its application.  Putting it to the test is the only way to really understand it.

Finally, I encourage students to work together but complete assignments on their own.  There is a time and a place for group learning as long as the final product is each student's.  Again, setting clear expectations about the appropriate use of group learning opportunities is a great thing to include in the instructions I give to the class each time.

There are many creative ways in which instructions can shape the entire learning experience rather than simply being a drag to read through a syllabus on day one or rather than foregoing the opportunity to give instructions and jumping right into the class.