November 18th, 2015

Are We Clear? Tips for Crafting Better Explanations


Teacher explains concept to class.

How many explanations do you think you offer during a full week of teaching? Explanations are one of teaching’s most central activities and yet something we rarely think about, in general, or how we do them, specifically. Maybe we can remedy that by considering some features of clear explanations.

Language at the level of the learner – Good explanations are understandable. They make sense to the person on the receiving end. This can be a challenge given how much time most of us spend speaking the highly specialized languages of our disciplines. It can’t be noteworthy and complex if it doesn’t have a multisyllabic name. And we don’t like to simplify for fear we’ll “water down” the content, compromising its intellectual integrity. But is that relevant if students aren’t understanding the explanations? The languages of our disciplines enable us to do our work, but they don’t always expedite the understanding of newcomers to that work.

Teaching Professor Blog Paced at the speed of the learner – Explanations suffer when we get caught in the too-much- content, too-little-time bind. We hurry through, driven by all that’s still ahead. We’re leading the pack in a fast car with a big engine. Students follow, unfamiliar with the road and largely inexperienced behind the wheel. Not all students learn at the same pace. Some get it the first time they hear it; others need to hear it, hear it in a different form, think about it, and then hear it again. This calls for purposeful decision making regarding the importance of what’s being explained. If it’s essential, a foundational concept, or an idea that integrates a whole content chunk, then it should be presented at a pace that enables understanding by as many students as possible.

Malleable, able to be reshaped, formed differently, reconstituted – This is yet another challenge, because when preparing the explanation, we think we’re being clear. How we explain it to students makes perfect sense to us. They don’t understand? We’re taken aback—how can that be? What’s the matter with them? We haven’t thought about other ways to explain it, which means we’re crafting new explanations on the spot. It is far better to have ideas about alternative ways to explain key concepts prepared beforehand.

Reconstituted or repeated as often as necessary without hints of frustration or doubts about the learner – Hearing an explanation and not understanding it is frustrating. Having to ask to hear it again and still not getting it is embarrassing. At that point, most students (and a lot of the rest of us) just fake it. We nod, smile, and say thank you as our minds race, still trying to figure it out. An explanation is justifiably called “clear” only when it results in understanding.

Illustrated with examples meaningful to the learner – When I was growing up and my folks thought I needed an illustration of frugality and hard work, they’d share yet another example of how things were during the Great Depression. It was a defining time for them, but not for me. Some examples (including some favorites) are time-sensitive. If you teach 18-to-23-year-olds, your students stay that age, but you and your examples become older with each passing year. Examples can be a bridge to understanding, but they have to be at a place where learners can get on.

Not single-sourced – Sometimes understanding comes in a flash. Sometimes it grows bit by bit. If the goal is helping students understand, then who contributes to that understanding should not be an issue. True enough, the teacher’s explanations will likely be the most accurate and complete. But if the door to understanding is first opened by another, if a bit of insight comes from somebody else, the teacher can always fill in what’s missing or add the details that deepen the understanding.

Always made better – Explanations can always be improved. Donald Bligh points out that they’re best improved right after they haven’t worked very well. And even if an explanation has worked well previously, like much else in teaching, there are no guarantees. So we strive for perfect explanations, understanding that is a forever-elusive goal.

I’d welcome your help in expanding and revising this list. And if this post has piqued your interest in explanations, Donald Bligh’s book What’s the Use of Lectures? (Jossey-Bass, 2000) identifies 11 different kinds. His book also merits a revisit in light of recent lecture-active learning conversations.

  • Pingback: Tips for Crafting Better Explanations – from Faculty Focus | Dong-Ha Min()

  • jph

    Core concepts, once explained and tested, should also be placed in new context as the semester progresses….so if teaching protein structure early in the semester, I can remind students as we look at membrane transporters of the core concepts of protein structure shifts and what causes those conformational changes. Later in the discussion of cytoskeleton I can address protein structure in the myosin family of proteins, etc. So the learning may not have been as in-depth the first time, but with continued exposure to core concepts as we examine new knowledge I can strengthen it throughout the semester.

  • Dana Washington

    Although I teach word-based content and skills, I often use graphic representations of key concepts. I can draw the structure of an essay, an argument, a classification, a comparison, a contrast, an introduction, or a conclusion, among other concepts–and I use color and show students how to use it to make relationships between ideas and essay structure stand out. All of this can be done by non-artists, and might be better done by non-artists, because our wobbly lines make students believe they, too, can do this to actually see what their thoughts look like.

    • NJN

      Excellent idea with the colour and graphics. I use graphics and will now include colour. In preparatory courses, I visually represent paragraph structure. Colour would also be helpful with teaching types of sentences. Thank you.

  • Jeff Barbour, MLIS

    Thanks for such an enlightening post. It brings to mind the importance of different learning styles of students, chunking, pacing and, of most importance — pre-post-and summative assessments! Reading this post also brought to mind the critical role that rubrics are having in assessment as well.

  • This is great. In my writing classes, key concepts are constantly reiterated and applied in new contexts in order to reach the ultimate goal: transfer of skills to other classes.

  • DR. S. G Deshpande

    Its great to use this methodology. But today learner wants to do somethings with his hand. So the involvement of student in teaching -learning process is also equally important