When the Directions Are the Problem

Student's feet on ground with arrow directions going every way

Instructors often experience problems between the directions given for an assignment and the work submitted by a student. Students miss important parts of questions; they may fail to understand the directions; and they produce work which the instructor finds unacceptable. Unfortunately, students may fail to see what the instructor sees for the end product, leading to loss of time and learning. John Hattie (2015) found that instructors who directly teach what is expected, have improved student outcomes with a large effect size (Cohen’s d = 0.77).

Templating, where instructors explicitly develop, teach, and model expectations, improves learning and reduces time spent trying to implement directions and is rooted in Bandura’s social learning theory by helping students define, interpret, and mimic what was observed (Bandura & Walters, 1977). There are four components to consider: develop a minimum and a maximum for each criteria, give students a laundry list of expectations, use a checklist for the template, and model expectations.

Min/Max Rules

Directions have a gray zone, or the unwritten, unspoken steps which instructors expect students to decipher. A better way is to start out by developing a minimum and a maximum—or a min/max rule—for each criteria, from the laundry list to the checklist and finally the template. Two fictional examples bear this out. Students completing a short answer might write anywhere from one word to one page. Similarly, students completing essays might not know lengths, requirements, or the style. Min/max rules could specify, as an example, three sentences for the short answer and four to six pages for the essay. The separation from current practices for many will be the invasiveness of scaffolding. At the start of class, min/max rules can be further refined based on student needs, such as expressing what vocabulary to use, the types of questions to answer, and sections of essays. For example, a teacher could provide a thinking routine for students on short answers: define, describe importance, and compare and contrast.

Laundry List

The laundry list spells out the criteria for all assignments. Examples could include all paragraphs have at least three sentences, a citation in every paragraph, and no quotes in short papers. Negative and positive requirements transform expectations to a clear, defined statement and example. Without a laundry list, students might write one-sentence paragraphs, use poorly sourced materials, offer superficial analysis with only quotes, and develop paragraphs which are too long and cumbersome. Laundry lists are individualized to the instructor, the class, and the assignment. Instead of students wondering if first person is acceptable, the criteria are already clearly listed.


Once min/max rules and a laundry list are developed, a template can be formed using a checklist. Checklists can produce standardization, reduce mistakes, and give users the ability to track and improve changes (Gawande, 2010). First, the instructor must know what the end product should be. The length of the assignment, the sections, the references, and questions to answer spell out what will give a C and what is needed for an A. Secondly, the instructor must then conduct a task analysis, or check there are no unwritten or unclear rules. For example, if an instructor does not explicitly state a conclusion for a paper or a narration on the presentation, the gray area will defeat even the best laid plans. The checklist is a good tool for tracking problems and allowing for improvements the following semester. Overall, templating reduces anxiety by producing a clear, consistent routine, where students can check off requirements that were met and the end product looks exactly like what the instructor intended.


Rubrics are entirely different, and the min/max rules, the laundry list, and the template build the requirements to grade with a rubric. In my experience, rubrics are often poorly constructed and not clearly communicated. Rubrics, like templates and laundry lists, must operate off a bright line of minimums and maximums. If a student gets a three on a rubric area, there should be a minimum (such as no more than two errors) and a maximum (such as no more than four errors). Clearly, identifiable criteria should distinguish one score from the next. When students have laundry lists and templates, the building blocks for the rubric are already in place.


Operationalizing templates can become much more extensive than surface requirements. Instructors can suggest or require key words, ideas, passages, and themes. Another useful idea is having students turn questions into headings for papers. For students or classes struggling, extra support can be built. How to reflect, how to synthesize, and how to summarize often are outside of the experiences of students, so a well-developed framework, with prompts and lists, can make the esoteric become exoteric. Piloting templates with a small group or for one class can alleviate problems, and a model of partial or complete papers can also be used. Instructors do need to be cautious about not offering so much support that creativity is stifled. A great rule is to offer as much support as necessary, and as the semester continues, most students no longer worry or think about the nuts and bolts of papers and focus on the content.

Direct instruction of expectations, where there are objectives, instruction, practice, and gradual release prove effective (Hattie, 2015), as instructors cannot just give a handout or recite requirements. Another possibility could be majors and departments work as a unit to develop min/max requirements, laundry lists, templates, and models to greatly shorten the time and effort wasted in each class discussing expectations which could be held in common. Instead of each course having different expectations and confusion on what is required, students enter knowing learning can be spent on the product and not the universal process.

David Coker is an adjunct professor of education at Fort Hays State University Online and runs an alternative school at a juvenile detention center.


Bandura, A., & Walters, R. H. (1977). Social learning theory. Prentice Hall.

Gawande, A. (2010). Checklist manifesto, the (HB). Penguin Books India.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. Routledge.

Hattie, J. (2015). The applicability of Visible Learning to higher education. Scholarship of teaching and Learning in Psychology1(1), 79. https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/stl0000021