From Confusion to Clarity outlines a simple design strategy for crafting instructions in which requirements, the process, and grading criteria are clearly communicated, student buy-in is strong, and performance exceeds expectations.
“Clear instructions and specific and descriptive criteria exist for evaluation of student work” is a Quality Matters design standard for ASU Online courses that can sometimes be too loosely interpreted.
In face-to-face classes, lively discussion about a new assignment occurs organically. Instructors have the opportunity to immediately respond to concerns, clarify directions, and expand on the “why” of an assignment to get students invested and stay on track.
But in online learning, steps need to be taken to predict student questions, quell concerns, and clear roadblocks to help students effectively, efficiently and successfully complete the assignment.
The challenges of poorly designed instructions cause:
- Time lost to email communication or deciphering instructions
- Anxiety over not understanding expectations
- Misunderstanding or confusion about the process
- Lower grades due to omitted requirements
While the benefits of well-designed instructions include:
- Less frustration over deciphering what is required
- Increased skill development tied to learning objectives
- Motivation to complete quality, on time work
- Increased student achievement
- Less questions to instructors
Long pages of narrative instructions can become confusing for any student, but particularly for students with accessibility needs or neurodiversities. Developing clear, strategic and comprehensive instruction sets support student needs before problems arise. To do that, consider organizing your instructions for major assignments into the following categories: Overview, Instructions, Resources, Requirements and Grading Criteria.
The term “overview” is common in ASUO courses and signals to students that introductory information is coming. A thoughtful overview can increase students’ investment in the assignment resulting in higher quality work and grades.
A quality overview explains the “why” of the assignment, such as
- how it fits into the course’s design
- its connections to the learning objectives
- how it can support students with school, career or individual goals
Tip: Use this opportunity to suggest how students may apply the assignment after the course ends to increase motivation, such as in a portfolio, as a research project, or the beginning of the creative process for other assignments.
Recommendation: Use narrative text to create this section. 1-2 short paragraphs is sufficient.
The Instructions section defines the assignment’s process. Well-organized and explicit instructions decrease cognitive load, allowing students to focus their efforts on the task at hand, rather than deciphering what to do. This section should be a general, but clear, guide to the major steps to complete the assignment.
By clarifying the process, students are more likely to
- include all key steps or important and mandatory components
- conceptualize how the assignment should come together
- manage anxiety that could affect performance
- meet deadlines, remain organized and stay focused
Tip: Outlining the assignment’s process can reduce the number of student questions, time spent grading for missed elements, and instructor frustration over such complications.
Recommendation: Use numerical steps to organize this section. Begin each step with a verb.
A Resource section provides students quick access to anything they may need to support their work. Instructor-suggested resources also provide context, diverse and comparative viewpoints, and the opportunity to evaluate the quality of student-located resources. This section may not be necessary for all assignments.
This section may include
- media/literary resources
- links to formative assignments earlier in the course that support development
Tip: This is a perfect opportunity to share exemplary submissions from former students, or even “non-examples” to highlight what you are not looking for.
Recommendation: Use a bulleted list to organize the resources for succinctness and clarity.
The Requirements section should be simple and straightforward to ensure students see each element. List anything that must be incorporated into the assignment, but may not be reflected in the rubric.
Examples of Requirements include:
- particular resources, tools or processes students should use
- word counts, margins, source types and citation formats
- specific titles, sections or headings that must be used
Tip: Consider using this opportunity to integrate a skill that supports student success, such as an industry standard, a building block to another course, or a future-focused skill such as using AI for a portion of the work.
Tip #2: Consider adding a “Met Requirements” section to the rubric depending on how closely the Requirements link to the learning objectives.
Recommendation: Use numbers or bullets to highlight the requirements for your assignments.
The final section, Grading Criteria, is a way to highlight or elaborate on rubric components so students can apply the insight to their final product for higher achievement. When students have full understanding of the desired outcomes, they have less anxiety, more motivation and are more likely to exceed expectations.
For example, if the rubric states “Creative use of graphics,” the Grading Criteria section might include:
- a statement encouraging students to take creative risks
- references to examples elsewhere in the course
- a statement about going above and beyond their comfort zone
Tip: Competent self-assessment before submission is a key by-product of providing a detailed explanation of the grading criteria.
Recommendation: Bullet your list for ease of reading. 1 short paragraph for each criteria is sufficient.
Please reach out to your Instructional Designer if you have additional questions about organizing your assignment instructions for better clarity and higher student achievement.