“So…what do we do?” When Unclear Directions Mask the Objective of your Activity

By Sarah E. Lynch, PharmD, BCACP

As a pharmacy student, I would get frustrated when I would attend a lab or workshop and feel like I was being tested on my ability to follow directions rather than pharmacy content. I recalled these feelings recently when several upset students approached me after lab. Initially, I thought they were concerned about their grades, however, it turned out they were frustrated with the unclear directions, which they said limited their ability to effectively demonstrate their knowledge.

This experience reminded me of a question I was asked when interviewing for my current position as director of Skills Education: ”What is the most important part of delivering a Skills Laboratory session?” I was quick to answer: organization and clarity! Students should feel they can come to class or lab to practice their knowledge, not their ability to follow directions. It turns out I was onto something. Studies show that instructional clarity and organization have as much, and sometimes even more, impact on student outcomes than other more innovative strategies.1 In fact, clear and organized instruction has been shown to be positively related to student grades, satisfaction and persistence. It is also directly correlated to students’ academic motivation and their perceptions of faculty commitment to teaching and student development.2 Blaich and colleagues, who conducted the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education, define “clear and organized” in a way that spans the gamut of teaching platforms, but the following stood out:3

  • Faculty were well prepared for class
  • Class time was used effectively
  • Course goals and requirements were clearly explained

Other than a few minor bumps in the road, I am proud of the work I do to prepare clear directions for the lab activities I design. I believe that my insistence on clarity has made classroom management as a young faculty member dramatically easier. Well-defined directions keep students happy, and when students are not happy, those directions support my stance. The lab described above was not my finest, but I am using the opportunity to reflect on the strategies that have proven effective for me. Immediately below are some recommendations based on my personal experience.

Set expectations early.
I organize course materials within a Learning Management System (LMS) and post them a few days prior to the lab session. I recommend using the first day of class to share your communication plan and stick to it throughout the semester. If you’re not planning to post your material until the night before class, be sure to communicate this clearly to your students. It may also be beneficial to use the last five minutes of lab to explain next week’s activities.

Use peer review.
If you have an activity with complex directions, consider asking a colleague to review it prior to sharing with students. What may seem obvious to you may not come across clearly in your directions. If a colleague recognizes this, you may save yourself from answering emails from confused students or facing blank stares in class or lab.

Help students plan ahead.
Between studying, rotations, jobs, co-curricular activities and a social life students are busy. Most of them want to stay on top of their courses, but if materials are not posted in advance or if directions are not clear it can hinder that desire. Keep your LMS organized, and post materials as early as possible for students who plan ahead. Working in advance is easier said than done, but students will be more prepared and appreciative.

Keep the objective in mind.
Do your directions clearly articulate the activity’s objective? We don’t want to spoon feed students, but there is a difference between well-defined directions and providing students with the answer. Dealing with ambiguity is an important skill, but it does not need to be assessed all the time.

It’s okay to make mistakes.
Don’t expect every class to go perfectly, but try to be fair: if you are aware that your directions were not clear and may have impacted the students’ ability to perform an activity, consider redoing the activity or adjusting the grading scale if it was an assessment.

When I accepted my current faculty position, my mom said to me: “How does it feel to be starting a job that you didn’t learn how to do?” As pharmacy educators, most of us did not learn how to teach or manage a classroom during our pharmacy training. It’s important to remember that in addition to our ability to teach the content, we also need to be cognizant of the effect of our own organization and clarity on our students’ success. Explicit directions can mean the difference between a successful activity or lesson and one that falls flat.

What other tips can you share for making sure directions are clear and activities run smoothly?


1. Roska J, Trolian TL, Blaich C, Wise K. Facilitating academic performance in college: Understanding the role of clear and organized instruction. Higher Educ, 2017; 74: 283-300.

2. Pascarella E, Salisbury M, Blaich C. (2011). Exposure to effective instruction and college student persistence: A multi-institutional replication and extension. J Coll Stud Dev, 2011;52: 4–19

3. Blaich C, Wise K, Pascarella, ET, Roksa J. Instructional clarity and organization: It’s not new or fancy, but it matters. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 2016; 48(4): 6-13.

Sarah Lynch is a clinical assistant professor and the director of Skills Education at Binghamton University School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences. Her educational scholarship interests include pharmacy practice, simulation, and assessment. In her free time she enjoys trying new restaurants and reading.

Pulses is a scholarly blog supported by Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning

1 Comment

  1. Being an organized instructor has obvious advantages. Attention now can be focused on effective preparation of students with problem-solving skills needed for addressing the ambiguities encountered in pharmacy practice. It may be natural that students abhor ambiguity, but they need to learn how to deal with ambiguous situations by developing critical thinking and problem solving skills. Are there best practice examples of highly organized courses that also develop problem solving skills?


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