Instructional Clarity: Clear Only If Known

Have you ever bought something that came with confusing instructions?  Have you ever asked someone for directions who assured you that “It’s easy to find; you can’t miss it”?  However, when you tried to follow the directions, you missed it and were lost.  Dr Edgar Dale noted the similarity between giving poor instructions, or bad directions, and ineffective teaching where the students are lost, but the professor unwarily continues lecturing mostly to her/himself.  Dale called such occasions “the COIK fallacy -- (Clear Only If Known).”

It’s easy to get to the place you are inquiring about if you already know how to get there.

The COIK fallacy occurs when we understand what we are saying and assume that our hearers understand, too.  Perhaps the ultimate example of a COIK is the instruction on a bottle of wart remover that says “Do not use if you cannot see clearly to read the information.”  Educators and students can minimize the occurrences of the COIK fallacy. 

How can faculty avoid the C.O.I.K. fallacy?

Poor teaching, like bad directions, can leave a student lost.  George Washington’s diary for October 3, 1784, shows the consequences of bad directions: “Left Quarters before day, and breakfasted at Culpeper Court house which was estimated 21 miles, but by bad direction I must have traveled 25, at least.”  Faculty who lead their students into new territories need to avoid the COIK fallacy by striving for instructional clarity.

Hines, Cruickshank and Kennedy found a link between teacher clarity and student achievement and satisfaction.  They identified twelve behaviors that contribute to instructional clarity.  Instructional clarity involves:

  1. using relevant examples during explanation
  2. reviewing material
  3. asking questions to find out if students understood
  4. answering student questions appropriately
  5. repeating things when students did not understand
  6. teaching in a step-by-step manner
  7. providing students with sufficient examples of how to do the work
  8. providing time for practice
  9. teaching the lesson at a pace appropriate to students
  10. explaining things and then stopping so that students could think about it
  11. informing students of lesson objectives or what they were expected to be able to do on completion of instruction
  12. presenting the lesson in a logical manner

[Hines, Cruickshank and Kennedy, “Teacher Clarity and Its Relationship to Student Achievement and Satisfaction,” American Educational Research Journal 22 (1985): 87-99.]

How can students minimize the C.O.I.K. fallacy?

Sometimes professors assume that the students understand the class materials when, in fact, the students are lost and do not have the “fuzziest” idea of what the teacher is saying.  If you find yourself in this situation, you can do several things:

  1. Be up-to-date on your course reading.  Read before class, not just before a test. The best learning occurs through repeated encounters with the material. 
  2. As soon as something becomes unclear to you, speak up and ask questions.  Most instructors are happy to clarify a point if students are having trouble. Ask for another example of the concept.  
  3. Talk to your professor immediately after class or via email.  Let the professor know that you are having trouble and want help with the material.  This gives the faculty member time to evaluate where he/she might have been unclear and to consider how to help you better understand the material.
  4. Take advantage of your professor’s office hours.
  5. Search the web.  You might be surprised at the number of internet sites that can help you explore an issue. 
  6. Make connections with classmates.  Sometimes having another student explain the concept can help you learn.