“What are you talking about? That’s not what I said! Weren’t you listening?!”

I love my wife more than anything. We’re best friends and nearly constant companions. That said, I can’t tell you how many times we’ve miscommunicated. She said something that was to her was crystal clear, but what I heard was the exact opposite of what she intended. Or I’ve said to her, “be at this place at this time and bring those things”. Only to show up at said time and place to find her no where to be seen or without said things in hand. Surely some of these miscommunications can be attributed to mindlessness, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve really tried to do exactly what I thought she wanted and screwed it up royally. Each time this happens the aggrieved party throws their hands up in with a flabbergasted look that screams, “DO YOU UNDERSTAND THE WORDS THAT ARE COMING OUT OF MY MOUTH!?!?!?!”[1].

“It’s Not My Fault You Can’t Read The Directions!”

When my wife speaks I am 100% interested in what she has to say, especially when we are working out the logistics of an event or day. And still, with 100% interest, miscommunication happens. Now let me ask you a question. How interested are your students in what you have to say? Probably less than 100%, yes?

As faculty it’s easy to feel exasperated when a student seems to have either not read the directions or completely misread them. I’ve heard many a faculty say, “It’s not my fault if they can’t read the directions!” Or, “Part of working in the real world is learning to follow directions, it’s not my responsibility to explain every single step of the process to them.” However, even under the best of circumstances miscommunication happens, so I’d politely like to suggest that working to minimize miscommunication is indeed your responsibility.

5 Ways to Minimize Miscommunication

  1. Watch Your Assumptions

“Do I really need to write that in the directions, don’t students already know that…?” Let me be clear, no. They don’t already know that. The reason you are a professor is that you were an exceptional student. You did “already know that”, but that makes you the rare exception. When you write your directions, write them so clearly a person not in your class could understand them.

  1. Be Explicit to a Fault

In your directions lay out your expectations in as much detail as possible. Consider presenting your directions as a step-by-step process to communicate the approach you feel they should take. Or even better, provide a checklist or grading rubric as these make your expectations clearer.

A word of caution: If the directions for your assignment are 7 pages long or as detailed as the tax code, your students won’t read them. You have to find the right balance between explaining your vision for the assignment, while not overloading your students. Be concise and clear.

  1. Use Formatting to Communicate Effectively

Use text formatting like bold, underline, and italics to guide the reader’s eye to the crucial information. Use bullets and lists to help your student organize the steps in the process. If you expect a certain citation style, format your directions accordingly to role model the desired outcome. Well designed directions, syllabi, and rubrics can really help reduce miscommunications.

  1. Tell Them What You Don’t Want

Miscommunication often happens because the person presumes they know what you are going to say before the read what your directions. They feel they have a handle on your expectations and give a cursory glance at the directions. Nip this in the bud, by telling your students what you’re not looking for. Say it in class early and often. If you can work it in your directions, all the better.

  1. Realize Students Read What They Think You Said

If you’ve ever taken a survey methodology course, then you already know that people don’t read what you write, they read what they think you were trying to communicate. Once you realize that there are many possible interpretations of even the most explicit directions, hopefully you’ll find it easier to sympathize with your confused students.

This Sounds Like Too Much Work

You may be thinking, “who has the time for all of this extra work?” And that’s a fair point. However, I’d argue that if you put in the time to make your directions as clear as possible on the front end, you won’t spend gobs of time answering panicked student questions or grading terrible student work. In my opinion, grading bad papers takes far longer than grading good papers. Help your students give you the work you’re looking for and you’ll save yourself a lot of time and stress.

  1. Please, please don’t get the wrong impression about my wife. She is the nicest most giving person I’ve ever known. Every couple has moments like this.  ↩