Simplifying our practice: Instructions and expectations

Written by: Adam Riches | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

In a series of five articles, Adam Riches is looking at how we might simplify common classroom practice in order to make teaching and learning more effective. Part two looks at instructions and expectations

Two factors for success in any classroom are the students knowing what to do and how they should be doing it.

Instructions and expectations are the bread and butter of successful learning. Quite simply, if students do not know how to complete a task and the way in which they are expected to do it, they will not learn efficiently – or at all!

Teachers spend a huge amount of time on this, but it doesn’t need to be a complicated process and it certainly doesn’t need to take a lot of time. With a few tweaks, you can considerably simplify your approaches to giving instructions and setting expectations.

For learners to be successful, we need to give precise, clear instructions that are underpinned with high expectations, translatable for all students. Keeping it simple is the best way to make sure everyone is clear on the what and the how.

Simplifying our practice: Articles in this series

  1. Marking and feedback (October 2021). Click here.
  2. Instructions and expectations (October 2021). Click here.
  3. Self-efficacy (November 2021). Click here.
  4. The learning environment (November 2021). Click here.
  5. Planning (December 2021). Click here.

Think about your words

We give instructions and more often than not assume that learners know what we are asking them to do. Something that always astounds me is that very little time is spent actually exploring the language of instruction.

To ensure that learners know how to complete a task, they must first understand the prerequisite terminology that links to the subject in question. A simple instruction such as “analyse the quote” or “solve the equation” is only simple if the class understands the process of “analysing” and “solving”.

So, to begin with, we need to step back and ensure that learners are confident with the instructional vocabulary we are using. If they can master that, they have a much better understanding of what they are being asked to do – and this is where sustainable gains are made.

Checking for understanding is of paramount importance when it comes to setting a task. Reject self-report and avoid asking closed questions (such as: “Everyone understands?”) and instead opt for more probing questions in which learners must repeat instructions back to you and explain the processes they are expected to undertake.

Checking for understanding at the start of a task is something we do not always do, but it is just as important as checking for understanding during or after the task.

Linguistic economy

Less is often more when it comes to instructions. If we consider the additional cognitive load that new learning brings, then even the simplest of instructions can take time to process if they come directly following the introduction of new information.

As such it is prudent to keep instructions short and to the point. Supporting verbal instructions with simple visual stimuli, such as a slide or by using your board, can provide learners with a concrete reference to revisit once they have started the task.

The trick to keeping instructions simple and translatable while keeping extraneous load low is to make sure you repeat the same instruction using the same words.

Changing vocabulary or providing conflicting visual stimuli can be counterproductive and create confusion. Of course, none of us intend this to happen, but imagine being told to do something and then being told to do it again using different instructional vocabulary, and then being told a third time in yet another way.

Keeping it realistic

When it comes to setting expectations, the key is to be realistic with what can be achieved. That does not mean you need to lower your expectations, quite the opposite – you just need to be aware of the students in front of you.

Expectations need to be made explicit to students. How much do they need to write? How many problems do they need to solve? Simply outlining your expectations gives an attainable target to achieve.

By using positive reinforcement, precise praise and visibly praising compliance, you can quickly and easily change the culture of success in your classroom.

Expectations should be consistent across groups. One of the pitfalls of ability-setting is that expectations for bottom groups are sometimes lowered. Not only can this be detrimental for behaviour in the class, but it increases the gap between the higher and the lower sets.

Modelling expectations

The old saying “do as I say, not as I do” should have no place in the classroom. It is incredible how many teachers do not model their own expectations. By modelling the expectations that you demand of your students, you show that you value the goals you have embedded in their learning.

If you are asking learners to write in sentences for a task, then model this when writing feedback on the board. If you want them to underline titles in their books, make sure you are doing that on the board too. If you want them to answer in sentences during talk tasks, make sure you answer them in sentences. It is not rocket science, but simple adjustments to how we operate in the classroom can have a huge impact when it comes to students conforming with our expectations. Put simply, you are showing learners how they can succeed.


The most important thing when it comes to instructions and expectations is ensuring that it is easy for your students to get it right in your class. By keeping things simple, communicating clearly and modelling the traits you wish to see, you make it easier for learners to do things right.

By stripping back your instructions and making it easier for learners to understand what to do, you are also making learning more accessible.

What we need to do is reduce (or ideally eradicate) any ambiguity that may arise. Of course, it isn’t always easy, but the more we strip things back and remove the complexities, the more likely it is they will successfully assimilate the new learning.

Further information & resources

SecEd Podcast: The secrets to quality first teaching (featuring Adam Riches), April 2021:


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