Are We Clear? Tips for Crafting Better Explanations

Teacher explains concept to class.

How many explanations do you think you offer during a full week of teaching? Explanations are one of teaching’s most central activities and yet something we rarely think about, in general, or how we do them, specifically. Maybe we can remedy that by considering some features of clear explanations.

Language at the level of the learner – Good explanations are understandable. They make sense to the person on the receiving end. This can be a challenge given how much time most of us spend speaking the highly specialized languages of our disciplines. It can’t be noteworthy and complex if it doesn’t have a multisyllabic name. And we don’t like to simplify for fear we’ll “water down” the content, compromising its intellectual integrity. But is that relevant if students aren’t understanding the explanations? The languages of our disciplines enable us to do our work, but they don’t always expedite the understanding of newcomers to that work.

Teaching Professor Blog Paced at the speed of the learner – Explanations suffer when we get caught in the too-much- content, too-little-time bind. We hurry through, driven by all that’s still ahead. We’re leading the pack in a fast car with a big engine. Students follow, unfamiliar with the road and largely inexperienced behind the wheel. Not all students learn at the same pace. Some get it the first time they hear it; others need to hear it, hear it in a different form, think about it, and then hear it again. This calls for purposeful decision making regarding the importance of what’s being explained. If it’s essential, a foundational concept, or an idea that integrates a whole content chunk, then it should be presented at a pace that enables understanding by as many students as possible.

Malleable, able to be reshaped, formed differently, reconstituted – This is yet another challenge, because when preparing the explanation, we think we’re being clear. How we explain it to students makes perfect sense to us. They don’t understand? We’re taken aback—how can that be? What’s the matter with them? We haven’t thought about other ways to explain it, which means we’re crafting new explanations on the spot. It is far better to have ideas about alternative ways to explain key concepts prepared beforehand.

Reconstituted or repeated as often as necessary without hints of frustration or doubts about the learner – Hearing an explanation and not understanding it is frustrating. Having to ask to hear it again and still not getting it is embarrassing. At that point, most students (and a lot of the rest of us) just fake it. We nod, smile, and say thank you as our minds race, still trying to figure it out. An explanation is justifiably called “clear” only when it results in understanding.

Illustrated with examples meaningful to the learner – When I was growing up and my folks thought I needed an illustration of frugality and hard work, they’d share yet another example of how things were during the Great Depression. It was a defining time for them, but not for me. Some examples (including some favorites) are time-sensitive. If you teach 18-to-23-year-olds, your students stay that age, but you and your examples become older with each passing year. Examples can be a bridge to understanding, but they have to be at a place where learners can get on.

Not single-sourced – Sometimes understanding comes in a flash. Sometimes it grows bit by bit. If the goal is helping students understand, then who contributes to that understanding should not be an issue. True enough, the teacher’s explanations will likely be the most accurate and complete. But if the door to understanding is first opened by another, if a bit of insight comes from somebody else, the teacher can always fill in what’s missing or add the details that deepen the understanding.

Always made better – Explanations can always be improved. Donald Bligh points out that they’re best improved right after they haven’t worked very well. And even if an explanation has worked well previously, like much else in teaching, there are no guarantees. So we strive for perfect explanations, understanding that is a forever-elusive goal.

I’d welcome your help in expanding and revising this list. And if this post has piqued your interest in explanations, Donald Bligh’s book What’s the Use of Lectures? (Jossey-Bass, 2000) identifies 11 different kinds. His book also merits a revisit in light of recent lecture-active learning conversations.

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