Teacher Clarity: A Potent Yet Misunderstood Teaching Strategy

By | First Published: | Last Updated: 9 July, 2020

If you have what we call teacher clarity, you can have a much larger impact on how well your students do in your class.

Teacher Clarity Feature Image

Clarity is critical. Eminent educators, Dylan Wiliam and John Hattie agree that you must be very clear about what you want your students to learn. You need to know exactly what you want them to understand and what you want them to be able to do.

But the nature and usefulness of teacher clarity are a bit more complex than that. I explore some of this complexity below. But if you want to jump straight to the section How to Use Teacher Clarity to Enhance Students’ Learning, please do so.

How to Use Teacher Clarity

 


Research on the Impact of Teacher Clarity

In Hattie’s 2009 book, Visible Learning, he reports that teacher clarity has an effect size of d = 0.75. This claim was based on a meta-analysis by Frank Fendick. If you read the actual meta-analysis, you will see that this effect varied by sector. In:

  • Primary school d = 0.54
  • Secondary school d = 0.63
  • University d = 0.93

This may mean that teacher clarity has more impact on older students. However, Fendick also found something else that may explain this difference. The impact was higher when students rated the clarity of their teacher rather than when observers watched and rated teachers. Studies of older students made far more use of student ratings. So, it is feasible that the differences between sectors stem from how teacher clarity was measured rather than from the age of the students.

Since then, Scott Titsworth and his colleagues have conducted 2 meta-analyses (2015) on the impact of teacher clarity. They did not report separate effects for different sectors.

Their first meta-analysis included the studies analysed by Fendick + more. Through this meta-analysis, they found that teacher clarity had an effect size of:

  • d = 0.72 on academic learning
  • d = 1.21 on students’ motivation and attitudes

In their second meta-analysis, they found that teacher clarity had an effect size of:

  • d = 1.03 for academic learning
  • d = 1.25 on students’ motivation and attitudes

Given that they included Fendick’s work in their own analysis – the average impact of teacher clarity is d = 0.88 [(0.72 + 1.03) ÷2].

teacher clarity impact diagram
The Average Impact of Teacher Clarity on Academic Learning

Yet, the real impact of teacher clarity may be slightly smaller in schools as:

  • Fendick’s work showed lower results for primary and secondary schools
  • Titsworth did not show separate results for each sector

In either case, the impact is substantial.

 


What Is Teacher Clarity?

Fendick and Titsworth both agree that teacher clarity has several distinct components. These aspects include clarity of:

  • Organisation
  • Explanation
  • Examples & Guided Practice
  • Assessment of Student Learning

Learning Intentions & Success Criteria

I am not against using learning intentions and success criteria. They may indeed be useful ways to clarify what you want your students to learn in some context. And, such clarity is a core part of organisation (above). But:

  • They are only one way to achieve such clarity, and the research did not use those terms. There are other ways to do so that may be better suited to your context.  What matters is that you are clear about what your students must learn.
  • Being clear about what your students must learn is critical, but it is only one part of teacher clarity. And, the research is clear that combining the various aspects of teacher clarity has a much larger impact on your students learning.

How to Use Teacher Clarity to Enhance Student Learning

First, you need to understand the various aspects of teacher clarity and how they fit together. I have tried to organise these aspects so that they make sense to teachers who are planning a unit or lesson. The words in the following diagram are my own (not used in the research), as I tried to make them teacher friendly. But the meaning behind them is in line with the above research.

what is teacher clarity

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teacher clarity step 1 intended learningStep 1: Clarify What Your Students Must Learn


Essential

Always begin with the end in mind. You need to be clear about what your students need to know and be able to do – either by the end of the lesson, unit or program.

If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up some place else
Yogi Berra

Flexible

This may take the form of a list of a unit aim, unit objectives, learning intentions, a lesson goal(s), success criteria or any other form of your choice. But you must spell out what it is that you students should learn.

And, as Dylan Wiliam notes, it may not always be appropriate to share these intentions with your students at the start of each lesson.

checking for understanding in step 1Checking for Understanding+ in Step 1

You can check for understanding at this stage by assessing students’ prior knowledge and competence in the above. The way you do this should be influenced by the nature of your objectives. Possible methods include a pre-test, a running record, a phonics check, an unassisted draft piece of writing, a concept map or any other form of assessment.

The helpful action (+) you take is using the results during step 3 when you plan how to get your students from where they are now, to where you want them to be.

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step 2 clarity of assessmentStep 2: Plan Your Summative Assessment


Essential

At the unit level, you plan a summative assessment task(s) in line with what it is you want your students to learn (e.g. your unit objectives). The best assessment task(s) will depend upon what you want your students to learn.

Within a single lesson, you plan less formal ways to check your students understand what you have taught them and can do what you have shown them.

Flexible

The type of assessment task(s) you use.

checking for understanding in step 2Checking for Understanding+ in Step 2

You plan to check for understanding+ at this stage by designing a formative assessment(s) similar to your summative assessment.

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step 3 sequencingStep 3: Sequence Your Lessons or Activities Logically


Essential

You must plan a sequence of lessons or a series of activities within a lesson. These lessons or activities must explicitly help students to achieve the intended learning.

Put another way, it must provide a logical pathway from where the students are at to where you want them to be.

And, you must build in time for reviewing past work.

Flexible

Except for the above, you can sequence learning however you want. There are some things that offer you some guidance, but they are not part of the teacher clarity concept. These include:

checking for understanding in step 3Checking for Understanding+ in Step 3

At this stage, it is useful to identify common misconceptions your students may hold. This could be about the unit topic or in relation to the specific lesson you are about to teach.

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step 4 explain and demonstrateStep 4: Give Clear Explanations & Demonstrations


Essential

You need to clearly explain the things that you want your students to understand. And, you must show your students how to do the things you want them to be able to do.

Moreover, you should

  • Explain things as simply as possible
  • Break things down in a step-by-step manner
  • Stress difficult points
  • Stay with a topic until your students understand it
  • Help your students to connect new information to what they already know

Flexible

Based on research beyond teacher clarity, we now know a lot more about effective explanations and examples. For instance, we know about the importance of using visuals to support verbal explanations, and the power of faded worked examples.

checking for understanding in step 4Checking for Understanding+ in Step 4

It is crucial that your students have understood what you have taught them before moving onto the next part of a lesson or to future lessons. You can do this through asking questions, listening to responses and listening to discussions.

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step 5 practiceStep 5: Have Your Students Practice Assessment Like Tasks


Essential

You must give your students the opportunity to practice things that are like those that they will need to do when formally assessed.

Yet, don’t just throw your students in the deep end. There should be a gradual release of responsibility, with steps in between you showing them what to do and them doing it independently.

Flexible

You can guide and support students in their practice in many ways. These include ways that are supported by research outside of the notion of teacher clarity. For instance, using faded worked examples and distributed practice.

checking for understanding in step 5Checking for Understanding+ in Step 5

Checking for understanding at this stage involves marking their practice attempts. The + component includes offering feedback and going over areas they are having difficulty with. Depending on the nature of the practice tasks, you can mark students work either within or after class.

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step 6 clarity of assessmentStep 6: Have Your Students’ Do Their Summative Assessment


Essential

Your students must complete a summative assessment task(s) that genuinely reflects the intended learning.

Flexible

You can choose any type of assessment task provided it aligns with the intended learning.


3 Key Takeaways from the Research on Teacher Clarity

You may be a bit overwhelmed by this new insight into the nature of teacher clarity, so let’s break it down.

  1. Teacher clarity includes but goes beyond the notion of being clear about what you want your students to know and be able to do.
  2. Teacher clarity involves using the above clarity to focus subsequent teaching and assessment. These activities include initial explanations and demonstrations. They also include practice and review sessions. But teacher clarity does not rule out other types of activities provided they help to achieve the intended learning.
  3. When your students have not understood what you have taught them, teacher clarity also involves explaining things a different way, giving students constructive feedback or taking other actions to help them master it.

Teacher Clarity FAQs

What is Teacher Clarity?

Teacher clarity starts with you being clear about what you want your students to learn. But it also involves much more than that. You must also focus and align your assessment, teaching and curriculum in line with this intended learning.

What is Teacher Clarity Effect Size?

3 different meta-analyses have reported effect sizes for teacher clarity. The first reported an effect size of:
– d = 0.54 for primary school students
– d = 0.63 for secondary school students
– d = 0.93 for university students
The second and third meta-analyses did not report separate effect sizes for primary, secondary and university students. Instead, they reported an effect size for all students.
r first meta-analysis included the studies analysed by Fendick + more. Through this meta-analysis, they found that teacher clarity had an effect size of:
– d = 0.72 (second meta-analysis)
– d = 1.03 (third meta-analysis)

How to Improve Teacher Clarity

Follow these 6 steps:

  1. Clarify intended learning

    Be crystal clear about what you want your students to know and be able to do.

  2. Aligned assessment of learning

    At the unit or program level, create a summative assessment task(s) that genuinely assesses the intended learning. At the lesson level, plan ways to check for understanding.

  3. Sequence lessons and learning activities

    Organise and sequence your lessons (or activities within a lesson) in line with your intended learning. This should include time for review.

  4. Give clear explanations

    Clearly explain what your students need to know and show them what they need to do within each lesson. Check for understanding explain things again if needed.

  5. Relevant practice

    Give your students time to practice the sorts of things they must do in their upcoming summative assessment and offer feedback on their efforts.

  6. Assess learning

    Have your students complete their summative assessment task(s) and see how clearly they understood what you taught them.

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SHAUN KILLIAN
(MEd., MLead.)

Shaun Killian (me) is an experienced and passionate teacher, as well as a past school principal. After a heart transplant and having both my legs amputated, I am not yet capable of returning to work. Yet, my passion for helping students succeed has led me to use my time to research teaching and associated practices. I then share what I find in practical ways through this website. The greatest compliment I have ever received from a past student was I never left any student behind. That is mission of most teachers and I hope you find the information on this site useful.

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