Educators know all too well that there are times when we can feel as though we are talking to the wall or speaking into an empty echo chamber. We think that we are being clear, and we know what we want our students to know and do. Yet we may discover that they didn’t hear what we intended, are confused by what we said, or did not hear us at all.
We may be tempted to blame our students when we discover they have not received the messages we sent. Of course, it may be that they have indeed not been giving us the level of attention that we expect. However, before looking elsewhere to assign responsibility or blame, we need to consider whether our communication has been clear, timely, and complete enough to capture the attention of our students and if it was presented in a way that made it memorable.
Typically, the problem is not that we do not know how to communicate effectively, but that we can become preoccupied with or distracted by other issues and tasks. We may be in a hurry to cover instructional material, or we may not be clear about what we want to communicate. Often, just taking some time to review what we know about effective communication can be enough to remind us to practice the techniques and strategies we already know. Here are six reminders that may be helpful.
We need to be sure the message is timely. We must consider what students need to know and when they need to know it. Just because something is on our mind does not mean that now is the time to share it. Communication that sticks is both relevant and well-timed. Of course, there also are times when we may preview or prepare students for future work, so hearing a preview now can help them to be ready. Think of it like this: just in time and just enough.
Then, we must keep it simple. We need to avoid vocabulary and concepts to which students have yet to be exposed. Simple words and short sentences are most likely to be absorbed. The best communication is confined to the smallest number of points, expectations, and tasks students need to hear and absorb; the more complex our communication, the more likely it is that students will become confused, seek interpretation from other students, or ignore what we have to say entirely.
Next, we can structure the message so that students get both our point and the key supporting information. Start with the “headline.” What is the core message on which we want students to focus? Follow with crucial supporting details; what else do students need to know? Limit the information to avoid overloading and creating confusion. Finally, we can complete the message with an example or two to clarify implications and ground our key points.
We increase the probability that our message is received when we employ multiple modes to convey it. Say it, send it, and show it. We may even sing it, sign it, or signal it when we really want to be sure. The more ways students receive information, the more likely they will hear and remember it.
Closely related to communicating via multiple modes is to repeat what is most important. We may think that students should always be paying attention, ready to hear what we have to say, but that is not reality. The more times our messages are repeated, the more likely they are to be absorbed. Repeating important messages as many as seven times is a good goal.
Despite our best efforts to communicate, we still need to check for understanding. We may think that we have been clear, but what matters is whether students hear and understand what they need to be successful. Regardless of how well we may have instructed, students may still have misheard something, or they may still be confused or uncertain. Only when we check in with students can we be certain that what we thought we said is indeed what students heard.
Taking some time to review our practices and make key adjustments can make a big difference in how well our students pay attention and understand what we need them to know. Of course, these same reminders will help us to be more effective communicators with colleagues, parents, and even our partners and our own children.