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How to Avoid Communication Breakdowns

The wording of educator instructions can have a big impact on students.

By guest contributors M. Anne Britt, Amanda Durik and Jean-François Rouet

Imagine a teenager who is asked by his parent to mow the lawn. Seems pretty straight forward, right?

The parent and the teenager each have an idea of what it means to “mow the lawn,” but those ideas might differ quite a bit.

Teenager view: Quickly walk back and forth across the grass with the lawnmower.

Parent view: Check lawnmower fuel and oil levels, then fill them if necessary; make straight, overlapping passes across the lawn; check for missed spots; empty lawnmower bag; wipe off the lawnmower; put it back in the garage; and use a weed cutter to trim any grass the mower couldn’t access.

Source: Thinkstock

In the end, the parent may be disappointed, and the teenager may feel confused or even hurt to learn of the parent’s dissatisfaction.

Misinterpreting goals for tasks can be an even greater problem in the classroom. Most teachers have experienced this. They pass on a set of instructions that they think are clear, articulate, and complete only to have them misinterpreted by students.

Cognitive psychologists have long known that the wording used to describe tasks can have a big impact on how students’ approach assignments.

For example, in a study with high school seniors, we found a task that was initially thought to be clear-- “read the texts to write an argument”-- actually led to misconceptions about how to use the text (Wiley et al., 2012). Clearly, students can have different interpretations of exactly the same assignment. Misinterpretations were avoided when the instructions actually defined the essential component of argumentation that we previously assumed: “Use information from the text to support your ideas and conclusions.”

The conditions that lead to students' effective understanding of learning academic tasks are examined in our upcoming book (Britt, Rouet, & Durik). Readers create their own views of tasks, which we call task models. A task model can include information about several things, such as:

  • Who is giving me these instructions and why?
  • What are the instructions asking me to do?
  • What resources--such as texts, computers, or partners—do I have available?
  • What strategy might I use to accomplish the task?

The task model may range from very detailed (e.g., a check list) to vague and briefly considered (e.g., find good information to support a point).

To get a better understanding of task models for assignments that involve writing or evaluating arguments, we asked college students, "What makes a good argument?" Students tended to report "fact, facts, or are factual" as being important to an argument, and these students were much less likely to acknowledge other perspectives than their own (Wolfe and Britt, 2008). Yet most professors assume that their students’ understanding of the term “argument” will, at a minimum, acknowledge other perspectives.

We recently explored whether the social context would affect the nature and quality of a college student’s task model (Britt, Rupp, Wallace, Blaum & Rouet, 2016). In this study, participants were instructed to learn about different controversial topics, such as: Whether we should or should not require vaccinations for children.

When the request came from a person unlikely to be an authority on the topics, such as a friend or cousin, participants were more likely to just give an answer, without bothering to seek supportive information. However, when the request came from an authority, such as a teacher or boss, students said they would look up information and were more likely to remember the task details. In other words, the context in which instructions are given can affect how one goes about responding to a task.

To avoid miscommunications, teachers must communicate task goals in a way that their charges can adopt a similar view of the task. We’ve found that these strategies can help:

  • Write clear and explicit task instructions.
  • As a check, ask students to communicate their understanding of the task.
  • Ask students to specify what they will do to accomplish the task to identify and, if necessary, redirect their use of strategies.

As academic standards increasingly require students to learn independently by interacting with technology and rich sources of information, such as the internet, communication about task goals will only become more important.

And improved communication might also help parents get their kids to do a better job mowing the lawn.

M. Anne Britt, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Northern Illinois University. She teaches course on cognition and instruction, and thinking. Her research focuses on advanced literacy skills including sourcing, content integration and argumentation.

Amanda Durik, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at Northern Illinois University. She teaches courses in motivation, group dynamics, and research methods. Her research focuses on motivation in achievement situations, and the situational and individual factors that contribute to the development of both performance and interest.

Jean-François Rouet, Ph.D., is a research director with the French National Center for Scientific Research at the University of Poitiers (France). He teaches courses on cognition, learning, and information search. His research examines the cognitive underpinnings of reading literacy, with a special interest in digital reading.


Britt, M.A., Rouet, J.-F., & Durik, A.M. (In preparation). RESOLV: a model of reading as problem solving. Routledge, UK.

Britt, M.A., Rupp, K., Wallace, P., Blaum, D., & Rouet, J.-F. (July, 2016). Representing situations and tasks from information requests. Poster presented at the 26th Annual Meeting of the Society for Text and Discourse, Kassel, Germany.

Wiley, J., Britt, M. A., Griffin, T. D., Steffens, B., & Project READi (April, 2012). Approaching reading for understanding from multiple sources in history and science: initial studies. Paper presented in symposium titles: A Framework for Conceptualizing Reading for Understanding: Evidence-Based Argumentation in History, Science, and Literature at the AERA conference, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Wolfe, C.R. & Britt, M.A. (2008). The locus of the Myside Bias in written argumentation. Thinking and Reasoning, 14(1), 1–27.

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