“Why Didn’t You Just Tell Us What You Wanted Us to Learn?”

Joseph F. Johnson, Jr., Ph.D. and Shirley Y. Peterson, Ed.D.

 (#3 in a series of blogs focused on Equity, Excellence in E-learning)

Attend the free webinar on October 21, 2020 at 10:00 am PDT. 

In schools that achieve outstanding learning results for diverse groups of students, we’re often fascinated by student explanations of their academic success. On many occasions, we have heard students attribute their accomplishments to the clarity of instruction provided by their teachers. For example, in one interview a student told us:

At my other school, it was like they wanted us to learn it, but they didn’t want us to learn it. It was like you had to guess to figure out what they wanted you to do. You had to try to read their minds. Here, the teachers make it real for us, so what you’re learning makes sense. You don’t have to read the teacher’s mind to figure out what you’re supposed to be learning.

Hattie (2009) found that teacher clarity had a stronger effect on student achievement than socioeconomic factors or parental involvement. Saphier, Haley-Speca, and Gower (2008) explained, “Skillful teachers are clear about what is to be learned, clear about what achievement means, and clear about what they are going to do to help students attain it” (p. 2). When teachers are clear about what they want students to learn, how they intend to help students learn, and how students can gauge their learning success (Fisher & et., 2018), students (from all races, income groups, and language backgrounds) become empowered to succeed.

In schools where all demographic groups of students achieve outstanding learning results, teachers ensure that students develop clarity about intended learning outcomes. Teachers use words, images, objects, and interactions to represent important lesson ideas. As well, they organize lessons logically so students know what they should understand and students can gauge their learning progress (Johnson, Uline, & Perez, 2019). The following chart provides some examples of how teachers promote clarity. As well, the chart offers counter-examples that occur when clarity is lacking.




 Helping students discuss how (by the end of the lesson) they should be able to compare and contrast the traits of the story’s main characters.

Engaging students in reading the story without any discussion of the comprehension skill they should be developing/practicing.

 Enhancing student clarity through diagrams, charts, and other visual representations of the concept.

 Expecting students to understand concepts simply by reading text or listening to a lecture.

Utilizing data from prior student assessments to anticipate possible misconceptions and deliberately designing lessons to prevent or minimize misconceptions.

Presenting the same lesson that was presented last year, without considering how the lesson might be improved to prevent or minimize misconceptions.

Teaching students strategies for assessing the quality of their work and ensuring their learning success.

Expecting students to submit high-quality work, without providing students strategies or tools they can use to assess their work.

Few students require remediation or intervention after a great lesson. However, for a lesson to generate great learning outcomes, educators need clarity about what they want students to understand. As well, lessons must be designed in ways that help students gain clarity about what they should learn during the lesson. Additionally, the best lessons will help students know how to assess the quality of their learning. As educators in high-performing schools pursue e-learning strategies, we are finding that they are committed to promoting clarity so most students will attain deep understanding after initial instruction and few students will require intervention.

We find teachers utilizing a variety of e-learning strategies to promote a high level of clarity. For example, we find teachers:

  • Engaging students in online discussions about what they are about to learn and why the topic is important to them
  • Using online teacher collaboration meetings to backward map the learning steps necessary to ensure student understanding
  • In online teacher collaboration meetings, utilizing data from previous assessments to identify possible misconceptions and plan online instruction to avoid those misconceptions
  • Planning mini-lessons that address key “chunks” or concepts
  • Keeping asynchronous lessons brief and focused on small “chunks” 
  • Helping students see the visual “roadmap to understanding” so students understand how what they are learning at any given time connects to other important concepts 
  • Engaging students in describing their progress toward understanding (their journey on the roadmap to understanding)
  • Utilizing technology to provide graphic representations of important concepts
  • Engaging students in developing graphic representations of important concepts
  • Engaging students in utilizing technology to assess the quality of their own work
  • Ensuring students understand ‘enough’ before assigning independent work


Long after schools fully re-open, we anticipate that many outstanding educators will continue to use E-learning strategies to promote clarity among their students. We hope you join us for our webinar on October 21, 2020, at 10:00 a.m. PDT where we will offer a deeper discussion with practitioners sharing how they presently use e-learning to promote clarity in ways that advance both equity and excellence in learning results.



Fisher, D., Frey, N., Quaglia, R. J., Smith, D., & Lande, L. L. (2018). Engagement by design: Creating learning environments where students thrive. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

 Hattie, J. A. C. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

 Johnson, J.F., Uline, C.L., & Perez, L.G. (2019). Teaching practices from America’s best urban schools: A guide for school and classroom leaders. New York, NY: Routledge.

 Saphier, J., Haley-Speca, M. A., & Gower, R. (2008). The skillful teacher: Building your teaching skills. Acton, MA: Research for Better Teachin

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