Teacher clarity is the extent to which the meaning stimulated in students’ minds by an instructor accurately matches the meaning an instructor intends to convey. In their article on teacher behaviors, Rosenshine and Furst (1971) identified teacher clarity as the most important aspect of teaching that researchers should investigate. Since that article, research programs originating from both education and instructional communication have examined teacher clarity in a variety of ways and have demonstrated that it is one of the most significant teacher behaviors affecting student learning.
A number of research programs have investigated teacher clarity (for a more complete review, see Chesebro & Wanzer 2006). The first major tradition emanated out of Ohio State between 1975 and 1985 (for a more complete review of these studies, see Cruickshank & Kennedy 1986). The researchers began by having junior high-school students recall their most clear teacher and identify five things the teacher did when teaching. Using items identified in this first study, the researchers then created items to discriminate between clear and unclear teachers, and, in the process, they discovered two dimensions of clarity: (1) explaining and (2) providing for student understanding. In a subsequent study they found a moderately strong link between the teacher clarity behaviors and student achievement and satisfaction. These results support the importance of the clear teaching behaviors identified by earlier research studies in this program.
Another program – headed by Smith and Land – examined clarity with a more narrow focus by examining specific behaviors that signal a lack of clarity, such as disfluencies, tangents, and vagueness. Land (1979) found that students of teachers exhibiting these low-clarity behaviors scored lower on tests of recall immediately following a video-taped lecture. Further research in this program identified the effects of “mazes” (Land & Smith 1979), discontinuity (Smith & Cotten 1980), and vagueness (Smith & Land 1981). Each of these variables inhibited clarity and was related to lower achievement scores.
Although Kenneth Kiewra’s work on student note taking does not focus on the teacher clarity variable, it does demonstrate the additional ways in which teachers may make their material more clear for students. Research in this area has helped identify the importance of using lecture cues (signaling important ideas, whether verbally, or in writing using visual aids) during lectures in order to help students improve their note taking. These efforts to improve student note taking are important because improvements in student note taking have been linked to greater recall of lecture material (Kiewra 1985; Kiewra & Benton 1988). In addition, research in this area has suggested the importance of providing skeletal outlines to students to guide their note taking (Kiewra 2002). In addition, Titsworth (2001a, b) has demonstrated the positive effect of lecture cues on both affective and cognitive learning.
From the instructional communication discipline, one program involving Chesebro and McCroskey has examined clarity from a variety of perspectives (for a more complete review, see Chesebro & Wanzer 2006). The program posited a model of clarity (based on previous research) that consisted of both a structural element (involving the organization of messages, use of previews, transitions, reviews, etc.) and a verbal element (involving the use of examples, the clarity of explanations, staying on-task, etc.). Research using written scenarios, student surveys, and experimental approaches have demonstrated a strong relationship between teacher clarity and important classroom outcomes, such as reduced receiver apprehension, improved student affect for teachers and course material, greater motivation to learn, greater perceptions of learning, and actual learning.
Although teacher clarity has been researched by different teams using different methods, the research consistently has demonstrated the benefit of teaching clearly, and supports Rosenshine and Furst’s (1971) assertion that clarity is one of the most important teacher behaviors in the classroom.
- Book, C. L. (1998). Lecturing. In A. L. Vangelisti, J. A. Daly, & G. W. Friedrich (eds.), Teaching communication: Theory, research, and methods. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 333–346.
- Chesebro, J. L., & Wanzer, M. (2006). Instructional message variables. In T. Mottet, J. C. McCroskey, & V. P. Richmond (eds.), Handbook of instructional communication: Rhetorical and relational perspectives. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon, pp. 89–116.
- Cruickshank, D. R., & Kennedy, J. J. (1986). Teacher clarity. Teaching and Teacher Education, 2(1), 43–67.
- Kiewra, K. A. (1985). Providing the instructor’s notes: An effective addition to student notetaking. Educational Psychologist, 20, 33–39.
- Kiewra, K. A. (2002). How classroom teachers can help students learn and teach them how to learn. Theory into Practice, 41, 71–80.
- Kiewra, K. A., & Benton, S. L. (1988). The relationship between information-processing ability and note taking. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 13, 33–44.
- Land, M. (1979). Low-inference variables and teacher clarity: Effects on student concept learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 71, 795–799.
- Land, M., & Smith, L. (1979). The effect of low inference teacher clarity inhibitors on student achievement. Journal of Teacher Education, 31, 55–57.
- Powell, R. G., & Harville, B. (1990). The effects of teacher immediacy and clarity on instructional outcomes: An intercultural assessment. Communication Education, 39, 369–379.
- Rosenshine, B. V., & Furst, N. (1971). Research on teacher performance criteria. In B. O. Smith (ed.), Research in teacher education. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, pp. 37–72.
- Rowan, K. E. (1998). Explanatory skills. In A. L. Vangelisti, J. A. Daly, & G. W. Friedrich (eds.), Teaching communication: Theory, research, and methods. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 319–332.
- Smith, L., & Cotten, M. (1980). Effect of lesson vagueness and discontinuity on student achievement and attitudes. Journal of Educational Psychology, 72, 670–675.
- Smith, L., & Land, M. (1981). Low-inference verbal behaviors related to teacher clarity. Journal of Classroom Interaction, 17, 37–42.
- Titsworth, B. (2001a). The effects of teacher immediacy, use of organizational lecture cues, and students’ notetaking on cognitive learning. Communication Education, 50, 283–298.
- Titsworth, B. (2001b). Immediate and delayed effects of interest cues and engagement cues on students’ affective learning. Communication Studies, 52, 169–179.
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