Three Activities to Help Students Follow Directions

“Does anybody have any questions?” Silence. You just gave crystal clear directions to your class and their stares must confirm their complete understanding. But fast forward to when students need to apply the directions and it seems like their memory was erased! 

How do you get students to follow directions? Usually directions are given and that’s why they don’t stick. Instead, directions should be learned.  Before pulling out more hair, try one of the active learning activities below that help students care about directions and realize their purpose.

Example 1: Simple and Effective

Students can’t be expected to follow directions just from listening to a passive explanation. To get students to follow directions, try these active learning activities that use choice, relevance, and engagement instead of force.

One simple activity involves not starting with specific directions, but instead telling students in very general terms what they need to accomplish. For example, “Over the next two days, you’ll be making a map by hand to learn more about the geography of your country.” Then give students 10-20 minutes to individually brainstorm questions like “What can we use to make the map?”, “Do we work with a partner?”, and “What needs to go on the map?” Then, have the students pair and share their questions with each other for a few minutes.

Next, give students the actual directions, either written or orally. Have pairs use your directions to write answers for their questions. Finish up with a whole class discussion where students ask you for more information about questions they couldn’t answer from the directions. This is also a good opportunity to incorporate some student choice by letting them decide on directions for unique questions. 

Are you thinking this would take too much time? First, the normal way of giving directions takes some time also, but has no payoff. This way actually works! Second, students will be up and running immediately because the entire activity has them thinking about the next steps. Finally, learning will be more effective because students engage their prior knowledge during the directions activity, priming their brains for learning when they actually begin.

Example 2: Use Examples

This activity utilizes evaluation of past examples to help students consider the results of following directions.

To introduce an activity or project, give students several past examples to review. Ask them to look over each example and rank them, making note of what they liked and didn’t like (Show them how to make a chart to organize their rankings and thoughts). Put students in small groups and have them discuss their rankings to see how they compare.

Next, hand out the actual written directions for the project or activity. Have students read the directions and then make new rankings and notes, but this time based on the directions. Back in the small group, students can share and compare their new rankings and compare them to their original rankings. 

Finish by leading a discussion with the class where groups share what they liked, didn’t like, and how the past examples could have improved by following the directions. Ask them if they think any directions should be changed, added, or removed to make their activity or project better or more enjoyable. 

Example 3: Student Choice

This activity also uses past examples, but allows students to create their own directions and guidelines.

Provide students with several past examples of an activity or project. They start by doing a quick review of the projects in order to think about the project’s purpose. Student need to look at it in two ways. First, what was the purpose of the project outcome (i.e. the lab, activity, paper, poster, video, portfolio, etc.)? Second, what was the purpose for the student doing the project (i.e. what they were supposed to learn)? Have students consider these questions individually and then in a small group where they discuss their ideas and formulate a single response for each purpose. Then, students can discuss each project and decide how well the project and student met their purpose. Ask groups to write answers for each project to share with the class. Lead a discussion to share their responses and then tell the class the actual purpose to see how their ideas compared. 

Tell students they will be doing a similar project, but you want them to decide it’s purpose and guidelines so everybody has the opportunity to follow their own interests. Give students time to decide on these details:

  • Purpose for learning (ex. Learn about bacterial diseases.)
  • Purpose for themselves. (ex. Find out why I get strept throat.)
  • Format of the outcome. (ex. Brochure.)
  • Purpose of the outcome. (ex. Teach others about common bacterial diseases.)
  • Guidelines for the outcome. (ex. Tri-fold front and back, at least three diseases, sections on causes, symptoms, treatment, and prevention, include at least five photos, all information must be referenced, etc.)

They could use the purposes and guidelines from past examples, but you should encourage them to find improvements and follow their own interests (as long as they still meet your learning outcomes). The purpose for learning keeps students focused on the role of the project in class while the purpose for themselves is meant for personal relevance. The purpose of the outcome helps students create something useful and directed toward a specific audience, whether it is themselves, the teacher, other students, or people outside of class. It also provides evidence of their learning for assessment. Finally, students use what they liked and didn’t like from the examples to write their own specific guidelines and directions. 

You can approve everything before students proceed and certainly add standard guidelines like spelling and grammar. Since every student develops their own unique directions, grading has to be different. A good strategy is having students write their own evaluation to describe if they met each purpose and their guidelines. They can reflect on what could have been improved and suggest a grade for themselves with supporting details.


Each option above does take more time, but they have huge payoffs. Students begin to see directions as useful and important rather than controlling. You need to see them that way as well. Focus on learning rather than details and rigid expectations. If the above examples don’t fit your situation, think of something similar that turns giving directions into learning directions!

Please share your unique strategies for helping students follow directions in the Comments below!


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