A common reason students struggle to get started on assignments is that they don’t know what teachers want them to do. As a result, when teachers should be addressing content-related questions as they circulate among students, they instead end up addressing lots of procedural questions—e.g, how to obtain and use materials, where and how to record answers, how much time you’ve allowed for the assignment, whether you’ll be collecting the work, etc. And often it’s the same questions from one student to the next.
To prevent such confusion and inefficiency, provide directions and assess students’ understanding of them just as you do for content. This means giving directions step by step, both orally and visually—on the overhead projector before you pass out an assignment (see The Overhead Projector: Don’t Overlook It for more on this). It also means requiring students to prove they understand what you expect of them rather than simply saying or implying they understand. Avoid, therefore, asking, “Does everyone understand?” or “Does anyone have any questions?” and instead ask students to restate the directions in their own words. And be sure to do this with enough students until you’re sure the class as a whole is ready to get started on an activity. (For small-group activities, be sure at least one person per group understands the directions before turning them loose.)
In short, spend a couple extra minutes up front giving directions and making sure students get them, and you’ll save far more time—and prevent frustration (for students and you)—in the end.