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A teaching tip.

Readers are invited to contribute teaching tips drawn from their experience in classrooms, workshops, seminars, and in-service courses. Manuscripts should be sent to Meg Morgan, Ph.D., Department of English, The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Charlotte, NC 28223.

Direction-giving Skills in the Classroom

Charlynn Ross University of North Carolina at Charlotte

Today, few technical documents are generated without a certain amount of discussion, debate, or collaboration. Consequently, technical communication classes are broadening their scope of learning to include more and more oral communication competencies. Two such necessary oral skills include how to give directions orally and how to listen to directions given orally.

In the work place, the vast majority of directions are not written down. To continue to tailor our classes to reflect workplace situations, students should be weaned from a reliance on handouts and practice their listening and note-taking skills. In addition, students need to assess their own ability to give instructions competently and effectively. I have developed a short unit on direction giving to help students:

* Identify effective and ineffective direction giving.

* Become familiar with the preparation and presentation

components of sound direction giving.

* Determine whether the message intended was the

message received.

I introduce the unit by discussing barriers to listening (communication overload, ambiguity, negatively phrased statements, anxiety, emotionally loaded words, etc.). I ask the students to think of instances (generally new job situations or classroom tests or assignments) where they have misunderstood instructions. As an icebreaker, I sometimes will begin by describing how I incorrectly registered 30 freshmen one year. The session becomes very cathartic for the students because they remember the tension and humiliation that follows a job done incorrectly.

I then ask students to think of instances where they gave instructions that were misunderstood. The list ranges from work-related examples to dating mishaps. To then focus the theme of the discussion, I explain that more often than not, the cause of the problem was not incompetence or stupidity, but the misunderstanding of a direction. The message that was intended by the sender was not the same message received by the listener. Whether the breakdown occurred because of poor direction giving or poor listening, the misunderstood command is carried out in good faith--but a disaster results. I then break the discussion into five segments: Why misunderstandings occur, their costs, exercises in frustration and misunderstanding, steps for good direction giving, and a final classroom activity involving real estate buying.

Why Do Misunderstandings Occur?

First, I provide the three general categories of misunderstandings. The students will add examples during the lecture/discussion. EXTERNAL NOISE in the environment can impede
                effective listening. Whether the
                cause is a noisy vent, loud
                voices, a ringing bell, or ten
                tons of machinery, missed
                words in noisy surroundings
                beg for problems.

INTERNAL NOISE occurs inside the listener but can
                be just as deafening as a jackhammer.
                Common examples of
                internal noise are fatigue, pain,
                and stress. Newcomer stress is
                often forgotten or ignored by
                message senders. New students
                or employees have difficulty listening
                accurately to unfamiliar
                demands in unfamiliar surroundings.

DIFFERING INTERPRETATIONS of words isn't often caught
                until it is too late. One person's
                notion of the words
                "left," "later," "possible," "plagiarism,"
                "deadline," and "informal"
                may not be everyone's
                notion. There is no such thing
                as exact communication. People
                will interpret the meaning
                of words on the basis of their
                own background and experiences.
                The simple awareness
                that people have different pictures
                in their heads when they
                are communicating can help
                students prevent problems.

The Costs of Poor Direction Giving and Poor Listening Skills

I ask students to brainstorm in groups on this idea. Their lists usually include classroom and job-related examples:

* Failure to carry out an assignment properly can result

in a poor grade.

* Failure to carry out an assignment can harm the student's

or employee's credibility with the teacher or


* Mistakes in published documents can cost the company

a great deal of expense both financially and in

public relations.

* People who fail at a job because of poor instructions

may suffer from low self-esteem and temporary low

productivity may result.

* Mistakes in instructions can result in damage to machinery

or injured employees.

* Poorly given directions will cause employees to ask

for constant guidance and reassurance.

I tell students that it takes at least twice (usually three times) as long to correct a mistake as to prevent one. SNAFUS, cost overruns, and wasted time are ultimately the responsibility of the manager in charge.

Exercises in Frustration and Misunderstanding

I now give the students the opportunity to experience the frustration of misunderstanding. These exercises emphasize the importance of using both verbal and nonverbal channels when giving directions. 1. Put participants in pairs. "A" faces the board; "B" faces

the back wall. Draw the following picture diagrams on

the board. (See Figure 1)

"A" tries to tell "B" how to draw the picture. Because

"B" is unable to see the picture, "A" must verbally instruct

"B" without the use of gestures. To reduce the

temptation of using hands for gesturing, I often suggest

that "A" participants sit on their hands. The exercise is

especially difficult because there are "no words" for the

objects. There is also a problem of "left and right" direction

giving. After a certain time limit (your discretion)

take up the papers and quite subjectively judge the best

picture. I usually give the winners three points on their

next assignment. 2. Ask the students to draw an animal which you describe

orally. Use a description of an animal provided by an

encyclopedia or a dictionary. (Example: sloth, anteater,

sheep dog, etc.) Don't mention the kind of animal.

Compare. Putting students' creations on an overhead

can be fun.

After discussing the difficulty of the classroom exercises, I give the "STEPS FOR DIRECTION GIVING" (see (see "STEPS FOR DIRECTION GIVING") as a handout in class. Carefully consider and discuss each point. Students may add suggestions to the list.

Real Estate Exercise

To help students internalize the process of good direction giving and good listening, I have modified an exercise developed by Richard Louth in Collaborative Technical Writing: Theory and Practice, 1989.

I role play a professor who has just accepted a position at this university. The class role plays a realty company. I divide the class into appropriate groups. I am unable to take time off from my present job to go house hunting, so I have asked the realty company to select a house for me that best suits my needs. To make the exercise manageable, I circle only 5 homes in a local real estate guide for the students to investigate. Based on the information that I give them (and will give--if asked) there is only one perfect house. I briefly explain orally some of the criteria for a proper house selection:

* I have $130,000 to spend. Of course, I would prefer

to pay less than that for a good house.

* I have a spouse and two children.

* I prefer to be within a 30-minute drive to work.

* I like access to public transportation.

* I want my children to attend a good public elementary


* I want to know about any planned public works projects

near my property.

* I want a home in a safe, stable neighborhood where

property values tend to increase.

Of course, as the students begin investigating the five homes, they soon realize that they need to ask me questions for further information and clarification. As my individual likes and dislikes emerge, they will be able to narrow the selection down. Once a group selects the house, they must write a short proposal explaining how this house best suits my requirements. If the students understood my criteria and asked appropriate follow-up questions, the choice will be correct.

I then ask the students now to role play the professor. I ask them to consider how they would give suitable directions to a realtor. Each student then orally presents his or her individual criteria for buying a home. By following the steps for direction giving, they must attempt to be as competent and complete in their direction giving as possible. Creativity is encouraged.

The best way to involve students in good direction giving and listening is to make it a necessary part of the day-to-day classroom experience. Teachers must also monitor their own information-giving behavior. Modeling the steps of direction giving reinforces the student's learning. The students who can competently communicate in both written and oral forms will be the best prepared for today's workplace.



1. Clump the directions into sequential steps or sets using

signposts to mark your position in the message.

Typical signposts include "first, second, in the first

place, the second matter to consider is, finally, etc."

Creating a mnemonic system or memory code (The

four "P's" of direction-giving) can aid the beginner in

mastering a task. Use transitional devices to indicate

you are moving to another idea. Transitions such as

"in addition to, next I will explain, moving to the

next step, etc." can create greater listener comprehension.

Use internal summaries after a small group

of ideas to clarify and speed understanding of a direction.

Providing a quick review of covered material

can also spawn important contextual questions. 2. Spot the critical parts of the directions that are the

most complex and could easily cause the listener

confusion. Plan to spend the most time explaining

and demonstrating that portion. 3. Think of some familiar comparisons whenever possible.

("The structure of the short report is similar in

structure to memos we did at the first of the semester.") 4. Use non-verbals to support your message: Gestures?

Drawings? Diagrams? Photos? Modeling? (Provide

last year's annual report. Demonstrate the process

of sending and receiving electronic mail. Remember

people are both auditory and visual learners).


1. Give the overall picture. Show the end product. Explain

the goals you are trying to achieve. Provide examples

or guidelines. 2. Give well-organized directions slowly. 3. Phrase statements in a positive manner. The brain

takes 48% longer to understand a negative statement

than a positive one. Rather than saying "You

can't. . . ", state "You can only . . . ." 4. Explain why the task must be handled or stuctured

a certain way. Understanding the "why" behind

an assignment is just as important as understanding

"how" the assignment is to be done.

People need to be able to make sense of their assignment. 5. Encourage questions. Praise the questioner! ("I'm

ready for questions." "I'm glad you asked



1. Ask listeners to paraphrase the directions to make

sure they heard them clearly! (This is not a test. They

can help you and themselves by stating what they

heard you say.) 2. Ask listeners to demonstrate the process or create a

rough draft--again a way of checking communication

effectiveness! 3. Have listeners explain how they would give these directions

to another person. If possible, provide a

listener! Teaching others is an excellent way of remembering

what was learned. 4. Schedule checkpoints for long assignments to review

progress and to catch errors early.


Recognize progress and commend the individual for successfully completing the task.

Charlynn Ross (M. A.) has eleven years of teaching experience in the Communication Studies program at UNC-Charlotte. Along the way she has published a book and several articles and designed various consulting projects for such organizations at DuPont, Branch Banking and Trust, IBM, and UNCC Continuing Education.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Society for Technical Communication
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Title Annotation:technical writing; includes related article
Author:Morgan, Meg
Publication:Technical Communication
Date:Aug 1, 1992
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