Wednesday / May 29

The First Rule Of Engagement

Teacher clarity is the precursor to student engagement. Professor John Hattie, author of Visible Learning, who compiled 500,000+ studies on student achievement, ranked teacher clarity among the top 10 influences on student achievement. Yet for two educational terms used widely in the profession and with such undeniable impact as teacher clarity and student engagement, there is no consensus as to how they are defined. It’s crazy! How could two ubiquitous terms mean something different to everyone, and thus mean nothing, but everything? The two pedagogically pervasive yet ambiguous terms warrant further explanation in order to understand their full potential.


In Visible Learning, Professor Hattie reports the substantial effect size of teacher clarity based on the meta-analysis conducted by Frank Fendick. Dr. Fendick’s meta-analysis defined Teacher Clarity as “…the measure of the clarity of communication between teacher and students—in both directions.” According to Fendick, within this communication, there are four critical elements in addition to clarity of speech:

  1. Clarity of organization: Stating the objective and relating it to the unit assessment, relating the teaching to the objective, and reviewing what has been covered in the lesson.
  2. Clarity of explanation: The teacher is clear about what he/she is explaining which facilitates student understanding.
  3. Clarity of examples and guided practice: The teacher helps during seatwork and visually demonstrates examples of tasks expected of students. When going through examples, the teacher explains what is being done and why. The teacher gradually gets students to do more of the work themselves until most of the work can be done independently and accurately without help.
  4. Clarity of assessment of student learning: Feedback from student to teacher. Clear communication cannot be established unless the teacher studies students written, verbal, and non-verbal responses that provide evidence of understanding (10-11).

Fendick’s findings indicated only modest effect sizes on student achievement when one of the four aforementioned were used in isolation. However, when two or more were used, the results were impressive, doubling the effect on student achievement. Educators who had a precise objective or target and were intentional in creating and executing a plan to hit the target, yielded better student outcomes. The meta-analysis revealed it was not enough to communicate a learning objective, but if one stated the objective and clearly explained a task, or modeled how to complete a task (explaining what was being done and why), and used assessment feedback from students, by way of using any of the four critical elements of teacher clarity in tandem, achievement skyrocketed.


There is no consensus in the educational community regarding how student engagement is defined. A common thread involves student completion of tasks, but beyond task completion, things get fuzzy. For some, engagement can be cognitive, emotional, behavioral, social, psychological, or all of the above. Russell Quaglia synthesizes the complexity of the multifaceted aspects of engagement and offers a simple yet powerful characterization. “When the whole student is involved in learning – head, heart, and hands –students become so engaged in what they are doing that they lose track of space and time.” (84) In order to immerse students in learning, to engage them, teachers must create conditions necessary to win students’ hearts and minds.


My brother is a veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. In speaking with him, there are clear rules of engagement that must be followed that define the circumstances and conditions the military can engage combatants. In business negotiations, there are also delineated parameters that people must adhere to during the course of their interactions. Though a different kind of “engagement,” similar to professionals in the military or business, educators must have complete clarity in their pursuit to engage students that includes the learning target, clearly communicating an explanation sharing how and why, to understand progress and how to proceed using feedback from students. It is clarity that precedes engagement.


  1. What is the objective and its relationship to the unit assessment? How will I know students understand the objective?
  2. When I am explaining a concept or skill and what is being done and why, what will the students be doing?
  3. What tasks will students complete in groups or independently leading toward objective attainment?
  4. What techniques will I use that require all students to show evidence of understanding throughout the lesson?
  5. How will I involve students in closing the lesson?

A thoughtful approach to student engagement begins with the four elements of teacher clarity. Intentionality and precision, hallmarks of clarity, must be the first rule of engagement.

Works Cited

Fendick, Frank. The Correlation between Teacher Clarity of Communication and Student Achievement Gain: A Meta-Analysis. , 1990. Print.

Quaglia, Russell J. Student voice: ensuring a sense of self-Worth for your students. Thousand Oaks, CA, Corwin, 2015.

Visible Learning books

Latest comments

  • I like how you explain the connection between clarity of teacher objectives and lesson delivery to student engagement.
    Question: you mentioned it is important to be cognizant of what the students will be doing when I am teaching the concept…
    What are something they could be doing?? Usually they are listening looking closely if there is something I am presenting visually probably sharing but for the hand heart and mind to be engaged, what else do you recommend they could be doing???

  • Nicely said! Important for every educator to read!

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