Making Material Clear

An important aspect of your role as an instructor is to make material clear to students. This process involves contextualizing material, understanding the types of questions that best fit your purpose, and helping students read difficult texts in unfamiliar contexts.

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Strategies to help make material clear

Utilizing your students’ existing knowledge to teach them something new helps make material clear and accessible to the class. As McKeachie (2002) states, relevant knowledge strengthens new learning by generating meaningful connections to new information. Learners typically use prior knowledge by creating either direct relations, in which they relate what’s known to what they’re trying to learn, such as comparing and contrasting the causes of two wars; or analogical relations, in which they use analogies to help relate familiar and new concepts that share some key characteristics but are different in other ways, such as using a post office to explain aspects of computer storage. As a part of our Two-Minute Mentor video series, professors Jeff Hall and Angela Lumpkin discuss how to get the most from KU students.  

Davis (1993) shares additional strategies for helping students contextualize new information:

  • Allow for the fact that different students learn, think, and process information in different ways. Students vary in how they learn and how long they take to learn, and they don’t make uniform progress.
  • Let students know what they are expected to learn. Emphasize key course concepts and important points in class sessions.
  • Give students a framework within which to fit new facts. Use outlines, study questions, or study guides to provide a conceptual framework or structure for concepts.
  • Present material in ways meaningful to students. Students are more likely to understand and remember new material if it’s already relevant, meaningful, or important to them.
  • Limit the amount of information you present. Students can absorb only three or four new points in a single presentation.
  • Stress concepts, not facts. Too many details overwhelm students; broad concepts are more meaningful and more easily understood and remembered.

Different questions have different purposes. Understanding the different types and their uses can be a big help in structuring discussions and lessons.

Here’s a list of the basic types of open questions for you to consider asking your students:

  • What’s your understanding?

  • What do you agree with, and why?

  • What else would you like to know?

  • What questions do you have?

  • What will you remember about this?

  • What was helpful about it?

Aside from these general open questions, here’s a list of question-types that you can use strategically throughout your class, depending on the context:

  • Discussion starters get students talking. Examples: “Why do you think the AB Company filed for bankruptcy?” “What’s the issue this case poses?”

  • Probing and challenging questions ask students to examine specific areas of a problem or situation: “What did the data and statistical report suggest?” “Did the president respond appropriately to the situation?”

  • Connecting questions ask students to make links between old and new information: “What similarities does this case share with a previous one?” “How does this outcome support the theory found in the textbook?”

  • Predictive and hypothetical questions help students apply what they learn to other situations: “What will happen if we boil the solution?” “Imagine that a primary value for this society was competition—how would that change things in the life of the village?”

  • Analytical and evaluative questions help students make informed judgments about the subject matter: “Can you rank the designs based on how aesthetically appealing they are?” “Which decision by the president was most effective?”

  • Summary questions help students articulate key points of a discussion or lesson:“What are the main points of this case so far?” “Can you summarize decisions the committee made their first year?” (adapted from Meyers and Jones 1993).

Finally, Bob Powers (1992) identifies ways instructors can ask and respond to questions effectively:

  • Use open questions to solicit responses.

  • Use closed questions to end discussions.

  • Provide correct, clear answers to students’ questions.

  • If you are unable to answer a question, find the answer and report it back to students.

  • Answer questions nondefensively.

  • Occasionally refer questions back to students.

  • Don’t ask a question, and then answer it yourself.

It's important to keep in mind that questions involving threshold concepts can be particularly difficult for students to answer. Watch our Two-Minute Mentor video with KU faculty members Susan Williams and Reva Friedman for information on introducing and teaching threshold concepts to students.

Many students believe that they already have a firm grasp on how to read when they get to college. Why, then, are students often discouraged by their attempts to read college texts? Ann Cudd (2003), formerly of the Philosophy Department at KU, proposes that much of this frustration stems from the fact that they do not understand that the type of reading approach used should vary based on the type of text that is being read. “You don’t read a novel the same way you read a philosophical essay or a mathematical proof or a poem. Students have to be helped to realize this and then to develop the new eyes they need to see the kinds of texts you assign them,” she states.

Robert Magnan (1990) believes that it is best to help students achieve critical thinking skills before they read in order to aid their analysis and evaluation of texts. He suggests:

  • Use a review as a preview: Review facts your students already know that relate to the reading. By connecting new information with concepts the students have already learned, students will be in a better position to understand and remember what they read.

  • Give them a bird’s eye view: Discuss the topic covered in the reading in general terms, but avoid specifics. Students will think the reading is essential, not repetitive.

  • Work with the words: Explain essential vocabulary used in the readings..

  • Put questions in their heads: Ask them a mix of general and specific questions that require students to find the facts as well as analyze and interpret. Avoid putting questions in the order of the text, or students may just skim for words instead of read for meaning.

  • Put questions in their hands: Give them a guide to follow as they read.

John C. Bean, in his book Engaging Ideas, addresses several problems that students encounter when trying to read college textbooks and provides suggestions for how teachers can help students develop their reading skills. If students have difficulty with the reading process, demonstrate your own reading processes and provide materials to help students practice reading. If students have difficulty reconstructing arguments, create writing assignments that ask students to summarize the readings, make outlines or flowcharts, or work through an example text, providing summarizing statements.

If students are having difficulty processing unfamiliar, uncomfortable, or disorienting views, draw students’ attention to these instances, ask them to provide examples of times they have had to assimilate unfamiliar material in the past, and then contrast various ways of looking at the class material. If the problem is student understanding of rhetorical context, create guides for the readings, explain the connections between the lectures and the reading assignments, and ask questions that require students to explain the context of the writing. Bean also addresses how to increase reading skills in individuals who have trouble with complex syntax. He recommends asking students to rephrase dense passages in their own words and to rewrite complex sentences into several shorter ones. 

As a part of our Two-Minute Mentor video series, KU faculty members Sheyda Jahanbani and Betsy Brand Six expand on these topics and the idea of cognitive apprenticeship.


  1. Bean, J.C. (2011). Engaging Ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  2. Cudd, A. (2003). “The eyes of a reader.” Teaching Matters, 6 (4), 5.
  3. Magnan, R. (1990). 147 Practical tips for teaching professors. Madison: Magna.