(And other people higher up on the food chain)
When it comes to the classroom, there are very few things as frustrating as a professor who gives unclear instructions. It is especially difficult for me to be patient with communications professors who do this. How could you possibly give a delightful, well-informed lecture on transparent communication and then turn around and give us an assignment that has the whole class scratching their heads?
There are always going to be authority figures who give you unclear instructions – it probably started with your parents and will continue throughout the rest of your personal and professional life. So what are you supposed to do when you don’t know what to do in the first place?
First – do your best to have patience
Take a moment to remember how easy it is to leave out important details whenever you’re trying to explain something. We’ve all done it. If you’re knowledgeable about a certain topic you don’t always stop to consider what questions newcomers might have. So you end up spending five minutes rattling off your idea, having forgotten to explain something that to you seems obvious, and your audience winds up completely lost.
Give your professor/boss/grandma the benefit of the doubt here and calmly ask for clarification. Expect that occasionally the person might get a little embarrassed, assuming that because you’re asking a question you don’t like whatever they are trying to say. Assure them, if need be, that you just want to make sure you thoroughly understand.
Second – play it back in your head
Were the instructions unclear, or were you just not paying attention? Sometimes the part you are confused about was only mentioned once, and if you happened to get distracted at the time thinking about something irrelevant you might be lost on your accord. That’s okay. Just figure out what you need to do to come back to civilization and understand the assignment fully.
See if you can run back through everything your professor said and try to put the pieces together. If you’re still unsure, don’t be afraid to ask questions! If you would be more comfortable, message someone in your class and see if they have the answer to your question rather than the professor. Chances are, they are either confused too – in which case, at least you’re not alone – or they were listening better than you.
When all else fails – do your best
Don’t give up just because you are a little flustered. Do everything you know you are supposed to do, and if there’s another section of the assignment that you are unsure on whether or not to include – it’s probably best to do it.
Your professor may be a little disappointed if you misunderstood what they wanted, but at least they will be able to see that you tried.