Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Why Can't They Follow Instructions?

It's that time of the semester for wailing, gnashing of teeth, and the winter of our discontent is upon us, although the weather is still mild. It is November; my pre-first-year writing students are completing an annotated bibliography and a research report. The wailing comes from me, the gnashing from them, and the discontent from all of us. I have posted simple, clear instructions in our LMS, along with tutorials and sample papers. We have gone over them in class. We have played citation games, scavenger-hunted through the library databases for secondary sources, scaffolded on lab days, practiced the hanging indent, and discussed what goes in an annotation. When I ask for questions at the end of class, no one responds.

I find myself typing the same comments on every assignment: Alphabetize your sources. Use the hanging indent. Yes, you must include the website name in the citation. No, a URL is not a citation. None of these are new concepts; we've been working on them for weeks.

Students stare at me with slack jaws and furrowed brows when I explain that they received an Incomplete on the Five-Item Annotated Bibliography because they only included two items. They respond, "I didn't know we were supposed to have five."

They're bewildered when they get a failing grade on the research portfolio because they only included half the assignments listed in the prompt and rubric (which we also reviewed in class) -- or they included the wrong ones.

When they request help because they don't understand the assignment, I ask if they've read the assignment guidelines (which have been right there in our LMS class shell since Day One and which we also reviewed in class). They reply, "No, just tell me what it says." We spend ten minutes going over it together, but that student still gets the structure and the required content wrong, or only does part of it.

How is this happening?

I want these students to succeed. I strive to be transparent, open, and clear about assignments. I work at laying bare the "hidden curriculum" and showing them how to "do" college. Part of doing college successfully is reading and following instructions -- a basic skill they'll need in life as well. What I see every semester, though, is a huge disconnect between knowing and doing, whether it's reading the instructions or revising in response to feedback.

Sometimes I, Part-Time Professor Jen, want to retreat to my man-cave with a nice cold beer and binge-watch "Stranger Things" until the semester is over. Failing that, what the hell can I do to get them to read and follow the damn instructions?

 - Part-Time Professor Jen


Thanks for writing, Jen.

This has, for me, become the great unaswerable of the decade. Many of our community have asked variations. It's something that has absolutely vexed me in my own teaching. Here are some other posts that get at the conundrum. I hate to say that even though we often think we know why it's happening, nobody seems to be able to stop it!

About Stanley

And, just below the header are two tabs that will take you to a few other posts that conscientious community members "labelled," back when we still did such things!


  1. Hi Jen. Hi Fab.

    Yes, it's awful. I'm more than 30 years in and it's worse every year. Jen nails it exactly, as do many of the provided links. I think "slack jawed" is just how I'll be until I die.

    After a little full time teaching recently, I quit and picked up 2 first year writing classes at a small college nearby - you know, to increase the amount of time I can play golf, and to still allow me to keep my hand in the best job I ever had, teaching.

    But it's just like Jen describes. It's just like it's been in my most recent full time gigs.

    As near as I can figure, and this comes from visiting with students and other professors as a mentor and blah blah blah, it's that students don't follow directions because they haven't had to before.

    Someone always cleans up after them. When they act like idiots, they get treated like babies who have dropped their bottles. Someone picks it up, fills it, checks the temperature. And then when it gets dropped again, we pick it up and start over.

    And when they get that full learned, then it's just second nature. "I've never HAD to commit to the syllabus before; I sure as shit won't have to do it for Cal, or Fab, or Jen, or Hiram, or whoever."

    And it has to stop somewhere. I've toughened my first year courses quite a bit, much like Hiram mentions in one of his notes - resubmit until it's acceptable. It still gives them a break I never had in school, but I've seen some of them learn to give me what I require, even if it takes 15 weeks.

    But what happens when a sophomore comes in who hasn't learned. Or a junior. Or the senior who aced his capstone course despite the fact that he was 30 pages and 10 sources short of the C-level minimum. (He WAS a "good kid," I was reminded by his mentor and advisor.)

    Fuck, it's a mess.

    I believe some people let them off the hook so the students won't complain, be a problem, give a bad assessment, tell their mom, tell the chair, tell the Dean. I understand that. It's bullshit. It's cowardice. But I know why it happens.

    Other times, people of my generation for example, are tired of the fucking fight. I AM tired of fighting.

    I had a "come to Jesus" with students a week ago. I won't bore you with the details. 30 students. 15 showed up. 5 had the work ready. And I was like that cat in "Network" for 10 minutes. (They were placid. I wrenched my neck and bulged my veins for nothing more than more exercise than I get in a typical week.)

    I'm thankful I'm almost done with the gig, and thankful that being a trailing spouse has allowed me to be cavalier with my career advancement. So I don't have to see 4 sections of these students each year...so what. Better for me. Better for my blood pressure.

    But I have such a heartsick feeling for new proffies. I don't know what to do short of having an entire department say "Enough." One person can't do it. Too much risk. But ten? A whole division who says, "Hey, there are standards."

    Yes, fewer kids passing. Maybe a drop off in FTEs. Maybe Johnny and Janey go across town to the community college. I don't know.

    But I don't believe we're helping them when we let it slide...


  2. I haven't read all the links, so I'm probably repeating what somebody else (or I) has/have already said, but my impression is the same as Cal's: they (or at least most of them) can, but they don't, because they don't really have to. Turning work back, giving it no grade at all (or, perhaps more effective, a zero), until it meets certain minimal standards, works.

    But that's really hard to do, even for those of us who are relatively protected from undue reliance on student evaluations as assessments of our teaching effectiveness, because the other way in which we've responded to increasing student difficulty in completing assignments independently is lots and lots of scaffolding, which means lots and lots of little assignments which, if done correctly, add up to a very good start on the big assignment(s), but which each have to be assessed, often on a short turnaround before the next step is due. So turning stuff back to be fixed results in a domino effect of upcoming assignments that can't be done until a prior one is revised, and, ultimately, in a trainwreck (yes, I know I'm mixing my metaphors here; it's late, and I'm a bit preoccupied by, um, other things). It also results in a nightmare of (grade)bookkeeping, and grading, and regrading, when getting stuff graded once is already hard enough. So we tend to give in, or at least do triage and decide which things we're really going to insist on.

    The other, related, issue is attention: students don't have much practice focusing on one thing long enough to deal with detail-ridden, though not necessarily difficult, tasks like following directions, or constructing bibliography entries from scratch. And, to be honest, we proffies have less of it to give to detail-ridden tasks like keeping track of who has permission to redo stage 2 before going on to stage 3, with deadlines adjusted accordingly. And since stage 3 *can't* be done without doing stage 2 (see scaffolding, a genuinely good practice, but a tricky one), we don't really have the option of saying "nope; you flunked stage 2, no do-overs; you'll just have to do really well on stage 3" (which, of course, is what proffies in more exam-based fields can say, though at some point, if they test on the sort of frequent basis that is also considered a best practice, and make those tests count in the overall grade weight, their students, too, will reach a point of no return).

    The only answer I can think of (and the one by which I live, or at least plan my grading, and my classes, since I'm not in a position to walk away anytime soon) is to prioritize, especially when it comes to the detail-ridden tasks that today's students find so difficult. So, how important *is* bibliographic format, as opposed to, say, the content of the annotated bibliography entries? Can you construct a rubric which reflects that? And can you find a way to allot both class and grading time accordingly, even if that means letting some really terribly-formatted bibliographies with some semi-decent content pass? It's easy to get frustrated when students can't follow the simplest directions -- and directions for formatting bibliographies really *are* simple; as I tell my students, I learned to do it in 5th grade, and could do footnotes on a typewriter by 8th grade -- but the simple things may or may not be the ones it's most important for them to actually learn (though it's worth mentioning that plenty of readers will think "if (s)he can't even get *that* little thing right, how can I trust that (s)he has done a careful job with more complex tasks, like vetting sources?"

  3. Why don't they follow instructions? Indeed.
    I been a college tutor for a few years (a few of them are military online students), an instructor in the military, and worked as a civilian dealing with soldiers' issues, everything from fixing their pay problems to making sure their vehicles are brought in for maintenance for repairs when needed. I've learned a few things which I hope help.

    Beer and Stranger Things sound great but, for the rest of the semester? No; however, the rest-of-the-semester argument might be a useful polemic later on.

    I used to fell stressed when people couldn't (or wouldn't) follow simple, clearly expressed directions. I would talk with them, dialogue, explain, cajole, you name it. I felt maybe I wasn't doing the best I could to get some folks to just do the bare minimum.

    I've learned there are basically two types: clueless folks who do sub-standard work, who have been basically coddled because someone has always picked up after them in some way and the folks who sort of know better but think they can get away with it; those are the deliberately lazy types.

    I've learned two things from these types. Don't tolerate it and learn to say (for your own sanity as much as their potential), "No. Not acceptable." The lazy ones are cleverer and manipulative--they do the least work but somehow demand the most.

    For example, when GI Joe or Jane is responsible for bring in two vehicles to be repaired, they always miss the deadline or claim they "didn't get the email." But when their pay this month is less than it should have been...? Oh, Lordy, they're on it like a bonnet.

    I've learned to not spend so much time stressing. It's not my problem or yours. If your students cite two sources instead of five as you specified, try a few of these:

    If a doctor gave you two stitches instead of a five and your hand was still clearly bleeding, would you call that meeting the standard? (In the case of the soldier who "forgot to get his vehicles repaired" but didn't forget about his pay, I reminded him how he would be held responsible if any of his soldier were hurt as a result of his negligence. Not saying that's appropriate in all situations but it solved that problem, um, quickly.)

    If your Dad's boss paid your Dad only $200 instead of the $500 he was supposed to get, would that be acceptable?

    I have learned to say things like this with a nice, nonchalant tone. But the action is not.

    Then I return their paperwork (make it right) or grade or whatever it is until they get it right or just I fail them or inform their boss or military chain of command.

    When I work with civilian students as a tutor I'm more willing to walk them through what a hanging indent means. Seriously, a lot of folks have no idea what that is--I'm certainly willing to do so as a tutor but I question if professors should have to do much more than giving students an example of a well-formatted, generally A or A-minus paper as a guide.

    As a tutor, the ones who are more lazy than clueless generally get the my point. "You didn't buy the textbook the instructor said was mandatory? Good luck dude, but you're [screwing] yourself and I won't be able to help you much." Done. The genuinely clueless or ignorant ones I rather like helping as long as they try. And when they try I'm often impressed.

    I'm a not a professor so I hope I'm not offending anyone here but I enjoy it so much I see a student or soldier learning something and working hard if necessary.

  4. I think it is because they don't want to do the work. They do less, hope you don't count off for it, and, if confronted, claim ignorance.'

    It's something they learn (or are rewarded for) in high school: Not completing the job. They got away with it in high school, so why can't they get away with it now?

  5. My life. Every day. I will fail (or have dropped) probably half of my students this semester at my CC. They simply refuse to focus, take notes, do the work. So I flunk them in droves, the carcasses piling up like bodies at Gettysburg. A key, THE key essay was due today. Of the meager few still attending, several just didn't show up. They will now earn "F's." Well done, lads and ladies, well done.

  6. Torquemada in TrainingNovember 9, 2016 at 8:09 PM

    You know how Somalia is described as a failed state? It’s dysfunctional, irredeemable and hopeless, and it will never change in our generation. Well, our snowflakes are just like that: they are intrinsically ruined and they CANNOT BE HELPED. Upstairs they are handicapped just as a quadriplegic is handicapped physically, and not you nor anybody is able to get them to walk again. They are screwed, that will never change, and pounding on the granite that is between a snowflake’s ears leads to nothing but bloody knuckles. Look, I get it. I’ve been following CM forever and I wallow gleefully in the stories and outrage and incredulity and righteousness like a pig in champagne slop. Heck, the pages of CM are near-transcriptions of the tales we swap around the campfire of the faculty lounge. It’s fun and it’s cathartic. But I’ve been noticing an odor of naive idealism lately. Hints that clueless snowflakes can be salvaged if only X or Y or Z could be applied. Not likely. Remember, they are adults when they get to college. Their time of molding is behind them, and if they show up screwed up then you, not even a team of yous, are going to unscrew them. I divide these unfortunate souls into two categories. First the lazy, the over privileged, the whiners, the stubbornly clueless, the arrogant, the clowns. They provide the best stories and lols. And second, there is a soft spot in my heart for the ones whose K-12 experience has let them down. They are not inherently dicks, but they are just as screwed. As far as I’m concerned they were all victims of child abuse. So rail against the situation, exercise patience, go the extra mile, bend over backwards, put in as much effort as your conscience dictates, but if you actually think you have that much influence against what are obviously immovable objects, then I’m calling you out. Is my categorization absolute? No, nothing is, but in my 30 years of teaching the number of knuckleheads who turned it around can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
    My takeaway from all this? It’s not to stop trying. People who keep trying in the face of long odds are my heroes. No, it’s that one should never feel bad or inadequate or angry when it doesn’t work, because it was never going to work.

  7. Old School sends this:

    Grumpy Sergeant: Right on. Keep it up. As for Jen, CC, CC, and PP: I can't add much, except to say the following. Digital absorption has corroded their ability to concentrate, and indulgent elders have failed to inculcate proper work habits. Here's something I'm seeing more of: students who insist on neurotic verification of clear written directions. They'll ask me, more or less, whether where the directions say to do X, they really should do X. Isn't this the sort of thing you'd expect to find in people with dementia? I'm not kidding. I'm scared.

    1. OMG, the constant asking for clarification of written directions drives me crazy, although it hasn't significantly increased since I was hired (except among our growing population of international students, where I can understand it). My theory is that most of the students who do this distrust their own understanding of the written word because they genuinely can't read very well, and they've been burned by missing something important written directions before. That's understandable, too, but I'm one of those old-fashioned people who believe that if you haven't learned to read well by the age of 18+, you don't belong in college (barring specific issues like being dyslexic or not having English as a first language).

    2. I have at least one student with these tendencies most semesters (often in an online section, which makes for a lot of emails). In some cases, I think it's a manifestation of anxiety (for whatever reason, there's a rise in students with anxiety diagnoses). In others (and/or in addition), I think it's a result of teachers *over* emphasizing the importance of following directions (rather than producing something useful and less defined) in K-12, and grading (harshly) accordingly. Of course, that isn't necessarily the teachers' fault; while dedicated rule-followers are perhaps slightly more likely than the general population to end up in front of a K-12 classroom, there are also plenty of creative, flexible teachers whose best instincts are stifled by standardized testing and all that goes with preparing for it, parents increasingly inclined to complain (or even sue) if their children don't get an A, etc., etc. All of the above leads to an emphasis on measurably, clearly wrong or right, answers, and that favors a focus on things like mechanical correctness in writing, and following directions in many testing situations.

  8. This is all what led to my nervous breakdown back in the mid-00s.

    This behavior, coupled with Kool-Aided colleagues, all within the backdrop of low-paid, undersupported adjuncting at unreliable institutions, led to my brain going *SNAP*

    Cuz, you all realize, the students were doing poorly because it's ALL MY FAULT.

    1. I hope you're feeling better now (perhaps because you found a way out of academia?).

  9. I have had, at this point in the semester, THREE come to Jesus talks with my students. In the first one, I read the directions aloud. I explained it in exhaustive (I was exhausted afterwards, at least) detail. I asked for questions. And then, when half of them still turned in work that did not follow the directions, I let the grades stand. I have provided very detailed rubrics, I have offered to go over assignments in person. I tutor some students (the ones that make time to see me) one on one. That is all I can do. I grade it, and know they earned it. At least 2 of my students are headed towards complete failure because of not following directions or not turning in work. I am not withdrawing them. I am telling them where they are in my class, and they can take action or not.

  10. I think it's two things.

    One, they can't read, or at least they can't read quickly. They simply aren't good at it because they haven't had to do it much.

    Two, this is a rational choice, in some ways. There's so much useless boilerplate in my syllabi that there's no point in them reading it all. EULAs are not even worth glancing at. Software instruction manuals? Worse than useless. Textbooks? So many sidebars, so little time. It's hard to think of non-fiction writing right now that isn't too verbose and hard to cut through.


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