Wednesday, October 29, 2014

I'm Hiram and I'm Baffled By Students Who Can't or Won't Follow Instructions.

So I set as a goal this year to make students follow ordinary and quite limited guidelines when turning in essays. I see about 400 essays a semester, and I believe that readers have expectations about content and style, and in the academic world, yes, some of those include format.

I told my students in September that even messing up where the student ID block went would result in a rewrite. I give them a copy of a correct essay format the first week. There's page number shit, spacing, all that. Even font size. Good grief I hate myself for that.

But still, many weeks in, students just fucking ignore all of it. And I pass papers back with RESUBMIT on them and sometimes I see them again and sometimes I don't.

Klueless Kevin has had 2 of these so far. No grades of course because I haven't read any of his work yet. (I tell them this.)

He came to my office yesterday and asked how he was doing.

"Well, you don't have any grades yet. You haven't resubmitted your essays in the required format."

"What? You mean I have no grades."

"No, of course not. You have to resubmit the papers in the format for class. I wrote it on both essays."

"I thought that was just so I'd do better on the next essay."

"Well, sure, but your second essay was done incorrectly as well. I'm happy to look at anything you've got though once you get them fixed."

"What's the right format?"

"Well, it's one of the first handouts, it was emailed to you with the subject line 'format requirements for essays.' I put it on the screen one day, and it's on our LMS page."

"Oh. So I need to fix those before you grade them?"


"Well, were they any good?"

"I haven't read them at all. I won't read them until they match the requirements for class."

"So I have no grades at all."

"Not yet. But I'm looking forward to it when you do."


  1. "Not yet. But I'm looking forward to it when you do."

    I bet you are.

    1. Yep. The ending to the piece will get me through today's meetingfest.
      Thanks Hiram!!

  2. they are worse with instructions than even with syllabi.

  3. i appreciate where you're at, Hiram. But it's a battle worth fighting. I consistently find that students will rise to our expectations, but it's so terrifyingly tempting just to let the little shit go.

    I try to think of my own undergrad proffies who punished me and taught me - all at the same time. Hang in there.

  4. Thank you for at least trying to teach students personal responsibility. I no longer expect that anyone will remember or retain anything from one day to another, much less from one semester to another. Fortunately I teach a BS 1-credit pass/fail course that isn't an actual academic subject so I just accept it. For example, one class had to be held in a different room because we were combined with another class. I put this different room on the syllabus in big red letters. I put in on the previous week's agenda that I handed out in class. I announced it in the beginning and the end of the previous class. I e-mailed the students no less than two reminders "don't go to our usual room - we'll be in this other room." And I considered whether or not I ought to post a sign on the door of the usual room, but thought, nah, I told them repeatedly across multiple platforms, surely no one will go to the usual room. But I sent the teaching assistant to the other room as a precaution, and she retrieved half the class who were sitting there mindlessly wondering where everyone else was.

    I don't know too many adults who are willing to read and follow directions, either. I am not sure paying attention to details can be taught, or even a willingness to read directions, or remember directions, or return to them later if they happen to forget. It seems to be more of a personality attribute than a learned behaviour. But I am jaded due to the vast number of e-mails I receive asking for information that I have already sent, often several times, but they just do not want to look through their e-mail. Or e-mails asking "when's the basketweaving workshop?" even though it was not only sent to them but also in in huge font right there on the home page. Or, "What's the URL again?" as if somehow that's easier than simply reading through their own e-mail box. Or panicky phone calls to my home when I happen to be out of the office, asking, "What's the password to this page, we don't know the password, and you're not here!?" Despite the fact that the password is the same as it ever has been for at least 5 years.

    The only possible solution is a form of telepathy. Every other means of communication will be ignored, lost, or forgotten. I hope this is only true of my office and not everywhere.

    1. Dogs help us when we will be able to communicate with students through telepathy. That means the Little Dears will be able to communicate with us that way. I don't want them in my head any more than they'll want me in theirs.

    2. One-way telepathy, of course, like a method by which information can be psychically imprinted in another's brain. I am not even sure that would work.

  5. Hiram, thank your stars that you don't teach a subject where failure to follow directions can be actively dangerous. I had a student a few years back who I had to ban from lab, because I was spending so much time keeping him from hurting himself that I couldn't interact with the other students.

    Of course, a ban from lab means failure of the course at a SLAC, where labs are integrated with lecture.

  6. I had a lab partner once who pushed the limits. We had an unknown, and we'd narrowed down it's identity to either table salt, or a toxic substance. "I'll find out," he said. He stuck his finger in the crystals, and LICKED HIS FINGER. "It's not table salt," he told me.

    Luckily the professor was smart enough to not have given any of us anything toxic. We had actually made an incorrect assumption early on.

    The lab group opposite me, on another lab day, was following directions to "stir gently". So they capped the container and shook it with all their might.

    I went into psychology instead. :)

  7. There were times that my students appeared to be so dumb that I would have had to use colouring book language to convey my instructions. Even then, I'm sure that someone was bound to goof things up.

    During one session I had with my department administrators, I, out of frustration, said that I often felt that I needed to used Bert and Ernie impersonations to get the message across. (Bert and Ernie? In a post-secondary institution? In an adult education setting?)

    "Whatever it takes," I was told. He wasn't joking.

  8. In a burst of inspiration, I made my students write down the instructions for that day's painting workshop (introduction to color, how to mix light and dark colors). It actually worked surprisingly well, except for the waste of 10 minutes of class time.

    I made them write it in all caps because it was really important. I said it out loud and emphasized it with my voice. I have a document camera, and demonstrated with my sample. And I still had 2 students who wanted to know why their dark red turned out black. And then had the audacity to tell me that I needed to give them more paint. I laughed a little and told them no, that it's not my fault that they can't follow directions.

    I'm kind of curious if they "borrowed" paint from a neighbor or just left it wrong...

  9. I'm teaching Shakespeare for the first time this semester, and I'm also baffled by how the students can't follow my carefully constructed instructions on how to quote lines of poetry vs. quoting prose. I had several who couldn't even tell the difference and had to keep asking whether certain passages were poetry or prose before they could construct the quotes in their paper.

  10. Most essays are just word salads. They could at least format them properly.


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