I'm as shocked as anyone to realize that I've been teaching at the college level for eight years now. That hardly makes me a seen-it-all veteran, but I no longer qualify as wet behind the ears either. The interesting part is that even eight short years is enough time to notice some trends and changes among the students. I get older, they stay the same age. For example, I think there is a noticeable difference between students who were born before the internet and digital media were a thing and those for whom the internet has always existed.
Usually these changes make sense, or at least we can construct anecdotal explanations that sound plausible. Students' creative thinking skills seem to be getting worse? Eh, it's probably because of increased emphasis on standardized testing. I have no idea if that is true, but it makes sense so most professors readily accept it.
There is a new trend that baffles me, though. Over the past few weeks I've had the same conversation independently with a number of colleagues regarding the increasing inability of each successive class of undergraduates to follow instructions. I don't mean that they misbehave or are out of control; I mean they cannot follow basic written directions. I'm not the only one who notices this and others with whom I've talked are equally perplexed.
Here is an example. On every single page of my exams, in bold black letters I write "Put all answers in your blue book. Answers written directly on the exam will not be graded." If this seems pedantic, I have a damn good reason for doing it; I have to hand back their answers, and if I hand back the entire exam it ends up in the "test file" at all the frathouses. Fuck that. I digress. In addition to the numerous written warnings and reminders I hand out the tests and say something to the effect of, "Stop what you are doing and look at me. Listen. DO NOT write your answers directly on the test. Only answers written in your blue book will be graded. You will get a zero for any question that is not answered in the blue book."
Lately, in every damn class of 40-50 students a handful of them will write the damn answers on the damn test and end up whining about their damn zero. The first few times I taught, this never happened. Now I can count on it like clockwork. My sample size is small, but I've found out that I am not alone in this experience.
What is going on here? Are they not reading instructions? If not, why? If they're reading the instructions, are they getting less capable of understanding/following them? If so, why? Do they understand the instructions but think they can be ignored, i.e. who cares about the rules because the teachers never enforced them before? Do they just fail to give a shit? I've yet to hear any explanations that aren't maddeningly vague – you know, something something Internet, blah blah smartphones, yadda yadda short attention spans. Maybe it's good ol' fashioned laziness. I don't know. Wish I did.
Believe it or not, I think that learning how to follow instructions is important. Not following orders, mind you. Instructions. The insert Tab A into Slot B kind. It's the kind of skill that we're supposed to learn in school – grade school. Yet students seem to be reaching college without it. I don't enjoy the fact that students end up failing an exam for what appear to be petty reasons, but it's not going help them in the long run if another person caves and gives them a free pass. I can't imagine how useless the adults who enter the workforce without being able to read instructions and fill out a form properly must be. The more important question is why a college professor is the person that ends up teaching them this lesson.