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.

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77 Responses to “TAB A, SLOT B”

  1. Bobby Jacobs Says:


    "it is not a product of the electronic age, but of the human condition.

    High school chemistry, doing a lab, problems with kids putting their goggles on.

    So I started saying this:

    "Put your goggles on. Put them on. Put your goggles on. Put them on now.

    Pause for ostentatious breath.

    "Put your goggles on. What do I want you to do? Pt your goggles on. Goggles. Goggles. Goggles."

    Spoken while walking about in the classroom and with much furious waving of arms. etc. for 3-4 minutes.

    Problem mostly solved. People with brains like a young person have to be hit on the side of the head with a dead fish, figuratively speaking, to get their attention.

  2. Mike S. Says:

    @J Dryden
    Maybe it was the word you used just before 'jackboots' that got your comment shunted into moderation.
    FWIW, I agree with you wholeheartedly re: the human condition, etc.

  3. Mike S. Says:

    The reaction conditions in this flask are wholly under my control, whereas the (often updated, ie often changing) inner workings of my browser, my ISP, the university's own servers, etc are not under my control. I have followed – precisely as written – the university library's point-by-point instructions to connect by VPN and it has never worked as advertized. NEVER. Not with Mac, nor with PC, not with IE, Safari, nor Firefox.
    That's why tech support exists; when you've completed that 45-step total synthesis w/o consulting any chemists for help or advice, come back and tell us what a bada$$ you are.

  4. d. Says:

    AAHHH safety goggles!!! Don't remind me!!! I used to say 'pretend you are at the beach and these are your sunglasses. They go ON when you enter the door (ie walk onto the beach), or you don't come … and they stay ON until you leave… just like at the beach'.


  5. Nunya Says:

    As much as I would love to turn this into a bitter old man rant, I have to ask the question… why the hell are students still writing blue book essays?

    As a nearly 40 year old, I recognize the nostalgia but how much are we clinging to the obsolete when we still require kids to hand write essays in blue books? I can't remember the last time I wrote an essay much less a letter in longhand. My penmanship now rivals MD's.

    I appreciate the need to follow instructions and to understand contracts that you sign but in the day and age where complex legal agreements simply require and "accept" or "decline" button, is it any wonder that these kids can overlook the obvious?

    Digital has its perils but I cannot entirely blame them for their transgressions. I now religiously send out every request for deliverables either with a bulleted list or check boxes. I don't assume that people are stupid but, rather, overwhelmed by information. It might be worth a try.

  6. Matt Says:

    Kids today don't know how to put tab A into slot B? I blame abstinence-only sex ed. ;)

  7. The Other Matt Says:

    I LOVE the shredder idea. That was the first thing that came to mind when I hear Ed's tale. Now, perhaps you have time for a video you could put on YouTube for your class. A short skit about a student handing in an exam paper covered with answers, who gets to watch the teacher shred it and take out a red pen and open the student's empty Blue Book. Ed you could play both parts, or give an enterprising drama student a leg up.

    Feel free to show off your Joe Pesci impersonation….

  8. Ruthie Says:

    It's not just you Ed. Students are getting dumber. While all of the possible factors noted above contribute to the problem, I think it started with students' abysmal performance on math statement problems. When it comes right down to it, statement problems are about following directions to solve a problem using a particular equation or set of equations. The absolute nadir had to be my husband's teaching experiences. While working on his Ph.D. in number theory, he had to TA a class in basic calculus. One of the problems asked students to set up and solve a problem computing the volume of water in cubic yards in a pool where the dimensions were width w and length 3w, where the bottom sloped from a depth of 4' to 8' at an angle of 32 degrees. All work was to be shown in the blue book. The class didn't know this, but the drawings were worth about 1/3 of the point value for each question. (The TA and the prof agreed that being able to visualize the problem was instrumental in grasping the subject matter.) One kid not only failed to put anything besides the answer in his blue book, but on the paper, his drawing of the pool showed a depth of 72 feet. And no, the student was NOT ESL!

    As for kids stealing the exams, cheating among the fraternities–and to some degree the sororities–has become much more sophisticated. They don't just steal and photocopy exams anymore: They have "ringers" who take tests–and often the courses–and memorize answers. (These are also often sold at the same places in major university towns that sell pre-written term papers.) Another approach utilized is to put each fraternity member in charge of memorizing 5 questions. In large lecture halls, some brazen students will even upload them onto smart phones without being detected by the proctors. About the only solution that puts a dent in this is using multiple versions of the same test. At the very least, the student will then have to memorize the subject matter for the same questions that were spoon-fed to him/her in class, anyhow. Not much of an edge when you think about it.

  9. Ruthie Says:

    Omitted from previous post: At some point during the 1980's, educators in major textbook-buying states like CA noticed that kids who had reading problems performed poorly on math statement problems, which was pulling down students'–and subsequently the schools'– performance on standardized tests. In the ceaseless quest for more tax dollars, math texts were re-whacked to all but eliminate the emphasis on statement problems that made math from grades 3 to whenever sheer hell for the math-phobic. Because most of the other states follow every educational trend that's churned out by government bureaucrats, math books are now more colorful, with lots of pictures and only a few scary equations, and homework questions have the answers printed right there for easy cheating at home by reverse engineering the problem.

  10. Southern Beale Says:

    I'm not going to argue your point about kids today being unable to follow directions. However, I am taking a night class and my teacher is completely unable to keep track of time. The class is supposed to be from 6:30 pm to 9 pm. The first class went 35 minutes over (actually, it was 9:35 when people started leaving, but he was still talking.) Last week's class went over even longer — I finally left at 9:45.

    I can't understand why a teacher can't keep track of time and keep the class on schedule. And yes some of it is students wanting to engage in long protracted discussions but it's the teacher's job to say, "let's talk about that after class," or whatever.

    I think I'm going to have to drop this class because I can't be getting home at 10:30 at night, I just can't, but it's too late for me to get a refund. It really pisses me off.

    I just needed to vent that. Thanks.

  11. d. Says:

    I agree with Ruthie about all the problems she outlines, but i disagree that these things are new. I have heard stories from colleagues from 50 yrs ago that these things (particularly the routine memorising of questions by teams) was rife then. There are easy solutions to this (1) don't write the same test year after year; subtle changes are sufficient to stamp out this process, eg changes in the numbers on numerical problems, changing the order of multichoice answers, changing the order of the questions – but changing the whole exam paper is better pedagogy anyway. AND (2) asking at least some questions, worth many marks, that involve students writing their own opinions or analysing a paragraph or diagram.

    In my experience (again going back 35 yrs), students can easily reproduce diagrams from a lecture or text book or web page, but they ARE VERY BAD at analysing what the diagram means. They have always been thus, it is not new. I have tried to address this by different teaching methods, but it still happens.

    If we think we are seeing more of these problems now, than when we were students, it is possibly because there is a larger percentage of the population in higher education.


  12. Ellie Says:

    As for why students are getting "worse"…maybe students aren't getting worse, but your are getting worse students? Maybe the worse the economy gets, the more people go to school who shouldn't, and the more People Who Really Do Not Belong Here you see every year?

    As for following directions in general…well, there's another possible explanation.

    Yes, people do tend to tune things out. But I also think that maybe tuning things out has become easier, because the reprecussions are less and less every generation. Think about it: the more mediated life becomes, the less severe are the consequences for not paying attention.

    When my grandparents were young, following directions meant a whole lot more. Failure to follow a direction such as "this is how you use the wood stove" meant you might set the house on fire and kill yourself and your family. Even in my childhood, failure to heed directions had some sort of consequences. Failure to pay attention to warnings like "watch for cars when riding your bikes", "don't climb out on thin tree branches", and "watch for bumps when roller-skating on the sidewalk" resulted in scary near misses with cars, painful crashing out of trees, and bloody collisions with sidewalks. One learned there was a certain value in paying attention.

    Are kids even allowed to ride in the street, climb trees, or rollerskate on uneven sidewalks anymore (much less ever even touch a wood stove to find out that yeah, that sucker's hot!)? I doubt it. They play video games, where there are no REAL consequences. Everything is mediated, and what little isn't mediated is made safe for everyone. Consequently (ha ha), consequences literally mean nothing. So how can instructions matter? Not listening, not paying attention, not following directions, none of that matters. It's all a safe, virtual world without consequences for not paying attention to anything.

  13. mbl Says:

    My students (6th grade) could not follow written instructions if they were dragged behind them on a rope.

    What's adorable about this is the last sentence. I assure you, it didn't "take a college professor" to teach them to follow instructions; you haven't taught them anything, and their next professors will have the exact same problems. Every teacher they've ever had has been through the same bullshit with them and it hasn't worked. They're still treating apostrophes like they're early-warning signs for the letter S, too.

  14. Ruthie Says:

    @ mbl: I'm stealing this and sending it to a creative writing prof I know.
    "They're still treating apostrophes like they're early-warning signs for the letter S, too."

  15. Phil Says:

    I teach at community college and know exactly what you mean. On first day of class, I instruct the students to open the online Blackboard system and read the syllabus. Meanwhile I display it on the screen. I point and explain how to submit assignments, how to name them, etc. Sure enough, they do the exact opposite and get bewildered why I'm taking off points.

    The second year students, though, do much better. Do they learn all this in one year? Don't know. However, a lot of students do seem to have a kind of computer phobia (I teach web design and scripting). The students who enjoy the class have no problem following instructions, those who don't, well maybe they tune out as much as possible.

  16. bb in GA Says:

    During the 2011 Fall Semester, I taught Math 102 at the CC level in SC.

    Every day I would instruct the students to put their name and the date in the upper right hand corner of each sheet their homework. (because I'm a right winger!)

    I am very old school and required marks on dead trees (no mathlab!) to complete the assignments. EVERY DAY I would say this and 14 weeks later there were still a few students who didn't ID their work at all, marked it where they pleased, or put their name on it w/o the date.

    They suffered point loss as I graded home work on effort, not correctness (other than name/date) using the philosophy that if you already knew how to do the work you wouldn't be taking the course. I would supply the correct solution on their paper.

    Overall they did pretty well as a class, but they were brain dead on following simple instructions.


  17. Phil Says:

    PS to above. I just got back from class. Gaggg, the worst yet. I stood in front of class, showing my computer projected onto the screen, telling everyone to do exactly what I do on their computers. I took it step by step, pausing for everyone to catch up, explaining what I was doing, and STILL a few people were 8 steps behind. Seriously, it was a case of "move this file up into the parent folder" and some of them were just spazzing out. "What? You lost me! What was that? I don't get it! HELP!"

    Really, I had to stay 20 minutes past class just to help a few students with the most basic operations. Where the syllabus was on the computer (we covered that first day of class). How to name submissions. When you zip a file and they try to get to the files inside without unzipping ("Why isn't it working????")

    I explained the next assignment over and over and over, and still they were just goggle-eyed.

    The Internet generation????? HAH!!!!!!

    The weird thing is that they don't seem hostile. In fact, they seem to enjoy class and seem quite excited to be taking it. One guy is thrilled when he gets it and is fist bumping me and everything, but then it's back to "what was that again?" You tell me.

  18. Heidi B. Says:

    Some frustration with online instructions this morning leads me comment on your 9/24 post. Sometimes people skip instructions to save time and get straight to the task at hand; to save frustration because instructions are written by fallible humans, some of whom are not fluent in English; or because they're tense in a room full of other tense people. If the instructions are important, you need to break through all that crap and communicate! We're all just trying to get through the day.

  19. b0ss54uc3 Says:

    Did you ever consider that your students read your blog?

    <3 PLS 105 L0V3 <3

    #notoffended #justslightlydisturbed

  20. RandomFactor Says:

    "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."

    In today's schools, the proper relationship between the two is not allowed to be taught unless you remove discussion about any caveats and precede the lesson with a requirement for marriage first…

  21. anthrosciguy Says:

    I can't be sure, but I wonder: when I was growing up a lot of stuff had to be put together. Lots of interlocking pieces etc. And things could be fixed when they broke. Now, not so much. How are they supposed to learn this sort of thing if they rarely if ever have to learn this sort of thing as kids?

  22. Jonathan Says:

    It's been a *long* while since I was in school, but I am taking a programming course at the new online site of MIT & Harvard, and I can already see this, just a couple days into the course. There are periodic exercises as you go through watching the videos and I am simply amazed at how many people don't read the 2 sentences at the top explaining how to take the test and what is expected. Just a couple sentences and they can't even do that correctly. And they post in the discussion forum at the bottom, completely clueless to it.

    Oy vey.

  23. Mimi Sheiner Says:

    I like to meet students where they are, and devise a way to bring them up to speed on what I have to offer. I advise the Gin and Tacos writer to find a way to make it IMPOSSIBLE for the students to write on the test sheet, e.g. provide no space, or use an online test administration system, etc. While some skills have degraded in the current generation of students, others are more developed. (Nice artwork on the Gin and Tacos site, btw.)

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