I'm as shocked as anyone to realize that I've been teaching at the college level for eight years now.
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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.
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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.

77 thoughts on “TAB A, SLOT B”

  • Diminishing returns of technology. You didn't think a lifetime of mouse clicks paying off in the equivalent of reward cheese for the (ahem) mouse was going to lead to any actual technical skills, did you?

  • Its even weirder when you consider that your instructions are the default. Everyone writes in the blue book and not the exam. (And it, or should be, common sense…. why provide a book to write answers in if you wanted them written on the exam?) It's like they're going out of their way to somehow fuck themselves over.

    I think the difference here is the ability to fuck things up. Pre-computer era, no one just randomly mashed buttons on electronics. In the computer era, almost nothing is permanent if you make mistakes on computers, you can just fiddle around with buttons until you get it right. If it's hard to unintentionally fuck things up, why read directions?

  • I like writing wildly ridiculous answers on the test itself if those aren't graded. Usually in bright red ink. I figure it might be amusing to the professor, but it more importantly amuses me on the test and keeps me from spacing out too much and keeps my mind feeling less blehhhhed.

  • This doesn't exactly answer your questions… but if I think about that problem from the perspective of a user interface designer, I would conclude that something about the design of your exams leads users to think it is appropriate to enter answers there. The solution would be to design the exams so that it is difficult—and obviously not what was intended—to enter answers on the exam sheet.

    As far as missing what is right in front of them:

    I suspect that the web really is training us to be more selective with our attention (there always seems to be so much crap mixed in with whatever information one is seeking), and that might spill into other areas as well.

    I’d bet, though, that it’s not that they were unable or didn’t choose to follow the instructions, but that they never recognized them as containing information they needed to know, and instead remained focused on what they thought was the problem at hand (working out the answers to the questions).

  • My millage differs. In my classes, the percentage of students not following instructions seem to be about the same from 80s until now. A major source of "misinstruction" is "pls deposit the exercises into the class section in the electronic depository." There will always be, in the first two exercises, students who will email the solutions to me.

    My time is spent mostly on graduate studies. Here most students always lacked proper/productive work habits. The percentage is, a guess, over 50%. Do I have to teach them how accomplish complex goals? I try. My success rate on that is low. The kids leaving school without improve work habit are useless workers no matter what they do.

  • I think Jordan and Coises may have a point.

    A somewhat relevant anecdote: I'm in my mid-30s, and first got a smartphone last year. I looked in the box for a document giving basic instructions for the user interface. Nothing. Zip. Nada. So I played around with it, worked through the demo, and soon enough figured out what to do, but this was not the mindset I was used to.

    Also, computers frequently offer more than one way of performing a task like sharing a file or video. There is no "right way" laid down in the instructions, or indeed any instructions, so if your way works then it is a good way. Experts may be horrified by the results, as illustrated here:

    So, if it's possible to write legible answers on the test paper (I assume this is a short-answer or multiple-choice test and not an essay), then with the "whatever works" attitude you might be inclined to do so. This may help explain why the least-competent 5% or 10% of students are less inclined to follow directions than they once were.

    (The incompetence may be down to laziness or stupidity, but to be fair, exam nerves can also be a big problem. It's basic material to the instructor, but may be a lot more intimidating to the students.)

  • I have no answers. But I taught elementary school for four years and now I'm a TA for a course in graduate school.

    After the first week, I almost never had one of my third graders fail to put their full name, date, and mailbox number on their work. (This includes my students who qualified for special services, and those who couldn't read) Getting the graduate students to put a mail file number on their work has been almost impossible.

    I've also discovered that very few students read the syllabus. The syllabus, of course, states that mail file numbers need to be on all assignments.

  • My wife is taking some classes at a local community college, to get access to their lovely photo labs and the advanced stuff, and every time she comes back from her evening class I need to make a bigger martini. As she describes it, "sack of hammers" sits at her left, and "box of rocks" on her right. As in "dumber than". Both are in their 30s or 40s.

    Hammers, even though a student in a second-semester class involving computers, cannot open a file, and seems to lack any grasp (at all) of where things "are" when they're on a SIM card, a disk, the network, and so on. As in he imagines photographs he took in his camera will magically appear on the desktop of a public classroom computer, and that once they're there they will be available for him at home also.

    Rocks on the other hand apparently doesn't understand how to do school work at all, and sounds as though she treats computers something like my dog treats doors: he knows that they open when he puts his nose in the seam, not because I operate the handle for him way up over his head.

    My wife and I have spoken at length about this whole thing. First, it's not a "kids these days" thing: these are all job-holding adult people. Nor is it a "pre-digital" thing, since all these folks have college degrees of one sort or another, and also (supposedly) use computers in their work.

    After an especially grueling class trying not to see Hammers looking for the cable plug so he could plug an ADB CD burner he brought from home into the modern iMac, my lovely and intelligent wife had an epiphany. I think applies it to your experience as well: survivor effect.

    Her "colleagues" in class have always been there, but they're retained by the system

  • As a parent of two young children, I'm having to constantly drill into them the importance of following instructions. Verbally for the three-year-old, and written (with some parental assistance) for the five-year-old. Of course they're going to have trouble following instructions at that age, and a lot of patience and repetition is required. But I have confidence that if I keep at it, they will have this important skill learned and reinforced by the time they make it out of grade school.

    So rather than technology, I think that at least some of the fault may lie with the parents. If the students don't give a shit, they may very well be the product of parents who didn't give a shit when they were young.

    Of course my sample size is very small, but I have a gut instinct that some of these kids just weren't taught the way they should have been. Teachers do have some responsibility for instilling these skills, but an equal, if not greater, part of the work should be done by the family.

  • At the high school level, we prepare kids not at all for the discipline necessary to be successful in college. Since homework doesn't count in a student's grade anymore, because it's 'practice', few students actually do it. We are required to accept projects that are late all the way up to the next grading period, in some instances up to 18 weeks late. Given those circumstances, why would you go into another class where the 'teacher' tells you to do something, and actually listen to what they say.

  • I've been teaching at the college level for 20 years now, and I try (too hard, probably) not to make "kids these days" comments. But I think it's fair to say that younger people read less than they used to, and it's not like my generation read all that much. There are too many powerful electronic distractions that didn't exist a couple of decades ago.

    That definitely undermines the ability to follow written instructions.

  • 1. Ed, does your college have a psych department? Sounds like a problem for a social psychologist. Look at it as a fascinating problem that seeks an answer.

    2. Why do you allow enough SPACE for answers on the test? Crowd the damn questions so tight there's no room for any free-hand comment. Then the dullards will realize that they've been issued a bluebook FOR A REASON. (If you're giving T/F questions you should be thrown out of the system)

    3. I love the fact that you stick to your guns re: the zero scores. Even though the poor darlings may have been in such a state of dread and sleeplessness that they skip over the directions, or see them only as a bleary-eyed blur. As often happens when I try to assemble Ikea shelving. Not that I'm proud of that.

  • This reminds me of a story I remember my high school trig teacher relating, back around 1980, about the importance of reading directions. When he was in college, he had an prof trying to get HIS students to read the instructions before taking the test. Here's how he tried to solve it. One of his tests said, "Read through all the questions before beginning the test." Naturally, most of the students plunged right in. The very few who heeded the instructions saw that the last question said something like, "Do not complete this test or write any answers. Turn in your blank test sheet and leave the room. For following instructions, you have earned an A."

    Considering this was my teacher's teacher, and that I heard this story 30+ years ago, I'd say this isn't a new problem. You're just seeing the latest version of it.

  • My job (software developer) has taken a nasty turn into Software Instructor, because so few of the people who use the commercial, off-the-shelf software prevalent in our office have the foggiest idea how to use it. I was an instructor in the military about a bazillion years ago, so it's fallen to me to teach groups of 15 – 20 how to use this basic, everyone-can-figure-it-out tool.

    I see a real difference in my co-workers. The older ones–the ones who entered the workforce before there was a computer on everyone's desk–are much better at paying attention and asking intelligent questions. These people cycle through the class once, and they've got it. This group will also actually read the documentation when trying something not in the everyday/basic set of skills. With the exception of those so clueless you wonder how they put their pants on the right way and find their way to work, they as a group are fine.

    The younger ones, as has been pointed out by other posters, simply want to mash buttons until something–ANYTHING–happens. An alarming percentage of them also believe themselves to be special, special snowflakes who have no obligation whatsoever to pay attention, because it's the world's job to coddle them. Why should they have to memorize that saving a file consists of going to the File option on the toolbar and selecting Save from the drop-down menu? That's for losers.

  • Up until 4 years ago, I was a Trainer and Training Manager at a large telecommunications company.
    And I can't tell you how frustrating it can be trying to train younger people – and these are people with 2 and 4 year degree's. And yes, I know, I sound like an old man yelling at the clouds.

    When you ran across one who actually could follow directions, you were practically giddy. That person became the defacto leader of that group of trainees – we Trainers like it when peers help out in the training. Sometimes, that person comes up with a different way of explaining something – and we can use that in future classes.

    In a lot of respects, I sympathize with the young people. They held up their end of the bargain – they went to college, they got their degree.

    And now, here they sit, after being interviewed numerous times, starting a shitty new job. tethered to their PC, answering the phone and talking to abusive callers – and all for a few bucks above minimum wage.

    You can see it in their eyes – life wasn't supposed to be like this.
    They're disappointed.
    They were supposed to be something. Something special. Their parents and coaches and teachers and professors all told them they were. And yet, here they are, sitting, looking at a bleak future of answering close to a hundred phone calls a day. No exit.

    I don't know why your students behave the way they do, Ed. I don't know why they can't follow simple instructions. But I know that there are ramifications when they enter the work force, so it's important that educators in K-12 and College figure it out.

  • This kind of thing often falls prey to the "why didn't they do it before me?" chain of craziness that blames everyone but solves nothing.

    I was just saying to one of my 3rd grade classroom teachers last week that once I get the kids going they do fine, but it takes FOREVER to get them to understand the directions. And they are super simple. I break them into pieces. I make them repeat them back to me. I ask them in their own words what are we about to do? and THREE SECOND LATER they are doing something else or talking or asking me what we're doing.

    I'll continue to investigate, but speaking from a grade school perspective where I see all students K-5 whose teachers have to teach them to follow isntructions so they get a good grade on the test in order to get a significant amount of their pay, I can't think that it's because we aren't teaching them to follow directions.

    I have believed for the past 7-8 years of teaching at ALL levels (K-12 and undergraduate) that we are not teaching students to be independent thinkers. It's not that they can't read the instructions or follow them, it's that there isn't someone right there reminding them what they are and to follow them. It's all about Bloom's Taxonomy: if we never get past the first level of thinking kids are crippled. You're getting kids that can define, but when it comes to "making use of" or "applying" a set of directions (Level 3 on the taxonomy) their brains don't work.

    But again, I'll keep investigating.

  • I develop software, write documentation, and provide training and technical support for capital equipment used in the manufacture of circuit boards. A good chunk of my time is spent on the phone explaining to some manufacturing engineer a thousand miles away the difference between his right and left mouse buttons and how to copy a crash log from his desktop to a USB drive so he can walk it to an internet-connected computer and email it to me. Sometimes they get too frustrated by all this computery stuff so they do things like take a digital picture of the monitor (often using a smartphone), upload it to their PC, paste jpegs into a Word document or Excel spreadsheet, and then clog up my email with a 28 megabyte attachment. Invariably 3 of the 4 included images will be so camera-shaky blurred that I can't read the text or convey irrelevant information such as the fact that the machine's power light is “on.” In my case, these are always people like Bill mentions, useless individuals who somehow have been retained. They are middle-aged engineers and production managers who are unable to learn new skills but have found a safe place that doesn't demand too much of them… until their company decides to buy my equipment and they neglect to read the maintenance portion of the manual.

  • As someone in their late 40's who has had to keep up on a lot more computer technology than I ever would have expected — I have found myself having to adopt the younger generation's skill set of 'mashing buttons' to master new technologies. Reading instructions is absolutely not rewarded. First, you mess with it to discover which of the new skills will be intuitive (and the better designed something is, the more ground you can cover that way). This is a much smarter approach than reading the manual. Next, you consult peers, or more likely internet forums to learn the parts that are not intuitive. At no point do you consult the written manual — for good reason — they are most often written as PR and purposely hide the areas you are going to have the most trouble with. The end result, unfortunately for your exams is that your students are more likely to fault you for poor design of your test than they are to fault themselves for failing to consult the directions.

  • I don't think this is particularly a student problem. I used to post items on Freecycle, and because of where my apartment was located, I had difficulties with people ringing my landlord's doorbell instead of mine. As she was elderly and in ill-health that often woke her up and aggravated her.

    So in my initial messages to Freecycle, I would ask people to change the subject line when they replied to me to say something like "I will pay attention to the correct doorbell" — I even explained that it was to let me know that they had read my instructions in that email and were capable of following instructions and thus that they wouldn't annoy my landlord. Plus, it made a thing out of the doorbell thing, in hopes of making it more memorable once they had the actual instructions for reaching me.

    This did cut down on the number of people who screwed up the doorbell situation from about 40% to about 10%, because I started by weeding out all the people who just replied without reading to the end of the email. But a surprising number of people who read my instructions, replied with text in their email indicating that they had read my instructions — but they didn't change the subject line of the email AS INSTRUCTED.

    These were people of all ages, not young people in particular.

  • I'm going to have to disagree with Anonymouse.

    I too am a software engineer, who has the special job of hand-holding nobel laureates (not a joke, not an exaggeration) when they can't figure out how to use their computers. My first question is always, "What was the error message?" None of them can ever tell me, because they never read it. The younger scientists have no problem, mostly because they read the error message, and tried a different tack until it worked. That's called "problem solving," not "mashing buttons."

    Your students are problem solving, albeit with some harsh learning curves.

  • Think about T&C agreements for a minute: how many of these have you agreed to and accepted? Now think about how many of them that you've actually read and understood. By the time today's undergrads get to Ed's classroom, how many T&C pages have those students ignored completely, without suffering any (visible) consequences (thus far), as Jordan points out above.

    This is analogous to the problems caused byleaving bad laws on the books, or failing to fairly and consistently enforce the good ones. Once we've taught people that *some* instructions are irrelevant, it's a relatively short (if mistaken) jump to conclude that they *all* are.

  • I'm currently just a TA at a huge university, but in general this means that I deal with more undergrads than many professors do. I have this same issue, extending beyond the exam to absolutely every aspect of the two classes I teach.

    I hand out a syllabus and a "course policy" at the beginning of the semester. These documents are also available on the course website (via Blackboard; many of you will undoubtedly know it). These documents answer every single FAQ that a typical student has . . . and yet I constantly receive barrages of emails asking those exact same FAQs throughout the semester. The students do not read the documents that I give them, and they will not consult them when they have a question. It is easier and faster for them to ask me on the internet ("sent from my iPhone").

    Another example: Students must bring their text to class (of course). A hard copy, not an electronic one, because electronics aren't allowed in this class. Yet less than 1/3 of my students bring class materials to class . . . because they haven't purchased them. They complain instead about how the text is available online, so they end up with zero participation points in class, because they are unable to participate without a text to reference. As you may have guessed, this is a literature class.

    Their attention spans are also shortening, and the panic over "no electronics" increases every semester. I can literally see the attachment to the smartphone increase over the course of a few MONTHS. Keep in mind that my students are generally 18-20 . . . and I'm only 24! The fact that there is such a marked difference in our relationship to technology, not even a generation apart, is really telling.

  • Actually, one more facet that wastes huge amounts of my time.

    As somebody who's (against the odds) ended up writing, using and debugging some of the latest open-source software, it's a simple fact that there are no instructions. This isn't because the software is "new", surely; some of the packages I use daily are a half-dozen years old. But the extant docs (or blog posts or forum threads) become obsolete before the pixels are dry. Just try to find a simple, "canonical" approach to installing a package like RMagick on a Mac some day, one that doesn't contradict four or five others in key points. And which works.

    As one of those professional anarcho-business pissants who admittedly wants "collaborative open wiki junk" to perfuse the worklives of modern people, maybe what I ought to be doing is wondering aloud: maybe your students' inability to follow instructions is more to do with the growing awkwardness and infrequency of working on their own. I'm not touting radical Montessorism or anything here, just wondering if there's a growing cultural tendency to see problem-solving as something a bunch of people do together… or you get somebody else to do for you.

  • The latest generation of computer games(particularly FPS games) has become renowned for displaying instructions on the screen any time an action must be performed, and the exact procedure is explained via prompts, on screen etxt, and highlighted objects. What I'm trying to say is that those students may be expecting a text prompt to appear on the answer booklet when they are just about to mark the first answer. They also probably expect the right answers to be flashing red.

  • Agreed that it's not a "kids these days" problem. (And even if it were, it would be forgivable, inasmuch as "kids" have a built-in excuse for being stupid and oblivious: youth, which many of us never grow out of.)

    It's also not "people are getting dumber." Such talk invariably means "people are getting different from what I remember them as being, even if I'm misremembering." I'm no idealist, but I have a hard time conceding we have *devolved* from folks who explained the "erratic moods of the woman" by the theory of the wandering uterus. (Although based on recent discourse by the GOP, perhaps we have not *evolved* as much as we ought to have.)

    There was no 'sweet spot' of erudition and common sense flourishing under the banner of Western enlightenment and post-industrial capitalism. We've always been pretty dumb and ignorant, just because that's the human condition. We've just been dumb and ignorant about different things.

    I agree that "simple instructions" seem to baffle many people. But what I think we're facing here is what Ed suggests right off the bat: we have to get ourselves into the minds of those who have been educated primarily by the internet, and socialized by social media. They're not (abnormally) stupid, and they're not savages–they're just not coming into the world ready to be programmed the way *we* were. (And let's recall that most of us were educated by television. There hasn't been a 'book-learning' generation for over half a century–more if radio was as all-pervasive as I suspect it to have been.)

    And if this is where we are–people used to interacting with the world in a way shaped by fast shifts, small bites, endless stimuli–then those of us who move at a different pace, who think in a different vocabulary, are just going to have to change. Because they're the future, and we risk becoming obsolete if we refuse to concede that their way of learning and development has replaced ours.

    I don't *like* this, mind you–I'd prefer to be cranky and dismissive and pull on my Grammar Nazi jackboots every morning to kick their butts around the classroom. But my job is to teach them about the world as it is–to make them think about who and what they *are*–and not about what they would have been fifty years ago.

    Though I *do* still insist on "for" and not "4". I'm not a total pushover.

  • Huh. And for the first time ever, in all the years (years!) I've been posting here, my "Comment is awaiting moderation." Wonder what I said to set off the sensors? (Especially since most of my other comments are just links to hard-core pornography, Nigerian business opportunities, and penis enlargement treatments.)

  • Candg and Isaac; after excessive hand-holding that was cutting into actual development time, my team also came up with our own "quick guide" that documents the software two ways: 1) using a basic workflow–that is, open up software, log in, go to File – Open, etc. etc. etc., 2) FAQ, with helpful bolded titles like, "How do I open a file?" and "How do I save a file?".

    Doesn't matter. They won't read the manual, which is so simply written that our non-English-as-a-first-language customers can easily comprehend it (which I know because that's what we send them and we almost never get questions like, "How do I save a file?"). I just got off the phone with a genius who tantrummed that the #$%#$% software didn't work–he hadn't logged in. The login process is very obvious; the first screen you get when you bring in the software is a login screen, and you can't go any further with the software until you're logged in. The customer is a new college grad, just hired over the summer.

    So, we offer 2-hour interactive classes, ("Okay, everyone go to the toolbar and left-click on the File option, then select Save File from the dropdown menu…"), a guide that's both downloadable as a pdf AND online, and technical support…and so many of them are just simply not capable of focusing long enough to do the most basic tasks, and worse–they feel it's their RIGHT to be coddled and have someone always at hand to walk them through.

    CandG; I'm with you yelling at clouds…and I'm only 40.

  • "Wet behind the ears" likely had its origins on the farm or ranch. I read that it is an American original When a animal is dropped on the ground by mama, he or she is covered with amniotic fluid, mucus, and other bio debris.

    It has been observed by some, that the last patch of the body to really get dry is behind the ears.

    See also, "You only want to lick that calf once." or "I already licked that calf."


  • I personally think that standards of literacy are declining. I see way too many ostensibly educated people that are categorically unable to gain useful information from a text.

    See the beautifully literate wartime manuals in this blog post:

    There is no way a document like that would or could be distributed today. I don't think that people are "less" literate, I just think that literacy itself has changed considerably.

  • I post formatting instructions in my syllabus, on every assignment, and in the powerpoints that I use to outline the assignment. 25% of my students consistently don't follow those instructions. After being penalized on the first paper, do they learn? NO! They continue to make the same mistakes over and over again, no matter how many times I reiterate the instructions.

  • I post formatting instructions in my syllabus, on every assignment, and in the powerpoints that I use to outline the assignment. I also walk them through the formatting in class, showing them in Word what I'm talking about. 25% of my students consistently don't follow those instructions. After being penalized on the first paper, do they learn? NO! They continue to make the same mistakes over and over again, no matter how many times I reiterate the instructions.

  • My wife and I are in our mid-40's with a college-age daughter. A few years ago we noticed that she and her cousins (similar age) simply did not have the ability to "get it" when we watched a movie or TV show with any depth at all, where the plot and character motivations weren't thrown in your face.

    We watched "The Sting" one night and the first scene, where Hooker and Luther are conning the guy in the alley, left her hopelessly perplexed – later parts of the movie required in-depth explanation so she had any idea at all what was happening.

    Last year she brought us a homework assignment from her freshman-year history class. Part of the assignment was to read some letters written in the 1700s and explain how the writers' attitudes reflected Enlightenment values and ideas. A little subtlety, but sometimes the writers came right out and said things almost exactly as the textbook had printed them. We spent probably two hours trying to get her to make the connection, but I'm not sure she ever did.

    A coworker said her daughter was exactly the same. Sometimes I think we've raised a generation exposed only to shallow videos and computer games.

  • I thought I would add one more comment in here based on my very small sample size of my two sons, aged 13 and 16. They use the internet differently than I do. When I need to know something, I might google it and then read through pages of information. My kids immediately go to Youtube. They understand they need information, but they consume it via videos instead of text.

  • To further confirmation of seeing but not actually reading or understanding, put an icon with check box on the test paper under "Put all answers in your blue book" that "I have read and agree to the terms of service of this test paper."

    Now that's progress for you!

  • Nancy the math teacher says:

    Teaching students to follow the directions is definitely part of my job. In my classes, you don't get full credit- or in some cases, any credit- unless you follow the directions. With formatting issues, usually I let my junior-college level students re-submit the first assignment, this time following the instructions.
    I've been teaching almost 20 years and I haven't noticed any differences. A certain fraction of all beginning students have these issues. Most of the time they just didn't pay attention to the right things. Just being in the classroom is distracting for some of them. Right now they may be on the smartphone, in the past they used to gossip in the classroom/fall asleep/work puzzles or some other homework/etc. Good students learn to pay attention.

  • Yo!!! Ed!!

    Here' s how are fix this one: have them turn in the Blue Books into a box marked Blue Books. Then have them insert the test books into a shredder, thus destroying anything they wrote a the actual test. That'll learn'em.

    I seriously hope that your not letting /making them write their names on the actual test. Secondly, number the tests, so that you can make sure that you get them all back after the test and after you review the test.

    Finally, none of this matters, anyway. My criminal mind says to just photograph (smartphone, duh?) the test and email it to the frat house when know one is looking.

  • i'm sorry, i do not feel sorry for people like this. fuck em. they deserve to get flunked, & lose their job if they can't follow simple instructions. i don't think where people get their information is the issue. as long as it's accurate, who cares if it came from a library book or youtube. but laziness & stupidity shouldn't ever be rewarded.

  • Part of the problem, I think, is that K-12 teaching-to-the-test has created a generation of disaffected, bored students who've – quite literally – tuned out. Why follow directions for tasks that you don't really want to do anyway, and see no real purpose in?

    My daughter, for one, was quite vocal about her frustrations with her "good" middle-class high school. See: and Too much of her education consisted of "going through the motions" stuff like this. For her, "following the directions" often meant following mindless, bureaucratic, BS instructions. It used to be that kids didn't have to deal with that crap until they hit the adult world – but they're soaking in it, now.

  • Some of these stories make me wonder why I work in a coffeeshop with my degree when these morons manage to get hired at jobs where you wear shirts with buttons on them. Admittedly, I haven't tried that hard to find something else while I decide on whether or not to go to grad school, but if people are this incompetent it should be easy.

  • See also, "You only want to lick that calf once." or "I already licked that calf." HA! I have never heard these expressions, but they will soon be worked into my lexicon. Thanks, bb!

    And as for your students, maybe they don't know what a Blue Book is? I have to admit that I am shocked those are still in use. Would have thought they'd gone the way of typewriters and carbon paper. I guess I imagined there was now a cyber-Blue Book. You know, a place in the cloud where you'd drop your answers for the professor to pick them up. The student would have to turn his or her answers into a pdf, drop it in the box where it would be date stamped and saved (so no room for hanky-panky on the original later). Like e-filing in the courts.

  • @ Mothra

    Ditto on the Blue Book. Used them all the time in the College Days prior to the Spanish-American War.

    I have mentioned BBs to college students over the last couple of years and gotten blank stares.

    Could the possibly think it was scratch paper???

    I would think all the standardized testing would ingrain a sixth sense into students:DON"T MARK THE TEST!!!!! ONLY WRITE ANSWERS ON THE ANSWER CHEAT!

    Just my $ 0.02.

  • As an IT tech, I see this all the time.

    Students (and, to be fair, faculty,too) who can make complex, unique chemical compounds with 45-step syntheses will fail at following a 5-step procedure to connect a VPN correctly.

    An ILLUSTRATED 5-step procedure.

    I think it's because "Idiocracy" was not a satiric movie about a dystopian future, but a documentary of modern America.

    "Brawndo! It's got what plants need!"

  • I agree with those who say it has been a problem with human beings since the year 'dot' – or at least for the past 35 yrs since I have been teaching undergrads.

    I used to give a major assignment just after halfway through the semester. In the early 90s, before 'most' students were familiar with onscreen procedures, the instructions were written in several places and spoken about and reinforced in class. If the assignment was submitted after the stated deadline, marks would be deducted on a sliding scale, reducing to zero after several days.

    One year, I was going away for a couple of weeks and was taking the assignments with me to mark. So, the instructions changed. They said "Dr D. is going away. The assignments must be submitted to her office before 4 pm on day X, and you must receive a receipt to prove she has received them. Any late assignments will not be marked because she will be away, and the student will receive a mark of zero." (Or words to that effect).

    So far so good, I received 'most' of the assignments on time.

    On my return, there was one pushed under my door that had been submitted late. I assigned it a mark of zero. The student jumped up and down and made a loud noise, but i didn't back down.

    The following year, I wasn't going away so I reverted to the former instructions about a sliding scale of reduced marks for late submissions.

    However, on the day of the deadline, at 3.30 pm, there was a long line of students in the corridor outside my room wanting to hand me their assignment and get a receipt.

    Now, I used to say that bribery (in the way of bonus marks) would work well if you wanted students to do something different – but in this case obviously the 'stick' worked as well as the 'carrot' – and not only that, but received wisdom from previous students was a better means of communication than instructions given by the lecturer.

    (I have also been known to say, for 35 yrs, that freshmen students can neither read nor hear – always, always, I have had lines of students asking me about instructions that have been both written and emphasised during a lecture).

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

    (And to be fair, I never remember what 'error messages' say, because I do not understand computer-language and can't work out what they mean, so the words and symbols mean nothing to me. It might as well BE a foreign language. This is NOT the reason students don't understand about writing in the blue book).


  • I don't know. I work for a big gubment regulatory body. We make companies do routine tests and file a pre-test plan and a post-test report. They outsource the whole thing to a contractor.

    We provide a checklist of every single thing we want to see in a report. If I were a contractor I would write my report so that it addresses every check box on the checklist, and if it's not applicable, write a sentence about why. If I were the company hiring this contractor and paying them probably thousands of dollars to writes something which satisfies a paper pusher like me, I would expect them to follow the simple checklist.

    Do they do it? No. Sometimes they fail to follow the checklist and we send them a letter which says, "we will accept it this time but in the future please include X, Y and Z." Then the next time when they invariably fail to include it as stipulated the last time their report was approved, I contact them and say "I have reviewed your report and it looks good, except we are missing X, Y and Z. Please send me this info."

    Then of course comes the inevitable conflict, "well you approved the same report last time and I just cut and pasted it!" (obviously the aforementioned letter just went in the trash without anyone reading it), "Why are you asking for this, it's not important!" The company always goes to bat for the contractor instead of asking them to follow the directions.

    Anyway, where I'm going with this, is that these are not college students. They are professional people with degrees. In most cases they are not young recent graduates, but rather older folks. They cannot be bothered to follow a simple bullet-point list of criteria and will get defensive and snotty when you ask them a few simple questions about information they should already have available. It's not just young people, it's people who think they know it all in general.

    As for students, I will play the devil's advocate here. When you're taking 4-6 courses a semester and each professor has little peculiarities in his or her system — this one wants the homework in the paper box at their door (not the mailbox); Dr. Bob never checks his e-mail, but Professor Johnson doesn't answer her phone; she allows you to make up a missed quiz and the grad student teaching my lab has no make-ups but drops two lowest scores — sometimes it's hard to keep unusual policies straight. That being said, there's no excuse for getting burned by something written in bold right in front of your face.

  • This:

    "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.

  • @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.

  • @BruceJ
    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.

  • 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'.


  • 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.

  • 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….

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.


  • 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.

  • 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.

  • @ 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."

  • 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.

  • 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.


  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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…

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • 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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