There has always been at least one student in class who seems to have enormous problems following directions.
If you ask for an essay, she writes a poem. If you ask for it submitted to the class website by Sunday midnight, she’ll send it as an email attachment to the department chair on Tuesday afternoon. If you ask the class to write an essay to the topic of the causes and effects of a social issue, he’ll turn in ten pages of his autobiography, and so forth. The problem of students following directions is perennial and to be expected. It was not such a large problem in the past because, mercifully, there was usually only one, at the most two, such students per class, and so this issue with following directions could be managed on an individual basis. However, in recent years a significant number of students in any given class seems to have this issue with directions. It seems unlikely that I’ve become worse at giving directions as I have given them for years. In addition, my colleagues report having the same concerns. There are, it seems, a number of reasons for the problem of following instructor directions but also methods to address the concern.
5 Reasons for Difficulties in Following Directions
Erosion of Respect for Authority
Over the past several decades in the United States, and probably globally, there has been an erosion of respect for authority figures, including teachers, for a number of reasons: faults of authority figures more exposed to public scrutiny is probably the largest. Whatever the reason, an erosion of respect for authority almost inevitably leads to lack of concern about the rules they establish and directions they give.
Lack of Consequences
Along with the erosion of respect for authority figures inevitably also comes the lessened ability of such authorities to enforce consequences. In the past, if not paying attention to directions in class might result in a sharp and public rebuke from the instructor or a failing grade assigned to a paper not submitted according to directions, students made sure they followed the instructions. In an environment in which instructors’ authority has eroded and is challenged by students and not supported by administrators, teachers are more hesitant to impose consequences.
Problems with Attention
Although it only rises to the level of disability with a segment of the population, those with attention deficit disorder (ADD), probably most individuals in modern industrialized nations today are affected by varying degrees with problems with attention. There are just so many competing demands on our attention that focusing long enough to follow directions is a real struggle for many people as the human brain was not evolved to manage so much input at once. This problem with focus and attention naturally increases if directions are long, complex, and multi-step.
In a multicultural society such as California, a number of students, even those that are essentially at native competency in English, may still have enough second language interference to make processing directions difficult in that language. I felt slight annoyance recently with a young lady in my class when she continued looking through her papers, not following the direction I had given out twice to turn to page 105 in our text. I was surprised as well as annoyed because the student in question was invariably polite and cooperative—and then I remembered English is not her first language, something not readily apparent without knowing her background. In my experience with listening in my second language, if I’m not looking directly at the speaker, the words coming out of her mouth might as well be so much “white noise.”
A number of students may be affected by disabilities such as hearing loss that are not immediately apparent which make understanding and following directions difficult. In a related scenario to the one above, I was at a teacher’s meeting not long ago, and one of the participants did not look up nor turn to the documents the meeting facilitator had directed us to. The facilitator approached him discretely and repeated the directions. It was only then that I noticed the participant’s hearing aids.
There are, therefore, a number of social, psychological, and physical reasons students have difficulty following directions. However, there are also methods to help students develop this ability.
4 Methods to Help Students Follow Directions
Discuss the Importance of Following Directions
Sometimes students don’t follow directions because they simply don’t see the point. If the instructor explains why she needs students’ first and last names on papers, or student identification numbers, and on every page, as well as the class number, to ensure that papers are kept in order and not lost so that students can get their grades, the students are more likely to follow the directions. They have just been provided a strong incentive.
Keep Vocabulary Simple and Familiar
Sometimes directions really are not clear to students, even if they seem perfectly so to teachers. Sometimes terminology that teachers think of as familiar is not known to students (e.g., a “blue book” is a blank composition notebook that has, literally, a blue cover, and is available in most college bookstores). Long sentences with more than one direction in them also can stymie understanding. Simplifying vocabulary, keeping sentences short and direct, and listing the steps in numbered sequence clarifies matters for students.
Keep Directions Simple
Simplifying the directions, in as few steps as possible, also assists students in following them. Generally speaking, the more the directions are added to and complicated, the more difficulty students will have with them. More complex processes should be broken down into several sets of directions (e.g., 1. How to set up your student computer account. 2. How to sign onto the class website. 3. How to submit your papers to the class site, etc.)
Repeat as Necessary
Be patient. Many people will not correctly follow the directions on the first try. During the first two weeks of class, it can be a valuable investment of time to spend part of each session reviewing the most important procedures for the class: how to submit hard copies of documents to the instructor, how to submit online, where to access the class website, what to do in the event of an absence from or late arrival to class, and so forth. Also valuable is posting directions for course procedures in several places, such as on the syllabus as well as on the class website.
There are a number of reasons for the increase in student difficulty in following directions. Erosion of respect for authority and their directions is only one. Other problems with attention, disabilities, and the clarity of the directions themselves also exist. But by being patient, clarifying and simplifying directions, as well as discussing their importance, most students will able to comply with the instructions.