Is following directions hard for you? If so, why?

I’m just curious about this, as student papers are due soon.

Do you find it difficult to follow directions? What makes it difficult?

I’ve tried to make the directions for this assignment (and others, but this is the most complicated one) as clear, concise and straightforward as possible, but seemingly a significant percentage of students are struggling with the first basic principle: follow the directions!
The directions are not unreasonable, challenging, or needlessly arcane. There are examples of “how to” follow the directions. I explained the directions in class. I posted the directions online.

I have made it clear also that if they have any questions, they should ask! (By yesterday! but lots of questions today!)

Why is this hard? What can I do to make it easier so people don’t lose points for things that they shouldn’t?

(Related example: on test, directions clearly state: “Answer THREE of the following questions”; student answers all five and thus wastes time and doesn’t get credit for their work they did do, while missing out on doing better work elsewhere on the exam).

Feel free to take the discussion outside the realm of college assignments, but what I am really looking at is why explicit directions are so often ignored.

I am bad at following directions, and have always been. My only guess is that it has to do with the non-linearity of my thoughts. I can’t give good directions either. I’m also disorganized and don’t handle pressure well.

I didn’t realize this was a weakness of mine until I was in o-chem lab in college. I had managed to make it through all of my other lab classes unscathed, but for some reason, o-chem lab was just pure hell for me. And I had no idea why, which meant I never had a chance to improve. It’s only now that I understand why I couldn’t seem to follow the steps like everyone else was able to do. First, we were forbidden from bringing the manual to the lab. You had to transfer all the directions from the manual into your notebook, and bring only that to class. Well, whether because of laziness or the fact that I had sloppy handwriting, my notes always sucked. I’d always leave out key steps, or I’d use shorthand that I wouldn’t be able to decipher later. So poor notes were probably the biggest problem. The second problem was clumsiness and poor visual-spatial skills. I could never organize my benchtop well enough to avoid knocking things over and ruining reactions. And then third (and this would only exacerbate the second), I was always anxious. The fear that I wouldn’t have any crystals by the end of the four hours would cause me to do stupid self-sabotaging shit.

Every time I cook something that has more than a few steps, I have flashbacks to o-chem lab.

Only when the instructions suck.

So often instructions are poorly organized and phrased, difficult to understand, and incomplete.

Also, so much technology is designed to be “intuitive”, that younger people just aren’t used to written instructions.

(And students always procrastinate, but that is another issue.)

Maybe they expected extra credit for the other two… or thought you’d take the three best answers of the five given (which would make taking a shot on all five worthwhile for anyone who wasn’t sure of their ability to nail three).

I’ve done things like the example in the OP, and answered all five questions. In my defense, for that particular case, I think it could have to do with attention blindness. It’s the same reason that you miss the moonwalking gorilla walking through the baseball court, when you’ve been asked to count the number of passes being made. Especially in a pressured situation, your brain pre-scans the environment for what’s important, before your conscious mind even gets to play. You could miss something that’s right in front of your nose, even if it’s written in big red letters.

In the case of the test, your brain might flag the instructions as “not important”, and you ignore them. You’re pressed for time, and you’re stressed out. You can only pay attention to so much of your surroundings. Normally, when you’re presented with a list of questions, you’re supposed to answer all of them, so you assume that you know how what the format of the situation is and that you understand it already. So you just cut to the chase and barge ahead.

Once you’ve done this a couple of times, though, you should be clued in that sometimes, on tests, you’re only asked to answer a certain number of questions, and that instructions matter. If you’re not familiar with that kind of format for a test, though, I can see how you could easily make that mistake. I’d give anyone a pass on it the first time it happens.

I really don’t think these instructions were confusing. They are things like “2-5 secondary sources are required.” Students (multiple students!) email: “Are secondary sources required?” I saw them in class when we discussed it! They appeared to be taking notes! The requirements are posted online, and I emailed them to remind them the requirements were posted online!

Re: test example – I explained the format for the test beforehand, and again, posted the test format online in the study guide. I agree that students are pressurized on tests and don’t always read the instructions, but that’s why I emphasize things like reading the test thru before starting to write and deciding which questions to answer before writing any of them.

Is there a strategy I could use, other than repetition, to help people follow instructions easier?

No, sorry, and I don’t get it. I deal with people all the time, every day, it’s my job to do this, who just do not/will not read the directions. I don’t get it. I’m trying to get it by reading people’s accounts here but I still don’t get it. (I do understand when the directions suck. Often they do. But when directions are clear, and they pop up in red to tell you what you did wrong when you hit “next”, and instead of reading them you go drag a librarian over, that I do not get.)

I used to write procedures for work. And I had to always be aware that just because I knew what I meant to say didn’t mean that I had said it clearly. I would figure that what I had written down was obvious and couldn’t be misunderstood but I was reading it with the bias that I already knew what I wanted it to mean.

So the solution was obvious. After I wrote up the procedure, I’d give it to somebody else to read and see if they understood what I was saying. If this other person, without my foreknowledge, understood the procedure just from reading it then I knew I had gotten the point across.

When computers are involved, I think people panic sometimes, and it seems that their natural instinct is to seek out other humans for help before engaging with the source of the fear.

Actually, now I’m getting flashbacks to helping my mother with her computer problems over the phone.

“This isn’t working! What can I do?”
"Is there a gigantic button on your screen right now that says ‘Next’?
“Click that. Now, do you see a button labeled ‘Install’?”
“Wait… yes, there it is! Should I click that?”
“It might be worth a shot. You never know.”
“Now it works!”

It really is like that sometimes. The problem here isn’t that my mother is an idiot. She isn’t at all. She performs a number of complex tasks every day of her life with great success. She just gets a bit scared when there’s a problem with her computer, and then it’s like even really clear instructions just aren’t there. The thing is that she asks for help before even trying to solve the problem, even when the solution is obvious and screaming at her.

I have to confess that I do the same thing, in other situations, although not with computers. It’s the world’s most efficient way to make yourself look like a moron, I think.

Following directions which I do not understand, from someone who hasn’t given me any reason to believe he knows what he’s talking about, yes. This is what my teachers and my mother referred to when they said I had “a problem with authority”.

Following directions from someone who I believe has at least as good an idea what he’s doing as I do, well, that still requires me to understand exactly what am I supposed to do, but my brain won’t jump into “whyyyyyy?”-mode.

I’ve been writing directions for upwards of twenty years and was taught to do “the grandmother test” (would your grandma who doesn’t know the first word about this be able to follow the procedure? it’s not right unless and until you can answer yes); while I do occasionally miss something, the biggest problem sadly remains “people who will not RTFM”. Why am I spending hours writing manuals when people won’t fucking read them? No idea… oh wait, yes, it’s billable. Thank Moloch.

My father was required to pass a reválida, an exam taken in a school different from the one he’d attended, re-testing on every single subject taken. In his case it was actually a series of exams, for other courses of work it would have been a single one. The Math part of the exam covered all math which had been studied through four years of business school.

It was a single problem, over twenty lines long.

Half the students left the classroom in five minutes of less, half the students took the full two hours alloted. The first half got perfect grades, the second half got diverse levels of failure.

The first half had read the whole problem to the end and realized that the question was, not paraphrased, “please add five plus two.” The second half… had not. The whole Math test was about whether they could read.

I have been so tempted to do something like that for an exam, though in the humanities it would be trickier!

I’m generally good at following instructions and great at writing them (back when I was writing for installation of some automotive performance products I had customers calling me and complementing me on my work)
I tend to read through them lightly once and the. Step by step.
I often find errors in instructions and other forms due to A) my reading for detail and
B) my twisted mind
Example to day I went to the eye doctor. Health questionnaire had several questions about various health that read along the lines of
Lung issues?

You get the idea. About have way through the questions was this gem:

“Yes doctor I have no health”
I pointed this out to the nurses. They both laughed and said no one had mentioned that before.

this is also used, read the whole page and only have your name at the top, in various development sessions (like a skill workshop).

Yeah…sorry…Um what am I supposed to do here again?:confused:

Ads on the web and the general verbosity of all kinds of things around us have taught us to ignore lots of text. This can bite you if you make your instructions stand out: if all the other text is black, but something important is red, some people will just not see it because of ad blindness.

So you need to figure out whether people actually see your instructions. If so, yes, there are some who just will not follow them. Hopefully a few failing grades will teach them that it’s not optional. So fail them early and fail them often.

As for the questions: some people are just lazy. By telling them the answer rather than forcing them to look it up you’re reinforcing this behavior.

Of course you don’t. You thought about what you wanted and then wrote them. That’s effectively both repetition and requiring yourself to cognitively process the instructions instead of just skimming them. Instructions always make the most sense to the one giving them.

In class and even taking notes doesn’t mean as much as you expect. A quick look as you start talking about them and they think “pretty simple.” The mind can easily wander to “when do I schedule this assignment in with my other things” “Ooh I have a good idea for the assignment” and “Ohh I like the shirt the cute person in row 3 is wearing today.” After all the instructions look simple. By the end of the discussion they think they have it. After all they are simple. They probably remember some but not all of the instructions. By the time they actually need to follow them they remember fewer but they remember it being simple so they assume they have it all in memory. They don’t. When you email about the instructions most mentally think “I got this” and your message is forgotten seconds later.

A lot of what you say at the start of the test is basically Charlie Brown’s teacher making waa waa sounds. Especially if you or a TA has already started passing out the test itself. Emphasizing reading isn’t a key instruction by itself, it’s an instruction to follow instructions. Mentally you get a “duh” and they start tuning you out.

From may experience as an Army leader there are techniques. They worked for me in civilian management roles as well. Repetition of key points is good. Asking questions after verbally giving instructions makes huge differences. For example after explaining the written assignment ask some questions and call on people to answer them. “How many sources do you need to cite for this assignment?” “What rules are there for format?” The repetition cements the key points and forcing them to process and repeat the information back cements them even further. Drawing attention to key points by changing voice tone, volume, pace of speaking, or body language draws attention back. Jokingly in the Army that can be called stomping the boot. It frequently is literally accompanied by an overemphasized and slow boot stomp. “Only answer 3 of 5 questions in section two, I say again slowing pace of speech and raising volume just a touch ONLY… ANSWER… 3 OF 5” STOMP STOMP STOMP" If you are using an email reminder a hook beyond just read and follow the stuff at the link can help. “Don’t forget 2-5 sources are required and using the proper format for your submission. Complete instructions are covered at link.”

All of those techniques do require you to think about and select which points are most important to emphasize through repetition, questioning, and varied delivery styles. Simply repeating everything and using the same, even emphasized delivery style, quickly becomes the new norm and can get filtered. Over repetition of every point can shut down receptiveness too.

In summary:

  • repetition is good
  • use questions to get them to repeat the information
  • emphasize key points
  • think about delivery not just content

Hm, but what do you want to accomplish here?

If this is some kind of school, then it would be helpful to train the students to pay attention to instructions even if they’re not hit over the head with them rather than make things easy for them through repetition and emphasis.

On the other hand, if these are safety instructions, do whatever it takes to make sure they follow them.

By the way, why waste class time on explaining this stuff? This information should be available in writing somewhere.

I consider myself good with following directions, but only because I actively fight weird tendencies that could get in the way.

For instance, when I’m trying to follow a recipe, I’ve noticed that my eyes will naturally gravitate to the middle of the ingredients list and then jump up and down. If I let myself be directed by my natural gaze, I end up just mixing stuff rather randomly together, increasing the potential that I will accidently leave out something or add too much of something.

I don’t know why I do this, because my thoughts flow linearly and so does my speech. But when it comes to following written steps, the chaotic animal in me wants to take over. Being aware of this helps me keep it under control.

I honestly think you’re approaching this from the wrong direction. You seem really, really kind. In my experience, students don’t follow directions because they don’t care, and they don’t have an incentive to care. This doesn’t come from a bad place: they have a lot going on in their lives, and very little experience in time management and prioritization. They do not understand your pedagogical goals in assigning the directions, and they tune them out because they’re attuned to things that will be on the tests.

What I find works is giving them an incentive to care, i.e. a grade penalty for failure to follow directions. If they know this exists and is enforced, they learn to follow. Think of all the complex tasks these same students do master: video games, driving [assuming they’re at or near driving age if you’re requiring 2–5 secondary sources], fashion. They are certainly capable of following complex directions given even once, if given clearly and if they know that they must.

Individual students like monstro are a different case, so there’s never a perfect one-size-fits-all policy, and also I think it’s unreasonable to expect of younger students.