How Do You Teach Students to Follow Directions?

In high school, I recall that one of my history teachers tried to trick my class by giving us a lengthy assessment with numerous questions and lots of directions.  If you read the directions carefully, you only had to answer the final question of the test in order to demonstrate your learning.  The other questions were there to trick you.  While I did read the instructions carefully like I was taught and successfully completed the exam, the tricky test did stump a few of my friends who usually just rushed through their work to get it done.  The teacher was trying to help us understand the importance of reading and following directions.  While this particular activity did not necessarily help me, I think it was a wake up call for some of my peers.  Despite the emphasis placed on reading and understanding directions in the elementary grades, some students still struggled with this skill due to their lack of patience or focus.  Back then though, the percentage of students who didn’t follow directions was very small in comparison to today.  Due to the various technologies facing our students in the past several years, many students are unable to stay focused or pay close attention to details.  Video games, applications, television shows, and movies are all about the big picture.  Therefore, students usually tend to miss the minute details in life and school.  Teachers often wonder why students turn in work without a name or date written on it despite having provided the students with lines on which to write both.  The students are only focused on completing the work and generally miss everything else.  Of course, this data accounts for the average student only.  We all have or had students who go above and beyond in everything they do, including their school work.  But, for a large percentage of our students, the details usually go unseen and directions tend not be be followed completely.

Such was the case in my STEM class today.  The students began working on the Physics Partner Project, which entails learning about the physics behind catapults or pinball machines before building their own working prototype of the one they research.  Today, they chose partners, chose a project, and began learning about the physics behind the project they chose.  When I handed the worksheet packet to each partnership, I made sure to tell them that everything they would need to do and answer, was in their packet.  All they needed to do was read and follow the directions.  I also made it very clear that no laptops were needed in completing the first part of the worksheet.  After I met with each group and handed out worksheets, I glanced around the room and saw several open laptops.  I calmly approached each of the groups and asked why a laptop was open.  The response from every group was the same, “We are researching answers to the questions on the worksheet.”  My response was also the same across the board, “What does step one tell you to do?”  This question lead them to read over step one and realize that they actually had a handout with all of the pertinent information needed to answer the questions on it in their packet.  I then heard lots of, “Ohhs and ahhs,” as they realized the error of their ways.  Had they read and followed the directions, they would have known that they did not need to open their laptops to complete this part of the project.

Aside from what I did, which was remind the students to read and follow directions, highlight, or in this case underline the directions on the worksheet, is there anything else I could have done to help the students read and follow the directions for the assignment?  At the close of class when I had the students reflect on what went well and what struggles they faced when working with their partner, I shared my challenge of being frustrated that my students did not read and follow directions.  While I shared my story in a whimsical and fun way, I managed to make my point.  I wanted the students to see the value in reading and following directions.  Perhaps creating an assessment or activity like the one my former history teacher made might help.  I do think that current society has turned our students into reactionary rushers.  Students rush through work to get it done in order to move onto what’s next.  They struggle to live in the moment.  I remember watching a high school basketball competition on television with my son a few years ago.   It was a slam dunk competition.  The other participants and players stood on the sidelines, not watching or supporting their teammates, but digitally recording them on their mobile devices.  They would then watch the video they made again and again.  Instead of enjoying the moment, many students and people today try to multitask as a way of being able to do and experience more.  In the end, I wonder how effective this strategy and approach truly is.  It seems that youngins today are so caught up in everybody else’s lives and experiences, that they can’t truly participate in their own, which then prevents them from being well focused in the classroom.  I worry that as technology continues to advance and grow, will the attention spans of our students grow even smaller?  Will our students complete less focused work than they are able to do now in the near future?  Maybe we should just omit directions from all assignments and see what happens as we know that most of our students are not reading and following them anyway.  Perhaps I’ll try that next time and see what happens.  Maybe I won’t find any difference between that and today’s result or maybe I will.  I’m up for anything.  I love collecting data as a way to learn how to best support and help my students.


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