From the first day of class I have been talking to my students about the value of reading directions,fighting the urge to say “We don’t just write these directions for our health, y’know?” (among other, less-publishable expressions of frustration.)

I tell them about the faculty survey I conducted, asking faculty “What do you see as the biggest problem for students involving their reading?”  EVERYONE (and how often do we get a unanimous faculty decision???) said that not reading the syllabus and not reading directions were huge problems for their students.  So I tell the students that.  Over and over and over and ….

WHY are so many students resistant to reading directions?  As a college reading instructor, I know that they resist reading in general, but even when we read the directions in class and I give them a hard copy as well as an online link to those selfsame directions, I get work that is clearly a result of NOT reading the directions.

I gave my students what I thought was the coolest assignment ever.  They created their own collection of interesting blogs on Google Reader, then used those blogs to practice skimming for two weeks.  They were to write a journal with daily summaries of one blog post they had skimmed that day and a final reflection on the process and what they learned about skimming.

Well.  Most of them didn’t turn it in, and most of those who did left out the final reflection, which of course was what I was most interested in.  I spent a couple of days working through my frustration before I talked to the students.  I have found that when I go to them with any anger in my heart I have already eliminated any possibility of being heard.  And I do have a (teensy) bit of a temper, so I am careful about this.

I decided I would rather give them the opportunity to experience the skimming activity for partial credit rather than go the punitive route and just give them zeros for the undone work.  But I was NOT going to explain the assignment again.  I told them my decision, that those who had not turned it in at all would have an additional two weeks to do the project for partial credit, and those who had turned in a partial assignment would have those same two weeks to go back and read the directions and make sure that they had followed them.  Any necessary adjustments would also earn partial credit.

I had a line of students waiting to ask me if they had done it right.  “Go back, read the directions and make your own decision about that.”  Students who had not turned it in explained “Well, I was confused.” In a voice that took great effort not to be raised, I replied “You had TWO WEEKS (okay, I wasn’t exactly successful at the not-raised-voice) to come to me.”

My original title for this post was “The ‘I Was Confused’ Excuse” because I really wonder what goes on in students’ heads when they explain that they didn’t do the work because they were confused.  Is being confused an excuse for not doing anything?  Even after I have told them over and over (and over…) that when they don’t understand they should ASK?

Out of thirty-five students doing this assignment, I had one beautiful response – a page and a half about how hard it was at first so he practiced – he would skim and write a summary then go back and read the post to see if he got it right – I am in love!  A few students had paragraph-long reflections that were okay quality but huzzah they had done it.  One student had only turned in the daily summaries and after my announcement, went back, added titles to each summary and re-submitted it, still without the final reflection.

I am wondering what more I can do to teach them the importance of this seemingly simple task.  Since one of the basic premises of my teaching is to problematize teaching issues and turn them back to students, I think I will ask them that question.  Maybe another reflection journal? – Why do students routinely ignore directions even when it is damaging their grade?

We will see in two weeks what gets turned in this time around.  [cue suspense music]  Until then, READ THE DIRECTIONS.