That failing to follow instructions activity

“I am so embarrassed!” exclaimed Gayle (neither her name nor her English name), one of the strongest and most confident students in the class when we discussed the recently completed activity. I could empathize because I remembered hating it when I did it in a class as a student all those years ago. I’ve always had mixed feelings about the activity but I chose to use it in the last 2 short (pre-sessional) courses I’ve taught. 

The main reason I chose it  was because it was a sort of fun reminder about the importance of following instructions and reading carefully. I thought it was a pretty low-stakes way to share this friendly reminder. I thought this little eye-opener could have positive results in upcoming assignments (which it may have) and future courses.

I’d noticed that these students were not so great at reading the fine print or reading carefully, especially when it came to the minutia of academic writing. They were highly capable at creative tasks and in working well together but sometimes the small details evaded them. I felt that simply mentioning the importance of finer details related to assignments would not really stick or be memorable so I felt some sort of activity to help guide the students towards that understanding would be helpful.

I felt it was better to be slightly embarrassed now and to then remember to triple check such things as APA formatting their final assignments. I said as much to the aforementioned Gayle, in fact.

My misgivings about this activity were related to power dynamics and the possibility of making students feel bad or dumb for not following instructions. Paradoxically, the whole point was for students not to follow instructions and see the error of their ways. I still didn’t like setting up to fail like that but on balance I was okay with the decision as I feel like perhaps the negatives were outweighed by the positives. 

Another positive was the (slightly smug?) smiles of the  4 or 5 out of 24 students who did not fail the activity and were able to relax and soak in some moments of chilled out success. Maybe they’d seen a similar activity before or maybe they simply followed instructions carefully. It was fun to share knowing glances with these students even if it was not the most productive 5 minutes of their academic lives.  

I do think and hope it was productive or memorable for those who struggled with the activity. It’s of course challenging to measure the impact exactly but I can say that many students in their final reflections mentioned they will be sure in future courses to read the syllabus, rubrics, and assignment expectations extremely carefully. Others said that they’d triple-check the instructions and make sure every aspect was accounted for before submitting any work in their college careers. I felt like my message was received and felt a certain amount of pride about that.

You might be wondering, Dear Reader, what exactly is this activity I’ve spent over 500 words rambling about but have yet to name or explain in detail. Maybe you’ve seen it before. The initial instructions say something like “Be sure to read every instruction before you do anything” and then there is a list of instructions. The first few lines ask the students to things like write their name and the date but the last line says something like “Only do instructions 1 through 5.” That way students who did any instructions after #6 would have been unsuccessful with the activity. In case my brief instruction is not clear enough enough, here is an example. I called it a quiz but anyone who did anything (or nothing) received full points. I am not so harsh or sadistic.

Maybe you’d like to a filled out example? Here you are:

Thank you for reading! Comments appreciated. I wonder, what ways have you found helpful to guide students to pay attention to details? Is this something you’d address? Also, I am particularly interested in thoughts why you’d never do this with adults. I’d also be interested in other similar (but less embarrassment inducing) ways of getting to the same point. Additionally, if you think I’m being a huge baby and am overly worried about students being slightly embarrassed for a moment I wouldn’t mind reading that either. What I am trying to say is that any comments are welcome.


  1. naomishema

    I found your post to be very thought-provoking. As someone who works with many “struggling students” who really do not read instructions, I got quite excited over this post, until I hit a “wall”.
    Your explanations regarding the rationale for using this activity are strong and hold true for “struggling learners” – they need to experience the consequences of not following instructions n a “no stakes” environment. A memorable activity is certainly needed.
    However, one of the strategies we work on is “NOT” to read ALL the reading comprehension questions before approaching the text. Many would never complete a test on time.
    True, this is just a set of instructions, without a reading comprehension text, but why would they read all the instructions till the end until have they have done each one?
    Food for thought!

  2. joannaesl

    I think that it is a very harmless activity that will be remembered for a very long time 😊

    I understand that “embarrassing” your students may not always be welcome, it depends on the country and its culture. I am an ESL teacher in Spain and I am more than sure that my students would have a lot of fun with it! I actually can’t wait to use it in my classroom one day!

    • mikecorea

      Thank you very much for the response. I appreciate your point about the country and culture playing a role in potential embarrassment. I have to say that this activity can be sort of fun (even with concerns I mentioned).

      I’d love to know how it goes when/if you try out this activity!

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