Throughout my eleven years of teaching, I have been consistently astonished by students' staggering inability to follow even the simplest instructions. Whether I speak them aloud, write them on the board, print and distribute them on paper, or some combination of all three, it amazes me how many students somehow manage to not do what they are specifically instructed to do, do what they are specifically instructed not to do, or do something in a way which is clearly and obviously different from how they are instructed to do it.
The simplest example I can think of is the mundane task of writing their names on their papers. It's one of the first things one is taught to do in school: Write your name on your paper. Yet year after I year I receive paper after paper, or notebook after notebook, with no name on it, even when I tell students before they hand it in, "Make sure your name is on your paper." I have reached the point where I pre-print essay forms, assignment sheets, and labels with the students' names already on them. In cases where I instruct the students to write their names in a particular place, e.g., the upper-right corner of the page, many of them manage to write it in the upper-left, lower-right, at the end of the essay, etc.; anywhere except where they were told.
Conversely, when I tell them they do not need to write their names or other headings, such as in their daily notebook entries, and that they only need to label each entry with the date and the letter "Q" (for quote response) or "C" (for class work), they still write the full header (name, school, class, teacher, date) anyway. When I instruct them not to copy the quote off the board and just write the response, they copy the quote down anyway.
I'm giving my final exam this week. It's an extended "critical lens" essay, in which the students are instructed to select a critical lens from the list in their handbooks of all the ones that have been used on past Regents exams, excepting the ones we've used already, and use it to analyze all of the texts we have studied this year.
The students are writing their essays in Regents Essay Booklets. I have affixed labels to each booklet with the students' names on them, and I told them they did not need to fill in their name, school and date in the spaces on the booklet. Nearly everyone did so anyway.
I gave the students comprehensive printed instructions, which tell the students to select a critical lens from the list, and where to find the list. From the early results I have seen, at least two have instead selected quotations used in class which are not critical lens statements and thus not on that list. At least one chose one of the off-limits statements (the ones we used on prior essays).
The instructions also tell students not to include the title/author/genre (TAG) of all six texts in the essay's thesis statement, but rather to refer to "The six literary works discussed herein..." At least a dozen nonetheless wrote thesis statements containing all six TAGs. Others wrote thesis statements containing fewer than six TAGs. Three contained only one TAG, that of the book we read most recently. Several have no thesis statement at all.
Sometimes things like this happen because students are just too lazy to read instructions, let alone think about, understand, or follow them. The instructions clearly state that students may write about the texts, which are listed on the instruction sheet, "in any sequence," yet I have been asked at least a dozen times if they "have to be in this order?" I've also been asked a few times who the author of one of the texts is, even though all six are printed on the instruction sheet. (Note that the instructions also state that students "may not ask any questions.")
Sadly, this happens on Regents exams too. Students who are told to bring pencils bring pens, and vice-versa; or, if told to bring both, they bring only one; or, they bring no writing instruments at all. They bring things like food and cell phones into exam rooms even though they are told not to. They neglect to write their names, sign affirmations, fill out information on forms, write their answers in the appropriate spaces, etc. I had a student fail the Regents two years ago because he did not write his multiple-choice answers on the answer sheet. This after I spent the entire year reminding my 11th-grade students to do that very thing.
I've been thinking for years about doing an experiment with a class: Instructing them to draw on a sheet of paper, from left to right, a circle, a square and a triangle, and nothing else. I would be willing to bet that in a class of 30, 5 would not do it at all, 5 would draw the shapes in the wrong order, 5 would arrange them vertically, spatially or one-inside-the-other instead of horizontally, 5 would be unable to do it for lack of paper or writing instrument, 5 would write their name, school, class, teacher and date on the page along with the shapes, and the other 5 would spend so much time agonizing over and asking questions about how big the shapes needed to be, whether they had to be the same size, whether to orient the page portrait or landscape, whether lined or unlined paper was OK, whether pen or pencil was OK, whether red or green or orange or pink pen was OK, whether the circle could be a different color than the square, whether they had to put their name on it, whether it would be graded, whether they could do it later and hand it in at the end of the day, etc., that it would render the whole exercise pointless.