How do we encourage students to read directions?

Last week, at the end of a unit on poetry, I assigned my students the task of writing their own poems. It was my intention that this assignment would encourage them to demonstrate understanding of the literary techniques we had discussed during the unit: a central metaphor, other figurative language devices, sound and rhyme, plot and message etc.

To encourage them to include these techniques in the poem, the requirements for this assignment were quite involved: there were seven different areas that they needed to satisfy that related to the main literary devices we had studied.

To be fair, most of the students did a great job: this was not an easy task, and they submitted thoughtful and mature poems.  We had used a fair amount class time to brainstorm their poems, and I had focused my individual help on helping them to find a central contrasting metaphor to the poem. (In Seamus Heaney’s poem Digging for example, he uses the literal digging for potatoes by his grandfather to contrast with the metaphorical digging he as a poet does with his pen to find meaning and sustenance in life.)

So, the students submitted the poems, and, I as have said, most of them were quite good. Two of them, however, fell short in the simplest of areas: length. Category 4 of the assignment, Structure, prescribed that the poem should either be 14 lines long (a sonnet), or 16 lines long (four quatrains). One student submitted an 8 line poem, and another, a 10 line poem.

When the students received the completed rubrics for the poem from me, I got an email from the 8-line poet who questioned his grade. “The directions said that we could write an 8 line poem,” he wrote. I referred him back to the original directions, and I soon received a sheepish email where he saw he had made a mistake.

All the students in the class will have the opportunity to re-submit their poems when they have polished them further, and one incentive for doing this is a modest improvement to their grades. (I have also offered to publish them in the school newspaper.) However, I believe that there do need to be standards for the initial submission for the assignment, otherwise, we may be encouraging poor habits if the students feel that anything is acceptable.

So, how do we make sure that students read and listen to directions carefully? For this assignment, I though I had done everything I needed to do:

  • I projected the directions on the screen in class and brought attention to all the main points;
  • I posted the directions on the course webpage;
  • I provided models for them: the majority of the poems we studied were either 14 or 16 lines long, and we discussed sonnets and four quatrain poems;
  • The students made their own explications of similar poems (they built webpages and presented them to the class).

I have a few thoughts on simple changes I can make (putting key words and numbers in bold, for example), but this is an area that I need to think about, research, and learn more. If you have any thoughts or successes, I would be most interested in hearing them!