We're in the countdown to the state testing season, and I'm going to start talking to my freshmen about testing strategies. I began today, with what may be the most important strategy of all: READ AND FOLLOW THE DIRECTIONS.

I decided to try a little experiment.

The average ninth grade student does not read directions.

I didn't tell them this, of course.

I merely told them to clear their desks and get ready for a test. "

"Test?" they grumbled. "You didn't tell us there was a test today!"

"I don't have to tell you if I don't want to," I replied, because I am mature like that. "Now CLEAR YOUR DESKS."

Things got quiet in a hurry, and I began passing out the tests, which were basic grammar exercises, like underline the nouns in each sentence, or circle the adjectives. Stuff they've been doing all year in their English classes.

EXCEPT ... I tweaked the directions a little bit. There were five sections to the test: nouns, verbs, adjectives, end marks, and commas. For each one, the first sentence looked something like this:

Each of these sentences has at least one noun.

Just really laidback and nonthreatening. And then the next sentence would begin like this:

Circle the noun in each sentence

And for some of the sections, I just left it at that. But then in other sections, I would continue the sentence so that the whole thing looked like this:

Circle the noun in each sentence that begins with a vowel.

This is where it would become very important for them to read the directions, you see. And the last sentence was always this:

Then, go on to the next section.

(Well, except the last section, in which I wrote this:

Turn your paper over and draw a picture of a dog. Raise your hand when you are finished.

I thought that was a stroke of genius, myself.)

As I handed out the papers, I said to the students, "You are not to talk during this test. If you have a question, raise your hand and I will come to your desk. Do not talk to your neighbor, do not call my name, do not get out of your seat. All you have to do is RAISE YOUR HAND." (Actually, that is what I say for every test, not just this one.) I just didn't want someone to yell out, "Ms. Flower, what is this about vowels?" which would have ruined the whole experiment.

My first period class is not very good at reading directions. Half of them did not catch the thing about vowels, and fully three-quarters of them didn't even catch the difference between circle and underline. Almost all of them drew the dog though. I thought that was weird.

My second period class is good at reading directions, but they are NOT good at following them. And this was very interesting to me, because they were like baby birds being tossed out of the nest or something, and they could NOT, for the life of them, find their wings.

When I'd go to their desks, they'd ask questions like, "What if there aren't any nouns that start with a vowel?" and "You really want me to draw a dog?" and I would always say, "What do the directions tell you?" and they would look at me like I'd just asked them to explain the theory of relativity.

Finally, because I was tired of answering the same question over and over again, I said to the entire class, "LOOK! You kids are NOT stupid! You KNOW what those directions are saying, and you KNOW exactly how to follow them! Have a little faith in yourselves, for crying out loud! You haven't suddenly lost the ability to think! TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS!"

And I didn't have to answer another question for the remainder of the testing time.

Almost all of the students did exactly what they were supposed to. The exceptions were few, and frankly, they were the ones I expected not to follow directions.

When all the tests had been turned in, I said, "This test was not about whether or not you know the parts of speech or punctuation. This test was to see if you read and follow directions." Then I went through each section and read the directions, and those who hadn't read them were disappointed in themselves, and those who HAD read the directions gloated.

"I didn't do this because I wanted to play a joke on you," I told them. "I did it because you're going to see questions on your [state tests] that are worded in a weird way, or that ask you to do something you think is wrong, just like I did today, on this test. But the thing is, you CANNOT allow yourselves to be intimidated by something that is unfamiliar. [This next was directed to my second period class:] Today you looked at some of those directions and you FREAKED OUT. Well, on your [state test], they are FOR SURE going to ask you to mark the answer that is NOT RIGHT, or to choose an option that DOESN'T fit, and you cannot afford to just LOSE IT because you're not used to doing that.

"What if," I asked both classes, "on your next vocab quiz, I put in the directions that you are to fill in the blank with an ANTONYM, not an acutal vocabulary word? I might do it; you don't know! And if you don't read the directions, you'll fail the quiz. But if you DO read the directions, that's half the battle right there!"

So I think they learned that lesson. Or they learned that I have gone clean off my rocker, one.

Eh, as long as they learned SOMETHING.


Lady S said...

My sixth grader teacher gave us a test like this once, only we had to do embarassing things if we didn't read all the directions. The very first direction was "read all the directions". I did it to my third graders once, and they got mad. I should try my second graders, they suck at reading directions.

IMC Guy said...

I did a similar activity with my third graders years ago. It was a great learning experience and a great idea for test prep.

Laura said...

A co-worker had a teacher who would mix in the directions "lie on the floor for extra credit." She said it baffled those who didn't read. Me, I made it more educational on Spanish tests. In a random section with long directions, I add "Touch a Spanish speaking country on the wall map for 5 points extra credit." I find it makes the others look closer, but some are just too lazy to get the points. Que sera sera.


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