Following Directions

From a teaching persepective, I’m trying to think of a lamer reason to award or deduct points from a student than for failure to follow directions.

From a learning perspective, I’m trying to think of a lamer reason to stress than wondering if your work followed directions. Even lamer is actually losing points for correct work due to formatting issues.

 And let the battle begin!

One Size Does Not Fit All


My own thoughts on this have come full circle. In the first course I taught, I was a stickler for “formatting”. Half of the points on every question (homework, test, project, quiz) was for “formatting.” Why? Because I used a specified format to teach my sophomore class problem-solving strategies that would work in just about any situation.

Sophomores need to learn problem-solving strategies as well as communication skills. What employer will make a million dollar decision based on chicken scratch?


The next class I taught was for seniors. I figured they didn’t need the same level of guidance. So I swung to the other end of the spectrum: no portion of the grade was tied to format or presentation quality. Results were mixed.

The students who had already learned excellent problem-solving technique and communication skills turned in work that looked better than the sophomores who were required to do it. The ones that hadn’t learned problem-solving and communication? They couldn’t even read their own solutions.

I neglected to mention that these two stories were in classes of 40 students or less. I had graders for both. Every problem that students submitted was actually reviewed and commented on – homework, tests, all of it. The feedback on every single question led to rapid growth.


I am currently teaching a class of juniors. Caught between the need for strict guidance and autonomy, I wonder where to land on grading for format. Grades are a terrible motivator, because they work by triggering fear. But without a consequence for poor communication, many students let the quality of their work slip.

My Initial Thoughts:

I resent the idea of enforcing systems for the sake of  my own convenience. However, in a class of 140 students simply grading homework for completion is 10 hour job! When I can’t read the work, or pages are submitted out of order, the time to decipher the work increases exponentially. That’s at least 10 hours each week that I don’t get to spend helping students with actual learning, developing better lessons, or creating more engaging learning experiences.

So I took these thoughts to the class. I presented the need for uniformity in homework format from the perspective that the easier it is to get the grading done, the more time they can have from me in higher-impact areas. Results were mixed. Why? Because even this pitch sounds a lot more focused on my own convenience, not the students’ growth. The students’ are asking, “What’s in it for me?”

My Revised Thoughts:

Students shouldn’t be asked to make instructors’ lives easier. The primary function of every action and policy in a class should be to accomplish a learning objective. The students should benefit first. Sometimes a side benefit may be that my life becomes a little more convenient as well.

So here’s my new pitch: Communication skills are critical. The person with the best idea isn’t the one who “wins.” The person who communicates the best is (just watch a political debate, the people who get off-message lose even when their ideas may be better). This tempts me to require a format so my students can learn communication skills.

The Question

Does deducting points for failure to follow formatting directions teach anything? We live in a world full of standards. But creativity and rule-following seem to be opposed. Do I want students who create, or students who follow rules? Can we have it both ways?

Join the debate: Comment below!

2 Replies to “Following Directions”

  1. Dr. Ferrar,

    I’m not sure what a comment battle is but I am going to comment on my thoughts about your post.

    The way I look at it, we are always going to have limits/boundaries/parameters we must follow as scientists, engineers, and problem-solvers. What makes submitting homework any different?

    When we graduate from being students to working in industry, we are going to have to be able to communicate our ideas clearly. Transmitting work or data from one person to the next to be understood correctly is vital, and consequences could be drastic depending on what we are working on. What makes submitting clear and neat homework any different?

    As from a professional and networking standpoint, communication is key. I’m still working on my communication skills, but I like to think I am able to pull myself together in professional situations and network appropriately and effectively. Additionally, communicating ideas is important for interviews. You can give a unique and creative response, but you still have to make sure your response answers the original question.

  2. Dr. Ferrar


    Here’s my reasoning, when I graduated from high school I didn’t really understand the meaning of college and I decided I was going to conquer the job market first. Ill always remember this one interview I had for PNC Bank, I was 19 with very little job experience but I landed the position because of how well I was organized and how clearly I communicated to the interviewer. After being hired my manager told me that was the reasoning to why I was hired, she had said something along the lines of, “We can teach you anything about banking, that doesn’t matter, what matters is how prepared you were. I was astounded when you pulled out a folder of typed questions to ask me during the interview. Its not like they were stupid questions either, you asked questions I didn’t know the answers to. You’re 19 but you seem so much more mature then that and i see you having a good career with this company.” My career there was nothing but up, I moved my way from just being a Part-Time teller, Full-Time, to being responsible for both ATM’s, Training New Hires, Managing the entire banks cash flow, and being the back up Teller Supervisor when she is not present. To this day I still believe that if I hadn’t put everything in order the night before I would never have had that awesome experience.

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