Why Universities Don’t Prepare You to Follow Instructions

The “this will definitely NOT be on the test” series is devoted to those things that fall into the cracks between what college prepares you for and what your employers need you to be prepared for.

In September, Jeff Selingo wrote a blog post for the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled Skills Gap? Employers and Colleges Point Fingers at Each Other

In his post, Jeff Selingo cites a common theme in the results of surveys of employers. Over and over for the past decade we have heard that employers want college graduates who are adaptable, good at problem solving, and possess the ability to think critically and analytically.

Every time I see some version of those survey results, the same thought flashes through my head: we are using the same language to talk about completely different things.

Analytical skills or critical thinking skills for university faculty might mean analyzing literature and writing a great essay about Moby Dick or Don Quijote de la Mancha. In the workplace, it means being resourceful—finding information on your own, figuring out where things are stored and how machines work. It means not asking for help to find every little piece of information or complete every small task.  

On campus, problem solving means finding a way to articulately answer a question that does not have a single correct answer. In the workplace, it’s the ability to troubleshoot minor problems like finding updated contact information, digging through old file folders to find a document, adjusting Google terms until you get the information you need–instead of asking someone else to give up productive time to spend with you on your tasks.

Here’s an example: following instructions, both written and verbal.

If the instruction is, “maximum 100 words,” you have to be able to use the analytic skills to make a good judgment: it can be 100 words or fewer, but it cannot be more than 100 words. You should not have to follow-up with anyone to ask what that means. It is clear.  “Minimum of 100 words” is the opposite—it can be more than 100, but it cannot be fewer than 100 words.

Most written and verbal instructions are a more complicated than that, but you have to be able to read them, interpret them, and follow them independently. Employers don’t want new employees coming to them asking to be walked through instructions that have already been given.

In the university context, we have focused on the content of those 100-word essays and students’ ability to say insightful things within our word limits, but we have totally lost track of holding students accountable for following the most basic instructions. Colleges and universities don’t make it easy for its graduates to go into the working world with the problem solving and critical & analytically thinking skills employers actually want!

We actively encourage students to approach us in person and ask questions such as, “It says ‘minimum 100 words,’ but can it be more than 100 words?”  And more often than not, the answer is crazier than the question! Or the answer at least implies that it was a good question. (Every student has had an experience similar to this: the instructions clearly state minimum 100 words so the conscientious student who carefully prepares 115 or 120 words is disappointed to find that the student who didn’t follow instructions and wrote 2000 words is rewarded with a high grade.  This is just one of the ways universities create insecurity over what it means to “follow instructions.”)

But rest assured that in the workplace a well-presented instruction is designed to give something to aim for–in this case, something a little more or less than 100 words. Ballpark: 100 words. 

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