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  Following Instructions
Articles: Master Student Series

Think for a moment about the importance of instructions. Teachers give instructions. Managers and supervisors give instructions. Architects give instructions for making buildings, and playwrights give instructions for staging a play. Lawyers and accountants, coaches and therapists, parents and priests--all give instructions. Even friends and lovers give each other instructions on how they want to be treated. You could argue, as author Richard Saul Wurman does, that "the motivation of all communication is the giving and receiving of instructions."1 Many students assume that they're experts in following instructions. Soon after entering higher education, they discover that this assumption is misguided. Following instructions is often far more complicated than it appears. And the costs of misunderstanding instructions can range from missing a few points on a test to missing out on acceptance from the university where you want to transfer.

Your experience in higher education hinges on your skill in following instructions. Admission applications have detailed instructions and timelines. Registering for courses requires following instructions carefully to get the classes you want. Campus policies, classroom procedures, homework assignments, and exams all come with instructions that need close attention.

The steps below can help you follow directions successfully.

Prepare to follow instructions. Begin by gathering all relevant materials. When filling out an application for financial aid, for example, you might need detailed income and expense records along with last year's income tax return.

Focus your attention. If the directions are written, read slowly. If the directions are verbal, listen carefully. One quick way to focus your attention is to remind yourself that following instructions usually helps you get something you want.

Distinguish between outcomes and tasks. At work, your supervisor might ask you to increase sales of a certain product by 20 percent. Her statement of a desired outcome might be the sum total of her instruction. Or she might give you a detailed list of tasks designed to produce that 20 percent increase.

These two scenarios pose quite different implications for you as an instruction follower. When your focus is on the outcome, you might have the freedom to choose from several different paths to achieve that result. If your instruction is to follow a sequence of tasks, you might have less flexibility. Skilled instruction followers look for this difference and clarify what's expected before they move into action.

Distinguish between sequential instructions and lists of options. In many cases, you'll benefit by seeing instructions as a series of steps to perform in a certain order. These are called sequential instructions, and they often apply to tasks such as following a recipe, assembling furniture, or troubleshooting a computer problem.

In other cases, instructions consist of a list of options that you can apply in almost any order. Becoming a Master Student frequently gives this kind of instruction. Teachers can assign chapters, journal entries, and exercises in a number of different sequences. And when reading an article such as this one, you can choose one suggestion to apply now and come back for more later. The suggestion you start with does not have to appear first in the list.

Make sure that you understand all of the instructions. Take notes on the directions, or, if written, highlight key points. Reread for clarification. If the directions are numerous or complex, make a checklist to ensure that you don't miss a step. Ask questions when you are unsure about what to do. Anticipate possible problems and plan what you'll do to solve them.

On the other hand, don't make instructions any harder than they need to be. When following instructions, estimate the time you'll take to complete a task. If a one-hour project starts looking like a full day's enterprise, it's time to adjust your estimate--or review the instructions and weed out unnecessary steps.

Look for instructions everywhere. Use the above suggestions to boost your opportunities in everything from petitioning a closed class to getting the grade you want on a final exam. Remember that these suggestions can also be used outside of school. Job applications, loan applications, and contracts all come with instructions. As you master the art of following instructions, you maximize your chances for success in every area of life.

1 Richard Saul Wurman, Loring Leifer, and David Sume, Information Anxiety 2 (Indianapolis: QUE, 2001), 199.