In a recent email a colleague wrote the sentence, “The ability to read simple directions seems to be a dying art among students.” The context made it clear that he was jesting, but I was struck by the sentence because I had just finished grading a quiz in which a majority of my students had misread what I considered a simple direction. The question that was misread was the following:

- (6 points) If you invested $5,500 in a banking account, what is the final balance in the account and the amount of interest paid after 4 years if you earn:

1a. 1.7% interest compounded annually?

1b. 0.7% interest compounded continuously?

For this question, I expected the students to calculate two dollar amounts for each of parts 1a and 1b. One dollar amount giving the balance in the account after 4 years and one dollar amount giving the interest earned in the account after 4 years. Of the 32 students who took the quiz, only eight answered with both the balance and the interest earned while 24 students answered with only the balance.

Although it is tempting for me to dismiss the result as students moving too quickly through the quiz, I am afraid that there must be more to this than just the students’ direction-reading abilities. After all, more than 70% of the students missed the cue. There must be something about the question that is broken. My current thought is that students forgot about the interest part of the question because what they were accustomed to calculating in class was the final balance. We may have looked at interest apart from balance a few times, but the majority of practice was in calculating final balance. I presume they mentally closed the question once they found the balance, and moved on.

If that, possibly, is what happened, how should I rephrase the question to make both parts of the question more memorable after the balance calculation? Should I provide fill-in prompts for each of parts 1a and 1b, one prompt for final balance and another for interest earned? Should I explicitly rewrite the question to emphasize its two parts? For example,

- (6 points) If you invested $5,500 in a banking account, what is the final balance of the account and what is the final amount of interest paid into the account after 4 years, if you earn:

1a. 1.7% interest compounded annually?

1b. 0.7% interest compounded continuously?

Or should I rewrite the one multi-layered question as multiple different questions? Or should I provide a fill-in-the-blanks answer table. Or is there something else I should do? More work for me, but the question about the question needs to be answered.

And one more thought. It was not a good idea to use 1.7% in part 1a and 0.7% in part 1b. A few students answered both questions using 1.7%. I’m sure it’s one of those tricks the brain plays when in fills in what it expects to see, rather than what is written.

Until next week.