Should Instructions Be Terse?
Today Dylan has his first crack at the PSAT test. He is 12. It seems a bit early in life, but this morning over breakfast, I gave him pointers on how to take a standardized, college entrance exam.
Having been to Open House on Monday, I had just seen the practice work they did in preparation for the PSAT. Out of 20 questions, I was only sure of maybe 15 answers.
One question, for example, was “Should instructions be terse?” You are supposed to answer YES or NO. I had a 50-50 chance, right?
But I couldn’t decide. Should instructions be terse? My first instinct was YES.
Well, I thought, of course they should be terse. You need to get to the point.
Then I thought, But ‘terse’ does not mean pleasant. It’s a negative word. Instructions shouldn’t be given harshly. Who would listen?
I debated myself over this one question for several minutes, finally giving up and thanking God that I didn’t have to take the test. But this morning, when preparing Dylan for his first PSAT exam, I mentioned it again. I told him that the most important thing he could do when taking this test is to NOT agonize over the answers.
“Go with your gut,” I told him. “Your gut is strong and your head plenty smart that your first instinct is probably always right.”
When I was in school, I agonized over answers, like I did on Monday. I agonized for so long that I simply had no idea what was right – and ended up randomly guessing based on what I thought that someone in the upper echelon might be hoping to get as an answer. I was incredibly insecure, had no faith in my own abilities, and certainly couldn’t be perfect. I wish I had known that my best guess was sufficient.
So on Monday, after giving up on the question about the word “terse,” I whispered to the teacher, “I couldn’t get all of these.”
And like any good teacher, he handed me a list of vocabulary words and their definitions, as if they would help me figure out the right answers. He said, “You can keep these.”
Unfortunately, he gave me the wrong list. They were a completely different list of 20 words. And, worse yet, they certainly didn’t answer the subjective question of whether or not instructions should be terse. The definition of the word terse was not the problem. I knew what the words meant. I just didn’t know if my opinion was the “right” one to have.
My gut said, YES. But I have no idea – and never will – if my gut was right. I just know now, at age 49, that going with my gut is good enough.
I sincerely hope my son realizes this long before I did.