Thursday, February 18, 2010

On making reading unavoidable

Inside Higher Ed's Rob Weir usually offers sage advice on all matters pedagogical. A few months back, Rob tackled an age old teaching problem: students who don't read. Rob notes that there probably never was a Golden Age of Student Literacy, a halcyon era when students would gladly forego doing the Charleston/hitting the drive-in/scoping out Facebook for the opportunity to read assigned academic material.

The fact of the matter is that most students are not like us; they are not intrinsically motivated to read difficult or challenging academic texts. In my experience at least, students don't see that reading the material before class makes it possible to participate meaningfully in class discussion, readies one to write papers, etc. Students generally don't see a connection between reading and learning, or between reading and other academic tasks. (Or they see these connections, but just don't want to put in the effort.)

Given this, Rob's motto strikes me as correct: If you want students to read, make it hard (or impossible) to avoid.

Here are some of Rob's tips to make it reading unavoidable:

  • "Assign appropriate material. Just because you found an 800-page specialty tome to be spellbinding doesn’t mean your students will. Don’t expect undergrads to get excited about most journal articles either; you’ll need to teach them how to approach such dense reading. Seek material that is appropriate for what students need to know — the more engagingly written and short, the better."
  • Craft frequent writing assignments to help ensure reading. (Rob also has some advice on to deal with grading a large volume of papers.)"
  • "Construct lectures and discussions in such a way that reading is a prerequisite for comprehension. One should allude to materials in the reading — if you don’t, expect complaints that you made students buy things you never used — but don’t waste class time with a point-by-point rehash of the assignment. I often clue students about what they need to pay close attention to in order to understand an upcoming lesson. In that lesson I entertain questions about the reading, but I seldom walk through it.In like fashion, write lectures around reading concepts and content, or spin them in a new direction, but don’t repeat what the readings say."
  • "If you give exams, make certain that parts of those exams are based on material that could only have been gotten from the reading."
  • "Research and reflection papers should definitely require student writers to grapple with assigned readings."

Rob also mentions a technique I use: quizzes. I'm not a big fan of pop quizzes based on assigned readings. In many of my classes, I make available a short quiz each week via Blackboard. They usually have about six questions, most based on the assigned readings. Students can only take the quiz once, but I give them an hour to complete it. I've found that this approach does compel students to read eventually. No, they still may not read between class sessions, and yes, many of them probably pick up their texts while they do the quiz in order to find the right answers. But I'm not so bothered by that. They end up having to read carefully, the quizzes reinforce their comprehension of the reading, and they get important cues on the sorts of things to read for.

Anyone have any other ideas to make reading unavoidable for students?


  1. I put a 'reading question' on the board just before class. Not philosophical, not requiring more than a few words to answer, with a definite and clear answer. Something that anyone who'd done the reading would either know right away, or at least be able to find in the text very quickly. They write their answers on slips of paper (which I provide) and put the slips in a box - before class begins. The nice thing about this is that it also doubles as a check on attendance and timely arrival.

  2. I think the biggest change that could be made is employ the Socratic method and just call on student's randomnly and take account of what they know and have read. The humiliation of not having anything to say, over and over again, should be enough to get some sort of response.

    I also found the first suggestion, from your source to be part of the problem. Finding more digestable or dumb-downed text isn't going to make anyone read more. I agreed with the initial point, make it impossible for the student not to read, but I disagree that the answer to this is to shoot for simpler texts.

  3. I recall reading in a biography of Descartes that when he was in his early schooling days, the kids used to get in trouble for sneaking out at night to read by the moonlight. The Golden Days must have ended soon after that.

  4. Two suggestions—one from me and one from a friend:

    (1) Reading summaries or reading response questions. (These are particular variations on the "frequent writing assignment" technique.) I've asked students to either (a) summarize a specific argument, provide an objection, and explain how the author might respond to that objection, or (b) answer one or two pre-assigned questions about the reading. In each case, I'm looking for about 150–200-words. Rob's article covers my techniques for grading all of those assignments. I've had pretty good success with these techniques.

    (2) Require students to submit questions on the reading before class. A friend of mine does this, and he reports great success. Students must submit three questions about the reading by email no later than the day before class. The questions are supposed to be substantive questions about things the students don't understand, not "Is Marx a Communist?" or "Who wrote the thing we were supposed to read?" My friend gives feedback on the questions early in the semester (e.g., "too specific," "too vague"), but the need for that drops off later in the term. He usually works answers to the question into his lectures or brings them up for discussion in class.

    I'm ambivalent about Rob's suggestion about giving lectures that merely allude to the readings. I worry that it leads to students neither doing the reading nor understanding the lecture. Do other people here do this? If so, can you give specific examples of readings you give and what you cover in the corresponding lecture?

  5. I DO do the pop quizzes, but with this angle. They are all open-note quizzes. Students can use any (handwritten)notes they've taken on the reading, and the questions are T/F, multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, so it's quite easy to grade. The students end up with a nicely detailed set of (their own)notes on the readings. They don't complain about the "pop" part too much - I give about 8 throughout the semester, so they're never sure when a quiz is coming.

    I like Morrow's suggestion. I've seen a coded set of metacognitive strategies students can use to mark as they read:
    X - contradicts what you thought
    (check mark)- confirms what you thought
    ? - puzzles you
    ?? - confuses you
    * - strikes you as very important
    → - is new or interesting to you)


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