Sunday, August 12, 2007

Doing the Reading

What are some of the ways to get most (ideally, all..) students doing the assigned readings, and doing them well so that there can be more fruitful classroom discussions and fewer lectures that summarize the readings?

Of course, in-class reading quizzes, take-home summaries, and reading questions are options.

What exactly has worked well (or hasn't worked well) for you?

I have tried in-class reading quizzes but haven't been too happy with them: they take up a lot of time and perhaps they were each at too little of percentage of the total grade for enough students to take them seriously.

Since teaching life would surely is better when more students do the reading, any tips on how to make this happen would be appreciated greatly.


  1. I've had great success here of late with the way I've been assigning readings. For each reading, they're asked either a few questions posed by me or, once we get into the applied ethics arena, a standard series of questions. The latter are the standard what's the author's central thesis, what seems to be the argument for it, and does it work and why or why not questions. They have no less than one double-spaced page and no more than one-single spaced page to complete the assignment in, and the responses are due at the end of class (so they can refer back to what they've written during discussion). If they're not in attendance, they can't turn them in, and that rules out the emailing/finding process that can be a huge hassle. They're each graded on a 0-5 scale, and the grading usually only takes an hour or so per set. They're usually worth 15-25% of their grade, depending on the semester and how many essays they'll be writing. It's helped substantially in the three critical skills of reading, writing, and thinking critically. If you're interested, I'd be happy to send a syllabus or more information.

    I thought instituting and maintaining this process would be worse than it has been, especially since my courses aren't shy on the amount of reading to do. The evaluations from students on them have been really good, though, as they see how it's training for the aforementioned skills and, what's more important to them, helping them to write their essays.

  2. The best I've ever seen at this is Rosalind Hursthouse at Auckland, who I tutored for awhile back.

    Her approach was fairly simple. In the first lecture she gave a detailed (two page) handout on James Rachel's classic paper on killing and letting die. She then went through that paper, following the content on the handout, going through Rachel's argument in great detail, both linking it into other literature, but also challenging it philosophically.

    She made it quite clear that next week there would be no handout, and that unless you read the assigned paper there would be little point attending the class. I didn't expect it to work, but it worked like a charm. I think in part it was carried by her personality, but also the philosophical depth she went into, really got the students engaged in that first lecture, and they were willing to do the hard work to get that pay off in the second lecture.

    The proviso though, this was a second year paper, taken basically by philosophy students and a few medical students who took it as an elective. I doubt this would work with first year, or compulsory papers.

  3. I did recently read some research - probably in the Chronicle - that said that regular short quizzes are helpful not just because students revise for the quizzes, but the very act of effortful recall builds up the memory: if you are forced to remember what you read yesterday, you are more likely to remember it in a week's time. In some of my classes, I go for a very quick ten minute quiz, with very simple one word answers. It doesn't test understanding, but it ensures they do the reading.

    Another approach I've tried is to tell students that they get a grade for classwork, and that what I'm looking for in classwork is evidence that they've done the reading and thought about it. If they have questions about parts of the reading they didn't understand, that provides a starting point for class discussion, and shows they've understood the reading. If nobody has any questions for me about the reading, then I guess they all understood it, and I can ask them to explain any difficult points.

    This option at least helps me award a Classwork Participation grade fairly. The problem with a Class Participation grade is the dumb ox problem. You have a student who sits in the back, says nothing, then goes on to silence all Europe with his bellowing. So I explain to students that from time to time, I'll ask them fairly basic questions about the reading, and that this gives shy students a chance to earn a participation grade, but if they are unable to answer such simple questions on a regular basis, their participation grade will suffer.

  4. Maybe the hardest challenge in all of teaching, no? I'm disinclined to use grade-based carrots and sticks here (quizzes, classroom participation credit, etc.). I think those techniques have a place, but in the end, I believe that students have to be intrinsically motivated to read (or to read well), so I prefer to pull on a different set of motivational levers. For example:

    • Prepare students to read. One thing most instructors (in my observation) rarely do is take a moment to prepare students to read. I have in mind here things like taking a few minutes at the end of lecture to gesture at how the reading assigned for the next class meeting relates to the material covered in the day's lecture and discussion, etc. (This can also be done by distributing questions of the kind Charlie mentioned; I use my campus CMS to do this.) We greatly overestimate students' ability to synthesize what they read, drawing together themes and arguments across texts, and honestly, I'm not sure I expect that students come to my class with enough preparation in this regard. But if you give students a foothold in the reading, something to start from when they attempt to read, they're likely to be less frustrated with the gaps in their own comprehension. Obviously, we hope that students will do most of the comprehension and analysis themselves, but I don't think we undermine that goal if we do a little bit to prep them for the act of reading. And the "that's Hobbes on the state of nature, and we'll see a contrasting view in Locke next time" sort of approach helps students much.

    •Model the reading habits you expect. Along the lines of David's comments about Hursthouse's technique: Show students what it is to read philosophical work actively and intensively. Have your text(s) at hand. Refer to them often. And don't be afraid to read together in class. It may seem too juvenile, but I've found that students appreciate some sense of what the experience of reading a philosophy text should be like.

    •Organize classroom activities that reinforce and reward reading. For instance, I sometimes put a question on the board like, "What is Mill's view about X? Support your answer with textual evidence.", then have the students work individually or in small groups, then reconvene the whole class and discuss their answers. This works particularly well if there are passages that appear to support competing answers.

    •Give students options. So on your syllabus, if you think there are two pretty good articles supporting the same position, list them as 'read X or Y.' Yes, most students will select the one that's shorter and/or easier. But in that case, they've at least read something, and there's a kind of buy-in that results from giving them options.

    •Don't be afraid to shift the burden to them. On occasion, it's become clear to me that almost no one has read the assigned material. This takes nerve, but I've called the students' bluff in a few courses, announcing that class is canceled and asking them to return for our next meeting having read the material assigned for that day (i.e., what they were supposed to have read and didn't). I make it clear they'll be ultimately responsible for all the material on the syllabus whether we discuss it in class or not, so it's up to them to decide to read enough that all the material does get discussed. (I've also offered to stay in class and read the material collectively with any students who want to.) This is a drastic move, but it's had some fairly profound effects in my experience.

    •Show the consequences of reading. At the end of my courses, I often distribute a survey asking students which elements of the course (class meetings, writing assignments, reading, etc.) most helped them master the course content. Almost always, attending class tops their responses (not a big surprise), but reading the material is nearly always second. I also break down the responses according to students' expected grade, and the high-performing A and B students mention reading more often than other students. I then share this data with students. This reinforces the message that reading is not just busy work -- that reading effectively is what separates good students from the merely competent.

  5. Hugo Bedau taught philosophy of law at Tufts using the Socratic method. That bushy white beard and booming voice... let me tell you, people who showed up had done the reading.

  6. There are lots of great thoughts here. I've found that in lower divisional required courses, short unannounced quizzes do the best job, though not always. In upper divisional classes in philosophy, where not reading is somewhat odd but still typical for some, I don't quiz anyone or use any punishment oriented methods. I just tell them they are wasting their time, and that it's awfully odd that anyone would study a field like philosophy without loving it enough to read the material. If they don't love it, I make clear, they should major in business or something more immediately practical. It's like studying art but refusing to actually paint.

  7. Sorry for such a late response. I have been recovering from a partial knee replacement that I had on the 8th.

    Anyway; I have found that if I assign a weekly short paper on the reading or topic being discussed during that week that students will do the reading if the topics are chosen correctly. I usually give then 2-3 to choose from and use them as the basis for class discussion. As I do not rely on lectures, this is a very good way of focusing students and getting them to do some critical thinking. Also these papers make up @ 20% of their final grade

    As a point of reference, I got this idea from my son who was taking a undergrad course on Heidegger and Ethics and the fact that his instructor told them that this was his way fo forcing them to do the reading and keeping them on-track. Be upfront


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