Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Once more into the breach: Getting students to read

The NEA Advocate has a nice suite of articles on how to get students to read. It offers the usual dismal evidence concerning student reading (20-30% of students read regularly) — along with some pretty good tips. I'll mention a few of the more intriguing suggestions here.

  1. "Explain why you chose the readings you did, as well as their purpose, value, and relevance to the course. Students see this as a sign of respect." This helps students see that the readings selected have a substantive connection to the material taught; you didn't just choose them so that the students would have something to read. It might also prime them a bit for the reading experiences to come.
  2. "Preview and promote the next reading assignment in class, and help students over the hump by letting them start reading key pieces in class." I've always tried to do the latter, giving students some hints as to what they might be reading for in what's assigned for the next class meeting. But I like the latter, too: If you've got a few minutes at the end of a class meeting that will go unused, why not encourage students to read? They've already set that time aside anyway, and they can't finish a reading they never start!
  3. "Stop lecturing the readings in class." Obvious enough, though this is probably the reason that even conscientious students often don't read.
  4. "Teach reading strategies." I.e., help students identify conclusions, teach them how to use marginalia, cue them into how the reading is structured. I couldn't agree with this more. It may seem a little embarrassing for students to admit they really don't know how to read the texts we assign, so it's up to instructors to take initiative and break the silence on this issue.
The articles also outline some ways of holding students accountable for reading without pop quizzes and ways of integrating reading activities into the classroom. It also points to a nice tool, the McLaughlin SMOG Detector, to measure the difficulty of a text.

All in all, I find the tone of these articles refreshing: Getting students to read need not be all fire and brimstone, with lots of pop quizzes and other extrinsic motivators. Echoing my earlier thoughts on this subject, I tend to think that we have to sell students on the value of reading by connecting it to meaningful learning. In other words, get them to see reading's rewards rather than issuing threats.


  1. Good topic.

    Though I understand the motivation for it, I have very mixed feelings about not "lecturing the readings." If the readings cover the key points of a topic, it seems unwise not to cover them in class, since even students who do read the text might not understand it; and even if you "extend" the readings, as the article suggests, you still have to cover the main points, and thus still obviate the student's need to read. If the readings don't cover the key points, then it's not clear to me why we care so much if students read them.

    Besides, I'd like to see some actual evidence that this technique causes students to read rather than fail.

  2. I'm also of mixed opinion on #3. Of course, I understand the temptation that lecturing leads students to passively "watch the movie." But it seems to me that the best case is where students read and then have that supplemented by the teacher's discussion so that they can take their understanding to the next level.

    But, to be honest, I'm not sure exactly what they mean by "lecturing". A passive non-interactive presentation?

    I suppose a thread on "non-lecturing" best practices might help to clarify.

  3. David and Chris --

    I actually think that Nilson (the author of the articles) has in mind something close to what Chris describes. I don't think her suggestion is that reminding students of key points in the readings is bad per se, but that we should instead assume students have done the reading with at least a decent level of understanding and then use class meetings to enrich and extend their understanding:

    "Extend or update the material in the readings, or clarify what you know students won’t grasp on their own. But you can’t expect rational people to do the readings if the knowledge will be spoon-fed to them in class the next day."

    David, I've seen studies (though I can't recall them now) suggesting that students do rationalize not reading on the grounds that not reading rarely affects their grades. I think this could well be the case in high school and in disciplines besides philosophy. I've had students complain to me that there's no purpose in reading the text in a course in (just to give one example) economics because the instructor literally structures the syllabus around the textbook chapters and lectures his way through the text section by section. (Textbook publishers sometimes encourage this tendency by giving instructors 'lecture notes' to accompany the textbook!) That's not good teaching, in my opinion, but I can appreciate why students would want a reason to read in those circumstances.

  4. I generally don't like to use the rewards and punishments approach to motivating students to do the reading, mainly because it does not fit well with my personality. So I like the ideas presented here, though I confess that as a student, I would generally not do the reading if I thought I could get away with it. But years have passed since my undergraduate days, and I now actually like to read. So I think one thing that we should try to impress upon our students is the value of reading generally. We're swimming upstream here, in a culture where most information is fed in sound-bites and images.

    I've started to spend time in class teaching them how to read, mainly by looking for structure (premises and conclusions). Today I spent time in class having them read a short paper available on the web ("Why Vote?", by Peter Singer), and then in small groups identify the main conclusion and the premises of the argument. Since we become better readers in part by reading, my hope is that the in-class practice will translate to more (and more effective) reading outside of the classroom.

    I also explain to them how developing these types of skills can help them have more true beliefs, and avoid being manipulated or tricked into believing falsehoods (e.g. by advertisers, and I offer examples of this). I'm unsure how effective this is, but at least it gets the importance of reading before the minds of my students and helps them to read more skillfully.

    Lastly, I lecture the readings to some extent, but go beyond this as well as described by Chris above. To motivate students to read, I try to impress on them that the best way to succeed in the class is by repetition, and so if they do the readings, come to class, take notes, and engage in discussion, then they'll have a much better chance not only of learning, but of getting the grade they'd like to obtain.

  5. Thanks for these links - they're very helpful.

    As I prepare for my Philosophy of Language course I wonder how it would be possible to teach Frege's "On Sense and Reference," or Kripke's Naming and Necessity without lecturing. Of course, my classes are quite small so my students speak up and ask questions and "interrupt" my lecture all the time. So perhaps I am asking what is already being asked - just what do the opponents of lecturing mean by the term?

  6. Mike,

    I don't like the carrot/stick approach either, as you can probably tell from "To Attend or Not to Attend".

    I would assume that it's probably true that some % don't read because they don't know how to do it effectively. But I wonder just how high that % is. My cynical side says that most don't read simply because they feel that they have better things to do, and also because they have no real appreciable attention span, given the internet/wikipedia and other such things.

    How do you battle against that?


    My guess is that they aren't talking about an advanced PHIL course, but rather the various types of introductory/core curriculum type courses. In my own upper divisional courses, the 'no reading' problem rarely occurs.

  7. A technique I've found useful is to accompany reading assignments with questions about the reading, with written (printed not scribbled) answers (to insure they are completed before class) to the questions due on the day for class consideration of the assignment. Whether requiring written responses is feasible may depend on class size, whether you have TAs, etc. Experimentation may be called for to judge what sorts of questions are useful in your local context, and for the kinds of readings you assign. Sometimes a question as simple as this is useful: On p.XX author says "My third point is . . . Explain what his first two points were." Or more general questions, such as: "What is author's main point, and what are the main reasons he provides in support of it?"

    Then in class you can ask for student responses to the questions, and all will have printouts from which they can read their responses if they can't recall them! Different students will often have very different responses, which provides opportunities for pursuing issues about what the author really meant.

    The written responses should be graded, so they will be taken seriously. But not graded in detail - that's too time-consuming - and responses should be usually limited to one page maximum. I use a "good/OK/bad" scale, and if from a glance it looks like the student made an honest effort, OK. If it looks like BS, bad. If it looks especially insightful, good. OK's should be full-credit, goods rare and worth a bit of extra credit.

  8. Michael,

    If the warning against "lecturing the readings" just means "say more than the reading does," then that's fine—although I think that if this is startling advice to anybody, there are going to be bigger problems with their class than getting students to read.

    More importantly, just because students rationalize not reading by appealing to lectures doesn't mean that they will start reading if the lectures stop conveying the main points. My guess is that many will just start failing.

    Mike & Chris,

    Although I share your aversion to the carrot/stick approach, reading-related assignments can have enough intrinsic educational value to be more than "sticks" to motivate reading.


    I like your strategy of mapping good/OK/bad to extra credit/full credit/partial credit.

  9. If it's possible, I would support simply getting the students genuinely interested in the material. Is that too idealistic? Maybe. Is it anything but simple? Of course.

    That's also what an ideal is.


  10. Hello, everyone. I've been reading this blog for awhile and profiting greatly.

    I've had success assigning regular reading responses. The responses are short (about a half a page), but they're quite effective at getting the students to reflect on the readings before showing up in class. And the results have been tangible. Most do not lack for ideas when it comes time to write their papers. And they report in their student evaluations that they found the responses demanding but effective at generating ideas and promoting retention of the material (I can't think of a better endorsement). Almost without fail, moreover, their reading responses tend to get longer and more sophisticated as the semester progresses.

    I should say that I require many more reading responses I grade. I ask the students to write a response for nearly every class session, but I only pick them up at random. With an average class size of 50 students, grading responses twice or thrice weekly isn't a viable option.

  11. Justin,

    Sounds good. What kinds of responses do you ask them for (and what kinds of readings are they responding to)?

  12. Justin,

    I'm with Dave: can you give us an example?

    I think this is a good idea. It's carrot/stickish, but it seems like a method that would generate good results.

    The random grading is excellent as well. Do you ever pick up quizzes more than once a week?

    If not, and you pick them on on Monday (say) do you find that they don't read on Wed and Fri?

  13. David and Chris,

    Sure thing! I've found that reading responses work best when the students are free to pick the topic but encouraged to make it focused and concise. In other words, the topic is open-ended, but the format is not. A good response to the First Meditation might focus on the shift from dream skepticism to evil genius skepticism. A bad response would be a stream-of-consciousness reflection on radical skepticism more generally. A less bad (but still not ideal) response would be a summary of the argument of the First Meditation.

    I teach courses on ethics and the history of philosophy (especially Chinese philosophy). The texts I assign are usually accessible enough to make the open-ended approach viable. I do worry that the approach would be less effective if I were assigning articles on, say, the Gettier problem. Perhaps it in the latter sorts of cases it would be better to ask them to reconstruct the argument, or to give them a few questions to choose from.

    Wherever possible, though, I think open-ended topics are preferable. The students take less joy in summarizing an article or answering an assigned question. But they enjoy it when they can pick a topic of their own. Moreover, they are strongly inclined to use their later responses to build on their earlier ones, the cumulative effect of which makes them much better prepared to write papers.

    I admit that this method has a few weakneses. If students are given free rein to choose a topic, they are more likely to pick one that is too broad or doesn't directly engage with the assigned readings. There will inevitably be students who are tempted to cut corners and read only a few paragraphs or pages of the assignment (although their responses often give this away).

    But I think these are costs worth bearing. If their topics are poorly chosen you can always offer a few pointers in your comments. And if there are some students who are reading only a portion of the assignment (and somehow getting away with it), so be it. They still show up for class with some ideas already in the works, which does wonders for class discussion.

  14. Hi Chris,

    I agree that this is a bit carrot-and-stickish, and this makes me uneasy too. I do try to minimize this by stressing that this will do wonders for generating paper ideas, and I even invite them to cut and paste portions of their responses into papers. I think this method has to be paired with reading assignments that are short and accessible. I should also say that I drop the two lowest response grades, which might help to soften the tone set by so relentless a requirement.

    Your questions about timing are very astute. I tend to collect no more than one response a week, which I suppose does invite some of them to slough off on Wednesday or Friday if I happened to pick up responses on Monday. Perhaps I should thwart this expectation from time to time.


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